We can learn things from a half-dozen games, and early trends are absolutely worth monitoring. Some will last, in a reduced form, and they might stand as evidence of an important new roster development. But we can't assume permanence.
All caveats aside, there's one early-season trend that's especially worth watching, since (like the Clippers' improved defense) it could mark the emergence of another title contender: The Memphis Grizzlies are scoring the ball. The Grizzlies rank somewhere between fifth and eighth in points per possession depending on which scale you prefer,1 and either number is loads better than Memphis has ranked in any of the past three seasons.
And it's not just the efficiency; it's how the Grizzlies are scoring that holds promise. Every season, you could bank on Memphis ranking dead last or something around there in assist rate — the percentage of a team's baskets that come after an assist. Their last four rankings, in chronological order, via Hoopdata: 30th, 30th, 29th, and 26th last season. The team's Utah-like resistance to 3-pointers deflated the assist numbers, since a huge percentage of made 3s come via assists. But even focusing just on 2-point baskets, Memphis has consistently ranked among the bottom third in assist rate.
Basically, this offense struggled in the half-court, where a lack of shooting made it very difficult to space the floor. Memphis needed to force a ton of turnovers and bank some easy transition buckets to hang in against top teams.
Things have changed so far this season. Entering Tuesday's games, Memphis had assisted on 61 percent of its made field goals, good for the 14th-best assist rate in the league. That's average! Average, in this metric, is a giant leap forward for the grit-and-grind Grizz. And they're doing this despite still taking fewer 3s than all but a handful of teams; isolate 2-point baskets, and Memphis (gasp!) would rank among the league's top 10 in assist rate.
All of this reached its peak in Sunday's blowout home win over a stunned Miami team, but the trends were beginning to appear before then.
The early improvement boils down to three elements:
Gasol has taken his brilliant passing to an entirely new level, and he is lifting the Grizz offense in the process. Gasol is averaging better than five dimes per game and assisting on 23 percent of Memphis baskets while on the floor, giant numbers for a center; only one player listed at 6-foot-9 or taller (Hedo Turkoglu) finished last season with a higher individual assist rate.
Gasol facilitating from the elbow or on the move in the pick-and-roll has become an enormously powerful weapon. He has his high-low partner back at something closer to full strength in Zach Randolph, and he is finding guys all over the floor with nifty looks — tiny bouncers to Randolph in the lane, or one-handed flings on the move to the opposite corner.
As for Conley, the guy just keeps getting better. All his numbers are up — assists, 3s made and attempted, free throws, overall shooting percentage. He's threading on-target passes into the post he hadn't mastered before. His pocket passes are on the money and on time. His righty floater is better than reliable, and Conley has gotten very good at dancing above the pick and keeping the defense guessing as to which way he's going to go — a back-and-forth that can confuse defenders and lead to botched rotations.
At this point, Conley is more than living up to his contract. And both he and Gasol, somewhat unexpectedly, have more with which to work this season …
Holy cow are these guys playing well. Wayne Ellington and Jerryd Bayless are shooting 50 percent (19-of-38) combined from deep and is approaching career-high assist numbers. Ellington has 10 assists already after dishing just 33 all of last season. They are first and second, respectively, in Player Efficiency Rating on the Grizz.
Quincy Pondexter's PER is nothing special (13.4), but he's 7-of-15 from deep with a reliable corner shot and, like Ellington, is on pace to shatter his career assist numbers. The Grizzlies' increased pace of play — about three possessions more per game than last season — accounts for some of the jump in assists, since transition chances result in easy buckets. But it can't explain anywhere close to all of it.
Ellington and Pondexter have essentially been spot-up shooters their entire careers, but in Memphis, they are pump-faking, taking a hard dribble or two in, drawing the defense and whipping the ball across the court to the next guy. Having hubs like Randolph and Gasol makes everything easier, since the ho-hum perimeter guys can just kick short passes to Gasol, knowing he'll find the right player down the chain.
