Welcome to this week’s edition of The Big Three, where we re-convene each Friday to take a snapshot of three plays, trends or stats we’ve seen in the league over the past week.
Today’s Big Three will feature some notes on the league’s record-setting offense(s), a look at rookie Joel Embiid’s ludicrous per-possession statistics, and a fun Play of the Week from the Jazz that demonstrates the value of passing big men and the ability to leverage defensive expectations against them. Let’s get started! As always, all statistics will be from prior to Friday night’s games.
- All the Way Up
It shouldn’t surprise you one bit that there’s a legendary offense in the NBA this season. In fact, it shouldn’t even surprise you that as of this writing, it’s the most dominant offense in the history of the league on a per-possession basis.
Okay, maybe this part will surprise you: It’s not the Warriors.
In fairness, that’s a bit of a disingenuous statement. If the season ended today, the Warriors would indeed have posted a better offense than any team in any prior season before this year. But they’d still be second to the Raptors.
That’s right, Toronto is both the top offense in the league and, to this point, the best the NBA has ever seen. Per basketball-reference.com, the Raps and Dubs would rank first and second on the all-time list if they kept up this rate.
It isn’t all that shocking to see the Warriors on this list given their roster, but this has to qualify as a huge surprise in Toronto’s case. We knew the Raptors were a very good offense – they’ve been in the league’s top 10 the last three seasons, and the top five the last two. But they’ve never come anywhere all that close to this level, and with mostly similar personnel returning this year, this was really hard to see coming.
There isn’t one single big reason for the jump, but rather a few small-to-medium ones. The Raptors were already great at taking care of the ball, but they’ve shaved nearly two turnovers per-100-possessions this year and sit decimals away from the league low in giveaways. They also were quite good shooting the three-ball last year, but once again they’ve been even better – 37 percent has jumped up to an even 40 percent, and they’re shooting about one more per game.
They’re nibbling around the margins to trim the fat in a few other areas, too. They’ve gone from a bottom-10 transition scoring team to a top-10 group overnight, adding a few extra points a game the easy way. They’re grabbing a few extra second-chance buckets here and there, a nice surprise with Bismack Biyombo no longer in town, and are generating more points following turnovers than any other team in the league.
The Raptors still have some of the fewest assisted baskets in the league, a sign many like to point to as a concern for an offense, but it hasn’t mattered one bit. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have been just as good as ever, and role players are stepping up.
More than anyone, coach Dwane Casey deserves major credit – he’s taken his share of criticism over the years, especially in the playoffs from this pen, but it’s clear few bench bosses in the league reach their group and get more out of them consistently than Casey in Toronto. He’s got this offense humming on continuity and what’s clearly a perfect system for their skill sets, and they’ve been historically good so far.
- Trust the Awesomeness
Joel Embiid literally nicknamed himself “Trust the Process” earlier this year, and it might not even crack his top-five most entertaining qualities on the season so far. Embiid is running away with the Rookie of the Year race even on a minutes limit for most of the year, and doing it while providing nightly highlights and flashes of his ridiculous potential.
High up on JoJo’s entertainment list are some of his statistical outputs. That aforementioned minutes limit has probably kept him a little fresher, meaning it’s unlikely he’d keep these figures up over the course of a 30-plus minute load nightly, but Embiid’s per-100-possession stats are simply stupid: 36.9 points, 15.7 rebounds, 5.2 blocks and a legitimately awe-inspiring 7.7 (seven-point-seven) turnovers.
Embiid would be the only rookie ever to play at least 100 minutes and average these kinds of figures – shoot, he’d be the only rookie ever to play at least 10 minutes on the season and still post these numbers. You have to significantly lower his point and turnover output to find any other comparables, but once you do, the list is pretty impressive: David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal, Blake Griffin and Arvydas Sabonis are the only other guys who have even come close to matching Embiid’s output during their first season in the league.
The 76ers have mostly been a mess outside Embiid’s ridiculous nightly performances, but he’s singlehandedly keeping them watchable at this point.
- Play of the Week
Our Play of the Week this time around comes to us via Salt Lake City – or perhaps via France, if you look at it the right way.
The Jazz under Quin Snyder have been moderately maligned at times for a slow-paced, sometimes bland offense – even at points this season, where they’re a borderline top-five per-possession offense in the league. And make no mistake, there are times where the Jazz play a very deliberate and sometimes repetitive style of offense under Snyder. Of course, in his first year with real talent at every position, the results are beginning to speak for themselves.
