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. Is There Less Value in Rim Protection?
The Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors meet for the second time in three days on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET, TNT), both struggling to match their success of last season, when they finished first and second in the Eastern Conference. The Raptors have seen the league’s biggest drop in winning percentage and are just four losses from matching their total from last season (19). The Bucks have seen the fourth biggest drop in winning percentage and are just five losses away from last season’s total (17).
The Bucks’ and Raptors’ drop-offs have come in similar fashion. After ranking first and second in defensive efficiency last season, they rank 13th and 16th this season, having seen the two biggest jumps in points allowed per 100 possessions.
Biggest jump, points allowed per 100 possessions
The Bucks have seen the league’s third biggest drop in defensive rebounding percentage, while the Raptors have seen its third biggest jump in opponent free throw rate. But the most important thing on both ends of the floor is shooting, and these two teams have seen the two biggest jumps in opponent effective field goal percentage.
The biggest aspect of those top two defenses last season was rim protection. The Bucks allowed their opponents to take just 26% of their shots in the restricted area, the league’s lowest opponent rate by a healthy margin. The Raptors had the fifth lowest rate (30%). Both teams sold out to prevent shots at the basket, yielding a high volume of 3-point attempts as a result. And over the course of a full season, the math worked out for them.
This season, the Bucks and Raptors rank fourth and sixth in the (lowest) percentage of their shots that have come in the restricted. The Bucks have only seen a small increase, while the Raptors have seen a drop. But they rank lower because the league-wide rate has seen a big drop, from 32.2% last season to just 30.2% this season.
With that, restricted area defense, both the prevention of shots near the rim and defending those shots well, hasn’t been as important this season as it was in each of the last two seasons. In fact, while there was a strong correlation between preventing restricted-area shots and defensive efficiency in each of the last two seasons (2018-19 and ’19-20), there’s a negative correlation this season.
The team that has allowed the lowest percentage of opponent shots in the restricted area this season is the Washington Wizards, who rank 25th defensively. Three other teams that rank in the top 10 in (lowest) percentage of opponent shots coming in the restricted area – Brooklyn, Dallas and New Orleans – rank in the bottom five in defensive efficiency.
Restricted-area shots remain the most valuable on the floor, worth 1.26 points per attempt, league-wide. But that’s down a tick from last season (1.27), while shots from outside the restricted area – *other paint shots, mid-range shots and 3-pointers – have all seen increases in value with the league making them at a higher rate.
* It’s worth noting that while the percentage of shots coming in the restricted area has taken a pretty big drop, the percentage coming from elsewhere in the paint (along with the field goal percentage on those shots) have seen jumps. It’s possible that some shots that were tracked as coming from the restricted-area bucket last season are being tracked as non-restricted-area shots this season.
The Bucks, who have seen the league’s second biggest jump in points scored per 100 possessions, are mixing up their defensive coverages a little bit more than they have in the past, perhaps to be more prepared for the postseason. The Raptors lost two important pieces of their championship core in the offseason. And when you rank first and second, there’s nowhere to go but down.
But the game is also evolving. And it may be possible that rim protection isn’t as important as it was just a year ago.
2. No Seams in the Switching
If you think that NBA offense is getting more ridiculous every week, you’re right. Note that there have been *three games this season where both teams scored at least 130 points per 100 possessions, and all three have come in the last seven days. The second of those was Nets-Suns on Tuesday.
* Three such games already ties the high for the most in any season in the 25 years for which we have play-by-play data.
When you win a game in which you allowed 124 points on just 95 possessions, you’ve won with offense. But the Nets kind of won with defense, too. They trailed by 24 points late in the second quarter and by 21 at the half, having allowed the Suns to score an incredible 75 points on 49 first-half possessions (153 per 100). And then they came all the way back, with James Harden hitting the go-ahead 3 with 30 seconds left and Landry Shamet forcing Devin Booker into a tough shot on the other end of the floor.
The second of those two plays was obviously the more remarkable one. And in the second half, the Nets held the Suns to just 49 points on 46 possessions. They had been switching screens with everybody but DeAndre Jordan, and in that second half, they had Jordan switching screens, too. More important is that their switching execution was better.
Here’s one possession from the fourth quarter, where the Nets seamlessly switch an off-ball action between Chris Paul and Mikal Bridges, Shamet avoids a disaster after Bruce Brown switches onto Paul, and then Jeff Green switches the hand-off from Deandre Ayton to Booker, with Shamet getting to the basket side of Ayton to prevent a roll to the rim …
A switch-everything scheme can flatten an offense out and keep it from gaining the advantages that it normally depends on to generate layups and open shots. Switching everything can also be less taxing, because there’s no chasing ball-handlers or shooters around screens. But it takes great communication to execute it well.
The year that Harden’s Houston Rockets had a 3-2 series lead over the Golden State Warriors in the conference finals, their switching was near perfect. With the offense that they have, the Nets don’t need to be that sharp. But should they continue to switch everything defensively, their ability to improve within that scheme and reduce breakdowns could be the thing to watch over the next few months.