All the passing also has everyone on the team cutting hard. The Grizz have gotten about 11 percent of their offense via off-ball cuts, a share larger than every playoff team but Chicago recorded last season, and they are shooting a blistering 62 percent on shots that come via cuts, per Synergy Sports. Tony Allen has long compensated for his lack of a jump shot with some mean off-ball cuts, but even Rudy Gay is joining him so far this season. Gay has cut back-door for dunks and lobs, and he has also been swooping from the baseline to the foul line behind pick-and-roll plays for catch-and-drive chances.
The result is a more dynamic offense with a healthier shot selection. Memphis has essentially traded a few mid-range shots every night for more shots at the rim and more corner 3s. They took 28.3 shots per game in the restricted area last season, good for about 34 percent of their shot attempts, according to NBA.com. Those numbers are up to 32 attempts and a 37 percent share this season. And they are clearly focused on the corner, where they are jacking 5.5 3s per game this season, up from a laughably low 3.0 last season. Pondexter especially has worked long hours in the gym on that specific shot.
None of the Ellington/Bayless/Pondexter trio is a long-term prospect on O.J. Mayo's level, but the Grizzlies are betting multiple quality shooters off the bench can produce a more powerful effect than Mayo alone — especially since one of Gasol and Randolph has so far been on the court to anchor things in every meaningful minute. Memphis's offense reached another level during the team's fun 2010-11 playoff run, when Mayo and Shane Battier shared the court, giving Memphis two legit long-range threats to spread the floor.
Battier then signed with Miami, leaving Memphis short a shooter. The team's offense fell on its face whenever Conley left the game, but so far this season, Lionel Hollins has found good scoring combinations almost across the board. They even played small, with Gay at power forward, for long stretches of the Miami game, and they looked quick and effective in doing so.
Memphis is still crashing the offensive glass, drawing free throws, forcing heaps of turnovers, and defending at its usual levels. If the team can keep up this polished offensive punch, they are absolutely a threat in a suddenly muddled Western Conference.
There are caveats, of course. The bench shooters are going to cool off. The team's overall turnover rate, currently one of the half-dozen lowest in the league, will probably jump somewhere close to the league average; Gasol has just five turnovers in six games, and post-up teams are vulnerable to swiping hands. Their transition game will slow down as the season turns into a slog.
And the team still hasn't quite maximized the Gay/Randolph/Gasol trio. The idea that Gay and Randolph can't fit together has been overplayed in some ways; the team had a better scoring margin when the two shared the court last season than when Gay played without Randolph. But they've been even better the last three seasons when Randolph plays and Gay sits, per NBA.com. That has continued this season in a tiny sample size, and Gay is shooting just 37 percent with Randolph on the floor.
Still, other current down trends, including the Gay/Randolph pairing and Z-Bo's subpar shooting percentage, should flip Memphis's way as the season goes on. Darrell Arthur will get healthy and give Memphis another valuable weapon, too.
Watch this offense. If current trends keep up and the team's new ownership opts against an in-season move to soften the luxury-tax blow, the Grizz will be a very dangerous team.
1. The Suns' Defense
Marcin Gortat is blocking shots like Dikembe Mutombo, and this team still can't stop anyone. They're much better with Gortat on the floor, but even then, the Suns are allowing points at a bottom-five rate per possession. Their wings, especially Jared Dudley and Shannon Brown, are prone to ball-watching and thus vulnerable to back cuts, and the rotations behind the play — from the weak side — are too often late and ineffective. Things just look and feel haphazard. Phoenix is 4-4, but those wins have come at home against Detroit, Cleveland, and Denver, and at Charlotte. Things will get worse if the defense doesn't improve. That Markieff Morris/Luis Scola front line, the go-to combo when Gortat sits, is going to be death all season.
2. The Andrea Bargnani Pick-and-Slip
I'm a sucker for any play that might unleash Bargnani's slow-but-deadly pump fake, and this pick-and-roll variation is one of Toronto's go-to sets. They'll clear one side of the floor, have Bargnani set a high screen for the Raptors' point guard and then cut hard to the wing area instead of straight down the middle. Bargnani will often begin the cut before really setting the pick, a "slip" in hoops terminology.
