A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

How they got here: The Memphis Grizzlies’ defensive culture change

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So, the Memphis Grizzlies are now a good basketball team. There’s a handful of reasons why. They have great frontcourt talent with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol and good perimeter players in Mike Conley, Jr., O.J. Mayo, Rudy Gay, Tony Allen and Shane Battier. But their success is really built on elite defense and making the unselfish play offensively. The Grizzlies team culture is in the right place. They play the right way.

What’s interesting about this is that two years ago their prognosis was the opposite – the Grizzlies were a talented team with a young Conley, Mayo, Gay and Gasol foursome, but the didn’t play defense or synchronicity offensively which led to 24-58 win season in 08-09. The following year they added Zach Randolph to the roster, who at the time seemed like the last thing they needed – an offense only player with a label of being selfish and neglected defence. Yet they turned it around to a 40 W season last year, albeit still with mediocore defensive stats – ranking 19th in DRTG. Then with virtually the same lineup to start the season this year, the Grizzlies ranked 9th in DRTG on route to 46 Ws. Their DRTG from December on would translate to top 5-6 in the league.

In two years the Grizzlies have done a 180 by embracing an identity based on defense and team play. Since playing this way is essential to any young team learning how to win, it’s important to ask why and how they created this change. I’ve labelled a number of factors that led to this change:

Clearly defined roles

The Grizzlies lineup starting in 09-10 had each player providing roughly what’s expected out of the position and no more or less. Conley did PG things – controlling the pace and distributing. OJ Mayo did SG things – shooting 3s and creating his shot. Rudy Gay did SF things – scoring 20ppg inside and out and providing length at his position. And Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol did PF and C things – playing in the post and hitting the glass. Each player had a role on the court and the responsibility to fill it. The team fit together which helped build chemistry. When they added supporting players in 10-11, they fit into defined roles as well. Tony Allen slashed and defended, the improved Darrell Arthur hit shots and played as an athletic power forward, Greivis Vazquez did backup PG things, when Shane Battier was acquired he defended and hit 3s. A clearly defined system helped these players fit in their roles.


The Grizzlies started the last two seasons with the Conley, Mayo, Gay, Randolph, Gasol fivesome, and all but Randolph were playing together since 08-09. The players already knew what they were going to do offensively – which allowed coach Lionel Hollins to focus on how to fix their defense.

Strong coaching

Lionel Hollins is clearly the right man for the job and has the Grizzlies playing the right way – moving the ball offensively and backing each other up and hitting the glass defensively. Making a team into one who plays strong defense clearly starts from a coach who holds his players responsible for it and Hollins is clearly an excellent fit.

A few extra changes

A few extra changes helped change the Grizzlies. They brought in Tony Allen who had spent the last few years learning great defense from the Boston Celtics and his presence forced OJ Mayo to play more defense off the bench to get minutes. Rudy Gay clearly learned from his World Championships teammates and make a leap in defensive effort this season. Later Shane Battier’s acquisition further bolstered the perimeter defense. All together this amped up the perimeter defense far more than a year ago – which in part helped and motivated Conley, Jr., Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol d up.


I truly believe offensive talent helps teams defensively. Offensive ability opens up energy levels for defense, opens up time for the coach to set up practices and gameplan defensively, opens up room specialization defensive players like Tony Allen, and winning and belief in the importance of games is the best motivation for energy and listening to a coach. Two years ago Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo were asked to carry the team offensively which sapped their energy for defense – and on such a bad team nobody else cared much about it, especially when games got out of hand or on the road. A talented team thanks to the Randolph and Gasol frontcourt has made the Grizzlies play competitive. This is in part why a team like the Cleveland Cavaliers can drop as much defensively as offensively after Lebron’s departure – or why it’s always the teams with stars who seem to do well defensively. A bad team will usually carry themselves like one and care more about getting stats than putting in playoff style energy defensively.

What does it mean?

The Grizzlies defensive culture change is important because one of the biggest questions for rebuilding teams is “If I need a handful of 20 win seasons to get competitive talent in the draft, how do I avoid my players learning how to lose and become defensive sieves?” Teams like the Minnesota Timberwolves and New Jersey Nets have struggled to make their talented players play the right way. Meanwhile teams like the Indiana Pacers and Charlotte Bobcats decided to put in the defensive culture first at the cost of getting top 8 picks. In this case the Grizzlies were fortunate with some acquisitions like Randolph and Gasol becoming this good – but they also did a lot right by making a team that fits, emphasizing continuity and strong coaching, and bringing in the right veterans to turn the ship around.

So what do you do if you’re a team like oh, the Golden State Warriors or LA Clippers, who had the offensive talent to make the playoffs but didn’t quite put the effort in defensively like the Grizzlies did this year? Obviously rosters matter for defense – the Grizzlies have been helped by such strong perimeter defenders and athleticism and a roster like the Warriors’ will be hard pressed to match this. But continuity, clearly defined roles leading to great chemistry, strong coaching holding players responsible and overall offensive talent leading to a team who expects to win can turn around those franchises defensively. Teams who fail defensively are not a lost cause going forward, but the right moves have to be made.

One Response

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  1. The team almost looks tailor made for an upset against the Thunder. Put Battier and Allen on Durant and Westbrook and we got a 3-on-3 game! Well not really, but I it’s an entertaining series to watch.


    May 5, 2011 at 6:56 am

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