The NBA season is young, which means small sample season is upon us. Every year, the first few weeks of the NBA regular season provide crazy stat lines, teams outperforming or underperforming based on preseason expectations and generally kooky outcomes. In a few weeks, everything will normalise, but for now let’s take a look at the players and teams capitalising on some small sample theatre, for better or worse.
Joe Harris – Offensive Rating Savant
Quick, guess who Joe Harris plays for. Now, guess how long he’s been in the league for? If you didn’t know the answer to either, don’t feel bad. Smokin’ Joe has been about as under-the-radar as it gets in his young career, but he has slowly started to carve out a niche with the Brooklyn Nets as a sniper off the bench.
Kenny Atkinson has his team playing fast, loose and with plenty of triples, and Harris has taken advantage when on the court. His individual numbers are good-not-great with averages of 9.7 points per game on 47.8% from the field and 39.5% from 3-point range. Brooklyn is a middling team for offensive efficiency, ranked 18th in the League with 103.3 points per 100 possessions.
But Harris? He is sporting a casual 114.3 rating, trailing only a couple of NBA Champions, who happen to play for the greatest offensive team this century.
Chandler Parsons – Defensive Catalyst
Throughout his career, Chandler Parsons has been known as many things. Underpaid, ladies man, a knockdown shooter, core piece, injured, overpaid etc. He has basically been an above average offensive performer since entering the NBA back in 2011, but defensive catalyst would likely never have been two words offered for Parsons unless it was preceded with “not a”.
Well, would you look at that? Part of this is playing for an elite defensive team. Part is coming off the bench against (mostly) lesser offensive players. But porous defenders tend to be found out, even if paired with elite teammates. The fact that Parsons is not being a major liability – especially after his knee issues – has to be pleasing for the Grizz faithful.
Kevin Durant’s Block Party
When you think of elite rim protectors, Seven Footers are generally the players that come to mind. Rudy Gobert, Hassan Whiteside, Joel Embiid. So why does it seem strange to see Kevin Durant in that same company? The Slim Reaper has been doing work on the defensive side of the floor.
KD is now up to 2.5 blocks per game, trailing only Gobert in the ENTIRE NBA. While it seems crazy for a Small Forward to be ahead of players like Anthony Davis et al, Durant’s move to playing a lot of the 4-spot has increased his help responsibilities, and unlocked some of his previously dormant defensive potential. Since moving to Golden State, Durant has posted the two highest block-per-game numbers of his career, and he seems poised to crack 2 BPG this year for the very first time.
George Hill – Regressing Again
George Hill had somewhat of a breakout season for the Utah Jazz last season. He set career highs for effective field goal percentage, free-throw makes and attempts per game, 3-point makes and attempts per game… you get the picture. Hill functioned well as a secondary scorer and facilitator behind Gordon Hayward, being afforded more freedom and responsibility than he previously enjoyed at the tail end of his stint with Indiana.
In this age of advanced technology and prolonged effectiveness despite age (see Ginobli, Manu), it can be easy to forget that player regression can be swift and cruel. Whether it is a result of ineffective teammates dragging down his overall play or age-related decline, Hill must have left his aggression and effectiveness in Utah. Through the opening 7 games for Sacto, Hill is down 7PPG, up in turnovers despite a lower usage, down three 3FGA per game, down a catastrophic 24 points in basketball-reference’s Offensive Rating and generally looking like a shell of the player the Kings expected to receive. George has a tough Hill to climb.
Andre Drummond – Making Free Throws
You would be forgiven for thinking you might have just stumbled into the upside-down from Stranger Things when looking at Andre Drummond’s FT percentage. Against all statistical trends, all prior evidence to inform future outcomes, Drummond has turned himself into a reliable FT shooter. How on earth do you go from a career average of 38.9% to 75% in a single season?
Drummond’s improvement has stemmed from a change in mechanics as detailed here and here. The practical implications mean he can stay on the floor longer – especially in crunch time – and creates a more efficient and much more confident player. So often we ask players who aren’t good at something why they don’t work harder or change things, up. It’s great to see Drummond showing real improvement, and the Pistons are off to a 7-3 start to the year. Here’s a highlight video of Andre making free-throws to celebrate.
Blake Griffin and Aaron Gordon – 3-Point Specialists
Shooting percentage transformations aren’t limited to just the FT line. Blake Griffin has gone from 33% on 0.5 attempts, to 33% on 1.9 attempts, to 42% on five attempts per game. He is knocking them down in spot up situations, as a trailer on the delayed break, step-backs with a hand in his face, and dribble pull-up leaners off a pump fake with a hand in his face to win games. Blake has been migrating to the perimeter steadily over the past 5 or so years, but moving behind the long line has resulted in the best true shooting percentage of his career.
Speaking of best TS% of their career, check out Aaron Gordon’s shot chart.
