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An in-depth look at David Fizdale's time with the Grizzlies

What kind of team was he running in Memphis?

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

It’s official, folks. David “Take That For Data! (slams pen and exits)” Fizdale is the new head coach of the New York Knickerbockers.

After a meticulous coaching search where everyone from Mike Budenholzer to Juwan Howard to a sketchy holy oil masseur were interviewed, Steve Mills and Scott Perry decided to go with the man who fell out of graces with Marc Gasol. Fans appear to be cautiously optimistic about the Fizdale hiring as a number of media members and NBA talking heads applaud the Knicks for, you know, being a normal, smart franchise by hiring a well-respected coach.

Fizdale may have the ultimate respect from players such LeBron James and Dwyane Wade and coaches such as Erik Spoelstra; these type of connections go a long way in this business. No matter how many connections you may have, if you’re not able to both get through to your players and have the X’s-and-O’s knowledge to put your players in the best positions to succeed, your tenure as an NBA head coach is going to be short. Assuming the Gasol drama is an anomaly and not the norm since LeBron James — a player who is as prickly as they come with respecting coaches — endorses him, can Fizdale coach? Or maybe the way to phrase the question is how did the Grizzlies play under Fizdale?

My fellow Posting & Toasting colleague MMiranda wrote an excellent, thorough preview on who David Fizdale is last week, so make sure you read that (stop now and come back if need be, I’ll wait) as we are about to embark on a journey through the data that will make the new coach proud. Hell, I’ll even sprinkle in some film in this article too. Let’s get into it!

The Offense

Hey guys. Did you know that the Grizzlies shot more three-pointers under Fizdale? If you haven’t, then you may want to get out from under that rock as this fact has been the single-most cited positive aspect of Fiz’s coaching tenure. Check out the Grizzlies’ shooting frequency and percentages table via Cleaning the Glass below:

Between the 2010–11 and 2015–16 seasons, Memphis was consistently in the bottom three for three-point shot frequency. Fizdale arrives in the 2016–17 season and the Grizzlies jump from 27th all the way to 14th in three-point shot frequency while cutting down their midrange shot attempts from 9th to 17th. This shift in philosophy saw an increase in offensive rating from 105.4 in 2015–16 to 107.7 in 2016–17, per Basketball-Reference.

What makes this shot profile change interesting is that there was not a radical change in terms of the “plays” Memphis ran. Below is a table of offensive play-type data via NBA Stats of the full season Fizdale coached the Grizzlies versus the previous season under Dave Joerger.

For the most part, the fluctuation in frequency percentages is marginal at best; same can be said about points per possession as well. Outside of not being as efficient in isolation under Fizdale, the noticeable difference in this play-type data is the increase in both frequency and efficiency for spot-up and off-screen plays. This is in large part due to Mike Conley going bananas all season. Conley upped his off-screen frequency from 8 percent to - and 8.7 percent between 2015–16 and 2016–17, but it’s the efficiency increase that’s striking. During the same year span, Conley increased his PPP on off-screen plays from 1.16 to 1.34, and from 1.06 to 1.19 on spot ups, per NBA Stats.

The sole Fizdale season was simply a breakout year for Mike Conley, as the data in the table below suggests.

(note, if you’re wondering was zTS% is, I got you covered.)

The 32.1 points per 100 possessions on 60.4 true shooting percentage was a career high for the point guard. The boost in the numbers was largely in part due to Conley running more off the ball and getting into actions in motions. Conley also had a career-high in usage rate, as he (28.6 percent) and Marc Gasol (26.5 percent) had a combined 55.1 percent usage rate. Conley and Gasol were/are the Memphis offense.

(Note, the clip above and only some below in this section are from BBallBreakdown’s Adam Spinella. He has an entire video series on YouTube detailing the 2016–17 Grizzlies. If you want more, check them out.)

Memphis did a number of things in the clip above that was not completely dissimilar to that of the Knicks offense — and most NBA offenses, quite frankly. They ran a ton of Floppy and Horns sets, which the Knicks did with their guards and bigs, as well as a set called Punch, which is basically an isolation for Gasol at and around the elbow. The Knicks version of Punch was called Power, a “set” where it was simply Porzingis, and eventually Kanter, simply isolated and was expected to create a shot. The big difference between Punch and Power is that Gasol can actually pass and find open cutters and shooters, something neither Porzingis nor Kanter can do.

Hopefully, Fizdale does not spam those type of isolation sets with Porzingis because he and Gasol are fundamentally different players. Yet let’s hope that Fizdale does utilize Porzingis in different pick and roll actions with both Frank Ntilikina and Trey Burke, especially pick and pop.

Despite the similarities in the numbers and film between Memphis and New York, there is going to be a big TBD on whether or not David Fizdale takes the same approach he did with the Grizzlies last season as Jeff Hornacek did this season with the Knicks.

The Defense

If I were to tell you that the Memphis Grizzlies were ranked 19th in defensive efficiency the season before Fizdale became the coach and then were ranked seventh when he was brought in, you would say something along the lines of, “Wow, David Fizdale truly improved the defense,” right? That’s a fair conclusion when presenting the data in this fashion. Now, what if I were to tell you that the difference between the Grizzlies’ 2015–16 defensive efficiency and their 2016–17 figure was a total of 0.5 points per possession, what’s your reaction now? Probably not that impressed, right?

