Power Rankings

Power Rankings Notebook: Inside slow starts for Wolves, Lakers

A closer look at Rudy Gobert's impact in Minnesota, the Lakers' shooting woes and 10 players elevating their game this season.

The Timberwolves have a record of 5-7 to begin the 2022-23 season.

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. Wolves’ trade for Gobert has yet to bare much fruit

The Minnesota Timberwolves are still trying to figure it out. They won four of their first six games, but those four wins came against two teams — the Thunder (x 2), Spurs — expected to finish near the bottom of the Western Conference and a team — the Lakers – that currently sits in 14th place. Since the 4-2 start, the Wolves have lost five of six, with the only win coming against the 15th-place team in the West (Houston). They have two losses to the Phoenix Suns, but also two to the Spurs and a loss to the Knicks in which they trailed by 27 points.

The Wolves’ 5-7 start is disappointing considering how easy their first seven games looked before the season started. And things got a little embarrassing in their loss to the Suns on Wednesday. On a defensive possession midway through the second quarter, the Wolves had only four guys on the floor …

Later in the second, the Wolves tried to play some zone. On one possession, they gave up a wide-open corner 3-point attempt after just two passes (with no movement from the Suns), and were fortunate that Landry Shamet missed it. On the next possession, they gave up another wide-open 3 after just two passes (with no movement from the Suns), and weren’t so fortunate.

The Wolves went all-in on trying to compete this season, sending a haul of players and picks to Utah for Rudy Gobert. Minnesota’s defense has been strong (105.5 points allowed per 100 possessions) with Gobert on the floor, it ranks 14th overall, down from 13th last season. More concerning is an offense that ranks 19th and has looked especially clunky with Towns and Gobert on the floor (with some help from untimely cuts from Jaden McDaniels).

Through Wednesday, the Wolves have been outscored by 3.4 points per 100 possessions in 227 minutes with the two bigs on the floor together. Of course, the minutes with only one of the two on the floor have actually been worse, because the defense has been terrible with only Towns on the floor and the offense has been terrible with only Gobert on the floor.

Wolves efficiency with Towns and/or Gobert on the floor

On floor MIN OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg +/-
Towns + Gobert 227 103.2 106.6 -3.4 -18
Only Towns 190 115.6 119.5 -3.9 -20
Only Gobert 93 99.5 103.3 -3.8 -14
1 or the other 283 110.2 114.0 -3.8 -34

OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

Gobert obviously isn’t creating his own offense or shooting outside of three feet, but he’s also not finishing as well or getting to the line as much as he has in the past. His true shooting percentage (64%) is his lowest mark in the last five seasons, down from a career-high 73.2% last season. Towns, meanwhile, has shot much better with Gobert off the floor (54-for-96, 56.3%) than he has with him on it (37-for-85, 43.5%). Weirdly, he’s actually taken a greater percentage of his shots in the paint with Gobert on the floor (49% vs. 44%).

The Towns-Gobert minutes haven’t been consistently bad. The duo has registered a negative plus-minus in only four of the 10 games they’ve played together. (They were a plus-8 in a little less than 21 minutes together on Wednesday, but both of them had three fouls in the first quarter.) It’s just that three of those games — Games 7-9 — were particularly brutal, with the Wolves being outscored 46 points (33.4 per 100 possessions) in their 64 minutes together against the Spurs, Suns and Bucks. Minnesota somehow scored only 95 points on 128 offensive possessions with both big men on the floor over that stretch.

Overall, it has been a mixed bag, and the Wolves’ issues go beyond the two bigs. Among 124 players with at least 100 field goal attempts through Wednesday, D’Angelo Russell (45.8%) ranks 117th in effective field goal percentage. Jaylen Nowell (102nd at 48.9%) somehow leads the team (and ranks ninth in the league) with 20.7 field goal attempts per 36 minutes (Towns has averaged just 15.6 per 36).

The 5-7 start is also disappointing in that the Wolves have played nine of those 12 games at home. They’ll now play six of their next seven (and 16 of their next 24) on the road, a stretch that begins with a visit to Memphis on Friday (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). The Grizzlies lost to Boston on Monday, but are still 23-4 at home (in the regular season) since last Christmas.

