Power Rankings Notebook: 5 most improved defenses this season
Breaking down the 5 teams that have improved the most on defense since last season. Plus, a look at the most improved shooters and more revealing stats.
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. Most improved defenses
Last week, we looked at the five teams that have been most improved offensively from last season. Two of the top three also rank as the two teams that have improved most defensively.
Biggest drop, points allowed per 100 possessions
Through Dec. 15, 2021
Here’s a deeper look at the defenses that have seen the biggest improvement:
The Cavs’ improvement is, in part, thanks to the league’s biggest drop in opponent 3-point percentage. But they’ve also seen the league’s fourth biggest drop in opponent field goal percentage in the paint, its sixth biggest jump in defensive rebounding percentage, and its 10th biggest drop in opponent free throw rate. They’re one of two teams – the Clippers are the other – that rank in the top six in both opponent effective field goal percentage and opponent free throw rate.
The Cavs’ two starting bigs have been terrific defensively. There are five players who’ve averaged at least 1.5 blocks per 36 minutes while committing fewer than 2.5 fouls per 36. Two of the five are Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley, who rank ninth and 10th in rim protection (among 42 players who’ve defended at least 100 shots at the rim). The Cavs have allowed just 95.9 points per 100 possessions with both Mobley and Allen on the floor. That’s the lowest mark among 132 two-man combinations that have played at least 500 minutes together.
With their improvement on both ends of the floor, the Cavs have been 13.6 points per 100 possessions better this season (plus-5.3) than they were last season (minus-8.3). That would rank as the second biggest season-to-season improvement over the last 25 years, topped only by that of the 2007-08 Boston Celtics, who traded for two Hall of Famers and were 14.3 points per 100 possessions better than they were the season prior.
The Cavs’ defense has held its opponents to just 97.6 points per 100 possessions over their current, five-game winning streak, which has included two games against teams – Sacramento and Miami – that rank in the top 10 offensively. They’ll face two more top-10 offenses this weekend, visiting the sixth-ranked Bucks on Saturday (9 p.m. ET, League Pass) and the third-ranked Hawks on Sunday (7:30 p.m. ET, League Pass).
2. Golden State
As noted last week, better rebounding was a big part of the Warriors’ offensive improvement. It’s a big part of their defensive improvement, too. They’ve seen the league’s second biggest jump in defensive rebounding percentage, from 72.7% (22nd) last season to 75.6% (first) this season.
Better rebounding is one aspect of much-improved rim protection. The Warriors have allowed their opponents to take just 23% of their shots, the league’s lowest rate, in the restricted area. That’s down from 27% (fourth lowest) last season. The 40.7 points in the paint per 1000 possessions that the Warriors have allowed is down from 45.9 per 100 last season.
Having seen the league’s second biggest improvement off a season in which they ranked fifth defensively, the Warriors have allowed 8.4 fewer points per 100 possessions than the league average (108.6). That would make them the best defense in the 26 seasons for which we have play-by-play data, edging out the 2003-04 Spurs, who allowed 8.3 fewer than the league average.
With Stephen Curry’s record-breaking 3 behind them, the Warriors complete their five-game road trip with a back-to-back over the weekend. They’ll be in Boston on Friday (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) and in Toronto on Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, League Pass).
The Timberwolves changed up their scheme, bringing their bigs up to the level of the screen on pick-and-rolls. That switch didn’t work for the Pelicans last season and it hasn’t worked for the Blazers this season, but the Wolves have had some success with it. They’ve gone from fifth (14.9 per 100 possessions) to first (17.1) in opponent turnover rate and they’ve seen the league’s sixth biggest drop in the percentage of their opponents’ shots that have come in the restricted area.
The improvement could be as much about personnel – the addition of Patrick Beverley and a bigger role for Jarred Vanderbilt – as it is about scheme. Given that the Wolves have ranked no better than 20th defensively in any of the last eight seasons (and in the bottom five in four of those eight), they’ll take it either way.
