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John Schuhmann

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And the award for most improved team goes to (drum roll) ... Memphis.
Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Upstart Grizzlies show rapid improvement


Posted Dec 31 2009 11:13AM

As we've written in this space before, most of the teams that are in playoff position at this time of the year are still there come April. Only one or two teams per year recover from a poor 20-game start and make the postseason.

Of course, no team stays the same from month to month. As we saw with the Oklahoma City Thunder last season, a team can be entirely different in April than in November, even without making significant roster changes.

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In fact, several teams already have shown significant improvement this season. And several teams have suffered serious dropoffs.

One interesting note: Unlike last season, league-wide offensive efficiency dropped from 104.7 points scored per 100 possessions in October and November to 104.0 in December.

Most Improved Offenses, November to December
Points scored per 100 possessions
Team Oct.-Nov. Dec. Diff.
New Jersey 90.1 99.7 +9.6
Minnesota 93.1 99.7 +6.6
Oklahoma City 101.1 107.0 +5.9
Memphis 103.7 109.0 +5.3
Miami 102.7 107.7 +5.0
Offensive Improvement

The Nets had nowhere to go but up. They're still not very good offensively; That 99.7 rating ranks them 24th in the league. But with improved health, especially with Devin Harris playing all 15 games this month (he played just seven of their 17 games in Oct.-Nov.), their offense has been better.

The Timberwolves are similar: still a bad offensive team, but not as atrocious as they were in the first month, and they got Kevin Love back from injury. The improvement from the Thunder, Grizzlies and Heat seems to be of greater significance. They rank 10th, fourth and eighth offensively this month, respectively, after ranking in the bottom half of the league for October and November. They didn't have as far to go, but they've actually become pretty good offensive teams.

Oklahoma City has gone from the 19th best offensive rebounding team in the league in October-November to the fourth best in December. Memphis has been the best offensive rebounding team throughout the season, but has improved by cutting down on turnovers. Miami has done the same, averaging a league-low 12 turnovers per 100 possessions in December, almost three fewer than in October-November.

Looking at the defensive end, we have five different teams showing the most improvement ...

Most Improved Defenses, November to December
Points allowed per 100 possessions
Team Oct.-Nov. Dec. Diff.
Toronto 113.7 106.4 -7.3
Memphis 110.6 104.7 -5.9
New York 108.0 102.5 -5.4
New Orleans 108.0 103.5 -4.5
Cleveland 100.6 98.0 -2.6
Defense Rising

The top four teams here were all in the bottom five defensively after November, and the Raptors were on pace to be one of the worst defensive teams in history. So, like the Nets and T-Wolves on the offensive end, these guys could do nothing but improve. Still, the Knicks have been the 10th best defensive team in December, pretty amazing when you think about it.

The best defensive team in December? The Cavs. Say what you want about Shaq's ability to defend the pick-and-roll, Cleveland is still winning with defense. The Cavaliers have done a better job of keeping their opponents off the foul line in December, and while their opponents are shooting better from 3-point range, the Cavs have really tightened up their D inside the arc. They just completed a home-and-home sweep of the Hawks, who happen to be the best offensive team in December.

The Cavs also have improved offensively (+2.0 points per 100 possessions), putting them in the top five in overall improvement ...

Most Improved Teams, Overall, November to December
Point differential per 100 possessions
Team Oct.-Nov. Dec. Diff.
Memphis -6.9 +4.3 +11.2
New York -7.1 +3.1 +10.3
Minnesota -14.4 -6.4 +8.0
Toronto -4.2 +1.5 +5.7
Cleveland +5.9 +10.5 +4.5
Most Improved

It must be noted that these teams haven't played the same opponents in December as they played in October and November. New York, Minnesota and Toronto have had easier schedules than they did in the first month, with the Raptors having the biggest difference in strength of schedule. So their improvement numbers are a little inflated.

The quality of the Grizzlies' opponents this month is about the same as it was in the first month, so Memphis has earned its most-improved tag. And Cleveland has had a tougher schedule in December than it did in October and November. The Cavs' first month opponents had a combined record of 119-145 (.451) in other games through Nov. 30, while their December opponents have had a combined record of 121-107 (.531) in other games.

On the other end of the chart are teams that haven't been able to keep up the pace they set in the first month of the season.

Most Regressed Teams, Overall, November to December
Point differential per 100 possessions
Team Oct.-Nov. Dec. Diff.
Sacramento -0.1 -4.6 -4.6
L.A. Clippers -0.9 -5.8 -4.9
Portland +6.8 +0.6 -6.3
Milwaukee +0.6 -6.4 -7.0
Phoenix +8.6 +1.1 -7.4
Going Backward

Of this group, only Sacramento has played a (slightly) tougher schedule in December than in October-November. So the Kings are all to blame for their regression. Phoenix has possibly been worn down by a schedule that had the Suns playing 15 of their first 22 games on the road.

The Blazers and Clippers have fallen off more defensively than offensively, the Bucks have struggled more on the offensive end (both Andrew Bogut and Brandon Jennings have shot worse in December), and the Kings' and Suns' dropoffs have been pretty equal on both ends.

Even Steven

Not all teams have changed significantly over the last month. The Houston Rockets have regressed offensively (-1.1 points per 100 possessions) and improved defensively (-0.7), but those numbers closely resemble the league-wide averages (-0.7). Essentially, the Rockets are the same team in December that they were in October-November.

Split Personalities

The Nets may be a terrible team, but they're fascinating from a statistical point of view. Not only are they the team that has improved the most offensively in December, but they're the team that has regressed the most defensively (+8.4 points allowed per 100 possessions). At the end of November, they ranked 14th in defensive efficiency, and at one point were the 12th best defensive team in the league, even though they hadn't won a game.

For the month of December though, the Nets were the worst defensive team in the NBA, allowing 111 points per 100 possessions (not quite as bad as the Raptors were in October-November). And their defensive regression has outweighed their offensive improvement. Statistically, they were a better team in their first 16 games (when they were 0-16) than they were over their next 16 games (3-13).

What makes the Nets' change of identity even more interesting is that last year, we did this same study at the end of January, and New Jersey was at the top of the list defensively and the bottom of the list offensively. This year, they've taken the exact opposite path.

All numbers are through Wednesday, Dec. 30.

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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