NBA Metrics 101: The 1 Number Defining Every Team 3 Weeks in
Numbers don't always tell the full stories for NBA teams, but they can certainly help inform the conversation. And as we move past the three-week mark of the 2018-19 season, every organization has one stat that stands out as particularly important when looking back on that first portion of the calendar.
For some, we're concerned with team-wide trends in specific areas. For others, individual contributors are rising to the forefront of the conversation. Overarching numbers might be more important than anything else for a few squads.
Your franchise does have an important number. We just can't reveal quite yet whether it's a positive one. Read on to find out.
Atlanta Hawks: 54.8
The Atlanta Hawks aren't pretending to be anything more than a rebuilding organization handing plenty of minutes to youngsters. They've displayed a tacit understanding of their own situation, even if they've given some veterans (see: Carter, Vince) run alongside the up-and-comers who will serve as the key pieces of the next era of Peach State basketball.
As such, the win-loss percentage and all underlying metrics are almost irrelevant. Sure, victories are nice. Losses, however, aid the process of landing a top draft pick in 2019 and adding another centerpiece for head coach Lloyd Pierce.
But we still have to gauge the progress of the incumbent pillars, and none is more prominent than Trae Young. The point guard is the offensive dynamo around whom entire schemes are developing, and no number is more important than his true shooting percentage. For all the passing wizardry he's displayed during the early portion of his rookie campaign, his growth will ultimately depend upon his ability to knock down deep shots, finish floaters around the basket and keep defenses singularly focused on stopping him.
Boston Celtics: 98.9
How are you supposed to score on the Boston Celtics?
The offense will eventually come around (as covered in more detail here) while boasting so many prominent pieces, all of whom are still attempting to establish better chemistry now that everyone is healthy. But the defense is already an imposing force under the supervision of head coach Brad Stevens and the on-court direction of Al Horford.
Given the flexibility of each key lineup piece, the Celtics enjoy unmatched levels of swarming switchability. Everyone understands his role, and even previous sieves like Kyrie Irving are finding success in the Beantown scheme.
As a result, the C's are allowing a minuscule 98.9 points per 100 possessions. Not only is that the league's top mark, but the gap between Boston and the No. 2 Milwaukee Bucks (100.1 defensive rating) is a rather significant one.
So to answer the original question: You just don't.
Brooklyn Nets: 2.6
The Brooklyn Nets are moving to the stage of their long-term rebuild in which they're actually beginning to win some games against competitive organizations, but the top priority in the Barclays Center should remain personnel evaluation. Are D'Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie the backcourt pieces of the future? Is Rondae Hollis-Jefferson a keeper? How valuable are Joe Harris and Allen Crabbe?
Fortunately, they've received one resounding response from Jarrett Allen, whose defensive prowess has left little doubt he's the center of the present and future.
The sophomore's defensive box plus/minus stands at a solid 2.6 during the early portion of 2018-19, giving him—rather easily—the top mark of any Brooklyn rotation player. That's not quite an elite number throughout the entirety of the Association, as it ranks No. 36 among all qualified contributors, but it's still a stride in the right direction after he earned a 1.4 DBPM during his rookie campaign.
If he can continue swatting shots, filling passing lanes and maintaining his rebounding position so admirably, the Nets will have the foundation for a positive defense for years to come.
Charlotte Hornets: 5.0
For years now, the Charlotte Hornets have struggled to find answers when Kemba Walker isn't running the show. As soon as he takes a seat, whether struggling with an injury or catching his breath in the middle of a game, the squad experiences difficulty maintaining leads or closing deficits.
But that's changing in 2018-19, thanks both to the inspired veteran play of Tony Parker and the overall strength of a Hornets outfit that has won five of its first 10 games.
Seriously. Take a gander at the on/off splits over the last few seasons:
- 2015-16: 3.5 net rating with Walker; minus-1.6 net rating without Walker (minus-5.1)
- 2016-17: 3.2 net rating with Walker; minus-7.1 net rating without Walker (minus-10.3)
- 2017-18: 3.6 net rating with Walker; minus-6.8 net rating without Walker (minus-10.4)
- 2018-19: 8.2 net rating with Walker; 5.0 net rating without Walker (minus-3.2)
For the Hornets, it's good news that the team is finding more success than ever with the fearless floor general leading the charge. But it's far better news that Charlotte is still thriving when Walker isn't on the hardwood.
If that continues, making the playoffs should be a formality in the Queen City.
