POSTED: Nov 21, 2014 12:49 PM ET
Jump-shooting big man Jared Sullinger has opened up the floor for the Celtics, the most-improved offense in the NBA.
Every week we get closer to knowing exactly what teams are really made of. Schedules even out and sample sizes get big enough to where we can start making judgments about what's good, what's bad, what's better and what's worse.
At this point, every team has played at least 10 games. Most have played at least 12. There's sure to be a lot of shifting around the offensive and defensive rankings over the next several weeks, but we've seen enough to take note of teams that have made a significant jump in the first 3 1/2 weeks.
There's a common theme among the five most improved offensive teams. Each has decreased the percentage of shots it takes from mid-range (between the paint and the 3-point line), the most inefficient area of the floor. In fact, four of the five teams below rank in the top five in terms of reducing their mid-range shots. The fifth is the Dallas Mavericks, who rank eighth in mid-range reduction.
Much of the improvement can be attributed to factors like roster changes, coaching changes and assistance from the schedule.
Here are the five most improved offenses through Thursday, according to increase in points scored per 100 possessions, with a look at how their four factors (shooting, rebounding, turnovers and free-throw rate) have changed.
2013-14: 99.7 (27th)
2014-15: 106.8 (8th)
Improvement: +7.1 points per 100 possessions
Opponents: 4 of 10 have been top-10 defenses, 2 of 10 have been bottom-10 defenses.
|Celtics' offense, last two seasons|
While one fewer turnover per 100 possessions certainly helps, the Celtics are shooting, overall, much better than they did last season. But they're shooting worse from 3-point range, down from 33.3 percent last season to 30.5 percent this season, 27th in the league.
The difference has been inside the arc, where the Celtics are the best-shooting team in the league and the third best in NBA history.
|Celtics' 2-point shooting|
The Celtics have exchanged some mid-range shots for shots in the restricted area, which will help them sustain some of this improvement. They're also shooting more threes. When they start making more of those, it will help make up for the inevitable dropoff in their 2-point percentage.
Jared Sullinger (5-for-25) could actually ease back on the threes, but the Celtics' offense has been strong with Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk on the floor, a continuation of some success they had last season. The two jump-shooting bigs provide space for their teammates. Jeff Green has an effective field-goal percentage of 57.4 percent when both Olynyk and Sullinger have been on the floor, and just 46.0 percent otherwise.
The Celtics aren't a heavy pick-and-roll team, but they're an effective one. They rank high in ball movement stats, and 58 percent of their shots in the paint have been assisted, the fifth-highest rate in the league.
What's most impressive about Boston's improvement is that they haven't made the significant changes that other teams on this list have.
2013-14: 101.3 (23rd)
2014-15: 108.1 (5th)
Improvement: +6.7 points per 100 possessions
Opponents: 3 of 10 have been top-10 defenses, 6 of 10 have been bottom-10 defenses.
|Cavs' offense, last two seasons|
Speaking of significant changes ... Add LeBron James and Kevin Love to a team and, yeah, it's going to get a lot better offensively. But the Cavs aren't exactly elite in any of the four factors, a disappointment given that James' Heat set the all-time mark for effective field-goal percentage each of the last two seasons.
The Cavs rank 12th in field-goal percentage in the restricted area, with James shooting just 60 percent there (down from 76 percent over his last three seasons). They rank fourth in 3-point percentage, but 27th on 2-point shots outside the restricted area. Kyrie Irving has shot 1-for-17 on other paint shots (floater range) and James' mid-range percentage has taken a big dip.
But the Cavs have taken much better shots under David Blatt than they did under Mike Brown. No team has reduced their mid-range shots more than Cleveland.
It's scary that the Cavs already have the fifth-best offense and can get much better. They've played a bunch of bad defenses early, but if James' numbers normalize, they should threaten Dallas for the top spot in offensive efficiency.
