After writing about Phoenix’s consistency two weeks ago, they have gone from first to fifth in the Western Conference, going 2-6.
Sorry Suns fans.
The good news is that we now have a reason to get back to talking about the pelicans, which are now second in line in the west. Zion in particular is starting to regain the form of two years ago and could be even better now given his improvements in defense.
Don’t look now, but a legitimate MVP candidate could emerge from the Big Easy.
Attention world, Zion is back!
For someone who hadn’t played an NBA game in over a year and a half, Zion looked remarkably good returning to the court this season.
However, he hasn’t quite reached the level of his 2020-21 season…until a few weeks ago.
For the month of December, Zion averages 30 points, 9.2 rebounds and 4.8 rebounds while shooting a cool 65% out of the area. More importantly, he’s playing the best defense of his career (which we’ve already discussed), which has translated into team success as well – the Pelicans currently have the sixth best defense rating overall (110.4).
That being said, New Orleans is quite lucky with opponents struggling against them with three (34.2%, third lowest league width), especially considering they concede the third most tries (38.7% of their shots come from beyond the arc), meaning their defense will likely see a drop at some point.
On the other hand, the Pelicans can also improve their sixth rank in attack (116 Offense Stat), and unsurprisingly it all starts with Zion. One of the most efficient goalscorers in the league, the 22-year-old doesn’t shoot as much as one would expect. For the season, Zion has averaged just 16.1 field goal attempts per game, which ranks 43rd in the league and behind the likes of Kelly Oubre Jr., Dillon Brooks and his own teammate CJ McCollum.
Of these players, Zion ranked first in field goal percentage (60.3%), first in effective field goal percentage (61.1%), and third in true shooting (64.7%). ), behind only Kevin Durant (66.6%) and Anthony Davis (66.1%).
Fortunately, the Pelicans seem to have realized that their best way forward is to lead the offensive through Zion. His field goal attempts are up from 14.3 in November to 17.9 in December while CJs are down from 17.2 to 16.4, but an even more important aspect of New Orleans’ offense is the types of games they run.
One of the biggest discoveries of Zion’s last healthy season was turning him into a point forward with lots of ball-handling duties. The number of pick and rolls he performed that year increased significantly over the course of the season, and he finished the campaign averaging 3.2 pick and rolls per game as a ball handler while scoring .99 points on those possessions , who ranked in the 79th percentile.
This year, he’s down to 2.5 such possessions per game, but still scores an efficient 1.00 point per possession (82nd percentile). Zion’s rep counts as a P&R ball handler have been steadily increasing since the beginning of the year, and he particularly loves executing big-big plays with Larry Nance Jr., as it often forces a sluggish center on him, creating a mismatch.
For reference, other point forwards like Pascal Siakam and Paolo Banchero are averaging 4.8 and 5.6 pick and roll possessions per game as ball handlers, which is the volume Zion should be getting. With CJ and Brandon Ingram also on the team, it may not be possible for him to get the number of touches he probably deserves.
Nonetheless, the use of Zion has steadily increased. Even if New Orleans’ defense takes a slight dip, they could very well improve their already elite offense.
As a result, this Pelicans team isn’t just a cute sleeper to pull off a surprise or two.
They are legitimate finalists.
The nets are looking good…for now
Boy, if the NBA wanted to start a reality TV show about an organization, they wouldn’t have to look further than Brooklyn.
However, since Jacque Vaughn took office, the Nets actually look like a pro 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 Jacques Vaughn
15-7 record, +4.4 net rating (4th), 114.6 offensive rating (11th), 110.2 defensive rating (6th)
The biggest difference was obviously Brooklyn’s defensive improvement, which was partly fueled by luck and partly by good play. Despite the coaching change, the Nets’ effective field goal percentage has remained the same at 54.9%. However, Brooklyn’s actual defensive eFG% has increased from 55.1% (2nd) under Nash to 51.4% (2nd) under Vaughn.
In other words, opponents shot an unsustainably high percentage when Nash was still a coach, but that’s how it seems overcorrected itself since Vaughn took over. With that in mind, I think Brooklyn’s recent defensive play is indicative of their level of talent much more than their performance earlier in the year.
Consider this: Under Nash, opponents shot around the edge 66.3% (21st), a number that’s dropped to just 59.9% (1st!) with Vaughn at the top. That latter number is probably unsustainable, but the Nets 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 kept players around the basket at just 51.2% (-11.3% difference from their usual conversion rate), while KD is 53% (-9.7% difference). They’re both extremely versatile too, and Claxton has blossomed into one of the most underrated defenders in the game.
Nic Claxton is third in the league for blocks per game (2.2) and has a massive impact on defense with his switchability.
It doesn’t feel like he’s getting enough credit for how great he’s been at this end of the stage beyond Nets fans this season. pic.twitter.com/9aOedToog6
— Jac Manual (@JacManual) December 15, 2022
Surprisingly, the underlying numbers for Brooklyn’s offense suggest they’re due for a regression, despite only having an 11th offensive rating (114.5) so far. The Nets’ location eFG% has actually dropped after Vaughn took over, from 54.1% (23rd) to 53.3% (29th).
This is because Brooklyn lives in midfield as they take 35.3% of all shots from there (fifth highest percentage) and barely get to the edge (53.5 rate of fire, 29th). Of course, those numbers don’t take into account that the Nets have Kevin Durant, who has the highest shooting percentage of two of his careers at an ungodly 62.9%, and his 66.6% true shooting is also a career high.
Will his two-point conversion rate go down? Probably – he’s only shot above 60% once so far, and that was when he had a guy named Wardell Curry who drew opponents’ attention like a black hole. However, any drop is likely to be offset by an increase in three-point ratio: KD is currently shooting just 34.6% from beyond the arc, the lowest mark since his rookie season, while also scoring the fewest long shots (4.8a game) in a decade.
In short, KD is perfectly capable of maintaining their current MVP level of play, even if some of their percentages drop slightly. So the Nets can still be a borderline top-ten offensive team that will consistently surpass their expected field goal numbers given their stars’ absurd shooting skills.
They’re running a little too hot defensively, but there’s no reason Brooklyn can’t be above average provided everyone is brought in and healthy. In that case, the Nets could still be a dangerous team and join the Cavs and Sixers in the second tier of contenders in the east.
That’s a huge one ifand the only thing we 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 to move forward.
Be sure to check out Noah’s film study of Devin Vassell this week! He also does great work on his YouTube channel so don’t forget to check that out too.
Thanks for reading and have a Merry Christmas!
All stats courtesy of cleaning the glass and NBA Stats.