Metrics 101: 10 Early-Season NBA Trends We're Buying Into

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 30, 2018

Metrics 101: 10 Early-Season NBA Trends We're Buying Into

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    The Boston Celtics and Oklahoma City Thunder won't finish the season as two of the NBA's worst offensive teams. Nikola Mirotic, valuable as he may be to the New Orleans Pelicans, won't end the year as one of the league's top-20 per-game scorers. The Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors won't stay on pace to win more than 70 games, and the Cleveland Cavaliers won't go 0-82. 

    Not every early-season trend is sustainable. Small samples create plenty of noise, and we have to be careful about buying into takeaways prematurely. 

    But these 10 developments, ranging from league-wide alterations to individual statistics to team-oriented happenings, are legitimate. As the 2018-19 campaign progresses, that'll only become more obvious, and we already have the numbers to back them up. 

Increased Pace Is Here to Stay

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    If you've noticed that NBA teams are operating at breakneck speeds, you're not alone. That's been one of the leading talking points during the early portion of the 2018-19 campaign, and for good reason. Led by the Sacramento Kings and lightning-quick point guard De'Aaron Fox, who has helped the squad go from dead last in pace during the 2017-18 season to No. 3 in the current go-round, the entire league seems to be playing so much faster. 

    Teams are trying to get more possessions by capitalizing on transition opportunities and firing away from beyond the arc early in the shot clock. More possessions lead to more shots, which allows for larger differentiation between themselves and their opponents. It also lets every member of a rotation get more touches. 

    "It definitely gives more shot opportunities for players," Washington Wizards head coach Scott Brooks said, per CBS Sports' Colin Ward-Henninger, who's one of many to write about this drastic shift. "Everybody in this league wants to shoot the ball, so it spreads out the shots and everybody gets a chance to score. ... We like it. We want to play fast."

    Even beyond that, new rule changes allowing for more freedom of movement have given offensive players advantages, and that just pushes the pace up even higher. So, too, does putting only 14 seconds on the clock for second-chance opportunities. 

    Offense tends to have the advantage over defense early in the season, but these alterations will make the pace uptick permanent. This is a far more drastic rise than we saw last year, for example. At the end of October in 2017, the Phoenix Suns led the league in pace (107.64), while 12 squads were in triple figures. Right now, the Atlanta Hawks (108.6) are sitting in the pole position, and all but five teams have crested 100. 

    The league at large is using an estimated 101.5 possessions per 48 minutes, which leaves last year's 97.3 in the dust. In fact, that's the highest pace has been since 1985-86, back when the league was rather different from a stylistic standpoint.

    Squads will slow down some, but not enough to prevent this campaign from producing gaudy per-game figures boosted by metronome-breaking tempos. 

New Orleans Pelicans Are an Offensive Juggernaut

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    Last year, both with DeMarcus Cousins in the lineup and after the big man went down with a ruptured Achilles, the New Orleans Pelicans boasted a palatable offense. Scoring 108.4 points per 100 possessions, they ranked No. 12 throughout the league, sandwiched directly between the Indiana Pacers (108.5) and Portland Trail Blazers (108.3). 

    This year, they're a little better. 

    Elfrid Payton has thrived as the Rajon Rondo placement, finishing plays capably around the basket and minimizing mistakes while setting up his teammates. Julius Randle has been a phenomenal offseason addition, averaging 18.7 points off the bench while shooting 55.6 percent from the field and 50.0 percent from downtown to provide the spacing the second unit needs. Nikola Mirotic won't miss, and Anthony Davis is a leading award candidate at this early stage of the campaign. 

    All in all, the Pelicans are now posting a whopping 116.4 points per 100 possessions. That offensive rating might leave them behind the scorching Golden State Warriors (116.7), but it's still putting them in historic territory and ahead of every single organization from the previous campaign with room to spare. 

