Each week during the season, NBA.com writer John Schuhmann surveys the league to compile stats and notes for his in-depth Power Rankings. Before the next rankings drop on Monday, here are some of the storylines he’s keeping an eye on this weekend.
All stats through Wednesday, Dec. 22.
1. Far ahead of the pack
The Utah Jazz were the league’s best regular-season team in 2020-21, both in regard to winning percentage (.722) and point differential per 100 possessions (+9.0). This season, though their winning percentage has taken a small dip, the Jazz are better statistically.
They’ve outscored their opponents by 10.4 points per 100 possessions, a mark which ranks second to the incredible Golden State Warriors (+10.6). In the 25 years (1996-97 through 2020-21) for which we have play-by-play data, only five teams have outscored their opponents by at least 10 points per 100 possessions.
Three of the five – the 1996-97 Chicago Bulls (+11.8), the ’16-17 Warriors (+11.4) and the ’07-08 Boston Celtics (+10.8) – went on to win the championship. And the two teams that didn’t both came up short in 2015-16. The ’15-16 San Antonio Spurs (+11.1) were upset in the conference semifinals by the Oklahoma City Thunder, who almost beat the Warriors (+10.6) in the next round. Golden State escaped, but then lost in The Finals.
We think of the Jazz as a defensive team first. They’ve ranked in the top three defensively in four of the last five seasons, and through Wednesday, they rank sixth this season.
But it’s on the other end of the floor where the Jazz have been truly dominant.
Two weeks ago, we looked at the league’s five most improved offenses, with an acknowledgement that only four teams had actually scored more points per 100 possessions than they did last season. Two weeks later, despite some ugly performances from depleted rosters over the last few days, that number is six, with the Bulls (+0.4) and Heat (+0.2) joining Cleveland, Charlotte, Golden State and Utah.
Last season, the most efficient season in NBA history league-wide, the Jazz’s 116.5 points scored per 100 possessions ranked fourth and were 4.8 better than the league average. This season, they’re only a little more efficient (116.8) but have scored 4.2 more points per 100 possessions than any other team.
In the 26 seasons of play-by-play data, that would, easily, be the biggest differential between a top-ranked offense and the team below it.
Biggest difference, top-ranked vs. second-ranked offense, since 1996-97
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
Through Dec. 22, 2021
The Jazz have scored 8.2 points per 100 possessions more than the league average, which would make theirs the second best offense of the last 26 years, behind only the 2003-04 Mavs (+9.0 vs. the league average). But those Mavs did have one other team (the Sacramento Kings) in the neighborhood.
For the second straight season, the Jazz are the only team in the top five in both 3-point percentage (fifth) and the percentage of their shots that have come from 3-point range (first). But, as noted two weeks ago, their improvement from last season has come in the paint.
What’s interesting is that it’s also come with less ball and player movement. Last season, the Jazz ranked ninth in ball movement and 10th in player movement, according to Second Spectrum tracking. This season, *they rank 24th and 17th, having seen the league’s biggest drop in the former and its fifth biggest drop in the latter. Only the Toronto Raptors (53.6%) have recorded assists on a lower percentage of their baskets than the Jazz (54.7%).
* Ball and player movement can be aesthetically pleasing, but there’s no real correlation between movement and efficiency. While the two teams that rank in the top five in both ball and player movement – Charlotte and Golden State – rank second and fourth offensively, two other teams that rank in the top 10 in both – Detroit and Oklahoma City – have the two worst offenses in the league.
The Jazz rank fifth in 3-point percentage, even though only 42% of their 3-point attempts, the league’s highest rate, have been pull-up 3s. Stephen Curry is the king of the pull-up 3, but the Jazz have shot just as well on pull-up 3s (36.7%) as the Warriors have. They have three of the 33 players who’ve averaged at least one made pull-up 3 per game, with Mike Conley (44-for-103, 42.7%) having the best mark among 68 players with at least 50 attempts.
And while Conley isn’t necessarily known for slick ball-handling, some of those off-the-dribble 3s will come with a little sauce …
The league’s No. 1 offense faces one of the league’s most improved defenses on Thursday when the Jazz host Minnesota (9 p.m. ET, League Pass). Then the Dallas Mavericks are in Utah for the Christmas nightcap (10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).
2. LeBron at the five
With Anthony Davis out with a left knee sprain, with Dwight Howard in Health and Safety Protocols, and with the Lakers having been outscored by 12.0 points per 100 possessions in DeAndre Jordan’s 350 minutes this season, LeBron James is suddenly the team’s best available center.
