Posts Tagged ‘Markieff Morris’

Sixth Man Of the Year: Jamal Crawford

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Jamal Crawford has made a strong case for Sixth Man of the Year

There came a point this season where Jamal Crawford was starting so many games as an injury fill-in that it seemed impossible he’d be eligible to make another run at the Kia Sixth Man of the Year award.

He won it in 2010 with Atlanta and he thought he should have won it last season with the Clippers. Instead J.R. Smith of the New York Knicks — remember him? — took the prize. This season, the Clippers wouldn’t be in control of the Western Conference’s No. 3 seed and in line to nab the No. 2 seed with a bit of help (an Oklahoma City loss) before tonight’s season finale at Portland (10:30 p.m., ET, ESPN).

Whether Crawford was coming off the bench, where he’s averaged 17.2 ppg and 3.1 apg, or putting up 20.6 ppg and 3.3 apg in 23 games as a starter in place with either J.J. Redick or Chris Paul or both out, Crawford’s playmaking and shot-making have been invaluable. The lone blemish on his resume is the left calf injury that kept him out of all but eight games since the end of February.

Two games before the calf injury occurred on Feb. 26, Crawford scored 36 points in 40 minutes as a starter to help the Clippers win at Oklahoma City. It was his 11th game of 25 points or more and fourth of 30 points or more. Since, he’s made it five with 31 points in 35 minutes off the bench on March 26 at New Orleans.

“I don’t want to toot my own horn,” Crawford told NBA.com after that Thunder game. “I think I’ve been a professional, honestly. Starting, coming off the bench, being ready at all times, I pride myself on that.”

Crawford certainly faces stiff competition. Candidates include San Antonio’s resurgent Manu Ginobili, Chicago’s rugged Taj Gibson, Phoenix’s Markieff Morris, the Los Angeles Lakers’ Nick Young, Oklahoma City’s Reggie Jackson and even Dallas’ Vince Carter.

Yet none electrify a game and their team with scoring outbursts quite the way Crawford can. Boasting one of the game’s great handles, the 14th-year guard can still live up to his nickname and Twitter handle, @JCrossover, defying foes with tremendous moves off the bounce to get to the rim. He splashes 3-pointers with a rainbow release from virtually any distance, connecting on the 3-ball at a 36.2 percent clip.

His 18.4 scoring average, significantly higher than any of the other candidates, would rank as the third-highest by a Sixth Man of the Year Award winner in the last 20 years behind only Jason Terry (19.6 in 2009 with Dallas) and Ginobili (19.5 in 2008). Crawford would become the oldest player to win the award and he’d join Kevin McHale, Ricky Pierce and Detlef Schrempf as two-time winners.

“Growing up, it wasn’t like I wanted to be a sixth man,” Crawford recently told Ramona Shelbourne of ESPN Los Angeles. “It only happened because I got to this point where I just wanted to win more than anything. When you bring one of your top scorers, your top players off the bench, it really gives your team balance.”

The contenders

Manu Ginobili, Spurs – A year ago it seemed the Argentine might have come to the end of his rope after a glorious NBA and international run. He looked slow and out of sorts, particularly in the NBA Finals. But he came back to the Spurs, 36 years of age, and put together an inspiring bounce-back season, averaging 12.4 ppg, 4.3 apg and 3.0 mpg in 22.8 mpg.

Taj Gibson, Bulls – There should be an award for the entire Bulls team, maybe the Perseverance Award or something. Gibson continues to get better and often pushed Carlos Boozer off the floor in the fourth quarter. His larger role pushed his minutes per game up by five and he responded with 13.1 ppg, a five-point increase from last season, and 6.8 rpg, up 1.5.

Markieff Morris, Suns – Also a Most Improved Player of the Year candidate, averaging career-highs by a wide margin with 13.8 ppg and 6.0 rpg. He’s transformed himself into a dangerous mid-range shooter, making 48.6 percent of his shots, up from 40.7 percent last season and 39.9 percent as a rookie. Morris was vital to the Suns’ 47 wins with one game to go.

Reggie Jackson, Thunder – He got his training on the fly during the 2013 postseason. Since then, he’s provided the Thunder with stability and scoring off the bench as well as in the starting lineup during Russell Westbrook‘s absences. Jackson is averaging 13.1 ppg, fourth on the Thunder, 4.2 apg and 3.9 rpg in 28.5 mpg. He averaged 5.3 ppg and 14.2 mpg last season.

Vince Carter, Mavericks – Carter has kept himself in tip-top physical condition and, at 39.5 percent, has transformed himself into a dangerous 3-pointer shooter. No player in the league has come off the bench and dropped more than Carter’s 145. He’s played in all but one game this season, averaging 12.0 ppg, 3.5 rpg and 2.7 apg in 24.3 mpg.

Nick Young, Lakers – Swaggy P had his swaggy moments, like celebrating a 3-pointer that didn’t drop, but the L.A.-born sixth man was mostly money for the injury-riddled Lakers. He led the team in scoring with a career-high 17.9 ppg while hitting 38.6 percent of his 3-point attempts, his highest percentage since 2010-11.

Most Improved Player: Gerald Green

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Suns forward Gerald Green has provided plenty of highlights this season

No question, the Kia Most Improved Player Award is the most difficult of the awards to choose, and consequently the most debatable. It can keep the picker tossing and turning for nights on end.

What exactly are the parameters here? And, frankly, whatever the parameters, there’s a sizable group of guys who certainly seem eligible.

Should Kevin Love, already an All-Star, be under consideration because he missed the majority of last season with a twice broken hand and has come back with the best statistical season of his career? Or is such improvement expected from an establishled All-Star?

What about New Orleans’ second-year forward-center Anthony Davis. What a season he’s had. Except, do we also expect such improvement from the No. 1 overall pick?

Should Suns second-year center Miles Plumlee get a serious look? He’s been a solid starter from Day 1 after sitting for 68 of 82 games as a rookie with Indiana. There’s simply no data for comparison. Or, is that the ultimate comparison?