Chicago Bulls: 112.1
Can the Chicago Bulls justify pairing Jabari Parker and Zach LaVine?
The former is a solid offensive talent, but he's had some trouble scoring during his first few outings in a Windy City uniform (14.3 points per game on 45.0/32.4/66.7 shooting). The latter has had no such offensive issues, using a tighter crossover and unabashed confidence off the bounce to become one of the NBA's deadlier scoring threats.
But their joint offensive prowess won't matter if they can't stop nosebleeds. And so far, they can't.
Even when paired with Robin Lopez, Wendell Carter Jr., Justin Holiday or any of the other competent stoppers on the Chicago roster, LaVine and Parker are so undisciplined on the preventing end that they hemorrhage buckets. Thus far, they've given up a whopping 112.1 points per 100 possessions when sharing the floor, which also leads to a minus-9.1 net rating.
Cleveland Cavaliers: 118.5
Let's step away from Kevin Love's injury situation, which will keep him out of action for at least six weeks while he recovers from foot surgery. Forget about JR Smith's trade demands. Don't worry about the veterans' views of rookie point guard Collin Sexton.
All of that is too complicated for a team that, on the simplest level, has no idea how to play NBA-caliber defense.
The Cavaliers are ceding a remarkable 118.5 points per 100 possessions during the 2018-19 season, which leaves them dead last with plenty of room to spare. The gap between them and the No. 29 Chicago Bulls (114.5) is larger than the separation between the Bulls and the No. 19 Atlanta Hawks (110.9).
No team is allowing adversaries to shoot higher percentages. And while Cleveland can take some solace in forcing turnovers at a respectable rate while remaining disciplined in the foul department, that's more than canceled out by its trouble cleaning the glass and defending all shots. When the opposition is making everything, all other defensive factors are rendered almost insignificant.
Dallas Mavericks: 1.2
Though Dennis Smith Jr. could continue developing and become a key piece of this Dallas Mavericks rebuild, he's not quite as important to the team's future as Luka Doncic. If the Slovenian wunderkind is everything he's advertised as after becoming the youngest MVP in EuroLeague history, the organization will have one of the league's best building blocks in place for quite some time.
So far, he's been as advertised. Maybe even better.
Turnovers have been an issue, as they are for so many youngsters attempting to fill prominent roles in NBA backcourts. But Doncic is still averaging 19.4 points, 6.6 rebounds and 4.6 assists while shooting 46.7 percent from the field, 39.3 percent from downtown and 69.4 percent at the stripe. He's looked confident with the ball in his hands, able to do damage with his pull-up jumper while constantly keeping his eyes up in search of open teammates.
The best news is that the Mavericks are already finding more success when he leads the charge, as their net rating jumps up by 1.2 points per 100 possessions—a stark contrast to the minus-8.0 swing when Smith is on the floor. Head coach Rick Carlisle would presumably love for the on- and off-court numbers to rise for both young guards, but that positive shift when Doncic is playing is already a great initial return on investment for Dallas.
Denver Nuggets: 100.9
The Denver Nuggets were supposed to be an offensive doomsday machine.
With Nikola Jokic leading the charge as an all-around force who could score efficiently and pass better than any other seven-footer, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris tickling twine from everywhere and Paul Millsap providing frontcourt versatility as a do-everything piece, the Colorado representatives were supposed to build upon their league-leading offensive rating earned after the 2017-18 All-Star break.
So much for that.
Instead, the Nuggets have played disciplined defensive basketball and forced their reputation to undergo a 180-degree shift. Jokic is fleeter of foot and thriving as he hedges harder against pick-and-roll sets. Millsap is a game-changing presence on the preventing end. The other pieces are all buying in and displaying heretofore unseen levels of energy on defense.
Communication has also been key, as Paolo Uggetti made clear in his piece on the Denver defense for The Ringer:
"The coaching staff’s emphasis on communication was a way to prepare for challenges both unforeseen and expected: Things will break down, and by putting Jokic higher up the court, both he and the players surrounding him needed to be ready to call out coverages and make adjustments on the fly. 'I would say we have more guys talking this year,' [Mason] Plumlee said. 'And now if we get guys listening too, even better. Talking is one part of it, but communication takes two.'"
It's all resulted in a 100.9 defensive rating that trails only the Boston Celtics (98.9) and Milwaukee Bucks (100.1).
