As the NBA heads into the 2021 calendar year, the 76ers, Pacers, Magic, Clippers, and Suns are all 4-1, tied for first in their respective conferences.
Indeed, the Magic were the last unbeaten holdout, winning their first four games before losing to Philadelphia on New Year’s Eve.
But if five games have taught us anything, there’s more than one way to win four out of five in professional basketball. Let’s take a look at the five best teams in the league as of ten days into the season and see what they have in common…and what makes no sense about them!
Philadelphia 76ers: Defensive Brutality
The first stat that screams at you when you look at the Sixers on Basketball Reference is the .475 eFG% of their opponents.
With the exception of a blowout loss against Cleveland, none of Philly’s opponents could find any offensive rhythm.
The Wizards had decent luck in the opener, with .535 eFG%, but they were done in partially because they were forced into a bunch of 2-point shots (just a .318 3PAR) and faltered at the free throw line (they hit just 16-of-23, 69.6 percent.)
The Sixers played complete basketball in the opener, winning the rebounding and turnover battle.
Then the dam broke.
The Knicks shot a putrid .434 eFG%. Toronto managed just .450, but even though they actually outshot the Sixers (Philly’s eFG% was a cover-your-eyes .429), the Sixers won the fundamentals. Fewer turnovers, more rebounds, and a big win at the free throw line.
And the piece de resistance was Orlando’s wretched .384 eFG%. If your shots don’t go in, you lose more often than you win.
Philadelphia’s defense against opposing shooters is the kind of good that holds up in the playoffs. Doc Rivers has them playing fundamentally sound basketball and even though they’ve got Daryl Morey as their GM now, they sit just 19th in 3PAR, not asking more of their shooters than their shooters can deliver.
But hey, Ben Simmons is 1-for-1 from long range so far. Good on him.
Indiana Pacers: Two Scoops of Layups In Every Box
At the bottom of this column, below the words “Previous Article”, sits a breakdown of Indiana’s fantastic 2-point efficiency.
They didn’t quite match their 62.5 percent clip from the first four games—they hit just half of their 2-point shots against Cleveland in a 119-99 win—but on the upside, they finally got the triples to drop, hitting 16-of-35 for a game-total eFG% of .575.
Indiana is fifth in Offensive Rating. They’re still at 60.3 percent on 2-pointers for the season overall. And they’re second in overall FG% and fifth in eFG%.
Add in a seventh-ranked defense behind Myles Turner’s league-leading 4.2 blocks per game and you’ve got a great start to the season.
Orlando Magic: Defend Without Fouling and Take Care of the Ball
Orlando’s plus-1.9 Net Rating suggests their 4-1 start is too good to be true, but they’ve yet to be in a game that ended closer than six points (113-107 against Miami in the opener.) That’s how they weathered a brutal blowout loss to Philadelphia and didn’t drop into “how do they even have a winning record?” territory.
The big stats that jump out about the Magic are their free throw percentage (82.8 percent, second in the league) and FTR (ninth, at .292 FTA/FGA.)
They’re also third-best in the league at taking care of the ball, turning it over just 11.0 percent of the time.
Their opponents have the third-lowest rate of made FT per shot attempt from the field.
Markelle Fultz has 10 turnovers in five games. That’s the most on the team. In a league where guys like James Harden and Russell Westbrook, several times a season, turn the ball over 10 times, that’s startling ball control.
On the downside, the Magic never seem to get any assists. They play the fourth-fastest pace but stand 25th in unadjusted assists per game.
Throw in a league-worst .292 3PAR (yikes!) and you can see major cause for concern. But when the Magic win games, it’s because they’re dedicated to the idea of not beating themselves.
Phoenix Suns: Defense Wins Championships
Wait…Phoenix?! Defensive masterminds?
Ball don’t lie. Their 100.0 Defensive Rating is third in the league. But there’s more to Phoenix than that.
Like Philly, they don’t let their opponents shoot the ball well—a .496 eFG% and a crazy .277 3P%.
Like Orlando, they don’t turn the ball over. Other than Devin Booker (22 turnovers in five games), the whole rest of the team turns it over just 7.8 times a game, leading to 13.2 turnovers overall, fifth-lowest in the league and good for a sixth-best 12.2 turnover percentage.
Meanwhile, on offense, the Suns are the first team we’ve examined so far completely unafraid to shoot from long range. Their .431 3PAR is seventh in the league.
Combine that with a 38.1 percent clip from out there (eighth in the NBA) and lo and behold, a top-ten team eFG%.
It’s funny how the team with the most threes is getting smoked by a team becoming known for attacking the basket, but “threes and layups” is a two-handed weapon.
Even though Booker has an atrocious .019 WS/48 so far this year, the rest of the guys on the Suns are playing elevated team basketball. When Booker breaks out of his slump, this team is going to continue to build on their eight-game winning streak to close the season in the bubble last summer.
Los Angeles Clippers: Great…Except When They’re Not
The Clippers got absolutely murdered by the Dallas Mavericks on December 27, losing their Christmas follow-up 124-73.
They then ritually slaughtered the Minnesota Timberwolves and Portland Trail Blazers on back-to-back nights by a combined 46 points to bring their season-long Net Rating back to plus-3.1.
They’re still 17th defensively, but even with a 73-point game against their record, their offense still ranks seventh.
The Clippers’ identity seems rooted in grit-n-grind basketball in a sense. They have the second-slowest pace. They play physically and commit a ton of fouls—their opponents have the second-highest rate of made FT per FGA in the league.
But unlike, say, the mid-10s Grizzlies, the Clippers shoot the ball well (eighth in eFG%), they take an acceptably high amount of three-pointers (.423 3PAR, 11th in the league), and they turn it over too much (19th in turnover percentage.)
The Clippers are also an excellent free-throw shooting team—their 80.2 percent clip is fourth in the league.
What you get out of this is a solid, powerful squad that does everything average at worst and great at best…except when they completely blow a game, getting the ever-loving crap kicked out of them.
Dallas won a game by 49 points that was played at a pace so slow that the differential in Net Rating for the game was 56 points per 100 possessions (136.3 to 80.3; the pace was 90.9.)
Good thing for the Clippers, at least that game was slow.
It’s also worth noting that the top two teams in the NBA for point differential are the Lakers and Bucks—they’re a combined 5-5. The Nets, ranked fourth, are 3-2.
So if those three teams ride their “win big, lose close” ethos, we could be analyzing quite a different top five four months from now as the playoffs approach.