Trending player: Richard Jefferson, SF, San Antonio Spurs
It took a year, but over the past week and a half the Spurs have seen the Jefferson they thought would be the missing piece on the perimeter when they acquired him during the summer of 2009. Jefferson's two main assets, as far as San Antonio was concerned, were his ability to hit the corner three and give the team an additional player who could create off the dribble. Both skills fell short of expectations in 2009-10; Jefferson used a career-low 18.4 percent of the team's plays and struggled beyond the arc.
Still, the Spurs re-signed Jefferson to a four-year, $40 million contract when he opted to become a free agent over the summer, hoping that he would be more comfortable in his second year in the system. Jefferson showed his commitment by working over the summer to return to peak form. So far, the results have been remarkable.
Jefferson has been nearly automatic from the spot Bruce Bowen made a staple in San Antonio, knocking down nine corner three-pointers in 14 attempts--including four in the fourth quarter of a win over the Phoenix Suns last Wednesday. While he's unlikely to remain that hot, Jefferson has shown impressive accuracy from the spot before. He made 45.8 percent of his corner three-pointers in 2008-09 in Milwaukee before slipping to 36.0 percent last season.
Beyond that, Jefferson has also increased his involvement in the Spurs' offense, upping his usage rate to an above-average 20.6 percent of the team's plays while on the floor. Jefferson has been getting to the rim on a more regular basis, allowing him to knock down 67.0 percent of his two-point attempts in the early going. San Antonio has started 4-1 with Jefferson scoring at least 15 points in all five of the team's games--something he did just twice all of 2009-10.
Trending team: New York Knicks
To their arsenal of 3-pointers and pick-and-rolls, the Knicks have added a new weapon: the blocked shot. New York leads the league in rejections, averaging eight a night over the season's first six games. That's a major change, given that the Knicks blocked a lower percentage of opponents' two-point attempts than any other team in the NBA during 2009-10. But it is a change that could have been predicted.
SCHOENE, Basketball Prospectus' system for projecting player and team performance, indicated before the season that New York would rank second in the league in block percentage. The improvement can be explained by the Knicks adding two shot-blockers (Ronny Turiaf and Amar'e Stoudemire) who were better at swatting attempts than anyone who saw regular minutes in New York last season. New York already had one of the league's top shot-blockers from the wing in Wilson Chandler, but playing bigger lineups figured to enhance the Knicks' prowess in that area overall. Chandler and Turiaf both rank in the NBA's top 10, with better than two blocks per game, and Stoudemire is not far behind.
More importantly, the blocks have translated into an improved Knicks defense. Stopping opponents at the rim was a major problem for New York last season. Opposing teams made 63.5 percent of their tries at the rim in 2009-10, according to Hoopdata.com, which was the league's sixth-worst mark. Before Sunday's loss to Philadelphia, the Knicks' 55.3 percent accuracy allowed on layups and dunks was good for third in the NBA.
New York's overall defense has made equally notable strides. The Knicks have gone from 27th in the league in defensive rating to seventh before Sunday's game. In fact, through the first five games of the season, New York was actually better on defense than offense on a per-possession basis.
League trend: Faster tempo
Last week in Trend Watch, we reported that the Houston Rockets were playing at a faster pace, which continues to be true. However, the Rockets are not alone. Around the league, teams are averaging 96.9 possessions per 48 minutes. That is up from last season's final pace of 95.1 possessions. It can be dangerous to draw conclusions from early-season league statistics, because the game is played differently during November. In particular, offenses tend to improve over the course of the schedule. However, pace remains relatively consistent throughout the calendar. In 2009-10, the league's average pace was 94.9 possessions per 48 minutes during the first 12 days of the season.
Though the league-wide pace of play declined quickly throughout the 1990s, it has rebounded since 2004-05, when the NBA reinterpreted its rules to allow less contact on the perimeter. From 2003-04 through last season, the average pace increased in fits and starts by a total of 2.4 possessions per game. If it holds up, this year's jump would be the second-largest in the past 25 years.
Five teams are most responsible for the quicker tempo around the league, having increased their pace by at least five possessions per game over 2009-10 thus far.
Team 10-11 09-10 Diff
Washington 99.9 94.1 +5.8
San Antonio 99.8 94.0 +5.8
Minnesota 103.9 98.5 +5.5
Houston 102.0 96.5 +5.5
Memphis 101.2 96.1 +5.0
Usually, significant changes in pace tend to accompany coaching changes, but none of the five biggest gainers features a new face on the sidelines. In fact, the only new coach who has altered his team's pace has been Golden State Warriors head man Keith Smart, who has slightly slowed the frenetic tempo preferred by his predecessor, Don Nelson.
The addition of No. 1 overall pick John Wall, an open-court dynamo, explains why the Washington Wizards are playing so much faster, and the Memphis Grizzlies have relied on smaller, quicker units during the four games frontcourt stalwart Zach Randolph has missed. The other differences are more surprising. Gregg Popovich has talked about having an up-tempo second unit, but such chatter usually proves idle. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Timberwolves are now playing at the league's fastest pace under Kurt Rambis.
Unfortunately for Minnesota, games are decided based on points, not possessions.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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