Power Rankings

Power Rankings Notebook: 5 most improved defenses

Breaking down stats and film on defensive efficiency, best drivers to the rim and the most assists between teammates.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez and Milwaukee have the most improved defense in the NBA this season.

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. Most improved defenses

League-wide efficiency is up (at a record 112.2 points per 100 possessions through Wednesday), but 13 teams have allowed fewer points per 100 possessions than they did last season. Here are the five that have seen the biggest drop …

Biggest drop, points allowed per 100 possessions

Team 2021-22 Rank 2022-23 Rank Diff.
Milwaukee 111.1 14 106.6 1 -4.5
New Orleans 112.0 18 108.6 3 -3.4
Portland 116.3 29 113.5 23 -2.8
Indiana 115.5 28 112.7 20 -2.8
Sacramento 114.8 27 112.6 18 -2.2

Through Dec. 14, 2022

1. Milwaukee

After leading the league defensively in coach Mike Budenholzer’s first two seasons, the Bucks ranked ninth in 2020-21 and 14th last season. They had the No. 1 defense in the playoffs in both of those years, but they’re back to defending at an elite level in the regular season.

Brook Lopez has had something to do with that. After missing all but 13 games last season, Lopez has played in 26 of 27 this season. He’s contested 201 shots at the rim (second most in the league), and the 52.2% that opponents have shot at the rim against him ranks eighth among 53 players who’ve defended at least 100 rim attempts. And Lopez’s presence has allowed the Bucks to defend the 3-point line better than they ever have under Budenholzer.

The Bucks have seen, by far, the biggest drop in the percentage of their opponents’ shots that have come from 3-point range, from 44.8% (second highest rate) last season to just 36.2% (fifth lowest) this season. Their opponents have also taken only 18% of their 3-pointers, the league’s lowest opponent rate, from the corners.

A few more Bucks notes:

  • While the Bucks aren’t allowing a lot of 3-pointers, their opponents also aren’t having much success in the paint. They rank second in opponent field goal percentage in the paint (53.5%).
  • The Bucks are the only team that ranks in the top five in three of the four factors on defense, ranking first in opponent effective field goal percentage, third in opponent free throw rate, and first in defensive rebounding percentage.
  • The Bucks have allowed just 102.8 points per 100 possessions (and outscored their opponents by 12.5 per 100) in 804 total minutes with at least two of their three All-Defense candidates – Jrue Holiday, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Lopez – on the floor.

Their big win over the Warriors on Tuesday was just the start of a tough, seven-game stretch for the Bucks that concludes with their Christmas game in Boston. Five of the remaining six in that stretch will be against teams that currently rank in the top 10 in offensive efficiency. That includes their visit to Memphis on Thursday (8 p.m. ET, NBA TV).

2. New Orleans

There were more questions about the Pelicans’ offense and how their three stars would coexist. But there were more potential issues on defense, where the Pelicans have been worse than average in each of the last four seasons. They’ve answered those questions, and they, amazingly, rank third defensively. They’re just a hair from being the only team that ranks in the top five on both ends of the floor, even though they’ve had their starting lineup together for just one of their last 14 games.

A few Pelicans notes:

  • Some of the improvement is about 3-point shooting. The Pelicans yield a lot of 3-point attempts — their opponents have taken 42% of their shots, the league’s fifth highest opponent rate, from 3-point range — and they’ve seen the biggest drop in opponent 3-point percentage, from 36.5% (26th) last season to 33.5% (third) this season.
  • According to Second Spectrum tracking, 51% of their opponent 3-point attempts have been wide open, and that’s up from last season (47%). But their opponents have shot just 36.3% on those wide-open 3s, down from 38.3% last season. (The league average is 38.0%.)
  • But the Pelicans have also seen the league’s fourth biggest drop in opponent free throw rate (ranking second) and its eighth biggest jump in opponent turnover rate (ranking sixth).

After allowing just 100.0 points per 100 possessions over their previous five games (their best stretch of defense this season), the Pelicans have allowed 116.4 per 100 over their last three, and their seven-game winning streak came to an end in Utah on Tuesday. They’ll play another game in Utah on Thursday (9 p.m. ET, League Pass) before finishing their three-game trip in Phoenix on Saturday (9 p.m. ET, NBA TV).