In some cases, that reputation is yielding some positive results. A few new personnel additions like George Hill, Boris Diaw and Joe Johnson have allowed Snyder to open up his playbook a bit, and in particular to leverage the expectations he knows his style is sometimes creating in defenses.
On this play against Oklahoma City from Wednesday night, Snyder is leveraging Diaw’s fantastic passing from the four-spot – maybe the best in the entire league (if we count LeBron James as a small forward). It’s something the Jazz have done all year and even more often lately, and it’s easy to see why: Diaw takes a joy in passing most guys his size just don’t.
The bit of leverage we mentioned, however, really isn’t of Diaw’s doing at all. It’s a clever play call from Snyder, and a good bit of recognition from the other two guys involved in the play. Let’s take a look.
The Jazz start the set on the right wing, swinging the ball to Rodney Hood and looking to set up Diaw in post position on the block:
Hood gets the ball in to Diaw, and the Jazz go to work. Notice that even as the pass is just arriving to Diaw in the post, Rudy Gobert and Gordon Hayward (center of the screen) are setting up for some off-ball action.
This is where the little bit of trickery comes in. Look at the above still image again – this is a snapshot opponents see 30 or 40 times a game from Utah, and in almost every case, Hayward (or Hood, or Hill) is about to use a Gobert down screen to fly up to the top of the key. Standard stuff.
Except that’s not what they’re doing here. Within less than a second, Hayward has flipped the script – he’s the one setting the screen on Gobert’s man, Enes Kanter, rather than the other way around. Meanwhile, Gobert is rumbling toward the hoop, already aware of something the Thunder still haven’t noticed.
Kanter is stopped dead in his tracks. Never the most hyper-aware defender in the first place, he’s been completely fooled here, and he’s still at the foul line as Gobert is dunking the ball. Kyle Singler notices what’s happening at the last second and makes a valiant effort to contest, but at that point it’s useless. He’s going up for a lob against a seven-footer with the longest recorded wingspan in league history, and there’s only one way that’s ending.
There’s nothing all that complex here, but the play is a great illustration of how the Jazz’s deliberate style (or other teams with similar ones) can lull some defenses to sleep. This set is snuffed out in a couple moments if everyone in a Thunder uniform is fully engaged, but it’s already tough to do that for every second of an intense NBA game – and it inherently becomes tougher when your brain is conditioned to expect the same thing over and over again.
It’s not even the first time the Jazz have run the set to perfection in the past week, in fact. They got an even cleaner dunk for Gobert against the Kings on Saturday using the exact same play, just inverted to the other side of the floor:
It’s the little details that can make the difference in this league, and the Jazz have been well on top of them this year. Snyder has flown below the radar, but may receive some Coach of the Year buzz before long if the Jazz continue to perform at a top-five per-possession rate in the league despite missing multiple starters most of the year.
NBA Daily: Three Trade Targets for the New York Knicks
Drew Maresca explores three restricted free agents-to-be who the Knicks should explore adding via trade before the March 25 trade deadline.
Often the NBA’s biggest flop, the New York Knicks have been significantly better-than-expected to start the 2020-21 season. They’ve won eight of their first 16 games and have surrendered the fewest points per game on the season, placing them squarely in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
That said, they’re not out of the woods yet; with much of the season left to play, the Knicks are devoid of any meaningful offensive weapons. Additionally, the roster features a number of high-quality veterans whose deals are set to expire, the kind of players that contenders like to fill out their rotations with down the stretch, so the roster could look much different at the end of the year than it does now.
So, the Knicks are expected to be active on the trade front, again – no surprise there. But this year could be among the last in which the Knicks are sellers at the deadline. And, while moving some of those veterans for future assets is smart, the Knicks may also want to look at players they can add to bolster that future further.
Of course, New York shouldn’t go all-in for Bradley Beal — they’re not there yet — but there are a number of restricted free agents to-be that would fit both their roster and timeline nicely.
But why give away assets to acquire someone that the team could sign outright in just a few months? It may sound counterintuitive to add a player that’s about to hit free agency, restricted or otherwise, but procuring that player’s Bird rights, an exception in the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement that allows teams to go over the salary cap to re-sign their own players (not to mention offer them an extra contract year and bigger raises), can be key to securing a player’s services and building a long-term contender.