2013-14: 99.7 (28th)
2014-15: 105.8 (9th)
Improvement: +6.1 points per 100 possessions
Opponents: 3 of 12 have been top-10 defenses, 5 of 12 have been bottom-10 defenses.
|Bulls' offense, last two seasons|
The Bulls ranked 24th and 28th offensively in the two seasons that they were (mostly) without Derrick Rose. But they're a top-10 offense this season with him having played just five of their 12 games, and they've been more efficient in the games he's missed.
Carlos Boozer's shooting really dropped off in those two seasons without Rose. He barely got to the line for a big man. Pau Gasol hasn't shot great, but he's been a big improvement in both shooting from the field and getting to the line.
The Bulls' biggest shooting jumps have come in the restricted area, where Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson have each shot 70 percent, and on corner threes, where Mike Dunleavy, Kirk Hinrich and Tony Snell are a combined 15-for-27.
Rose's absence has created a bigger role for Aaron Brooks, whose effective field-goal percentage (56.7 percent) is well above his career-high mark (53.2 percent).
If Rose gets and stays healthy, the Bulls could get even better offensively. If not, some of their numbers aren't sustainable.
2013-14: 109.0 (3rd)
2014-15: 114.9 (1st)
Improvement: +5.9 points per 100 possessions
Opponents: 3 of 12 have been top-10 defenses, 5 of 12 have been bottom-10 defenses.
|Mavericks' offense, last two seasons|
The other four teams on this list ranked in the bottom eight in offensive efficiency last season, with plenty of room for improvement. The Mavs already had a great offense, so their presence among the most improved is testament to just how ridiculous their offense has been through 12 games.
The difference between the Mavs' No. 1 offense (114.9 points scored per 100 possessions) and the New Orleans Pelicans' No. 2 offense (109.1) is the same as the difference between the Pelicans and the Phoenix Suns' No. 19 offense (103.3).
The Mavs are shooting better than last year. They're taking more shots at the basket and from 3-point range. Dirk Nowitzki has just been ridiculous from outside the paint, and Tyson Chandler and Brandan Wright have combined to shoot 75-for-94 (80 percent) in the restricted area.
The reduction in turnovers, especially with the departure of Jose Calderon, really stands out. Jameer Nelson has turned the ball over more than Calderon did, but Chandler Parsons has just 11 turnovers in 12 games, Devin Harris has reduced his turnover rate dramatically (he has 48 assists and just seven turnovers) and Monta Ellis has also cut down.
This has been an offensive machine in the early going, scoring 11.6 points per 100 possessions more than the league average. That mark would be, by far, the highest difference since the league started tracking turnovers in 1977. The current high mark is 9.5, held by the 2003-04 Mavs.
Expect the Mavs to take a step back, though not necessarily far enough to give up the No. 1 ranking.
2013-14: 100.6 (26th)
2014-15: 105.8 (10th)
Improvement: +5.1 points per 100 possessions
Opponents: 3 of 12 have been top-10 defenses, 4 of 12 have been bottom-10 defenses.
|Jazz offense, last two seasons|
As noted last week, the Jazz have improved their shot selection. They've gone from taking 29 percent of their shots from mid-range to just 21 percent. Gordon Hayward (37 percent to 22 percent), in particular, has turned a lot of mid-range shots into threes, though he's still not as good from outside as he was when he had Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap as teammates.
Trevor Booker (68 percent in the restricted area over his career) has helped the Jazz improve their shooting near the basket, but has also shot as well from 3-point range as Marvin Williams did. Derrick Favors has increased his restricted-area percentage from 65 percent over his first four seasons to 79 percent this season.
Some of that isn't sustainable. But an encouraging sign is that the Jazz have scored more than their opponent's season DefRtg mark (points allowed per 100 possessions) in nine of their 12 games. And if Trey Burke (28 percent from outside the paint) ever starts to make shots or if Alec Burks (48 percent in the restricted area) learns to finish at the rim, the Jazz can still be pretty good.
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