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Stats Geek Grab Bag – Vol. #1

Baseline Jammers – I wanted to start a new Stats Geek Grab Bag series each month of different stats & trends that I’m seeing that are eye-popping. With any great sports analytics, one should always verify these stats with an eye test, so let me make a disclaimer upfront that some of these statistical findings may be ones that I haven’t actually been able to observe firsthand (but definitely plan to keep an eye on moving forward).

The 5 stat findings that I want to present to you in this post are:

  1. Boston Celtics – All-time offensive juggernauts led by ridiculous catch & shoot 3PT shooting
  2. Joel Embiid – One of the best mid-range shooting centers ever?
  3. DeMar DeRozan – The king of the iso
  4. SGA – Thrives on drives
  5. Steph Curry – All-time best P&R performance in a season

1. Boston Celtics – All-time offensive juggernauts led by ridiculous catch & shoot 3PT shooting

We know that the NBA offensive ratings have been increasingly more explosive every year. However, the Boston Celtics are on track for the HIGHEST offensive rating in an NBA season EVER. The Boston Celtics’ current offensive rating is 119.9 (at the time of writing).

To put this in perspective, here are the team leaders in offensive ratings over the past 5 seasons:

2021 – 2022Utah Jazz (116.2)
2020 – 2021Brooklyn Nets (117.3)
2019 – 2020Dallas Mavericks (115.9)
2018 – 2019Golden State Warriors (115.0)
2017 – 2018Golden State Warriors (114.1)
Leaders in Off. Rating in prior 5 seasons

So, how are the Boston Celtics doing this well? To begin, the Celtics are currently leading the league in 3-point shooting at an unprecedented 40% shooting from the 3. In the past 5 seasons, only one team has surpassed 40% shooting from the 3s, which are the LA Clippers in the 2020 – 2021 season at very similar volumes (The Celtics currently make 16.4 3s a game while the Clippers that season made 16.7 3s a game).

To further emphasize the great shooting, the Celtics currently have 3 of the top 10 catch & shoot shooters (italicized) in the NBA right now in regards to points per possession:

PlayerCatch & Shoot PossessionsPoints per PossessionCatch & Shoot 3PT%
Steph Curry2.71.6343.0%
Dean Wade3.21.5945.2%
Kevin Huerter3.31.5145.1%
Grant Williams3.71.4444.9%
Christian Wood2.81.4354.1%
Al Horford3.61.4247.2%
Kyle Lowry3.11.4039.7%
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope3.51.4054.9%
Darius Garland3.31.4059.5%
Derrick White3.21.3843.3%
Top 10 NBA Catch & Shoot, ranked by points per possession (>2.5 possessions / game)

As if that’s not impressive enough, the Celtics currently have 6 players (!!) that are shooting above 40% on catch & shoot 3PT%: Sam Hauser, Al Horford, Grant Williams, Derrick White, Malcolm Brogdon, and Payton Pritchard. They almost have a 7th in Jayson Tatum (39.8%).

In comparison, I’ve looked back at teams with the best 3PT % in the prior 5 seasons and looked at how many of them had > 40% catch & shoot 3PT shooters (excluding those playing < 41 games & shooting < 1 3PA / gm) and here’s what I’ve found:

YearTeam3PT% # of > 40% 3PT Catch & Shoot Shooters
2021-22Miami Heat37.9%4 (Tyler Herro, Max Strus, P.J. Tucker, Caleb Martin)
2020-21LA Clippers41.1%7 (Marcus Morris, Kawhi Leonard, Reggie Jackson, Luke Kennard, Paul George, Terance Mann, Nicolas Batum)
2019-20Utah Jazz38.0%5 (Joe Ingles, Donovan Mitchell, Bojan Bogdanovic, Mike Conley, Georges Niang)
2018-19San Antonio Spurs39.2%4 (Dante Cunningham, Bryn Forbes, Davis Bertans, Patty Mills)
2017-18Golden State Warriors39.1%3 (Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Steph Curry)
# of >40% 3PT Catch & Shooters on Leading 3PT% Teams over Prior 5 Seasons

How are they unlocking this 3-point barrage? Just ask Sam Hauser, who comes off of a down screen to score this beautiful 3-point shot:

The Celtics are currently 4th in the league in screen assist points at 23.9 screen assist points / game (the Warriors, at 28.1, and the Grizzlies & Hawks, at 24.6 are currently ahead). But it’s the stark year-over-year jump that Celtics has made that impresses me. Last year, the Celtics had 19.4 screen assist points / game (12th worst in the league).