Further, the 2021 free agent market isn’t might not live up to expectation, with many presumed free agents already agreed to extensions. So, with that in mind, which players should the Knicks pursue via trade prior to the March 25 trade deadline?
John Collins, Atlanta Hawks
Collins’ production is down this season, but that has nothing to do with his ability. A 23-year-old stretch-four who’s shooting 35% on three-point attempts, Collins is big, athletic, can score the ball (16.7 points per game this season) and is a great rebounder (7.5 per game). He also connects on 80% of his free-throw attempts.
Despite those impressive stats, Collins was even more productive last season, averaging 21.6 points on better than 40% three-point shooting and collecting 10.1 rebounds per game.
But the Hawks rotation has become increasingly crowded this year. They added Danilo Gallinari and rookie big man Oneyeka Okongwu, the sixth overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, to the frontcourt this offseason, while Collins was already vying for minutes with Clint Capella, who Atlanta added via trade last season. Cam Reddish, a second-year wing who is versatile enough to play some power forward, has also stolen some of Collins’ potential minutes.
So, as much as the Hawks seem to like Collins, he may be a luxury they can do without. He’ll obviously demand a relatively high-priced contract. The fact that Atlanta and Collins failed to reach an extension last summer would also seem to make a reunion less likely; would the Hawks invest so heavily in him now that they have three players at the position signed through at least the 2022-23 season? Further, could they invest even if they wanted to at this point? The Hawks are already committed to more than $100 million next season and, with Trae Young and Kevin Huerter extensions on the horizon, they might be hard-pressed to scrounge for the cash Collins would want in a new deal.
He won’t come cheap, for sure. But, while Julius Randle fans may not love the idea of bringing in his replacement, Collins is simply a better long-term solution.
Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans
The point guard position has been a sore spot for the Knicks for some time. And while Ball might not be the franchise cornerstone that many hoped he’d become, adding a young player with his upside is clearly a positive move.
Granted, Ball is inherently flawed. His jump shot appeared to be much improved last season and he’s showcased a significantly improved shooting form from years past. But he’s struggled in the new season, shooting only 28% on three-point attempts (down from 37.5% last season). In fact, he’s struggled on the whole on the offensive side of the ball, posting just 11.9 points and 4.4 assists per game (a career-low). He’s also missed some time with knee soreness and moved to more of an off-the-ball role as new head coach Stan Van Gundy has put the ball in the hands of Brandon Ingram more and more.
But, with New York, Ball would step into a significant role immediately. For his career, Ball is a net-positive player and, despite his shooting woes, has posted a positive VORP every year he’s been in the league, save for this season. He’s an above-average defender and, while he does need to ball in his hands, he doesn’t necessarily need to take shots to be effective.
Ball may never become the All-World caliber guard many pegged him as before the 2017 NBA Draft, but he’s better than any other option currently at the Knicks disposal. And, best of all, his trade value is arguably as low as it’s ever been. So, while the Pelicans won’t just give him away, New York should do what they can to acquire him for a reasonable price.
Devonte’ Graham, Charlotte Hornets
Last but not least, the surprise from the 2018-19 rookie class. Graham is possibly the hardest sell on this list, but it’s not for a lack of talent.
Graham burst onto the scene last season, posting an impressive sophomore campaign of 18.2 points and 6.4 assists per game. Unfortunately, those numbers have taken a drastic dip this season with the arrival of Gordon Hayward and the highly-touted rookie LaMelo Ball in Charlotte. Likewise, Graham’s struggles through the Hornets’ first 10 games limited his opportunities further.
That said, he would appear to be done slumping, as he’s connected on 43% of his attempts from deep in the team’s last two games.
But his efficiency wouldn’t be the main challenge when constructing a Graham trade. Instead, some in New York could be concerned with lack of size – Graham is only 6-foot-1 – and his inability to act as a facilitator at the guard spot.
But Graham is talented, plain and simple. In fact, he’s the exact kind of talent the Knicks should be looking to add right now. More specifically, Graham shot 37.3% on three-point attempts last season; the Knicks rank 21st in three-point percentage so far this season.