Last season, the Lakers played a little more than 25 total minutes with James at center, with 11 of those minutes coming in the playoffs (when Davis was hobbled). Then the most-used James-at-the-five lineup played less than seven total minutes in two games.
This season, the Lakers have already tripled that total, with James having played 84 minutes at center. They’ve outscored their opponents by three points in the 84 minutes, though that’s partially because they’ve used the look for more offensive possessions (181) than defensive possessions (176). On a per-possession basis, they’ve been a little worse offensively and about the same defensively as they’ve been in James’ total minutes on the floor.
Wildly, James’ 84 minutes at the five break down like this …
- In six minutes with Kent Bazemore also on the floor (tiny-sample-size alert), the Lakers have been outscored by 16 points, scoring just two points on 12 offensive possessions and allowing 18 points on 12 defensive possessions.
- In 78 minutes with Bazemore off the floor, the Lakers have outscored their opponents by 19 points, with much better numbers (obviously) on both ends of the floor.
The most common James-at-the-five lineup — Isaiah Thomas, Russell Westbrook, Wayne Ellington, Carmelo Anthony and James — has outscored its opponents by nine points (allowing less than a point per possession) over the last three games. But the Lakers have lost all three, getting outscored by 50 points (!) in Jordan’s 45 minutes on the floor.
We’ll see how much Jordan plays when the Lakers try to end their losing streak against the Spurs on Thursday (10:30 p.m. ET, League Pass). They’ll host the Brooklyn Nets on Christmas (8 p.m. ET, ABC & ESPN), when they might have Howard back in uniform.
3. Roll man x 2
We’re seeing more big men shoot 3s every season. Orlando’s Wendell Carter Jr. is the one who’s really made the leap this year, having seen the biggest jump in the percentage of his shots that have come from 3-point range (from 11.2% to 38.3%) among 240 players with at least 200 field-goal attempts last season and at least 100 this season. (Teammate Mo Wagner has seen the second biggest jump.)
But it still pays to have a big man (or two) who can catch and finish at the rim. Rudy Gobert is a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, but also an integral part of the Jazz’s top-ranked offense, whether he’s scoring (he’s shot 79.5% in the restricted area) or creating open 3s by drawing defenders into the paint.
Last season, Trae Young had 34 more assists on dunks (160) than any other player, because he had two guys — Clint Capela and John Collins — who could roll to the rim, catch and finish. This season, the Cavs’ Darius Garland leads the league with 71 assists on dunks, because he has two teammates —Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley — who can do the same.
The Phoenix Suns don’t play their two bigs together like the Hawks or Cavs, but they now have two guys who give them “vertical spacing.” And among 40 players with at least 50 “roll-man” possessions, JaVale McGee (1.53 points per possession) and Deandre Ayton (1.33) rank second and fifth in efficiency.
It obviously helps to have a pick-and-roll savant who can move defenders with his eyes …
… toss a perfectly-placed lob (it also helps to have Devin Booker scaring defenders on the weak side) …
… or just come up with some kind of passing-angle voodoo around/through the arms of two 6-9 guys …
Paul has assisted on 68 (33%) of Ayton and McGee’s 204 total buckets in the restricted area. But the big men are also doing some of the work themselves …
Ayton’s offense (47 total points, leading the Suns in usage rate) was a big part of the Suns’ first two meetings with the Warriors. Part III is on Christmas (5 p.m. ET, ABC). Before that, the Suns will host the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday (9 p.m. ET, League Pass).
4. A transformation in Atlanta
It shouldn’t be a surprise that, every season, there’s a negative correlation between teams’ success and the percentage of their minutes that were played by rookies or second-year players. The teams that play a lot of young guys generally do not do well in the standings … or in the playoffs.
Over the last 15 seasons, 25 of the 30 teams that reached The Finals ranked in the bottom 10 in the percentage of their minutes that came from rookies or second-year players that season. Two of the other five ranked 20th, with the other three exceptions being …
- The 2007-08 Boston Celtics (champs), who ranked eighth (21%), with Glen Davis (rookie), Leon Powe (second year) and Rajon Rondo (second-year starter) in their rotation.
- The 2012-13 San Antonio Spurs, who ranked 13th (16%), with Kawhi Leonard (second year) in the starting lineup and Nando De Colo (rookie) getting regular minutes.
