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NBA Daily: The 2018-19 Trendsetting Turnarounds

Each year, a few franchises turn red-flagged weaknesses into strengths. These are the four biggest examples so far this season.

Ben Nadeau

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The NBA has always been a playground for budding trendsetters — or, in other words, whichever teams can adapt best from year-to-year, embracing their strengths and addressing their weaknesses emerge on the other side even better. While the powerhouse franchises like the Golden State Warriors, Toronto Raptors and Houston Rockets haven’t seen too much variation in recent campaigns — particularly so when comparing some base-level statistics between 2017-19 — there are plenty of other up-and-coming squads that have come out firing so far this season.

A little over halfway through the season, the Milwaukee Bucks and Sacramento Kings –along with a few honorable mentions — have easily been the league’s grandest surprises, both statistically and within the win column. Whether under the rim or behind the arc, there are fascinating narratives that now definitely extend past small sample size territory. With this in mind, here are the 2018-19 trendsetter award winners just ahead of the All-Star break.

Milwaukee Bucks

Points Per Game
2017-18: 15th, 106.5
2018-19: 2nd, 117.0

Rebounds Per Game
2017-18: 30th, 39.8
2018-19: 1st, 48.8

Defensive Rating
2017-18: 18th, 109.1
2018-19: 1st, 103.6

Well, yeah.

Milwaukee, seemingly overnight, transformed into a league-wide darling this season, even though their roster looks pretty similar at the top to last year’s iteration. It decidedly helps to have an MVP candidate anchoring your side — Giannis Antetokounmpo is actually averaging 0.4 points less in 2018-19 thus far — but health has been key too. Malcolm Brogdon, the 2016-17 Rookie of the Year, is injury-free, putting up 2.7 more points per game and shooting excellently from three-point range (41.8 percent) again.

It’s been exactly a year to the day since Brogdon’s partially torn quadricep sidelined him for two entire months, so the Bucks will be excited to have the blossoming guard for a full 82 game-clip. Additionally, both Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton have upped their per game scoring tallies significantly — but it’s the Bucks’ single offseason splash that’s been the biggest difference-maker so far: Brook Lopez.

Lopez, a reborn seven-foot behemoth who fires away from downtown with reckless abandon, has been an absolute revelation for the Bucks. As Milwaukee cycled through largely uninspiring options at center last season — John Henson, Thon Maker and Tyler Zeller — Lopez was busy playing a career-low in minutes out in Los Angeles. Together, they formed a match made in basketball heaven. Lopez plied his trade as a potential three-point threat during his final season with the Brooklyn Nets in 2016-17 but he’s been given the greenest of green lights in Milwaukee, hitting on 2.6 three-pointers per game at a 38.4 percent rate.

On the rebounding front — from worst to first this time — there’s another striking improvement for the Eastern Conference-leading Bucks. Antetokounmpo, a player that will run out of printable adjectives by season’s end, has boosted his per game number from eight rebounds to a remarkable 12.6. The select few currently ahead of Antetokounmpo: Rudy Gobert (12.8), Joel Embiid (13.4), Anthony Davis (13.3), DeAndre Jordan (13.7) and Andre Drummond (14.9) — so pretty stellar company, all things considered. Last season, Antetokounmpo pulled down 24 games of 12 or more rebounds but he’s already beaten that mark in 2018-19 (26) with 32 contests to go.

The aforementioned Henson is still around to grab his niche-role boards, but the brightest newcomer to the conversation is D.J. Wilson. The 6-foot-10 forward notched just 3.2 minutes per game during his rookie season, but now risen to a healthy 17.7 average, Wilson has contributed 4.6 rebounds to the league-pacing treasure trove.

And yet, the accolades don’t stop there — those pesky Bucks! Not only is Milwaukee scoring at a more unstoppable pace, but they’re now also the best defensive team in the entire league as well. Turns out, rocking Antetokounmpo — OK, fine, every single moment — is like using a cheat code and the rest of the stretchy team follows suit. Undoubtedly, the Bucks have soared under new head coach Mike Budenholzer. The former 2014-15 Coach of the Year winner has transformed a once-lackluster unit into a nightmare-inducing mismatch. The Bucks typically have a couple defensive standouts strewn about the floor at any given moment — the usual suspects, of course: Antetokounmpo, Brogdon, Bledsoe, Middleton — and their ball-hawking tendencies are only matched by their length.