Detroit Pistons: 30.5
- Reggie Jackson: 17-of-54 (31.5 percent)
- Blake Griffin: 21-of-46 (45.7 percent)
- Ish Smith: 13-of-32 (40.6 percent)
- Stanley Johnson: 8-of-32 (25.0 percent)
- Reggie Bullock: 7-of-28 (25.0 percent)
- Langston Galloway: 4-of-24 (16.7 percent)
- Bruce Brown: 1-of-10 (10.0 percent)
The Detroit Pistons got off to a mirage-laden start in 2018-19 by outperforming their underlying metrics with a cushy early schedule and unmitigated heroics from Blake Griffin. But if they want to continue pushing toward a playoff berth in the NBA's weaker half, they'll need to surround Griffin and center Andre Drummond with better shooting from the perimeter.
Seven different Pistons have double-digit three-point attempts. Not many of them are hitting at an impressive clip:
The team isn't shy at firing away, ranking No. 15 in three-point attempt rate. The problem is the widespread inaccuracy that prevents the Pistons from keeping pace with high-powered offenses.
Detroit is knocking down only 30.5 percent of its deep looks, and that betters only the 29.1 percent clip of the Oklahoma City Thunder. If they don't improve there soon, their record will start reflecting that mark.
Golden State Warriors: 11.8
- 2015-16 Stephen Curry: 12.4
- 2018-19 Stephen Curry: 11.8
- 2016-17 Russell Westbrook: 10.9
- 2017-18 Stephen Curry: 9.9
- 1987-88 Michael Jordan: 9.8
Stephen Curry is back in MVP form.
Having a tertiary option (Klay Thompson) capable of exploding for more than 50 points is a nice luxury for the Golden State Warriors, as is having your second-best player (Kevin Durant) able to function like the world's premier basketballer on any given night. But those All-Stars still can't stack up against Curry when the devastating point guard is in world-breaking mode.
The Davidson product is averaging a league-best 32.5 points while shooting 53.9 percent from the field, 50.9 percent from downtown and 91.7 percent from the stripe. He's also submitting 5.4 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game while playing solid positional defense and keeping his turnovers in check better than he has in a long while. Everything is clicking, which puts him on pace to shatter his own three-point records and lead Golden State back toward the 70-win threshold.
All that adds up to an 11.8 offensive box plus/minus, which sits only slightly behind his 12.4 OBPM from 2015-16. And to put that in further perspective, take a gander at the top qualified marks throughout league history:
Curry, as you might have guessed, is a pretty special offensive force.
Houston Rockets: Minus-4.47
The Houston Rockets are legitimately struggling.
For the time being, we're not diving into the root causes (rest assured they go well beyond losing Trevor Ariza, even if that's the popular narrative). Instead, it's instructive to show that the Rockets, admittedly without Chris Paul or James Harden for some of the early going, have just played bad basketball. This isn't some fluke waiting to correct itself naturally, so much as a systemic set of issues that will have to be remedied in order to generate more positive results.
Basketball-Reference.com's simple rating system evaluates teams solely through the lens of margin of victory and strength of schedule. Outscore the opposition while playing a tough schedule, and you'll fare rather well.
Houston...does not fare rather well.
With a score of minus-4.47, the Rockets have performed like a bottom-10 outfit. They're sitting at No. 22, sandwiched between the Minnesota Timberwolves (minus-3.83) and Detroit Pistons (minus-4.72). Their Pythagorean record also validates this, indicating that their expected record at this stage of the season is an unimpressive 3-5—right in line with their actual mark.
The Rockets should improve. According to ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski, former assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik (the mastermind behind last year's sterling defense), is set to return. But legitimate issues abound.
Indiana Pacers: 7.3
"The dynamic duo of bigs that we have is phenomenal," Victor Oladipo recently said about the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis combination, per J. Michael of the Indianapolis Star. "It just goes to show you ... Myles protecting the rim like he did today, Domantas carrying us the way he did the other day coming off the bench and doing a great job like he always does, there's no drop-off. That's hard to find in this league."
Myles Turner continuing to develop is a nice boost to the Indiana Pacers. But Domantas Sabonis looking this good is an even bigger deal, giving them one more unexpected jolt in their quest to rise near the top of the Eastern Conference hierarchy.
