Power Rankings

Power Rankings Notebook: Sixers' defense powers their hot start

Breaking down 5 key stats, plays and notes from around the league after the first two weeks.

The Sixers lead the East standings with an NBA-best 7-1 record.

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. Sixers where they should be defensively

The offensive end of the floor remains more fascinating with the Philadelphia 76ers. But just as important is that the Sixers realize their potential defensively. They have one of the league’s best perimeter defenders and one of its best interior defenders, and there have been times when the Sixers have looked like the best defensive team in the league, keeping opponents away from the basket and smothering them on the perimeter.

But in the last two seasons, they’ve ranked 14th and eighth defensively. So while solving the offensive puzzle — with a star big man who needs to play inside and a star point guard who doesn’t shoot from the outside — is a challenge, there’s room for improvement on the other end of the floor as well. And a defense that’s more consistently stifling would render the Sixers’ offensive issues a little less important.

That’s been the case thus far. While the Sixers rank 12th offensively, they’re a league-best 7-1, with the league’s No. 1 defense entering their matchup with the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET, TNT). Through eight games, Philly has allowed a league-low 102.7 points per 100 possessions, 5.7 fewer than they allowed last season. That ranks as the league’s fifth biggest drop.

Now, the context is that five of the Sixers’ eight games have come against teams — New York, Cleveland, Toronto and Charlotte (x2) — that rank in the bottom eight offensively. Only two of their eight games — both against the the sixth-ranked Washington Wizards — have come against offenses that rank higher than 18th. And on Wednesday, the Sixers had what was, easily, their worst defensive game of the season, allowing Washington to score 136 points on 110 possessions, with Bradley Beal dropping a career-high 60.

So there remains an “It’s early” tag on the Sixers’ defense. But, while the strength of opposing offenses hasn’t been great, where the Sixers rank defensively isn’t necessarily inflated by poor opponent shooting from beyond the arc. Philly ranks 16th in opponent 3-point percentage (36.5%) through Wednesday. But they’re No. 1 in opponent field goal percentage in the paint (47.9%), second both in the restricted area (56.2%) and on other paint shots (31.6%).

Embiid is the defensive anchor and primary rim protector, but it’s nice to have a point guard who also ranks in the top 20 in blocks …

Ben Simmons block

The win over Washington on Wednesday was the start of a stretch of four straight games against top-10 offenses. After visiting Brooklyn (fourth) on Thursday, the Sixers will host the Denver Nuggets (second) on Saturday (3 p.m. ET, NBA TV) and visit the Atlanta Hawks (eighth) on Monday. Where they rank defensively after that could tell us a lot about just how good this team can be.

2. That one looks familiar

If you’ve watched the Dallas Mavericks enough over the last few years, you’ve seen “21 Flip,” a play they often run out of timeouts or at the start of quarters. A wing flashes to the ball along the sideline, flips it back to the point guard, and then curls off a back-screen at the elbow …

Mavs 21 flip play

It’s a fun play, it’s often successful, and with this being a copy-cat league, it’s not exclusively run by the Mavs. The Denver Nuggets took a turn in their Dec. 28 win over the Rockets, running the play for Gary Harris …

Nuggets lob for Gary Harris

One key to the play is the lack of weak-side help. In the Dallas version, we see Courtney Lee clearing the weak side along the baseline and taking his defender with him. If the big man’s defender (LaMarcus Aldridge in the Dallas play) thinks that help (DeMar DeRozan) is still there, he won’t necessarily drop back to prevent the lob. If the screener (Kristaps Porzingis or Nikola Jokic) is also a capable shooter who can pop out to a 3, the play is more difficult to defend.

The Nuggets already had one of the league’s most enjoyable and efficient offenses. So Mavs coach Rick Carlisle should consider it a compliment that Denver has taken a page out of his playbook. Maybe the Nuggets will run it against the Mavs on Thursday night (10 p.m. ET, TNT). Or maybe the Mavs will run it against the Nuggets!

3. Changes across the league

The Warriors are among the teams who have changed their style of play this season.

Just 16 days into the season, there’s still a lot of variance in how teams have performed from night to night. But something that we can evaluate more than how much teams have improved or worsened is how teams have changed the way they play. And to do that, we can compare pace, ball movement, and shot selection from last season to this season.

If we just look at those three style-of-play stats and focus on the three teams at the top and bottom of the league in regard to change from last season, there are four teams that show up twice:

1. The Charlotte Hornets have seen the league’s biggest jump in pace, from 96.2 possessions per 48 minutes (30th) last season to 102.8 (eighth) this season. The Hornets have also seen the league’s second biggest jump in ball movement, from 345 passes per 24 minutes of possession (sixth) last season to 378 (first) this season.

