December 16, 2021
It has been a wild two weeks in the NBA with several teams near the top of the standings hitting a wall offensively, a half dozen teams converging towards the league efficiency average one way or another, Stephen Curry breaking the all-time three-point record, and LeBron James catching fire. The league is deep with storylines to follow heading into a loaded Christmas Day slate.
The Bulls Are Back:
After making three major free agency acquisitions in DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball, and Alex Caruso, the Chicago Bulls entered the 2021-22 season with a revamped roster. The litany of splash moves, which began last season with a trade deadline deal for Nikola Vucevic, signaled that the Bulls were in win-now mode, but it wasn’t clear how quickly the new-look unit would be able to turn around a franchise that hadn’t won more than 31 games in 4 seasons. Two months into the season, the smoke has cleared: the Bulls are a legitimate contender in the Eastern Conference.
Chicago currently ranks 9th in offensive efficiency and 11th in defensive efficiency, driving them to a 17-10 start and placing them behind only the Brooklyn Nets in the Eastern Conference standings.
Part of the Bulls success so far can be attributed to their brilliance in the fourth quarter, spearheaded by the dynamic offensive duo of DeRozan and Zach LaVine. The Bulls are averaging 28.1 points in the fourth quarter, good for second in the league, and are shooting 49.1 % from the field, 39% from deep and 84% from the line, each of which ranks in the top-2 league-wide.
While they have been prolific in the first three quarters, LaVine and DeRozan have found another gear closing games this season. Both rank in the top 10 in points scored per game in the fourth quarter, with DeRozan leading the NBA at 7.7 per game. He is shooting an extraordinary 53% from the field, 45.5 % from 3, and 90.4 % from the line in the final 12 minutes, with LaVine not far off at 50/39/87 splits. Among high-usage players in the fourth, DeRozan and LaVine rank first and second in points per possession, averaging 1.19 and 1.16 respectively.
How the two are getting their fourth quarter buckets is noteworthy and may provide some insight into whether the Bulls are built for long-term success. The game tends to slow down considerably in the final frame, and close contests are often decided by which team’s “go-to” scorers can generate more offense individually. This can be especially true in the postseason. Out of the 36 players with more than 15 isolation possessions in the fourth, LaVine and DeRozan rank first and second in efficiency, scoring 1.30 and 1.27 points per possession respectively. The story is the same for pick and roll situations, where they both rank in the top 7 in points per possession as the ball handler. In other words, a fourth quarter formula of, “give the ball to Zach or DeMar and get out of the way” has been exceptionally effective.
DeRozan and LaVine taking over ♨️ pic.twitter.com/T8fBN1phnL
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) December 3, 2021
There are few players league-wide who can match the level of fourth quarter shot creation seen from either LaVine or DeRozan this year. Having one of those guys on your team is a luxury. Having two of them is game-changing and will position the Bulls for success moving forward if those numbers hold. Very few teams have two wing defenders they can rely on to shut down opposing shot creators, meaning one of LaVine or DeRozan is bound to have a matchup they can exploit one-on-one with the game on the line. Ironically, with two exceptional on-ball defenders in Ball and Caruso, the Bulls might be one of the only rosters built to contain their own star duo.
Unsung Bucks: Pat Connaughton and Grayson Allen
After suffering from a brief championship hangover, the Milwaukee Bucks have won 12 of their last 15 and resolidified their place as one of the league’s elite teams. The usual suspects are leading the charge. Giannis Antetokounmpo is putting together another dominant, MVP-level campaign, while Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday continue to have All-Star level impacts on both ends of the floor.
But two complimentary guards have also been key to the defending champs bounce back to form. One new addition in Grayson Allen, who the Bucks traded for over the summer, and one familiar face in Pat Connaughton, who has been with the team since 2018, are both having career years as they fill their roles alongside Milwaukee’s big three. Taking advantage of opportunities as Giannis and Middleton attract multiple defenders, both Allen and Connaughton are setting new career-bests averaging over 12 points per game and their efficiency has been equally impressive. Connaughton and Allen are averaging 1.23 and 1.17 points per possession respectively to rank 1st and 2nd in scoring efficiency among all complimentary guards with at least 250 possessions this season.