The downside to playing more aggressively is that the Wolves rank last in both opponent free throw rate (28.0 attempts per 100 shots from the field) and defensive rebounding percentage (69.1%). Their’s can be a feast-or-famine defense, susceptible to weak-side 3s; They’ve seen the league’s biggest jump in the percentage of their opponents’ shots that have come from 3-point range and their defense accounts for two of the nine instances where a team has made at least nine corner 3s. One of those – last week, when the Hawks made 12 corner 3s (most in a game this season) – was part of an 0-3 homestand where the Wolves allowed almost 124 points per 100 possessions.
They’ve recovered from that to hold both the Blazers and Nuggets to about the league average over a 2-0 road trip. The Wolves are back home for the weekend, hosting the Lakers on Friday (10 p.m. ET, ESPN) and the Mavs on Sunday (8 p.m. ET, League Pass).
The Nets rank a little bit lower than they did last season in both opponent free throw rate and defensive rebounding percentage, and they’ve gone from 27th to 25th in opponent turnover rate. Their improvement is entirely about how effectively their opponents have shot; They’ve risen from ninth (53.1%) to second (49.3%) in opponent effective field goal percentage.
And while the Nets have reduced the percentage of their opponents’ shots that have come in the paint (which matters), almost all that improvement has come from the outside. The Nets lead the league in opponent 3-point percentage (31.0%), with their opponents having shot the league average (34.8%) or better in just seven of their 28 games. The percentage of their opponents’ 3s that have been tightly or very tightly contested (9%) isn’t any higher than it was last season.
So there’s reason to be skeptical. And the Nets have played more games against teams that currently rank in the bottom 10 offensively (11) than they have against teams that rank in the top 10 (seven).
But the Nets’ defense certainly passes the eye test more than it did last season. It’s fair to say that a few of the Nets’ worst defenders from last year aren’t playing for them (for various reasons) this season. They’ve been much better at taking care of business against bad teams (12-1 against the 12 currently under .500), and improved defense is likely a reason for that.
The Nets have won three straight games, escaping with a shorthanded win over Toronto on Tuesday. They’ll continue to be shorthanded as they play three home games over the next four days. Two of those – Friday against Philadelphia and Sunday against Denver – are on NBA TV at 7:30 p.m. ET.
The Suns ranked sixth defensively last season, reached The Finals, and came back even better. And a big part of their improvement is improved rim protection. Their opponents have shot just 62.4% in the restricted area, the league’s seventh lowest mark and down from 65.5% (eighth highest) last season. And their opponents have taken only 26% of their shots in the restricted area, the league’s sixth lowest rate and down from 30% (14th lowest) last season. The Suns have also seen fourth biggest jump in opponent turnover rate (+2.0 per 100 possessions).
Having an elite defense to rely on is good when you’re missing your leading scorer. The Suns will continue to be without Devin Booker as they host the Wizards on Thursday (9 p.m. ET, League Pass) and the league’s second-ranked offense (that of the Hornets) on Sunday (8 p.m. ET, League Pass).
2. The other direction
Having looked at the teams that have improved most on either end of the floor, here’s the other end of the list on offense:
Biggest drop, points scored per 100 possessions
Through Dec. 15, 2021
• The Clippers have obviously been without Kawhi Leonard all season. They rank ninth in 3-point percentage at 36.0%, but they’ve seen the league’s biggest drop from last season, when they had the fourth highest mark in NBA history (41.1%).
• The Blazers have seen big jumps in ball and player movement. But that hasn’t mattered with Damian Lillard struggling through a core injury and registering career-low marks in effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage. C.J. McCollum has also registered his lowest true shooting percentage since his rookie season.
• The Nets have been better in the restricted area since we broke down that issue a few weeks ago, but they’ve still seen the league’s third biggest drop in 2-point percentage and its seventh biggest drop in 3-point percentage.
• The Nuggets have been without Jamal Murray, and before he had back surgery, Michael Porter Jr. had seen the biggest drop in effective field goal percentage among players with at least 100 field goal attempts this season. JaMychal Green has also seen a big drop (from 56.8% to 46.1%).
• The Pistons had a bottom-five offense last season, and they’ve managed to be worse this year. Among players with at least 200 field goal attempts in each of the last two seasons, only Cameron Payne has seen a bigger drop in effective field goal percentage than Saddiq Bey (53.0% last season, 41.6% this season).
