One month into the season, the new-look Memphis Grizzlies are still searching for an identity as recognizable as past editions. But if you want to get a handle on this year's Grizzlies, you could start with this: If this team doesn't shoot well from three-point range, it can't score.
Though the Grizzlies own an impressive 9-5 record through Saturday's 20-point win in Dallas, the Grizzlies have yet to score 90 points in a game without shooting at least 42 percent from three-point range.
Complaining about a team "settling for jumpshots" is a common hoops cliché. The notion of gearing an offense around outside shooting is so unfashionable that you rarely hear an NBA coach endorse the strategy, at least not publicly. But you shouldn't make the mistake of thinking the Grizzlies, currently fourth in the league at 20.4 attempts per game, are too dependent on their outside attack.
Sure, there have been occasions this season -- down the stretch on opening night against the Heat and in the first half at Cleveland -- in which the Grizzlies have jacked up threes indiscriminately. But, in truth, this team's reliance on three-point shooting is dictated by its roster, which contains one reliable post threat (Pau Gasol) and a cast of perimeter players who are almost uniformly good three-point shooters who lack the athleticism and/or ball-handling skills to consistently create shots.
Minus energy and execution, the Griz' relative lack of size and athleticism is easily exploited by even bad NBA teams, as witnessed by the team's 95-87 home loss to Portland last week. So while the Grizzlies have to take -- and make -- a considerable amount of threes in order to thrive, it's important how these shots are created. The Grizzlies offense works best -- maybe works only -- when the team's three-point attack plays off Gasol's interior game, and vice versa.
"The Spaniard," as much of the local media suddenly insist on calling Gasol, hasn't been quite as consistent a scorer or rebounder as his quick start to the season suggested. But what's perhaps been most impressive about Gasol in his fifth season is that, on a per-minute basis, his assists are up and his turnovers are down. Once prone to losing the ball under duress, Gasol has emerged as a deadly multidimensional frontcourt threat. The only seven-footers having better seasons passing the ball are Minnesota's Kevin Garnett and Sacramento's Brad Miller, and Miller is nowhere near the scorer that Gasol is. Pretty elite company.
This season, nearly half of Gasol's assists have come on three-point baskets. This doesn't take into account the myriad possessions in which Gasol's ability to demand a double- or triple-team and willingness to kick the ball back out has served as the catalyst for ball movement that results in an open shot for a teammate. The Grizzlies have been up and down offensively this season, but when the ball goes through Gasol and the outside shooters are hitting, the Grizzlies have been explosive. In the three games where Gasol has had five or more assists and the team has shot at least 40 percent from downtown, the Grizzlies have averaged more than 113 points per game.
The good news for the Grizzlies is that the shooting can get better. The team's meager 91.4 points per game looks better when you factor in that the Grizzlies are playing at the league's fourth-slowest pace. But this team is still capable of better. Of the seven proven three-point shooters on the roster, only two (Shane Battier and Eddie Jones) are shooting better than their career averages. One -- Brian Cardinal -- has yet to play a game while rehabbing from off-season knee surgery. Once banged-up Mike Miller gets back into the lineup and new point guards Damon Stoudamire and Bobby Jackson settle into a groove, the Grizzlies should be able to better their current 36 percent three-point percentage.
And they'll need to. That the Grizzlies can't score without shooting the three well doesn't mean they can't win. Four of the team's nine wins have come while scoring under 90 points, shooting 30 percent or worse from long-range in three of those games. But their opponents in those four games have a combined record of 16-36. So you can win scoring under 90 but only against bad teams or good teams having bad nights. To be a real contender, the Grizzlies' scoring has to increase. Which means those threes have to fall.