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Power Rankings Notebook: Bucks tweak offense, Nets' Big 3 debuts and early on-off court leaders

Breaking down stats and film from around the league, including a look at Milwaukee's No. 1 offense before matchup vs. L.A.'s No. 1 defense.

Giannis Antetokounmpo and Milwaukee square off with LeBron James and L.A. on Thursday.

Each week during the season, 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. Bucks on the Boards

When the Los Angeles Lakers visit the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday (7:30 ET, TNT), it will be a matchup between the league’s No. 1 offense and its No. 1 defense. The Bucks led the league in defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions) in each of the last two seasons, but they’re the team with the No. 1 offense this time.

The improvement is about more than just personnel changes, because the Bucks have made a schematic adjustment as well. Rather than placing shooters all around the perimeter …

Bucks offense, 2019-20

… they’ve more often placed someone in one of the dunker spots (on the baseline, just outside the paint).

Bucks offense, 2020-21

Putting a teammate and his defender in or near the paint can cut off Giannis Antetokounmpo’s path to the basket. And Antetokounmpo has seen a drop in the percentage of his shots that have come in the restricted area (where he shoots 74%), from 53% last season to 49% this season.

But the Bucks have made up for that in a couple of ways. First, they’ve shot 40.3% from 3-point range (second best), up from 35.5% (18th) last season. A greater percentage of their 3s have been uncontested, according to Second Spectrum tracking. With a player in the dunker spot, there’s one fewer perimeter defender, making it more difficult to rotate to above-the-break 3s…

Kris Middleton 3-pointer

In the 41 seasons of the 3-point line (prior to this one), only 10 teams have shot better than 40% from beyond the arc. The last was the 2015-16 Warriors.

One other benefit to having a player in the dunker spot (and maybe a more sustainable one) is that guy is in great rebounding position. And with the change to their offense, the Bucks have seen the league’s biggest jump in offensive rebounding percentage. Last season, the Bucks ranked 28th, grabbing 24.1% of available offensive boards. This season, they rank sixth at 28.6%.

That may not seem like a huge change, but it has made a big difference in the Bucks’ offense. Milwaukee had a top-10 offense last season and has seen the league’s biggest jump in points scored per 100 possessions, from 111.9 (eighth) to 117.7 (first). And the increase in second chance points, from 11.6 to 14.6 per 100, accounts more than half of that overall jump (5.8 per 100).

Biggest jump, points scored per 100 possessions

2019-20 2020-21
Team OffRtg Rank OffRtg Rank Diff.
Milwaukee 111.9 8 117.7 1 5.8
Brooklyn 108.7 22 114.5 5 5.8
Chicago 105.8 29 110.7 12 4.9
LA Clippers 113.3 2 117.1 2 3.8
Washington 110.2 16 113.6 6 3.4

The Bucks’ leader in offensive rebounds with 32 is new back-up center Bobby Portis, who has made good use of that dunker spot placement to angle himself into rebounding position underneath the defense …

Bobby Portis put-back

League-wide, offensive rebounding percentage has dropped quite a bit over the last 10 years, with teams prioritizing transition defense over crashing the glass. But the Bucks have been able to get extra points on second chances without seeing their transition defense suffer. In fact, they’ve seen the league’s biggest drop in the percentage of their opponents’ possessions that have come in transition, from 15.4% (11th lowest) last season to just 12.6% (second lowest) this season.

The Lakers rank second in defensive rebounding percentage, so the matchup on Thursday is strength vs. strength in more ways than one. And, though both teams lost on Monday, it could very well determine No. 1 in next week’s Power Rankings.

2. Redick’s Path to an Open Shot

We often hear that a player “has seen every kind of defense,” and it’s almost always about a great scorer. But what about great shooters? In his 15th season, it’s fair to say that JJ Redick has seen every scheme for defending his off-ball movement. And it can be fun to watch Redick continue to find paths to an open 3. Here’s one from the Pelicans’ loss to the Clippers last Wednesday …

JJ Redick 3-pointer vs. Clippers

The initial action is a Jaxson Hayes screen for Redick on the right wing. Paul George top-locks Redick to prevent him from getting over the screen cleanly. So Redick continues into the paint and, when Brandon Ingram pitches the ball to Hayes, feigns a back-screen for Ingram. George switches that screen, but Patrick Beverley never feels it and stays with Ingram. Redick is now unguarded as he takes a handoff from Hayes, whose man (Ivica Zubac) is playing too far back to go contest the Redick 3.

Here’s the overhead replay…

JJ Redick 3-pointer vs. Clippers

This is why watching Redick can be more fun than watching the ball. The Pelicans are in Utah to face the Jazz in the second game of TNT’s doubleheader on Thursday (10 ET).