Electrifying dunk artist, Clippers center DeAndre Jordan, has past data to compare, and this season compares remarkably favorably. Then there’s Oklahoma City point guard Reggie Jackson, Indiana’s Lance Stephenson, Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins and Pheonix’s Goran Dragic.

Speaking of Phoenix, it realistically has four candidates — Plumlee, Dragic, Markieff Morris and Gerald Green.

Wait, stop right there: Green.

Yes. The, lanky 6-foot-8 wing debuted in the league in 2005. Eight years later, he’s rocketed straight out of the blue. That’s improvement.

Green, 28, was the 18th overall pick of the Boston Celtics. After two seasons he was traded to Minnesota, then traded to Houston, waived by Houston, signed by Dallas and out of the league before he turned 24. Out of options in the NBA, he played in Russia for two years and another in China. He came home, played in the NBA D-League and finally got another shot in the NBA in the second half of the 2011-12 lockout season with the Nets.

He played well enough to sign a three-year contract with Eastern Conference power Indiana. He fell out of the rotation last year, and just prior to this season got traded, along with Plumlee and a first-round draft pick, to rebuilding Phoenix.

Poof. Green is legit.

Once a freakish athlete that lacked court awareness, Green still isn’t exactly a textbook on fundamentals, but he is more mature and more in control as he mixes gravity-defying dunks with dribble drives, high-rising mid-range fallaways and deep, deep daggers.

“Gerald Green, if he’s hot, he can score with the best of them in this league,” Mavericks sure-fire Hall-of-Famer Dirk Nowitzki said.

How’s this for scoring: Since the All-Star break, with every game mounting in importance as Phoenix still guns for a playoff spot entering Monday night’s crucial Game No. 81 against Memphis, Green is averaging 19.1 ppg on 45.4 percent shooting overall and 43.1 percent from beyond the arc in 29.6 mpg. His effective field-goal percentage (eFG%) — adjusted to account for 3-pointers being more valuable than 2-pointers) in that span is 54.8 percent.

Green’s season scoring average (15.9 ppg) is more than double what it was last year with the Pacers (7.0). He’s played in all 80 games, starting 47 times in injury situations. In Indiana’s slower, halfcourt-based offense, Green shot 36.6 percent overall and 31.4 percent from beyond the arc. Unleashed in first-year coach Jeff Hornacek‘s up-tempo attack, he’s blistering opponents from deep at 40-percent clip, while shooting 44.5 percent overall.

Hornacek has proven to be the perfect coach for Green, patient through mistakes and poor decisions, and always keeping the shooting light green.

“We wanted to go up and down [the floor], and try to make the team younger and more athletic and shoot a lot of 3s,” first-year Suns general manager Ryan McDonough said earlier this season. “And Gerald checked all of those boxes.”

Check.

Five contenders

DeAndre Jordan, Clippers – The sixth-year center has come of age, leading the league in field-goal percentage (67.5 percent) and rebounds (13.7 per game) — practically doubling his total rebounding from last season (7.2). He’s also averaging a career-best 10.4 ppg.

Goran Dragic, Suns – “The Dragon” has had a brilliant season after making room for fellow point guard Eric Bledsoe. Dragic easily could have been a Western Conference All-Star as he’s been the Suns’ MVP, 20.4 ppg and 5.9 apg while shooting 50.6 percent overall and 41.5 percent from deep.

Markieff Morris, Suns – Also a Sixth Man of the Year Award candidate, averaging career-highs by a wide margin with 13.7 ppg and 6.1 rpg. He’s transformed himself into a dangerous mid-range shooter, making 48.3 percent of his shots, up from 40.7 percent last season and 39.9 percent as a rookie.

Lance Stephenson, Pacers – Who had Stephenson pegged as the league-leader in triple-doubles or the Pacers leading rebounder at 7.2 rpg? He notched his fifth triple-double with Sunday’s 17-point, 10-rebound, 11-assist effort to knock of Oklahoma City to break a triple-double tie with All-Stars Stephen Curry and Joakim Noah.

Reggie Jackson, Thunder – He got his training on the fly during the 2013 postseason. Since then, he’s provided the Thunder with stability and scoring off the bench … and as a starter during Russell Westbrook‘s injuries this season. Jackson is averaging 13.2 ppg, 4.2 apg and 3.9 rpg in 28.5 mpg. He averaged 14.2 mpg last season.

Plumlee brothers make their marks

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Mason Plumlee spikes an alley-oop pass

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Traded to Phoenix last July, center Miles Plumlee‘s had a closeup view of the inseparable bond the Suns’ twin brothers Markieff Morris and Marcus Morris have always shared.

Miles and Mason Plumlee, a rookie center-power forward with the Brooklyn Nets, each might stand 6-foot-10 and around 240 pounds, but these brothers are not twins. Their version of brotherly love growing up was more like the push-and-shove of a textbook sibling rivalry.

“It’s funny, we were so competitive growing up, we fought more than we got along most of the time,” Plumlee told NBA.com recently during a phone interview. “But basketball was the one thing that kind of kept us together and brought us together even when we weren’t on good terms with one another.”

Surely then they had grown so close through basketball during high school that making the decision to do it again at Duke, with Miles, 25, heading there first, followed the next year by Mason, 24, was always part of the Plumlee plan.

“Not at all,” Miles said. “I committed to Stanford and he was going to Duke, so for a whole year that wasn’t the plan until certain things transpired. My coach [Trent Johnson left for LSU] and Duke came into the picture. If you asked me a year before, I would have said, ‘Yeah, I don’t want to play with Mason.

“We grew up and realized we don’t have to fight about everything and from then on we’ve been super-close, and it’s been fun to go on this journey with him.”

These days the brothers talk on the phone as often as best friends.

“We talked today,” Mason said, smiling, during the Nets’ recent trip through Dallas. “You spend a lot of time on the road, so just seeing what city he’s in, seeing what he’s up to. We’re very close.”