2. Jump shooting is not a new problem for the Lakers

The Los Angeles Lakers can’t shoot. After their loss to the Clippers on Wednesday, the Lakers rank last in 3-point percentage (29.3%) and 29th in mid-range field goal percentage (32.4%) — the only team that ranks in the bottom five in both. There are 88 players who’ve shot the league average (35.6%) or better on at least 30 3-point attempts, and the Lakers are one of two teams — the Washington Wizards are the other — that doesn’t have any of the 88. (Matt Ryan — 12-for-29 at 41% — is just one attempt from this arbitrary cut-off, but was also out of the rotation on Wednesday.)

Last season, the Lakers had six players (tied for fifth most) who shot the league average or better on at least 100 3-point attempts. The only one of the six still on the roster is LeBron James, who’s 17-for-72 (24%) this season. (Four of the other six are currently unemployed and the sixth was Malik Monk.) But that doesn’t mean that the Lakers were a good shooting team overall last season. They ranked 22nd in 3-point percentage (34.7%) and 18th in mid-range field goal percentage (39.6%). And because their ratio of 3-point shots to mid-range shots was well below the league average, they ranked 25th in effective field goal percentage on all shots from outside the paint (48.8%).

With James and Anthony Davis, the Lakers have been a much better shooting team in the paint than they’ve been from the outside. In fact, in each of their four seasons since they traded for Davis, the Lakers have had the biggest or second-biggest differential between their field goal percentage in the paint and their effective field goal percentage on shots from outside the paint.

Lakers FG% in paint vs. effective FG% from outside the paint

Season Paint FG% Rank Outside eFG% Rank Diff. Rank %FGA Paint Rank
2019-20 60.9% 1 47.9% 27 13.0% 1 49% 12
2020-21 58.8% 7 48.7% 26 10.2% 1 49% 11
2021-22 59.2% 3 48.8% 25 10.4% 2 47% 16
2022-23 57.3% 12 40.9% 30 16.3% 1 53% 5

eFG% = (FGM + (0.5 * 3PM)) / FGA

So, the Lakers being much better inside than outside is not something new. But this season, they’ve shot much worse, both inside and outside, than they did any of the previous three seasons.

The Lakers ranked just 22nd offensively last season, but have still seen the second biggest drop in points scored per 100 possessions (-6.7), with only the Charlotte Hornets (-7.9) having seen a bigger drop. Charlotte is also the only team that’s seen a bigger drop in effective field goal percentage.

James has seen the 13th biggest drop in effective field goal percentage (from 59.0% to 49.5%) among 197 players with at least 250 field goal attempts last season and at least 50 this season. He’s also seeing a pretty not-insignificant drop in free throw rate (from 27.5 to 21.9 attempts per 100 shots from the field). Davis, meanwhile, is 11-for-41 (27%) from outside the paint, with most of those shots (7-for-26) coming from mid-range (with less value).

The Lakers will certainly shoot better than this as the season goes on. In fact, after registering an effective field goal percentage below 50% in each of their first five games, they’ve been above 50 in each of their last six (with James having his most effective shooting night of the season on Wednesday). Of course, in only three of those six did they get above the league average (53.3%). You can also tell from the table above and the percentage of their shots that have come in the paint that they’re keenly aware of how bad they shoot from the outside.

The Lakers will continue to be flawed, and the flaw is the same one they’ve had for the last four years. In 2019-20, they were able to overcome it with the league’s third-ranked defense and because they shot much better (both inside and out) in the bubble playoffs than they did in the regular season. Davis, famously, shot 49.6% from mid-range and 38.3% from 3-point range in those playoffs, up from 34.9% and 33.0% in the regular season. Since then, he hasn’t come close to replicating that success.

These Lakers ranked second defensively through their first seven games, but they’ve quickly fallen to 13th defensively, having allowed 123 points per 100 possessions over their four-game losing streak.

They’ll try to put an end to that losing streak when they host the Sacramento Kings (who’ve won four of their last six games) on Friday (10:30 p.m. ET, League Pass). They’ll then host the Brooklyn Nets (who’ve also won four of six and rank first defensively in November) on Sunday (9:30 p.m. ET, NBA TV).