Milwaukee has separately tallied six or more blocks and steals in 26 of their 50 contests — topping out with single-game bests of 11 and 13, respectively. The Warriors, Celtics and Spurs will churn out yearly defensive stonewalls — but the Bucks’ newfound liftoff is just another reason why they’ve been so impossibly difficult to handle under Budenholzer. Once you tack on Lopez’s unreal three-point shooting and the boost in rebounding numbers, it’s easy to see why the Bucks are Eastern Conference royalty at long last.

Sacramento Kings

Three-Pointers Per Game
2017-18: 26th, 9.0
2018-19: 12th, 11.5

Pace
2017-18: 30th, 95.59
2018-19: 2nd, 104.18

How does a team go from the conference cellar to postseason contenders in the West without blinking? In the Kings’ case, and credit to head coach Dave Joerger, all they had to do was nearly change everything about them. Last season, Sacramento knocked down seven or fewer three-pointers in 26 different contests and their record in such games was a poor 10-16 — thus making them massive suffers at the hand of the modern NBA. In 2017-18, the league average for three-point percentage was 36.2 and the Kings surpassed that mark in just 44 games and it’s tough to stay afloat, especially in the harder-to-navigate conference, without consistent shooting from long-range.

This time around, it’s been an entirely different story, full of positive boosts across the board. Bogdan Bogdanovic, De’Aaron Fox and Justin Jackson have all upped their averages from 2017-18 — but three major leaps stand out. Buddy Hield has been one of basketball’s undisputed best shooters over the first half of the season, putting down 3.4 three-pointers per game (fourth-highest) at an elite 45.8 percent rate (fourth-highest, again). As a well-deserved selection for February’s three-point contest in Charlotte, Hield will get to do what he does best on the national stage and the sharpshooter shows no signs of slowing down.

But the Kings’ rise to behind-the-arc competency also falls squarely on the shoulders of Nemanja Bjelica and Iman Shumpert. The newly-signed stretch forward has rained 1.5 three-pointers per game on 42.7 percent from the floor, while Shumpert is in business after a down season in Cleveland. As a pair, they’ve turned the Kings into frighteningly competent three-point shooters — but it’s not the only thing that Sacramento has forcefully shoved back into 2019.

Their pace is currently ranked among the league’s quickest — that, obviously, is in large part due to Fox. Electric in nature, the greased lightning-like point guard is a one-man fast-breaking machine. Only the Oklahoma City Thunder record more field goal attempts than Sacramento (92.7) does, but the Kings still lead all teams with 21.4 fast break points per game. Bobbing and weaving through traffic — and perhaps, more importantly, a full season removed from the George Hill positional stranglehold — Fox has been an absolute menace. Without question, it helps to kick the ball outside to that previously cast of talented three-point assassins, but the Kings, who remain just 1.5 games out of the postseason, owe much of this surprise success to Fox.

Honorable Mentions:

San Antonio Spurs

Three-Point Percentage
2017-18: 26th, 35.2
2018-19: 1st, 40.9

In news that will shock exactly zero people: The Spurs are back. One season after backing into the playoffs by the tiniest of hairs on their chins — all without Kawhi Leonard, mind you — it was likely fair to wonder if it was the beginning of the end in San Antonio. Fair, but stupid, as always, of course. The Spurs aren’t even a middle-of-the-pack team in terms of three-point makes (21st, 10.2) but what they do hoist up has an excellent chance of converting. Leave it to a Gregg Popovich-led roster to not waste a single possession, naturally.

Discounting the deceiving numbers of Pau Gasol (50 percent, 0.5 attempts/game) and Dante Cunningham (49.1 percent, 1.1 attempts/game), there are exactly five three-point shooters making a difference so far for San Antonio: Davis Bertans, Bryn Forbes, Rudy Gay, Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli.