- The 2019-20 Miami Heat, who ranked 8th (34%), with two young guys — Kendrick Nunn (rookie) and Duncan Robinson (second year) — in the starting lineup and another — rookie Tyler Herro — playing big minutes off the bench.
That Heat team lost in The Finals to the Lakers, who ranked last, getting less than 1% of their minutes from rookies or second-year guys. Last season, the Milwaukee Bucks (4%) made it two straight years where the team that ranked last went on to win the championship.
This season, with most of their when-healthy rotation having missed several games, the Bucks have already gotten more minutes from rookies or second-year guys (908) than they did all of last season (697). (They’re the only team that’s already surpassed last season’s total.)
The team that ranks last is the team that ranked first two seasons ago. In 2019-20, the Atlanta Hawks got 53.1% of their minutes from rookies or second-year guys; In fact, the top four Hawks in total minutes played were rookies (De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish) or second-year players (Trae Young and Kevin Huerter).
Last season, with Young and Huerter having graduated, the Hawks ranked 20th at 16%. And this season, they rank last, having gotten just 2% of their minutes from players in their first two seasons in the league.
Lowest % of minutes from rookies or 2nd-year players, 2021-22
Through Dec. 22, 2021
With a bunch of players in Health and Safety Protocols and second-year big man Onyeka Okongwu having just made his season debut last week, the Hawks’ percentage should rise. In fact, their season-long total almost doubled (from 70 to 121) in their loss to Orlando on Wednesday. They’re in Philadelphia on Thursday (7 p.m. ET, League Pass) and in New York for Christmas (12 p.m. ET, ESPN).
With all the replacement players getting burn these days, every team’s percentage should get higher. Here are the teams that have gotten the highest percentage of minutes from rookies and second-year players through Wednesday:
Highest % of minutes from rookies or 2nd-year players, 2021-22
Through Dec. 22, 2021
The top four teams are four of the five worst teams in the league, but the Raptors have been somewhat solid (14-15) with big minutes coming from rookies Scottie Barnes and Delano Banton, along with second-year big man Precious Achiuwa. And right behind them are the 19-13 Memphis Grizzlies, who have gotten 27% of their minutes from rookies and second-year players, with Desmond Bane leading the team in total minutes played by a healthy margin.
5. Hard-Luck Celtics
After their win over Cleveland on Wednesday, the Boston Celtics are 16-16, in eighth place in the Eastern Conference. While their record says they’re an average team, the Celtics’ point differential (+1.3 per game, 11th best in the league) says they’re a little better than that. But for the fifth straight season, they’ve been one of the teams with the hardest luck.
On Monday, the Celtics led the Sixers by seven points with four minutes left. But they were outscored 18-6 over those last four minutes, committing four turnovers along the way. It was the latest of the Celtics’ 11 losses in “clutch” games, those that were within five points in the last five minutes. Only the Indiana Pacers (4-13 in clutch games) have more such defeats.
In games that weren’t within five points in the last five minutes, the Celtics are 10-5. Only three teams — Utah, Cleveland and Indiana — have a bigger winning-percentage differential between non-clutch and clutch games. That differential might indicate that those teams are better than what the standings show and that, if they’d had a little more late-game luck, they’d be a couple of spots higher in the standings.
But winning close games is part of being a good team. If we only counted non-clutch games, the Celtics would be in fourth place in the East (the Cavs would be in first). But that’s not how it works.
And this is nothing new for the Celtics. In fact, this is the fifth straight season in which they’ve been better in non-clutch games than they’ve been in clutch games. And it’s the third straight in which they’ve ranked in the top five in that regard. That’s either a lot of bad luck (clutch stats are generally small sample sizes) or something else.
Celtics non-clutch vs. clutch, last five seasons
Among 101 players with at least 100 clutch field goal attempts over the last five years, Jayson Tatum (47.4%) and Jaylen Brown (44.7%) rank 15th and 33rd in clutch field goal percentage. The Celtics ranked 26th in clutch offense last season, but for the most part, the Celtics’ late-game issues have been about the other end of the floor. In each of the last five seasons, they’ve ranked lower in clutch defense than they ranked defensively overall.
One of the Celtics’ six clutch wins came against the Bucks (who were without Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton) on Nov. 12. With a more comfortable win over the healthier Bucks earlier this month, the Celtics are 2-0 against the champs. And they’re in Milwaukee for Christmas (2:30 p.m. ET, ABC).
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