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The Most Interesting Changes of the NBA Season So Far

It’s hard to glean much from the first two weeks of games, when numbers swing more wildly than Karl-Anthony Towns on Joel Embiid, but major style shifts by the Rockets, Grizzlies, Timberwolves, and more are here to stay

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Early November is a strange time for NBA analysis. After months of prologue, real games have started, and everyone is eager to learn how the dynamics of the league have changed since June. At the same time, two weeks of action provides such a small sample of information that many early conclusions end up looking foolish days later, let alone by the postseason.

Mini losing streaks are normal—every NBA team lost consecutive games last season—but move that bad week up to the start of the season and it’s all of a sudden reason for panic. Short of a Steph Curry injury or truly drastic divergence from expectation, à la the Suns in the positive direction or Kings in the negative, it’s too soon to meaningfully change the preseason expectations of a team’s outlook. And that maxim is especially true for players, for whom a single hot or cold shooting stretch can wildly swing statistics.

But there is valuable information to unearth on teams’ stylistic changes. Figures like pace and 3-point attempt rate—the percentage of a team’s shots that come from beyond the arc—are useful even this early because they reflect how a team seeks to play instead of whether that plan is successful. So with that idea in mind, here are a handful of teams whose early numbers offer new clues about how the rest of the season will unfold.

Houston Rockets

Russell Westbrook arrived in Houston mashing the turbo button, as usual, and the Rockets have followed suit. After ranking 27th in pace last season, with James Harden’s undeniably effective isolation play routinely grinding the gears of Houston’s offense to a halt, the Rockets are zooming up the court on every possession. They now rank first in pace, with an average of 109.2 possessions per 48 minutes—more than 10 extra possessions than they averaged last season.

The whole league is playing faster than before—the average team in 2019-20 is using an extra 2.6 possessions per game compared with last season—but the Rockets have boosted their pace more than any other team. This change doesn’t merely reflect an increased emphasis on transition play. The Rockets lead the league in shortest possession time after a made basket, at 14.3 seconds on average; no other team in Inpredictable’s database, which dates back to the 1996-97 season, has gone below 15 seconds in this stat.

Westbrook strikes so quickly, trying to catch the defense before it sets, that in an example like this clip, the TV broadcast can’t even switch to the proper camera angle before he’s already in the lane and dishing to Clint Capela for a dunk.

The Rockets’ pace gains are not, to be clear, the result of one anomalous 159-158 game against the Wizards. Westbrook tries this tactic multiple times every night, injecting a new element to the Houston offense.

It’s difficult to know what to make of Houston’s start, results-wise. The Rockets lead the league in offensive rating but rank 29th on defense. Again, these numbers are noisy—the Wizards game monstrosity skews things—yet the fact that the Rockets boast the top offense even with Harden shooting 20 percent on 3s is cautious evidence that the new offensive approach works. When Harden rests, the Rockets still score 109.4 points per 100 possessions, which would by itself be a top-five mark.

Two caveats arise in interpreting the Rockets’ warp-speed start. The first goes for every team, not just Houston: Early-season pace is typically about one to two possessions higher than the eventual season-long average. So Houston should slow a bit—though if every team follows suit, the Rockets would still rank near the top of the league.

The second is that Houston isn’t playing at a league-high pace in all situations. Notably, they’re doing so only when Westbrook is in the game. When Harden plays without Westbrook, the Rockets are still moving somewhat faster than they did last season, but not outrageously so.

Houston’s Stylistic Differences by Star Presence

Lineup Pace Points per 100 Possessions
Lineup Pace Points per 100 Possessions
Westbrook and Harden 114.1 113.5
Westbrook, no Harden 116.0 109.4
Harden, no Westbrook 105.7 114.5

Among 161 players averaging at least 24 minutes (or half of each game), Westbrook ranks first in individual pace. Houston’s system has certainly changed the iconoclastic guard, who is shooting midrange jumpers at a career-low rate, but Westbrook has changed Houston’s system, too.