With the league-average drop (from 111.7 to 108.6), there are only four teams that have allowed more points per 100 possessions than they did last season. So the team that’s taken the fifth biggest step backward defensively has actually allowed fewer.
Biggest jump, points allowed per 100 possessions
Through Dec. 15, 2021
• After leading the league in opponent 3-point percentage last season, the Knicks rank 19th this season, with only the Pistons having seen a bigger jump. They’ve also seen a big drop in defensive rebounding percentage
• The Sixers have obviously been without Ben Simmons all season. They’ve defended much better in the 18 games that Joel Embiid has played (106.7 points allowed per 100 possessions) than they have in the 11 games he’s missed (114.7), but even the with-Embiid number (1.7 fewer than the league average) isn’t as good as they were last season, when they ranked second and allowed 4.7 points per 100 possessions fewer than the league average.
• The Hornets have just become Team Extreme, ranking second on offense and dead last on defense. As was the case last season, they allow the most efficient shots on the floor, with only the Rockets having allowed their opponents to take a greater percentage of their shots from the restricted area or 3-point range.
• The Lakers had nowhere to go but down after leading the league in defensive efficiency last season. They obviously replaced some good defenders with some not-so-good ones, but they’re trending in the right direction, ranking fourth defensively (102.9 points allowed per 100 possessions) as they’ve win six of their last eight games. The context is that six of those opponents rank in the bottom 11 offensively, so we’ll hold off before declaring that their issues are completely behind them.
• The Magic have allowed fewer points per 100 possessions than they did last season, but with the league average having seen a huge drop, they’re on this list. They’ve seen the league’s second biggest jump in opponent free throw rate, dropping from third (last season) to 16th.
3. Passing out of the post
The 3-pointer that moved Stephen Curry ahead of Ray Allen on the all-time list was not a pull-up, and it didn’t come via a pin-down screen. It wasn’t one of Curry’s patented, drive-kick-and-relocate possessions. Instead, it came off a play for Andrew Wiggins in the paint.
Shooters make the best screeners (because their defenders don’t want to leave them) and Curry set a cross-screen at the left block for Wiggins to catch the ball under the basket. Kevon Looney dove behind a doubling Nerlens Noel, and Curry popped out to the 3-point line.
That was more of a duck-in from Wiggins than a post-up, but it was a reminder that post-ups can be effective for getting the defense a bit out of sorts. As Curry is setting that screen for Wiggins, Alec Burks is tracking him with a hand on his back, and he stays attached when Wiggins catches the ball on the other block. But he loses contact as he checks out the action in the paint, and that allows Curry to retreat to the 3-point line and shoot before Burks catches up.
As the league has caught on to that fact that it isn’t an efficient way to score, the post-up has become a much smaller part of NBA offenses. According to Second Spectrum tracking, teams have averaged just 6.0 post-ups per game this season (about one every 16 possessions), down from 8.1 last season and 15.6 in 2013-14. The Lakers lead the league at 13.1 post-ups per game, a rate which would have ranked 23rd in ’13-14.
Last week in this space, we noted how it was smart for Patty Mills to get the ball back to Kevin Durant in the post. But Durant is obviously a special player, one of only eight who have scored *at least a point per possession on post-ups in each of the last two seasons.
* Minimum 50 post-up possessions last season and 25 this season. The others: Jarrett Allen, Jimmy Butler, DeMar DeRozan, Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, Nikola Jokic and Marcus Morris.
According to Synergy tracking, league-average post-up efficiency was just 0.90 points per possession through Tuesday. That was better than the marks for pick-and-roll ball-handlers (0.85) and isolations (0.88), but much worse than the marks cuts (1.26), transition (1.10), roll-man (1.09) and spot-up (1.00) possessions. And that mark would probably be lower if more players posted up. Right now, there’s a pretty strong correlation between the teams that post up most often and the ones that score most efficiently out of the post.
But Synergy only counts the play-type that ends the possession. The most efficient of those play-types above was cuts, and one good way to find cutters is via the post-up.