3. Portland

The Trail Blazers are one of two teams that rank in the top five in improvement on both ends of the floor, mostly because they were so terrible (outscored by 21.3 points per 100 possessions) after the All-Star break last season. The Blazers actually had a top 10 defense through the first five weeks of the season, but have since fallen back into the bottom 10. Of course, ranking 23rd on defense is better than ranking 29th, which the Blazers have done in each of the last two seasons. It should also be noted that one of Portland’s best defensive players — the injured Gary Payton II — has yet to play.

A couple of Blazers notes:

  • Like the Bucks, the Blazers have greatly reduced the percentage of their opponents’ shots that have come from 3-point range, from 43% (third highest opponent rate) last season to just 38% (11th lowest) this season. That’s the league’s second biggest drop.
  • Like the Pelicans, the Blazers have seen a big drop in opponent free throw rate, from 28.6 attempts per 100 shots from the field (28th) last season to just 25.1 per 100 (eighth) this season.

The Blazers began a six-game road trip with an offensive win in San Antonio on Wednesday. That was the first of four games on the trip where the Blazers are facing bottom-10 offenses. But the next stop is in Dallas on Friday (8:30 p.m. ET, League Pass), with the Blazers’ last game there having been one of the seven in which they’ve allowed more than 120 points per 100 possessions.

4. Indiana

The Pacers had a top-10 offense through the first six weeks of the season and still rank higher (16th) on that end of the floor. But they’ve been more improved on defense, in part because only Portland and Houston were worse defensively last season. That was actually the first time in the last 23 years that the Pacers ranked in the bottom 10 defensively.

A pair of Pacers notes:

  • The Pacers have seen the league’s second biggest jump in opponent turnover rate, ranking fifth at 16.1 per 100 possessions. T.J. McConnell ranks third with 5.3 deflections per 36 minutes.
  • Myles Turner being more available (playing 23 of 29 games) than he was last season (42 of 82) has certainly been a factor in the Pacers’ improvement. Additionally, they’ve seen a much bigger drop in opponent field goal percentage in the paint (from 58.4% to 56.1%) than they have in opponent effective field goal percentage on shots from outside the paint (from 52% to 51.8%). With Turner (2.8) and Isaiah Jackson (2.7), the Pacers are the only team with two guys (there are 11 total) who’ve averaged more than 2.5 blocks per 36 minutes.

The Pacers dropped the Warriors below .500 with a win over the champs on Wednesday. Their first of four meetings with the third-place Cavs is Friday in Cleveland (7:30 p.m. ET, League Pass).

5. Sacramento

At first, the Kings were making noise with an offense that still ranks in the top five. And as noted last week, they’ve been one of the league’s most improved teams on that end of the floor, too. But they seemed to have made a breakthrough defensively a couple of weeks ago and rank sixth on that end of the floor (108.5 points allowed per 100 possessions) over their last eight games, having allowed a point per possession or less in four of those eight. Of course, it’s been on defense where the Kings have been much worse (with 14 finishes in the bottom 10 and eight finishes in the bottom five) over the course of their 16-year playoff drought.

A few more Kings notes:

  • Like the Bucks and Blazers, they’ve seen a significant reduction in the percentage of their opponents’ shots that have come from 3-point range, going from the 10th lowest rate to the second lowest this season (35%).
  • The Kings have been the league’s most improved defensive rebounding team, grabbing 74.7% of available defensive boards (second), up from 71.4% (22nd) last season. Having Domantas Sabonis around for every game matters in that regard. In fact, the Kings grabbed 80.0% of available defensive boards with Sabonis on the floor last season.

The Kings have struggled a bit on their six-game road trip, losing three of the first four games. But they picked up a one-point win in Toronto on Wednesday and, at 17-12, remain tied in the loss column with the fourth-place Blazers (16-12). The trip comes to an end in Detroit on Friday (7 p.m. ET, League Pass).

2. The bottom of the lists

With the most improved offenses and most improved defenses, there are also teams that have taken big steps backward on each end of the floor.

The five teams that have taken the biggest steps backward on offense include three from the same division:

Biggest drop, points scored per 100 possessions

Team 2021-22 Rank 2022-23 Rank Diff.
Charlotte 113.6 8 107.5 30 -6.1
Atlanta 115.4 2 110.3 23 -5.0
Miami 113.0 12 109.2 27 -3.7
San Antonio 111.9 17 108.4 29 -3.5
Minnesota 113.8 7 110.9 18 -2.8

The five teams that have taken the biggest steps backward defensively include the two teams that met in the 2022 NBA Finals, one other conference finalist and the team that had the league’s best record last season.

