December 2, 2021
A little parity can go a long way in the NBA. The league landscape has started to sort itself out in some small ways through the first quarter of the season, but its defining characteristic at this point is the cluster of teams playing to a near-even efficiency differential. Scoring efficiency may be down, but the rise in the number of teams playing competitive basketball and holding onto playoff aspirations has made this season feel very compelling. After offensive performance wound up being the key separator across the league by the end of the regular season last year, the scoring bubble bursting seems to have opened up a few seats at the table for young teams forming identities on the defensive end.
While the middle of the standings could not be much more fluid as a result, there is some clarity at the top of both conferences. The Brooklyn Nets, Utah Jazz, Golden State Warriors, and Phoenix Suns have built a small cushion above the fray. While that cushion is going a longer way in the Western Conference than in the East, those four teams have been the gold standard through the first month, making the latter two teams’ matchup on Tuesday a particularly fitting conclusion to November.
The Suns’ Perfect Month
The Suns ultimately defeated the Warriors 104-96 on Tuesday to extend their winning streak to 17. Their last loss came on October 27th, meaning they went undefeated in November. Phoenix is now just the 7th team in NBA history to go 16-0 or better in a single calendar month.
The Suns’ offense was virtually unstoppable over that stretch as they scored a league-best 114.4 points per game while shooting 48.8% from the field. The Suns averaged 1.04 points per-possession in the month of November, which would lead the NBA for the entire season. The Suns attack is truly dynamic as they can play at different paces, punish defenses at all three levels, and go back and forth putting the ball in the hands of two of the game’s elite creators in Chris Paul and Devin Booker.
The starting five of Paul, Booker, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder and Deandre Ayton checks a lot of boxes on the offensive end. They operate primarily through pick and rolls with Paul or Booker handling, Ayton setting the screen and Crowder and Bridges spotting up along the three-point line. In November, with the starting unit on the floor, the Suns scored 1.08 points per-possession generated via pick and roll. Over their 16 wins, Ayton became a force within his role shooting 74% from the field as the roll man, Crowder and Bridges spaced the floor very well, shooting effective field goal percentages of 57.8% and 54.4% respectively on spot up jumpers, and when the Suns really needed a bucket, they could rely on Paul and Booker to deliver on their own. Phoenix’s All-Star tandem scored 1.01 points per-possession in the pick and roll and 1.02 in isolation situations throughout November.
No look pass from the Point God to Bridges. What else is new? pic.twitter.com/LLgxvPNkgQ
— Bally Sports Arizona (@BALLYSPORTSAZ) November 25, 2021
While the Suns’ starters have been stellar, their bench unit has been a key part of the hot stretch as well. With Cameron Payne, Cameron Johnson, Landry Shamet and JaVale McGee on the floor in November, the Suns scored 1.02 points per-possession and shot 48% from the field. The offseason addition of McGee is proving to be an especially shrewd move. In limited minutes, McGee averaged 10.1 points and 7.1 rebounds per contest in November while shooting 65.2% from the field and scoring 1.13 points per-possession.
Bench Mob ‼️ pic.twitter.com/cyZlLrbR6R
— Bally Sports Arizona (@BALLYSPORTSAZ) November 27, 2021
After a 1-3 start, the Suns have reestablished themselves as the team to beat in the Western Conference, with their win over the Warriors serving as the exclamation point. In that standout performance, the Suns passed a key test: scoring on the Golden State defense in the third quarter. Prior to the game, the Warriors were allowing a league-best 0.81 points per-possession in the first six minutes out of halftime, but the Suns were able to execute well out of the break despite losing Devin Booker to a hamstring injury, scoring 13 points over 12 possessions to hold serve before pulling away in the fourth.
The Suns are the 20th team in NBA history to win 17 games in a row in a single regular season. 8 of the previous 19 went on to win the championship. It’s a new month, and the Suns will ride their streak into a home matchup with the Pistons before traveling to San Francisco on Friday for a rematch with the Warriors.
Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks: Pick and Roll Maestros
After finishing last season just two wins shy of an NBA Finals berth, the Atlanta Hawks entered 2021-22 with some of the highest expectations in the league. While their appeared to be some cause for concern following a disappointing 4-9 start, they quickly found a rhythm rattling off a 7-game win streak and now have a record of 11-10. The formula for Atlanta’s high-powered offense has been the same for years: get the ball in superstar Trae Young’s hands, set him a ball screen and watch him go to work.
It’s no secret what the Hawks want to do on that end of the floor, but the frequency and effectiveness of that blueprint is still staggering. So far this season, Trae Young pick and rolls have led to 609 Atlanta points, over 100 more than any other player in the league. The efficiency matches the volume too as the resulting 1.12 point per-possession ranks in the top-10 among the 122 players who have initiated at least 50 pick and rolls this season.
Stopping a Trae Young pick and roll is such a nightmare when he gets into a groove with how much stress his range and creativity can put on a defense. If the defender goes under the screen, he is lights-out off the bounce—scoring 1.21 points per-possession when they do. If the defender drops, Young has mastered the floater, where his 65 total points leads the NBA. And if the defender contests the runner, he can get all the way to the rim and finish creatively or draw a foul.
