Power Rankings

Power Rankings Notebook: Best offenses ever, key Most Improved Player stats and more

Breaking down stats on the best offenses in the NBA, plus a look at the contenders for Kia Most Improved Player.

John Schuhmann

John Schuhmann

The Nets have an efficient offense, but where does it rank among the best offenses in NBA history?

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. Best offense ever?

Last season, the Dallas Mavericks had the most efficient offense (115.9 points scored per 100 possessions) in the time (since the 1996-97 season) for which we have play-by-play data. And we can safely assume that that was also the highest mark in NBA history.

This season, that mark has been topped by six different teams, with the Brooklyn Nets (117.1) leading the way, the LA Clippers (116.9) not far behind, and the Portland Trail Blazers (116.7) having made a charge toward the top over the last 10 days. Again, it’s safe to assume that these are the six most efficient offenses in NBA history.

But do the Nets have the best offense in NBA history? For that question, it would be best to take the league as a whole into account. With six teams having topped the mark of last season’s Mavs and with the 30th-ranked Thunder (103.1 per 100) having scored more efficiently than the 12th-ranked Nuggets did 20 years ago, this is (obviously) the most efficient offensive season for the league as a whole at 111.6 points per 100 possessions. Last season (110.1 per 100) was the most efficient in NBA history and the jump from last season to this one (+1.5 per 100) is the third biggest in the last 17 years.

So, when we compare a team’s mark for efficiency to the league average, the Nets (+5.5) rank as the only the 30th best offense in the 25 seasons for which we have play-by-play data, with their coach having been the point guard for six of the top 11 (the 10 below and the 11th-ranked 2002-03 Mavs).

Most efficient offenses vs. league average, since 1996-97

Season Team OffRtg Lg. avg. Diff.
2003-04 Dallas 110.4 101.4 9.0
2004-05 Phoenix 112.7 104.5 8.2
2015-16 Golden State 113.5 105.6 7.9
2006-07 Phoenix 112.9 105.3 7.6
1997-98 Utah 110.9 103.3 7.6
1996-97 Chicago 112.4 105.0 7.4
2009-10 Phoenix 113.9 106.6 7.3
1996-97 Utah 112.3 105.0 7.3
2001-02 Dallas 110.3 103.1 7.2
2003-04 Sacramento 108.6 101.4 7.2

OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions

Using the same math on the other end of the floor (points allowed per 100 possessions vs. the league average), the Los Angeles Lakers (106.5, -5.1 vs. the league average) rank as just the 38th best defense of the last 25 seasons, with No. 1 being the 2003-04 San Antonio Spurs (93.1, -8.3). So the the best offense and best defense of the last 25 seasons came in the same year. (The Mavs won three of the four head-to-head meetings, but the Spurs lasted longer in the playoffs.)

By comparing points scored and allowed per 100 possessions vs. the league average, the Oklahoma City Thunder (103.1 scored, -8.5) rank as the seventh worst offense and the Sacramento Kings (117.2 allowed, +5.6) rank as the 30th worst defense of the last 25 seasons.

The two most efficient offenses in NBA history will both be featured on TNT on Thursday. The No. 1 Nets are in Dallas at 7:30 p.m. ET, while the No. 2 Clippers face the Lakers’ No. 1 defense at 10.

2. Nikola Jokic … the iso stopper?

The stats show that Nikola Jokic is a more-than capable defender in iso situations.

Isolation defense via Synergy play-type tracking doesn’t produce large sample sizes. While 42 players have at least 100 isolation possessions on offense this season, only three — Deandre Ayton, Jeff Green and Richaun Holmes — have defended at least 100 isolation possessions. But there’s still some interesting results when we look at the 72 players who’ve defended at least 50.

At the top of the list in regard to yielding the fewest points per possession is Draymond Green. The 0.37 points per possession he’s allowed on isolations (with opponents shooting just 6-for-40) is, by far, the best mark among players who’ve defended at least 50. With the Warriors ranking fifth defensively and Green tied for third among the league’s best rim protectors (minimum 200 shots at the rim defended), he should be near the top of the list for Kia Defensive Player of the Year consideration.

The player who’s second on the list in isolation defense may be more interesting. Kia MVP frontrunner Nikola Jokic can be thought of as an offense-only candidate. He ranks closer to the bottom of those rim protection rankings (51st among 60 players who’ve defended at least 200 shots at the rim, with some guards in the group below him) than the top, and the Nuggets have allowed far more points per 100 possessions with him on the floor (112.2) than they have with him off the floor (103.7).