    To be clear, we're not predicting that New Orleans ends up setting offensive records. Some of these shooters are bound to cool off. But even if they do, the Pelicans have enough firepower to make the quantum leap from mediocrity to full-fledged elite status. 

    They're tickling twine as well as almost anyone, posting a 53.7 effective field-goal percentage that sits at No. 9 throughout the NBA. Only two teams are turning the ball over on a lower percentage of their plays, which isn't something you typically see from a squad with the No. 5 offensive rebounding percentage that also generates plenty of free throws per field-goal attempt. You're simply not supposed to land in the top nine for each of the offensive Four Factors.

    Some regression is inevitable. But you should already feel comfortable pegging the Pelicans as an elite offensive squad under the supervision of head coach Alvin Gentry and the all-around, MVP-chasing leadership of Davis. 

The Denver Nuggets Are Way Better on Defense

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    The Denver Nuggets have changed their mentality, and it finally fits in with the defense-first stylings of head coach Mike Malone. As the signal-caller himself explained, per Nuggets.com's Christopher Dempsey, the whole team is buying in with what he calls "multiple effort": 

    "I would say just an overall buy-in and commitment. You can talk game plan and you can talk strategy but at the end of the day, for me, defense comes down to pride. Do you want to go out there and give it everything you have to defend? The second part of that is the multiple effort.

    "We are flying around, whether it is deflections, contested shots, and again not always right and it's not always going to be right, but what do you do when it's not? Do you quit on the play? Last year, we were much more of a single effort team and the thing that stands out to me is keeping three straight opponents under 100 points means our guys care about it, they are committed to it, and the multiple effort is there."

    Of course, the strategies are changing, as well. 

    Nikola Jokic is hedging harder against screens than he has in the past, and that subtle change is allowing him to play more to his strengths rather than get exposed against dribble penetration. Daniel C. Lewis looked at this in detail for Denver Stiffs, also noting that skip passes can be an effective counter that will force the Nuggets to vary their schemes more as the season progresses. 

    But Jokic, while quite a bit improved (and it's worth noting his reputation as a defensive liability was always overblown, failing to account for his rebounding and off-ball work to instead focus on his perimeter and last-line-on-the-interior shortcomings), isn't the only difference-maker. Paul Millsap is healthy, and the many young pieces have a better understanding of positioning. Overall execution matters on defense, regardless of whether the schemes are advantageous. 

    Depth also helps; the Nuggets have only three players whose presences aren't leading to defensive ratings below 105: Thomas Welsh (105.9 in seven minutes), Tyler Lydon (160.0 in four minutes) and DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell (228.6 in three minutes). 

    Don't expect Denver to continue allowing just 101 points per 100 possessions. That's too large a leap after giving up 109.9 and finishing No. 23 last year. But a jump into the top 10 is entirely feasible, and that would make this squad a legitimate threat for a top seed in the brutal Western Conference. 

Kawhi Leonard Is Back, and so Are the Toronto Raptors

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    If you had any concerns about Kawhi Leonard's ability to regain his superstar powers, please discard them in the nearest trash can. 

    Through his first five appearances as a member of the Toronto Raptors, the two-way standout is averaging 26.6 points, 8.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.6 steals and 0.6 blocks while playing phenomenal defense (see: no-look steal) and slashing 50.0/45.5/92.0. He's one of only 17 qualified players shooting above 45 percent from deep while taking more than four treys per game, and that's just one of many ways in which he can contribute to the cause. 

    Leonard no longer looks hesitant, even if it took him a pair of games to start shooting efficiently from the field. He'll have some negative showings throughout the year (who doesn't?), but he's already eliminating any doubt that he can get back to his pre-injury level and once again begin challenging the established stars for premier placement on the sport's individual hierarchy. 

    But what's particularly amazing is that Leonard may not even be the Raptors' best player to this point in the 2018-19 calendar.

