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. Pelicans Make a Change
In each of the last two seasons, the Milwaukee Bucks have set the NBA record for most 3-pointers allowed per game, allowing 13.1 per game in 2018-19 and 14.0 per game last season. This season, the Bucks are on pace to break the record again, but they’re only fourth in most 3-pointers allowed per game at 14.4.
Way “ahead of” the pack are the New Orleans Pelicans, who are blasting the Bucks’ record, having allowed 16.0 3s per game.
We know that the league has been taking more 3s every year. This season, 39.5% of shots have come from 3-point range, up from 38.4% last season and just 22.2% 10 years ago.
But the number of 3s that the Pelicans have allowed vs. the league average (12.9 per game) is also the highest in NBA history. In regard to their 3s allowed as a percentage of the league average (16.0 / 12.9), it’s the highest mark in the last nine years, since the 2011-12 Denver Nuggets allowed 135% more 3s than the league average.
Most 3-pointers allowed vs. league average, last 20 seasons (since 2001-02)
|Team||Season||GP||Opp3PM||Opp3PA||Opp3P%||Opp3PM/G||Lg. avg.||% Lg. avg.|
And that’s with the Pels in the bottom 10 in pace. On a per-possession basis, the gap between them and the Charlotte Hornets is even bigger. The Pelicans are the only team that rank in the bottom five in both opponent 3-point percentage (39.3%, 28th) and the percentage of their opponents’ shots that have come from 3-point range (46%, 28th). And with the New Orleans offense below the league average in both 3-point percentage and the percentage of their own shots that have come from 3-point range, the Pelicans have been outscored by a league-worst 12.5 points per game from beyond the arc. Zion Williamson has been a force inside — his 19.0 points in the paint per game is the highest mark (by a wide margin) of the last 18 years — but that’s a big deficit to make up.
So what’s going on with the New Orleans defense? Well, things have changed in the last week. But let’s start with what was going on with the New Orleans defense.
For most of their first 29 games, when the opponent ran pick-and-roll, the Pels brought their bigs up to the level of the screen, instead of keeping him in the paint like most other teams. With that, they pulled their weak-side low defenders all the way into the paint. Note how far Brandon Ingram ventures away from Nicolas Batum in the left corner in order to “tag” Serge Ibaka’s roll…
That left the Pelicans vulnerable on the weak side. And good playmakers were able to take advantage. It wasn’t an effort issue most of the time; the defense was just too stretched out, and the opponents were getting too many shots that were open and in rhythm. Through last Friday, 88% of Pels’ opponents’ 3-pointers, the league’s fourth highest opponent rate, were assisted.
The breaking point was the fourth quarter of their loss to Phoenix on Friday night, when Chris Paul and the Suns did this…
At that point, the Pels ranked 29th in defensive efficiency, even though they were in the top 10 in opponent free throw rate and defensive rebounding percentage. So, on Sunday afternoon against the Celtics, the Pelicans began dropping their bigs back on pick-and-rolls…
They had other issues in falling behind by 24 points and they defended pick-and-rolls more aggressively as they came all the way back to win in overtime. But the Pels allowed the Celtics to make just 10 3s, and they were back in the drop coverage in their win over Detroit on Wednesday. They haven’t quite stopped the bleeding (the Pistons made seven threes in the first quarter), but they’ve reduced it a bit. The number of 3-pointers that they’ve allowed per game has already dropped from 16.3 (through Friday) to 16.0.
The Pels now face the team whose record they’re breaking. They visit the Bucks on Thursday (9:30 p.m. ET, TNT), when the focus will be on the league’s two leading scorers in the paint. Giannis Antetokounmpo will put a lot of stress on the New Orleans defense, but the key going forward could be how much stress that defense puts on itself.
2. Fool Me Once…
Now, there are certain ball-handlers against which you can’t drop your bigs. Damian Lillard is either 1a or 1b on that list. And like Stephen Curry, Lillard knows how to leverage his shooting to get open shots or layups for his teammates.
Still, it’s not often that you see a team get two consecutive layups off the same play, because the defense usually makes an adjustment to clean up what went wrong the first time. You certainly don’t see it often against a top-10 defense. But the Blazers did just that in the second quarter of their game in Phoenix on Monday, running a fairly common “wedge” play.
Anfernee Simons set a screen for Enes Kanter, who then set a ball screen for Damian Lillard to attack the middle of the floor from the left side. Because Lillard is a threat to shoot from 30 feet, Deandre Ayton (guarding Kanter) ventured out beyond the 3-point line. And because the left corner was empty, Chris Paul had to come from the weak side to help on Kanter’s roll. Derrick Jones Jr. followed behind Paul and caught a lob from Lillard…
On the next possession, the Blazers ran the same play and got the same result…
On the next possession, the Blazers ran the same play on the other side of the floor. This time, Lillard immediately passed the ball to Kanter on the roll. Dario Saric rotated from the weak side, and both Paul and Devin Booker rotated down to Jones’ dive behind Saric. That left both Robert Covington and Gary Trent Jr. open, but Kanter’s kick-out pass to Trent sailed wide and Booker was able to recover…
Looking back at the first two plays, when Paul rotated over from the weak side, it seems that Saric should have rotated down, because Jones at the rim is a bigger problem than an open shooter on the wing. Typically, with that rotation, the remaining weak-side defender (Booker) will split the distance between the two shooters, so that he doesn’t have a long rotation to either.
