Friday's notebook: Luka Doncic leads league's most improved offense
Here's 5 offenses that have seen the biggest jump in 2019-20
Happy Friday! It’s Week 5, the 2019-20 NBA season is about 17% complete, and league-wide numbers tell us that offense is down.
Only five of the league’s 30 teams have scored more points per 100 possessions than they did last season, when the league, as a whole, scored 109.7 per 100, the best mark in the 23 years for which we have play-by-play data. The Golden State Warriors, unsurprisingly, have taken the biggest dip (9.9 points per 100).
Through Thursday (214 games), league-wide efficiency is at 107.5 points per 100 possessions. That’s way down from the end-of-season mark for 2018-19, but not far from the league-wide mark — 108.1 per 100 — at this point last season (215 games through Thursday of Week 5).
Effective field goal percentage (51.8%) and free throw rate (26.6 attempts per 100 shots from the field) are down slightly from this point last season (51.9%, 26.8). The league has seen a bigger drop in offensive rebounding percentage, and yes, those extra travel calls have made an impact. Turnovers, with dead-ball turnovers being the bigger culprit, are up from 14.8 to 15.2 per 100 possessions.
Still, five teams have managed to see jumps in offensive efficiency from their end-of-season marks. Here are the league’s five most improved offenses as we head into the weekend …
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1. Dallas Mavericks
2018-19: 108.7 (20th)
2019-20: 114.7 (1st)
The Mavs lead the league in offensive efficiency, even though Kristaps Porzingis has shot just 40%. His effective field goal percentage of 46.9% ranks 134th among 161 players who have taken at least 100 shots.
Luka Doncic, of course, is more than making up for Porzingis’ inefficiency, averaging 29.9 points and 9.4 assists per game. He’s shooting just 34% from 3-point range, but has seen a big improvement in how well he’s shot in the paint and how often he’s gone to the line. Doncic’s 1.14 points per possession on pick-and-roll ball-handler possessions are up from 0.90 last season and rank second among players who have averaged at least five ball-handler possessions per game. His true shooting percentage of 62.5% is up from 54.5% last season and is the best mark among the top 20 players in usage rate.
Along with Doncic, Delon Wright (from 48% to 57%) and Dorian Finney-Smith (from 51% to 57%) have both seen big jumps in effective field goal percentage. As a team, the Mavs rank 7th in effective field goal percentage (53.9%). That’s the most important number on offense, but the Mavs’ offense is about more than just shooting.
While the league, as a whole, has seen a big jump in turnover percentage, six teams have seen a drop. And the Mavs have seen the biggest drop among them. Their 13.5 turnovers per 100 possessions rank fourth in the league and are down from 14.2 (21st) last season.
The Mavs also rank ninth in free throw rate and fourth in offensive rebounding percentage. If they somehow kept this up, they’d be just the fourth team in the 24 seasons for which we have play-by-play data (and the first in the last 16) to rank in the top 10 in each of the offensive “four factors.” (The others were 1996-97 Sonics, 2000-01 Lakers and 2003-04 Grizzlies.)
The Mavs have played a relatively easy schedule in regard to opposing defenses. Eight of their 14 games have come against teams that currently rank in the bottom 10 in defensive efficiency, while only four have come against the top 10. So things will get tougher in that regard, and they have games against both the Clippers (9th) and Lakers (2nd) next week.
2. Phoenix Suns
2018-19: 105.3 (28th)
2019-20: 110.4 (6th)
What stands out most about the Suns’ offense is their league-leading assist percentage. They’ve assisted on 68% of their buckets, up from 60% (17th) last season. According to Second Spectrum tracking, they rank sixth in passes per 24 minutes of possession (355).
Devin Booker has seen the percentage of his buckets that have been assisted rise from 36% last season to 53% this season. Of course, Booker has also shot a league-best 19-for-37 (51%) on pull-up 3-pointers.
With Booker leading the way, and with the league’s third-biggest jump in the percentage of their shots that have come from the restricted area or 3-point range — from 67% (20th) to 75% (8th) — Phoenix has seen the league’s second-biggest jump in effective field goal percentage. No team has seen a bigger increase in 3-point percentage than the Suns, who ranked 30th (32.9%) last season and are sixth (37.8%) this season. New Suns Aron Baynes, Cam Johnson and Dario Saric have shot a combined 41.4% on more than 12 3-point attempts per game.
The Suns have also seen the league’s second biggest drop in turnover percentage, going from 29th to 11th in that category. New point guard Ricky Rubio ranks eighth in the league with an assist-turnover ratio of 3.87.
Among the teams on this list, the Suns have had the toughest schedule in regard to opposing defenses. Seven of their 14 games have come against teams that currently rank in the top 10 defensively, while only four of the 14 have come against the bottom 10. Their next 12 games — one (Sunday in Denver) against a top-10 defense and six against bottom-10 defenses — will be much easier in that regard.