    Kyle Lowry has been that effective, continuing to thrive on the preventing end while averaging 19.8 points, 3.7 rebounds, 10.3 assists, 1.3 steals and 0.7 blocks. Better still, he's doing so while connecting on 57.5 percent of his field-goal attempts, 52.8 percent of his deep hoists and 80.0 percent of his looks from the stripe. 

    The Raptors are still deep, able to rely upon their effective second unit to add to leads, not just maintain them while the starters take breathers. If Lowry doesn't let Father Time slow him down while Leonard proves an upgrade compared to DeMar DeRozan—and let's not forget about the Danny Green addition, since the swingman has been a three-and-D asset—this team has star power at the top and a horde of useful bodies. 

    While the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics have struggled out of the gates, Toronto is refusing to lose with high-quality production in just about every area. Don't be surprised when the Canadian franchise, headlined by a pair of celestial presences leading it to a 20.0 net rating when both share the floor, becomes the preeminent power in the Eastern Conference. 

Even More 3s Are Coming

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    Heading into the 2012-13 season, the all-time record for most threes per game from one team in an average NBA game stemmed from 2008-09. That year, teams drilled 6.6 triples per contest during their typical outings.

    Since then...

    • 2012-13: 7.2 threes per game
    • 2013-14: 7.7 threes per game
    • 2014-15: 7.8 threes per game
    • 2015-16: 8.5 threes per game
    • 2016-17: 9.7 threes per game
    • 2017-18: 10.5 threes per game

    At some point, the league has to hit an asymptote. A game only has so many possessions (even with the increased pace), and teams aren't trying to shoot triples every single time down the floor. Allegedly. 

    We're obviously not there yet. 

    Thus far in 2018-19, the average squad is burying 11.2 treys per game, putting the league on track to shatter the record set one year prior. The Milwaukee Bucks and Atlanta Hawks lead the pack with 15.3 apiece, while the Cleveland Cavaliers are dead last at 7.2. That might be the most staggering stat of all, since every single squad is topping the record mark prior to 2012-13. 

    As of now, Stephen Curry (five times), Klay Thompson (twice), James Harden (twice) and Ray Allen are the only men in league history to make at least 250 treys in a single go-round, excluding seasons from Dennis Scott and George McCloud that came with shortened arcs in the mid-'90s. 

    Curry (541), Kemba Walker (394), Khris Middleton (369), JJ Redick (328), Blake Griffin (308), Harden (308), Joe Ingles (308), Wesley Matthews (308), Nikola Mirotic (301), Bradley Beal (287), Joe Harris (267), Josh Richardson (267), Taurean Prince (267), Tim Hardaway Jr. (262) and Kyle Lowry (262) are all on pace to join the club, while another large handful are just behind. Granted, plenty of those contributors will fall off when they miss games and/or cool off, but that's still an unfathomable level of sharpshooting.

    It's yet another open season from beyond the rainbow.  

Peak Stephen Curry Has Returned

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    Speaking of three-pointers...

    This isn't just an overreaction to Stephen Curry dropping a 51-spot in three quarters against the Washington Wizards—a performance so dominant that head coach Steve Kerr didn't even need to deploy his best player (sorry, Kevin Durant) during the final 12 minutes. Striking that showing from the point guard's record still leaves him averaging 31.0 points, 5.2 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 1.2 steals while slashing 51.2/47.9/86.4.

    Those are jaw-dropping numbers that provide plenty of evidence Curry is back to his MVP level. This may well be the best he's ever played, given the remarkable number of triples he's draining while keeping his turnovers in check and continuing to play solid positional defense. 

    "It's probably one of the best summers I had in terms of my prep work going into a year," the league's best floor general said during media day, per Ward-Henninger. "I'm excited with what that will mean on the court."

    Media day is typically time for players to brag about their offseason strides, whether adding new tricks to their arsenals or further chiseling their frames. And yet, Curry has backed up his words so far, looking fresh and undeniably accurate from all over the floor. Those don't appear to be empty boasts.