The Knicks could ultimately sit tight, swap a few veterans for future draft picks and rest assured that they’ve made enough progress by simply adding coach Tom Thibodeau. But they could and should be aggressive while they can. If New York can add one or more the players mentioned, they may not only build a brighter future, but improve on what the team could do this season. Either way, the Knicks look to be on a good trajectory, but every move they make from here on out can and will affect how quickly they make the leap from laughingstock to respectable contender.
NBA AM: The Utah Jazz Are Showing Continuity Is Key
Is Utah’s early success an indicator of things to come? Between Donavon Mitchell, a stingy defense and hot three-point shooting, they may just be the real deal.
The Utah Jazz are riding high on a seven-game winning streak, hotter, at this point, than all hell. 15 games into the season, the Jazz have been the third-best team in the Western Conference. The key for them has been continuity as they have 11 guys who were on last year’s team. The only addition they made to their rotation this offseason was Derrick Favors, who was with the team for nine seasons before a one-year departure.
Quinn Snyder is widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the league, and he’s showing why this season. The Jazz are currently in 7th in both offensive and defensive rating. Beyond that, there are only three teams who can say they are top 10 in both: The Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers and the Phoenix Suns. Often, teams that finish in this select category are historically serious contenders.
Moreover, the Jazz have been on a shooting tear. Using Gobert’s rolling ability to collapse opposing defenses and find open shooters, Utah’s offense is clicking right now. It’s worked tremendously too, considering the Jazz have attempted and made the most three-pointers of any team this season – and hitting on 40.3 percent as a team. Royce O’Neale, Donovan Mitchell, Jordan Clarkson, Joe Ingles and Mike Conley are all shooting above 40 percent; while Bojan Bogdanovic is almost there at 37.8.
Basically, the Jazz are just shooting the ball at a ridiculously well rate right now and good ball movement has propelled them.
Mitchell seems to have taken another jump in his development, although it is subtle, and his growth as a playmaker has benefitted everyone. He’s made teams pay for overhelping, often initiating the ball movement that has led to open looks. He’s also taking fewer mid-range jumpers, converting those attempts into three-pointers. The budding star’s play has been more consistent overall, and he’s been effective out of the pick-and-roll.
Mike Conley’s improved play this season has been needed – now he’s settled and red-hot. Coming off a disappointing season last year, there were questions as to whether he was declining. While it’s safe to say he’s no longer the guy he was in Memphis, this version of Conley is still a good one. He looks a lot more comfortable in his role and the Jazz are reaping the benefits. In a contract year, Conley is averaging 16.3 points and 6.3 assists per game while shooting 41 percent from three.
Jordan Clarkson is a strong candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, fitting in perfectly as the Jazz need his scoring and creation off the bench – even leading the league in such scorers from there. But the Jazz’s bench is more than just Clarkson though, as they’ve gotten strong minutes from Joe Ingles, Georges Niang and Derrick Favors too. They’re a solid group that plays both ends of the court, and all fit in nicely with the starters as well.
Sorely needed, however, Bojan Bogdanovic’s return has helped tremendously. He gives them another big wing who can shoot and is a scoring threat, and before he got hurt last season, he was averaging 20 PPG. While he isn’t at that level this season, he gives them another reliable scoring option that they badly need. Better, it also allows Ingles to remain on the bench, where his playmaking ability can really thrive.
The Jazz have been playing stylistically a little bit different this year and it has worked. They don’t run often but when they do, they have been potent. Playing at the same pace as last season, Utah is scoring almost five more points per game in transition. Additionally, they are taking six more threes a game too. This all amounts to a 6.1 net rating, which is good for fourth-best in the NBA.
Lastly, their defense has been impossible for teams to penetrate, inviting opponents to try and finish over Rudy Gobert in the paint. Gobert is a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate for a reason – his presence alone almost assuredly guarantees his team will be a top 10 defense, which the Jazz are. Favors’ addition has helped stabilize the defense when Gobert sits, which was a major issue last season. Overall, they are just a very disciplined defense that makes teams earn their points, rarely committing cheap fouls.
As it stands today, the Utah Jazz are solidifying themselves as one of the best teams in the Western Conference. It remains to be seen if the hot shooting is sustainable, but the way they are generating those open looks seems to be. The defense is legit, and if they can remain healthy there’s reason to believe that this team can continue to compete at this level. The Utah starting lineup has outscored opponents by 58 points, but they’ve also had one of the best benches in the league – needless to say, the Jazz’s continuity has been a big part of their early success.