In the second quarter of the Rockets’ win in Atlanta on Monday, rookie Alperen Sengun rolled into a post-up against Clint Capela. Though this wasn’t a standard post-up (because it was a result of the Hawks bringing two to the ball), the Hawks are matched up pretty well when Capela rotates over …
But notice the direction that Trae Young (11) and Cam Reddish (22) are facing as Sengun surveys the floor …
Young and Reddish are turned toward the ball and not seeing Jae’Sean Tate (8) and Christian Wood (35). That allows Tate (after Sengun fakes a behind-the-back pass to nobody) to dive to the rim unimpeded.
The Hawks could certainly have defended that better, but the play was another example of how having the ball in the post gets defenders turned around and makes it more difficult for them to see both the ball and their man.
The Warriors are a team that post up to pass, entering the ball into the post to set up their split action. According to Second Spectrum tracking, they’ve passed on 61% of their post-ups, by far the highest rate in the league. Draymond Green’s rate of 74% is the highest among 64 individuals with at least 25 post-ups, followed by those of Marcus Smart (62%), Mason Plumlee (54%) and LeBron James (50%).
The New Orleans Pelicans are near the bottom of that list (30%), but they’ve run a fun post-up play to get a shooter curling back to the ball. After a timeout in a game against the Mavs last month, Devonte’ Graham entered the ball to Josh Hart in the post. He then cut through the lane as if he was clearing to the weak side. But when he hit the paint, Graham quickly changed direction and curled off a Jonas Valanciunas screen to an open 3 …
The post-up ain’t dead yet. But for all but the league’s best players, it’s more effective for facilitating than it is for scoring.
4. The Raptors’ double-double
The Toronto Raptors somewhat surprisingly rank 11th in offensive efficiency, having scored 109.6 points per 100 possessions. Their’s is not an elite half-court offense; but they lead the league in the percentage of their points that have been fast break points (15.4%) and rank second in the percentage that have been second chance points (15.0%).
Still, Raptors coach Nick Nurse has some fun stuff in his playbook. And early in the third quarter of their win over Milwaukee earlier this month, the Raps put a page of that playbook on display.
After the Bucks shot free throws, the Raptors ran a play where two guys set screens for Gary Trent Jr. out of the left corner. Then those same to guys set screens for Fred VanVleet to curl to a 3 from the left wing.
A couple of minutes later (and after more Milwaukee free throws), the Raptors ran what initially looked like the same play. But instead of using both screens, Trent curled between the two, cut through the paint and set a preliminary screen for VanVleet.
Credit Jrue Holiday (who got stuck in the double screen on the first play) for chasing VanVleet around all three screens, preventing the catch-and-shoot 3, and then stripping VanVleet when he put the ball on the floor. But it was a clever variation of the initial play.
The Raptors’ game against Bulls (originally scheduled for Thursday) has been postponed. So their next game is a visit from Curry and the Warriors on Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET).
5. Most improved shooters
As noted above, Michael Porter Jr., JaMychal Green, Saddiq Bey and Damian Lillard are some of the players who’ve seen big drops in effective field goal percentage from last season. Here are the players who have seen the biggest jumps:
Most improved effective field goal percentage
|Kelly Oubre Jr.||318||724||43.9%||90||285||31.6%||50.1%||185||402||46.0%||88||228||38.6%||57.0%||6.8%|
|Otto Porter Jr.||98||227||43.2%||39||104||37.5%||51.8%||63||142||44.4%||39||97||40.2%||58.1%||6.3%|
eFG% = (FGM + (0.5 * 3PM)) / FGA
Minimum 200 FGA in 2020-21 and 100 FGA in 2021-22 (232 players)
Through Dec. 14, 2021
That top 20 includes three members of the Jazz, two Nets, two Hornets, two Cavs, two Warriors, and two Grizzlies. Within the group, Kelly Oubre Jr. (who left the Warriors) and Otto Porter Jr. (who joined the Warriors) have seen the smallest jumps in straight field goal percentage. But they’ve both seen huge jumps in the percentage of their shots that have come from 3-point range, and with increased shot value has come a higher effective field goal percentage.
Of course, some of the players on the list – Caleb Martin, Draymond Green, LaMarcus Aldridge and Eric Gordon – have shot much better with big drops in their 3-point rate.
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