    What if this really is the most effective he's ever been? What if he topples his own three-point records while establishing a 50-50-90 club? What if he routinely sits out of fourth quarters because he builds up such untouchable leads in the first 36 minutes? What if he keeps improving throughout the season, most notably because DeMarcus Cousins can't just be ignored when he's healthy and on the floor?

    At the very least, we should all be certain that Curry, assuming he's able to avoid injury, will factor prominently into the MVP race and provide us with a never-ending stream of long-range highlights. 

Zach LaVine: Offensive Force

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    Zach LaVine is no longer hesitant. He's playing with unabashed confidence and a tighter crossover that allows him to create even more space, from which he can use his eye-popping athleticism. Any concerns about his ACL trouble should be rooted firmly in the past now that he's breaking out into a true weapon on the offensive end. 

    By matching 1986-87 Michael Jordan as one of just two Chicago Bulls to hit the 30-point threshold in each of his team's first four games (Jordan went six straight), this 2-guard is starting to inspire some rather bold claims. Vice Sports' Michael Pina, backing up his prediction with plenty of analysis and video breakdowns, is actually calling his number as 2018-19's eventual scoring champion: 

    "Zach LaVine will be this season's scoring champion. In the first four games of a four-year, $78 million contract that the Chicago Bulls were heavily criticized for feeding into their cap sheet, he dropped 129 points with a 69.5 True Shooting percentage and 33.3 usage rate. He's scored at least 30 points in every game, and Monday night LaVine mutilated the Dallas Mavericks, doing as he pleased against every pick-and-roll coverage Rick Carlisle threw at him.

    "... He has the conscience (or lack thereof), legs, and willingness to pull up from 25 feet seven, eight, nine times per game. He can create his own shot from anywhere on the floor, whenever he wants, and looks faster and stronger than he did before he tore his ACL, with more sway over his own NASA-regulated athleticism. Dribbles aren't wasted; he's becoming a carnivore who's learned not to play with his prey."

    Don't laugh. It's not as far-fetched as you may initially think. 

    LaVine is averaging 29.3 points while shooting 52.7 percent from the field, 39.5 percent from downtown and 82.7 percent from the stripe. That middle percentage is coming on a whopping 6.3 deep attempts per contest, and he's also taking 8.7 freebies during his average appearance. Everything is clicking, and the Bulls have no reason to stop feeding him anytime soon. 

    We're not going quite as far as Pina, but LaVine does trail only Stephen Curry (33.9), Damian Lillard (33.8), Kemba Walker (31.7) and Kevin Durant (30.3) on the scoring leaderboard right now, one of whom has a score boosted by a 50-point outburst. Finishing within the top 10, which should take more than the 23.1 points per game Victor Oladipo and LaMarcus Aldridge logged last year, is by no means out of the question. 

The Spurs Are No Longer a Defensive Force

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    The San Antonio Spurs have posted a better-than-average defensive rating each and every year since 1996-97, when David Robinson went down with a season-ending injury, Gregg Popovich took over head-coaching duties from Bob Hill, and a 20-62 season led to the acquisition of Tim Duncan with the No. 1 pick of the 1997 NBA draft. 

    Between then and the start of the 2018-19 campaign, Popovich had 155 different men trot out onto the hardwood in a Spurs uniform. Invariably, he helped those troops cover for each other's weaknesses, crafting solid stopping units without fail. At worst, the 2011-12 Spurs allowed only 1.4 fewer points per 100 possessions than the league average—still enough to rank No. 11 in the overall hierarchy. 

    Until now. 

    During the opening salvo of the current campaign, the Spurs have been the Association's most porous unit. They're hemorrhaging 118.6 points per 100 possessions, and they rank poorly in a pair of the defensive Four Factors: 

    • Opponents' effective field-goal percentage: 56.8 (No. 28)
    • Opponents' turnover percentage: 11.5 (No. 21)
    • Defensive rebounding percentage: 77.6 (No. 13)
    • Opponents' free throws per field-goal attempt: 0.167 (No. 3)

    They're mediocre on the defensive glass and rarely foul, but they also struggle to generate turnovers and keep opponents from getting easy looks. That's a brutal combination, and it probably won't get much better throughout the year. Popovich is finally saddled with such shoddy defensive personnel that even he can't work his magic in this situation. 