NBA Daily: Defensive Player of the Year Watch
An inside look-in at the early frontrunners for the Defensive Player of the Year Award.
In this fresh edition for Basketball Insiders, there are a few players that should be finalists for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. Of course, this prestigious award is given to the contributor who makes the biggest impact on the floor for their team on the defensive side of the ball. In two out of the last three seasons, the award has gone to Rudy Gobert, the rim-protecting center for the Utah Jazz. This past season, Giannis Antetokounmpo won both the DPotY award, as well as Most Valuable Player for a second straight year. Over the past few years, the trending group of finalists for the award has been consistent no matter what the order ends up being.
Can anyone new break in this year?
Anthony Davis will always be in the conversation for this award as he has shown throughout his career that he is one of the league’s most ferocious game-changers. Despite never winning the award before, he has made four NBA All-Defensive teams as well as being the NBA’s leader in blocks on three occasions. Davis’s block numbers are a little lower than they usually are at 1.9 blocks per game this season – compared to 2.4 for his career, per Basketball-Reference. This could be due to the addition of Marc Gasol to the Lakers’ frontcourt, a move that has boosted the team’s rim protection. If Davis can raise his numbers again, he should be in consideration for the award purely based on his defensive presence on the court – but he should still finish among the top five in voting.
The center for the Indiana Pacers – the former potential centerpiece of a Gordon Hayward trade with the Boston Celtics – has continued to show why the team would not package another one of its top players with him. Turner is the current league leader in blocks with 4.2 blocks per game, elevating his game beyond any doubt in 2020-21. He is one of the more underrated rim protectors in basketball, as he has only one top-five finish in the DPotY voting in his career. Turner has also improved his steals metrics this season by averaging 1.5 per game, thus providing a strong defensive presence alongside All-Star frontcourt mate, Domantas Sabonis. Turner should be the frontrunner for the award as things stand right now, but that could change as the season progresses, especially as his injury impacts proceedings.
The reigning two-time MVP should always be in the conversation for the DPotY award as he revolutionizes the defensive side of the floor at an elite level. Currently, Antetokunmpo is averaging 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks per game to go along with a 106.5 defensive rating, per NBA Advanced Stats. It goes without saying, but Antetokounmpo is a chase-down block artist, always there to contest shots around the rim with his long frame. The 6-foot-11 power forward is one of the league’s top five players due to his exceptional play on both sides of the ball and will always be considered for the DPotY award as long as he in the NBA.
The Los Angeles Clippers’ superstar has been arguably the best defensive small forward in the game over the past few years. He first gained major recognition for his defense during the 2014 NBA Finals against the LeBron James-led Miami HEAT. Since then, Leonard has racked up six All-Defensive team nominations to go along with two Defensive Player of the Year awards. This season, Leonard remains an elite defender for the championship-hopeful Clippers with 1.8 steals and 0.8 blocks per game – but his defensive rating is the highest of his ten-year career at 107.8.
The current league leader in rebounds for the Cleveland Cavaliers is having a monster season thus far. In a contract year, Andre Drummond is currently putting up 19.3 points per game, 15.8 rebounds per game, 1.7 steals per game and 1.6 blocks per game. He also has a very stellar defensive rating of 105.0, a culmination of points allowed per 100 possessions. Drummond is not on a very good team, but that should not take away from the impact he makes when he is on the floor. As a pure rim protector and rebounding machine, he should finish higher up in the voting results than usual, even if his season doesn’t end with Cleveland.
Honorable Mention: Tobias Harris
The Philadelphia 76ers have started the season on a very high note at 9-5, all despite loads of COVID health and safety protocols preventing their full team from taking the floor. Tobias Harris has played a major part in their early-season success leading the NBA in defensive win shares among starters who have played at least 10 games with 0.184, per NBA Advanced Stats. Along with that, Harris is also second in defensive rating among qualified starters at 99.6. The veteran forward has averaged 1.1 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. So if the 76ers want to remain at the top of the Eastern Conference, Harris’ overall play will be a huge reason for that success.
As the old saying goes, defense wins championships – and these players are the type of players that can change the result of a game every night. Keep an eye on these players as the season moves along as they should garner consideration for both All-Defensive team nominations and the DPotY award.