The Memphis Grizzlies got clarity on Ja Morant’s return when the NBA on Wednesday announced he’d be suspended for an additional two games (eight total, including the six he’s already missed), paving a path for Morant to return at some point next week.
It’s been a turbulent last few days for the Grizzlies, who are 3-3 without Morant following Wednesday’s blowout loss to the Miami Heat. They also learned they will be without Brandon Clarke (Achilles tear) for the rest of the season and Steven Adams (knee) until perhaps the playoffs.
But if there’s a silver lining to all of this, it’s that Morant’s absence and injuries to key players have forced others to step up and expand their roles. Come playoff time, this bout of adversity could provide dividends.
Playing without Morant isn’t new for these Grizzlies. They were famously 20-5 last season without Morant, succeeding with defense and timely shooting. However, Morant’s absence in the second round of the playoffs against Golden State was too much to overcome. The Grizzlies' halfcourt offense sputtered and the defense couldn’t withstand Steph Curry and Jordan Poole flamethrowing.
Heading into the offseason, Desmond Bane, Jaren Jackson Jr., Dillon Brooks and Tyus Jones aimed to come back this season less reliant on Morant’s explosive playmaking. Not just because Morant’s physical play makes him prone to missing games, but also because the Grizzlies knew they needed more options. Morant screaming off a high screen, getting downhill and either finishing or kicking out to shooters is effective, but it’s also predictable.
With Morant out of the lineup, the offensive blueprint is roughly the same: “Get downhill,” Brooks told me. “If you have a chance to finish, finish. If you don’t, kick it out to guys and make the defense rotate and find better shots.”
How they go about it, however, is different. Rather than rely on Morant’s singular athleticism to pressure the rim, drives come from different places and angles.
According to Second Spectrum, Morant is averaging 21.1 drives per game – second most in the league behind Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. That’s a lot to replace. With Morant, guys such as Bane, Brooks and Jackson are mostly used off the ball as screeners and shooters.
Over the last six games, they’re all driving more. Bane has gone from 8.7 drives per game to 10.7 and Jones, stepping in as the starting point guard, has gone from averaging 5.2 drives to nearly 10. It’s not enough to replace Morant’s prolificness, but the drives are more evenly distributed and makes the offense less predictable.
“Ja puts a lot of pressure on defenses, but now it’s multiple guys,” Bane told me. “We have to do it by committee.”
You’ll more often see multiple drives in a single possession. Here Jones drives, passes to Bane, Bane drives and kicks out to a wide-open Brooks. Every drive and pass forces the defense to react. It’s not rocket science, but it’s effective. When Brooks catches the ball, no Maverick defender is even looking at him.
For the season, only five teams pass the ball less than Memphis. Without Morant over the last six games, the Grizzlies are averaging 16 more passes per game – a mark that would rank near the top half of the league.
Morant, like Luka Doncic and Giannis Antetokounmpo, can get to the rim and create open looks on their own. But we’ve seen that, in the playoffs, that approach has its limits. That’s why the Bucks acquired Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton developed into a better pick-and-roll ball-handler. It’s why the Mavericks were desperate enough to trade for Kyrie Irving.
The Grizzlies have drafted more talent than the Bucks or Mavericks did. Bane’s development as a ball-handler has been obvious from the start of the season. He spent last summer in Memphis working on that part of his game, “For times like this to be able to help create,” Bane said. “Whenever Ja is on the floor, taking pressure off of him and make plays for myself and for others.”
He’s nearly doubled his assist numbers, from 2.7 to 4.3 per game, and he’s getting to the line more.
The Grizzlies re-signed Jones because they knew they needed a high-end backup point guard to run the offense when Morant gets hurt. Coaches have coaxed him into being more aggressive when he has the ball. Jones will never have Morant’s athleticism, but they need him to create in his own way.
“He brings a different dynamic than Ja,” Brooks said. “Ja is so explosive and he finds ways to score and get guys the ball. Tyus is very composed, keeps the offense running, there’s a lot of kick-aheads with the ball so we can get in transition and find easy shots. Tyus just comes in and runs the team great.”
Then there’s Jackson who, without Morant on the court, is popping out less and finding more opportunities to work near the basket. He’s averaging one more post-up per game with Morant out, and is shooting 50% on those possessions. Jackson is known as a floor-spacing big and Defensive Player of the Year candidate, but he’s spent some time working on an old-school post game. Opponents know Jackson wants to get to his left hand when he’s in the post, so he’s beginning to develop some counters with his right hand.
Jackson won’t ever be mistaken for Hakeem Olajuwon, but those post-ups are another way for the Grizzlies to get to their offensive triggers.
“It’s getting in the paint,” Jackson said.
The question now is how the Grizzlies can fold some of these new wrinkles into Morant’s offense.
The key will be Morant’s 3-point shooting. If he can’t space the floor, all of those drives become more difficult for his teammates and the Grizzlies find themselves relying on Morant’s athleticism to pressure the paint all over again.
Morant’s outside shot has slipped. After shooting 34.4% on 3s last season, Morant is making 31.6% this season. Drill down and most of those attempts are self-created pull-ups, on which he’s shooting just 30.6%. Meanwhile, Morant is making a respectable 35.3% of his catch-and-shoot attempts from distance. Playing off the ball and creating more of those looks would boost his shooting numbers and the offense.
It’s tricky. Morant is really good, and putting the ball in his hands has been the Grizzlies’ most consistent offense. Despite the lack of variety, the Grizzlies score 116.9 points every 100 possessions with Morant on the court versus 113.5 with Morant off. That’s the difference between the NBA’s third best offense and the 19th.
But the Grizzlies’ goal isn’t merely to have a good regular-season offense. It’s to win a championship. Last season’s postseason run revealed they needed to mix things up and internal improvement and Morant’s recent absence provided a glimpse of what the offense could be. This stretch is far from proof of concept, but it could be something for Memphis to build on.
“Guys are doing different roles, and we hadn’t had that come to light over the course of the season until this recent stretch,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said. “There’s so many things that have happened over the last couple of weeks that are going to benefit us moving forward from a rotation standpoint, lineup standpoint, what calls we’re running offensively, what schemes we’re executing defensively.
“We’re learning a lot about our group.”