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.
As noted in this space a few weeks ago, league-wide efficiency is up. With teams averaging 112.0 points scored per 100 possessions, this is the most efficient season in NBA history, topping the mark of 2020-21 (111.7).
The 112.0 is up from 111.4 last season, and it’s likely to get higher over the next four months. Through Wednesday, 18 of the 30 teams have scored more points per 100 possessions than they did in 2021-22. Here are the five that have made the biggest jump, with some notes on how they’ve done it …
Biggest jump, points scored per 100 possessions
Through Dec. 7, 2022
1. Oklahoma City
The Thunder had nowhere to go but up after ranking last in offensive efficiency in each of the last two seasons. Their improvement has obviously been led by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who ranks third in the league at 31.1 points per game. His true shooting percentage (61.7%) isn’t the best mark of his career, but it’s up from 55.7% last season, despite an increase in usage rate. Gilgeous-Alexander has seen a huge drop in 3-point rate and gone all in on scoring inside the arc and at the free throw line, and it’s working for him and the Thunder.
A few more Thunder notes:
- Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (from 50.3% to 57.5%), Aleksej Pokusevski (from 47.0% to 54.2%) and Kenrich Williams (from 52.5% to 58.9%) have also seen big jumps in effective field goal percentage.
- In addition to seeing the league’s sixth biggest jump in effective field goal percentage, the Thunder have seen its second biggest drop in turnover rate and its fifth biggest jump in offensive rebounding percentage.
- The drop in turnover rate is particularly impressive in that the Thunder are playing faster this season. They average just 13.7 seconds per offensive possession, the league’s second lowest rate, according to Second Spectrum tracking. That’s down from 14.6 seconds (12th lowest) last season.
The Celtics are the only team in this top five that didn’t have a bottom-10 offense last season. But they have the most efficient offense in NBA history. (Update on last week’s note: They’ve scored 8.0 more points per 100 possessions than the league average, which would rank as the third-best differential in the 27 seasons of play-by-play data.)
- The Celtics have seen the league’s biggest jump in the percentage of their shots that have come from 3-point range, from 42.5% (eighth) last season to 47.7% (third) this season. And they lead the league in 3-point percentage at 40.0%, with the Warriors (fifth and second) the only other team that rank in the top five in both 3-point percentage and 3-point rate. The Celtics have four guys in the top 10 in 3-point percentage among individuals.
- Al Horford (from 54.6% to 67.7%), Grant Williams (from 59.7% to 69.7%), Malcolm Brogdon (from 50.1% to 59.7%) and Derrick White (from 49.3% to 58.0%) have seen the second, fourth, sixth and 11th biggest jumps in effective field goal percentage among 201 players with at least 250 field goal attempts last season and at least 100 this season. All of those 2022-23 marks are career bests (unless you count White’s 60.6% on 33 shots as a rookie) and Horford’s and Williams’ marks are their career bests by wide margins.
- Turnovers are up league-wide (from 13.9 to 14.8 per 100 possessions), but the Celtics are one of five teams that have seen a drop in turnover rate, ranking fifth at 13.7 per 100 possessions. And they’ve done that while seeing a jump in assist percentage. Only the Kings have seen a bigger jump in assist/turnover ratio than the Celtics, who currently rank second (behind Phoenix) at 1.97.
The Celtics’ offense has slowed down a little of late, but they scored 118.1 points per 100 possessions against two top-10 defenses (those of the Raptors and Suns) in Games 2 and 3 of their six-game trip. They’ll finish the trip with games against the Warriors (who rank 21st defensively) on Saturday (8:30 p.m. ET, ABC), the Clippers (fifth) on Monday (10:30 p.m. ET, NBA TV), and the Lakers (14th) on Tuesday (10 p.m. ET, TNT).