Minnesota Timberwolves

What a transformation for the Timberwolves, who have parlayed Karl-Anthony Towns’s superstar ascendance into a 4-1 start and are a half-game behind the Lakers for the top spot in the Western Conference. It’s too early to know whether the Wolves are a real playoff contender; notably, they haven’t played a single game against a Western opponent yet. But what is real is a sharp stylistic adjustment in Ryan Saunders’s first full year as coach.

Last season, the Wolves ranked 13th in pace and 26th in 3PAr; this season, they’re second and fifth, respectively. No team has boosted its 3PAr by more than Minnesota, which is now taking 43 percent of its shots from beyond the arc. Besides the Rockets, no team has ever been so 3-point-dependent over a full season.

Unlike pace, early-season 3PAr gains don’t tend to falter as the season progresses. Over the last decade, the average difference between a given team’s first-five-games 3PAr and its full-season 3PAr is just 0.5 percentage points—so the former is incredibly predictive. Minnesota’s new offense is just middle-of-the-pack at the moment, but its 3-point evolution is likely to stay.

And why wouldn’t it, when Towns—the most accurate 7-footer in NBA history—is the fulcrum of the offense? The Minnesota center is taking 8.5 3s per game, which ranks 11th among all players; the 10 in front of him are all guards. Better still, Towns is making more than 50 percent of his 3s.

Even when Towns’s accuracy falls back to its typical 40 percent range, his threatening presence behind the line still warps defenses to make his teammates’ lives easier. And pulling Towns toward the perimeter doesn’t prevent him from scoring near the basket, too: He ranks third in post touches per game.

A shot distribution change of the Wolves’ magnitude is not the result of just one player. Notably, Andrew Wiggins—who is somehow taking more shots per game than Towns—has shifted many of his clanky midrange jumpers beyond the arc, and the former no. 1 pick is taking 6.4 3s per game. The clanks, unfortunately, have shifted beyond the arc with him, as Wiggins is making just 28 percent of his long-range attempts—but, hey, even 28 percent on a 3 is better than 33 percent on a long 2, which is where Wiggins has lived for most of his career.

Memphis Grizzlies

A new era has officially arrived in Memphis, and the new Grizz don’t look at all like their predecessors. Marc Gasol is gone. Mike Conley Jr. is gone. The Grizzlies’ oldest active player is Jae Crowder, who turned 29 over the summer. (Maybe that’s why 35-year-old Andre Iguodala is so eager to move to another team; he’s all alone in middle age.) Of the top six Grizzlies in minutes played, Crowder is the only one currently older than 23.

Pace and speed aren’t perfect correlates—the Rockets lead the league in pace with the second-oldest team—but in Memphis’s case, it’s not difficult to spot a relationship between new roster and new style.

Memphis ranks third in pace this season behind only Houston and Minnesota, and the new flow affords the young Grizzlies ample opportunity to learn NBA tendencies. No. 2 pick Ja Morant ranks second among rookies in points per game and first in assists, and fellow rookie Brandon Clarke has impressed as well, offering Memphis a glimpse at a potential frontcourt of the future alongside sophomore Jaren Jackson Jr.

With these various levels of projection, Memphis increasingly resembles last season’s Hawks, with Morant in the Trae Young role as a rookie point guard leading a vibrant young lineup. Atlanta finished 29-53 last season, and the 1-4 Grizzlies don’t look as though they’ll be more successful; their offense and net ratings both rank 29th because a fast offense doesn’t necessarily make for an efficient offense. But the Hawks and Young were similarly dreadful to start last season, and like Atlanta now, Memphis’s hope is to blossom from League Pass darling to fringe playoff contender as its inexperienced talent coalesces into a promising core.

Milwaukee Bucks

Only the Rockets—of course—have taken a higher proportion of their shots from 3-point range this season than the Bucks. In coach Mike Budenholzer’s second season, nearly half of all Milwaukee shots are 3s.

On its own, that data point would seem to be an analytical positive. But the Bucks haven’t added to their 3-point totals by excising the least efficient shots—instead, they’ve cannibalized layups to take more 3s. Last season, the Bucks ranked second in percentage of shots from within 3 feet; this season, they’re 29th.