Trae was in his bag last night. 💪
— Atlanta Hawks (@ATLHawks) November 28, 2021
When his scoring opportunities aren’t there, Young is able to show off his elite facilitating. Whether it’s by hitting open spot up shooters for three, dumping off to cutters, or tossing lobs to the roll man, his distributing out of the pick and roll has created 303 points for his teammates this season.
It hasn’t just been Young who has excelled in his role in this pick and roll-dominated offense. Forward John Collins and center Clint Capela have grown into two of the league’s best roll men. Collins is scoring an NBA-best 1.59 points per-possession as the roll man while Capela, at 1.27 points per-possession, isn’t far behind. The combinations of Young-Collins and Young-Capela have been particularly unstoppable when the action moves towards the basket. The chemistry developed between both tandems leads to a handful of perfectly timed dump-offs and alley-oops that leave defenses without answers every night. Both combinations rank in the top 3 in total points scored and points per-possession when rolling to the rim. The combination of Young and Collins scores 1.65 points per-possession, making them the most efficient pair in the league.
All these extraordinary numbers have surged during the Hawks recent hot stretch, suggesting that the Hawks go as the Trae Young pick and roll goes. After a somewhat slow start, they are once again heading towards the top of the Eastern Conference standings.
Synergy Rookie Spotlight: Orlando Magic Forward Franz Wagner
Orlando has the third youngest roster in the league and a first-year head coach, and while that youth is certainly impacting their record, there have been several bright spots this season that leave room for optimism for Magic fans. One of those has been rookie Franz Wagner, who the team selected with the 8th overall pick in July after two seasons at Michigan. He’s started every game thus far while averaging 13.4 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.4 assists.
A 6’10” wing with a versatile skill set, Wagner moves very well off the ball, averaging 1.56 points per-possession on cuts which ranks 8th in the league and first among rookies. His improved handle and crafty footwork have led to several dazzling buckets created for himself and others out of the pick and roll as well.
Point Franz. Smooth.
22 PTS for the rook 🔥 pic.twitter.com/6t5BPxO9i6
— Orlando Magic (@OrlandoMagic) November 30, 2021
While Wagner’s versatility is intriguing, his role as a swingman is predicated on his ability to space the floor as a spot up shooter. In spot up situations, Wagner is shooting a scorching effective field goal percentage of 62.3%. These numbers reflect a drastic improvement from his last season at Michigan where his effective field goal percentage sat at 45.5%. Maintaining that efficiency as a floor spacer will ensure that Wagner can be a positive contributor on offense for years to come and create more opportunities for the rest of his game to evolve.
Synergy Starting 5:
Patty Mills – SG Brooklyn Nets
The Nets have hit their stride, climbing to the top of the Eastern Conference standings with a record of 15-6. Off-season acquisition Patty Mills has been a key piece of that success. Mills has been lights out from deep, averaging 12.2 points per game and shooting 47.8% from beyond the arc—the second-best clip in the league among qualified players. As Kevin Durant and James Harden attract the attention of the defense, Mills has been lethal spotting up along the three-point line, where his 1.38 points per-possession and 69.4% effective field goal percentage both rank third out of the 141 players with at least 50 spot up possessions this season.
Devin Booker – SG Phoenix Suns
Booker earns a spot on the Synergy Starting 5 because he’s been the key catalyst of the red-hot Suns offense documented above. He has been especially lethal over the last two weeks. In 7 of the Suns last 8 games, excluding one where he left early with an injury, Booker averaged 25.7 points while shooting 51% from the field and a blistering 50% from downtown.
Leading the @Suns to a 4-0 record and helping grow their win streak to 16 games, Devin Booker put up 30.0 PPG while shooting 56.0% from deep to earn Western Conference Player of the Week for Week 6!
WARRIORS/SUNS – Tuesday night at 10pm/et on TNT pic.twitter.com/L5tJdrDr1o
— NBA (@NBA) November 29, 2021
Jimmy Butler – SF Miami Heat
The 11-year veteran is putting together one of the best campaigns of his career thus far in 2021-22. Butler is averaging 23.6 points, 5.8 rebounds and 5.3 assists while shooting a career-best 52% from the field. He’s also been immune to this season’s rule changes getting to the free throw line at an elite rate and making 7.4 free throws per game. He’s scored at least one point on 55.6 % of the possessions he has used this season, ranking first among all volume scorers.
Giannis Antetokounmpo – PF Milwaukee Bucks
The reigning finals MVP has been dominant of late, and so have the Milwaukee Bucks. Over the last two weeks, Giannis is averaging 27.9 points, 12.7 rebounds, 5.6 assists and shooting a ridiculous 60.7% from the field while leading the defending champs on a 7-game win streak. The story has been a familiar one for the Greek Freak. His 139 points in transition leads the NBA, a category he’s taken the crown in every season since the 2018-19 campaign.
Montrezl Harrell – C Washington Wizards
In his first season with the Wizards, Harrell has blossomed into one of the league’s most efficient offensive big men, scoring 16.1 points and grabbing 8.3 boards per game while shooting 64.1% percent from the field. His 1.26 overall points per-possession ranks second in the entire league out of the 262 players who have used at least 100 possessions this season. He has been effective in several key areas within his role scoring 1.38 points per-possession on cuts, shooting 70.7% from the field as a roll man, and scoring 73 total points off of offensive rebounds, good for second in the NBA.
— Washington Wizards (@WashWizards) November 23, 2021