They’ve got plenty to talk about, too, as each is coming to the end of unsuspectingly successful seasons. Miles walked out of Indiana, traded with Gerald Green for Luis Scola after having spent 68 of 82 games his rookie season planted on the Pacers’ bench behind Roy Hibbert and Ian Mahinmi. Mason, the 22nd overall pick by the Nets in June, figured to get much the same bench treatment on a veteran team and behind the likes of Kevin Garnett, Andray Blatche and Brook Lopez. 

Both are carving out a place in the league. Miles, the 26th pick by the Pacers in 2012, stepped into the starting center position with the Suns, a team most saw as one that would be bringing up the rear in the Western Conference. He got off to a fast start, averaging a double-double by showcasing an evolved low-post game and running the floor in the Suns’ up-tempo attack, while dispelling any notion he’s little more than a physical, solely defensive-minded player.

“The big thing for me has always been my confidence and being a little more calm mentally on the court,” said Miles, a candidate with Green for Most Improved Player of the Year. “I’ve always kind of had the skills and the talent, I just hadn’t had a chance to get that confidence going. I [played] roles in college and I played on a lot of winning teams and I loved it, but it’s part of the reason people were surprised I was drafted as high as I was.

“I showed some of the coaches and GMs in the draft process I had more to my game than the general public probably perceives. I just built on that, and you play through the post a lot more in the NBA than at the college level and that helped me slow down and extend my game.”

With five games left, Miles is averaging 8.3 ppg, shooting 57.4 percent, and 8.0 rpg. Phoenix (46-31) is clinging to a playoff spot in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.

“He got going early and often, so that kind of made me want to get going myself,” Mason said. “Once I saw him doing it, I’d tell him if he had a good game and we were about to play that team, the coaches would see it in scouting and I would say, ‘I can do what he does.’ So I’d try getting a little playing time out of that, and just knowing that if he could make it happen, I could make it happen.”

Mason has played in 64 games, aided by the early, season-ending injury to Lopez, and he had his 19-game streak in the Nets starting lineup snapped Saturday when Kevin Garnett made his return from injury. Moving to the bench didn’t bother Mason, who scored 16 points on 8-for-10 shooting with seven rebounds in a win over Philadelphia.

He’s averaging 6.8 ppg on 64.0 percent shooting, and 4.1 rpg in 17.4 mpg, and will be playing in the postseason with the rejuvenated Nets. He’s played a key role. In the last 20 games, Mason is averaging 7.9 ppg on 66.3 percent shooting and 5.8 rpg in 21.2 mpg, like Miles, showing he’s more than just a physical big man.

“I never thought that,” Mason said. “I don’t really put too much stock into other peoples’ opinions. I just kind of do my thing and keep it moving.”

And don’t look now but in a couple years, there could be a third Plumlee in the league. Marshall is a 7-foot, 260-pound center at Duke. He’ll be a junior next season.

“It would be crazy to play against Marshall because he’s always been so much younger than us,” Miles said. “I’ve never had to take him quite as seriously because even when we were at Duke during practice, I was like I’m going to laugh it off.

“I’d have to take him seriously, so it would be a lot of fun to have him in the league.”

Ah, brothers.

Sixth Man candidates by the numbers

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The Kia NBA Sixth Man Award is a lot more straightforward than the Most Improved Player Award, in part because the field is limited. To be eligible for the Sixth Man Award, players need to have come off the bench in more games than they started.

If you eliminate players who have started at least half the games they’ve played and also players who haven’t played at least 1,000 minutes, you’re left with fewer than 100 guys (even if you add a few guys — like Steve Blake – that can get under the 50-percent threshold by continuing to come off the bench over the last two weeks). And since there aren’t too many great players coming off the bench, it’s not too hard to determine the *cream of the crop.

* Luke Babbitt, though?

The Sixth Man Award often goes to the eligible guy who averages the most points per game. And while instant offense is an important part of bench play, it’s not that hard to go beyond that and look at total production, in terms of basic boxscore stats …

All stats are through April 1, 2014.

Highest total efficiency, players eligible for Sixth Man Award

Player GP GS MIN PPG RPG APG eFG% EFF
Markieff Morris 73 0 1,922 13.8 6.0 1.7 51.1% 1,097
Taj Gibson 74 8 2,132 13.3 6.9 1.1 48.5% 1,094
Anderson Varejao 60 29 1,698 8.6 10.0 2.2 49.4% 1,024
Enes Kanter 74 33 1,955 12.1 7.0 0.9 49.0% 971
Tyreke Evans 65 15 1,804 14.0 4.6 4.9 44.1% 961
Reggie Jackson 71 33 2,038 13.3 3.9 4.2 48.0% 955
John Henson 62 23 1,648 10.9 7.3 1.6 52.9% 926
Jamal Crawford 66 23 2,002 18.6 2.3 3.2 49.9% 923
Vince Carter 74 0 1,810 12.1 3.6 2.7 50.0% 883
Timofey Mozgov 74 22 1,531 8.7 6.1 0.7 51.7% 869

Minimum 1,000 minutes played
eFG% = (FGM + (0.5 * 3PM)) / FGA
Efficiency = PTS + REB + AST + STL + BLK – TO – Missed FGA – Missed FTA

That list includes a few names that you’d expect, as well as a couple that you can certainly eliminate because they play on really, really bad teams. But it’s an easy way to look beyond points per game, which, by itself, would indicate that Jamal Crawford is the runaway favorite for the award and that Dion Waiters has been the Cavs’ best reserve. Anderson Varejao has averaged 2.7 more rebounds per game than any other Sixth-Man eligible player in the league.

If we want to adjust for pace and minutes played, we can look at the PIE statistic from NBA.com/stats, which takes a player’s numbers (with weights added to each) as a percentage of the overall numbers that were accumulated while he was on the floor.

