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Around the NBA: The consistent Suns, Hailburton’s genius, and the underappreciated Pelicans

Phoenix is trudging along, a star is rising in Indiana, and the Pelicans are good on... defense?!

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NBA: Indiana Pacers at Los Angeles Lakers Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

A quarter of the way into this season, Phoenix remains the top team in the West, the Pacers are fourth in the East, and New Orleans has one of the best defenses in the league.

Who would have thunk?

The NBA never ceases to amaze fans, and this year is no different. The Suns, in particular, have been a pleasant surprise, considering the absences of Chris Paul, Cam Johnson, and Jae Crowder.

Let’s see how they’re doing it.

Surprise! The Suns are still good

Remember when everyone counted out Phoenix after their embarrassing playoff loss last year?

Pepperidge Farm does.

The general consensus surrounding the Suns heading into this year was that they’d still be good, but probably won’t be in the running for the first seed in the West anymore.

Well, guess what? They’re back on top.

Sure, the top 11 teams in the West are only separated by 4.5 games (did someone say parity?), but Phoenix has all the marks of a team that’s still elite: their +7.2 net rating is second in the league, and they are one of just three teams with both a top-10 offense and defense.

More importantly, the Suns have accomplished this with CP3 missing 10 games, and even in the games he’s played, the Point God averaged an alarming 9.5 points while shooting 37% from the field.

They’ve also played most of the season without two starting-caliber power forwards in Cam Johnson and Jae Crowder, which essentially means that Phoenix has managed to perform at an elite level with three of their top six players missing significant amounts of time.

While Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton have both levelled up, it is the improvement of Mikal Bridges that has been the most encouraging part of the Suns’ hot start.

This season, Bridges has expanded his offensive game and become more comfortable creating his own shot, which is evident in the number of dribbles he takes before attempting a field goal.

In 81 games last year, Bridges attempted 101 shots after taking 3-6 dribbles while making 55% of those attempts. In just 21 games this season, he has already taken 44 of those same shots and converted them at an even more absurd rate of 59%.

Bridges’ increased volume and efficiency show that he’s made genuine improvements as a self-creator, and this isn’t a case of defenders ignoring him, either. Last season, Bridges averaged close to 2.4 wide-open shots per game (defined as any attempt taken with the closest defender 6+ feet away from the shooter). This year, that number is down to just 1.62 a game, proving that Bridges is now a legitimate threat to create his own shot.

Take a look at the first clip below, where he drives and scores against AD. In the past, that play would’ve likely ended in a pass, but he now has the confidence to take it himself.

Bridges’ playmaking has reached a new level as well. In the second clip, he notices a mismatch and smartly lobs the ball up to Ayton instead of forcing a tough shot, and the numbers back up his improvement: Bridges’ usage rate has increased from 13.7% to 15.5%, and his assist percentage has also seen an uptick from 8.4% to 12.1%, and the latter number ranks in the 71st percentile among players of his position.

As a whole, though, the Suns are largely playing the same way they did last year. While Phoenix is a respectable 11th in effective field goal percentage (54.9%), they are 29th in location field goal percentage (53.2%) due to the fact that only 34% of their shot attempts are from deep (16th leaguewide) and 28.8% of their shots are around the rim (29th).

History suggests that the Suns can still maintain an elite offense due to the absurd mid-range shooting from Booker and CP3, but playing the same style even after last season’s playoff flameout is eyebrow-raising, to say the least.

So, where does that leave us? Only the playoffs can provide a definitive answer, but the play of CP3 will be the X-factor for Phoenix this season. If he regains his form, the Suns could be even better than last year due to Bridges’ growth. But if the Point God’s struggles continue, it’ll be hard to separate this team from the other hopeful contenders in the West.

The genius of Hali

After finishing last season on a ten-game losing streak, many expected the Pacers to be among the NBA’s basement dwellers this year.

Haliburton, though, didn’t get the memo.

Indiana’s offensive rating is a moderate 1.4 points better with Hali playing, but his presence changes the entire dynamic of the team. So far, the young point guard is leading the league in essentially every category related to passing — just take a look at his numbers below.

Assists per game: 11.3 (1st)

Potential assist per game: 21.8 (1st)

Passes made per game: 77.2 (1st)

Assist points created: 30.1 (1st)

Even more absurd is his assist percentage, which is the percentage of a teammate’s made shot that a player assisted. So far, Haliburton has assisted 51.3% of his teammates’ baskets, and the difference between him and second-place Luka (44.1%) is larger than Luka and ninth-place Darius Garland (37%).

