Without Ja Morant, the Memphis Grizzlies have hardly skipped a beat.
The high-flying star has missed the last 12 games due to a knee injury and health and safety protocols, with the Grizzlies rattling off 10 wins in that span to improve to 19-12 on the season, sitting comfortably in the fourth seed in the Western Conference.
NBA League Pass: Sign up to unlock live out-of-market games (7-day free trial)
Across that span, the Grizzlies rank eighth in offense without their leading scorer, but it’s on the defensive end where they have tightened the screws to rank first in the league. They also hold 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 Ja, no problem!
|vs. Sacramento||won by 27|
|at Toronto||won by 7|
|vs. Oklahoma City||won by 73|
|at Dallas||won by 7|
|at Miami||won by 15|
|vs. Dallas||lost by 8|
|vs. Los Angeles||won by 13|
|vs. Houston||won by 7|
|vs. Philadelphia||won by 35|
|at Portland||won by 10|
|at Sacramento||won by 19|
|vs. Portland||lost by 5|
In 619 minutes with Morant on the court in 2021-22, the Grizzlies are posting a defensive rating of 116.8, which would comfortably rank dead last across the entire season thus far. With Morant off the floor, the Grizzles are posting a defensive rating of 102.4 in 879 minutes, which would sit behind only the Golden State Warriors.
Part of the defensive resurgence can be attributed to the return of Dillon Brooks to the lineup, with the feisty guard playing just five games before Morant was sidelined. One of the most likely players in the league to get under their opponent’s skin, Brooks has become an important part of the rotation under head coach Taylor Jenkins in recent seasons.
Additionally, Jaren Jackson Jr. has found consistency on both ends, with the talented big man missing just one game this season after a wretched run with injuries in previous years. Jackson Jr. has formed a hard-nosed 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 run, further emphasizing their dominance around the basket.
To be clear, none of this is to suggest Memphis should see a significant drop defensively when Morant returns, with the 6-foot Tyus Jones hardly a lockdown defender on the perimeter as Ja’s replacement.
Predictably, some luck is involved, with opponents shooting a paltry 31.7 percent from three in the stretch, well down from the scorching hot 40.7 percent they buried during the 9-10 start to the season for Memphis.
It’s likely the Grizz will take a step back from their defensive dominance as the numbers settle out across the season, but with the return of Morant, the offensive end is where they are likely to benefit with Jackson Jr. and second-year man Desmond Bane both stepping up in his absence.
Bane has been on an absolute tear of late, averaging 17.9 points on 46/46/94 shooting splits over the last 12 outings. Jackson Jr., similarly has seen his scoring output bump from 14.1 points to 19.1 in the stretch.
Where the offense stands to receive its biggest bump is by featuring Morant rather than Brooks, with the latter tending to lean into the role of a volume shooter despite his career numbers suggesting he is inefficient in that role. Brooks is averaging a team-high 17.1 shot attempts per game without Morant, averaging just 20.1 points on those shots.
The additional good news?
Jenkins revealed on Sunday that Morant is “really close” to a return, with the rising star back on the bench and around the team after his stint in the league’s health and safety protocols.
It feels like the Grizzlies have worked some things out without their superstar, now it’s about capitalizing on his return and strengthening their position near the top of the Western Conference.