Biggest jump, points allowed per 100 possessions

Team 2021-22 Rank 2022-23 Rank Diff.
San Antonio 111.7 16 118.4 30 6.7
Golden State 106.6 2 112.7 19 6.1
Boston 106.2 1 111.1 8 4.9
Phoenix 106.8 3 111.5 11 4.7
Dallas 109.1 7 112.8 21 3.7

The San Antonio Spurs, of course, are the one team on both of the above lists. They’re 9-19 with the point differential (minus-10.2 per game) of a team that’s 5-23.

3. Paint moves from the league’s leading drivers

For the third straight season, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander leads the league in drives per game, averaging 24.3 after the Thunder’s two-point loss to Miami on Wednesday. Behind SGA are Ja Morant (22 drives per game) and Luka Doncic (21.2), who ranked third and second, respectively, last season. With his new role in New York, Jalen Brunson ranks fourth at 18.3 drives per game, up from 13.6 last season.

Gilgeous-Alexander, Morant, Doncic and Brunson are four very different players. But what they have in common goes beyond how much they get in the paint. It’s also what they do when they get there, because there’s often still work to be done after the initial foray inside.

Gilgeous-Alexander stays pretty ground-bound on his drives, but will use a combination of crossovers, hesitations and changes of direction to get to his destination …

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander drive

With the ninth-highest free throw rate (48.5 attempts per 100 shots from the field) among 150 players with at least 200 field goal attempts, he’s definitely not afraid of a little contact …

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander drive

Morant is obviously more explosive than the other three guys here. He’ll dunk on some dudes and sometimes just hang in the air longer than the defender in front of him. He’ll also often take off without a plan, too, and has the highest turnover rate and worst field goal percentage on drives among these four guys. But he can also maneuver in tight spaces if he doesn’t have a straight-line drive …

Ja Morant drive

Doncic had a transition dunk on Jrue Holiday last week, but he’s generally not exploding to the rim on his drives. Instead, he’s playing angles and using pump fakes to get to his shot. A defender may think he’s successfully defended a Doncic drive, but the most subtle of head-and-shoulder fakes will get him in the air and give Doncic the opportunity to get off a shot …

Luke Doncic drive

Doncic is also a master of the step-through …

Luke Doncic step through

Brunson is a 6-foot-2 guard who likes to turn a drive into a post-up, so that he can pivot as many times as needed to get to his shot …

Jalen Brunson drive

When it comes to defending the league’s most prolific drivers, the job isn’t done when you’ve stopped them from getting all the way to the basket. And for the viewer, that can be when the real fun begins.

4. Most prolific connections

Tyrese Haliburton and Buddy Hield lead the NBA in assists between teammates.

Here are the most assists from one player to a single teammate through Wednesday, along with how many assists they’ve recorded per 36 minutes on the floor together:

Most assists from one player to a single teammate, 2022-23

Team Scorer Assisted By AST MIN Per 36
IND Buddy Hield Tyrese Haliburton 77 743 3.7
ATL Clint Capela Trae Young 62 643 3.5
BOS Jaylen Brown Marcus Smart 61 712 3.1
DEN Nikola Jokic Jamal Murray 60 558 3.9
LAL Anthony Davis Russell Westbrook 59 475 4.5
GSW Klay Thompson Stephen Curry 56 601 3.4
GSW Stephen Curry Draymond Green 54 690 2.8
BOS Jayson Tatum Marcus Smart 53 699 2.7
SAC Kevin Huerter Domantas Sabonis 51 724 2.5
NYK Julius Randle Jalen Brunson 50 762 2.4
DEN Aaron Gordon Nikola Jokic 50 654 2.8

MIN = Total minutes on the floor together.
Per 36 = Assists per 36 minutes on the floor together.

The Tyrese Haliburton-Buddy Hield connection has been the most prolific combo, but Russell Westbrook has assisted Anthony Davis at a higher rate than Haliburton has assisted Hield. (Last season’s top connection was Trae Young to Clint Capela with 164 assists).

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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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