The third-year big is averaging 13.6 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 0.7 steals and 0.7 blocks in 22.7 minutes per game off the Indiana bench, and he's slashing an ostentatious 67.1/100.0/81.8. (No, that middle percentage isn't really relevant when he's taken just one attempt.) Everything is clicking on both ends of the floor, leading to a 7.3 box plus/minus that trails only Kyle O'Quinn (9.9 in 43 minutes) on the Pacers roster.
Throughout the entire league, only nine qualified players (Nikola Jokic, Stephen Curry, O'Quinn, Russell Westbrook, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Damian Lillard, Anthony Davis, Nikola Vucevic and Nerlens Noel) have superior BPMs.
Los Angeles Clippers: 3
Driven partially by the league-wide uptick in pace and offensive production, 36 different qualified players are averaging at least 19 points per game during the 2018-19 season. Every single team has at least one representative, save the Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers, Denver Nuggets and Orlando Magic, who are either extremely balanced or utterly inept on the scoring side.
But only two squads have three players hitting the cut-off:
- Golden State Warriors: Stephen Curry (32.5 points per game), Kevin Durant (28.3), Klay Thompson (19.8)
- Los Angeles Clippers: Tobias Harris (21.2), Danilo Gallinari (19.8), Lou Williams (19.0)
That's great news for a Western Conference squad attempting to fight for its playoff life and emerge from a crowded field. The Clippers have jetted out to a solid 5-4 start while playing a fairly average strength of schedule, and that's largely because this level of top-end scoring talent has helped produce the league's No. 9 offensive rating (110.9).
We already know what Williams can do, but Harris continuing to break out into a legitimate alpha-dog offensive threat and Gallinari regaining his health and pre-injury form have both been key developments. If those two can continue throwing up around 20 points apiece per outing, the Clippers won't be easy prey on any given night.
Los Angeles Lakers: Minus-12.4
The Los Angeles Lakers have shown flashes of promise during this new era of purple-and-gold basketball.
LeBron James is continuing to thrive as an unabashed offensive juggernaut, though he's picking and choosing the spots in which he exerts defensive effort. JaVale McGee is tracking toward a career season, perfectly comfortable in the L.A. schemes on both ends of the floor. Lonzo Ball is shooting better, Rajon Rondo is passing brilliantly and Josh Hart has been a savvy two-way player.
But the wins aren't coming, largely because the Lakers are having trouble stringing together quality play for a full 48 minutes. In particular, fourth quarters (mostly the opening portions of fourth quarters) have given them quite a bit of trouble:
- First quarters: minus-10.7 net rating (No. 26)
- Second quarters: 12.0 net rating (No. 7)
- Third quarters: 7.3 net rating (No. 10)
- Fourth quarters: minus-12.4 net rating (No. 27)
Opening games in more advantageous fashion would go a long way, and part of that stems from the starters still learning how to thrive alongside James. Talented as the four-time MVP may be, his ball-commandeering style lends itself to tough adjustments; he isn't always easy to play with.
But closing contests in proper fashion has still been the (slightly) bigger bugaboo, as well as the primary reason this squad has six losses in its first 10 tries.
Memphis Grizzlies: 31.0
The Memphis Grizzlies will go as Mike Conley goes, especially now that Marc Gasol looks unlikely to match the outputs of his younger years, back before Father Time sapped some of the lateral mobility that allowed for such sterling defensive positioning.
Kyle Anderson has been a boon to the preventing efforts. Garrett Temple and Shelvin Mack can't miss. Jaren Jackson Jr. has been a two-way asset during the early stages of his rookie go-round. But everything still revolves around Conley, even if the team is outscoring opponents by an additional 1.3 points per 100 possessions when he's off the floor—up from 3.3 to 4.6 in the net-rating department.
Part of that is simply a small sample, and that's the best news of all on Beale Street. As opposed to the injury-plagued 2017-18 effort, 2018-19 has seen the point guard remain healthy enough that he's on the floor for the vast majority of contests.
Not only has Conley suited up in each of Memphis' first eight games, but he's played 31.0 minutes per contest, leaving him behind only Gasol (32.9) and Temple (31.8). He's already regained his former glory as an efficient playmaker, and finding his shooting stroke will allow him to make another push at ending the inexplicable All-Star drought that's spanned his entire career.
Miami Heat: 12.8
As you might expect from a roster constructed around an excess of mid-level talents, the Miami Heat have been thoroughly mediocre across the board during the initial portion of 2018-19. They even rank No. 14 in offensive rating and No. 15 in defensive rating.
