After I wrote about Phoenix’s consistency two weeks ago, they have gone 2-6 and dropped from first to fifth in the Western Conference.
Sorry, Suns fans.
The good news is that we now have an excuse to talk about the Pelicans again, who are now second in the West. Zion, in particular, is starting to regain his form from two years ago and might even be better now given his improvements on defense.
Don’t look now, but a legitimate MVP candidate might be arising from the Big Easy.
Watch out world, Zion is back!
For someone who hadn’t played in an NBA game in over a year and a half, Zion looked remarkably polished when he returned to the floor this season.
However, he still didn’t quite reach the levels of his 2020-21 campaign... until a few weeks ago.
For the month of December, Zion is averaging 30 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 4.8 rebounds while shooting a cool 65% from the field. More importantly, he’s playing the best defense of his career (which we discussed previously), which has translated to team success too — the Pelicans currently have the 6th best defensive rating overall (110.4).
With that said, New Orleans is getting quite lucky with opponents struggling from three (34.2%, third lowest league-wide) against them especially considering that they concede the third most attempts (38.7% of opponent shots are from beyond the arc), meaning that their defense will likely see a drop-off at some point.
On the other hand, the Pelicans can also improve their sixth-ranked offense (116 offensive rating), and unsurprisingly, it all starts with Zion. As one of the most efficient scorers in the league, the 22-year-old doesn’t shoot as much as one might expect. For the season, Zion has only averaged 16.1 field goal attempts per game, which ranks 43rd league-wide and behind players such as Kelly Oubre Jr, Dillon Brooks, and his own teammate, CJ McCollum.
Out of those players, Zion ranks first in field goal percentage (60.3%), first in effective field goal percentage (61.1%), and third in true shooting (64.7%), only behind Kevin Durant (66.6%) and Anthony Davis (66.1%).
Fortunately, the Pelicans seem to have realized that their best path forward is to run the offense through Zion. His field goal attempts have increased from 14.3 in November to 17.9 in December while CJ’s has decreased from 17.2 to 16.4, but an even more important aspect of New Orleans’ offense is the types of plays that they run.
One of the biggest revelations during Zion’s last healthy season was turning him into a point forward with lots of ballhandling duties. The amount of pick and rolls he ran that year increased substantially as the season went on, and he ended the campaign averaging 3.2 pick and rolls per game as the ballhandler while scoring 0.99 points on those possessions, which ranked in the 79th percentile.
This year, he’s down to running just 2.5 such possessions a game but is still scoring an efficient 1.00 points per possession (82nd percentile). Zion’s reps as a P&R ballhandler have been steadily increasing since the start of the year, and he especially loves to execute a big-big play with Larry Nance Jr. since it oftentimes forces a slow-footed center on to him, creating a mismatch.
Zion has been one of the most lethal P&R ballhandlers this season (1.00 PPP, 82nd percentile) but he's only running 2.5 such plays per game pic.twitter.com/YTeivrDLge— Bill Huan (@bill_huan) December 15, 2022
For reference, other point forwards like Pascal Siakam and Paolo Banchero are averaging 4.8 and 5.6 pick-and-roll possessions a game as the ballhandler, which is the volume that Zion should be getting. With CJ and Brandon Ingram also on the team, though, it might not be feasible for him to get the number of touches that he probably deserves.
Still, Zion’s usage has been steadily increasing, so even if New Orleans’ defense takes a slight drop, they could very well improve on their already elite offense.
As a result, this Pelicans team isn’t just a cute sleeper pick to pull off an upset or two.
They are legitimate finals contenders.
The Nets look good... for now
Boy, if the NBA wanted to start a reality TV show on one organization, they wouldn’t need to look further than Brooklyn.
Since Jacque Vaughn took over, though, the Nets have actually looked like a professional basketball team:
Nets under Steven Nash
2-5 record, -5.8 net rating (27th), 113.9 offensive rating (16th), 119.7 defensive rating (28th)
Nets under Jacque Vaughn
15-7 record, +4.4 net rating (4th), 114.6 offensive rating (11th), 110.2 defensive rating (6th)
The biggest difference has obviously been Brooklyn’s defensive improvement, which has partly been fuelled by luck but partly by good play too. Even with the coaching change, the Nets’ defensive location effective field goal percentage has stayed the same at 54.9%. However, Brooklyn’s actual defensive eFG% has gone from 55.1% (22nd) under Nash to 51.4% (2nd) under Vaughn.
In other words, opponents were shooting an unsustainably high percentage when Nash was still the coach, but it also appears like that has overcorrected itself since Vaughn took over. With that said, I do think that Brooklyn’s more recent defensive play is much more indicative of their talent level than their performance to start the year.
Consider this: under Nash, opponents were shooting 66.3% (21st) around the rim, a number that’s plummeted to just 59.9% (1st!) with Vaughn at the helm. That latter figure likely isn’t sustainable, but the Nets do have two very good rim protectors in Nic Claxton and KD.
In fact, both players rank in the top six in terms of opponent shooting under six feet from the rim, as Claxton has held players to just 51.2% (-11.3% difference from their usual conversion rate) around the basket while KD is at 53% (-9.7% difference). They are both extremely switchable too, and Claxton has blossomed into one of the more underappreciated defenders in the game.
Nic Claxton is third in the league for blocks per game (2.2) and has a massive effect on the defensive end with his switchability.— Jac Manuell (@JacManuell) December 15, 2022
It doesn’t feel like he gets enough credit for how awesome he’s been on that end of the floor this season beyond Nets fans. pic.twitter.com/9aOedToog6
Surprisingly, the underlying numbers for Brooklyn’s offense indicate that they’re due for regression, even though they only have the 11th-ranked offensive rating (114.5) so far. The Nets’ location eFG% has actually gone down after Vaughn took over, dropping from 54.1% (23rd) to 53.3% (29th).
This is because Brooklyn lives in the mid-range, as they take 35.3% of all their shots from there (5th highest percentage) and barely get to the rim (53.5 shot frequency, 29th). Of course, these numbers don’t take into account that the Nets have Kevin freaking Durant, who’s shooting the highest percentage from two of his career at an ungodly 62.9%, and his 66.6% true shooting is also a career-high.
Will his two-point conversion rate come down? Probably — he’s only shot higher than 60% once before, and that was when he had some guy named Wardell Curry draw the attention of opponents like a black hole. However, any drop-off will likely be offset by an increase in three-point rate: KD is currently shooting just 34.6% from beyond the arc, the lowest mark since his rookie season while also taking the fewest long-distance shots (4.8 a game) in a decade.
In short, KD is absolutely capable of sustaining his current MVP level of play, even if some of his percentages take a slight dip. The Nets, then, can still be a borderline top-ten offensive team that will continuously outperform their expected field goal numbers considering the absurd shotmaking abilities of their stars.
They are running a bit too hot defensively, but there’s no reason why Brooklyn can’t be above average in their own end assuming everyone is brought in and healthy. If that happens, the Nets could still be a dangerous team and be among the second tier of contenders in the East alongside of the Cavs and Sixers.
That is a huge if, though, and the one thing we’ve learned about this team is that they are the epitome of Murphy’s Law.
But who knows? Stranger things have happened in the NBA, and they’ve hopefully used up their quota of drama for the season, so let’s all pray that the Nets can just focus on basketball moving forward.
Thanks for reading and have a great holiday season!