Neither has helped the Charlotte offense much so far. After ranking 28th offensively last season (105.9 points scored per 100 possessions), the Hornets rank 27th this season (103.9). But they have played five of their eight games against teams that rank in the top 10 defensively. Amazingly, of the Hornets’ first 24 games, only two (Jan. 20 and 22) are against teams that currently rank in the bottom 10 defensively. That’s rough.

2. The Golden State Warriors have seen the league’s second biggest jump in pace, from 101.0 possessions per 48 minutes (15th) last season to 106.6 (second) this season. They’ve also seen the league’s second biggest *drop* in ball movement, from 389 passes per 24 minutes of possession (first) last season to 363 (third) this season.

They’re still moving the ball quite a bit. In fact the Warriors are one of three teams — the Hornets and Wizards are the others — that rank in the top five in both ball and player movement, where they rank first at 12.2 miles traveled per 24 minutes of possession. Stephen Curry is dribbling his way through the defense a bit, but he ranks just 43rd in average seconds per touch (4.35) among 294 players with at least 100 touches through Wednesday. The Warriors’ pace has been much faster with Curry on the floor (109.0 possessions per 48) than with him off the floor (103.5).

3. The New Orleans Pelicans have seen the league’s biggest *drop* in pace, from 103.9 possessions per 48 minutes (fourth) last season to just 99.2 (26th) this season. The Pels have also seen the biggest drop in ball movement, from 383 passes per 24 minutes of possession (second) last season to 339 (14th) this season.

Those changes have yet to really help the New Orleans offense, which ranks 22nd through Wednesday. It’s probably more important that the Pels’ defense has seen the league’s second biggest drop in points allowed per 100 possessions. But that comes with the context that five of their eight games (including two against the 30th-ranked Thunder) have come against teams that rank in the bottom seven offensively. That fifth-ranked defense will really be tested on a seven-game trip that beings Monday and includes visits to the Mavs, Clippers, Lakers and Jazz (x2).

4. The Phoenix Suns have seen the league’s third biggest drop in pace, from 101.7 possessions per 48 minutes (ninth) last season to 97.3 (30th) this season, which shouldn’t be a surprise, as Chris Paul’s move to Oklahoma City prior to last season resulted in the Thunder seeing the league’s second biggest drop in pace from 2018-19.

What’s a little different about this move is that the Suns have seen the league’s third biggest jump in the percentage of their shots that have come from 3-point range, from 36.1% (20th) last season to 44.1% (eighth) this season. Paul himself has seen a big drop (from 34.3% to 23.1%), but the Suns now have Jae Crowder (77% of his shots have come from 3-point range) and Cameron Johnson (69%) playing most of the minutes at the four. And their back-up center is Dario Saric, who has taken more than half of his shots (16/31) from beyond the arc.

4. More changes

Here are the top and bottom three in regard to change in those three style-of-play stats …

Jump: 1. Charlotte, 2. Golden State, 3. Chicago (from 16th to third)
Drop: 1. New Orleans, 2. LA Clippers (from eighth to 29th), 3. Phoenix

% of shots from 3-point range
Jump: 1. Oklahoma City (from 25th to second), 2. Portland (from 17th to third), 3. Phoenix
Drop: 1. Sacramento (from 13th to 26th), 2. Houston (from first to fifth), 3. Minnesota (from third to 18th)

Passes per 24 minutes of possession
Jump: 1. Philadelphia (from 14th to second), 2. Charlotte, 3. Cleveland (from 24th to ninth)
Drop: 1. New Orleans, 2. Golden State, 3. New York (from ninth to 22nd)

5. Don’t bring it back!

Ever wonder why players do that one-handed scoop shot when using two hands might be the safer route?

Knicks rookie Immanuel Quickley is here to explain…

On a big possession down the stretch of Knicks-Hawks on Monday, Trae Young seemingly had Quickley beat with a crossover move. But when he gathered the ball for a layup (as we were all taught as kids), Young brought it back to where Quickley could get his hands on it.

If Young had gone straight from a right-hand dribble into a right-hand scoop shot with no gather, he’d have two points. Instead, Quickley took the ball away from him (scored as a block) and the Knicks were going the other way.

Earlier in the night, Young scored around Julius Randle with a one-handed scoop. So he has it in his repertoire …

He just didn’t use it after beating Quickley off the dribble, and he paid the price. That play could have put the Hawks up two with a little more than five minutes to go. Instead, it was part of a stretch where they scored just two points on seven possessions as the Knicks took control of the game. It was also an incredible defensive play by an intriguing rookie who has played a not-insignificant role in his team winning four of its last five games.

Check back on Monday for an updated NBA.com Power Rankings featuring stats and notes on all 30 teams.

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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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