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The Triple Team: Shorthanded Jazz can’t handle Memphis’ cohesion. Are there lessons to take from how the Grizzlies built their team?

Memphis Grizzlies forward Brandon Clarke (15) jumps to shoot against Utah Jazz forward Rudy Gay (8) as forward Eric Paschall (0) moves for position in the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Jan. 28, 2022, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 119-109 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Jazz can’t match Grizzlies’ sense of cohesion

The Grizzlies just have a level of teamwork and cohesion that the Jazz don’t right now, and they used that so well to win this game.

Take a play like this. It’s in transition, and the Jazz are back, and lined up. But Killian Tillie just cuts at the perfect time while Royce O’Neale has his back turned, maybe overreacting to the threat of the drive. It’s not that I’d call this a breakdown by O’Neale, but it’s just cutting and cohesion the Jazz can’t react to right now.

Or this: it’s sort of a side handoff/split action play, where the tall Jaren Jackson Jr. is the ballhandler, with Desmond Bane popping out and Brandon Clarke heading to the rim. The Jazz just have no idea how to deal with that right now, not with Rudy Gay, Danuel House, and Eric Paschall as primary defenders. They can all defend, but they just don’t know how to work together to stop it.

You know how football has option routes, where the quarterback and the receiver both have to read the defense and make a timing-based pass? This, with Ja Morant and Clarke, is exactly that: read the defense, cut to the open space, score.

Rudy Gobert, obviously, would just impact all of these plays significantly. O’Neale probably doesn’t try to dig in if Gobert’s down low, Clarke can’t get or finish that pass with Gobert down there, and I don’t think Gobert gets beat on the Clarke quick cut. But without him out there, and with so many guys who haven’t really played together, they just don’t know what to do.

2. Finding ballhandling that works

When Conley was in tonight’s game, the Jazz outscored the Grizzlies by 13 points. That means they lost the other 18 minutes by 23 points. Yikes.

What were the biggest factors? Well, first, without Conley in the game, the Jazz just turned the ball over a lot more. It’s hard to defend against this:

Clarkson finished as 4-13 from the field for 13 points with two turnovers. It’s a stat line that looks better than his play looked. But I don’t want to blame this all on him: I think the Jazz could do more to get the non-Conley lineups more help.

In particular, it’s hard to have Clarkson out there with Forrest, O’Neale, and Paschall — there’s just zero spacing in which to operate. Look at that turnover again: two Jazz guys are in the paint when Clarkson’s trying to maneuver his way there. That’s not going to work.

Jared Butler, in these situations, needs to be an option. He’s got a quicker trigger than any of those guys, and a more accurate shot than Paschall or Forrest. He’ll space the floor and create in secondary situations. And, if Clarkson’s tired, or cold, he can create a shot himself. I understand that Forrest is a much better defender for Morant, but again, there’s no defense when the offense is that bad.

I also think that the Jazz could take advantage of Rudy Gay’s offensive talents more. He didn’t take a shot through the first three quarters of this game, which is almost criminal given Gay’s talents. Frankly, there were times when the Jazz just needed to calm the offense down and get a respectable shot up, and that’s Gay’s skillset: kick it to him on the post, or have him operate slow, old-man pick and roll.

I understand that’s liable to end up in a midrange jumper, but when your spacing is 90s-esque, you might as well go 90s-esque with the shot selection, too.

3. Lessons from the Grizzlies’ team-building approach

The Grizzlies are really good — and look even better set up for the future.

Obviously, the No. 1 leader of this growth is Ja Morant, who has made the leap from not making the All-Star game last year to becoming an All-Star starter this year. Honestly, that was the leap that I thought could come from Donovan Mitchell this season, but Mitchell’s poor October and January (he’s shot 41% from the field and 31% from three in both months) meant that the All-Star starter position went to Morant. (It’s not due to health: Mitchell’s played more games than Morant.)

Morant, though, is super fun. He’s improved his shooting, but the real key to his success is that he’s able to get to the rim with ease: he gets twice the number of rim looks as Mitchell does (for example, I’m really not looking to pick on Donovan).

But Morant was a case of nailing a high pick. I’m more impressed how the Grizzlies got the pieces around him. In short, they’ve just nailed nearly every single late pick they’ve had.

The obvious example is Desmond Bane, just 23 years old. Man, Bane would have been a great fit in Utah, but every team before pick No. 30 overlooked what he can do (shoot, pass, dribble, defend) for what he couldn’t do: have long arms. This has been mentioned ad nauseam, but the Udoka Azubuike over Bane selection is utterly indefensible by anyone with access to game film, a stat sheet, or just good ol’ common sense. Former franchise runner Dennis Lindsey did a lot of good for the Jazz, but this was the selection that indicated that the Jazz’s decision-making process was wildly flawed.

Second-leading scorer Dillon Brooks was the 45th pick in the draft, another guy who could obviously play but slipped in the draft due to a short wingspan: it’s the first thing mentioned in his NBADraft.net list of weaknesses.

Brandon Clarke was slated to go in the lottery, he slipped all the way to 21 and the Grizzlies used the Jazz’s pick from the Conley deal to trade up for him. The first line of his NBADraft.net weakness list: “Does not have ideal size or strength to play in the post at the next level … Lacks length with just a 6′8.25 wingspan on his 6′8 (in shoes) frame.”

John Konchar is an undrafted player that had just a bonkers-good statistical profile coming out of college, he wasn’t drafted cause teams didn’t think he was athletic enough. Kylian Tillie was a +14 tonight in his 16 minutes, he also went undrafted. That was because he had health concerns and, you guessed it, had a negative wingspan.

The Grizzlies do have players with long wingspans (obviously Jaren Jackson Jr, but Kyle Anderson and De’Anthony Melton both do too). But this idea that you need every single one of your guys to have longer arms than their height is ridiculous. It’s not that these guys are small: Bane and Konchar are 6-5, Brooks is 6-7, Clarke 6-8, and Tillie 6-9.

Instead, see how they use their size. ‘Dok is massive. He also has grabbed just 8 rebounds per 36 minutes in his NBA career so far, and was known as a terrible rebounder at Kansas. Brandon Clarke, who “lacks length” without the “ideal size”, gets 10 per 36. Konchar — a guard! — is averaging nine rebounds per 36 minutes, thanks to his excellent sense of timing and positioning.

One other thought: don’t overthink the draft. “Draft Twitter” is a name casually but frequently used to refer to the group of online amateur NBA draft analysts. Nearly every single pick the Grizzlies have made in the last few years is exactly who “Draft Twitter” would have wanted them to take.

Clarke, Bane, Konchar, Anderson (drafted by San Antonio, but later signed by Memphis), Melton, JJJ, Tillie... all of these guys were beloved by the joes (talented, hardworking, intelligent joes — but still joes) at home doing this in front of their computer screens for internet points. They slipped in the real NBA draft, the one ran by pros working for high amounts of regular U.S. dollars. Frequently, the pros know what they’re doing — the Grizzlies’ ones clearly do — but professional status does not always mean superior wisdom.


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