A coaching change and some added shooting have sparked a renaissance in Sacramento. Last season, the Kings had the league’s fourth biggest drop in offensive efficiency, going from 112.7 points scored per 100 possessions (12th) in 2020-21 to just 109.6 (24th) in ’21-22. But they’ve turned things around and then some. This is a franchise that hasn’t finished in the top 10 on either end of the floor since ’04-05.
- Unlike the other teams on this list, the Kings’ improvement has come with a big jump in ball movement. Only the Chicago Bulls have seen a bigger jump in passes per 24 minutes of possession than the Kings, who’ve gone from 332 (12th) last season to 357 (fifth) this season. Ben Taylor had a great breakdown of the Kings’ offense – and how it combines elements from both the Warriors’ and Nuggets’ offenses – this week.
- The Kings have seen the league’s second-biggest jump in the percentage of their shots that have come from 3-point range, from 37.7% (21st) last season to 42.7% (sixth) this season.
- The Kings lead the league in field goal percentage in the paint at 62.3%. Domantas Sabonis (66.5%) ranks 12th among 125 individuals with at least 100 field goal attempts in the paint and De’Aaron Fox is shooting a career-best 61.5% in the paint, up from just 54.8% last season.
The Kings are six games into a stretch where they’re playing eight of 10 against teams that rank in the top 10 defensively, and they’ve scored 113.5 points per 100 possessions in going 3-3 thus far. Game 7 game of that stretch (and the second game of a six-game trip) is in Cleveland on Friday (7:30 p.m. ET, League Pass), when they’ll face the league’s top-ranked defense for the second time. The first meeting was the Cavs’ second-worst defensive game of the season, with the Kings scoring 127 points on 98 possessions in an early-November victory.
The Blazers had Damian Lillard for just 29 games last season and were the worst team on both ends of the floor (by healthy margins) after the All-Star break. But, after finishing in the top three offensively in each of the previous three seasons, the Blazers ranked just 16th (109.4 points scored per 100 possessions) at the point when Lillard played his last game. If you use that number, they would still have the league’s eighth-most-improved offense from last season.
- The Blazers have seen the league’s second-biggest jump in free throw rate, from 24.8 attempts per 100 shots from the field (16th) last season to 30.8 per 100 (first) this season. Lillard ranks ninth in free throw rate (45.6 attempts per 100 shots from the field) among 126 individuals with at least 200 field goal attempts. Jerami Grant ranks 18th (42.3) and leads the Blazers in total attempts.
- Related to the above… While the Celtics and Kings have seen big jumps in 3-point rate, the other three teams on this list have seen big drops. The Blazers have seen the league’s fourth biggest jump in 3-point percentage (they rank fourth through Wednesday), but the ninth biggest drop in the percentage of their shots that have come from 3-point range (15th, down from ninth).
- Lillard leads the league with 7.8 pass-ahead passes per game, according to Second Spectrum. That’s up from 6.1 last season and 5.5 in ’20-21. And this is the third straight season where Lillard has seen a drop in time of possession, from 8.8 minutes per game (third in the league) in 2019-20 to just 6.9 per game (11th) this season. The Blazers rank 27th in pace, and they’ve averaged 15.4 seconds per possession (the league’s seventh highest rate), but Lillard has always got his head up and looking to get his teammates easy opportunities in transition.
The Blazers have had a few days off in the middle of their four-game homestand. They have a big game against the fourth-place Nuggets on Thursday (10 p.m. ET, NBA TV) before playing a two-game series against Minnesota.
The Magic have only jumped from 29th to 27th in offensive efficiency, but the 103.9 and 103.8 points per 100 possessions that Orlando and Oklahoma City scored last season were 1.7 and 1.8 fewer than any other team scored. Those two teams were, like, in a sub-basement. This season, the Magic have scored 3.1 fewer points per 100 possessions than the league average, up from 7.4 fewer than the league average last season.
- The Magic have seen the third biggest drop in ball movement, from 327 passes per 24 minutes of possession (15th) last season to just 297 (25th) this season.