Since Bargnani's guy will leave him to help on the point guard, that guard can kick the ball to Bargnani open on the wing. If the defense is on its game, Bargnani will turn and see the opponent's other big man rushing toward him on the close-out. Cue the league's best big man pump-and-drive, now that Brad Miller is gone
3. Dwight Howard's Left-Hand Routine
You've seen it: When Howard makes one of his lefty hooks, he runs back on defense staring at his left hand in mock wonder. "From whence did this magical talent in my weak hand come?," the look is supposed to say to the camera it is seeking. "Surely, only divine intervention can explain such sublime lefty touch."
Howard is in his ninth NBA season as a post-up star. A lefty hook should be run-of-the-mill at this point.
4. Jeremy Lin, Driving Hard at the Corner
It's one of my favorite little plays in the league, and Lin is only the latest point guard to pick it up. At the start of a possession, in semi-transition, Lin will drive hard toward the right side of the floor as one of his teammates waits in the right corner. If the guy defending that teammate takes even a half-step toward Lin, that teammate will immediately cut back-door for an off-the-dribble bounce pass from Lin along the right baseline. Beautiful basketball.
Oof. Williams is shooting 34 percent, but even worse than the raw numbers is that everything just looks so difficult for him as he tries to function as the starting power forward for an injury-ravaged Wolves club. Watching Williams now, you would never guess what an explosive player he looked like in college. Williams stops the ball, hesitant, and his attacks of the rim are confused lopes at three-quarters speed that result in ugly one-handed floaters. It's too early to dub Williams another wasted Minny first-round pick, but the clock is ticking.
6. The Overhead Bounce Pass
A creative point guard can get a little more oomph on a bounce pass and direct it at a sharper angle by raising that sucker above his head and throwing it hard with two hands. Kyle Lowry and Rajon Rondo come to mind as perhaps the two best at this, and both will do the thing where they dribble in one direction, stop, and raise the ball over their heads and sideways in the other direction to throw passes against their bodies. Fun times.
7. The "ICK" Pronunciation of Names From the Former Yugoslavia
It really isn't that hard, play-by-play announcers, and every time you say "Drag-ick" or "Peko-vick," you are feeding into the stereotype that Americans are ignorant about the world. This is a global game; the names are pronounced with an "itch" sound at the end. This is why Gregg Popovich's family added the "h," I guess. That dude is always ahead of the game.
8. The Resignation of the Wizards' Play-by-Play Man
The man's name is Steve Buckhantz, and in an age of almost unbelievable homerism (Free DeMarcus Cousins!) across the League Pass spectrum, his beaten-down tone can be an honest godsend on another miserable night of Wizards basketball. You could almost see his eyes rolling in past seasons as he narrated another JaVale McGee blooper or Nick Young off-the-dribble 20-footer, and you almost wonder if he just wants to put his head down and let the game go on without him sometimes.
And this is a man, by the way, who knows how to get excited and call a big moment. On Friday during Washington's loss to Milwaukee, Buckhantz was noting how quickly the Bucks were erasing an early Wizards lead when Milwaukee nailed a 3-pointer to erase it entirely. Buckhantz stopped mid-sentence and simply sighed, "And now it's gone." Poor guy.
9. The Hiding of Jamal Crawford and Andre Miller
Next time you watch a Clippers or Nuggets game, try following which player each one of these guys is guarding. It's a fun exercise. Both teams will slide them around to the weakest perimeter player available, though Miller will make things more complicated for you by switching on almost every off-ball and on-ball screen.
10. The Thunder's Simple "Horns" Set for Kevin Durant
"Horns" is a set in just about every NBA team's playbook. It's the name for any play that begins with one player handling the ball up top, a big man at each elbow, and a guard/wing in each corner. The formation looks like an upside-down "V" if you look at it from mid-court.
In most cases, the guy handling the ball up top will dump it to one of the bigs at the elbow, run down to one of the corners, and screen for the teammate there, setting up a whole chain of movement.
There are lots of variations, and the Thunder use a simple one to get Durant a good post-up look. He'll work as the handler and start things by passing to a big man at the elbow, as normal. But just as the defense thinks Durant is headed to the corner for the usual "horns" screening action, he'll cut hard right into the middle of the paint, seal his defender, and demand the ball in the post. A nice little wrinkle.
They're fourth in Basketball-Reference's methodology and eighth in the NBA's stats database, mostly because of esoteric differences in the way various systems define a possession.