USA Today Sports
The Memphis Grizzlies have had a problem with spacing for years. An exquisitely disruptive defense has led to several deep playoff runs but the barriers to ultimate success have almost always been around offense, and those offensive difficulties can almost always be traced back to spacing. Offensive talent has never been a question but the issues have historically been about creating space on the interior for their post players, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, to work with.
Without threatening shooters on the wing opposing teams have been extremely comfortable cheating in and crowding the paint on post-ups and pick-and-rolls. The Grizzlies’ “Grit-And-Grind” philosophy has become a necessity at the offensive end because they are so rarely able to operate without defensive friction. This lack of consistent outside shooting becomes a vicious cycle. They aren’t able to make teams pay for doubling on the interior, robbing their offense of some effectiveness, but they also are depriving themselves of the increased efficiency that comes from the three-point shot. As the rest of the league has become more and more preoccupied with three-point shooting the Grizzlies have moved, and been moved, in the opposite direction. The past two seasons they’ve finished 30th and 28th in three-point attempts and 24th and 25th in three-point percentage.
You can see here, on a side pick-and-roll with Mike Conley and Zach Randolph, how teams are able to collapse on the middle.
Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon are both assigned to Grizzlies’ wing players, but are able to play with a foot in the paint. The trade-off of keeping Tony Allen on the floor for his defensive abilities has generally been an exchange the Grizzlies are willing to make, but opponents have gotten away with treating almost all of the Grizzlies’ wings this way.
Here, on a high pick-and-roll with Nick Calathes and Gasol, we see the same sort of defensive collapse into the paint.
You’ll notice that the two wings the Grizzlies have on the floor here are Quincy Pondexter and Mike Miller, both respectable outside shooters, but apparently not respectable enough to bother the Warriors.
The Grizzlies dug themselves a significant hole with a slow start this season and the level of difficulty only increased as Gasol and Pondexter went down with injuries. Although very little has changed on the results end (the Grizzlies still rank near the bottom of the league in both three-point attempts and three-point percentage) the extended absence of Gasol has created opportunities for a few players to step forward and necessitated some changes to their offensive system. One player who has really benefited from both is Jon Leuer.
Leuer put together a very strong rookie campaign with the Milwaukee Bucks, looking like a fantastic combination of strong rebounding and stretch shooting in the front court. But he struggled to replicate any of those positives last season, splitting time between Cleveland and Memphis. Playing just a hair over 20 minutes a game this year, Leuer has rediscovered the consistency in his outside shot and added some interesting wrinkles to what the Grizzlies can do on offense.
Leuer has always been a respectable outside shooter, but prior to this season his range petered out around 20 feet. In his first two seasons he attempted just 12 three-pointers combined, but this year he’s already hoisted up 23, connecting on 56.5 percent (eat your heart out, Kyle Korver). According to NBA.com’s player tracking statistics, of the players who’ve played at least 100 minutes this season, attempting at least one catch-and-shoot three-pointer per game, Leuer ranks 4th in catch-and-shoot three-point percentage. What’s especially interesting is that the majority of those three-point looks have come from roughly the same location and out of the same sort of sets.
No one on the Grizzlies roster, Leuer included, is as dangerous a threat to dribble, pass or shoot as Gasol was from the high post. That has meant that the Grizzlies’ pick-and-roll attack has looked considerably different, especially when Leuer is in the game.
Here the Grizzlies are running a high pick-and-roll with Leuer and Mike Conley. In the past this pick-and-roll would have featured either Gasol or Randolph rolling to the elbow. From there either player would have looked to attack the basket, dump the ball down to Kosta Koufos, or throw it out to one of the corners to take advantage of a collapsing defender. But Leuer’s offensive strength is on the perimeter so instead of rolling to the elbow after setting the pick, he fades out behind the three-point line. (The images below are interactive. Scroll over a tag for details. Hit the play button to watch the full possession.)
Here’s a slightly more elaborate set-up that results in the same shot. The Grizzlies have set-up double screens for Conley with Leuer and Kofous. As Conley uses the screen and heads away from both bigs, Leuer fades and Koufos steps forward, ready to set a pin-down screen for any defender rotating back towards Leuer.
Usually a big adding three-point range to their arsenal will begin by stretching out to the corners. But Leuer has only attempted one corner three-pointer all season long. Almost all of his long-range shots have come from the top of the arc and from fading out of pick-and-rolls. This kind of three-point imbalance is not entirely unusual, but the balance being tilted towards above-the-break three-pointers definitely is. Here’s his three-point shot chart so far this season:
Leuer’s ability to stretch the floor, and in a different direction than the Grizzlies’ offense usually does, has made a big difference. So far this season their offense has been 8.2 points per 100 possessions better with Leuer on the floor. They’re defense suffers by an equal margin when he’s on the floor so this is not the answer to winning a title, but it adds complexity to a recipe that has been decidedly bland in the past.
When Gasol returns Leuer’s role will obviously shrink, but this wrinkle the Grizzlies have found in his absence may work to make the whole system more healthy. With Gasol again coming off pick-and-rolls and inhabiting space at the elbow it may make sense to slide Leuer and his long-range confidence down into the corners. But the double screen set we looked at above also has tantalizing potential to wreck a defense with Gasol and Leuer together. Watch that possession again and imagine Koufos as Gasol, rolling to the strong side elbow as Leuer fades to the three-point line — so many different avenues of attack open up. Instead of picking-and-rolling into high-low action the Grizzlies could be working on a high-higher action and letting their athletic wings work the baseline.
For going on three years the Grizzlies have been trying to solve their spacing problems with marginal upgrades to the pool of shooters on the wing. It’s hard to blame them because that was exactly the component their system was starved for. But in Leuer they appear to have found spacing in an entirely unexpected package. It may mean changes to the way they go about their offensive business, but it also opens up a world of possibilities.
Statistical support for this story from NBA.com/stats