MikeCheck on Grizzlies: Bonded by resilience, Grizzlies’ bench unit providing one of NBA’s most impactful boosts
By Michael Wallace
Grind City Media
MEMPHIS – Dillon Brooks got demoted in the middle of the locker room.
It wasn’t the product of any sort of rookie hazing, or even a response from the Memphis Grizzlies’ coaching staff based on a poor performance. In fact, Brooks, the 45th overall pick in the second round of last June’s draft, had just made his first NBA start in an early November game against the Clippers.
After that Nov. 4 contest, Brooks was surrounded by reporters in the visiting team’s locker room and was being asked about the veterans who have offered him the most encouragement so far this season.
“I’d say C.P. – Chandler Parsons …,” Brooks started to say before he was quickly interrupted by the nagging teammate in the next locker stall.
Mario Chalmers wasn’t having it.
“Don’t text me no more, don’t come over my house, nothing,” Chalmers chimed in during Brooks’ interview session. “You not with us no more anyway. You out the group. You out the ‘Goon Squad.’”
Chalmers was only joking, apparently. But at the time, Brooks’ elevation to the starting lineup at shooting guard alongside Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Jarell Martin and James Ennis III had come with a hefty price. Temporarily, at least, it meant Brooks was demoted from the ‘Goon Squad.’
Memphis’ second unit takes pride in its membership. And that bench bond will continue to solidify as the Grizzlies (7-6) open a four-game homestand on Wednesday against Indiana. Memphis retreats home hoping to get back on track after dropping five of its last seven games after a 5-1 start to the season.
One component the Grizzlies have been able to rely on during a turbulent start has been their bench.
Through the first month of the NBA season, only Golden State’s second unit has been more productive and effective than the Grizzlies’ reserves. They score in bunches. They alter the momentum of games. They are pests for opposing teams. And, sometimes, they even cause a bit of self-inflicted chaos.
One thing they can’t seem to agree on, though, is a catchy nickname. Chalmers and Tyreke Evans have taken to referring to the Grizzlies’ second unit as the ‘Goon Squad.’ Meanwhile, the more mild-mannered, buttoned-up Parsons, Brandan Wright and conditional member Brooks aren’t as fond of it but will roll with the moniker until something better develops.
For now, they can collectively be called the lifeblood of a team that has shown some early promise. Entering the week, the Grizzlies’ bench ranked second in the NBA in net rating and was third in both scoring at 44.4 points per game and minutes averaged off the bench. And six times in its first 13 games, Memphis got at least 50 points from its reserves.
While Conley and Gasol are the franchise anchors, Grizzlies’ coach David Fizdale has been forced to shuffle starters around those two because of injuries that left Memphis without Ben McLemore (foot), Wayne Selden (quad) and JaMychal Green (ankle) for several weeks.
What Fizdale has done, however, is establish the bench unit that has connected five players who share a bond from overcoming their own respective doses of adversity.
“That’s why I haven’t even touched those guys,” Fizdale said of ambitions to keep his second unit intact. “Why have a bunch of moving parts when I know the starting lineup is already in flux with moving parts? So why not build my bench and let them stay together and build chemistry and consistency. That’s the thought process behind my starting lineup and my second unit. Why not have some part of my rotation at least be stable, that I can build on for an 82-game season?”
Indeed, there’s a long season still ahead. And there will likely be circumstances that predicate tweaks and adjustments with certain personnel groupings within the rotation along the way. But this group has already shown strong levels of resilience and perseverance through tough moments already this season.
There are also levels of defiance and pride among the bunch that have already created some intense moments in the heat of battle. One example came in the fourth quarter the Nov. 1 home loss to Orlando, when both Evans and Chalmers were at the center of separate heated arguments with coaches and teammates during late timeouts. Their combination of erratic late-game play and emotional outbursts factored into the Grizzlies squandering a 13-point lead on the way to a 101-99 setback.