Highest PIE, players eligible for Sixth Man Award

Player GP GS MIN PPG RPG APG eFG% PIE
Anderson Varejao 60 29 1,698 8.6 10.0 2.2 49.4% 13.3%
Kris Humphries 66 28 1,338 8.6 6.0 1.0 50.2% 13.3%
Manu Ginobili 62 3 1,418 12.3 3.0 4.4 53.8% 13.0%
Jordan Hill 64 24 1,268 8.8 7.1 0.6 55.2% 12.7%
Tyreke Evans 65 15 1,804 14.0 4.6 4.9 44.1% 12.6%
Markieff Morris 73 0 1,922 13.8 6.0 1.7 51.1% 12.5%
Andray Blatche 67 6 1,504 11.4 5.4 1.5 48.3% 12.4%
Taj Gibson 74 8 2,132 13.3 6.9 1.1 48.5% 12.1%
Chris Andersen 66 0 1,294 6.8 5.2 0.3 66.9% 12.0%
Patty Mills 74 1 1,364 9.9 2.0 1.8 56.2% 11.8%

Minimum 1,000 minutes played

Four guys – Tyreke Evans, Taj Gibson, Markieff Morris and Varejao — are on both lists. Crawford ranks 16th in PIE (11.1 percent), while Manu Ginobili ranks 16th in total efficiency (838), having missed 12 of the Spurs’ 74 games.

But there’s one more thing we need to look at, because the ultimate job of a team’s bench is to build on a lead or at least sustain it. And when we look at how their teams perform with them on and off the floor, a few candidates rise to the top of the list (which I cut down to 10 guys who appear on at least one of the lists above).

On-off court efficiency differential, Sixth Man Award candidates

Player GP GS MIN OffRtg Rank DefRtg Rank NetRtg Rank
Anderson Varejao 60 29 1,698 +5.1 43 -5.6 15 +10.7 13
Manu Ginobili 62 3 1,418 +9.4 8 -0.1 113 +9.5 23
Andray Blatche 67 6 1,504 +4.3 59 +0.0 121 +4.2 72
Reggie Jackson 71 33 2,038 +0.4 137 -3.0 54 +3.4 86
Taj Gibson 74 8 2,132 +3.0 84 +0.2 126 +2.8 96
Markieff Morris 73 0 1,922 -1.2 162 -3.0 53 +1.8 109
Chris Andersen 66 0 1,294 -2.4 185 -2.8 56 +0.5 130
Vince Carter 74 0 1,810 -2.9 191 -1.4 84 -1.5 160
Jamal Crawford 66 23 2,002 +1.1 129 +3.2 189 -2.1 167
Tyreke Evans 65 15 1,804 +0.3 141 +3.2 190 -3.0 181

OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions
Rank = Rank among 235 players who have played at least 1,000 minutes for one team.

So Varejao comes out as the biggest difference maker, with the Cavs almost 11 points per 100 possessions better when he’s on the floor than when he’s on the bench. Ginobili hasn’t played a ton of minutes, but the Spurs’ offense receives a huge boost when he’s in the game. It’s also interesting to note that Gibson’s impact has been on offense (mostly because the Bulls have been great defensively no matter who’s on the floor).

On-off-court numbers obviously need some context, especially when you’re looking at a guy like Crawford, who has two teammates (both starters) who are top-10 players in the league. He’s played 1,415 minutes (71 percent of his 2,002) with Blake Griffin, but only 955 (48 percent) with Chris Paul. And though the Clippers have been better with Crawford on the bench, they’ve still outscored their opponents by 6.8 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. So his scoring numbers are far from empty and he is helping his team build on leads.

Still, if you look beyond points per game, the numbers see Ginobili and Varejao as guys worthy of first place votes, while Morris and Gibson should also be near the top of the list.

Numbers reveal four strong MIP candidates

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The Kia Most Improved Player award is thought of as the most nebulous of the six major end-of-season awards and typically gets the widest range of votes. Last season, though Paul George finished with a vote total of more than twice that of any other player, 15 different players received at least one first-place vote and another 18 received at least one vote for second or third place.

But the award also lends itself to simple statistical analysis. It should be fairly simple to determine whose numbers have improved most from season to season.

If you want to get real simple, we can just compare the raw numbers, using the efficiency statistic.

Biggest increase, total efficiency

Player Season 2012-13 2013-14 Diff.
Kevin Love 6 372 2,060 1,688
Terrence Jones 2 147 1,048 901
Miles Plumlee 2 20 894 874
Andre Drummond 2 826 1,561 735
Andrew Bogut 9 418 1,103 685
Khris Middleton 2 167 836 669
Timofey Mozgov 4 174 837 663
Gerald Green 7 319 923 604
John Wall 4 949 1,511 562
James Anderson 4 180 740 560
DeAndre Jordan 6 1,079 1,638 559
Anthony Davis 2 1,167 1,705 538
Jordan Hill 5 275 810 535
Jeremy Lamb 2 48 579 531
Dirk Nowitzki 16 1,005 1,531 526
Jared Sullinger 2 454 975 521
Tony Wroten 2 84 601 517
Trevor Ariza 10 637 1,151 514
Reggie Jackson 3 465 955 490
Richard Jefferson 13 200 678 478

Efficiency = PTS + REB + AST + STL + BLK – TO – Missed FGA – Missed FTA

At this point, the big question has to be asked: Should second-year players be considered for the Most Improved Player award? If not, we can eliminate several guys on the list above, though both Terrence Jones and Miles Plumlee – two starters on Western Conference playoff teams — feel like strong candidates. Only two of the top 10 in last year’s voting — Nikola Vucevic (4th) and Chandler Parsons (10th) — were second-year players.

There are also a handful of veterans on the list who missed large chunks of last season with injuries, though Kevin Love and Trevor Ariza are having the best seasons of their careers.

Timofey Mozgov and Gerald Green are interesting candidates, but were both out of their team’s rotations last season, so their improved raw numbers may also be about opportunity.

But Mozgov’s name comes up when we look at PIE improvement. PIE takes a player’s numbers (with weights added to each) as a percentage of the overall numbers that were accumulated while he was on the floor. So it adjusts for pace and there’s a team-success element to it, because if your opponent doesn’t score as many points or grab as many rebounds your individual number will be higher.