For the most part, that was a solid defensive game from the Suns, who held the Blazers’ seventh-ranked offense to just 100 points on 95 possessions. But it was interesting to see them get beat for layups by the same play on two consecutive possessions. That’s the kind of pressure that great off-the-dribble shooting and an empty-corner pick-and-roll can put on a defense.
Phoenix, No. 4 in this week’s Power Rankings, lost to Charlotte on Wednesday, but has still won 12 of its last 15 games and remains one of three teams that rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. The Suns begin a three-game trip in Chicago on Friday (8 p.m. ET, League Pass) and have a big game against the Lakers on Tuesday (10 p.m. ET, TNT).
The Blazers may be slipping out of the top 10, having lost three straight. They’re completing a three-game trip in L.A., facing the Lakers on Friday (10 p.m. ET, ESPN).
3. Luka Off the Catch?
In the second game of the Dallas Mavericks’ two-game series with the Golden State Warriors a few weeks ago, Luka Doncic hit two clutch 3s to help secure a win. And these shots were not like normal Doncic 3-point attempts, because they were both off the catch.
If there’s a weakness in Doncic’s offensive game, it’s his 3-point shooting. He has shot just 32.6% from beyond the arc in his career, in part because his 3s come with a high degree of difficulty, mostly off the dribble and often with a step-back. So when he made those two catch-and-shoot 3s down the stretch against the Warriors, it begged the question: What if the Mavericks had another playmaker and Doncic was able to shoot more off the catch?
According to Second Spectrum tracking, only 20% of Doncic’s 3-point attempts have been catch-and-shoot 3s. That’s the third lowest rate among 134 players with at least 100 total 3-point attempts.
Lowest percentage of 3s coming off the catch, 2020-21
Minimum 100 total 3PA
But you’ll notice that Doncic has actually shot better on pull-up 3s (36.3%) than he has on catch-and-shoot 3s (32.5%). So he’s been better than the league average (34.6%) off the dribble and worse than the league average (37.9%) off the catch. That 32.5% mark ranks 210th among 250 players with at least 35 catch-and-shoot attempts. Last season, he was worse on catch-and-shoot 3s: 28-for-75 (28.0%).
Maybe Doncic would be better off the catch with more reps, and maybe he’s just more comfortable shooting off the dribble. When he hit two huge 3s in the final minute to beat the Celtics on Tuesday, they were both step-backs.
As a rookie, Doncic was 6-for-11 on shots to tie or take the lead in the final minute of the fourth quarter or overtime. Over the last two seasons, he’s 5-for-18, and all five makes have come in two games: He was 3-for-3 in Game 4 against the Clippers in August, and he was 2-for-2 on Tuesday.
Doncic and the Mavericks are in Philadelphia for the first game of TNT’s doubleheader on Thursday (7 p.m. ET). They’re then in Brooklyn for the ABC game on Saturday night (8:30 p.m. ET).
4. Grizzlies’ Spain Variant
In this space last week, we broke down a couple of “Spain” or “stack” pick-and-roll plays from the Suns. And on Monday, the Grizzlies got creative with a Spain variant of their own out of a timeout. It looked a little like a “double-drag” screen, except the screens were both set inside the 3-point line…
Kyle Anderson screens Ja Morant’s defender (Josh Richardson) and then Brandon Clarke screens Anderson’s defender (Doncic) at the elbow. Maxi Kleber retreats to Clarke’s roll and there’s nobody to stop Morant’s drive. If Kleber does step up, Morant either has the lob to Clarke or Grayson Allen open on the weak side.
5. Usage Jumps
Here are the players who’ve seen the biggest jumps in usage rate from last season, along with how those jumps have affected their true shooting percentage (scoring efficiency) …
Biggest jumps in usage rate
|Gary Trent Jr.||1,332||15.0%||58.7%||894||19.2%||56.6%||4.2%||-2.1%|
Usg% = Percentage of a 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)))
Minimum 500 minutes played in each of the last two seasons
The very top of the list should be no surprise. Jerami Grant has been given the keys in Detroit. Interesting is that the guy who replaced him in Denver — JaMychal Green — is also in the top 10. There are four Thunder players in the top 10 and another three — Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kenrich Williams and Mike Muscala — in the next 10. All three of those guys (along with Dort, Horford and Diallo) have seen jumps in true shooting percentage, yet the Thunder still rank last in offensive efficiency.
The biggest drop in usage rate (from 35.6% to 26.9%) belongs to James Harden. But note that usage rate doesn’t take assists into account, and Harden has seen a big jump in his assist ratio, from 19.4 to 32.3 per 100 possessions used.
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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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