Impressively, Haliburton’s 11.2% turnover rate (61st percentile among combo guards) is the lowest of his career even though his usage has increased from 23.7% last year to 29.1% (96th percentile) this season. In fact, he recently became the first player in league history to accumulate 40 assists or more with zero turnovers over a three-game span, and he gave a glimpse into his prodigious basketball mind after making a game-winning pass against the Lakers on Monday night.

However, what separates Haliburton from other heliocentric ballhandlers like Luka and Trae is his focus on playmaking rather than scoring: the Pacers guard takes a pedestrian 15.2 shots per game, which is only one more than Buddy Hield and 1.5 more than rookie Benedict Mathurin.

Don’t mistake Haliburton’s egalitarian style for a lack of scoring ability, though, as the young guard has maintained his efficiency even with his increased usage. He’s currently averaging 1.19 points per shot attempt (68th percentile) on 47/37/85 shooting splits, and his effective field goal percentage of 55.9% is also in the 72nd percentile among combo guards.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that he’s been getting compared with some of the greatest pure point guards of the past, such as CP3 and Steve Nash.

Considering the offensive explosion that has overtaken the league, those numbers don’t mean that Haliburton has been just as good as prime Nash. Rather, it shows the type of player he’s developing into, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him become an All-NBA calibre guard sooner than later.

If you’d like to learn more about how Haliburton manipulates defenses using his passing, don’t forget to check out this great video from Half Court Hoops!

The Pelicans are good on... defense??

Remember when we mentioned that the Suns were one of three teams with a top-10 offense and defense? Well, the Pelicans are one of those two other teams (along with Cleveland).

In fact, New Orleans has actually been better on defense (110.1 defensive rating, 5th league-wide) than offense (116.0, 6th), and their +5.9 net rating is third in the league too. This is a shocking development considering that they were 18th in defense last season and 23rd in 2020-21 when Zion was last healthy.

Encouragingly, the Pelicans have an above-average defense whenever one of their Big Three of Zion, Ingram, or CJ McCollum is on the court. More importantly, they have a ludicrous 104.4 defensive rating with all three of them playing, which would be the best mark in the league by almost three points.

A lot of New Orleans’ success should be attributed to Herb Jones, who’s one of the best defensive wings in the league and should make an All-Defensive team this year. In a recent game against the Thunder, he did a great job of making life difficult against SGA, something that very few players are capable of achieving.

Zion deserves a lot of credit for his improved two-way play as well. He was an absolute defensive menace at Duke but has struggled mightily in the NBA, which was largely due to a lack of effort. Now that he’s healthy and engaged again, Zion has started to utilize his basketball IQ in his own end by disrupting passing lanes while making jaw-dropping blocks too, of course.

With that said, there are some underlying numbers which suggests that the Pelicans’ defense could take a slight dip, though not by much. New Orleans is 12th league-wide in opponent effective field goal percentage (53.5%), which is right in line with their 13th-ranked opponent location effective field goal percentage (54.4%).

However, they’re 23rd in conceding the highest percentage of opponent shots from deep (38%) but opponents are only converting 33.4% from deep (3rd lowest percentage). This is concerning since studies have shown that teams largely don’t have control over how well opponents shoot from three, suggesting that opponents are shooting an unsustainable low percentage from deep.

On the other hand, opponents are also converting on an absurdly high 70.9% of their shots around the rim, which is also an unsustainable number considering New Orleans does a great job of limiting those chances — only 32.3% of opponent shots are around the rim, which is 7th lowest league-wide.

In short, while opponents will start making more of their threes against the Pelicans, they also won’t remain as lethal around the rim.

Taking everything into consideration, New Orleans probably won’t remain a top-five defense, but nothing suggests that they can’t be in the 6-10 range. Pair that with an elite offense, and we could be talking about a legitimate contender in the West.

This week, please check out BrunoPassos’ fantastic analysis on the Spurs’ poor transition defense! As usual, Bruno uses a perfect blend of stats and video breakdown to explain what’s gone wrong with San Antonio’s D.

Thanks for reading and see you next week!

All stats courtesy of Cleaning the Glass and NBA Stats.