Yep, we’ve reached the “it’s getting real” portion of the NBA season.
Every team in the NBA passed the halfway mark, and some of the surprise teams that started out hot (remember the New York Knicks at 5-1 and the Washington Wizards starting 10-3?) have dropped to a place in the standings that would be seen as less surprising for preseason prognosticators.
But there are still a few teams that have looked significantly better than even the most optimistic of fans could’ve thought heading into the year.
And, using DRIP, our all-in-one stat designed to project player performance, we’re looking at whether these rising clubs have staying power and break down why their great seasons so far are at least somewhat sustainable.
High Flying in Memphis
The Grizzlies care not for the “cute story” headlines they received for a good portion of the year. They are here to knock teams down and overwhelm them so they can’t get back on their feet.
Ja Morant and company play with the attitude and energy of a young try-hard team, but that categorization undersells how much skill is on the roster.
It’s really difficult to make as big a leap as the Grizzlies have in one year while keeping the majority of your roster intact (only Steven Adams and Ziaire Williams weren’t on the team last year among the top 13 players in minutes per game). But, if a team gets a leap from its three most important players at once, it’s possible.
Everything starts with Morant, who has made huge strides as a scorer this year. His ability to hit the 3 at a passable rate now makes him even harder to defend, and he’s turned into one of the toughest players to guard in the league.
But it’s not just Morant who has taken his game to the next level. Desmond Bane’s emergence as more than a role player has given the Grizzlies another great option on offense.
Bane spent his rookie season proving he was one of the steals of the draft as the 30th overall pick while playing a supporting role, hitting 3s at a really high clip and defending well enough to stay on the floor. He flashed some playmaking and higher offensive upside, but still averaged under 10 points a game. The consensus around him as a player was that he’d be a solid plug-and-play player who could fit around the most important players of a contending team well.
What very few people saw coming was the possibility that he could be one of those crucial players. Bane’s confidence has grown, and he’s taken a much bigger role in the offense. His usage rate went from 15.5 last year (14th on the Grizzlies) to 22.3 this season (fourth) and, like Morant, he hasn’t seen his efficiency dip.
Bane isn’t just taking more shots that Morant or others get him; he’s creating more for himself. Last year, 17.9% of Bane’s field goals were unassisted. That number is up to 28.8% this year. He’s willing to take shots with even the slightest bit of air space, which puts a ton of pressure on the defense.
If the only improvement to the team this year was Morant’s evolution, it would be fair to question whether the offense would be too one-dimensional in the postseason. But Bane gives them another player who can handle the ball and create offense for himself while being efficient, and it’s his emergence that has helped vault Memphis from 15th in offensive rating last year to ninth this year.
Bane’s leap on offense makes the Grizzlies more versatile in the playoffs, and Jaren Jackson Jr.’s emergence on the other end does the same thing for the Grizzlies defense.
Every team in the league is looking for a small-ball busting center, which means a player big enough to be a true center, but mobile enough to contain guards on the perimeter and skilled enough to take advantage of smaller defenders on the other end.
That combination of skills is incredibly useful to have. The problem? It’s exceedingly rare.
It’s what the Grizzlies hoped to get when they drafted Jackson fourth overall in 2018, and he’s shown the ability to be an impact defender in fits and starts over the years. Now, he’s finally doing it on a night-to-night basis.
Memphis is a top-10 defense for the second year in a row, but if Jackson can keep up his level of play on that end, the defense feels more playoff ready. Jackson is the exact type of defender that can disrupt an opponent’s game plan in a long series. He’s versatile enough to handle any scheme, and impactful enough to throw a wrench in any offensive possession at forward and center.
Jackson and Steven Adams lead the Grizzlies with a 1.4 defensive DRIP, which put them 17th and 18th in the NBA, respectively, among those with at least 800 minutes played.
Jackson’s mobility on defense also helps him offensively. When teams go small, or are forced to put a smaller defender on Jackson when he shares the floor with Adams, he has enough ballhandling skills to make them pay. Let Jackson himself tell you.
There’s Jackson telling the world that Talen Horton-Tucker’s 6-foot-4 frame is too small to guard him. And this is the problem he presents for other teams; he can guard any of their players on the perimeter better than they can guard him on the interior.
There are only a handful of players that can match Jackson on both ends. He’s the ultimate skeleton key for any lineup Taylor Jenkins wants to use.
The one issue for Jackson has been his regression in shooting. After he shot 39.4% on 3s in his second season, Jackson took a big step backward last year, shooting 28.3% from behind the arc. He’s only been marginally better this year at 31.1%. His free throw shooting has been over 80% the last two years, indicating his shot doesn’t seem irreparably broken. If he can get back to the high-30s on 3-pointers, there are likely some All-Star games waiting for Jackson in the future.
