Without Ja Morant, the Memphis Grizzlies have barely missed a beat.
The high-flying star has missed the past 12 games due to a knee injury and health and safety protocols, with the Grizzlies notching 10 wins in that span to improve to 19-12 on the season, sitting comfortably in fourth. seeded in the Western Conference.
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Throughout that span, the Grizzlies rank eighth on offense without their leading scorer, but it’s on the defensive end that they have tightened the screws to rank first in the league. They also have the league’s best net rating in that span, although a 73-point win over the Thunder is doing a healthy job of skewing the data.
No ha, no problem!
|won by 27
|won by 7
|against Oklahoma City
|won by 73
|won by 7
|won by 15
|lost by 8
|vs. The Angels
|won by 13
|won by 7
|won by 35
|won by 10
|won by 19
|lost by 5
In 619 minutes with Morant on the court in 2023-22, the Grizzlies are posting a 116.8 defensive rating, which would sit comfortably last all season so far. With Morant off the court, the Grizzles are posting a 102.4 defensive rating in 879 minutes, which would rank behind only the Golden State Warriors.
Part of the defensive resurgence can be attributed to Dillon Brooks’ return to the lineup, with the energetic guard playing just five games before Morant was sidelined. Brooks, one of the league’s players most likely to get under his opponent’s skin, has become an important part of the rotation under head coach Taylor Jenkins in recent seasons.
Plus, Jaren Jackson Jr. has found consistency on both ends, with the talented big man missing just one game this season after a miserable streak with injuries in previous years. Jackson Jr. has formed a tough frontline partnership with Steven Adams, with the young big man recording multiple blocks in eight of the 12 games Morant has missed, including a five-block game in a tight win over the Toronto Raptors.
Overall, the Grizzlies are allowing a league-low 37.3 points in the paint during the race, further emphasizing their dominance around the basket.
To be clear, none of this suggests that Memphis should see a significant drop to defense when Morant returns, with 6-foot Tyus Jones barely a defender blocked on the perimeter as Ja’s replacement.
Unsurprisingly, some luck is involved, with opponents shooting a measly 31.7 percent of three on the stretch, well short of the fiery 40.7 percent they buried during the 9-10 season start for Memphis.
The Grizz are likely to take a step back from their defensive dominance as the numbers stabilize throughout the season, but with Morant’s return, they are likely to benefit from the offensive side with Jackson Jr. and the man from sophomore Desmond Bane. both stepping forward in his absence.
BIG SHOT BANE IS HER NAME. pic.twitter.com/gmPuOjFRIn
– Memphis Grizzlies (@memgrizz) December 20, 2023
Bane has been in an absolute tear lately, averaging 17.9 points in 46/46/94 shooting divisions in the last 12 outings. Jackson Jr., similarly, has seen his scoring production rise from 14.1 points to 19.1 down the stretch.
Where the offense can get its biggest bump is featuring Morant in place of Brooks, with the latter tending to lean toward the role of a volume shooter even though his career numbers suggest he’s ineffective in that role. Brooks is averaging a total of 17.1 shot attempts per game without Morant, averaging just 20.1 points on those shots.
The additional good news?
Jenkins revealed Sunday that Morant is “very close” to returning, with the rising star back on the bench and around the team after his stint through league health and safety protocols.
It seems the Grizzlies have worked out a few things without their superstar, now it’s about capitalizing on his comeback and strengthening their position near the top of the Western Conference.