Editor’s note: Today, D-League Digest is proud to announce Joey Whelan as the site’s newest contributor. You may know Joey from the excellent work he does covering the Dakota Wizards with his Wizards Watch blog, which launched earlier this season. If you don’t know him, it’s an introduction you won’t regret, especially if you’re a fan of the NBA Development League. In addition to the blog, Joey is a sports reporter at KFYR-TV, the NBC affiliate in Bismarck, North Dakota, and host of “Wizards Watch,” a weekly show that airs locally. Previously he has written for SLAM Magazine and DraftExpress.com in addition to spending several years breaking down hours of film as a logger for Synergy Sports Technology. The man knows his basketball and possesses the elusive combination of statistical know-how and writing skills.
The plan for now is for Joey to write a post each Wednesday to complement the content that I contribute during the week. After reading his initial post, I couldn’t be more thrilled to welcome him aboard, and I know he’ll be a great asset to have on staff this season. Without further ado, please welcome Joey Whelan to D-League Digest. I’ll shut up now so you can enjoy his first post, The Secret Of Their Success: Analyzing Reno’s And Iowa’s Offensive Efficiency.
With the season now approaching the completion of its third week of play, the D-League hierarchy is starting to crystallize to the point where we can start making realistic deductions about teams. Idaho and Dakota – a total of one win between the two of them – are not very good. Reno and Iowa who stand at 6-1 and 7-1 respectively atop their conferences are quite good. These are easy and obvious conclusions to make based solely on wins versus losses and for the more enthusiastic fans, name players versus unfamiliar entities
But beyond the simple idea that teams loaded with talented players featuring both NBA and D-League experience are likely to have a certain degree of success, why have the Bighorns and Energy excelled at such a high level in the opening weeks of the season? The answer in part, lies with the fact that both teams are excelling in the same facets that equate to offensive success in the NBA, while also generating a high percentage of shot attempts in the same manner as the big guys. These may seem like obvious conclusions to a simple question, but in a league where rosters undergo a tremendous amount of turnover, maintaining a degree of consistency that fosters the development of chemistry can go a long way towards winning basketball games.
To better illustrate this point let’s examine Reno’s and Iowa’s offenses and what has made them so efficient in the early part of the season.
The Bighorns have jumped out of the gate to a 6-1 start in the Western Conference behind a roster loaded with talent and NBA experience. Six players average between 12 and 18 points, let by Patrick Ewing Jr. and former Kansas guard Aaron Miles. Reno has an offensive efficiency of 108.8 through its first seven games, above average in the D-League as well as the NBA. (It should be noted, in the past it was tougher to justify comparing scoring output in the D-League to the NBA, but average pace of play has been almost identical early on, making the numbers slightly more rational to put side by side.)
Reno’s success stems from the attack nature of their offense. The Bighorns take an enormous percentage of their shot attempts in the immediate vicinity of the basket. According to Synergy Sports Technology, a whopping 52.7% of the team’s shot attempts this season have come either in post up situations (7%) or other shot attempts around the basket (45.7%) such as cuts without the ball, driving layups, etc. Rather than waiting to see how the defense establishes itself and reacting, the Bighorns force the defense to react to them. Of course, they have the necessary personnel to play in this manner.
The greatest area of success thus far for the team as it relates to efficiency, has been in transition interestingly enough. In many ways this is a contradiction for a team that has an average pace of play right now (96.7) but speaks to how well the Bighorns move the basketball, particularly in the open floor. Reno averages 1.409 points per possession in transition, one of the highest totals in the D-League at present time, shooting at tremendous 69.4% in these scenarios according to Synergy Sports.
Where the Bighorns really stand out as a team with an advanced understanding of the offensive game though is in their ability to drive and kick. Even though their efficiency level drops in the half court game, Reno flourishes in several instances because of the ability their perimeter players have to penetrate and create offensive opportunities. They currently rank third in the D-League in scoring efficiency in isolation situations where the defense commits to the ball handler, averaging 1.13 points per possession and shooting 53.8%. This mark is good, but the Bighorns make themselves even more dangerous by consistently finding open shooters on the perimeter, thus leading to an adjusted field goal percentage in these situations of 65.4%. Aaron Miles not surprisingly has the highest usage rate here and generates the most open shot attempts, but DJ Strawberry, Marcus Landry, Donald Sloan and Mo Charlo have all shown the ability to create offense off the dribble as well. As a team, Reno has an assist rate of 57.03%, just a fraction of a percentage lower than the NBA’s overall average, which not only speaks well of the Bighorns ability to distribute the basketball, but of the D-League as a whole. In seasons past all but one or two D-League teams had assist rates lower than the NBA’s average, this trend is starting to turn.
Continue reading to see why Iowa has excelled offensively.
The Energy’s roster is equally as impressive as Reno’s, featuring such accomplished D-League veterans as Courtney Sims and Curtis Stinson, while also including Suns assignment Gani Lawal and former Oklahoma City guard Kyle Weaver. Iowa though is in many ways the yin to the Bighorns yang. The Energy are average at best as a transition team, but rank as one of the top half court offensive organizations through the early portion of the D-League’s schedule.
Iowa also gets a high percentage of shots in the immediate vicinity of the basket (46.1%) but the primary means of setting up shots for the Energy is the pick and roll, which they run with devastating efficiency. Both Sims and Lawal do an excellent job of rolling off screens to open areas around the basket, allowing Stinson (an excellent D-League point guard in his own right) to find them with easy looks. In all, when the ball handler hits the roll man coming off the screen, the Energy shoot 64.3% in these situations, ranking third in the league at 1.42 points per possession.
The effectiveness of the pick and roll extends beyond simply finding a big man cutting to the basket though. Overall, Iowa wreaks havoc with its ability to get the ball to the open man off the high screen, forcing the defense to collapse into the lane where Stinson can then read the layout and make the appropriate pass. The team gets more than 10% of its shot attempts as a result of the pick and roll forcing the defense to commit and leave a shooter open, the second highest percentage in the D-League. What’s more, Iowa connects on 52% of these shot attempts. While a lot of the credit goes to Stinson for orchestrating the plays, the surrounding perimeter players do a sound job of rotating to open spots on the floor. Factor in 40.4% mark on three-point field goal attempts as a team, and Iowa is left with a defense that is already spread thin, leaving plenty of room for its guards to operate and create.
The Energy play at a faster pace than Reno (100.7), but have only a slightly higher offensive efficiency (109.4) due to a turnover rate of nearly 19%. Now while both teams have found a way to put the ball in the basket at a high rate with different base offenses, there’s no question that both owe a great deal of their success to two major factors they share in common: high free throw and offensive rebounding rates.
Both teams get to the line remarkably often, Iowa posting an absurd free throw rate of 49.7% and Reno going even higher at 52% (for comparisons sake, the NBA average is 31.6). Historically the D-League has featured more free throws per game than the NBA, but even with that fact taken into account, Iowa and Reno are off the charts in their ability to get to the line. The two organizations are equally as adept at creating second chance opportunities with their efforts on the offensive glass. Both had nearly identical offensive rebound rates of just over 29% and feature players amongst the league leaders in offensive rebounds with Nick Fazekas fighting inside for Reno and Courtney Sims filling the same role for Iowa.
It’s far too early to say if these two teams will remain atop their respective perches, especially with a Texas Legends team that has been extremely impressive in the West and sits just a half game back of Reno. That doesn’t even factor in all of the uncertainties a regular season presents to not just conference leading teams, but all teams. As it stands for now though, Reno and Iowa have been the class of the D-League and have done so with diverse, but equally impressive offenses.