- Last season, the Magic were the only team that ranked in the bottom 10 in each of the four factors on offense. They’ve actually seen the fourth biggest jump in turnover rate, dropping to 29th at 16.5 per 100 possessions. But they’ve seen the seventh biggest jump in effective field goal percentage, the fourth biggest jump in offensive rebounding percentage, and the biggest jump in free throw rate, going from 28th (22.3 attempts per 100 shots from the field) to fifth (29.1).
- Credit that jump to Paolo Banchero, who (though he’s missed seven games) has attempted 58 more free throws than any teammate. His 8.7 free throw attempts per game would be the most for a rookie since Shaquille O’Neal averaged 8.9 in 1992-93.
The Magic are four games into a stretch of six straight against teams that rank in the top seven defensively. They scored just 104.1 points per 100 possessions over the first three games of that stretch, but put an end to their nine-game losing streak with an overtime win over the Clippers (in which Banchero was 13-for-14 from the line) on Wednesday. They’ll next play a two-game series (Friday and Sunday) against the Raptors.
The “Spain” or “stack” pick-and-roll has been around for a few years now, and it’s been illustrated in this space multiple times in previous seasons. To refresh, it’s (usually) a standard high pick-and-roll at the top of the floor, with a third offensive player coming from the paint and setting a back-screen on the guy defending the original screen-setter. It can be a difficult play to defend because it requires communication between three defenders to stop the three different elements: the ball-handler driving, the screener rolling to the rim, and the back-screener popping out to the perimeter.
Here’s the Suns running the play last season with Deandre Ayton setting a ball-screen for Chris Paul and Devin Booker setting a back-screen on Ayton’s defender …
At this point, defenses are mostly prepared for it and know how they want to defend it. And you’ll often see the defensive big man (the guy defending the initial screener) feel for the back-screen and try to slide under it. That allows him to stop the drive and/or retreat to the roll man.
That’s how the Lakers tried to defend Spain against the Bucks last week. But the Bucks have a multi-dimensional weapon at the five. Late in the second quarter, when Brook Lopez (after setting a ball-screen for Jrue Holiday) saw LeBron James sliding under Pat Connaughton’s back-screen, he popped out to the 3-point line instead of rolling to the rim …
Early in the third quarter, it was the Bucks who actually made an adjustment. When James slid under Holiday’s back-screen, Holiday flipped the screen around and pinned James in the paint, leaving Lopez alone at the top again…
With Lopez shooting 41% from 3-point range (up from 33% over the previous three seasons), the Bucks’ Spain pick-and-roll (with the “pop” option) is a more effective play. The Bucks’ offense has yet to really find its stride, but it’s had a couple of big games (with Khris Middleton back) in the last week, scoring more than 130 points per 100 possessions in that loss to the Lakers and again in a win over the Kings on Wednesday.
The Milwaukee defense has taken a little step backward, falling to second in the league after that loss to L.A. And the Bucks’ win over the Kings on Wednesday was the start of a stretch where they’re playing seven of eight games against teams that currently rank in the top 10 offensively. Up next are Luka Doncic and the seventh-ranked Mavericks, who the Bucks will visit on Friday (10 p.m. ET. ESPN), having won the first meeting 11 days ago.
The Los Angeles Lakers were not very healthy last season, when LeBron James and Anthony Davis played together in just 22 (27%) of their 82 games and the Lakers’ most-used lineup played just 89 total minutes. That was the fewest minutes for any team’s most-used lineup, 28 fewer than the next lowest total (that of the Kings).