Biggest increase, PIE

2012-13 2013-14
Player Season MIN PIE MIN PIE Diff.
James Johnson 5 879 5.3% 836 11.5% 6.2%
DeMarcus Cousins 4 2,289 13.2% 1,978 18.3% 5.1%
Kevin Love 6 618 14.4% 2,438 19.4% 5.0%
Markieff Morris 3 1,837 7.5% 1,864 12.3% 4.8%
Lance Stephenson 4 2,278 8.8% 2,487 13.0% 4.2%
Kris Humphries 10 1,191 9.2% 1,272 13.3% 4.1%
Bismack Biyombo 3 2,186 6.3% 957 10.1% 3.8%
Kendall Marshall 2 702 5.8% 1,270 9.6% 3.8%
Draymond Green 2 1,061 5.1% 1,481 8.9% 3.8%
Timofey Mozgov 4 366 6.9% 1,479 10.5% 3.6%
Xavier Henry 4 625 3.9% 895 7.5% 3.6%
Patty Mills 5 656 8.2% 1,306 11.7% 3.4%
Marco Belinelli 7 1,882 7.0% 1,749 10.3% 3.3%
Avery Bradley 4 1,435 4.9% 1,602 8.1% 3.3%
Andrew Bogut 9 786 9.2% 1,661 12.5% 3.3%
Isaiah Thomas 3 2,121 10.6% 2,450 13.8% 3.2%
Anthony Davis 2 1,846 13.5% 2,248 16.6% 3.0%
Marcus Morris 3 1,524 6.7% 1,601 9.7% 3.0%
Brandon Knight 3 2,366 8.2% 2,051 11.2% 3.0%
Alec Burks 3 1,137 7.4% 1,909 10.4% 3.0%

Minimum 300 minutes in 2012-13 and 800 minutes in 2013-14

Love, Mozgov and Andrew Bogut are the only players on both lists. But Bogut had better seasons in Milwaukee and Love’s increase is just 1.0 percent over his third season in the league. Mozgov has taken a decent jump, but still isn’t a real impact player in the league.

Based on the above lists and deeper dives into the numbers, there are four non-second-year candidates that stand out.

Marco Belinelli, Spurs

Choosing between the Spurs’ two back-up guards is tough, because Patty Mills‘ play has been eye-opening. But Belinelli has had a bigger role on the league’s best team.

Belinelli’s points per game have increased from 9.6 season last season (with Chicago) only to 11.4 this year. And he averaged more than that (11.8) two seasons ago with New Orleans. But he’s having, by far, the best shooting and rebounding seasons of his career.

Among 168 players who have attempted at least 100 shots from the restricted area each of the last two seasons, Belinelli (51.9 percent last season, 70.2 percent this season) ranks second in improvement, behind only Love.

Among 139 players who have attempted at least 100 mid-range shots each of the last two seasons, Belinelli (35.9 percent, 44.0 percent) ranks sixth in improvement.

And among 126 players who have attempted at least 100 3-pointers each of the last two seasons, Belinelli (35.7 percent, 43.7 percent) ranks fifth in improvement.

No other player is in the top 25 of all three lists, and only one (Markieff Morris) is in the top 10 of more than one. It certainly helps (quite a bit, one could argue) that Belinelli has gone from a bottom-10 offensive team last season to a top-10 offensive team this year. But he also ranks 10th in improved rebounding percentage among players who have played at least 1,000 minutes each of the last two seasons.

DeMarcus Cousins, Kings

Boogie has seen a jump in both usage (USG%) and scoring efficiency (TS%). Though he’s still not a great shooter (his 49.3 effective field-goal percentage is below the league average), he has gone to the line a lot more than he ever has. He has also rebounded at a career-high rate.

Defensively, he’s not exactly Roy Hibbert or Kevin Garnett, and transition defense is a major problem. But the Kings have been almost six points per 100 possessions better defensively with Cousins on the floor. He’s a plus-62 for a team that’s 25-46.

Cousins’ teammate Isaiah Thomas seems like another good candidate and is 16th on the most-improved PIE list above. But his scoring effective field-goal percentage and true shooting percentage have barely budged (his 3-point percentage and free-throw percentage have gone down), and his numbers jump is mostly about an increased usage rate and a small jump in assist rate.

Markieff Morris, Suns

If you could vote for the Morris twins as one entity, that would be the clear favorite. You can’t, but Markieff (No. 11 in your programs) should be on the short list.

He’s been a much more efficient player this season, even though his usage rate has jumped quite a bit. And the Suns, who are an improved defensive team, have been better on that end of the floor with Markieff in the game.

As referenced above, he’s the ninth most improved mid-range shooter in the league and also ninth most improved in the restricted area. He’s played about the same number of minutes as he did last season and he’s gone to the line more than twice as many times.

With both Morris twins, Plumlee, Gerald Green and Goran Dragic all worthy of some consideration for Most Improved, it’s obvious that Jeff Hornacek should be in the running for Coach of the Year.

Lance Stephenson, Pacers

Like Cousins and Morris, Stephenson has seen a big jump in both usage rate and efficiency. But he’s also the most improved rebounder among 203 players who have logged at least 1,000 minutes each of the last two seasons, with his rebounding percentage jumping from 7.5 percent to 11.4 percent (best among guards).

Stephenson still has some improving to do. He’s a below-average shooter from outside the paint and his turnover rate has jumped as he’s been asked to handle the ball more. But overall, he’s taken a step forward this season.

