The trial of Dillon Brooks

Jan 25, 2023 - 2:30 PM
NBA: <a href=Memphis Grizzlies at Sacramento Kings" src="" />
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

As the Memphis Grizzlies are almost halfway through the 2022-23 season, I find myself feeling quite fatigued when thinking about Dillon Brooks. With the exception of site manager Parker Fleming, who infamously wrote a 6-part series on him back several years ago, I doubt that anyone at Grizzly Bear Blues over the years has been more pro-Villain than me. Yet I now can’t help but feel — and perhaps in my darker moments, even hope — that his tenure in Memphis is coming to an end after this season. Even beyond the confines of Memphis, his persona and overall play have many around the league rooting for his failure.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Sacramento Kings Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Now Brooks seems to still be impacting winning basketball like he always generally has. The Grizzlies are 7.6 points better with him on the court, which ranks in the 87th percentile for off/on differential. Most of that can be attributed to his ever-tenacious defense, as hardly anyone else in the NBA successfully defends the league’s toughest matchups like he does every night.

I have long held the position that the Grizzlies should not trade Dillon Brooks unless they will receive a defensive-minded player who especially excels in 1-on-1 defense. Of course, that is a testament to how impactful of an on-ball defender that he is. But I also think it’s an indictment of the roster construction as a whole that the Grizzlies defense—which is still first in defensive rating!—is so utterly dependent on two players in Brooks and Jaren Jackson Jr. We have a large enough sample size over the last two years to know that if either of them is not in the lineup, the Grizzlies defense massively suffers.

So yes, Dillon Brooks’ defense makes him invaluable to the Grizzlies, but I will argue that he’s only as relatively impactful as he is because his defense is a desperate premium for the Grizzlies. They hardly have any other plus-wing defenders on the roster, much less anyone they can reliably call upon to check opposing stars. And so they are essentially stuck with him...which means that they also have to deal with everything else that comes with him.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Before I get into Brooks’ offense, I want to pose a question: Have you ever been in a bad, even toxic relationship? I know from experience that it can be extremely hard to leave one. Because when things are going good, they’re really good. You see the best in them and understand their potential. You never want to give up on them, and you may even convince yourself that you need them. But as time goes on and the painful moments continue relentlessly, you start to acknowledge what you’ve known deep down all along: they’re never going to change.

As far as his offense is concerned, Dillon Brooks is never going to change. He’s going to take bad shots, he’s going to miss bad shots, and he’s even going to even miss many of the good shots that he takes. He’s a bad offensive basketball player who plays with the confidence of Kobe Bryant. It would be admirable if it were not so dangerously frustrating. He takes shots that seem less like attempts to score and more like cries for help.

Through his six years in Memphis, Brooks has not improved offensively in the slightest. If anything, he’s only getting worse, even when he has everything to lose by doing so. In a contract year, he’s currently having the worst offensive season of his career. His 46% eFG is the second-lowest in the entire NBA among qualifying players taking at least 10 shots per game (only Killian Hayes on the tanking Detroit Pistons is worse). It also ranks among the 25 worst shooting seasons in NBA history, with the vast majority of his closest comparisons playing during the Korean War. He’s also virtually non-existent as a playmaker; out of the 86 players who have run at least 200 pick-and-rolls this season, he ranks dead last at 0.79 points per play.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Even with all of this in mind, it wouldn’t be that debilitating considering his defensive impact if it wasn’t for the fact that he dominated the ball so much. He’s gotten a bit more deferential this year as he’s currently just third on the team in usage (23.9%), but his usage has been in the 90+ percentiles two of the last three years, which is absurd for a role player who doesn’t shoot efficiently from any area of the court. Here’s the list of players he had the ball in his hands more than last year:

  • Jimmy Butler
  • Julius Randle
  • Karl-Anthony Towns
  • Darius Garland
  • LaMelo Ball
  • CJ McCollum
  • Dejounte Murray
  • James Harden (?!!!)
  • Anthony Davis
  • Anthony Edwards
  • Pascal Siakam
  • Khris Middleton

To be fair to Brooks, he’s not entirely to blame for his consistently inflated role. He does, of course, often force the issue too much and makes ill-advised plays. But the lack of veteran leadership and authoritative coaching is more likely to blame for his AWOL approach. There’s no one in that locker room who will rein him in and tell him that just because he defends hard and gives 100% of his heart doesn’t mean that he should get to take whatever shots he wants.

To be sure, this is all a bit scathing. Like he has said, Dillon Brooks has given his heart to Memphis, and he deserves every bit of respect for doing so. He is in many ways the spiritual successor to Tony Allen, the heart and soul of the Memphis Grizzlies.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Sacramento Kings Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

But a heart and soul are not anything without a self-aware mind. For Dillon Brooks to be all that the Memphis Grizzlies need him to be, his focus can’t be on showing out, but rather on fitting in with smarter shot selection and a deferential offensive role. The jury remains out as to whether he can do that.

Because the trial of Dillon Brooks has begun, and the rest of the NBA is watching.For more Grizzlies talk, subscribe to the Grizzly Bear Blues podcast network on Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, and IHeart. Follow Grizzly Bear Blues on Twitter and Instagram.

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