Three Interesting Stats: Eastern Conference Contenders Edition

Welcome to my new series Three Interesting Stats! Here I will highlight three thought-provoking pieces of numerical information about the current NBA season and what they mean. I want the stats to elucidate in some small way what is happening on the court; after all, the data we collect traces back to the squeaking sneakers and swishing jump shots that we love to watch.

For our first week, we will focus on the three teams atop the Eastern Conference.

Stat 1: 1.16. The points per possession for the Brooklyn Nets on isolation possessions. (source: Synergy)

Sometimes a stat is counterintuitive. You look at it and it does not quite agree with your assessment from watching the games. But other times a number is very understandable, and this is one of those times.

When you have Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving all on one basketball team together, it stands to reason that that team will be very good at isolation ball. The chart below puts the 1.16 points per possession figure into context. Not only are the Nets the most efficient isolation team of this season, but they are first in efficiency for all seasons since 2015-16!

We can see from this chart that the Nets don’t utilize isolation ball as much as the outlier 2018-2020 Houston Rockets (practitioners of what ESPN’s Zach Lowe eloquently described as James Ball), but it does consume 9.6% of their possessions. They are narrowly second in terms of frequency this year, behind only Damian Lillard’s Portland Trail Blazers.

The Nets’ ability to put the ball in the hands of any one of three elite individual scorers has not only powered Brooklyn to a tie for the #1 offense in the league through February; it has also made commentators consider them an especially dangerous playoff team. They sit as the second most likely team to win the NBA title, behind only the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, on the Action Network’s consensus of NBA futures. When teams bear down on defense during the playoffs and force their opponents to rely on less transition and movement, the Nets are perhaps poised to not drop off as much as their rivals. (This is at least one plausible line of thinking. I haven’t studied playoff offense in general.)

I should note that it is a bit easier to put up record numbers for rate stats over smaller samples, so we should check back and see where Brooklyn stands at the end of the regular season. In the meantime, let’s keep watching KD, Kyrie and The Beard cook.

Stat 2: 39.4%. The Milwaukee Bucks 3-Point Percentage. (source: Basketball-Reference)

The Bucks are kind of a strange team for me this year. Over the previous two regular seasons, they built a juggernaut reliant on a suffocating defense that snuffed out opponent baskets at the rim while letting the opposition chuck away from behind the arc. Their offenses were good, but not as good as their defenses.

This season, Milwaukee has flipped the script by posting an offensive rating that is tied for best in the league while their defense has been more middle of the pack. Overall, it translates to the Bucks (maybe sneakily?) being really good again. Only the surging Jazz have a better net rating through February.

What jumps out when you look at their offensive stats is their sweet 39.4% 3-point percentage, fourth best in the association. The Bucks are not afraid to hoist them either; 41% of their field goal attempts have come from behind the arc per basketball-reference. So Milwaukee benefits immensely by being able to make their outside shots.

What is striking about how well Milwaukee is shooting the ball is that they were actually only middle of the pack last year. They have had the third largest jump in 3-point percentage over last year, as the chart below shows.

When you take a look at the individual shooting percentages in Milwaukee, you find career years all over the place. Khris Middleton, an All-Star snub (but that is for a different post), is shooting 43.4% on a team leading 182 attempts. Donte DiVencenzo is up to a sweet 39.4% after shooting only 33.6% last year on fewer attempts per game. Bryn Forbes, a deadeye former Spur, has made a gaudy 45.4% of his attempts, also a career high. Pat Connaughton and Jrue Holliday are in the high 30’s as well. Can everyone be hot at the same time?

A natural next question is are the Bucks getting especially good looks this year? The answer is not particularly, especially when compared to last season. The proportion of the Bucks’ 3-point attempts that have been “wide-open”, where the nearest defender is 6+ feet away, is actually down this season to 53.7% from 54.9% last season, per Synergy.

While it is of course quite the luxury to be shooting the ball this well, I think the Bucks’ strong 3-point shooting could be seen as a bit of negative indicator for their future performance. While we like to focus on the randomness of defensive 3-point percentage for good reason, offensive 3-point percentage is actually a stat that can fluctuate as well, although usually not to the same extent. In fact, the correlation between 1st half and 2nd half offensive 3-point percentage is actually only 0.33, lower than for other offensive statistics. If these first ~30 games prove to be a high watermark in terms of shooting, the Bucks’ offense could take its foot off of the gas a little in the second half.

Stat 3: 11.1. Joel Embiid Free Throws Made Per 36 Minutes. (source: Basketball-Reference)

Joel Embiid, the Philadelphia 76ers’ superstar center, dwarfs Trae Young in more ways than one. Not only does the 7-foot center tower over Young in stature, but he has a sizable lead in the competition for the free throw shooting title. On a per 36 minutes basis, Embiid leads the NBA with 11.1 made free throws; Young’s 8.9 ranks second. (As an aside, Trae being second here is an achievement unto itself.)

Embiid’s ability to get to the free throw line and make his freebies has powered a stellar offensive year that has him posting career highs in stuff like true shooting % and points per game. It should not be taken for granted too that the 76er center is shooting an impressive 85.6% from the line. If Embiid was shooting a more average 75% from the stripe, the 76ers would actually lose about 1.1 points per game given his high volume. (1.1 points per game is worth a little more than 2.5 games over a full 82.)

Moreover, the 76ers offense has floundered without their star center on the court. Per, the 76ers’ offense falls by a gigantic 16.5 points per 100 possessions when Embiid sits in those games that he plays. While on-off stats are team stats and need to be treated with caution when applied to an individual, I think we can attribute meaning to this given Embiid’s large role in the offense. It is no wonder that Embiid has burst front and center into the MVP conversation!

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