3. Washington Wizards
2018-19: 110.2 (15th)
2019-20: 114.0 (2nd)
The Wizards are the big surprise on this list, though improved offense hasn’t resulted in success in the standings, because their opponents have been more efficient than they have.
Washington has seen the league’s biggest drop in free throw rate, from 26.6 attempts per 100 shots from the field (11th) last season to just 20.2 (29th) this season. But they’ve seen the league’s fifth-biggest jump in effective field goal percentage and a big jump in offensive rebounding percentage as well.
The Wizards are the only team that rank in the top 10 in field goal percentage in the paint (56.9%, 8th), mid-range field goal percentage (46.0%, 3rd) and 3-point percentage (37.6%, 7th). The shooting in the paint is actually down from last season, but they’ve shot much more effectively from outside the paint, even though their ratio of 3-point attempts to mid-range attempts has gone down.
Ball and player movement has been a factor. The Wizards are one of two teams — the Pelicans are the other — that rank in the top five in both ball and player movement, according to Second Spectrum tracking. They rank 3rd at 372 passes per 24 minutes of possession and 4th at 11.7 miles traveled per 24 minutes of possession. Those marks are up from 343 (16th) and 11.1 (20th) last season.
It seems doubtful that Mo Wagner will continue to shoot better than 50% from 3-point range, but new Wizard Davis Bertans (at more than seven 3-point attempts per game) is right where he was last season (43%) and Bradley Beal could shoot better. This is actually the third straight season in which Beal has seen a drop in 3-point percentage.
The Wizards have played the fewest games in the league, with only two of their 12 having come against teams that currently rank in the top 10 defensively and only three having come against teams that currently rank in the bottom 10. After they host the Hornets and Kings this weekend, their next eight games will be against teams that rank no worse that 14th defensively, with six of the eight against the top 10.
4. Los Angeles Lakers
2018-19: 107.4 (24th)
2019-20: 109.6 (10th)
Given the talent that they added over the summer, you could argue that the Lakers should be at the top of this list. And maybe they’ll get there soon enough. But through 14 games, the Lakers’ offense is behind their defense, which ranks second in the league.
Anthony Davis’ effective field goal percentage (50.4%) is the worst mark of his career, while LeBron James’ mark of 53.9% is his worst in the last five seasons. So the Lakers’ offense will probably get better, and it already has. After scoring just 105.5 points per 100 possessions over their first nine games, they’ve scored 117.3 over their five-game winning streak.
Still, this team could use another shooter or two. Danny Green — 42% on 66 attempts — has been the only Laker who has shot better than the league average (35.3%) on more than four attempts from beyond the arc. The Lakers rank 21st in 3-point percentage (34.2%) and 26th in the percentage of their shots that have come from 3-point range (33.2%).
Thus far, the Lakers’ schedule has been fairly balanced in regard to opposing defenses: four games against the top 10, five against the middle 10, and five against the bottom 10. It will get easier — after starting a four-game trip in Oklahoma City on Friday, they’ll play four straight games against teams that rank in the bottom six defensively — before it gets tougher.
5. Miami Heat
2018-19: 106.7 (26th)
2019-20: 108.8 (12th)
The Heat rank last in turnover ratio by a pretty wide margin, with only two teams — Charlotte and Sacramento — having seen a bigger jump from last season. They’ve also seen one of the league’s biggest drops in offensive rebounding percentage.
But Miami has seen both the league’s biggest jump in effective field goal percentage and its biggest jump in free throw rate.
The former is the most important. The Heat’s improvement hasn’t come with a big jump in getting the most efficient shots. Through Thursday, 71.4% of their shots have come from the restricted area or 3-point range. That’s the league’s 12th highest rate and up from 70.0% (13th) last season.
But the Heat have shot better in the paint, from mid-range, and from beyond the arc. Only the Suns have seen a bigger jump in 3-point percentage, where the Heat have gone from 34.9% (21st) last season to 39.6% (second) this season.
Meyers Leonard is the official league-leader in 3-point percentage at 62%, though that has come on only 21 attempts. Duncan Robinson, the undrafted second-year wing who shot 10-for-35 from 3-point range last season, has made a greater impact, shooting 44% on 84 attempts. Goran Dragic has also seen an improvement (from 35% last season to 41% this season), and rookies Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn have combined to shoot 39% from beyond the arc.
The improved free throw rate has come from the addition of Jimmy Butler, who ranks fourth in the league with 8.1 free throw attempts per game and has shot 85% at the line. Bam Adebayo has shot just 61%, but his free throw rate of 75 attempts per 100 shots from the field is up from 47 last season. That’s the biggest jump among 222 players with at least 250 field goal attempts last season and at least 50 this season.
The Heat have played just three of their 13 games against teams that currently rank in the top 10 in defensive efficiency. They’ll have a fun test against the league’s 10th ranked defense when Butler makes his return to Philadelphia on Saturday (7:30 ET, NBA TV).
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