SportVU for you: Spurs vs. Grizzlies

We are unveiling a new pregame series at Project Spurs, where Quixem Ramirez dives into the San Antonio Spurs' opposing team's SportVU data, mostly because he has no life. SportVU, powered by cameral technology in all 29 NBA arenas, tracks miles per hour, distance traveled, touches, where they touched the ball, how long they touch the ball, and lots of other basketball minutia.
 
Today's team: the Memphis Grizzlies. DISCLAIMER: If you do not like numbers, do not read ahead.
 
Marc Gasol's Defensive Player of the Year candidacy is very weak — right now
 
Marc Gasol earned 12 more first place votes than LeBron James in last year's Defensive Player of the Year race. James is a physical freak; he is quite possibly the only human who can guard any human or fictional being on the planet. 
 
But Gasol is pretty damn good too.
 
He does not grab a huge amount of boards or reject shots at Roy Hibbert levels, but he can corral any pick-and-roll, and funnel the ball handlers into sub-optimal areas on the floor, instead of the middle of the floor. Gasol is also an astute defender in space. He isn't an athletic freak, but he's nimble enough to cheat off his defender while simultaneously protecting the rim. Gasol is subtle. Effective.
 
The results this year haven't been so subtle: Memphis has been dramatically better defensively with Gasol on the bench. Dramatically, as in 7.3 points per 100 possessions better — basically the difference between the fourth-ranked Warriors and 24th-ranked Knickerbockers. Memphis' opponents are converting on two-thirds of their shots in the restricted area with Gasol on the floor, and 53.1 percent otherwise.
 
The traditional stats show something similar: Gasol is averaging career lows in rebounds and blocks per-36 minutes this season.
 
This was the same difference last year, except the Grizzlies benefited from having Gasol protect the rim. This does not mean Gasol is suddenly a poor defender; there is still 75 percent of the regular season remaining, which will normalize the numbers.
 
Let's have some fun with SportVU anyway. Opponents have made 43 of 81 shots (53.1 percent) when Gasol is defending the rim, the third-best mark on his own team. Zach Randolph and Kosta Koufos, both defending at least four shots at the rim per game, have protected the rim better this season.
 
I'm betting these numbers trend in the opposite direction, though.
 
But Gasol is a better offensive player!
 
The first paragraph failed to mention something significant: Memphis is scoring about five points per 100 possessions with Gasol on the floor. It kind of evens out.
 
Gasol is jacking up a career-high 13.6 shots per game, but his field goal percentage has dipped for a third consecutive season. This season, he's making 46.1 percent of his shots. Koufos, Zach Randolph, Tony Allen (!!!) and Mike Conley are making a higher percentage of their looks. 
 
Much of his value is precipitated by his passing. Gasol is creating 8.8 assist opportunities per game, ahead of guys like Dwyane Wade (though Wade is producing more points per game via his passing). Gasol is fifth in secondary assists — basically, he is making the passes that lead to the assist (the "hockey" assist). No big man comes particularly close to approximating Gasol's passing acumen. His raw assist averages do not encapsulate his ability.
 
His field goal percentage is declining primarily because he is taking shots farther away from the basket. (How's that for analysis?) Gasol is taking 7.3 mid-range shots per game, up from 4.6 last season. 
 
Which makes sense because he is leading the league by a wide margin in touches at the elbow (19.4 per game) — these touches "originate within the five feet radius nearing the edge of the lane and free throw line, inside the 3-point line" according to SportVU. (Gasol is also leading the league in touches within 12 feet of the basket, but he is attempting just 2.6 shots in the restricted area. He prefers to create.)
 
The next closest player is Blake Griffin, who is averaging 12.4 touches per game at the elbows. 
 
Gasol's primary locale, the elbow, optimizes his passing. He has several options there: Gasol can pinpoint Allen ducking in from the weakside, feed Randolph in the post, facilitate a quick dribble handoff with Conley and unhinge a flat-footed shot if his defender cheats too much. 
 
Though this means he is sacrificing his personal shooting efficiency, Gasol is impacting just about every Grizzlies offensive possession in a positive way.
 
Mike Conley is making a leap.
 
Chris Paul, Isaiah Thomas, Stephen Curry, Eric Bledsoe and Ty Lawson are the only guards with a higher Player Efficiency Rating than Conley.
 
Conley is handling the ball more and turning the ball over less. He's making his free throws at a higher clip. He is assisting on a higher percentage of Memphis' possessions. 
 
And Memphis is using him a ton. Conley has touched the ball 955 times on Memphis' offensive side of the court according to SportVU, and he's handled the ball for approximately 80 minutes this season. I'll repeat: Conley has held the basketball for around 80 minutes (or 4800 seconds).
 
Conley is also a pesky defender. He is never mentioned in the same class as other elite point guards, but that needs to change.
 
The Grizzlies have been vulnerable in the corners.
 
It's been proven that preventing (and generating) corner 3-pointers is an important part of basketball. It is not the only thing conducive to success, but it ranks up there.
 
So far, only Philadelphia (28th in defensive rating) and Milwaukee (22nd) have allowed more corner 3-pointers per game.
 
Allowing 78 corner 3-pointers in 12 games is certainly alarming, especially if Memphis isn't creating turnovers. Which reminds me.
 
Memphis isn't creating turnovers.
 
There are many ways to construct an elite defense — San Antonio prioritizes forcing low percentage shots (which, technically, all teams want to do), without compromising their defense by gambling in the passing lanes.
 
Memphis wants to create turnovers. Their personnel dictates this decision — if the Spurs had Conley and Allen, two unabashed perimeter defenders, they would likely leverage their skills in the same fashion.
 
It's just … They aren't forcing turnovers this season. The 2012-13 Memphis Grizzlies outfit turned 15.2 percent of their opponent's possessions into turnovers, the second highest rate in the league. The 2013-14 Grizzlies are 25th in turnover percentage.
 
Since Memphis is a mediocre offensive team, they need extra possessions to close the gap between their opponents. "Grit and Grind" is not an easy strategy to employ. Their margin for error is low, so inducing variance is absolutely essential.
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