    Perhaps it would've been different if the havoc-wreaking Dejounte Murray had remained healthy, but the point guard's torn ACL ended that hope. 

DeAndre Jordan Is Ready to Hit His Free Throws

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    DeAndre Jordan's free-throw form hasn't drastically changed since last year, but the results have. All of a sudden, the Dallas Mavericks big man is no longer a liability at the stripe, which could have massive repercussions if the team is able to deploy him in late-game situations without fear of momentum-ruining Hack-a-Jordan strategies.

    Taking 5.0 shots per game from the stripe, Jordan is connecting at a career-best 86.7 percent clip. And while the sample is small enough (just 30 shots) that we should expect regression back to a more reasonable number, this is also the continuation of a trend years in the making. 

    The big man hit only 41.7 percent of his freebies during his first seven NBA seasons, culminating in a cringe-worthy 39.7 percent clip throughout the 2014-15 campaign. Then he connected on 43.0 percent of his looks in 2015-16. Then 48.2 percent in 2016-17. Then 58.0 percent in 2017-18. 

    Now, he's undergoing yet another jump—this time of an unprecedented magnitude. And even if he won't keep his conversion rate north of 80 percent, we can realistically set the 2018-19 over-under around 65 percent, which would still be high enough to ensure that he's not a glaring liability who can be fouled in key situations. 

    To help prove this, I looked at every single 10-shot streak from the line throughout his career and created a histogram of his makes colored by season. As you can see with data accurate through Oct. 25, all of his hottest stretches have come in recent years. He's been getting better at stringing together successful tries for a while now, and he's already put together a perfect 10-of-10 streak in games against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks during 2018-19. 

    "Nothing," he told Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News when asked what he was doing differently. "... Just reps. I'm just trying to stay with it."

    Sometimes, just seeing the ball swish through the nylon can be enough. 

Lonzo Ball Can Shoot

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    Lonzo Ball still has an unorthodox, side-winding delivery, but it's both tighter and quicker than in 2017-18. Even more importantly, he's showed no hesitation firing away from the perimeter as a sophomore for the Los Angeles Lakers, providing spacing that's so vital to any team employing LeBron James' services. 

    Though the point guard was a valuable presence during his rookie go-round, primarily because of his brilliant passing and tremendous defensive instincts, he's now morphing into an offensive asset. Gone are the days in which he could only slash 36.0/30.5/45.1 while laying bricks from all over the floor. 

    Through five appearances, Ball is shooting 52.4 percent from inside the arc, and the massive uptick from last year's 42 percent stems from becoming a far superior finisher at the hoop. As a rookie, he connected on just 49.4 percent of his shots within three feet; that number is up to 69.2 percent in 2018-19. 

    And yet, that's not the most important gain. Neither is his improved free-throw shooting, which is currently seeing him hit at a 57.1 percent clip from the stripe. 

    Ball is making 40.6 percent of his triples while taking 5.3 per game, and they're coming from all over the perimeter. He's drilling step-back jumpers in self-created space above the break. He's catching and firing from the corners. He's waiting on the wings for spot-up opportunities. Everything is clicking, and that's great news as he attempts to build chemistry with James and Co. 

    To be clear, the offense still isn't thriving with him on the floor. But that should change both as the sample grows larger and as he starts to gain more off-ball attention that opens up easier opportunities for his defense. 

    Either way, Ball is here to stay. Those shooting numbers during his freshman season at UCLA (55.1/41.2/67.3) are beginning to look a lot more replicable. 

           

    Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.

    Unless otherwise indicated, all stats accurate heading into games on Monday and courtesy of Basketball Reference, NBA.com, PBPStats.com, NBA Math or ESPN.com.