But it’s not even using the screens to free up 3s that is getting Boston pacing to a record-breaking offensive rating — it’s how they also develop counters to those with these shooters learning how to read the screens properly. In the same game, Marcus Smart sets a similar screen like Grant Williams did up top where Sam Hauser looks like he’s about to make the same movement to free himself for the shot; however, he sees that his defender is a half-step ahead of him and tries to jump the screen, so he tactically uses his left arm to lock & push Saddiq Bey and swim moves / cuts to the lane for an easy layup. This is prime Golden State Warriors offense-stuff that we’re saying but seemingly with deeper, more lethal role players:

2. Joel Embiid – One of the best mid-range shooting centers ever?

Flipping over to the other end of the classic BOS-PHI rivalry, let’s chat about Joel Embiid. One of my best friends is a diehard Sixers fan, and I get into it with him on a yearly basis about how Embiid gets most of his points from an outrageous amount of calls. His argument back is that he’ll position himself in strategic areas where he’ll place the defender to easily foul e.g., Embiid’s face-up from the midrange and then the rip-through. It did have me curious about what makes Embiid such a lethal face-up player that allows him to get these KD / CP3-esque rip-through fouls.

So, I dove into mid-range shooting splits and specifically looked at the top mid-range FG% shooters in the NBA today, and sure enough Embiid was there to lead the charge as shown (excluding players playing < 10 games and shooting < 4 FGA from the mid-range):

PlayerMid-range FGA / gameFG%
Joel Embiid5.653.7%
DeMar DeRozan9.852.9%
Kevin Durant6.951.0%
Bradley Beal4.150.9%
Jamal Murray4.350.0%
Cade Cunningham4.748.2%
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander4.246.3%
Devin Booker6.146.1%
CJ McCollum4.445.9%
Paul George4.644.6%
Top 10 midrange shooters by FG%

How wild is it that in a pick & roll (mostly defended by drop coverage) dominated league & out of all these great shooting guards & wings that a center is leading the league in field goal efficiency?

Here’s what’s crazier — there’s been a case for Embiid putting up MVP numbers the past 2 seasons. However, if you look back to his past 5 years, he has not shot the mid-range like this, EVER:

Obviously, the sample size is relatively small — not only is Joel currently on pace for his personal best mid-range shooting season of his career, but he’s also on pace for one of the best mid-range shooting seasons by a big EVER. If you look at the below of the leaders in mid-range FG% in the prior 10 seasons (excluding < 41 games played and < 3 FGA from the mid-range), only LaMarcus Aldridge [crazy given how old he was last season] has shot better from the mid-range:

Leading mid-range FG% playerSeasonMid-range FGA / gameFG%
LaMarcus Aldridge2021-224.455.8%
Nikola Jokic2020-213.351.5%
Nikola Jokic2019-203.145.6%
Serge Ibaka2018-193.049.1%
Myles Turner2017-183.648.1%
Pau Gasol2016-173.345.3%
Jason Smith2015-164.948.3%
Al Horford2014-155.648.4%
Brook Lopez2013-144.150.0%
Serge Ibaka2012-134.050.8%
Top mid-range FG% by season in prior 10 years

Assuming Embiid can keep this pace up, he will add to his resume of not only as the most physically dominating bigs in league history, but he’ll also be one of the most skilled.

3. DeMar DeRozan – king of the iso

I’ll admit: one of the reasons I looked into those mid-range shooting splits above is because I was trying to do some statistical analytics homework on DeMar prior to OKC playing the Bulls recently. I knew that DeMar has terrorized defenders from the mid-range for a lengthy period of his career but what I found was rather shocking. Guess which player has been leading the league in points per possession in isolation scenarios for the past 3 (!!) seasons?