The Lakers have been healthier this year, and James and Davis have played together in 15 (63%) of their 24 games. But they again have the most-used lineup that’s played the fewest minutes, and that most-used lineup doesn’t include James …
Fewest minutes from most-used lineup
|L.A. Lakers||Beverley – Westbrook – Reaves – Walker – Davis||47||+5.7|
|Orlando||Suggs – F.Wagner – Bol – Okeke – Carter||65||-4.5|
|Oklahoma City||Giddey – SGA – Dort – Pokusevski – Robinson-Earl||80||-28.2|
|Toronto||VanVleet – Trent – Barnes – Anunoby – Siakam||94||-0.9|
|LA Clippers||Jackson – Kennard – George – Morris – Zubac||95||+15.0|
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions
The Lakers have four guys – James, Davis, Patrick Beverley and Lonnie Walker IV – who’ve started every game they’ve played. But, because of random absences, that group has played just 133 minutes together. And they’ve played no more than 42 minutes with any fifth guy. Russell Westbrook was a starter for the first three games before seeing his role changed, and Troy Brown Jr. was recently replaced by Dennis Schroder in the lineup. Also, Westbrook checks in relatively early in the first and third quarters and then plays most of each half. So the Lakers’ starting lineups generally don’t get a lot of run together.
The Magic have been depleted by injuries, a few that they entered the season with and a few that they’ve incurred since October. The Thunder have intentionally kept their number low, switching up their starting lineup almost every game, with only three guys – Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey and Lu Dort – starting every game they’ve played. The Grizzlies (with a max of 96) are the sixth team that doesn’t have a lineup that’s played at least 100 minutes.
Neither James nor Davis played in the Lakers’ loss in Toronto on Wednesday. Hopefully, they’ll both be back for a marquee matchup in Philadelphia on Friday night (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).
A little more than half (188/373) of games have been within five points in the last five minutes this season. That’s up from 48% in each of the last two seasons. (Prior to 2020-21, there was a streak of 12 straight seasons where more than half of games were within five in the last five.)
If you feel like the Dallas Mavericks are always playing close games, you’re right. Seventeen (71%) of the Mavs’ 24 games have been within five in the last five, putting them on pace to tie the record for the most clutch games (*58) in the 27 seasons for which we have play-by-play data. And 13 of those 17 games have been within three points in the last minute.
* Held by both the 2001-02 Rockets and the 2002-03 Knicks. Teams averaged about 95 points per game in those seasons vs. 113 per game this season. So if the Mavs were to tie that record, it would be pretty remarkable.
The Utah Jazz are tied with the Mavs for the most clutch games (17), but have played three more games overall. The team that’s played the fewest clutch games (8) is the San Antonio Spurs, who’ve lost 11 straight games overall, with eight of those 11 losses having come by double-digits.
Here are some more notes on clutch (and non-clutch) games:
- Only nine of the Wolves’ 24 games have been within five in the last five, but they lead the league in clutch winning percentage at 7-2. They’re 5-10 otherwise, with that being the league’s biggest differential between clutch and non-clutch records.
- Next in that regard are the Rockets, who are 6-7 in clutch games and 1-10 otherwise, the only team with just one win (it was vs. the Thunder on Nov. 26) that wasn’t within five points in the last five minutes. After Houston is Brooklyn (8-3 in clutch games, 6-9 otherwise).
- The Bulls are on the other side of the spectrum. They’re a league-worst 3-9 in clutch games (though they got a clutch win vs. Washington on Wednesday), having seen the biggest drop in clutch winning percentage from last season, when they were 25-16 (fourth best). The Bulls are actually 7-5 in games that weren’t within five in the last five, the fourth-best non-clutch record in the Eastern Conference.
- After Chicago in regard to clutch-vs.-non-clutch discrepancy are the Warriors, who are 5-9 in clutch games and 8-4 (second-best in the West) otherwise. They’re followed by the Suns (4-5 in clutch games, 12-4 otherwise).
- The Celtics have seen the league’s biggest jump in clutch winning percentage, from 13-22 (29th) last season to 8-3 (tied for second) this season. They also have the league’s best record (13-2) in games that weren’t within five in the last five. Both losses were, of course, to the Bulls.
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