Percentage of Bucks Shots by Court Area

Court Area 2018-19 2019-20
Court Area 2018-19 2019-20
0-3 Feet 34.0% 23.7%
In Between 24.1% 27.5%
3-Point Range 41.9% 48.8%

One main culprit in this altered distribution is the departure of free-agent guard Malcolm Brogdon, who has always been a sneakily potent at-rim presence with 43 percent of his career shots coming within 3 feet. The Bucks essentially began the season by giving Brogdon’s minutes to a combination of Wesley Matthews and Kyle Korver—who have taken 73 and 83 percent of their respective shots from beyond the arc, and only 15 and 7 percent of their shots at the rim.

Without Brogdon, only Giannis Antetokounmpo and Eric Bledsoe are reasonable threats to penetrate the lane. Giannis, of course, is the league’s premier inside presence: Last season, he led the second-place finisher in at-rim makes (Andre Drummond) by more than 100 and recorded the second most in any season in the NBA.com/Stats archive. As long as he’s on the court, the Bucks won’t completely lack for dunks.

But the tenor of the Bucks offense has seemed to shift. They rank in the bottom half of the league in drives per game after placing seventh last season; instead of aiming for the basket and kicking out to a shooter if the defense collapses, they seem geared toward generating 3-point looks as a first option.

At the moment, Milwaukee isn’t suffering for the new arrangement. The Bucks lead the league in effective field goal percentage and rank fourth in offensive rating. But if they’re not getting to the basket or the free throw line, the margins are just a bit tighter against a prepared, athletic defense. Can the Bucks score enough points against, say, the 76ers without the kind of easy buckets they managed for so much of last season?

Hawks, Kings, Clippers, Nuggets, Jazz, Clippers, and Lakers

We’ll finish with a unique group. Because pace is higher at the start of the season, 24 of 30 teams have played faster than last season so far. These are the six teams that have slowed down.

Teams With Decreased Pace in 2019-20

Team 2018-19 Pace 2019-20 Pace Change 2019-20 Rank
Team 2018-19 Pace 2019-20 Pace Change 2019-20 Rank
Clippers 102.66 101.67 -0.99 18
Nuggets 98.49 96.98 -1.51 30
Jazz 100.84 98.67 -2.17 29
Lakers 103.60 101.09 -2.51 24
Hawks 104.56 101.20 -3.36 23
Kings 103.88 100.42 -3.46 26

The Hawks and Kings are in similar positions—both young, exciting teams last season, they ranked first and third, respectively, in pace. It’s hard to read too much into Atlanta’s decline this season because Trae Young has missed a game and a half, while Sacramento’s slowdown is more the result of defensive struggles than any change in offensive philosophy. The Kings have started 58 percent of their possessions after a made shot from the opposition, one of the worst marks in the league, and after leading the league in transition plays last season, they rank just 16th so far, per Cleaning the Glass.

The other four teams, meanwhile, are all top-tier Western Conference contenders; FiveThirtyEight’s top five Western teams in projected record includes this quartet plus the Rockets. The Lakers in particular stand out here: With a slow pace and one of the best defenses in the league, they have adopted a sort of Jazzian ethos. That might be all they need to win, given that LeBron James and Anthony Davis supply the offensive firepower that Utah has always lacked in its current iteration.

It’s fascinating to anticipate how a more methodical approach from so many top Western teams might manifest in the playoffs. There have been three games between any combination of this quartet this season: Clippers vs. Lakers on opening night, Lakers vs. Jazz, and Jazz vs. Clippers. While Basketball-Reference doesn’t provide pace numbers for individual games, if we calculate an estimated rate—free throw attempts divided by two, plus field-goal attempts, plus turnovers—we find that these three each rank in the bottom 10 of all games in pace so far.

So even as the league plays faster, the pace might slow again in the postseason—not just because it almost always does so in the playoffs, but because of the very teams that are likely to play deep into the spring. Unless, of course, the Rockets are involved.

Stats through Saturday’s games; records through Sunday.