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Is This the Deepest Memphis Grizzlies Bench of the 'Grind Era'?

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Is This the Deepest Memphis Grizzlies Bench of the 'Grind Era'?
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As Memphis Grizzlies observers debate whether Tayshaun Prince or James Johnson should start and Tony Allen assumes a bench role after 194 starts for Memphis, one realizes they're deeper than ever.

No one would mistake the Grizz for having the artillery of the San Antonio Spurs bench or the steady role play that the Oklahoma City Thunder's backups display.

Still, for their own franchise, this is beyond compare. The Grizzlies' finest era holds better depth than it had in the previous three seasons. The frontcourt set behind Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol is packed. That includes its first decent backup center in a decade.

All of the active perimeter players can score. That couldn't be said in the past few seasons. In 2010-11 and 2011-12, O.J. Mayo was the only significant bench scorer. Last season, Jerryd Bayless typically was the only one dropping significant buckets.

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Scoring from multiple reserves

Bench scoring was a major concern in the first three years of the "grit 'n' grind" era. For two campaigns, Mayo stood as the only spark plug Lionel Hollins could count on. Mayo averaged 11.3 points per game in his first year primarily coming off the bench, with double-digit scoring in 30 of his 54 games as a reserve.

A total of 34 reserve double-digit performances came from other players.

Mayo averaged 12.6 per game in 2011-12 and had 47 double-digit affairs while coming off the bench. Other Grizz players put forth 46 such games in reserve roles, including 13 by Randolph after he returned from a partial MCL tear.

In 2012-13, Bayless served as a less effective bulwark for bench scoring. Bayless averaged 8.7 points per game and reached double figures 27 times in reserve duty. Other Grizz players totaled 52 games of 10 points or more as backups, 16 of which came from Quincy Pondexter.

This year, with no one leading the drive off the bench, Grizzlies reserves have combined for 77 double-digit performances through 58 games. That's 1.33 per game, compared with 1.41 per game in 2011-12.

Early this season, they didn't get significant help from any one bench scorer, with five double-digit games from reserves in the first 14 games.

Since beginning his Grizz tenure on Dec. 17, Johnson has averaged 8.5 points per game, scoring in double figures in 15 of 33 games as a reserve. Jon Leuer, who is scoring 7.1 per game, has posted 10 or more in 12 of the 16 games in which he ha played at least 15 minutes. 

Mike Miller, who averages 6.8 per game, has put up double figures 15 times.

 

A crowded frontcourt

In the prior three seasons, the Grizzlies had good, but not great interior depth. The 4 spot has been fine. 

In 2011-12, Dante Cunningham and Randolph served as the primary backups. Randolph supplanted Cunningham in the role after returning from injury to find that lineup dynamics benefited with him coming off the bench.

Cunningham was a nice mid-range shooter, hitting 51.6 percent from the field, but didn't do much on the boards, averaging 7.9 per 36 minutes. Randolph took time to sort himself out. His production was average, at 15.3 points and 11.6 rebounds per 36, with his rebounding a bit below his rate from the previous season.

Last season, the power forward spot was a mix of Darrell Arthur, Ed Davis and sometimes Marreese Speights. None of them excelled. Arthur struggled to find his shot, finishing with a 45.1 percent field-goal mark. 

Davis barely broke into the rotation before March 3 that year and shot 49.1 percent, 6.3 percent below his season mark before that. However, he did pull down 11.6 rebounds per 36 minutes from March 3 forward.

Speights mostly played center that year. Anyway, he struggled through short minutes, posting 6.6 points and 4.7 rebounds in 14.5 minutes per game while shooting 42.9 percent from the field.

Before Kosta Koufos arrived, the center spot behind Gasol was barren. Hamed Haddadi was usually the only backup at the 5 spot. Hasheem Thabeet and later Leon Powe also saw action in the middle, but both averaged between eight and nine minutes per game.

Since Haddadi played sparingly and Speights wasn't much of a competitor at center, Gasol saw heavy minutes the past two years. He averaged 35.6 minutes per game across those seasons. The Spaniard placed sixth in minutes in 2011-12.

Koufos has allowed Gasol to ease down to 33 minutes per game. He's shooting 52.9 percent off the bench. Koufos, who puts in 14 minutes per game, is averaging 13.6 points and 11.2 rebounds per 36 minutes, including 14.1 points and 9.5 rebounds per 36 in 35 games off the bench.

While Davis is only pulling down 9.7 rebounds per 36, he's shooting better this year for the Grizz, hitting 53.2 percent from the field.

The scarcity of a frontcourt has been a good problem for Memphis. Describing his dilemma to The Commercial Appeal, Dave Joerger said (subscription required), "It's a matter of what flavor are you looking for? Are you bringing in a size guy, a duck-in guy, a rim defender? Are you bringing in an athlete or are you bringing in a stretch guy?"

 

Capable second-unit defense

Koufos is also a banner for the Grizzlies' improved reserve defense. He's allowing 102 points per 100 possessions, including 100 as a backup. Johnson is allowing 100. Koufos and Johnson have block rates of 4.5 and 5.5 percent, respectively. Leuer and Davis are allowing 104 points per 100 possessions. Davis has cleaned up his defense in the past two months, allowing 100 in January and 92 in February.

Allen's move to the bench after returning from injury adds immense punch to the reserve set. Allen, who allows 102 points per 100 possessions and grabs steals at a 3.7 percent rate, injects plenty of energy to ensure that the defense doesn't slip when a starter leaves the floor.

In 2010-11, Mayo allowed 101, but the other rotational reserves allowed between 104 and 110.

In 2011-12, the Grizz also had little drop-off between the starters and backups, with those besides Pondexter allowing between 101 and 103.

The Grizzlies bench was decent last year, as Davis allowed 96 and most other reserves ranged between 102 and 105. But when compared with the starting lineup, all of which appeared in the top 20 in defensive rating and allowed fewer than 101.

 

Conclusion

How Joerger will use the bench in the playoffs is unclear. Nevertheless, he should rest assured that he can get more from it than Hollins did. Playing Gasol 40.6 minutes per game won't be necessary.

They have a real backup center in Koufos, who can reliably protect the rim for the double-digit minutes Hollins couldn't entrust to his reserves at the 5 spot.

More than one Grizz reserve can score. Johnson attacks the rack well. Miller will spot crucial three-point shooting to help even the perimeter action against that of the Spurs or Thunder.

This year's bench would likely improve on last year when the Spurs collapsed on Memphis' small selection of shooters and 2012 when reserve scoring dried up when Mayo stopping hitting shots.

Statistics are current through March 2 games. Unless otherwise noted, advanced metrics come from Basketball-Reference.com.

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