Chandler Parsons and the history of Memphis Grizzlies wings

Mar 18, 2016; Dallas, TX, USA; Dallas Mavericks forward Chandler Parsons (25) drives against the Golden State Warriors in the second quarter at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 18, 2016; Dallas, TX, USA; Dallas Mavericks forward Chandler Parsons (25) drives against the Golden State Warriors in the second quarter at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports /

The Memphis Grizzlies have long struggled to find consistent production on the wings. They just took a big swing at solving that problem, signing Chandler Parsons to a four-year, $94.8 million deal.

For the Memphis, the wing positions have been a sore spot for nearly half a decade. Since Grit-and-Grind coalesced during the 2010-11 season, Mike Conley has been a fountain of consistently underrated point guard play. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph have been the interior brawn. The two wing positions in between have been manned by the all-defense and no-offense brilliance of Tony Allen, and a rotating cast of subtle disappointments.

The struggle for Memphis has always been finding a wing that can contribute at both end. They have had players like Matt Barnes and Tayshaun Prince who offer defensive acumen, but not enough shooting to keep their offense from being starved for space. They had had shooters like Mike Miller and Wayne Ellington who haven’t offered enough defense to justify keep their shooting on the floor. Not all of the solutions they have tried have been flawed in such clear ways but the fact remains that the holes in their lineup have always been the two positions between Conley and Randolph.

Chandler Parsons, who has agreed to a four-year $94.8 million deal with Memphis, would appear to finally be the answer — not just for his mix of 3-and-D potential, but what he offers beyond that.

The graph below shows every Memphis wing player (using as broad a definition as possible of that term) who has played at least 500 minutes in a season for the team since 2010-11. They are charted by their “3-and-D-ness”: three-point attempts per 100 possessions and Defensive Box Plus-Minus. The size of each point is a reflection of their three-point percentage.

The numbers here for Parsons are his combined averages from the past two seasons in Dallas. By Box Plus-Minus, Parsons rates as just an average defender and in this case the metric does a pretty good job of matching the subjective assessments. Parsons is nowhere near the quality of defender that Barnes or Allen are. However, he’s in the ball park of average — meaning he’s not going to theoretically hurt the Grizzlies’ defense — and he’s both a prolific and accurate three-point shooter.

What really makes Parsons valuable to the Grizzlies is what he offers beyond just respectable defense and reliable spot-up shooting. Parsons is a capable shot-creator from the wing, who can run the pick-and-roll and find high quality opportunities for himself and for his teammates. Among the 113 players who used at least 100 possessions as the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll last season, Parsons ranked 21st in scoring efficiency with a mark comparable to LeBron James, Reggie Jackson, and Rodney Hood. 

A wing player who can complement Conley and the bigs by getting his own shot efficiently, is something that the Grizzlies have not had the past few seasons. Research from Seth Partnow found that a touch time of 2.5 seconds is a reasonably accurate inflection point for identifying shots that are “self-created.” Although the NBA’s player tracking statistics no longer allow us to filter to that exact mark, Parsons’ eFG% on shots with a touch time of two seconds or longer offers the Grizzlies’ offense a new dimension.

Courtney Lee, who has probably provided Memphis with the highest level of two-way production on the wing over the past few years, was limited in this area. A reasonable defender and good spot-up shooter, Lee was not necessarily adept at getting his own shot when the opportunity presented itself with the defense shifted. The same could be said for Allen and Barnes, which kept the Memphis offense somewhat simplistic — Conley drive-and-kick or post-up a big — and easier to defend.

This, as much as the lack of consistent outside shooting, is what has limited the Grizzlies offense. It is not just that spacing has been bad around their pick-and-rolls and interior play, it is also that their offense has lacked dynamism and multi-dimensionality. Predictability and simplicity have been their offensive enemies.

Parsons is also a good passer and has one of the highest assist percentages of any player Memphis will have featured on the wing.

This ability to be a “3-and-D-and-a-little-more” will be enormous for the Grizzlies. In addition, Parsons has played roughly a third of his minutes as a power forward the past two seasons. The potential to go small with a power forward who can offer more on offense than just spacing by standing in the corner is huge.

The first and most obvious caveat with Parsons is his health. He has never played a full 82 games in any of his five NBA seasons, and played a total of just 127 over the last two seasons with Dallas. This could be a point of worry for the Grizzlies who used an NBA record 28 players last season to fill out a roster wracked with injuries.

Still, one has to trust that the Grizzlies and their medical staff have done due diligence here in assessing Parsons current and future medical prognosis before offering him such an enormous contract. If he can’t stay on the court, this is all moot. If he can stay healthy, the Grizzlies may have finally solved their seemingly unsolvable problems on the wing.

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