HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — It’s early.
But the Philadelphia 76ers aren’t the only surprise team of the 2013-14 season’s first 10 days. The Charlotte Bobcats, Orlando Magic and Phoenix Suns – three teams projected by most to finish in the in the bottom five of the league – are all 3-2 entering Friday’s 12-game slate.
When we look at these three rosters, we see a lack of talent. And from that we can predict that they will struggle offensively. But team defense is another story, especially when you have a new coach, like in Charlotte and Phoenix. Organization and energy on defense can help teams with limited talent overachieve. And defense is the common theme in the early success of these three squads, though one of the three has been much more successful on that end of the floor.
Again, it’s early.
But the Magic, Suns and Bobcats rank third, eighth and 13th in defensive efficiency, respectively. And they all rank among the six most improved defensive teams from last season.
Here’s a closer look…
DefRtg: 100.4 (13th)
Improvement: -8.6 (6th)
The Bobcats’ wins have come against the Cavs, Knicks and Raptors, by a total of 13 points. So just like last year’s 7-5 start, there’s a fool’s gold element here.
In only one of their five games – the win over Cleveland – have they held their opponent under a point per possession. And the Cavs currently rank 29th in offensive efficiency. Bobcats opponents have been a hair less efficient (100.3 points scored per 100 possessions) in their 20 games not against Charlotte.
That doesn’t mean that the future Hornets don’t have anything to feel positive about. They had a hobbled Al Jefferson for just their first game and scored 107 points per 100 possessions over their last two wins. Once they add a healthy Jefferson to their Kemba Walker and Ramon Sessions pick-and-rolls, the offense should be even better.
And long term, the Cats will be more organized defensively under Steve Clifford than they were under Mike Dunlap. The early defensive numbers are a little inflated though.
DefRtg: 96.4 (8th)
Improvement: -9.3 (5th)
The Suns have beaten Portland, Utah and New Orleans by a total of 22 points. And they also hung in with the Thunder and Spurs on the road. Their opponents have scored 100.0 points per 100 possessions in their 18 games not against Phoenix.
The Suns had the worst 3-point defense in the league last season and were particularly bad at defending the arc (41.5 percent) with Michael Beasley on the floor. There’s definitely an addition-by-subtraction element here.
They’ve also improved quite a bit on the glass, ranking 11th in defensive rebounding percentage (74.8 percent) after ranking 23rd (71.9 percent) last season. More playing time for the Morris twins has helped in that regard. The Suns have grabbed 75.4 percent of available defensive boards and allowed just 90.6 points per 100 possessions in 148 minutes with one of the two twins on the floor.
Time will tell if Jeff Hornacek‘s defense will continue to hold up, but the signs are good so far. They host the Nuggets and Pelicans this weekend and could face their toughest defensive test on Wednesday, when they visit the Blazers, who currently rank sixth offensively.
DefRtg: 94.8 (3rd)
Improvement: -11.9 (1st)
Of the three teams, it’s the Magic who have looked most legit, with wins over the Pelicans, Nets and Clippers by a total of 49 points.
Last season, the Magic defense was strong early in the season, but collapsed after Glen Davis got hurt. So the prospects of them being a decent defensive team while Davis was still recovering from foot surgery were not good. But here they are at No. 3 in the league, having held the Pelicans, Nets and Clippers under 90 points per 100 possessions.
Both Brooklyn and L.A. spoke about a lack of effort in their games in Orlando. The Nets were probably feeling themselves after last Friday’s win over the Heat, and the Clippers were maybe looking forward to their own game against the champs.
But Orlando’s defensive numbers are pretty darn impressive anyway. The Pelicans, Nets and Clippers scored a combined 89.5 points per 100 possessions against Orlando, compared to 108.0 in their other 12 games. L.A. currently ranks No. 1 in the league offensively.
Orlando opponents OffRtg
|Team||vs. ORL||Other games||Diff.|
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
The Magic are forcing 1.2 more turnovers per 100 possessions than they did last season, but the early improvement has been mostly about shot defense. And there’s multiple elements to that.
They’re defending the rim better, defending the 3-point line better, and allowing less of those high-efficiency shots. Only 48.1 percent of their opponents’ shots have come from the restricted area or from 3-point range, the second-lowest rate in the league. Last season, that number was 56.7 percent, the 14th lowest rate in the league.
The Magic had a multiple-prong game plan against the Clips, and it worked. First, they sagged deep on Chris Paul‘s pick-and-rolls.
Paul stepped into some easy elbow jumpers, but the sagging strategy prevented him from getting past the Magic big men and really compromising the Orlando D.
Second, they dared Blake Griffin to shoot from mid-range.
Griffin was 3-for-13 from outside the paint before that game, but shot an impressive 7-for-13 from mid-range on Wednesday. Still, he got just three shots at the rim.
Finally, the Magic cross-matched in the backcourt, assigning Jameer Nelson to defend his old teammate J.J. Redick. And Nelson did a fantastic job of running Redick off the 3-point line. Here are a couple of examples…
Redick is a great shooter from everywhere, but three is greater than two, so if you can force him into more mid-range shots than threes, you’re doing your job. On Wednesday, Redick was 1-for-5 from 3-point range and 3-for-8 from mid-range.
One more time: It’s early. But an ability to execute a defensive game plan against a great offensive team like that early in the season is a good sign for the Magic defense.