Power Rankings

Power Rankings Notebook: Historic efficiency + most improved players

Breaking down key stats and film on league-wide offense, leaders in 3-point shooting from the corners and more.

Donovan Mitchell and Cleveland will face a tough stretch over their next 8 games.

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. Efficiency keeps climbing

The Miami Heat and Boston Celtics played some old-school Eastern Conference basketball on Tuesday, with the Heat pulling out a 98-95 victory to hold on to sixth place. But that game was an anomaly in what has been the most efficient month in the most efficient season in NBA history.

We knew early that this would be the most efficient season ever. The previous high for league-wide efficiency was 111.7 points per 100 possessions in 2020-21, teams scored more efficiently than that (112.0 per 100) in the month of October, and efficiency generally goes up as the season goes on.

That’s certainly been the case this season, and the league has scored a pretty incredible 115.3 points per 100 possessions through 183 January games, putting the average at 113.4 for the season.

League-wide efficiency, pace and points per game, 2022-23

Month GP OffRtg Pace PPG
October 102 112.0 100.3 227.0
November 222 112.1 99.8 225.3
December 222 113.9 99.9 229.5
January 183 115.3 100.0 231.6
TOTAL 729 113.4 99.9 228.4

OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
Pace = Possessions (per team) per 48 minutes
PPG = Points per game (both teams combined)

With how good offense has been and how difficult it can be to defend the entire floor, the standards for defense have changed. A good defensive game used to be holding your opponent under a point per possession, and just three seasons ago (2019-20), the league’s worst defense (that of the Cleveland Cavaliers) did that six times.

This season’s No. 1 defense (that of the Memphis Grizzlies) has held its opponent under a point per possession … six times. We’re only 59% of the way through the season, but the Grizzlies have yet to do it in January.

Now, allowing 1.1 points per possession (110 per 100) is pretty good. Given how talented players are these days, you can play pretty good defense and allow a lot more than that.

Tom Thibodeau’s New York Knicks have had their ups and downs defensively. They ranked 10th on that end of the floor (111.7 allowed per 100) through Jan. 15, but then allowed more than 130 per 100 over a four-game losing streak.

“That’s the challenge of the league,” he said Tuesday before his team ended its slide with a defensive stop against Donovan Mitchell and the Cavs. “Every night, you’re seeing people with 140, 150 points. So you know that you have to bring that intensity every night. There can’t be a let-up.”

Over JB Bickerstaff’s three full seasons as coach, the Cavs themselves have risen from 30th (in ’19-20, the season he took over for John Beilein in February) to 25th to fifth to second in defensive efficiency. And at 109.8 points allowed per 100 possessions, this year’s second-ranked defense would have ranked 15th three seasons ago.

There is a new standard for what “good” defense is.

“It’s all relative,” Bickerstaff said. “I think ‘good’ is still [compared] to the rest of the league. And then you have to be secure enough to figure out are you giving up the things that you’re willing to give up. You can’t take away everything from these offenses. It’s very difficult the way teams are shooting 3s to take away the 3s, because they’re going to shoot them whether they’re good shots or bad shots.

“So you have to go back and watch how many of them were contested 3s. Are they corner 3s or are they above-the-break 3s? Are teams living at the rim or are you hacking and teams are at the free throw line a lot? Those are the things that you can go back and, no matter what’s going on, you can dissect it and see if this is to your standard or not, and if it’s good enough compared to the rest of the league.”

By the numbers, the Cavs played “good” defense against the Knicks’ ninth-ranked offense on Tuesday, but came up short and are just 4-6 in their last 10 games. They’ll now play six of their next eight games against offenses that rank in the bottom 10, a stretch that begins with a back-to-back in Houston on Thursday (8 p.m. ET, League Pass) and Oklahoma City on Friday (8 p.m. ET, League Pass).

Thibodeau’s Knicks have a much tougher rest of the week. They visit Boston on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET, TNT) and Brooklyn on Saturday (5:30 p.m. ET, ABC), with those two opponents currently ranking third and eighth offensively.

2. Per-game and per-36 season-to-season jumps

Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen is a leading contender for the Most Improved Player award.

