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Bucks defense improved
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The Numbers Game: Cavs, Bucks among most improved clubs

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
Posted Nov 26 2008 11:15AM

When we look at the NBA standings through the first four weeks of the season, there aren't too many surprises. A few teams are somewhat exceeding expectations, and a few are somewhat disappointing so far, but no team's success or failure is a shock.

When you look at it, there are three teams at the top of the NBA, five or six teams at the very bottom and a whole bunch of teams grouped together somewhere in the middle. That makes the job of this Power Rankings author a little complicated on Monday mornings.

When we break down the numbers though, there are some eye-opening things going on offensively and defensively. We have teams that have taken big steps forward (or backward) on one side of the ball or the other.

In general, offense is down compared to last season (only six teams have improved so far), but that's typical for the first month. As the season goes on, offenses will improve as teams get more familiar with new personnel and new schemes.

As always, we break things down on a per-possession basis. Here are the five teams that have improved the most offensively and five that have fallen off the most defensively through Tuesday's games.

The numbers are the team's offensive or defensive rating (points scored or allowed per 100 possessions), with their league rank in parentheses.

OFFENSE

Most Improved

1. Cleveland Cavaliers (+8.3 points scored per 100 possessions)
2007-08: 107.6 (20)
2008-09: 115.9 (1)
The buzz: LeBron James' load has lessened greatly with the addition of Mo Williams and the improvement of Delonte West, but LeBron is still LeBron. What has always been an excellent defensive team is now pretty potent offensively and less likely to go through postseason offensive droughts.

2. Miami Heat (+7.6)
2007-08: 102.1 (29)
2008-09: 109.7 (8)
The buzz: A healthy Dwyane Wade can do wonderful things on the court, especially on offense. Michael Beasley, still adjusting to playing man-to-man defense for the first time in his life, doesn't have much of a learning curve on offense. And Shawn Marion, though not exactly a great fit, is still better than what Shaquille O'Neal was giving them last season. The Heat might be even better when they get James Jones back.

3. Portland Trail Blazers (+4.2)
2007-08: 108.6 (15)
2008-09: 112.8 (3)
The buzz: Greg Oden's impact hasn't been fully felt yet, but Rudy Fernandez has given the Blazers an extra weapon. Portland is still a young team coming into their own, and remember that Brandon Roy is only in his third year.


Lebron James is still solid but Mo Williams (left) and Delonte West are helping the offense, too.
D. Lippitt/Einstein/NBAE via Getty Images

4. New Jersey Nets (+3.8)
2007-08: 105.5 (25)
2008-09: 109.3 (9)
The buzz: Devin Harris has been unleashed with a new offensive scheme that opens up the middle of the floor and allows him to attack the basket. Vince Carter is also playing healthy this season and the two guards now have better shooters to kick it to when the defense collapses.

5. Atlanta Hawks (+1.8)
2007-08: 108.3 (16)
2008-09: 110.2 (7)
The buzz: The Hawks have a healthy Mike Bibby for a full season, as well as a stronger bench with Flip Murray. They also have increased confidence thanks to their seven-game series with the Celtics last April.

Fallen Off

1. Golden State Warriors (-6.9)
2007-08: 113.5 (4)
2008-09: 106.5 (16)
The buzz: Rookie Anthony Morrow is a great story, but he's no Baron Davis or Monta Ellis.

2. Memphis Grizzlies (-6.9)
2007-08: 106.9 (21)
2008-09: 100.0 (28)
The buzz: O.J. Mayo is a great offensive player, but he may be hurting his team's efficiency as a bit of a ball-stopper. The Grizzlies have the lowest assist-to-field goal ratio in the league and the production from point guards Mike Conley and Kyle Lowry has decreased. They're also missing Mike Miller's shooting and we must note that Pau Gasol was around for half of last season before being traded to the Lakers.

3. Dallas Mavericks (-6.6)
2007-08: 112.8 (7)
2008-09: 106.2 (18)
The buzz: The Mavs are running a new system under Rick Carlisle. They've picked up the pace and they take care of the ball relatively well, but they're shooting has been terrible. However, they've been better lately with a 109.5 rating over their last five games.

4. Orlando Magic (-6.3)
2007-08: 113.2 (6)
2008-09: 107.0 (15)
The buzz: Neither Rashard Lewis (.408) nor Hedo Turkoglu (.368) is shooting well, so there's hope for improvement here.

