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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.
1. Picking up the pace in Phoenix
With their victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday, the Phoenix Suns have won 10 straight games. And while it’s not too surprising that the Suns are really good, it’s interesting that they’ve played at the league’s fourth fastest pace, having seen the second biggest jump (+4.0) in possessions per 48 minutes from last season.
It’s noteworthy, because it’s the highest a Chris Paul team has ranked in pace. The only other time a Paul team has ranked in the top 10 was 2013-14, when his Clippers ranked eighth. In 10 of his previous 16 seasons — including last season, when the Suns ranked 24th — Paul’s team has ranked in the bottom 10.
The Suns aren’t exactly running a whole lot more. Pace is affected by both offense and defense. According to Synergy tracking, the Suns have seen a bigger jump in the percentage of their opponents‘ possessions that have been in transition (from 14.5% to 16.8%) than they have in the percentage of their own possessions that have been in transition (from 15.9% to 17.0%).
Two other things that have shortened possessions in Suns’ games: The league’s sixth-biggest jump in opponent turnover rate and its eighth biggest drop in offensive rebounding percentage. More turnovers = More abbreviated possessions. Fewer offensive rebounds = fewer extended possessions.
But a look at when the Suns have shot in the shot clock (via Second Spectrum tracking) reveals that the Suns are playing faster. And the change is more about avoiding late-clock offense than generating early-clock offense.
Suns percentage of FGA, by time on shot clock
via Second Spectrum tracking
League-wide effective field goal percentage is 58.8% in the first six seconds of the shot clock, 51.9% in the middle 12 seconds, and just 43.4% in the last six seconds. Some teams are more comfortable in those last six seconds than others, and Devin Booker did put the Mavs away with a late-clock 3…
Devin Booker. Clutch in the fourth quarter 🔥 pic.twitter.com/K5XPlwgiaG
— NBA TV (@NBATV) November 18, 2021
But avoiding late-clock offense is generally for the best.
The pace metric is about both offense and defense. And the pace that a team plays with on offense is about more than fast breaks. It’s also about the quickness with which actions are run and decisions are made. The Spurs have the “point-five rule,” where a player is asked to shoot, pass or drive within 0.5 seconds of catching the ball.
Here’s a play from their win in Minnesota on Monday where the Suns gained an early advantage and never gave it up…
The Suns had the league’s easiest schedule through their first 13 games. But their win on Wednesday began a stretch where they’re playing seven of eight games against teams that are currently over 0.500. They’ll try to make it 11 straight wins (which would match the longest winning streak for any team from last season) when they finish their two-game series with Dallas on Friday (10 p.m. ET, ESPN). After hosting Denver on Sunday (8 p.m. ET, NBA League Pass), they’ll hit the road for a four-game trip that includes a back-to-back in New York and Brooklyn.
2. Best vs. the best
Speaking of playing teams with winning records, here are the records in games played between the 14 teams that are currently over 0.500…
Record in games played between 14 teams currently over 0.500
As noted, the Suns haven’t played a lot of good teams. Phoenix and Washington have played the fewest games (3) vs. the top 14. Atlanta has played the most and is just 2-9 against the group. They can improve on that mark when they host the Charlotte Hornets on Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, NBA TV).
Teams with no wins over the 14 teams that are currently over 0.500: Detroit (0-7), Houston (0-6), Minnesota (0-6), New Orleans (0-9), Oklahoma City (0-7) and San Antonio (0-5).
Of course, the “teams that are currently over 0.500 list” can change every day. The 7-7 Grizzlies are 5-4 against the group (tied with Charlotte and Miami for the most wins) and can rejoin it with a win over the Clippers on Thursday (8 p.m. ET, NBA League Pass).
3. James Harden is getting to the line just fine
Much has been made about the drop in free throw rate, from 24.7 attempts per 100 shots from the field last season to just 22.1 this season, a 10% reduction. The league’s Points of Education regarding Non-Basketball Moves have made a clear impact, and the drop may be about more than just that. League-wide free throw rate (FTA/FGA) on drives has seen a bigger drop than the overall rate, from 30.1 attempts per 100 shots from the field to just 26.4%, a reduction of 12%.
* To be clear, the Points of Education include maneuvers made on drives. They’re not just about lunges and contortions beyond the 3-point line.
One player who’s been consistently frustrated about no-calls in the paint is James Harden. But the former MVP has attempted more than 10 free throws in three of his last four games, and his season-long free throw rate (45.0 per 100) is now just a tick below his mark from last season (45.5).