That’s right, it’s DeMar DeRozan. Take a look at this season’s top isolation players (excluding players with < 10 games played and < 2 iso possessions / game):

Player# of Isolation possessions / gamePoints per possessionFG%
DeMar DeRozan3.81.2756.3%
Kyrie Irving3.31.2555.9%
Zion Williamson2.61.2459.3%
Spencer Dinwiddie4.41.2054.4%
Anfernee Simons3.21.1751.2%
Jimmy Butler2.81.1745.8%
James Harden7.61.1643.6%
Kevin Durant5.21.1251.2%
LeBron James3.81.1145.2%
Damian Lillard5.31.0952.4%
Top 10 Isolation players in 2022-23 season, ranked by points per possession

You’ll note that only Zion is ahead of DeMar from a FG% standpoint, but what makes DeMar impressive is that in most of his isolations, I saw him take tough, contested mid-range shots (over one of the best perimeter defenders in Lu Dort) nonetheless.

And like Embiid, DeMar is also on pace to set a personal record-setting year in regards to isolation efficiency:

It’s been insane to watch because DeMar consistently makes me say “what a bad shot selection” every time I watch him but the insane thing is that he’s just a tough bucket-getter. He will primarily uses his footwork; his leaping athleticism to shoot over defenders (bolstered by a high release point); and acrobatic double-clutching abilities to sink his midrange iso shots, like this clutch bucket he got over Lu Dort in overtime.

As someone who lives in Chicago, I consistently root for this guy because it’s also fun to see him go against the grain of modern NBA shot selection principles.

4. SGA – thrives on drives

This is the topic that I can probably provide the best eye-test qualitative commentary for. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is on pace for a MVP-worthy season (won’t win it due to lack of team wins) and an all-NBA type season. He’s averaging 31.1 pts / game; 6.2 assists / game; 4.8 rebs / game ; 1.7 stls / game; and finally 1.3 blocks / game.

His scoring has been primarily composed of his driving and mid-range pullup abilities. He leads the league in drives per game, including points on drives per game, as shown below:

Player# of drives / gamePoints on drives / gamePoints / drive
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander25.116.40.65
Ja Morant22.516.00.71
Luka Doncic21.615.30.71
Jalen Brunson18.212.20.67
Trae Young17.611.10.63
Top 5 players in # of drives / game, 2022-2023 season

I personally think SGA made a significant improvement in his driving game last season, where he was averaging 13.9 points on drives / game on 23.9 drives per game. He jumped from 0.52 points / drive in driving efficiency to 0.58 points / drive in driving efficiency last season. You may be wondering, “well what about that 0.61 points / drive efficiency?” but that was the year when OKC had CP3 / Gallo / Schroeder to stretch the floor and make drives easier for SGA. Ever since OKC started their tanking process, teams have nearly always thrown doubles at Shai on drives and sometimes even triples.

Season# of drives / gamePoints on drives / gamePoints / drive
2021-2223.913.90.58
2020-2125.213.10.52
2019-2016.410.00.61
2018-1910.45.10.49
SGA drive statistics by season

So why do I think his driving game improved last season and we’re seeing continued improvement this season?

The answer is SGA’s left-handed finishing has gotten really good (i’d almost venture to say that he has one of the best off-handed finishing capability in today’s game). As mentioned in the prior paragraph, check out how SGA weaves through 4 (!!) defenders here (from being checked at Van Fleet on the 3 pt level, to OG on the midrange, and finally finishing with his left hand on a much taller Boucher & Hernangomez at the rim):

Obviously, when the defense respects the drive like this, SGA will also be freed up for some mid-range shots. That’s also been a massive improvement for SGA this year. From tracking data, in 2021-22 SGA shot 47.1% from the field on 10-14 ft midrange shots on ~2 attempts a game. This year, he’s shooting a significantly higher 56% from the field on ~4.5 attempts a game.

What sucks for SGA is the lack of spacing & shooting to help him reach that next level as a finisher and playmaker. Even in the clip above, you’ll see Tre Mann and Dort are all possible kick-outs for SGA for a potential 3. But, the Thunder is the 9th worst 3PT shooting team in the league. Not only that, but the Thunder has the 5th worst assist % ratio in the league.

