The Memphis Grizzlies' recent skid is a troublesome sign for their own NBA title aspirations. They've lost four of their last seven games, and three of those defeats have come against championship-caliber teams in the Cleveland Cavaliers, Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs.
The losing in itself isn't the problem. Memphis has been an elite team near the top of the Western Conference all season long, and it's in the nature of an 82-game schedule to experience a rough patch every now and then.
Even the timing isn't all that alarming. Though it isn't ideal to struggle while fighting at the end of the season for the second seed in the Western Conference, it isn't a total disaster for the Grizzlies' season.
Memphis has also lost to quality teams peaking at the right time. San Antonio is just now finding its groove after a sputtering start to the year, Cleveland has been on a tear ever since LeBron James returned from injury, and Golden State has been running opponents out of the gym with regularity.
That's why the average 17-point margin of defeat is not the crux of the problem. This is more about the how, and in particular a problem that has plagued Memphis' offense since its roster re-centered around Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph.
It's about spacing.
Buzzword that it may be, spacing is the key for an offense's main horses to operate. One-big lineups or two-big lineups, it doesn't matter. Surround the one or two major cogs in the wheel with enough shooters, and defenses will be punished for over-helping.
It's the classic basketball dilemma: Does a defense help to guard against elite one-on-one players, or does it stick to three-point shooters and trust its on-ball defenders to handle their assignments on an island?
There are all sorts of help-and-recover concepts—whether in pick-and-roll, isolation or post-up defense. As sturdy and reliable as they can be, the simple act of sending help bends the defense toward a disadvantage. Someone is open, and the right pass or right ball movement can slice apart even the best recovery rotations.
But Memphis simply does not have enough three-point shooters on its team to give its beasts down low adequate room to operate. Only Mike Conley (38.6 percent from three-point range), Jeff Green (38.7 percent), Courtney Lee (39.4 percent) and Vince Carter (30.5 percent) make defenders think twice about leaving them open.
Tony Allen is improved but still mostly a non-threat from the perimeter. Nick Calathes and Beno Udrih are in the mid-20s and barely shoot threes anyway. None of Memphis' bigs can stretch the floor all the way.
Per NBA.com, only 18.6 percent of the Grizzlies' field-goal attempts are three-pointers, a number that places them second to last in the league.
Even among those players who are relatively dangerous spot-up shooters, they're all off-the-bounce guys first and foremost. Any smart defensive team would be more than happy with Conley, Green, Carter and Lee jacking 25 combined three-point attempts per game. Outside of Lee, it's not what they're comfortable doing.
That's why perception is often more important than reality. Players aren't looking at numbers when they're out on the floor. A guy is either a shooter or he isn't—threat has a greater impact than efficiency.
Conley might be 38 percent from three-point range, but he isn't a "shooter," per se. He's an ultra-quick ball-handler who thrives on getting in deep off dribble penetration.
When a defender is guarding an opponent, he's trying to take away his man's strengths. Here's what that defender thinks: Do I live with Conley banging a few threes, or do I risk playing him too aggressively and giving up multiple layups/putting my bigs in a compromising and foul-prone position?
What's left for Memphis, then, is an offense hampered by its own personnel.
Geoff Calkins of The Commercial Appeal summed up these shooting woes quite simply in a recent article lede.
"Drew Gooden is 33," Calkins wrote. "He is the definition of a journeyman. He has played for 10 NBA teams. But on one of the biggest nights of the season for the Memphis Grizzlies, as the franchise tried to hang on to the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, Gooden had more three-point baskets than the entire Memphis team."
Randolph's dominance on the block and Gasol's nuance as a playmaker from both the high and low post ease some of the spacing difficulty, but it's only enough to prop up Memphis' offensive rating to 103.2—tied for a middling 13th in the league, according to NBA.com.
This puts head coach Dave Joerger in a tough spot with his lineup decisions. Memphis' best offensive lineups (minimum 60 minutes played) all involve at least two of the previously mentioned shooting foursome. Their best defensive lineups, meanwhile, mostly feature one or zero shooters.
On a nightly basis, Joerger can get away with leaning on one side of the ball to counter the opponent's strength. If Memphis faces a high-powered offense with a particularly potent wing player, he might slot Allen into a few more lineups. If there aren't any wing threats out there, Lee likely steals a few more minutes.
