Power Rankings Notebook: Early-season trends, changes around NBA
Breaking down style of play changes around the league, plus film studies on Boston's defense, New York's offense and Popovich's new (old) trick.
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. Early style of play changes
After Thursday’s games, the season will be exactly 10% complete. And with teams having averaged about eight games played through Wednesday, there are certainly some interesting numbers in regard to how teams have performed on both ends of the floor. We’ll wait another week or two before diving into that (at this point last season the Cavs, Magic, Pelicans and Nets all ranked in the top five defensively), but we can start to look at the changes in style of play.
Teams that have seen the biggest jumps in possessions per 48 minutes, comparing this season’s numbers to those of last season (all 72 games):
The league average has seen a jump of 0.6 possessions per 48 minutes (from 99.7 to 100.3), but can be expected to drop as the season goes on. (It’s already dropped from 100.7 too 100.3 since Monday.)
Teams that have seen the biggest drops in possessions per 48 minutes:
It’s not a coincidence that the Lakers have seen the biggest jump and the Wizards have seen the biggest drop. What’s interesting is that the Lakers’ pace has been faster with Rajon Rondo on the floor (109.3 possessions per 48) than it’s been with Russell Westbrook on the floor (107.0). Westbrook’s on-court mark is still the fourth highest among 260 players who’ve averaged at least 15 minutes per game and the pace has been rather ridiculous (116.4 per 48) in the 25 minutes in which the two guards have shared the floor.
Increased ball movement
Teams that have seen the biggest jump in passes per 24 minutes of possession:
The league average has seen a drop of about four passes per 24 minutes of possession (from 330 to 326).
Decreased ball movement
Teams that have seen the biggest drop in passes per 24 minutes of possession:
3-point rate (3PA/FGA) jump
Teams that have seen the biggest jump in the percentage of their shots that have come from 3-point range:
The league average is up for what would be an 11th straight season, from 39.2% to 40.1%.
3-point rate (3PA/FGA) drop
Teams that have seen the biggest drop in the percentage of their shots that have come from 3-point range:
At the start of the season, a lot of teams say they want to play faster, move the ball more, and shoot more 3s. Hopefully, the Toronto Raptors didn’t make that claim this year. They’ve seen the fourth biggest drop in pace, its third biggest drop in ball movement, and its biggest drop in 3-point rate. But it’s working for them. The Raps have won five straight games and sit in fourth place in the Eastern Conference. They return home for visits from the Cavs on Friday and Nets on Sunday.
Changes have also been made on defense, especially in Minnesota and Portland. We’ll look at those and how well they’ve worked in next week’s notebook.
The Boston Celtics have had a rough start to the season, with the nadir coming Monday, when they blew a 19-point, late third-quarter lead to Chicago and Marcus Smart had things to say about his teammates’ willingness to pass the ball.
Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum each had three assists in Orlando on Wednesday, but the offense wasn’t the biggest reason why the Celtics ended their three-game losing streak. They scored just 92 points, but still won comfortably, because they held the Magic to just 79 points on 94 possessions, including just 10 points on 23 possessions in the game-deciding third quarter.
The Magic were responsible for some of that ugliness, but the Celtics had some good defensive sequences in that third period. One Orlando possession was a proper display of how the Celtics can flatten out opposing offenses with their switching scheme.
Before they got to that, Marcus Smart made up for a mistake (a bad pass) by making Cole Anthony work to get the ball across the midcourt line …
Then we saw Smart and Al Horford switch two actions between Anthony and Franz Wagner, giving the Magic no kind of advantage. After the second switch, Smart denied a handoff from Mo Bamba to Anthony …
Horford got his hand on Bamba’s handoff to Wagner and pressured Wagner 30 feet from the basket as the shot clock wound down. Knowing there was only a few seconds left to shoot and that Anthony was standing on the logo, Smart came to double and keep Wagner from getting around Horford …
The Celtics generally don’t switch with Robert Williams, but they do with everybody else in their rotation, including Horford when he’s playing center. According to Second Spectrum tracking, they’ve switched 48% of ball-screens, the highest rate in the league by a wide margin. And their opponents have been much less efficient when they’ve switched (0.77 points per chance) than when they haven’t.
The team that’s switched the second highest rate of ball screens (34%) is the Miami Heat. So it could be a bit of a switch-fest when the Celtics (ranked 18th defensively) and the East-leading Heat (with the league’s No. 1 defense) meet in Miami on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET, NBA TV).
3. Knicks off the dribble
In each of their six seasons under Mike D’Antoni and/or Mike Woodson, the Knicks ranked in the top three in 3-point rate, leading the league (at 35.4%) in the only season (2012-13) in the last 21 years in which they won a playoff series. And in each of the last seven seasons, they’ve ranked in the bottom 10. Last season, they were the only team that ranked in the top 10 in 3-point percentage (39.2%, third), but in the bottom 10 in 3-point rate (34.7%, 24th).
So there’s been a clear effort in New York to shoot more 3s. And the additional attempts from beyond the arc have come entirely off the dribble. According to Second Spectrum tracking, the Knicks have seen just a drop in catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts per game, from 22.2 (25th) last season to 21.8 (23rd) this season. But they’ve more than doubled their pull-up 3-point attempts, from 7.3 (24th) to 16.4 (third) per game.
