Notes From The First Week

On Speed, James Johnson Driving, An Unusual Floppy Set And More
Issac Baldizon
by Couper Moorhead

A little more than a week into the season, there is nothing about the Miami HEAT (2-2) that anyone can definitively prove or disprove. We may have some general inclinations in one direction or another, largely based on the season prior, but there simply isn’t enough information available– on shooting percentages, lineup data or anything else – for anyone to do more than take notes and see what happens. So, let’s take a look at some early notes.

1. James Johnson Driving…

While you’ve no doubt heard of the nightly feats of Giannis Antetokounmpo, who recently caught a ball at halfcourt and dunked after a single dribble, it’s James Johnson who is leading the league in points-per-direct-drive at 1.58 (which accounts for immediate assists). That does require sorting the data for players with at least 30 drives – if you sort by 60 then Antetokounmpo leads the league – but those two sitting at the top right now is interesting because unlike guards such as James Harden or Kemba Walker or Mike Conley, both Johnson and Antetokounmpo don’t currently have the threat of a prolific jumper to help create space in the lane for them.

In the final stretch against San Antonio on Wednesday, with the HEAT attempting a comeback from down double-digits, Johnson was essentially used as a point-center. But just as the Spurs once did to LeBron James for a number of games in the NBA Finals, the defense simply sagged off and didn’t pick up the ball until practically the free-throw line.

“They weren’t guarding him,” Spoelstra said. “They [were] really packing the paint and trying to make us pay, or at least bait us into a different game. I thought [JJ] made the right plays in the second half once he got into a rhythm for how they were defending him.”

Some of the shots Johnson made were tough and his per-possession rate is likely to come down given that leaders in previous seasons were in the 1.20 range, but it’s a talent to be able to drive against a defense specifically situated to stop that exact play. There were a number of games in the second half of last season when Miami needed a late score and they gave Johnson the ball with a full head of steam.

2. …And Dunking

Last season, James Johnson had 36 dunks. Of those, 18 were considered ‘Driving Dunks’, which are essentially dunks created off the dribble.

Four games in, Johnson already has eight dunks and five of the driving variety. In other words, Johnson has gone from .47 Dunks Per Game to 2.0, which has led to him finishing at the rim at an 89.5 percent clip, up from 61.5 percent a year ago.

And while 89.5 percent is unsustainable for anyone at the rim, this is no accident.

“He’s being much more aggressive and simple, in terms of his finishing,” Spoelstra said. “Instead of looking for degree of difficulty, he’s trying to go up there and dunk or finish without a lot of flair. And then what ends up happening, because of his athleticism, is it ends up being 5-10 times more flair. Less creativity on his finishes, more power.”

“I don’t have the Dion [Waiters] around the rim package or the Dragon (Dragic) around the rim package,” Johnson said. “I’m just trying to take it strong and draw the foul or finish the best way I can.”

3. Speed In Style

We’re barely over a week into the regular season but it’s never too early to begin tracking potential trends. One of the more glaring notes so far is that teams are, again, playing faster.

Here’s what the last ten years of league pace (possessions per game) looks like.

2008-09: 94.12
2009-10: 95.10
2010-11: 94.53
2011-12: 93.76
2012-13: 94.44
2013-14: 96.33
2014-15: 96.30
2015-16: 98.08
2016-17: 98.73
2017-18: 101.91

Even back in the early 2000’s, when the Los Angeles Lakers were finishing off their three-peat with Shaq and Kobe, league pace was still hovering in the 93-94 range. There’s definitely been a change happening – only we don’t yet know how significant that change will be this season.

4. Big Man, Light Feet

The HEAT’s very first offensive possession of the regular season, last week in Orlando, was a catch-and-shoot floppy set the likes of which they usually run for Wayne Ellington – except this one was for a seven-footer.

For as many stretch bigs as there are in the league these days, there are far fewer who have the footwork to navigate a screen and quickly set up in the tiny bit of real estate that is the corner. He missed here, but the mechanics were clean and Olynyk hit the same shot in preseason.

With Boston last season, Olynyk took 96 total catch-and-shoot shots via movement, or 2.5 per every 100 possessions. While the seven possessions he has of that type this year may not seem noteworthy yet, his rate jumping to 3.8 per 100 is no small increase. You won’t be seeing this run every game as we do with Ellington, but it’s a creative source of spacing when Olynyk has the right matchup.

“Big men aren’t used to guarding screens like that,” Olynyk said. “If you got a guy who can come off and shoot off them, it’s a tough thing for those guys. How many times in their career have they defended a floppy pin down?”

5. Location, Location, Location

Through their first four games, the HEAT are allowing the fewest three-point attempts (14.0) per game and the sixth-fewest corner three attempts (4.5).

They’re also attempting the most corner threes in the league so far, at 10.5 per game. The Cleveland Cavaliers led the league last year at 10.4 per game, while the HEAT came in second at 8.4.

6. Carry On, Shooter

Before Wayne Ellington tied a team record with six threes in the second quarter earlier this week against Atlanta, there was a sense that he was having trouble finding his shot. But even though he had shot 25.7 percent from three in six preseason games and was 2-of-10 before Atlanta, there was never any cause for concern. As long as health isn’t an issue and the work is put in – Ellington’s individual workouts have taken on a bit of a fable-like quality – then shots eventually go in. Even Ray Allen and Steph Curry have or had cold spells.

“When I was younger I probably lost a little confidence, I probably wouldn’t take shots I was supposed to take,” Ellington said. “But you have a Coach like Spo [saying], ‘I don’t care, shoot it, shoot it, shoot it,’ you can’t back down from that. Having him behind me like that, having him instill that type of confidence in me, that doesn’t do anything but allow me to be me.

“Because of the way he’s instilling that type of confidence in me he doesn’t really allow me to get down or say ‘Ah, man’.”

7. Jumping Josh Flash

Following a two-block performance against Atlanta, Spoelstra had high praise for Josh Richardson.

“Those are the type of plays at the rim that we had a former two-guard here make,” Spoelstra said, referring to Dwyane Wade. “There’s just not many twos in the league that can make those plays.”

While it’s far, far too early to be talking about records, it’s fine to note that if Richardson does end up chasing history in this or any future season, the record for blocks in a season by a player 6-foot-6 or shorter is Gar Heard wih 230 in 1973-74. But Heard was a power forward back in those days. The more modern record would be Michael Jordan in 1987-88 with 131 blocks. Wade, at 6-foot-4, had 106 in 2008-09 – the most in a single season for any player under 6-foot-5.

It’s Danny Green, however, who among the 6-foot-6 and under crowd is tied with Heard for the most single seasons with a block percentage over 2.5. Green might be the better comparison for Richardson given that both are such dynamic players defending at high speed in transition whereas Wade procured many of his blocks as a help man.

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