But if we had to pick one reason why they've failed to bolt out to anything better than a 3-5 record in the early going, we'd go with the turnovers.
With a 12.8 turnover percentage, the South Beach residents have been more careful with the ball than only 10 squads throughout the Association. And while that's not their clear-cut worst mark in any of the Four Factors (No. 20 in effective field-goal percentage and No. 26 in opponents' turnover percentage), it is the one that's easiest to remedy with an in-season mentality shift.
Thus far, seven different rotation members have coughed up the rock on at least 10 percent of their possessions: Bam Adebayo (19.6), Dwyane Wade (16.9), Justise Winslow (16.1), Hassan Whiteside (13.4), Kelly Olynyk (12.6), Goran Dragic (12.3) and Rodney McGruder (10.5). Some of those are acceptable numbers. Dragic's mark, for example, is actually below his career average (15.5).
But unless Wade and the bigs show more care for the basketball, Miami's offense will continue living up to only a smidgen of its full potential.
Milwaukee Bucks: 7.6
Who needs Giannis Antetokounmpo?
The Milwaukee Bucks superstar is obviously a great player, emerging from this season's opening salvo in the thick of the MVP race despite not yet producing any truly signature performances, struggling with turnovers and showcasing a complete dearth of perimeter shooting. He's still averaging a staggering 26.1 points, 13.9 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.4 blocks while hitting 53.6 percent of his field-goal attempts.
With Antetokounmpo on the floor, the Bucks are outscoring opponents by 19.6 points per 100 possessions. But even when he's on the pine, they're toppling their foes to the tune of a 7.6 net rating, which is excelent.
Though Milwaukee has that singular superstar, it's so much more than a one-man show. With Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and virtually everyone else looking like an asset rather than a detractor, the Bucks have emerged as bona fide contenders in the Eastern Conference—contenders to both earn the No. 1 seed at the conclusion of the regular season and to advance through the postseason field for a Finals matchup with the Golden State Warriors Western Conference representatives.
Stop sleeping on these deer. They're legit as can be.
Minnesota Timberwolves: 23
Until the Jimmy Butler situation is resolved and he's wearing No. 23 for a different organization, nothing else can take center stage for the Minnesota Timberwolves. They can't build any long-term plans without knowing which players are coming back. Nor can they understand what they're playing for during the remaining portion of the 2018-19 campaign, since incoming veterans would send an incongruent message to the youngsters.
As Sean Highkin wrote for Bleacher Report, this interminable situation isn't assisting anyone:
"The current state of the Timberwolves benefits no one. Butler is playing when he feels like it and, lately, not even bothering to join his teammates on the bench during games, which undermines the winning-obsessed image he's built over his eight-year career.
"Thibodeau's tunnel-vision approach to the season, acting like nothing is wrong while his team becomes the laughingstock of the league, is naive at best and negligent at worst. And the rest of the Timberwolves have no choice but to show up to work every day, waiting for all of this to be over while putting on a good public face and saying all the right things."
No other number matters right now.
The Timberwolves' minus-6.9 net rating is putrid, but somewhat understandable. Karl-Anthony Towns' career-worst true shooting percentage (58.8) should rise when he's more comfortable. Derrick Rose is close (minus-0.3) to earning his first positive box plus/minus since 2011-12 (4.9).
None of that deserves focus until the situation centered around No. 23 is mercifully resolved.
New Orleans Pelicans: Minus-14.8
Unlike the Bucks, who still thrive with their star on the bench, the New Orleans Pelicans aren't built to maintain leads when Anthony Davis isn't on the floor.
Maybe that changes with a fully healthy Elfrid Payton steadying the offense, but he, Jrue Holiday, Julius Randle and Nikola Mirotic can only do so much on a roster that lacks top-tier depth. This is just one of many advanced metrics, but NBA Math's TPA shows that Milwaukee has 10 players earning positive scores in 2018-19, whereas New Orleans has just six: the aforementioned standouts, plus E'Twaun Moore.
The Pelicans, who are only the third team in NBA history to win its first four games before losing the next five, have excelled when Davis is operational. They've posted a gaudy 12.7 net rating in his minutes. Unfortunately, that mark plummets to minus-14.8 without him.
Should Davis remain healthy, he'll factor into the MVP race and single-handedly ensure the Pelicans feature in the Western Conference playoff picture. But if head coach Alvin Gentry can't craft a palatable solution when his leading man is unavailable, the ceiling can only rise so high by the bayou.
