Before the 2021-22 season, the Mavericks reportedly had the chance to sign Jalen Brunson to a four-year deal worth just $55 million.
Fast forward less than two years later, and Dallas has given up additional assets to acquire Kyrie “Chaos” Irving while Brunson is leading the Knicks to a better record than his former team.
Of course, hindsight is 20/20, but...oof.
Enough with the negativity, though (at least for now)! Let’s analyze what’s fueling New York’s 7-game win streak.
The Knicks are... competent??
The Knicks are undefeated with Josh Hart in the lineup.
That’s it, folks. No analysis needed.
Jokes aside, they’ve been arguably the hottest team in the league over the past month and are only a game and a half back of the Cavs for the four-seed in the East. Since the start of February, New York’s +12.2 net rating is second league-wide (behind Milwaukee) on the backs of the #1 offense (123.9) and #5 defense (111.7).
Up until then, they still had a very good net rating (+1.5, 9th) and offense (116.6, 6th) with a below-average defense (115.1, 19th). In comparison, the Knicks’ 110.9 offensive rating last year was 21st, and their current 118.0 mark is 4th when factoring in the entire season.
Unsurprisingly, Brunson has played a substantial role in that jump. He’s impressively managed to take on a heavier usage rate (23.8% to 29.4%) while also improving his efficiency (58.3% to 59.2% true shooting).
Brunson’s largest impact on New York, though, is just simply being a reliable point guard who can organize a team’s offense. The Knicks score 16.4 points per game off of his assists, which ranks 22nd league-wide and just behind Steph and De’Aaron Fox (both at 16.6).
Moreover, New York hardly ever turns the ball over with Brunson playing. Their 12.3% turnover rate with him on the court ranks in the 92nd percentile, and Brunson’s own 8.4% rate is first in the whole league among point guards who’ve logged over 200 minutes this year.
Simply put, he makes smart decisions — just take a look at the following possessions. First, Brunson collapses the defense and finds Quentin Grimes for an open three. Then, he draws the attention of both defenders before diming up Isiah Hartenstein for an easy floater.
Much has been made about Brunson's scoring explosion, but his reliable playmaking has been just as impactful on the Knicks' offense pic.twitter.com/258cT6iteS— Bill Huan (@bill_huan) March 2, 2023
On the other hand, I’m not convinced that New York’s recent stifling defense can last. Opponents are only shooting 32.5% from deep against the Knicks since February 1st — the 4th lowest mark league-wide — and weren’t much better before then, either (35.4% up until February, 6th lowest). Opponent three-point shooting is historically something that teams don’t have much control over, suggesting that things could swing in the opposite direction soon.
Moreover, the effective field goal percentage of opposing teams is only 53.1% (3rd) even though their location eFG% suggests that they should be converting at a 55.1% clip (20th). In other words, the Knicks are receiving quite a bit of shooting luck, so it’s reasonable to expect their defense to revert back to about league average.
However, there’s nothing stopping them from having a top-ten offense (maybe even top-five!) and comfortably making the playoffs. I wouldn’t expect them to make it out of round 1 since the top of the East is stacked, but even so, New York finally seems to be competent.
And after years, of ineptitude, that’s a major win.
Kyrie and Luka: not BFFs?
The Mavs were 1-4 with Kyrie and Luka both playing before last night’s victory over the 76ers.
That’s obviously concerning, but a turnaround should be coming. Unsurprisingly, Dallas has been scintillating offensively when they share the court (127.9 offensive rating!!) and horrid defensively (118.7 defensive rating, 18th percentile).
That still results in a +9.2 net rating, though, and the Mavs are also dominating opposing teams even when they only have one of the two on the court (+3.4 with just Luka, and +13.8 with just Kyrie in a very small sample). Much of their struggles can be attributed to a lack of chemistry, as two games have ended with some sort of miscommunication.
On the bright side, there has already been a number of plays that have resulted in one of them being left wide open, which should only become more frequent as they develop better chemistry.
This is a good example of what the Kyrie/Luka duo is capable of. Kyrie can hit impossible shots, make quick decisions when the opponent doubles Luka, put early pressure on the lane (and Luka took a catch-and-shoot 3!) and he's got exceptional quickness and finishing ability. pic.twitter.com/x5yj51cLwj— Bobby Karalla (@bobbykaralla) February 24, 2023
Even with them posting historic offensive numbers together, I still worry that the Mavs could get too stagnant in crunch time. Neither Kyrie nor Luka moves much off-ball, and their entire offense could easily devolve into a my-turn, your-turn type of attack. To prevent this from happening, I wonder if Jason Kidd could implement plays where one screen for the other, akin to a guard-guard pick and roll. This would confuse opponents, especially given Luka’s size (6’7”) and the fact that both are lethal pick-and-roll ball handlers (Luka’s in the 91st percentile in points per possession while Kyrie’s in the 88th percentile).
