If there’s a downside to the breakneck pace of the NBA season, it’s that there’s too much basketball for even a full-time basketball watcher to keep up with. (A wonderful problem to have, I know.)
The Four-Point Play is my attempt to keep it all straight. During the season, I’ll regularly piece together four statistical trends that are happening around the league and lay out what they tell us about where a team’s been or where it’s heading. Find a stat you think should be included here? Email or tweet me at firstname.lastname@example.org or @Herring_NBA.
In the meantime, here is this week’s edition of The Four-Point Play.
The Mavs’ improved spacing, Deron Williams’s cross-court passes
It may be a bit too soon to talk about the possibility that Dallas may sneak into the playoffs. That thought would’ve sounded crazy a little over a month ago, when the Mavericks owned the worst record in all of basketball, but it isn’t as far-fetched now. The team is just four games back of the eighth seed despite its 15-29 record and has played the NBA’s third-toughest schedule to this point.
The club’s offense, fourth-worst for the first two months of play, came to life after Andrew Bogut hurt his hamstring on Jan. 9. Since then, the team has moved Harrison Barnes to power forward and Dirk Nowitzki to center, and the results on offense have been great. Dallas has averaged 111.6 points per 100 plays since implementing a five-out lineup two weeks ago, ranking sixth in offense in that span. (Speaking of — why do Bogut’s teams seemingly always find lineups that work once he goes down?)
In particular, the Mavs have gotten great production recently out of Deron Williams, the three-time All-Star who experienced a sharp decline when chronic ankle injuries sapped his agility a few years ago. He’s taken advantage of the space provided by the lineup change, driving 6.8 times per game since Jan. 10, up from 4.8 times previously. The Mavericks have been solid from deep lately, connecting on 40.7 percent of their 3-point tries since Jan. 10, third-best in the league. (Those makes have boosted Williams’s assist totals: He’s averaging 9.3 dimes during this hot streak, up from 6.7 before that.)
One other Williams note: The Mavericks have been lethal when he gets a step on his defender and then fires a cross-court pass to a spot-up shooter this season. There aren’t exact stats for this situation, but one hint of how good they’ve been is their efficiency when taking shots immediately after Williams passes that travel 30 feet or more. As of last week, they’d shot 21-of-28, according to an analysis run by SportVU. The Mavs have a whopping 107.1 percent effective field-goal rate off those looks — far higher than the league average of 59.6 percent off such passes.
Otto Porter’s emergence as a star role player
The Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo, whose play has begun to live up to his Greek Freak nickname, will almost certainly run away with the season’s most improved player award. But Washington’s Otto Porter has emerged as one of the league’s best role players and deserves a look, too.
Porter takes such a back seat to John Wall (who’s having a career year) and Bradley Beal that even some of the best defensive teams don’t make him a focal point of their game plan. That may be the wrong strategy: The 23-year-old and his shot opportunities appear to be a bellwether of sorts for the resurgent Wizards.
His long-range attempts, particularly on corner threes, are a sign of Washington’s vitality on offense. When Wall is breaking down defenses and getting deep paint penetration and Beal is aggressively coming off screens, it creates disarray on defense and encourages ball movement. And when the ball gets to Porter, good things follow.
Washington is just 6-11 when Porter, who leads the league in 3-point percentage with 45.6 percent, takes three or fewer triples but is 8-3 when he launches six attempts or more from outside. (It’s telling that seven of the 10 games in which Porter’s gotten at least six attempts have come within the last month, a span in which the Wizards have jumped from 10th place in the East to fifth.)
With Beal and Wall on the court, Porter has shot 57 percent overall and 48 percent from three, but with just Wall and no Beal, he has shot 48 percent overall and 33 percent from deep, according to NBA Wowy, which shows how teams play with different lineup combinations. Having a healthy Beal alongside him is part of the reason that Porter has been so much more effective as a cutter, scoring on more than 80 percent of such plays, according to Synergy Sports Technology. Porter still can’t create his own looks consistently, but when both of his teammates are flying around at full strength, defenses are going to occasionally lose sight of him.
Milwaukee’s defense has cratered
As I wrote earlier this month, the Bucks’ franchise has made enormous strides the past few years on the strength of its unusual versatility on defense. But in recent weeks, Milwaukee — now 19th in defensive efficiency after being tied for 10th in the category earlier this month — has shown the pitfalls and limitations that stem from that style of play.
All season, the Bucks have allowed teams to take a higher-than-average number of 3-pointers. But because they’ve contested an NBA-best 87 percent of opponent’s threes, teams haven’t always been able to capitalize on those attempts.
That’s changed a bit over the past three weeks, a span in which opponents have hit 39 percent of their threes against Milwaukee, the fifth-highest mark in the NBA. And it’s worth wondering whether some of that stems from a couple of offense-minded bench players getting more playing time lately.
Where the Bucks’ starters are long, interchangeable and annoying to shoot over, some of the team’s reserves aren’t as disruptive and don’t move nearly as well or as quickly. Jason Terry, Michael Beasley and Greg Monroe just aren’t as agile or long as Antetokounmpo, Tony Snell and John Henson.
Because of that, the team’s defensive ideas don’t work nearly as well with the bench unit — Beasley and Monroe in particular — seeing an increase in minutes as of late. That partly explains why Milwaukee has been playing well to start games but struggling in second quarters. (It’s anyone’s guess — whether it’s a lack of adjustments, fatigue or something else — as to what on earth is happening in third quarters, when the Bucks have been getting blasted lately.)
But the Bucks are younger than most teams, and this latest stretch, in which they dropped five straight before knocking off Houston, may be nothing more than a regression to the mean for the time being. Still, it’s worth keeping tabs on whether their defensive quirks prevent them from being able to perform as consistently as they’d like.
Oladipo’s red-hot corner-threes
Understandably, Russell Westbrook’s torrid flirtation with a season-long triple-double has been the only topic of conversation when it comes to the Oklahoma City Thunder this season. Yet guard Victor Oladipo has quietly been putting together a solid season since coming to OKC in exchange for Serge Ibaka.
Specifically, he’s become a lights-out shooter from the corner, and his shot selection has become more precise. Oladipo, who took just 10 percent of his threes from the corner as a rookie, has increased his share of 3-point shots from there every season (from 21 percent to 26 percent, and now to nearly 31 percent). His accuracy from that spot has markedly improved, too, from 30 percent as a rookie to 34 percent in 2014-15, 41 percent in 2015-16 and 52 percent this season.
Westbrook, the best and most explosive table-setter that Oladipo has ever played with, has a ton to do with that. Oladipo receives 14 passes a night from Westbrook, up from the 9.5 passes he got from Elfrid Payton in Orlando last season. The roll men in the middle of the floor, Steven Adams and Enes Kanter, also keep defenses honest and help open things up for Oladipo.
The next step is for Oladipo to return to the playmaking ability he showcased in Orlando. His assist percentage and free-throw rate are both down considerably, in part because of how much Westbrook does on offense. But it’d be better for both Oladipo and Westbrook if the scale were a bit more balanced going forward, if only to provide relief for the overburdened MVP candidate.
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