But the 0.61 points per possession that Jokic has allowed on isolations is the second-lowest mark among those 72 players who’ve defended at least 50. He also ranks in the top 10 in regard to post-up defense. So maybe, as we gear up for the postseason, putting Jokic on an island is something Denver opponents will want to avoid?

The iso film doesn’t really belie the stats, and among the players against whom Jokic has gotten iso stops are Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard and LeBron James. He’s not Draymond Green, but he’s not Marvin Bagley III, either.

Here’s what you might expect from a lumbering big man trying to guard James. Jokic stands up, wiggles his arms, and James drives by…

LeBron James drive by Nikola Jokic

Jokic generally will play soft in an iso situation, preferring to be beat over the top than off the dribble…

Gordon Hayward isolation vs. Nikola Jokic

Against shooters like Curry and Lillard, he’s forced to apply more pressure. And if they try to shoot over him, his size can make a difference…

Stephen Curry 3-point attempt vs. Nikola Jokic

There’s some luck in in those iso numbers, and there have been times when Jokic has gotten timely help from a teammate. But there have also been instances where Jokic has done a nice job of staying in front of an elite ball-handler, only to be beat on a tough shot…

CJ McCollum step-back jumper vs. Nikola Jokic

Numbers from Second Spectrum tracking, which include iso situations that don’t end in a shot, drawn foul or turnover from the ball-handler, have Jokic ranked 26th among *117 defenders who’ve defended at least 100 isolations. That’s not as high as the Synergy numbers, but it’s still strong. And it will be something to keep in mind if ball-handlers try to attack Jokic in the postseason.

* As is the case with Synergy tracking, Green ranks No. 1, while Bagley ranks last.

With their win over the Knicks on Wednesday, the 44-22 Nuggets moved into third place in the Western Conference, holding the head-to-head tiebreaker over the 44-22 Clippers. To remain there through the weekend, they’ll have to survive a tough back-to-back. They’ll visit the Jazz on Friday (9 p.m. ET, League Pass) and then host the Nets on Saturday (10 p.m. ET, NBA TV).

3. Some Most Improved Player data

Jerami Grant’s first season in Detroit has been a success in several statistical ways.

NBA awards ballots were sent out on Wednesday and are due the day after the regular season ends. The Kia Most Improved Player Award can be the most vaguely defined award of the nine that media members vote on (including the All-NBA, All-Rookie and All-Defensive teams), but it can also be the award most suitable for simple statistical analysis.

And we can start really simply. Here are the non-rookies who played at least *200 minutes last season, have played at least 750 minutes this season (258 total players), and have seen the biggest points + rebounds + assists per game (PRA/G).

* The 200-minute minimum for last season’s minutes removes Isaiah Roby (11 minutes last season, +16.0 PRA/G from last season to this one), Moses Brown (33, +14.4), Stephen Curry (139, +10.2) and Jarred Vanderbilt (47, 9.8) from the list below.

Biggest jumps in points + rebounds + assists per game

2019-20 2020-21
Player GP PRA/G GP PRA/G Diff.
Jerami Grant 71 16.7 53 30.0 13.2
Michael Porter Jr. 55 14.9 56 27.5 12.6
Darius Bazley 61 10.3 50 22.8 12.5
Christian Wood 62 20.3 41 32.3 12.0
Kevin Porter Jr. 50 15.4 26 26.7 11.3
Malik Beasley 55 15.2 37 26.3 11.1
Ty Jerome 31 6.2 32 16.7 10.5
Chris Boucher 62 11.5 59 21.4 9.9
Luguentz Dort 36 9.8 50 19.5 9.7
Kyle Anderson 67 12.5 63 21.7 9.3

Interestingly, next on this list would be Nikola Jokic, who has gone from 36.7 to 45.8 points + rebounds + assists per game. And it would be hard to deny that the Kia MVP favorite, who received only six top-five votes last season (two each for third, fourth and fifth place), is a much improved player.

Some of these jumps have come with jumps in minutes. Michael Porter Jr. has seen the biggest jump in minutes per game (+15.1) among the 258 players who played at least 200 minutes last season (and is behind only Roby and Brown if we remove that minimum). Darius Bazley (+12.8, fourth), Christian Wood (+11.0, seventh), Malik Beasley (+10.8, eighth), Ty Jerome (+13.3, second) and Chris Boucher (+10.8, ninth) are also in the top 10 in that regard.