New York Knicks: 13
The New York Knicks are—please sit down for this—doing everything correctly during a rebuilding season.
Rather than forcing the issue without Kristaps Porzingis and turning prominent rotation spots over to veterans who don't factor into the long-term plans, they're letting everyone play. That's not hyperbolic, considering the Knicks have an eye-popping 13 players logging at least 10 minutes per game. While that number is slightly boosted by Kevin Knox's injury, which opened up more opportunities for other players even without disqualifying him from consideration, it's still impressive.
After all, no other team has hit a baker's dozen.
The Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls, Detroit Pistons, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings are all at 12, but the Knicks are alone at 13. And that's allowed them to simultaneously foster surges from Noah Vonleh and Mitchell Robinson while giving Emmanuel Mudiay, Damyean Dotson and others shots at earning more prominent roles.
The Knicks aren't going to make the playoffs. They might as well see what they have, and they're handling that process properly thus far.
Oklahoma City Thunder: 7.5
Russell Westbrook, despite his shooting struggles from beyond the arc (11.1 percent) and at the charity stripe (63.6 percent), is enjoying a phenomenal, albeit delayed, start to his 2018-19 festivities. Finishing tremendously on his athletic drives to the hoop, he's averaging 25.3 points, 8.5 rebounds and 8.8 assists while keeping his turnovers in check and converting 50.4 percent of his field-goal attempts.
Steven Adams has, somewhat quietly, continued to evolve as an all-around player. But he too has room for improvement once he hits his stride as an interior finisher and starts converting more of his pick-and-roll opportunities. Ditto for Paul George, whose fantastic off-ball defense and well-rounded production has been partially mitigated by his 39.4/32.4/78.3 slash line.
All three members of the Oklahoma City Thunder triumvirate can trend upward throughout the 2018-19 campaign, but they're already finding some success when operating in harmony.
No OKC trio has spent more time on the floor together, and it's helped the Thunder outscore foes by 7.5 points per 100 possessions. That's actually an improvement upon last year's mark (6.9), which offers hope for a continued return to form while the team, as a whole, recovers from a lackluster start.
And again, this might be a baseline. All three guys can play better in at least one major facet of the game.
Orlando Magic: 47.7
The Orlando Magic can't shoot. When you can't shoot, it's hard to score with any consistency or efficiency. When you can't score with any consistency or efficiency, you end up with the league's No. 30 offensive rating, scoring a minuscule 101.3 points per 100 possessions.
It's a twisted, NBA version of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.
Orlando actually does have legitimate offensive talent on its roster. Aaron Gordon can look like a stud in the right situation. Nikola Vucevic is quite a load for any defender, and he's played at peak levels throughout the early portion of 2018-19. Jonathan Isaac has shown flashes, and we know how versatile a scorer Evan Fournier can be.
But without consistent play at the point, the Magic are squandering so many of their pieces, a number of whom are frontcourt bodies who require set-up passes and developing plays before going to work. D.J. Augustin and Co. just aren't getting the job done.
All of that has resulted in a 47.7 effective field-goal percentage that's rather easily the NBA's worst mark. Next up are the Detroit Pistons (48.2), Minnesota Timberwolves (48.4) and Cleveland Cavaliers (49.0).
Until that changes, the offense won't find any success. And it won't change without addressing the root issue and upgrading the 1.
Philadelphia 76ers: Minus-6.3
The Markelle Fultz experiment has been problematic.
With Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid leading the charge, the Philadelphia 76ers are talented enough that they can use portions of the 2018-19 campaign to experiment with personnel and schemes. Even with Dario Saric struggling, they're in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race, and that shouldn't change throughout the year.
But at some point, they might have to abandon the quest to make Fultz useful in any and all situations. He's been an actual commodity with the ball in his hands, but he's a spacing nightmare when paired with another non-shooter in Simmons, which remains troublesome for a team that's sure to hand Simmons plentiful minutes in games that actually matter.
When the two guards operate together, the Sixers are on the wrong end of a minus-6.3 net rating. The lane clogs up, leaving Philadelphia scrambling in search of tough points while playing a style that in no way resembles the organizational philosophy.
If the team wants to use Fultz as a change-of-pace guard off the bench, replacing Simmons rather than attempting to complement him, that's one thing. But this other strategy isn't working and will continue to have deleterious effects.
Phoenix Suns: Minus-11.8
When are the Phoenix Suns going to dig themselves out of the NBA basement?