The shooting display the duo has put on through the first two months of the season has been nothing short of tremendous. Out of the 80 players who have attempted over 150 jump shots this season, Connaughton’s red-hot 63.7% effective field goal percentage is second only to Allen’s 64.3%. Both players spend most of their time on offense spotting up on the perimeter as Giannis, Middleton and Holiday attract the defense’s attention, so their consistency converting the quality looks created for them this season has been a major plus for the Bucks.
GA ➡️ GA is back & better than ever!! pic.twitter.com/S5t1GflWs4
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) December 14, 2021
Connaughton and Allen have become two of the most reliable shooters in the entire league and are making teams pay for helping off them. That duo has added another dimension to a team that was already loaded with offensive talent and on track to vie for their second championship in as many years.
Heating Up: Pistons Rookie Cade Cunningham
The 4-22 Detroit Pistons are in the midst of a rebuild and buried at the very bottom of the standings, but their success this season will not be defined by the wins and losses as much as it’ll be defined by the play and development of first overall pick Cade Cunningham. After a bumpy start, Cunningham is coming on strong to wrap up the second month of his NBA career, and is beginning to show signs of being the special player he was billed as coming off his lone season at Oklahoma State.
Over his last six games, Cunningham is averaging 22.7 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game. Compare that to his first 15 games over which he scored just 12.9 points per game, and it is not hard to see how far he seems to have come already. His recent scoring burst has him averaging 15.8 points per game on the season which leads all rookies. In his first 15 games, Cunningham averaged a dreadful 0.68 points per possession overall in the half court. Over the last six, that mark has skyrocketed to 1.04 per possession. That’s roughly the difference between ranking in the 5th and 74th percentiles in scoring efficiency.
What has stood out the most in this stretch is Cunningham’s scorching outside shooting. The Oklahoma State product is shooting 52.4% on 7 three-point attempts per game over his last six appearances. Over his first 15 games, Cunningham hit just 24.5% of his shots from deep on the same number of attempts. Touted for his potential as a primarily ball handler with size, Cunningham has actually been effective off the ball of late. When spotting up over the last six games, he’s scoring 1.86 points per-possession and shooting an astonishing 96.4% effective field goal percentage.
For a 20-year-old, Cunningham is a talented offensive player, with a smooth handle and an ability to get buckets in a variety of ways. His recent red-hot shooting has opened up the floor for the rest of that versatility to shine. Cunningham has been tough to cover one-on-one. He’s scoring 1.06 points per-possession going one-on-one over the last six games, a number that would rank in the top 10 among high volume iso scorers for the season.
28 PTS (career high)
6 3PM (career high@CadeCunningham_ becomes the first rookie since Steph Curry with at least 25 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists and 5 threes in a game! pic.twitter.com/aVxbnv4OiH
— NBA (@NBA) December 7, 2021
Time will tell if this recent hot stretch is indicative of what we will be seeing from Cunningham for the rest of the season. Inevitably his spot up efficiency will be due for a regression to the mean, but even so, his comfort level as the focal point of an NBA offense is clearly evolving. If the season ended today, the Rookie of the Year award would almost certainly go to Cavs forward Evan Mobley, but if the game continues to slow down for Cunningham, he has plenty of time to make up ground.
Steph Breaks the Record, but Will Anyone Catch Him?
Of course, the NBA story of the week, and perhaps of the entire first two months, came on Tuesday with Steph Curry breaking the all-time three-point record. He now has 2,977 career made threes in the regular season, four more than Ray Allen. While the celebration of Curry’s remarkable achievement should persist, any major milestone like this one always begs the question: will Curry ever be caught?
Because of Curry’s age at his NBA debut after three years at Davidson and the recent explosion in three-point attempts that is largely thanks to Curry’s influence, there are several current young stars who have a considerable head start on the 13-year veteran. However, the longevity of Curry’s brilliance is almost overwhelming, and he’s showing absolutely no signs of slowing down. Amazingly, his 5.4 made threes per game this year would be the highest mark of his historic career, and the reality is that it will take a definitively generational shooter to truly make a run at his record.
Two players “chasing” Curry, Jayson Tatum and Trae Young, poured in two of the top performances of the week, each scoring over 40 points. Tatum knocked down 7 triples and Young connected on 5, but they are going to need many, many more such games if they want to catch the now undisputed greatest shooter of all time.
Check out Synergy’s full breakdown of Curry’s record-breaking night here.