So here are the biggest jumps in points + rebounds + assists per 36 minutes among that same group of 258 players …

Biggest jumps in points + rebounds + assists per 36 minutes

2019-20 2020-21
Player MIN PRA/36 MIN PRA/36 Diff.
Jerami Grant 1,892 22.6 1,892 31.7 9.1
Thaddeus Young 1,591 24.7 1,591 33.5 8.9
Luguentz Dort 820 15.5 820 23.4 7.9
Hamidou Diallo 896 20.9 896 28.6 7.7
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander 2,428 29.3 2,428 36.7 7.4
Kenrich Williams 832 16.4 832 23.7 7.3
Darius Garland 1,824 21.1 1,824 28.2 7.1
Jordan Poole 1,274 21.3 1,274 28.2 6.9
Darius Bazley 1,129 20.1 1,129 26.3 6.2
Kevin Porter Jr. 1,162 23.8 1,162 29.9 6.1

So Grant remains at the top, but Michael Porter Jr. falls way down the list, having seen a drop in PRA/36, from 32.6 last season to 31.3 this season. Part of that is the 22 year old playing 84% of his minutes alongside Jokic, up from just 45% of his minutes last season.

Of course, five of the 10 guys above are (or were) members of the Oklahoma City Thunder. And their numbers have all been affected by big jumps in *usage rate. With Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams all gone, there have been a lot more touches to go around in OKC. Jerami Grant, in going from Denver to Detroit, has seen his usage rate go from 17.7% to 27.8%. That’s the biggest jump, by a wide margin, among the 258 players we’ve been looking at. After Grant are Luguentz Dort (from 13.9% to 21.6%), Darius Bazley (from 14.6% to 21.4%), Kenrich Williams (from 8.7% to 14.5%) and the Sixers’ Shake Milton (from 18.6% to 24.1%).

* Usage rate = The percentage of his team’s possessions a player uses (via field goal attempts, trips to the line and turnovers) while he’s on the floor.

That’s not to dismiss any improvements that those players have made. Grant has certainly expanded his game and is worthy of Most Improved consideration. It’s just adding some context to his per-game and per-minute numbers.

With that jump in usage rate, Grant has seen a drop in *true shooting percentage, which is a measure of scoring efficiency. His true shooting percentage of 55.6% ranks 35th among the 48 players with a usage rate of 25% or higher.

* True shooting percentage = PTS / (2 * (FGA + (0.44 * FTA)))

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s mark of 62.3% ranks seventh among those 48 players and is up from 56.8%, with the context that he’s played less than half of the minutes that he played last season. Other players that have seen big jumps in true shooting percentage along with jumps in usage rate of 4% or higher are Kenrich Williams (his true shooting percentage of 59.4% is up from 42.9% last season), Kyle Anderson (57.4% vs. 53.4%), Darius Garland (54.7% vs. 48.8%), Hamidou Diallo (54.2% vs. 49.1%) and Jordan Poole (55.5% vs. 45.4%).

Here are the players who’ve seen the league’s biggest jumps in true shooting percentage, having attempted at least 100 field goals last season and at least 300 this season (203 total players) …

Biggest jump in true shooting percentage from last season

2019-20 2020-21
Player FGM FGA FG% TS% FGM FGA FG% TS% Diff.
Kenrich Williams 51 147 34.7% 42.9% 205 387 53.0% 59.4% 16.5%
Wayne Ellington 61 174 35.1% 50.9% 142 319 44.5% 62.9% 12.0%
Sterling Brown 95 256 37.1% 48.6% 150 335 44.8% 59.7% 11.0%
Robin Lopez 147 299 49.2% 55.4% 234 368 63.6% 66.3% 11.0%
Miles Bridges 319 753 42.4% 52.0% 295 583 50.6% 62.8% 10.8%
Reggie Bullock 90 224 40.2% 50.2% 220 494 44.5% 60.9% 10.7%
Jordan Poole 167 502 33.3% 45.4% 166 401 41.4% 55.5% 10.1%
Joe Ingles 246 553 44.5% 59.5% 255 508 50.2% 69.0% 9.5%
Anfernee Simons 214 536 39.9% 50.2% 158 372 42.5% 59.6% 9.4%
Naz Reid 100 243 41.2% 50.5% 276 533 51.8% 59.7% 9.2%

TS% = PTS / (FGA + (0.44 * FTA)))
Minimum 100 FGA in 2019-20 and 300 FGA in 2020-21

One reason why Most Improved can be tough to adjudicate is that there are different phases of improvement. There’s bad to decent, decent to good, good to great, and great to elite. Most of the players in the lists above are probably in the lower two categories, while Jokic’s would certainly count as “great to elite” improvement.