To paint the picture better: the Thunder are #1 in the league in points in the paint at 56.8 points / game, mainly catalyzed by Shai’s driving capability [for those that don’t watch the Thunder, our offense is primarily drive heavy as we are #1 in the league in drives, all 5 players on the court are typically playmakers / connectors always looking for cuts, and finally, we get a ton of points in fast break off turnovers]. The Pelicans are not that far off at 54.7 points / game (their offense isn’t so drive heavy but I’d argue it’s more post-up heavy as it leads the league in post-ups per game). The Pelicans assist ratio is 62.8% while the Thunder’s is 56.4%. If the Thunder can get their assist ratio closer to the Pelicans, they may have an offensive rating similar to NOLA at 115 which is the 5th best in the league.

It has the capability to do so as the Thunder averages 46.9 potential assists per game, which is the 10th highest in the league. This disparity between # of assists / game to potential assists / game is one that can only be rectified by better shooting (we’re also not gun-shy with the 3 as we are the 10th highest shooting 3pt team in the league with the 9th worst overall 3PT % in the league). Thankfully, the Thunder hired one of the best shooting coaches in the NBA in Chip Engelland but it needs to be a serious focus point for Sam Presti moving forward.

5. Steph Curry – All-time best P&R performance in a season

Imagine my surprise when I’m looking at SGA’s PPG stats and notice that Steph is slightly ahead of Shai as the 3rd leading scorer in the league. One of the key factors in helping Steph reach his 2nd highest scoring average in his career at the age of 34 is his pick & roll play. Steph runs the p&r as the ball handler about 30% of the time he has the ball and is the most efficient at scoring with it in the league this season from a points per possession perspective:

PlayerP&R PossessionsFrequency %Points per Possession
Steph Curry7.429.5%1.28
Giannis Antentokounmpo3.310.7%1.21
Donovan Mitchell10.840.3%1.17
DeMar DeRozan9.641.1%1.14
Kevin Durant3.413.2%1.13
Desmond Bane4.319.7%1.10
Brandon Ingram5.024.6%1.09
Spencer Dinwiddie3.019.2%1.09
Jaylen Brown3.715.2%1.08
Luka Doncic9.731.7%1.07
Top P&R Players from Points per Possession, 2022-2023 Season

How does Steph’s 1.28 points per possession per pick & roll play hold up to his historic past seasons? Well, it’s the most efficient by a long shot:

SeasonP&R PossessionsP&R Points per PossessionPoints scored on P&R / game
MVP season2015-166.71.117.4
2016-176.10.925.7
2017-185.81.136.6
2018-195.11.025.2
Did not play2019-20
2020-217.61.138.6
2021-226.51.026.7
2022-237.41.289.0
Steph P&R Efficiency, Prior 8 Seasons

Steph is having to do a lot more as a scorer this season and is doing at an unprecedented efficiency. In the past 8 years since NBA tracking data started, the highest points per possession (excluding players playing < 41 games and < 3 P&R possessions / game) on pick & rolls has been Dame Lillard at 1.15. Finishing the season at 1.28 would truly be absurd.

How is Steph doing this?

(1) His midrange shooting has been massively improved. In the season where he had 1.13 points per possession (2020-21), Steph’s midrange FG% was only 43.5% from the 15 – 19ft range (that’s the free throw line and above). This season, his FG% from that zone is 52.0% at the same clip — admittedly low. But his finishing in that area has gotten very clever as shown here where Steph is able to pick the soft spot due to Gobert dropping a bit too low and pick up an and-one play off running Rivers into his body:

(2) His finishing around the rim is at an insane efficiency rate. In that season where he had 1.13 points per possession on P&R (2020-21), Steph finished at 62.4% on shots less than 5ft at ~4.7 attempts per game. This season he’s shooting 75.3% (!!) on those same shots at relatively the same rate (~4.1 attempts per game). When I used to watch Steph play in the past, I felt like he often had a hard time finishing going at the big man, and a much better chance finishing with his floaters. This season, I’ve seen his finishing capabilities look great against bigs, including this one where he drives at Jarrett Allen’s body (one of the best defenders in today’s NBA) and finish this tough lefty layup after taking a high Kevon Looney screen from the 3:

What a wild season we are seeing from Steph and I hope that the remaining cast can up their play to help Steph defend their title — at the time of writing, it looks like Klay has been improving day by day as well (great to see!)

I hope you enjoyed this series of random stats geek grab bag. I’m going to try to make this a monthly thing — thanks for taking the time to read!

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