3. Haliburton’s hands

Tyrese Haliburton has been an offensive star for the surprisingly-decent Indiana Pacers, averaging 21.6 points and 9.9 assists as the Pacers have gone 5-6. They’ve beaten the Nets, Heat and Pelicans, and they had an 18-point, second-half lead over the Nuggets on Wednesday, before coming up short down the stretch. Haliburton ranks 11th in true shooting percentage among the 124 players with at least 100 field goal attempts and his assist/turnover ratio (3.27) ranks 11th among the 46 players with at least 50 total assists.

His defense can be a mixed bag. It was noted in Power Rankings this week how the Heat got two Gabe Vincent layups (one, two) on the same exact play early in the second quarter last Friday, and Haliburton was seemingly the source of the breakdown both times. He can also get caught ball-watching on occasion.

But one thing that Haliburton does defensively is a clear display of his basketball IQ and instincts. Twice in the Pacers’ Week 1 win over the Pistons, Haliburton stopped a Detroit fast break by anticipating a low bounce pass through traffic. First, he got Cade Cunningham (note how Haliburton is already putting his hands in the path of the pass before Cunningham has even thrown it) …

Tyrese Haliburton steal vs. Detroit

Just a few minutes later, he got Saddiq Bey …

Tyrese Haliburton steal vs. Detroit

A week later, he got Kevin Durant …

Tyrese Haliburton steal vs. Brooklyn

We can often cite a high-hands deflection, when a defender gets his hands up high to deflect a pass. A low-hands deflection is pretty unique, but it’s a Tyrese Haliburton specialty.

4. Off to a hot(ter) start

It was noted above that LeBron James has seen one of the biggest drops in effective field goal percentage from last season. Here are the 10 players who’ve seen the biggest jumps in effective field goal percentage through Wednesday …

Biggest jump, effective FG%, 2021-22 to 2022-23

2021-22 2022-23 Diff.
Kelly Olynyk 128 286 44.8% 51.8% 57 100 57.0% 67.5% +15.8%
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope 361 829 43.5% 53.1% 42 81 51.9% 67.3% +14.1%
Al Horford 266 569 46.7% 54.6% 36 65 55.4% 67.7% +13.1%
Terance Mann 334 690 48.4% 53.9% 35 56 62.5% 67.0% +13.1%
Georges Niang 246 563 43.7% 57.6% 35 70 50.0% 69.3% +11.7%
Damian Lillard 222 552 40.2% 48.6% 60 125 48.0% 59.6% +11.1%
Trey Murphy III 109 277 39.4% 52.2% 43 89 48.3% 62.4% +10.2%
Kevin Huerter 345 760 45.4% 55.9% 54 110 49.1% 65.9% +10.0%
Jaden McDaniels 255 554 46.0% 53.3% 53 92 57.6% 63.0% +9.8%
Jalen Suggs 198 548 36.1% 40.0% 32 74 43.2% 49.3% +9.4%

eFG% = (FGM + (0.5 * 3PM)) / FGA
Minimum 250 FGA in 2021-22 and 50 FGA in 2022-23 (197 players)

5. The face cut

Sometimes, the simplest actions can be the most effective. A fun one is the “face cut,” named as such because the offensive player is cutting in front of the face of his defender. It’s a favorite of Devin Booker, and a handful of other players have made use of it early this season.

The cut is dependent on the defender’s positioning, but it can catch the opponent off guard, because a player stationed in the corner is much more likely to approach the ball for a handoff than to cut from there to the basket.

A couple of weeks ago, RJ Barrett caught Gordon Hayward leaning the wrong way and got himself a dunk with a timely face cut …

RJ Barrett face cut vs. Charlotte

On Saturday, Herb Jones got a big and-one (as the Pelicans came back from a 13-point deficit to force overtime) with a face cut in front of Trae Young …

Herb Jones face cut vs. Atlanta

It obviously helps for a lefty to be face-cutting from the right corner, so that he can finish with his strong hand.

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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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