Julius Randle has keyed the Knicks' rise in 2020-21.

One player who’s missing from the above lists and might just be the favorite for the Most Improved Award is Julius Randle. So here’s a Randle breakdown, shrinking the field of consideration to players who’ve played more minutes and taken more shots over the last two seasons…

  • Randle’s jump of 7.9 points + rebounds + assists (PRA) per game (from 32.3 to 40.2) ranks 13th among the 186 players who played at least 750 minutes last season and have played at least 1,000 minutes this season. His jump in assists per game (from 3.1 to 5.9) ranks third.
  • That improvement, of course, has come with an increase in minutes. Randle’s jump of 3.0 PRA per 36 minutes (from 35.8 to 38.8) ranks 32nd among that same group of 186 players. His jump of 2.3 assists per 36 ranks sixth.
  • Randle’s jump in true shooting percentage (from 53.8% to 57.2%) is the 22nd biggest among 102 players with at least 500 field goal attempts in each of the last two seasons. That mark of 57.2% ranks 27th among 48 high-usage players and is not the highest mark of Randle’s career. He was a more efficient scorer in 2017-18 (60.6%) and 2018-19 (60.0%).

There are more intangibles beyond the effort and execution on defense. And while the minutes increase has played a role in Randle’s per-game numbers, the Knicks have seen one of the league’s biggest drops in pace (from 99.1 to 96.5 possessions per 48 minutes). Randle’s points and rebounds per 100 possessions are not career-high marks, but his 7.8 assists per 100 possessions are up from 4.6 last season and a previous high of 5.9 in 2016-17.

Does that make him the Most Improved Player? The voters will decide.

4. Seal against the switch

Jayson Tatum found ways to score against the Nets despite being the focal point of their defense.

Jayson Tatum finished fourth in Most Improved voting last season, receiving three of the 100 first-place votes. He continues to improve, registering career-high marks in points, rebounds and assists per game, along with jumps in effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage from last season.

Last Friday, Tatum matched Larry Bird’s franchise record, scoring 60 points in the Celtics’ overtime win against San Antonio. Five of those 60 came on buckets to tie or take the lead in the final minute of the fourth quarter and OT. Tatum now leads the league with eight total buckets (on 15 attempts) to tie or take the lead in the final minute of the fourth quarter or OT, one more than DeMar DeRozan (7-for-15).

The Celtics have Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown, but the 23-year-old Tatum has clearly established himself as the go-to guy down the stretch. Being that guy not only requires one-on-one skills, but also the means to get open against different kinds of defense.

A team the Celtics could face in the first round is the Brooklyn Nets. The Nets swept the season series, but Tatum averaged 29.7 points on 51% shooting over the three games. And one way he took advantage of the Nets was by sealing the switch.

No team has switched more ball screens than Brooklyn. Previously in this space, we’ve noted how the Nets will “scram” their smaller guards out of post-switch mismatches. But in their final meeting, there were a couple of occasions where Tatum didn’t let them get to there.

Late in the second quarter, Tatum set a ball-screen for Marcus Smart and Jeff Green (guarding Tatum) was set to switch the screen. But because Marcus Smart never used it, instead passing to Luke Kornet, Kyrie Irving never left Smart. Tatum rolled to the rim, got the feed for Kornet and had a dunk before Landry Shamet’s weak-side help could arrive…

Jayson Tatum pick-and-roll

Notice the angle of Tatum’s screen, though. It’s flat, with his back to the baseline. So even if Irving was ready to switch, he would be behind Tatum’s roll to the rim. That battle, with initial ball defender trying to get on the low side of the screener, is always one to watch with switching defenses.

Midway through the third quarter, the Celtics ran an out-of-timeout, sideline-out-of-bounds play where Tatum set a back-screen for Smart, drawing another switch from Green. With Irving again caught on the high side, Tatum sealed vs. the switch and got another layup…

Celtics out of bounds play

The Celtics currently sit in sixth place in the East at 35-31. They’re in Chicago on Friday (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) and then have a huge two-game series against the seventh-place Miami Heat (also 35-31), with the first game on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Only the Nets and Hornets have switched more ball-screens than the Heat, according to Second Spectrum tracking. So look for Tatum to seal the switch as the Celtics and Heat play two games that could very well determine who avoids the Play-In and who has to go through it.

* * *

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.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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