According to Cleaning the Glass, Memphis had a 107.6 defensive points per 100 possession in 2015–16 versus a 107.1 figure the following year. Yes, it technically improved, but it was not as if Fizdale restored the Grizzlies defense to its peak form of the 2012–13 season (99.7 defensive points per 100 possession). Furthermore, Memphis defensive shooting profile is far from ideal

The year-over-year difference between these two seasons in terms of shot frequency is that Fizdale’s Grizzlies managed to reduce the number of shots at the rim by forcing them to take shorter midrange shots. This, of course, is a positive, but those three-point shot frequency percentages are not what you want in a defense. Interestingly enough — and given that league ranking figures from each year fluctuate, slightly distorting perception — the 2016–17 Memphis numbers aren’t completely dissimilar to New York’s numbers this season.

The Knicks may have given up 1.2 percent more shots at the rim than the Grizzlies, but opponents shot 60.9 percent at the rim on both teams. Opponents also shot much better from behind the arc against New York, as the 111.0 defensive points per 100 possession help illustrate. The Knicks defense was a disaster and has been for the past two seasons. If Fizdale can help drop that 111.0 figure down to 107.1, it would be the best rating New York has had in five years.

With all that said, one important bit of information to keep in mind is that the Grizzlies were relatively lucky with how opponents shot against them last year compared to the Knicks this year. According to Nylon Calculus’ Jacob Goldstein (i.e. I reached out to him on Twitter to ask for this figures), Memphis had a luck adjusted defensive rating of 108.02 and New York had a 110.31 luck adjusted defensive rating. The difference between each team’s actual defensive rating versus their luck adjusted one is marginal, roughly one point per 100 possessions; however, this does not change the fact that Memphis did benefit from opponents missing more often than not, even if the difference was not dramatic.

What’s interesting with these shooting numbers is that they aren’t completely dissimilar to the Knicks’ and the film provides additional context. Does the video below remind you of anything?

Memphis last year really focused on collapsing hard and making shots in the restricted area difficult, leading to a number of open three-point shots. This season, New York gave up 44 open and wide open shots per game, while the Fizdale Grizzlies gave up 40.2 open and wide open shots per game. That roughly four-shot difference per game is significant, but for a top 10 defense to be relatively close to the disastrous Knicks defense? This could be a potential cause for concern unless they recover like this — something the Knicks rarely ever did:

Even though the clip below is going to show made shots in rhythm — ultimately not a good thing — the Grizzlies do drop back a bit when Gasol is at the five to help deter drives on pick and rolls and gives the offense long midrange shots. These are relatively fine shots for the offense, but you can live with giving up these midrange shots if you’re preventing the drive and/or dive to the basket.

And the last thing that was interesting with the film on the Grizzlies is how they had their fours, mainly Zach Randolph, up on pick and rolls. Similar to collapsing, this isn’t necessarily a bad idea when you’re either switching or, depending on how far up you are, going over the pick. The concern here is that it’s old and slow Zach Randolph up more than he should be.

If the Knicks are going to continue playing big with Porzingis at the four with a center, having the Unicorn that far out on a pick and roll takes away from what he does best: contest shots.

Final Thoughts

For all the claims of Fizdale “fundamentally” changing the Grizzlies’ offense, the numbers and film do suggest that Memphis did not completely depart from “Grint ‘N Grind.” Yes, the team did shoot more three-pointers while cutting down on midrange shot attempts and post-up possessions; however, Memphis still led the league in post-up possession under Fizdale and played at a similar pace from the previous year (92.3 in 2016–17 versus 93.3 in 2015–16 per Basketball-Reference). It does appear that Fizdale attempted to play to the strengths of his roster but also tried to incorporate some Moreyball principles as well as allowed Conley to flourish.

These competing approaches between Fizdale and the established players on the Grizzlies — i.e. Marc Gasol — present both a larger philosophical question and an overall assessment of Fizdale’s tenure. First, the question at hand is if it’s a smart idea to force three-point shooting on a roster that doesn’t have the strongest of shooters for the sake of math? Personally, I tend to lean towards “yes,” but when Andrew Harrison is jacking up 5.5 three-point attempts per 100 possession on 27.6 percent, I do become hesitant. Math may be sanitizing the NBA play style and shooting more threes is logical, but if a player like Trey Burke is shooting well over 50 percent on pull-up midrange shots, shouldn’t we allow him to play to his strengths?

Regarding the assessment, I’m not the only person who believes that determining a true appraisal of Fizdale’s tenure is complicated. Here is a quote from former NBA player Brevin Knight via the New York Post: “It’s hard to give a true assessment of him as a bench coach because he was trying to change a culture when he came to Memphis. It wasn’t just him running his offense. It was almost a hybrid of what he would’ve liked to have done — coupled with guys who were comfortable and accustomed to doing something else for so long.’’

Fizdale was both trying to change the culture while playing to the strengths of the veterans on the team. And if guys like Marc Gasol simply were not buying in, then you’re doomed to fail. Will this be the same fate in New York? Giving a definite answer at this moment without knowing what next season’s roster will look like is nearly impossible.

With that said, the core Knicks players are younger than the Grizzlies’ core and have not had sustained success playing a certain way. New York was also a post-centric offense like Memphis under Hornacek. The heavy dose of Porzingis isolations was ultimately not a recipe for successful basketball. If Fizdale can fully implement his vision without having to deal with the type of baggage he faced in Memphis and the players buy into that vision, then this can end up working out.

But until we see how the roster shapes out and we see how it functions with a healthy Porzingis, let’s give Fizdale the benefit of the doubt and patience to see what he does, as it more than likely will not be a rinse-and-repeat of Memphis.