Through the first five games of the season, Harden drew a foul on just 4.7% of his drives. Since then, he’s drawn a foul on 13.0% of his drives. His rate through Wednesday (10.7%) is up from that of last season (8.2%). The man still knows how to draw a foul.
Among 127 players with at least 200 drives last season and at least 35 this season, the player who’s seen the biggest drop in foul rate is Kyle Anderson, who hasn’t drawn a foul on any of his 45 drives this season, having done so on 9.8% last season.
The next biggest drops belong to…
- Evan Fournier, from 7.9% to just 1.2%.
- Kelly Oubre Jr., from 10.7% to 4.4%.
- Grayson Allen, from 6.9% to 1.3%.
- Gary Trent Jr., from 8.8% to 3.5%.
- Giannis Antetokounmpo, from 12.9% to 7.8%.
Antetokounmpo’s overall free throw rate has dropped from 52.8 attempts per 100 shots from the field last season (fourth among 152 players with at least 500 field goal attempts) to 48.2 this season (seventh among 156 players with 100 field goal attempts).
4. Reading Spain
The “Spain” or “stack” pick-and-roll was written about in this space a couple of times last season. It’s a standard high pick-and-roll with a back-screen set around the foul line on the screener’s defender, and it’s quickly gained popularity over the last couple of years.
And it’s become so popular that defenses seem a lot more prepared for it this season. Often, the initial screener’s defender senses the back-screen and slides below it so can he either pick up the drive or return to his own man rolling to the rim.
In the third quarter on Monday, the Pistons ran Spain and the Kings (not a great defensive team) defended it like it was no big deal. Richaun Holmes slid behind Saddiq Bey’s back-screen and was under the basket to catch Isaiah Stewart on the roll. Chimezie Metu (initially guarding Bey) switched onto the ball-handler, and De’Aaron Fox waited for Bey to pop out to the top of the key. Bey tried to take advantage of the mismatch but turned the ball over…
That’s the league’s 28th-ranked offense the Kings are defending, of course. No coverage can’t be beat by a good offense and if the ball-handler can shoot, he’s got more space to do so with the big defender sagging back to avoid the back-screen.
5. Early on-off leaders
The early-season on-off leaders, where their team has performed much better with them on the floor than it has with them off the floor.
Biggest on-off-court NetRtg differential
|Player||Team||Min.||On Court||Off Court||Diff.|
On/Off Court = Team’s point differential per 100 possessions w/ player on or off floor
Minimum 200 minutes on the floor w/ one team (247 players)
Through Nov. 17, 2021
Derrick Rose was near the top of the list last season, with the Knicks 10.9 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor after he arrived in a mid-season trade. This season’s differential is almost triple that and it speaks to just how bad the Knicks’ starting lineup has been.
The bigger differential has been on defense, where the Knicks have allowed 22.2 fewer points per 100 possessions with Rose on the floor (95.1) than they have with Kemba Walker on the floor (117.3). Now, a starter should have a higher number there, because he’s playing against better offensive players than a reserve. But that differential is huge and the 119.0 points per 100 possessions that the Knicks have allowed with their four non-centers on the floor is the worst mark among 151 four-man combinations that have played at least 100 minutes together.
The Knicks are one of four teams — the Sixers, Grizzlies and Lakers are the others — that have allowed more points per 100 possessions than they did last season. The overall defensive numbers haven’t been bad over their last three games (100.7 allowed per 100), but in that stretch, they’ve allowed 118.7 per 100 in 52 minutes with the starting lineup on the floor and just 90.2 in 92 minutes otherwise.
So the issue is not getting better and the film is as bad as the numbers…
Five more observations from the top of the on-off list…
- The Clippers’ bench — Luke Kennard, Terance Mann and Isaiah Hartenstein — has been terrific.
- The Nuggets’ bench has not been terrific.
- Cole Anthony doesn’t just have much-improved offensive numbers individually. He’s also keeping what could be one of the worst offensive teams we’ve ever seen somewhat afloat. The Magic rank 27th offensively overall, having somehow scored only 81.8 points per 100 possessions in Anthony’s 207 minutes off the floor.
- The Bulls have been excellent (+10.0 points per 100 possessions) with DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine on the floor together. They’ve been even better (+14.1) in DeRozan’s minutes on the floor without LaVine.
- The bottom of the list: Gary Harris (ORL, -33.2), Jalen Green (HOU, -28.6), Kemba Walker (NYK, -28.5), Julius Randle (NYK, -26.8) and Eric Bledsoe (LAC, -25.5).
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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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