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The Numbers Game: Mixed results as season wears on

By John Schuhmann,
Posted Feb 4 2009 1:30PM

Back in late November, we looked at the teams that have improved most since last season. We saw that the Cavs had the most improved offense and the Bucks had the most improved defense. More than two months later, that still holds true when you compare efficiency numbers from last season to this one.

What about in-season improvement, though? What teams have made strides since the first month? To figure that out, we'll compare efficiency numbers from October and November to those of January.

League-Wide Efficiency
Month Off. Rating
Oct.-November 107.3
December 109.0
January 110.7
Off. Rating = Points scored per 100 possessions

As a whole, the league has improved offensively as the season has worn on. This follows the pattern of previous seasons. And 22 of the 30 teams in the league have shown offensive improvement since November. Some offenses have improved quite dramatically. Here are the top five ...

Most Improved Offenses
Team Oct.-Nov January Diff.
Philadelphia 103.0 114.0 +11.0
Oklahoma City 98.4 108.9 +10.5
Milwaukee 103.3 113.3 +10.0
Orlando 108.1 117.2 +9.1
Minnesota 105.3 113.9 +8.6

Eight teams have regressed offensively since November. Here are those top five ...

Most Regressed Offenses
Team Oct.-Nov January Diff.
Miami 108.5 107.3 -1.2
Cleveland 116.0 114.5 -1.5
Memphis 102.4 100.3 -2.1
Detroit 109.4 106.6 -2.8
New Jersey 111.0 106.0 -5.0

On the defensive end, only four teams had a better (lower) defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) in January than in November. But when you factor that the league has improved offensively as a whole, you can still say that the Raptors are a better defensive team than they were at the beginning of the season.

Most Improved Defenses
Team Oct.-Nov. January Diff.
New Jersey 113.7 110.7 -3.0
New York 111.6 109.7 -1.9
Oklahoma City 110.5 109.7 -0.8
Detroit 109.2 108.6 -0.6
Toronto 109.8 110.1 +0.3

Of the 26 teams with higher defensive ratings in January than in November, 11 of them have a bigger difference than the league as a whole (3.4 points allowed per 100 possessions). Here are the top five ...

Most Regressed Defenses
Team Oct.-Nov. January Diff.
L.A. Clippers 109.3 116.5 +7.3
Utah 107.6 115.7 +8.0
Indiana 104.8 112.8 +8.1
Dallas 104.5 114.4 +9.9
L.A. Lakers 99.3 111.0 +11.8

There are three teams that appear twice above. The Thunder are on the right end of both lists. They've improved both offensively and defensively, thanks in part to how horrible they were early in the season. They had nowhere to go but up.

The Pistons and Nets have both improved defensively and regressed defensively, going against the league-wide trend on both ends of the floor. The Nets are the bigger enigma in that they're at the extreme of both lists. No team has improved more defensively or worsened more offensively.

These are relatively small sample sizes, and factors other than how well the team is playing (injuries, schedule) have certainly had an effect. But the Nets' improvement on the defensive end isn't too hard to explain. They had a lot of roster turnover and have several young players, including two rookies, in their rotation.

So, as their team has grown together and their young guys have adjusted to the speed of the game, they've improved defensively.

"Experience is a lot of it," says rookie Ryan Anderson, who has started the last 12 games in the absence of Yi Jianlian. "I know I've improved a ton defensively this season."

Anderson [pictured above against Boston's Eddie House] matched up with Charlie Villanueva in the Nets' win over the Bucks on Tuesday. Villanueva had averaged 27 points in his previous three games, but scored just 11 on Tuesday on 5-for-15 shooting.

On the season, the Nets still are one of the four worst defensive teams in the league. But they were 29th in November and 18th in January. Their December defensive rating was 112.4. They are progressing.

"It's about having a scheme, being consistent with it, and every day, taking small steps to get better," says Nets coach Lawrence Frank.

Explaining the Nets' downfall on the offensive end is a little tougher. It could be that Devin Harris was playing a little over his head earlier in the season. He shot 49 percent in the first month and 39 percent in January.

It could be that defenses have adjusted to the dribble-drive scheme that opened up the floor for Harris and Vince Carter. The absence of Yi has hurt as well.

Frank ties it to the other end of the floor. "It takes a lot of effort to play defense," he says. "And the more effort you give defensively, you get a little starch out on the other end. The challenge is to be able to do both."

The Nets went 9-7 in October and November, and they went 6-10 in January. The falloff offensively has outweighed the improvement defensively. But we see now that the fast start was a bit of a mirage. You can't win games consistently without being a decent defensive team.

So, while the Nets have regressed overall, they've been going about it in a way that will be better for them in the long run. Now, they just have to get Devin Harris back on track.

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