Belinelli, Most Improved Shooter

Marco Belinelli is shooting 57 percent from 3-point range (D. Clarke Evans/NBAE )

Marco Belinelli is shooting 57 percent from 3-point range. (D. Clarke Evans/NBAE )

The List

Biggest improvement, effective field-goal percentage

2012-13 2013-14
Player FGA eFG% FGA eFG% Diff.
Marco Belinelli 610 46.0% 140 63.6% 17.6%
Michael Beasley 766 43.4% 119 58.4% 15.0%
Andre Iguodala 879 50.2% 110 65.0% 14.8%
Jodie Meeks 530 50.2% 198 61.9% 11.7%
Wesley Matthews 808 54.0% 238 64.9% 10.9%
Tony Allen 638 44.8% 128 55.1% 10.3%
Jeremy Lin 897 49.0% 155 57.7% 8.7%
Spencer Hawes 811 48.3% 236 57.0% 8.7%
Markieff Morris 653 44.2% 196 52.0% 7.9%
Klay Thompson 1,205 50.9% 352 58.7% 7.8%

Minimum 500 FGA in 2012-13 and 100 FGA in 2013-14
EFG% = (FGM + (0.5 * 3PM)) / FGA

The Context

It’s interesting how a different team can make a player better. The top two guys on this list went from bottom-10 offensive teams last season to top-10 offensive teams this season. Marco Belinelli went from the Rose-less Bulls to the Spurs, while Michael Beasley went from the Suns to the Heat. Andre Iguodala was part of a top-five offense last season, but the Warriors certainly space the floor a lot better than the Nuggets did.

Speaking of floor spacing, Belinelli is shooting a ridiculous 30-for-53 (57 percent) from 3-point range after going 2-for-3 in Tuesday’s win in Toronto. He’s also shooting 51 percent from inside the arc.

Is it a product of the system? Do Tony Parker‘s pick-and-roll brilliance and the Spurs’ ball movement produce more open shots for Belinelli?

First of all, only 54 of Belinelli’s 140 shots have come with Parker on the floor. He actually has shot better with Parker on the bench. He’s played more minutes with Patty Mills as his point guard and has been assisted 22 times by Manu Ginobili. Mills’ improvement, Ginobili’s resurrection and Belinelli’s shooting are big reasons why the Spurs are 16-4 despite an underperforming starting lineup.

According to SportVU, 61 percent of Belinelli’s shots have been uncontested* this season, a jump from 56 percent last season. But the jump is all in his 2-point attempts. In the 20 Bulls games that were tracked by SportVU last season, none of Belinelli’s 47 2-point attempts were uncontested. This season, 42 of his 87 2-point attempts have been uncontested.

*Uncontested: The nearest defender is at least four feet away.

Both years, most of his 3-point attempts (87 percent last season and 83 percent this season) have been uncontested. But he’s shooting them much better with the Spurs. He’s also 6-for-9 on contested threes this year.

So it’s very possible that this is just a fluky start to the season for Belinelli. Or maybe there’s something in the Riverwalk water.

There is one more aspect to Belinelli’s shooting that SportVU can clue us in on: whether he’s shooting more off the catch or off the dribble.

In games tracked by SportVU last season, 60 percent of Belinelli’s shots were catch-and-shoot. This season, that number is up to 75 percent. But again, he’s shooting much better on those catch-and-shoot jumpers this year.

While the Spurs run the most beautiful offense in the league and that offense certainly makes players look better than they would elsewhere, it’s hard to believe that Belinelli’s shooting numbers are very sustainable.

The Video

Here’s video of Belinelli’s six 3-point attempts against the Rockets on Nov. 30. One was a half-court heave, three were wide-open looks on feeds from Ginobili, one was a semi-heat-check, and the last was a rushed shot with the Spurs down four in the closing seconds. If you’re a Spurs fan, you have to love the way Ginobili has been playing.

And if you really like your meatballs spicy, here are all 30 of Belinelli’s made 3-pointers this season.

The bottom of the list

Kosta Koufos is the anti-Belinelli, with a regression of 13.6 percent. That mark edges out Kevin Garnett (-12.7 percent), Jerryd Bayless (-11.4 percent), Patrick Patterson (-10.6 percent) and Tyreke Evans (-9.4 percent). Koufos had an effective field-goal percentage of 58.1 percent on 508 shots with Denver last season and is at 44.5 percent on 146 shots with Memphis this season.

Trivia question

To qualify for the above list, you had to have attempted at least 500 shots last season. There are five players who had at least 500 field-goal attempts last season and have not played a game this season. Four of them are on rosters and are injured: Carlos Delfino, Danilo Gallinari, Carl Landry and Emeka Okafor. Can you name the fifth?

Random notes

  • Chris Paul has 84 assists to Blake Griffin this season and no other combination has nearly that number. Next on the list of teammate-to-teammate assists is Jeff Teague and Al Horford, who have hooked up for 62 of Horford’s buckets.
  • Paul, Griffin and the Clippers have the No. 1 home offense, scoring 111.2 points per 100 possessions in 10 home games. But they have just the 17th best road offense, scoring only 100.9 points per 100 possessions in 12 road games. Their differential of 10.3 isn’t the biggest in the league. That belongs to the Mavs, who have scored 10.9 more points per 100 possessions at home than they have on the road.
  • The biggest defensive differential belongs to the Rockets, who have allowed 14.9 fewer points per 100 possessions at home. Houston ranks third defensively at home and 28th on the road. The good news is that they have the No. 1 road offense.
  • Deron Williams returned to the Nets’ lineup against Boston on Tuesday and Brooklyn played its best offensive game of the season, scoring about 116 points per 100 possessions against what was a top-10 defense. Point guards are important.

Trivia answer

Shannon Brown, who attempted 571 shots for the Suns last season. He was sent to the Wizards in the Marcin Gortat trade and was waived before the season.

Mild-Mannered Hornacek Infusing Suns With Just The Right Amount Of Fire


VIDEO: Jeff Hornacek talks about learning the ropes as an NBA coach

It took until the end of the second week of the season, five minutes into the second half of a game against the visiting Pelicans. It took five sloppy turnovers in the space of just three infuriating minutes.

It was, in fact, all  Jeff Hornacek could take. As he signaled for a timeout to apply a tourniquet, he whirled, raised an exasperated fist and slammed it down hard on the court side press table.

“Oh yeah,” said guard Eric Bledsoe as he thought back to the moment. “That got our attention. That was the first time I had ever seen him get that mad. You’re thinking to yourself, ‘Oh, he does have that in him.’ “

It was one of the questions that loomed from the time the 50-year-old Hornacek took over as the Suns coach in May following Phoenix’s 25-win season of 2012-13, the fewest wins in franchise history since the expansion season (1968-69). Was Hornacek simply too nice of a guy to do the heavy lifting required by the job?

