Were it up to the Memphis Grizzlies and the Utah Jazz, the NBA’s swell in scoring and pace would have left them alone. Alas, the offensive boom has rippled across the entire league, touching even teams that would prefer to slow the game down, grind out offense and force their opponents to do the same. While fast, aggressive shot-hunting benefits most teams, Memphis and Utah are designed to operate at lower speeds, and while neither has particularly embraced the great pace boom, one has resisted it while the other has acquiesced — with disparate results.
Any team will be at its best when it can control tempo, but that is especially true of Utah, who succeeded last season in part because of their ability to slow opponents down to an uncomfortable rhythm. This season, their enemies are dictating the speed of games, and the Jazz are being baited into track meets against opponents with which they aren’t suited to run.
One of the NBA’s slowest teams in each year of Quin Snyder’s tenure, the Jazz have been sped up nearly four possessions per game this season, fighting against the current nearly every night. A middling offense has turned into a downright bad one, and its very character has been altered.
Under Snyder, the ethos of Utah’s offense has been movement and deliberation, with passes, cuts and handoffs acting to pry open looks. Even then, it often took sharp execution through the final seconds of the shot clock to generate efficient shots. This season, Utah is launching shots earlier in the clock and averaging fewer than three passes per possession. Donovan Mitchell’s cold start has left the Jazz with no one to revive broken-down possessions:
Part of Utah’s early lag may stem from a resistance to modernization. The combination of Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors, a stalwart duo last season, is allowing over 111 points per 100 possessions in over 200 minutes together, and both remain in the starting lineup. Snyder is staggering the two more than ever, but the Jazz might benefit from even less overlap. Even Utah’s defense, predicated upon sapping every second from the shot clock and funneling the ball toward Gobert, has slipped as teams more quickly and easily find 3-pointers and layups. Favors, diligent though he is, offers a target for opponents to attack as frontcourts skew faster and smaller.
Even during last season’s blazing second-half run, Utah topped out as a mediocre offense, relying on its impenetrable defense to hold teams at bay. That safety net is now failing them, though some of that is due to bad fortune. Opponents are outshooting their expected effective field goal percentage by four points, and the Jazz allow one of the lowest shares of shots at the rim and behind the arc in the league, per PBP Stats. They have ample time to course-correct, as they did last season. When operating at full capacity, they can prove nearly unbeatable. Most every player is due for a natural progression to the mean, and smart playoff projection systems still give Utah the benefit of the doubt. But this is a team that has been short-circuited on both ends of the floor, and it begs wondering if it has another improbable response in reserve.
While the Jazz have been dragged into a style incompatible with their personnel, Memphis has run (or rather, walked) in the opposite direction. The Grizzlies are humming at the slowest pace in the NBA, with a top-five defense to boot. Most opponents will play with more talent than Memphis, but few will bring more effort or execute as consistently. The Grizzlies force teams to slog through games against unrelenting pressure and discomfort. Like Utah, the Grizzlies churn out a methodical, inefficient offense in need of a more reliable first option. But while the Jazz have struggled to replicate an elite defense, Memphis has buckled down on that end.
Despite league-wide shifts toward switching and mobile centers, the Grizzlies play a more traditional scheme built around Marc Gasol and a cast of shrewd, aggressive defenders who fight over screens and muddy passing lanes. Yet Memphis seldom plays more than two traditional big men at once, a key point of distinction from the Utah Jazz. JaMychal Green, Kyle Anderson and Jaren Jackson Jr. all have the agility to defend on the perimeter while Gasol lurks in the paint, turning away drives with smart positioning and timely help. Memphis applies pressure for the entirety of the game, making every possession purposefully arduous and breaking opponents’ spirits as much as their sets. The Grizzlies take care of the ball, rarely puts opponents at the free-throw line, and forces turnovers more at a league-best rate.
Offensively, they do just enough to scrape by. Gasol and Mike Conley comprise a solid two-man game, but the Grizzlies lack much firepower beyond that. As a result, the offense tends to stagnate. Memphis has capable but reticent shooters and runs only when a clear scoring opportunity presents itself. Conley and Gasol spray passes to players who aren’t equipped to do much with them beyond shoot open 3s. Even so, Memphis ranks 19th in 3-point attempt rate despite hitting triples at the seventh-best rate in the NBA. Kyle Anderson, the most 3-point-averse player in the rotation, offers relief as a secondary playmaker but is best used as an offensive means rather than an end. Scoring off of turnovers has helped spur production, but
Where Utah appears bound for improvement, most metrics suggest a regression is coming for Memphis. The Grizzlies allow frequent shots at the rim and beyond the arc and generate few of their own. The cost of such intense ball pressure is open looks at the basket when aggression goes awry, and Gasol lacks the footspeed to keep up with faster centers. Elite defenses, when dialed in, can quell their offense. Yet the way they burst out of the gate has been a fairly instructive response to a faster league. These aren’t the Grit-and-Grind Grizzlies, but Memphis still cuts against the grain.