5. Denver Nuggets (-6.2)
2007-08:
111.7 (11)
2008-09: 105.5 (22)
The buzz: Allen Iverson is missed of course, but Carmelo Anthony (.391) and J.R. Smith (.380) are shooting poorly. Like the Magic, the Nuggets are still winning, though, because they're an improved defensive squad with Chauncey Billups in the fold.

DEFENSE

Most Improved

1. Milwaukee Bucks (-9.6 points allowed per 100 possessions)
2007-08:
114.3 (30)
2008-09: 104.7 (9)
The buzz: There was nowhere to go but up for the Bucks, as they had the worst defense in the league last season. Scott Skiles has brought about change, helped out by the addition of Richard Jefferson, whose Nets were one of the best defensive teams in the league for a few years. Michael Redd has only played in four games so far, which has probably helped the defense too.

2. Los Angeles Lakers (-9.4)
2007-08:
107.2 (5)
2008-09: 97.8 (1)
The buzz: The Lakers took notes during the 2008 Finals, have applied the Celtics' teachings early in the new season and are currently a better defensive team than Boston. In addition to a greater focus and a fine-tuned defensive scheme, the presence of Andrew Bynum is also a factor. The Lakers had an improved defense early last season as well (though not quite this good), but it fell off after Bynum injured his knee.

3. Memphis Grizzlies (-7.3)
2007-08:
113.5 (29)
2008-09: 106.2 (12)
The buzz: Here's another team that would have had a hard time not getting better defensively. The addition of Quentin Ross, a great defender, has helped even though he's playing less than 20 minutes per game. In general, the Grizzlies are doing a much better job of forcing turnovers this season.

4. Philadelphia 76ers (-6.1)
2007-08:
107.3 (6)
2008-09: 101.2 (3)
The buzz: Like the Lakers, the Sixers were a very good defensive team already. Elton Brand often isn't though of as a great defender, but he has helped the Sixers keep their opponents off the offensive boards, a key to any good defense. Philly was a poor defensive rebounding team last season and now, they're one of the best in the league.

5. Orlando Magic (-6.0)
2007-08:
107.3 (7)
2008-09: 101.3 (4)
The buzz: Dwight Howard averaged 2.15 blocks last season and 1.78 in his four-year career. This season, he's averaging 4.07. And with their length at the wing positions, the Magic defend the perimeter well too.

Fallen Off


The Pistons' defense has fallen off a bit, giving up 5.2 more points per 100 possessions than last season.
D. Lippitt/Einstein/NBAE via Getty Images

1. Detroit Pistons (+5.2 points allowed per 100 possessions)
2007-08: 104.1 (4)
2008-09: 109.3 (22)
The buzz: The change at point guard (Billups for Allen Iverson) and the change on the bench (Flip Saunders for Michael Curry) have changed the way the Pistons play. Gone is their identity of being one of the best defensive teams in the league, and gone may be their chances of getting back to the Eastern Conference Finals.

2. New Jersey Nets (+3.8)
2007-08:
111.1 (22)
2008-09: 114.9 (30)
The buzz: The Nets have a lot of new and young faces they're trying to get acclimated to their system. One of those new faces, Eduardo Najera, is one of the Nets' best defenders, but has missed all but seven games with various injuries and hasn't been himself this season. There's hope that they will improve as the season goes on and fortunately, they're high on the most improved offense list.

3. San Antonio Spurs (+3.0)
2007-08:
103.6 (3)
2008-09: 106.6 (15)
The buzz: The Spurs have been playing without two (Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker) of their big three for most of the season, but they have improved dramatically defensively the last couple of weeks. While their rating was 118.8 in their first five games, it has been 98.7 in their last eight, so they'll likely fall off this list very soon.

4. Sacramento Kings (+2.8)
2007-08:
111.4 (25)
2008-09: 114.3 (29)
The buzz: The departure of Ron Artest has obviously hurt the Kings, who were a pretty bad defensive team already. That trade, along with Kevin Martin's injury, has led to increased playing time for John Salmons. He's having a career year offensively, but hurts them on the other end of the floor.

5. Toronto Raptors (+1.7)
2007-08:
108.8 (14)
2008-09: 110.5 (26)
The buzz: The Raptors wouldn't be on this list if it weren't for their last two games (losses at home to New Jersey and Boston) where they've had an atrocious rating of 126.9. They need Jermaine O'Neal healthy and back on the floor, or else convince the Pacers to give them back Rasho Nesterovic (a pretty good defender) as compensation.

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