“You can see where people might get that impression from the outside,” said small forward P.J. Tucker. “Because for the most part he’s always the same. He doesn’t have those emotional swings that you see from a lot of coaches. I know you hear a lot of coaches say they don’t intend to be that way. Then you watch them and see them losing it.

“From the first day that he got together with this team, all Jeff has been focused on is getting us to play with emotion, play hard, play aggressive. He channels his energy into us.”

“It important that the coach can stay calm, especially on a young team like this one,” said guard Goran Dragic. “When players are going through bad minutes on the floor, you need someone that can keep his confidence. It allows you to move forward. I will say that he is a nice guy as long as you don’t take advantage of him. If you do, he can bring you back to the ground.”

It was hardly the ideal situation to have your coaching baptism. After the misery of last season, the Suns went into an almost total rebuilding mode, purging the roster of most of their veteran players. Luis Scola, Jared Dudley, Michael Beasley, Jermaine O’Neal and Wesley Johnson were moved over the summer. Marcin Gortat, Kendall Marshall and Shannon Brown were traded to the Wizards just before the season opener.

So who was left? Veterans Dragic and Channing Frye to mix with Bledsoe, Tucker, Marcus and Markieff Morris and a No. 1 draft choice in Alex Len (who needed ankle surgery and has played just token minutes in four games). It was a roster picked by most experts to finish rock bottom in the rugged Western Conference and Las Vegas oddsmakers posted the over-under on Suns wins for the season at 21.5. The Suns and their coach getting his first crack at being the man in charge could have been offended.

“No,” Hornacek said. “Obviously this team won 25 games last year. We traded away a lot of our veteran guys who helped them win games last year. So we understand how it looks. But we went into this season and training camp tell our players, hey, you’re gonna read all that stuff, hear all that stuff. But if we play hard, we believe you guys are good players and if we play together and play hard we’ll win our fair share of games. I’m not going to put our a number on it or anything like that. But we’ll win our fair share and so far that’s what’s happened.”


VIDEO: Bledsoe fuels Suns’ victory in Houston

So the group went out and made Hornacek the first coach in Suns history to win his first four home games. They kept every game within a five-point margin in the final five minutes for the first three weeks of the season. After a home win against Toronto on Friday night, they stand at 11-9. They are doing it with an offensive style that wants to run when it can and a defensive approach that is always attacking on the perimeter. Hornacek is making the most of the guard tandem of Dragic and Bledsoe that many thought create duplication and conflict.

“Look, I’m only a rookie in this league myself, but I’ve had a lot of coaches at other levels of the game,” said center Miles Plumlee, “and I think what we are is a reflection of Jeff’s personality. What I know of him during his pro career is a guy that used no excuses, took no shortcuts and got the most out of his ability.”

All the while he’s been doing it by keeping a lid on those outward displays of emotions.

“I slip every once in a while,” Hornacek said. “They could drive you crazy. That’s part of it. Not everything’s gonna go perfectly. I think all coaches get frustrated when they see the same errors over and over. If they see something new, OK, maybe haven’t seen that. But the guy makes a mistake and does the same thing and does the same thing that’s when you’re gonna pound your head and say ‘OK, we talked about that.’ That’s the way it is.

“We’re also pretty young except for a couple of guys, Channing and Goran have been around. Everyone else is playing minutes that they’ve never played before. So we hopefully learn, but that’s a big part of it. I think it’s also part as an ex-player to want to be out there. You see things happen and you can give these guys all the preparation and talk about reads, but they actually have to do it out there … Maybe as ex-players, you see, ‘This is gonna develop.’ But they’ve got to figure that out.”

So far, Hornacek is giving his Suns enough room and push to do that.

Reunited Feels So Good For Morris Twins


VIDEO: Phoenix’s Morris Bros. run the pick and roll to perfection

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – The ball clung to the front of the rim for what seemed an eternity as if pondering whether to reward the surprising Phoenix Suns with a last-second road win in Portland, or to hand this hustling bunch a humbling, back-to-earth dose of heartache.

Markieff Morris, the Suns’ surging reserve power forward and the unlikely reigning Western Conference Player of the Week, waited underneath. His two-handed put-back during a chaotic final few seconds took three small, slow-motion hops on the lip. Finally it dropped, the wrong way — Trail Blazers 90, Suns 89. Morris folded to his knees, slapped the floor, tugged at his jersey with his teeth, bounded down the court, eyes rolling up as if pleading to the basketball gods for a re-do.

“It was right there, man, right there,” Morris told the Arizona Republic afterward. “That’s hard to swallow.”

The Suns tried to avoid a first two-game losing skid of the season tonight against the Brooklyn Nets, but fell  100-98 in overtime.

Wednesday’s loss was the fourth this season for rookie coach Jeff Hornacek‘s feisty Suns, a rebuilding team expected to lose often but with sturdy defense and a fastbreaking offense, is 5-4. Morris was a catalyst. Before that excruciating tip fell off the rim, he had made 33 of his previous 45 shots from virtually every distance and angle on the court.

The 6-foot-10, 245-pounder averaged 22.8 ppg and 8.0 rpg in his previous four games to earn POY honors, becoming the first Suns player to do so since Amare Stoudemire in 2008. It’s an award reserved almost exclusively for starters. Nate Robinson and J.R. Smith sneaked in last season, but you might have to go all the way back to Manu Ginobili in 2007 to find another.

Markieff Bros. share in rise together


VIDEO: Markieff Morris cleans up brother Marcus’ miss against the Pelicans

Yet as far as Morris is concerned, his award announced on Monday actually went to two Suns reserves.

“When I won the Western Conference player [honor], it was like we both won it,” Morris told NBA.com on Tuesday prior to boarding the team plane to Portland. “He was just real happy. We’re in this together and that’s how we are.”

