Dave Joerger's mission of evolving the Memphis Grizzlies is in distress. As the Grizzlies break through the season's first large chunk of games, they leave behind the advanced-metrics approach the front office has advocated because it can't keep them better than .500.
Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher noted how Grizz players fought back against Joerger's attempt to implement the metrics-based system, quoting a scout as saying, "It looked as if Joerger tried to put his stamp on them and the players resisted. They were like, 'The other way worked, so why change?' I know they wanted to play fast, but they don't have that kind of team. They grind."
Memphis' rookie coach is finding that not only does the system fall flat, but he can't engage his players.
The offense is as successful with Zach Randolph imposing his will inside as with Mike Conley playing a ball-handling lead guard role. Pace slipped away from Joerger's desired speed toward Conley's preferred plodding rate.
The disappearance of the "grit 'n' grind" defensive principles of Joerger's design can be attributed to the coach. Injuries notwithstanding, the Grizzlies are out of sorts.
Here's a deeper look at Joerger's struggle to hold together a team in transition.
Offensive Plans Dropped
Joerger's wishes of making the offense faster and more efficient have washed away.
Before the season, Joerger set a goal of speeding up the offense, as the Three Shades of Blue blog noted. After six games with a faster pace that still had the Grizzlies in the bottom six in the category, he arrived at the reality that they'd grind it out in the half court.
Conley now runs the slowest offense in the league at 89.6 possessions per 48 minutes, which is 0.8 behind the New York Knicks.
The Grizzlies have had fewer than 90 per 48 minutes in 13 of the last 14 games.
Slowing it down brought at least one benefit in a reduction of turnovers. After turning it over 14 or more times in the first six games of the year, they've done so six times since then. Memphis has tapered its turnover average from 17.2 to 14.1 per game.
Conley explained to USA Today that the faster pace was unmanageable.
We went fast, and I think we got a little bit out of control for everybody. We're still playing a little bit faster, but when we get into our offensive sets, we're able to slow it down to a pace that's better for our bigs and it's working.
In particular, this has helped Randolph. As Bucher mentioned, Randolph was lost in the first eight games before becoming the focal point of the offense. After putting up 10.6 shots per game in the first eight, he's taken 15.1 in his last 10. He's averaging 18.5 points in the last 10, following a 12.6-per-game start.
As ESPN Stats and Info tweeted, the difference in outcome is stark when Randolph keys Memphis' scoring.
Also, the 32-year-old is as active with the ball as Conley. He has a 25.4 percent usage rate—1 percent higher than Conley. Conley's averaging 17.7 field-goal and free-throw attempts per game, 0.4 more than Randolph.
The veteran's scoring is more of a barometer for Grizz success, despite scoring 1.7 fewer points per game, as they are 4-4 when Conley scores 18 or more.
Randolph doesn't fit the analytics mold. He shoots a modest 48.1 percent from the field. His tendency for short jumpers doesn't portend as high a success rate as shooting at the rim.
As such, the Grizzlies' dependence on him frustrates Joerger's ability to execute management's directives.
Besides taking care of the ball, the Grizz are anything but efficient. Their field-goal percentage (45 percent) is in the middle of the pack. Three-point shooting never materialized, as Memphis has taken fewer attempts than all other teams and is near the bottom in three-point field-goal percentage (33.3 percent).
While injuries play a role, Joerger hasn't found a way to scrape together enough to win.
Lack of Rally Under Joerger
During Lionel Hollins' tenure, the Grizz rallied whenever they lost a key player.
In 2010-11, they gathered extra scoring from role players to make up for an injury to Rudy Gay. Randolph's injury in 2011-12 inspired Gay and company to run a transition offense on their way to the team's first top-four playoff spot.
Last season, a new offensive attack formed around Conley and Marc Gasol that helped them attain a team-record 56 wins and their deepest playoff run.
Memphis has no reinvention this year. Aside from Conley and Randolph grinding it out, hardly anyone has risen to the occasion.
Tony Allen, who pitches in when a teammate is injured and has put up 12.8 points per game in four contests since Gasol went down, is missing time.
Ed Davis, Jon Leuer and Jerryd Bayless have had flourishes. However, Leuer and Davis had big games against tame teams like the Phoenix Suns and Orlando Magic. Bayless' poor aim has been laid bare without Gasol's facilitation, as he's shot 31 percent in the last seven games.
Defensively, the Grizz lack the team-wide commitment that defined "grit 'n' grind." Allen and Kosta Koufos are the only players allowing fewer than 104 points per 100 possessions.
This is a far cry from last year, when most players who played more than 30 games met that standard.
Memphis, which had forced turnovers rapaciously, isn't mounting the same pressure. It is 18th in opponent turnover rate after finishing in the top two over the previous three seasons.
Without the relentless attack at every position, the Grizzlies have lost the characteristic device that allowed them to overcome a low-scoring offense.
Tayshaun Prince as a Bellwether
As Prince flounders through his 12th season, he seems to be bringing teammates down with him. He's shooting 39.8 percent from the field en route to 6.7 points per game and 93 points per 100 possessions.
His defense, which had helped the Grizz last season, is nonexistent, as he allows 109 points per 100 possessions.
Initially, his struggles could have been attributed to a lack of conditioning. According to The Commercial Appeal, he had missed the preseason with a stomach illness that drained 12 to 15 pounds from his slight frame.
Six weeks into the season, Memphis should expect him to be in reasonable condition. He's played 30 minutes in eight of the last 11 games.
If he doesn't work his energy up, the Grizz must consider his effect on other players. In an Enemy Lines preseason piece for SI.com, a scout warned, "Prince is not an easy guy to coach. ... Whether he buys into Joerger is a big key because Prince is a good influence in that locker room."
A few indicators should worry the "Grindhouse" faithful. Prince's defense, which is predicated more on instincts than athleticism, is below the minimum level for a player with his awareness.
I had written previously that lineups with Prince always produced higher offensive ratings last year. This year, it's not the case. According to NBA.com, the top three all have Conley and Gasol, while Prince appears in three of the top four.
If Prince's miniature statistics can't be covered by his glue-guy status, that aspect of his may come undone.
Conclusion: Players May Not Respond to the New Coach
Fans of the three shades of blue may question Joerger's ability to get the best from players. In the aforementioned USA Today article, Conley said that the new coach started out easy and then developed a willingness to get in players' faces and challenge star players like Hollins did.
However, in a Sporting News article, Conley is quoted as saying, "Hollins is more of an in-your-face type person, and Joerger just expects it from you, you know?"
Setting expectations is easier than getting results from this scrappy Grizzlies team. The results don't show in either the subpar statistics or the middling record.
Joerger's risk was going from being an easygoing assistant to a respectable head coach. His mistake may have come early when he tried to start mellow and challenge players later.
Such a shift hurts the trust level in the locker room. Maintaining it will take a season of work.
Statistics are current through Dec. 9 games. Unless otherwise noted, advanced metrics come from Basketball-Reference.com.