The next challenge for what is now the league’s 26th-ranked defense is LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers, who the Nets will visit in the fourth game of their five-game trip on Thursday (10 p.m. ET, TNT). Against a switching defense (and without Anthony Davis), James will surely target who he deems to be the weakest defender by using screens set by the guy that defender is guarding. We’ll see if Kawhi Leonard is available to do the same when the Nets play the Clippers on Sunday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).
3. Suns’ Spain
The “Spain” or “stack” pick-and-roll is fairly popular around the league, seemingly run most by the Charlotte Hornets, Dallas Mavericks (some examples) and Phoenix Suns. It’s usually a high pick-and-roll run from the top of the floor, with a third offensive player setting a back-screen on the guy defending the original screen-setter.
The Suns are probably the most creative team with how they set up their Spain sets. On the first possession of the third quarter against the Sixers on Saturday, they disguised a Spain play with “Horns” look (two players at the elbows, two in the corners). Ayton set a cross-screen for Booker to flare to the left wing, Booker quickly handed the ball to Frank Kaminsky, and then circled into position for the back-screen as Kaminsky pitched the ball back to Paul …
Paul then ran pick-and-roll with Ayton, and Booker set the additional screen on Joel Embiid. Ben Simmons (who was guarding Booker) stopped Paul’s drive and Danny Green (who was guarding Paul) switched out to Booker, but Embiid, having been hit by Booker’s screen, was a step late in recovering to Ayton’s roll to the rim. Paul got Ayton the ball and Ayton waited out Embiid’s fly-by …
On a sideline out of bounds play in the fourth quarter, the Suns added an additional layer to the Spain set. It was another Paul/Ayton pick-and-roll with Booker at the foul line, ready to set the back-screen on Embiid. But Booker flared out to the left wing early and Cam Johnson came from the baseline to set the back-screen. Simmons reacted really quickly to prevent Booker from shooting off the catch …
Booker just hit a step-back instead.
The Suns blew that 24-point lead to Brooklyn on Tuesday, but have still won nine of their last 11 games. They have a two-game, two-night trip this weekend, playing in New Orleans on Friday and Memphis on Saturday, with both games on League Pass. If you tune in, keep an eye out for the “Spain” set, with the knowledge that it might look like something else at first.
4. Dame Time
Damian Lillard did it again. With 20 seconds left and the Portland Trail Blazers down one in New Orleans on Wednesday, Lillard rejected a screen, drove past Lonzo Ball, took a bump, and sunk a bit of a circus shot as he hit the floor. It was his fifth bucket to tie or take the lead in the final minute of the fourth quarter or overtime this season. That gave him the league lead (again), moving back ahead of Harden (Tuesday) and Malcolm Brogdon (just a few minutes earlier on Wednesday) having each made their fourth in the previous 24 hours.
Most baskets to tie or take the lead in the final minute of the 4th quarter or OT
Zach LaVine has the most attempts to tie or take the lead in the final minute, but is 2-for-10. Booker, James and Jayson Tatum are all 2-for-7. Paul and Bradley Beal, both 0-for-5, have the most attempts without a make.
In his career (counting playoffs), Lillard is 58-for-150 (39%) on shots (from the field) to tie or take the lead in the fourth quarter or overtime. That 39% is much better than the league average (33%) over that time (since 2012-13) and those 58 buckets are 14 more than any other player over these last nine seasons. Next on the list are:
2. Russell Westbrook: 44-for-157 (28%)
3. LeBron James: 43-for-110 (39%)
4. DeMar DeRozan: 38-for-113 (34%)
5. James Harden: 36-for-111 (32%)
Among 41 players with at least 50 attempts to tie or take the lead in the final minute of the fourth quarter or overtime over the last nine seasons, Anthony Davis – 31-for-60 (51%) – has shot the best, while Paul George – 15-for-88 (17%) – has shot the worst.
5. What’s a Double-Digit Lead These Days?
Playing without Embiid in Utah on Monday, the Sixers had a 24-10 lead midway through the first quarter. But that lead was gone by halftime. It was the Sixers’ first loss (they were previously 15-0) after leading by double-digits and it left the San Antonio Spurs (13-0) as the only team that hasn’t lost a game that it’s led by 10 points or more.
No team has a losing record in games it led by double-digits, though the Minnesota Timberwolves dropped to 5-5 with their loss to Indiana (after leading by 10 early in the fourth quarter) on Wednesday. With offensive efficiency at an all-time high, things may seem a little more wild this season. But league-wide winning percentage in games led by double-digits (0.764) is actually up from last season (0.757).
Wildly, the Bucks are the only team that has not won a game it trailed by double-digits. Last season, they were 9-16 after trailing by double-digits. This season, they’re 0-11. The Lakers (8-5) are the only team with a winning record in games they trailed by 10 points or more.
Here are the records for all 30 teams in games they led and trailed by double-digits through Wednesday:
Records after leading or trailing by double-digits
|Led by 10+||Trailed by 10+|
* * *
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