“He” is Markieff’s identical twin brother, Marcus Morris. Through 1 1/2 seasons of playing on different teams for the first time in their lives, the Morris brothers hadn’t lived up to their 2011 Draft positions — Markieff No. 13 to Phoenix and Marcus No. 14 to Houston — after three seasons together at Kansas. They now plug in like a dual power pack, “it’s like a 2-on-1 type of thing,” as Markieff explained.

They are a rugged forward pairing off the bench. Markieff, who wears No. 11, plays mostly power forward and some center. Marcus, No. 15, plays small forward and takes over at power forward when Markieff slides to center. Together, they average 23.9 ppg and 12.4 rpg. Markieff is the Suns’ second-leading scorer at 15.9 ppg — more than seven points higher than his career average — and second-leading rebounder at 6.4 rpg, doing so in 28.8 mpg. Marcus is averaging 8.0 ppg and 6.0 rpg — nearly doubling his career average of 3.3 — in 22.1 mpg.

Nearly all of Marcus’ minutes come alongside Markieff. Their net rating together (difference between offensive rating and defensive rating) is a robust 7.6 — a key to why Phoenix ranks fifth in defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) — and the they’re securing 52.1 percent of the available rebounds.

Their synergy was palpable during the Las Vegas Summer League when both brothers decided to play — even though it wasn’t required of them.

‘We’re better together’

“Sure, we’re better together,” Marcus told NBA.com. “I feel like because we’re together, we can bring the whole team together, they can follow our lead. We’ve been playing together all our lives, so he’s just more comfortable. He’s more comfortable and I help him with what he needs to do and we push each other in in the right direction.”

Or as Markieff put it: “We’re like the Spurs, how they’ve been together for a long time, so used to each other and playing together.”

The twins are identical in nearly every aspect, although Markieff is listed as an inch taller and 10 pounds heavier than the 6-foot-9, 235-pound Marcus. Otherwise, good luck telling them apart out of their uniforms. They have the same haircut and both sport trimmed beards. Their 18 tattoos are carbon copies inked in the identical spot. The inside of their wing spans read: “MORRIS BROTHERS, EST. 1989.”

They live in the same house. They drive a similar model Mercedes in the same color, baby blue. They don’t wear the same clothes, but get each other’s approval before going out. They eat the same pre-game meal, mostly chicken alfredo, and they love going home to eat mom’s cornbread. Their mother, Angel, told the New York Times last March that the nearly inseparable twins just weren’t right apart.

“They said ’Kieff hit a rookie wall,’” she said. “I don’t think it was a rookie wall. I just think that when they sent Marcus to the D-League, he was so depressed that ’Kieff felt the same depression.”

So is it any surprise then that since reuniting midway through their NBA sophomore season both are maximizing their abilities? Phoenix’s former regime heeded Markieff’s pleas to trade for his brother last Feb. 21. For new general manager Ryan McDonough, who flipped the roster with nine new players, the brothers were one of a few palatable leftovers.

“At the time I knew they [the Suns] weren’t making the playoffs, but it was a chance to get back with my brother,” Marcus said. “At the time I was at a loss for words, just thanking God that he made that a possibility because I feel like that can bring our skill out more.”

Markieff’s production, on cue, immediately spiked following the trade, even as the Suns spiraled to a disastrous 25-win season that ended coach Alvin Gentry‘s tenure midway through and turned off a loyal fan base. Before Marcus’ arrival, Markieff averaged 7.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg and 20.3 mpg in 55 games. He shot 39.4 percent overall and 28.1 percent from beyond the arc. In the final 27 games with Marcus, Markieff averaged 10.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg in 26.6 mpg. He shot 43.0 percent and an inexplicable 44.4 percent (20-for-45) from downtown.

“Last year I was getting away from the stuff that got me here, the extra work that I had to put in,” Markieff said. “When he came he definitely reminded me that we got to put this extra work in, as younger guys we’ve got to stay longer hours, we’ve got to try to be great, I’ve got to try to be great.

“That’s what I did. We pushed each other to another limit. He just won’t tell you stuff to make you feel better and to brighten your day up. He’s going to challenge me. If I’m playing good or if I’m playing bad, I think we do that for each other. He’s the first to tell me you got to do this right, and vice-versa.”

New-Look Suns Getting It Done


VIDEO: Suns keep rolling, drop Pelicans

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Of the 16 players that suited up for the Phoenix Suns last season, 12 are gone.

Then there was the ultimate short-timer Caron Butler, a Suns player this summer just long enough to model the franchise’s new uniforms at a Scottsdale mall. In all, eight players are new to the roster, and straight from the feel-good department is Channing Frye returning from a scary heart condition that robbed him of the entire 2012-13 season. Frye is the Suns’ longest-tenured player, signed as a free agent way back in 2009, before current general manager Ryan McDonough had celebrated his 30th birthday.

The Suns’ starting five includes two players from last season: P.J.Tucker and Goran Dragic to go with Frye, Miles Plumlee and star-in-the-making Eric Bledsoe.

And here they are, a team that figured to lose games at a rapid rate is 5-2 and leading the Pacific Division. So how is it possible for an organization that hired a new GM, hired a new coach, cleaned house and then traded its talented starting center Marcin Gortat to Washington a week before the season started (for an injured one who might not play at all) to have already secured one-fifth of its win total from all of last season?

(more…)

Improved ‘D’ Fuels Quick Start For Bobcats, Suns And Magic

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…

Charlotte

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.

Phoenix

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.

Orlando

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.
Indiana 101.0 99.4 +1.6
Minnesota 103.5 94.1 +9.4
New Orleans 91.4 103.7 -12.2
Brooklyn 89.0 102.5 -13.4
L.A. Clippers 88.0 114.5 -26.4
TOTAL 94.8 103.4 -8.5

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.

Of Brooklyn’s 89 shots in Orlando last Sunday, 50 came from between the restricted area and the 3-point line. On Wednesday, it was 55 of the Clippers’ 95 shots.

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.

20131106_paul_sag

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.

20131106_griffin_space

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.