Either way, Joerger's offense always regresses when he dips into the bench because three of his shooters are first-unit guys. Carter is the only real offensive threat he can go to among the second group, but he's a shell of his former self and has morphed into primarily a spot-up shooter.
The starters, therefore, have to carry the load—Memphis' offensive rating is at its worst when its starters sit, according to NBA.com.
It will certainly help that the pace of play generally slows in the playoffs. Half-court basketball clearly favors the Grizzlies because it allows them to lock down on defense and wear down opponents by constantly dumping the ball down low to their bruising bigs.
Their 94.26 possessions per game ranks fifth-last in the league and is indicative of the slow tempo the Grizzlies prefer.
There's also the fact that Memphis' defense is dominant enough to mask most of its offensive issues—it's just that everything in the postseason becomes magnified. Multiple rounds of battle with the same opponent coupled with more time between games means more intense scouting. More scouting means weaknesses become more easily spotted and exploited. Anything glaring is hammered upon by the opponent.
Shooting is that elephant in the room for Memphis.
In any one regular-season game, the Grizzlies can get hot from the outside and punish defenses for sliding off their perimeter players. Over the course of a seven-game series, however, a pack-the-paint mentality is much more likely to neutralize the inside threats Memphis does have while the perimeter scorers struggle to shoot consistently from deep.
Joerger will never throw his team under the bus and admit that his players are poor shooters on the whole, but he isn't exactly endorsing his team's outside capabilities, either. Here's how Chris Faulkner of Grizzly Bear Blues described Joerger's response when he was asked about his team's shooting:
Other teams likely won't be so generous in how they defend Memphis. They'll load up inside and dare the Grizzlies to win from the perimeter, which has been the go-to formula for most opponents they've faced in years past.
Here's an example of that coverage from a recent game against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
As the ball gets dumped to Randolph on the block, the Oklahoma City defense loads up immediately to the ball. Once Jon Leuer of Memphis starts flowing away from Randolph, his man, Mitch McGary, completely ignores him and sinks into the middle of the paint.
Steven Adams, who's on Randolph, is tasked with handling any baseline drive himself. But should Randolph jet middle, McGary is there for the double-team.
This obviously means someone is open. The logical answer would be Leuer, as his man has just abandoned him. But it's not. It's Udrih on the weak side. Russell Westbrook has creeped down into the lane to keep an eye on Leuer, and OKC's other defenders are hugging up on shooters.
Udrih is wide open. OKC trusts Randolph will not be able to find him amid the traffic in the paint. And even if he does, it's Udrih. The Thunder will be more than happy to watch him launch a three-pointer.
The former is what happens, as Randolph barrels into the swarm of bodies and muscles up a difficult hook. It misses, and OKC is off and running the other way.
Another issue Memphis faces offensively is that it doesn't do itself any favors in transition.
While the Grizzlies are clearly not trying to play at a breakneck pace, it doesn't hurt to earn an easy transition bucket every once in a while—particularly if it originates from the aggressive mentality of attacking the rim, as opposed to settling for an early shot-clock three.
Check out Lee here, who catches the ball on the wing with John Wall of the Washington Wizards caught closing out slightly out of control. There's also nobody underneath the rim to protect against a baseline drive.
Memphis constantly passes up these small windows of scoring early in the shot clock to play half-court basketball. This isn't the worst thing in the world, but infusing the offense with occasional easy points could boost its efficiency without markedly increasing the pace of the game.
It's certainly easier to play defense—as opposed to offense—on a night-to-night basis, because all it requires is effort (and communication). Memphis has that in abundance, and it's why the Grizzlies are always a tough out in May and June. This "Grit 'N Grind" mentality has been the basis of every Memphis team of this decade.
But teams that make deep runs can play on both ends of the floor.
Some nights, the opponent simply has it going from the outside. James Harden, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard and Chris Paul are all lurking in the playoff picture. Any of them can get hot for a few games.
But year after year, Memphis has fallen short due to an inability to score.
Even if they can't make shots with consistency, the Grizzlies will need to at least fire some from the perimeter to keep opponents honest. If not, Randolph and Gasol will face constant pressure and have a tough time generating points.
And without Randolph and Gasol firing on all cylinders, the Grizzlies are doomed.
Though they might be a better team this year than in the past, they're ultimately facing the same uphill battle on offense.