It’s no surprise that DRIP sees the Grizzlies most impactful three players in a more positive light than it did at the start of the season. In fact, Morant, Bane and Jackson are all in the top 10 in DRIP improvement since the beginning of the season. And with those three and their complementary skills leading the way, the Grizzlies are a real threat to any team they see in the postseason.
Perhaps the only team more surprising than the Grizzlies this year is the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Cavaliers were an afterthought in most preseason rankings and weren’t expected by most to even make the play-in tournament. In fact, they have already surpassed their preseason win total in the places that had them pegged for 26.5 victories.
It has helped the team’s cause that no player in the league has improved their DELTA (difference in DRIP since the start of the season) more than Darius Garland. He’s the offensive catalyst for the team and has been asked to do a ton of the heavy lifting with Collin Sexton out with a meniscus tear.
Cleveland has defaulted to bucking the trend of smaller lineups and starts a supersized lineup with Lauri Markkanen playing small forward, which has worked in part because of Garland’s creativity.
Garland fits the bill of a late bloomer. He played only five games in college before tearing his meniscus and missing the remainder of the season. Cleveland still saw enough promise in him to make him the fifth overall pick in the 2019 draft.
He has been a solid player his first two years in the league but has taken a step forward in his third season. After honing his step-back 3-pointer to become an elite jump shooter last season, Garland has taken the next step to efficiency this year with a massive jump in his 2-point percentage.
Among the 66 guards that have taken at least 200 2-point shots, Garland ranks 10th in 2-point field goal percentage, which is the 85th percentile. Last year, Garland struggled inside the arc, as he was in the 32nd percentile.
His ability to hit shots in the arc has made things much harder for defenses too. Bigs defending the pick-and-roll must respect his shooting and finishing more, and that has opened the lob for his two athletic big men.
Here, Mike Muscala is toast as soon as Luguentz Dort gets brushed off by the initial screen. Muscala has to contest Garland, but also protect the lob to one of the best dunkers in the NBA in potential All-Star Jarrett Allen. He gets caught in no-man’s land, and the Oklahoma City Thunder use four players to try to defend a two-man action and fail.
The high pick-and-roll isn’t exactly the most original set in the league, and every team knows how they want to defend it. But between Garland’s creativity and shooting and his athletic big men, Cleveland’s version of that offense is one of the hardest to stop in the league. It is reminiscent of the Atlanta Hawks offense with Trae Young and the double-drag screens he receives. And, even though the Hawks have struggled mightily on defense this year, they have the second-best offensive rating in the league. That is the kind of offensive upside the Cavaliers hope to have and, even if Garland isn’t quite the same scorer as Young, it’s been a promising step forward this year.
Garland has been in contention with Allen all year for best player on the team. Allen has been a plus on offense just by being a willing dive man, ball mover and high-energy player. He’s finished through contact better than at any point in his career, as he gets an “and one” on 13.3% of his field goals – second in the NBA behind only Tyrese Maxey. And defensively, he has been the anchor of the third-ranked defense in the NBA. When Allen is on the floor, opponents are shooting only 55.8% on shots within five feet, which is the second-best mark in the league among qualifying players. Allen is responsible for a ton of that.
The only player who has been better in the stat than Allen this year? That would be Evan Mobley, who has been one of the most impactful rookies in the last five years and is fourth among all players in DRIP improvement this season.
Mobley flashed the potential to be a scheme-buster on both ends similar to Jackson in college, but is much further along defensively than Jackson was his rookie season. His ability to contest shots without fouling is incredibly impressive for a player as young as he is. He doesn’t just block shots, he swallows them.
That is one of the premier athletes and scorers in the league, and Mobley just rips the ball out of midair from him without fouling.
While the Grizzlies have used Jackson’s versatility to play smaller frontlines at times and have him counter small-ball units, the Cavaliers have gone the opposite way with Mobley. Although Markkanen is the nominal small forward in Cleveland’s starting lineup, it’s Mobley and Allen’s mobility and menace near the rim that makes the scheme work. And it’s not just working, it’s thriving.
Teams do get penetration against the Cavaliers’ big lineups, but Allen and Mobley generally can clean up the mess. Cleveland allows the ninth-most shots within five feet in the league, but has the best opponent field goal percentage on those shots. Allowing a lot of shots at the rim is normally a bad sign for the defense, but when the strategy is funneling the shots into two of the premier shot-altering big men in the game, it’s a lot more feasible.
There are still some questions about the viability of Cleveland’s big lineups long term and the offensive creation beyond Garland leaves something to be desired (although Mobley has shown an impressively polished offensive game). But there is no question that Cleveland has a bright future built around three players who are 23 or younger.
And if the Cavs and Grizzlies continue to make upgrades with their roster, it wouldn’t be all that shocking to see them facing off in the NBA Finals within the next five years.
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Graphic design by Matt Sisneros.