Moving back to his natural Power Forward role has unleashed Gordon’s offensive game. He is currently doubling his 3-point % from last season, and his newfound marksmanship has opened up the driving lanes (it also helps that Vucevic is shooting triples and Elfrid Payton is injured – hello spacing!) where Air Gordon is finishing at a robust 71% at the cup. It’s unlikely that Gordon will continue shooting at 55.8% from downtown, but even if stays over 35% he becomes a very dangerous offensive weapon.
The NBA on Speed
Does it feel like you’ve seen more 60-54 halftime scores than normal? Are you wondering why perennial defensive powerhouses are giving up 110 points on the regular? It might be because the NBA has clearly failed a drug test, everyone is on Speed. When the 2016/17 concluded, only nine teams had cracked the 100 mark in pace. Brooklyn lead the league at a blistering 103.58. If you look at just the first 3 weeks of last season, Phoenix lead 11 teams over 100 with a 105.01 rating.
Now though, NINETEEN teams are clocking over the 100 mark. Brooklyn are back on top of the table at an absurd 108.79. Even the Road Runner would think that is quick. This might just be coaches way of getting their players into shape given that training camps were cut short. But the suped-up version of NBA basketball is likely the result of other factors. More teams are downsizing than ever before, which means less slow plodders like Greg Monroe are starting at the 4 spot, replaced with Tobias Harris and Al-Farouq Aminu types. Teams are also recognizing the success that Golden State have had playing fast, this is a copycat league after all.
Frank Vogel – Offensive-minded Coach
Orlando currently rank 7th in Points Per Game (109!!), 4th in Assists Per Game, 5th in 3-Point Makes Per Game, 2nd in 3-Point Percentage, 13th in Offensive Rating, 7th in Assist Percentage and 5th in Pace. Might I remind you that this team is coached by the same man who had his team ranked 29th in Offensive Rating just last year. The same man who had the Indiana Pacers clocking in at a Toyota Camry level 92.84 Pace, good for 25th in the league back in 2012/13.
Vogel has his team playing uptempo, modern basketball. Vooch is stepping out to the land of plenty, the team is passing the ball and they have generally been fun to watch for the first time in…five years?
Portland Trail Blazers – Defensive Juggernaut
The knock on Portland for the last two years has been the defense. Since losing four of their five starters, Portland have had to deal with the realities of starting two guards listed at 6’3″, without an elite paint protector to clean up mistakes. Their Defensive Efficiency rank of 20th in 2015/16 and 21st in 2016/17 reflects the culmination of a couple of trends the Blazers have seen over the past two seasons; suck on D for the first 2-4 months of the year, then realise the season is going to shit and ramp it up to finish strong down the stretch. Both times Portland have ridden surges in defensive productivity to make the playoffs, then been unceremoniously bounced by the Warriors.
This year looks a little different in the early going. Lillard and McCollum haven’t suddenly grown three inches, but the team has built off the defensive improvement the team experienced after the Jusuf Nurkic
robbery trade. Portland currently rank 4th in DRTG at 99.9. This would be their best defensive output since the 2002/03 group that was lead by Rasheed Wallace and Bonzi Wells. Portland also rank 2nd in the League in Defensive Rebounding Percentage, 1st in Opponent 3PM, 2nd in Opponent 3PA, 8th in Opponent FG% and 1st in Opponent FG% within 6 feet of the rim.
Unstoppable Unicorns – The Zinger and The Alphabet
Just when you think you have the universe figured out, along come Giannis and Kristaps to change everything we know as possible in this dimension. Nothing encapsulates their abilities quite like this:
Indeed, these are no mere mortal men. Antetokounmpo has been an early MVP favourite, buoyed by his averages of 31.0 PPG (on 58% from the floor and a career-high 33% from 3), 9.9 RPG, 5.0 APG, 1.7 SPG, 1.4 BPG and a 32.6 PER. Porzingis is only averaging 30.2 PPG (50% from floor, 36.6% from 3), 7.8 RPG and 2.2 BPG, and 28.7 PER, whilst decreasing his Turnover Ratio despite increasing his Usage 11.3 percentage points. Oh, and the Knicks are at 5-4 compared to a certain former Knick’s new team being 4-5.
Dirk Nowitzki – Sub Zero
Rounding things out on a depressing low is Dirk Nowitzki’s 20th NBA season. Dirk has been on a noticeable (and understandable) downward trend over the past four seasons, but life has really come at him fast last season and now especially this. To see Nowitzki at his athletic peak, or his professional peak, compared to now is a reminder that Father Time is still undefeated.
If no improvements are made, Dirk is on track to finish below 40% from the field for the first time in his career, despite shooting nearly 43% on triples. Nowitzki is also down to 81% from the FT line and 5.5 RPG, both the lowest numbers since his Rookie Season. He is sporting an unfathomable Net Rating of -14.1 in only 24 minutes of action per night. Dirk is moving like an Egyptian Mummy has donned #41 in blue. It might be time for the Wunderkind from Wurzburg to hang up the sneakers.
Stats current as of 7 November, 2017