The two new additions to the starting lineup have led the way. Kemba Walker (4.1 per game) and Evan Fournier (3.4) lead the team in pull-up 3-point attempts, adding a (somewhat) new element to New York’s offensive attack.
But it’s not like the Knicks didn’t shoot off the dribble last season. In fact, they ranked ninth with 25.4 pull-up jumpers per game and sixth with 26.2 per 100 possessions. But only 29% of their pull-up jumpers, the league’s fourth lowest rate, came from beyond the arc. Only Chris Paul (480) attempted more pull-up 2-pointers than Julius Randle (463) last season.
This season, 51% of the Knicks’ pull-up jumpers, the league’s sixth highest rate, have been 3s. Not only have they added Walker and Fournier, but Randle (from 19% to 32%), RJ Barrett (from 10% to 52%), Alec Burks (from 46% to 62%) and Derrick Rose (from 18% to 37%) have all seen big jumps in the percentage of their pull-up jumpers that have come from 3-point range.
Barrett doesn’t have Walker’s pull-up footwork just yet (that’s a big ask, by the way). And, like a Lou Williams, seems more comfortable shooting a jumper off a weak-hand dribble. But he hit one of those weak-hand dribble, pull-up 3s to seal the Knicks’ win in New Orleans on Saturday …
The Knicks rank fourth in pull-up 3-point percentage at 38.2%. They may not be able to keep it that high (they were 2-for-13 on Wednesday), but by adding the two new guards and by turning some of their returnees’ 2s into 3s, they’ve raised their ceiling offensively.
Fun fact: In eight seasons (prior to this one) of player tracking, the high for pull-up 3-point percentage is the Warriors’ 40.3% in 2015-16, when Stephen Curry accounted for 502 (71%) of their 705 attempts.
Unfortunately, the Knicks’ defense has taken a step backward. With league-wide efficiency down quite a bit, they’re one of just three teams – the Lakers and Grizzlies are the others – that have allowed more points per 100 possessions (109.7, 25th) than they did last season (107.8, fourth).
And they’ve dropped two straight games since that win in New Orleans. They’ll look to bounce back when they play the champs in Milwaukee on Friday (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). Then they’re back at Madison Square Garden to host the Cavs on Sunday (6 p.m. ET, League Pass).
4. The Wooden-Pop connection
When you were playing ball in middle or high school, your team may have employed or played against a 2-2-1 press. It’s a defense that goes back at least as far as John Wooden’s UCLA teams. Wooden assistant Denny Crum popularized it at Louisville, where he coached for 30 years and won a couple of national championships of his own.
Here’s a quote from a 1965 Sports Illustrated story about the popularity of full and three-quarter presses in college basketball:
Twice UCLA has used this shattering weapon to win the NCAA championship, and now every coach in the country is either planning to use it or worrying about how to beat it, or both. Even the pros, who have a rule outlawing all zone defenses, are copying it.
Gregg Popovich was in the eighth grade in 1965, but he’s coaching the pros now. And he’s using the ‘ol 2-2-1 press in San Antonio. There were several times in Indiana on Monday where, after the Spurs shot free throws, they pressed the Pacers with a 2-2-1 zone.
And it worked well on two occasions late in the first quarter. With a little less than two minutes to go, it forced a live-ball turnover, which turned into a wide-open corner 3 for Bryn Forbes …
Two possessions later, the Pacers turned it over again against the press …
Forcing a turnover is the best-case scenario. And even if doesn’t force a miscue, pressure defense can take some time off the clock and leave minimal time for the opponent to execute in its half-court offense. Unfortunately, the Spurs’ half-court defense was pretty abysmal on Monday. Midway through the second quarter, the Pacers broke the press, the Spurs went back into a man-to-man defense and switched screens, and Domantas Sabonis got an easy duck-in against Dejounte Murray.
The low point was probably the first two possessions of the third quarter, when the Spurs yielded two layups – a T.J. McConnell drive and a McConnell drop-off to Sabonis – on the same exact same double-drag action. The Pacers’ 131 points on 99 possessions was the most efficient game for any team this season.
After a one-point loss to Dallas on Wednesday, the Spurs are 2-6, seemingly destined for a third straight trip to the Lottery and permanent residence in the bottom 10 of the Power Rankings. But it’s still early and they do have a pair of winnable road games this weekend, visiting the Orlando Magic on Friday and the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday (7 p.m. ET, NBA TV). We’ll see if those young teams can handle the “shattering” 2-2-1.
5. Carrying a heavier load
A quick look at the players who’ve seen the biggest jump in usage rate from last season, along with their change in true shooting percentage (scoring efficiency):
Biggest jumps in usage rate
• Minimum 500 minutes in 2020-21 and 100 minutes in ’21-22 (228 players)
• USG% = The percentage of his team’s possessions a player uses (via field goal attempts, turnovers and trips to the line) while he’s on the floor.
• TS = PTS / (2 * (FGA + (0.44 * FTA)))
Miles Bridges has had a terrific season, but (with a 4-for-18 performance against Cleveland on Monday) has actually seen a dip in effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage from really strong marks last season. His jump in scoring (from 12.7 to 24.1 points per game) is more about increases in both usage and minutes (from 29.3 to 35.7). Of course, the former comes with increased degree of difficulty in regard to how he’s scoring.
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