There are 294 players who’ve played at least 25 games in each of the last two seasons. Here are the ones who’ve seen the biggest jump in their box score numbers, on a per-game basis …

Biggest jump, points + rebounds + assists + steals + blocks per game

2021-22 2022-23 Diff.
Lauri Markkanen 61 30.8 23.0 46 34.2 36.5 +13.5
Tre Jones 69 16.6 12.3 47 29.9 25.0 +12.7
Alperen Sengun 72 20.7 19.4 44 28.0 29.8 +10.4
Trey Murphy III 62 13.9 8.9 46 29.0 19.2 +10.3
Nick Richards 50 7.3 5.6 40 17.0 15.3 +9.7
Nic Claxton 47 20.7 16.9 44 29.3 26.6 +9.7
Aaron Nesmith 52 11.0 6.4 43 23.3 15.2 +8.8
Santi Aldama 32 11.3 8.0 45 22.0 16.6 +8.6
Jalen McDaniels 55 16.3 11.2 49 27.1 19.8 +8.6
Thomas Bryant 27 16.3 13.3 35 22.3 21.8 +8.5

PRASB = Points + rebounds + assists + steals + blocks per game
Minimum 25 games played in both 2021-22 and 2022-23 (294 players)
Through Jan. 25, 2023

Among those 294 players who’ve played at least 25 games in each of the last two seasons:

  • Lauri Markkanen has seen the biggest jump in points per game (+10.0).
  • Nick Richards has seen the biggest jump in rebounds per game (+3.9).
  • Tre Jones has seen the biggest jumps in both assists per game (+3.0) and steals per game (+0.8).
  • Nic Claxton has seen the biggest jump in blocks per game (+1.6).

Of course, a lot of that “improvement” is about playing time. Seven of the 10 guys listed above also rank in the top 10 in regard to their jump in minutes per game, with Trey Murphy III (+15.1) and Jones (+13.3) having seen the biggest jumps (+15.1) among the 294.

It’s not that those guys haven’t earned the added burn (Murphy has seen also seen big jumps in effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage), but here are the players who’ve seen the biggest jump in box score numbers on a per-36-minute basis …

Biggest jump, points + rebounds + assists + steals + blocks per 36 minutes

2021-22 2022-23 Diff.
Lauri Markkanen 61 1,878 26.9 46 1,573 38.4 +11.5
Isaiah Joe 55 609 18.1 40 582 29.4 +11.4
Josh Okogie 49 516 18.6 42 558 29.1 +10.5
Anthony Davis 40 1,404 40.6 26 862 49.2 +8.6
Tyrese Haliburton 77 2,694 30.8 40 1,336 39.4 +8.6
Duane Washington Jr. 48 968 24.9 30 389 32.5 +7.6
Damian Lillard 29 1,056 36.0 36 1,290 43.0 +7.0
Mason Plumlee 73 1,793 27.7 49 1,381 34.1 +6.4
Devin Vassell 71 1,937 26.6 29 907 32.9 +6.3
Myles Turner 42 1,235 29.9 41 1,224 35.8 +5.9

PRASB = Points + rebounds + assists + steals + blocks per 36 minutes
Minimum 300 games played in both 2021-22 and 2022-23 (306 players)
Through Jan. 25, 2023

Markkanen remains at the top of the list, and seems to be the clear front-runner for the Kia Most Improved Player award. But it’s a very different group otherwise. In fact, only three other guys from the per-game top 10 are in the top 25 in regard to per-36 improvement: Thomas Bryant (+5.6, 15th), Richards (+5.0, 18th) and Alperen Sengun (+4.6, 22nd). Among the top 10 in per-game jumps, Murphy has seen the smallest jump in per-36 (from 22.9 to 23.8).

3. Buddy on the break

Pacers guard Buddy Hield continues to dominate from 3-point this season.

Buddy Hield leads the league with 191 total 3-pointers, mostly because Stephen Curry has missed 15 games. Last season, Curry made 23 more 3s than Hield … in 17 fewer games.

But Hield is the league leader in one type of 3-pointer for the fourth time in the last five seasons. This season, his 47 fast-break 3s are 15 more than any other player has through Wednesday.

Most fast-break 3-pointers, 2022-23

Player GP 3PM Per game
Buddy Hield 50 47 0.94
Klay Thompson 37 32 0.86
Jordan Clarkson 50 31 0.62
CJ McCollum 44 27 0.61
Tyus Jones 48 27 0.56

So the league leader in 3s also leads the league in fast-break 3s. Not a huge surprise there. But those fast-break 3s account for 25% of Hield’s total. That’s the fourth-highest rate among the 147 players with at least 50 made 3s this season.

Highest percentage of 3-pointers on fast breaks

Player 3PM FB3PM %FB
Tyus Jones 78 27 35%
Devin Vassell 82 24 29%
Joe Harris 75 21 28%
Buddy Hield 191 47 25%
Jordan Clarkson 134 31 23%

Minimum 50 total 3-pointers (147 players)

The Pacers rank second in the percentage of their possessions that have been in transition (19.9%) and have had the fifth shortest average time of possession (13.9 seconds), according to Second Spectrum tracking. Tyrese Haliburton likes to push the ball up the floor with his head up, looking for the guy he’s assisted 244 times in their three seasons together …

Tyrese Haliburton assist to Buddy Hield

And Hield will absolutely sprint to get himself a shot before the defense is set up …

Buddy Hield fast break 3-pointer

While Haliburton has missed the last eight games, Hield has played in all of the Pacers’ 50, so he’d have 77 fast-break 3s for the season if he kept this pace and played in every game going forward. That would be 10 shy of the record held by Curry, who made 87 fast-break 3s in 2016-17. Curry has six of the nine highest totals in the 27 seasons for which fast break points have been tracked, with Hield’s league-leading total of 68 in ’18-19 being the fifth highest.