In contrast, the upside is that various members of that unit bring a collection of experience, versatility and mental toughness that have delivered the Grizzlies out of some tough spots in games, too. In the 113-104 road win over the Clippers on Nov. 4, all four reserves that played scored in double figures. And that performance came exactly a week after the Grizzlies’ bench poured in 67 points – five shy of the franchise record – in the team’s second win of the season over the Rockets.
Evans has been at the center of the bench surge. He entered the second week of November as the league’s leading scorers off the bench, averaging 18.5 points and shooting 52.3 percent overall from the field and 44.8 percent from three-point range. Evans is off to his most productive start to a season since he was NBA Rookie of the Year in 2010, when he joined Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan and LeBron James as the only players to average at least 20 points, five rebounds and five assists their debut season.
“It’s just me being the old Tyreke, man,” said Evans, who has scored at least 20 points in six consecutive games off the bench. “I’m finally healthy and able to get to the basket, make open shots, just being aggressive. Me healthy is just a different player, just knowing I can move how I want and cut. That’s the part I was missing due to my injuries. A lot of teams passed up on me, but I worked hard to get my body right, to get in the past shape of my life and to strengthen my knee up.”
Evans is only a year removed for his third knee surgery in a stretch of 10 months. Amid declining production over four straight season with the Kings and Pelicans, Evans hit free agency last season and was signed to a one-year, $3 million deal with the Grizzlies that might be the NBA’s best bargain.
What makes Memphis’ second unit stick so well together is that just about every member as treaded a similar path back to productivity. Much like Evans, Parsons is getting his legs back under him and his game on track after three knee surgeries in as many years. Although he was signed to a $94 million max contract last summer with hopes of being a superstar, Parsons is settling into being a sensational sub.
“You just want to build on the things that you’re doing well, and do your part to help the team,” said Parsons, who is shooting 50 percent from three-point range and 49.2 percent overall from the field. “I’m gaining confidence in what I’m able to do every day. I feel like all of us are on that second unit.”
Wright has endured several injuries that had derailed his first two seasons in Memphis. When he was healthy, a logjam at power forward and center created limited opportunities to play. The injury and rotation barriers have been lifted this season, and Wright is second on the team in blocks behind Gasol. He’s also been a key factor in a defense that ranks in the top five in the league in multiple categories.
“We’re playing well, man,” Wright said of the group’s makeup. “It’s just a lot of really good players, probably a lot who feel like they could even be playing more somewhere else or even starting somewhere. But we come in and give it our all for the minutes we play. When we come in and dominate those second units, and even keep it going when the other first units come in, it’s just hard to beat us.”
And that makes it hard for the coaching staff to take minutes away or shorten the rotation. Whether it’s Wright waiting three seasons to attain a regular role or Chalmers enduring a 19-month absence after Achilles surgery to make the team on a non-guaranteed contract, this is a group of fighters.
“I think Fiz knows that also,” Wright continued. “We’ve all had our bumps and bruises these last three or four years, and all of us are healthy at the same time, knock on wood. For the most part, we’re veterans who have had solid careers to this point. When you put guys like that together, good things happen.”
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“The part I like is that we all worked hard off the floor and came back, and are making an impact together in the NBA like we were doing earlier in our careers,” Evans said. “So, we’re all familiar with each other. It started with us working out before the season to get to know each other’s roles.”
Conley, the Grizzlies’ longest-tenured player, said he’s seen the franchise work almost every year to develop a reliable bench. He believes this unit has the right combination of talent and experience to potentially be the deepest second unit Memphis has had in his 11 seasons with the team.
“We still have a long way to go, and I think we have a lot higher ceiling,” Conley said. “This group being different from the ones we’ve previously had previously is that each guy does it on both ends. They all come in and can shoot, make plays and defend, so you don’t lose anything when you sub a guy in or a guy has to take a night off. We all trust each guy that comes in … and know the game is in good hands.”
Or, as Fizdale puts it:
“I don’t know where we’d be right now,” the coach pondered, “if it wasn’t for our bench.”
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