This season has been more promising than others, sure. But without a true point guard who has experience operating offenses at the highest level, work becomes even tougher for Devin Booker and the rest of the scoring threats in the desert. Mikal Bridges, T.J. Warren and Deandre Ayton have all proved they are keepers.
But at some point, the results have to become tangible. That's...not happening yet.
One year after finishing with the league's No. 30 offensive rating and No. 30 defensive rating, the Suns are up to Nos. 29 and 28, respectively. And after earning the worst net rating in the NBA (minus-9.0), they're ceding even more ground with a minus-11.8 net rating that leaves them tied for dead last with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
We're not trying to take away the rip-roaring success of Ayton, who should currently be the easy favorite for Rookie of the Year while Luka Doncic and Trae Young struggle with turnovers and shooting consistency. Nor are we trying to diminish the many valid excuses that help explain the poor overall performances during a 2-7 start.
But the results have to improve eventually, or else Phoenix will remain mired in a Sisyphean rebuild.
Portland Trail Blazers: 62
Please allow us to cede the stage to ESPN.com's Zach Lowe, who brilliantly summarized what we're seeing from Damian Lillard this season:
"This guy gets better every season. Lillard has rounded out his game on offense to the point that he is good at everything—and realizes it. He can punish opponents in every conceivable way, from almost any spot inside the half court. He shifts entire defenses with one dribble, one shoulder fake, one glance at the rim. He knows every counter you have, and has two counters ready. He is operating with a stone-faced disdain that says, 'Why are you even bothering?'
"Even last season, Lillard didn't quite have this combination of ferocity and multidirectional acrobatics in his off-the-bounce game. ...
"Lillard is shooting 64 percent at the rim, and earning 8.5 free throw attempts per game—career highs. The Blazers have scored 1.45 points per possession on any trip featuring a Lillard drive, the second-best mark in the league among 72 players who have piled up at least 50 drives, per Second Spectrum data. Lillard has gone right on about half of those forays—a bit higher than usual for a guy who leaned way left when he entered the league."
That came on Nov. 2, and we'll update the numbers for you.
Per Cleaning the Glass, Lillard is still shooting an impressive 62 percent at the rim while earning a career-best 8.1 trips to the stripe. That's helped him slash an eye-popping 47.8/37.0/93.8 with enough shots from downtown and at the line to post a lifetime-high 63.4 true shooting percentage. According to NBA Math, only Stephen Curry has added more value on the offensive end than this no-longer-darkhorse MVP candidate.
The Weber State product is simply better than ever.
Sacramento Kings: 108.1
- Atlanta Hawks, 108.28
- Sacramento Kings, 108.1
- Los Angeles Lakers, 106.29
- Milwaukee Bucks, 106.11
- New Orleans Pelicans, 105.89
Behind speedy second-year point guard De'Aaron Fox, the Sacramento Kings are playing at a metronome-shattering tempo in 2018-19.
Last year, the Kings operated like they were stuck in molasses. Though the San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies are usually the organizations with reputations for slow play, it was Sacramento that finished with the league's most methodical pace (95.59 possessions per 48 minutes).
This year, they've very nearly jumped from last to first:
The whole league has gotten faster, and that trend shouldn't change, even as numbers normalize during the fat part of the regular season. But the Kings are taking the shift to an extreme, and it's led to quite a bit of offensive success for Fox, Nemanja Bjelica, Buddy Hield and other overlooked figures while the team tries to escape the doldrums it's occupied for quite some time now.
If you're not prepared for Sacramento putting the pedal to the metal, it'll run you out of the gym.
San Antonio Spurs: 9.1
How do the San Antonio Spurs do it?
Despite claiming a barely positive SRS with Pythagorean Wins indicative of a 5-4 record, they've won six of their first nine games. Despite featuring defensive liabilities at multiple positions, they've turned Dante Cunningham into a point-preventing anchor and risen to No. 17 in points allowed per 100 possessions. Despite DeMar DeRozan thriving for so many years as a score-first asset with the Toronto Raptors, he's become the team's best facilitator and unlocked a whole new set of offensive tools.
Part of the reason is the tremendous execution in the moments that mean most—exactly what you'd expect from a perpetually disciplined squad operating under the supervision of head coach Gregg Popovich.