3. Early On-Off Leaders

Here are the early “leaders” in regard to how their teams have performed with them on and off the floor …

Biggest on-off-court NetRtg differential

Player Team Min. On Court Off Court Diff.
John Collins ATL 417 +10.4 -13.6 24.0
Tobias Harris PHI 397 +13.2 -8.8 22.0
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope LAL 252 +23.9 +2.6 21.3
Damian Lillard POR 507 +4.6 -16.5 21.1
Rudy Gay SAS 335 +10.3 -10.1 20.4
Mike Conley UTA 420 +13.5 -6.4 19.9
Cameron Johnson PHX 306 +13.0 -6.9 19.9
Jakob Poeltl SAS 301 +10.8 -8.9 19.7
Willie Cauley-Stein DAL 270 +14.5 -5.1 19.6
Richaun Holmes SAC 423 -1.4 -20.8 19.4

On/Off Court = Team’s point differential per 100 possessions w/ player on or off floor
Minimum 200 minutes on the floor w/ one team (236 players)
Through Jan. 20, 2021

We won’t make any grand conclusions this early in the season, though you might see why the Suns moved Cameron Johnson into the starting lineup (replacing Jae Crowder) this week. The original starting lineup (which has still closed both of the Suns’ games this week) has allowed 118.9 points per 100 possessions, the worst mark among 16 lineups that have played at least 100 minutes. At the bottom of this on-off list is DeAndre Ayton, with the Suns having been 25.4 points per 100 possessions better with him off the floor (+19.4) than with him on the floor (-6.0).

The only team with two players in the top 10 is the Spurs, who, for what seems like the umpteenth straight season, have been better in bench minutes. They’ve been outscored by 10.9 points per 100 possessions with their two former All-Stars on the floor, but have outscored their opponents by 13.7 points per 100 in 131 minutes with all four of their regular reserves – Patty Mills, Devin Vassell, Rudy Gay and Jakob Poeltl – in the game.

The only superstar in the top 10 is Damian Lillard, and the Blazers will obviously be depending on him more than ever with by CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic out. But there are others not far behind. Kawhi Leonard is 11th, with the Clippers having been 19.1 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor. Nikola Jokic (18.0), Kevin Durant (17.5), Kyrie Irving (15.9) and Joel Embiid (14.4) are also near the top of the list.

4. No Stops in Brooklyn

The Brooklyn Nets lost their first game with their new Big Three on Wednesday, because Collin Sexton went off in the second overtime in Cleveland. But the Nets also lost, while being forced to play the big three big minutes — Kevin Durant and James Harden each played more than 50 minutes, while Kyrie Irving played more than 48 —because their defense was bad well before Sexton scored an incredible 22 points in the 10 extra minutes.

The Cavs entered the game with the league’s worst offense by a healthy margin, having barely scored a point per possession through their first 13 games. They were missing Sexton for the previous five games and have now been without Darius Garland for eight straight, but in ending the Nets’ four-game winning streak, Cleveland had its most efficient offensive game of the season (147 points on 120 possessions). The Nets played a big role in that, and it was much more about effort than scheme or communication within a group that just got together.

Take these 4 plays from early in the third quarter, when the Cavs scored 15 points on their first seven possessions …

1. On a simple baseline out of bounds play, Durant is guarding inbounder Cedi Osman, but doesn’t react when Osman steps onto the floor and into the strong-side corner. Also, after Larry Nance Jr. flips the ball back to Osman, Irving just stands where he is, neither switching out to Osman (with Durant able to guard Nance’s dive to the basket) nor staying with Nance to keep him off the glass …

Cedi Osman corner 3

2. All five Nets are back, but they simply don’t match up in transition, with Isaac Okoro wide open in that same right corner.

Isaac Okoro corner 3

3. James Harden packed his patented transition defense (idly swiping at a dribble or pass without moving his feet) for the move to Brooklyn. Irving makes only a slightly better effort as Sexton cruises to a transition layup.

Collin Sexton transition layup

4. Harden’s weak-side tag on Andre Drummond’s roll to the rim is, well, weak. And Irving certainly isn’t ready to make the next rotation (to Okoro) should Harden stop the roll and force a kick-out.

Andre Drummond roll and dunk

The Nets led the league in defensive efficiency after the first week of the season, but that was clearly fool’s gold. They’ve since fallen to 21st and could have saved themselves from playing 10 extra minutes (with no pay-off) by just playing a little harder earlier in the night. They were saying the right things afterward.

“That’s gonna be the tale of our season,” Irving said, “how committed are we to that end of the floor.”

“Defensively,” Harden added, “we got to be a lot better.”

Time will tell if they can back up their words with better effort. They get another chance to slow down the Cavs’ 30th-ranked offense on Friday (7:30 ET, League Pass), before returning home for two games against the Miami Heat (Saturday and Monday, both on NBA TV at 7:30 ET).

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

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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