This is about par for the course in the cases of Belinelli — who the Spurs just gave $12 million over two years for this exact reason, two three-pointers per game on 39.5 percent — and Mills. It is, however, a much-needed effort for Gay, who hasn’t shot over 40 percent from deep for the entire season a single time in his 13-year career. The truest gems here are clearly Forbes and Bertans, two under-the-radar standouts in Popovich’s demanding system. Bertans has been solid since he joined the Spurs at long last in 2016 — he was drafted No. 42 overall back in 2011 — but this is something else entirely.

Over his first two seasons, Bertans averaged 1.1 three-pointers on 38.6 percent shooting. But in 2018-19, Bertans is up to 2.1 makes on a blistering 47.8 conversation rate — the second-best rate in the NBA.

To his credit, Forbes has responded well to join the Spurs’ starting lineup as well, turning into a quintessential Spurs contributor in the process. Over 53 starts, Forbes is averaging 2.2 three-pointers on 42.5 percent shooting, the 13th-highest mark out there. And although Forbes didn’t get an invite to the three-point shootout like his teammate, this has been a terrifying duo for San Antonio on the perimeter. Last year, the Spurs had zero players finish over 40 percent from three-point range; today, they’ve got four — five if you count Mills’ close-but-no-cigar 39.8 percent clip. Given these breakouts (plus having a superstar for a full season, thanks, DeMar DeRozan) the Spurs are right where they belong: Surging for homecourt advantage in the first round.

Indiana Pacers

Net Rating
2017-18: 12th, 1.3
2018-19: 7th, 4.1

Admittedly, this is not the most eye-popping rise in this category — that, of course, belongs to the Bucks again, who have stunningly grown from a net rating of minus-0.3 to plus-9.5. But since Milwaukee has earned plenty of love already, it’s time to praise the Pacers. For a roster that was slept on last season but earned league-wide respect, Indiana just continues to get better with age.

The Pacers, mostly, are the same team it was in 2017-18, just with the additions of Tyreke Evans and Doug McDermott, plus an offseason of development for Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis. Notable statistical improvements from the latter two — particularly in the rebounding department — have been important, but Turner’s charge into a fearsome rim protector might be the biggest achievement to date.

Turner went from a respectable 1.8 blocks per game — a rate that left him third in NBA last season — to a monstrous 2.7 clip. That’s ahead of Anthony Davis, Hassan Whiteside and Rudy Gobert, good for the best average in the entire league. Furthermore, Turner’s current defensive rating of 100.9 is sixth-highest, a stark difference to his 106.2 mark that was tied for 47th-best in 2017-18. Sadly, this upstart team — well on pace to smash their 48-win total from the previous campaign — will likely sink following the loss of All-Star Victor Oladipo.

But the Pacers are built to weather the regular season storm, a well-constructed rotation with plenty of able veterans that can step in to help replace Oladipo. Thanks to the internal growth of their young forwards and the microwavable shooting from the steady Bojan Bogdanovic, the Pacers aren’t in real danger of missing the postseason just yet. Unfortunately, Indiana holds a 0-4 record since Oladipo’s devastating injury, so this promising net rating hop is bound to drop sooner rather than later. Even then, it hardly makes the Pacers’ year-to-year growth any less noteworthy.

While many onlookers get deservedly swept up in annual consistencies, some of the NBA’s best stories come from the bottom up instead. For the Bucks and Kings, their swift reversal has been a treat to watch unfold. One has become a sporting juggernaut in nearly every area, while the other is in contention to break a playoff drought that dates back to 2006. Elsewhere, the Spurs will never die and the Pacers, despite a brutal injury, remained impressive in their quest for respect. All-Star Weekend is right around the corner, but this list of trendsetting turnarounds should serve as some fun trivia fodder as Bertans, Fox and Antetokounmpo inevitably prove their worth on the national stage.

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his third year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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From time to time we have open chairs at Basketball Insiders for writers looking to gain experience, grow their brand and to be part of an aggressive up-tempo content team.

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From time to time we have open chairs at Basketball Insiders for writers looking to gain experience, grow their brand and to be part of an aggressive up-tempo content team.

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