The Pacers have slid from sixth place to ninth since they lost Haliburton. And after their loss in Orlando on Wednesday, they’ll play five of their next six games against teams that are at least five games over .500. That stretch begins with a game against the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday (7 p.m. ET, League Pass).

4. Leaders from the corners

Hield isn’t just a volume 3-point shooter. His 42.4% from beyond the arc ranks fourth among 83 players with at least 200 3-point attempts. And like most shooters, he’s shot better from the corners. His 42-for-81 (51.9%) on corner 3s is the 10th best mark among 143 players who’ve attempted at least 35.

The best mark among that group belongs to Michael Porter Jr., who’s 25-for-41 (61%) on corner 3s. At a slightly higher volume (at least 50 attempts), Yuta Watanabe has the best mark (29-for-50, 58%), followed by Spencer Dinwiddie (57.5%) and Damion Lee (57.1%).

The leader in total corner 3s is Lee’s teammate, Mikal Bridges, who’s 51-for-109 (46.8%). Like Hield, Bridges hasn’t missed a game. The math has him on pace for 85 corner 3s, which wouldn’t be his career high, because he had 86 (tied for second) two seasons ago.

The record for corner 3s in a season is 109 from P.J. Tucker in 2018-19. Tucker led the league three seasons in a row (also in ’17-18 and ’19-20), but his volume has obviously decreased since James Harden and he left Houston.

Interestingly, though Devin Booker has played in just 29 of the Suns’ 49 games, his 17 assists to Bridges on corner 3s are 12 more than any other teammate has to Bridges on those shots. Chris Paul and Booker have the same number of total assists to Bridges (42), but only four of Paul’s 42 have been on corner 3s. Booker is might the leader by a wide margin because he draws more help …

Devin Booker assist to Mikal Bridges

Booker remains out for the Suns, who’ve won the first four games of a five-game homestand, having held their opponents to just 102.9 points per 100 possessions over the winning streak. The homestand concludes Thursday (10 p.m. ET, TNT) with a visit from the team that knocked the Suns out of last year’s playoffs, and (going back to Game 6 of the conference semis) Phoenix has trailed each of its last four games against the Mavs by more than 20 points. The Suns did come back from 22 down to beat Dallas in October, and the Mavs have lost six of their last eight.

5. Right-corner Bruce Brown

Bridges has been a much better shooter from the left corner (30-for-56, 53.6%) than he has from the right corner (21-for-53, 39.6%). But that right-corner number is still pretty solid, and that’s not nearly the league’s biggest corner-to-corner differential.

The biggest (among 90 players with at least 20 attempts from each corner) belongs to Denver’s Bruce Brown, who is 20-for-39 (51.3%) from the right corner, but just 4-for-28 (14.3%) from the left. He’s playing for a new team and in a new arena, but this is the second straight season in which Brown has had such a wild differential. Last season he was 16-for-27 (59.3%) from the right corner and 10-for-36 (27.8%) from the left.

Biggest differential, 3-point percentage, corner to corner

Left Corner Right Corner Diff.
Player 3PM 3PA 3P% 3PM 3PA 3P% 3P%
Bruce Brown 4 28 14.3% 20 39 51.3% 37.0%
Dejounte Murray 21 35 60.0% 5 20 25.0% -35.0%
Lonnie Walker IV 15 25 60.0% 10 34 29.4% -30.6%
Spencer Dinwiddie 22 30 73.3% 20 43 46.5% -26.8%
Bojan Bogdanovic 21 35 60.0% 15 45 33.3% -26.7%
Devin Vassell 8 20 40.0% 13 20 65.0% 25.0%
Quentin Grimes 23 46 50.0% 5 20 25.0% -25.0%
Luguentz Dort 17 30 56.7% 9 28 32.1% -24.5%
Damion Lee 28 41 68.3% 16 36 44.4% -23.8%
Gabe Vincent 7 28 25.0% 13 27 48.1% 23.1%

Minimum 20 3-point attempts from each corner (90 players)

It’s always interesting to see in which corner Brown is stationed in the Nuggets’ offense, because there’s a big difference. Denver rested four starters in Milwaukee on Wednesday (when Brown shot all four of his 3-pointers from above the break), but has a few more marquee matchups in the next eight days, starting with a visit to Philadelphia on Saturday afternoon (3 p.m. ET, ABC).

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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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