The bigger question, of course, lies on defense. Dallas had a defensive rating of 115.6 (22nd) before the trade, and in the 8 games since, they’re at 118.7 (24th). It’s a small sample size, but one that isn’t surprising given that they lost a stopper in Dorian Finney-Smith and acquired a defensive negative in Kyrie.
Even more concerning is the fact that opponents have only shot 32.1% from three over those 8 games, the fourth-lowest mark league-wide. Similar to the Knicks, that’s an unsustainably low figure which is bound to increase, although Dallas’ opponent eFG% is right in line with its location eFG% (both rank 24th since the deadline).
In other words, the Mavs’ defense is right in line with expectations. Even so, there is one potential lineup that could provide some hope in their own end: Luka, Kyrie, Josh Green, Reggie Bullock, and Maxi Kleber. Outside of the two stars, the other three players are all reliable defenders who are decent from deep too, and the numbers back it up as well.
No data is available yet for that five-man combination due to Kleber just returning from injury, but when Luka has been on the court with the three aforementioned players, Dallas has a +13.5 net rating and a stingy 109.3 defensive rating (91st percentile). Those numbers only reflect 127 total possessions, but it’s an encouraging sign nonetheless.
With that said, I still don’t trust the Mavs’ defense enough to think they’re legitimate contenders. Dallas will inevitably start winning games as Kyrie and Luka become more comfortable playing together, but their lackluster supporting pieces will still prevent them from making a deep playoff run.
What’s up with all the scoring??
In case you haven’t heard, Dame recently dropped 71 in a single game.
And guess what? That’s not even the first 71-point game this season.
Oh, I’m not done yet. The Kings and Clippers also combined to score a whopping 351 points in a game that only went to double overtime.
All three things took place within less than two months.
So far, this year has been the highest-scoring season since the 60s, and it’s arguably been the great scoring season from an individual perspective. Currently, six players are averaging over 30 points per game (Luka, Embiid, Dame, Giannis, Shai, and Tatum), which is one more than the previous record of five in 1961-62 (Wilt, Walt Bellamy, Bob Pettit, Oscar Robertson, and Jerry West).
There are also 42 players averaging at least 20 points per game. To put that into perspective, only 9 players averaged that amount in 2012-13, and Carmelo lead the league in scoring with only 28.7 points — which would rank eighth this year.
One last thing: Houston currently owns the league’s worst offensive rating at 109.7. A decade ago, that mark would’ve been 7th and a whopping 3.9 points above the league average.
Seems like inflation is so strong that it even hits the NBA.
Naturally, this begs the question as to whether the scoring explosion is due to good offense or bad defense. As always, the answer lies somewhere in the middle, but I think it has more to do with the former.
The talent and skill level in the league are at an all-time high, which can largely be attributed to the three-point revolution. Most big men are now threats from deep, opening up the court to provide more space for other players to attack. Even without accounting for versatile bigs, some of the league’s best players are warping the court in ways no one could’ve predicted.
Case in point: Dame’s shot chart from his 71-point game.
In his 71-point performance last night versus Houston, Damian Lillard became the 1st player to make at least 400 feet worth of shots in a single game*— Kirk Goldsberry (@kirkgoldsberry) February 27, 2023
He made 420 feet worth of field goals.
*In the shot location era, since 1996-97 pic.twitter.com/DaTxMkbb3Q
A stat from Mitchell’s 71-point performance also highlights the insane skill level of today’s players: he not only scored 71, but also had 11 assists, creating a total of 99 points.
To think that Mitchell only created 5 fewer points than Wilt while scoring 29 fewer is mind-boggling. Sure, centers obviously don’t have the playmaking duties that guards do, but, umm, there’s also a big who’s currently averaging a triple-double while shooting 63% from the field.
In short, the league’s currently in a golden age of scoring, and there are no signs of that slowing down anytime soon. Given that sports are all about entertainment, it certainly seems like a win for fans, players, and the business as a whole.
This week, please check out Jacob’s article on the Spurs’ double stagger ball screens! Not enough attention is paid to specific plays, so having this level of analysis is certainly a pleasant surprise.
Thanks for reading!