Throughout the 2018-19 season, the Spurs have posted a mediocre 1.7 net rating. But when games come down to the wire—NBA.com defines these "clutch" situations as the last five minutes of contests separated by no more than five points—they suddenly begin outperforming their foes by a more impressive 9.1 points per 100 possessions. The defense still isn't anything special, but you'll struggle to find many offensive miscues from DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge and the rest of this makeshift rotation.
The lesson, as always (and this applies to yours truly, who predicted they'd cool off after a 4-2 start), is to avoid doubting the Spurs in any situation.
Toronto Raptors: 19.7
- Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors: 19.7 net rating in 215 minutes
- Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors: 19.0 net rating in 239 minutes
- Kyle Lowry and Danny Green, Toronto Raptors: 18.8 net rating in 284 minutes
- Danny Green and Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors: 17.9 net rating in 214 minutes
- Kevin Durant and Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors: 17.2 net rating in 265 minutes
These are not the Toronto Raptors you watched during 2017-18.
Kyle Lowry is playing as well as he ever has, averaging 18.0 points, 4.3 rebounds and a league-leading 11.6 assists while shooting 49.6 percent from the field, 40.6 percent from downtown and 78.8 percent on his freebies. Kawhi Leonard has bounced back from his season-shortening quadriceps injury nicely, putting up 26.1 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.4 assists while slashing 50.4/44.8/87.8 and playing suffocating defense. Jonas Valanciunas, Danny Green, Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka also have positive BPMs in the heart of the rotation.
This is a team with star power at the top and plenty of depth, allowing it to thrive on both ends of the floor and assert itself as a bona fide juggernaut in the Eastern Conference. And when both Lowry and Leonard are logging minutes, even "juggernaut" might be selling the Raptors short.
Those two have shared the hardwood for 215 minutes in 2018-19, and they've posted a pick-your-chin-off-the-floor 19.7 net rating during that time. For context, here are the leading scores produced by duos that have already crested the 200-minute threshold:
The Raptors are pretty decent.
Utah Jazz: 6
- Minnesota Timberwolves: Seven
- Boston Celtics, Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Lakers, Toronto Raptors and Utah Jazz: Six
Up to this point in the NBA seeason, 146 different players are averaging double-digit points, giving the typical squad fewer than five qualified contributors. But the Utah Jazz have six such scoring threats, which leaves them behind only one organization that has—in a way—benfitted from the absence of an established superstar (Jimmy Butler) whose truancy opens up more opportunities for everyone else:
But the Jazz don't have a Kyrie Irving, Victor Oladipo, LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard. Donovan Mitchell (22.4 points per game) is their leading scorer, and he's only a sophomore looking to validate his unexpected levels of success as a first-year contributor. Balance has to reign supreme in Salt Lake City, and it has thus far.
Rudy Gobert (16.6), Jae Crowder (14.4), Joe Ingles (13.8), Derrick Favors (10.9) and Ricky Rubio (10.7) are all chipping in, and the balance doesn't stop there. Dante Exum (8.8) and Alec Burks (6.0) might not crack the double-digit barrier, but they're still important backcourt pieces for an egalitarian offense that has to create opportunities through precision play rather than unabashed star power.
Utah has struggled to look much better than average on either end of the floor during the early going, but this type of everyone-contributes atmosphere should still help ensure the team has a relatively high baseline on any given night.
Washington Wizards: Minus-5.68
Something has to change for the Washington Wizards.
Maybe it's as simple as incorporating Dwight Howard into the lineup now that he's healthy. After all, the big man (14.9 net rating in 54 minutes) and rookie guard Troy Brown Jr. (5.1 net rating in 25 minutes) are the only two wearing D.C. uniforms who have yielded positive marks while on the floor. Literally everyone else is in the red, including Otto Porter Jr. (minus-2.1), John Wall (minus-3.9) and Bradley Beal (minus-5.4).
Then again, the situation could be more complicated. Howard alone can't remedy the dysfunction plaguing the Wizards, especially during a season with such putrid results stemming from the opening salvo.
According to Basketball-Reference.com's SRS, these sorcerors don't even come close to reaching a league-average level. Their score of minus-5.68 ranks No. 25 throughout the league, better than only the Chicago Bulls (minus-7.29), Cleveland Cavaliers (minus-13.2) and Atlanta Hawks (minus-14.77) in the Eastern Conference.
Sure, Washington has played a difficult opening schedule. The results are still unpalatable and indicative of wide-spread issues, to the point that we're better off focusing on the overall futility than any one of the problematic areas.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.