Small Sample Sizes Make the Best NBA Stats (2021-22 Edition!)

It’s time for the third annual edition of Small Sample Sizes Make the Best NBA Stats! If you’re not familiar with the concept, you can read the 2019-20 edition or the 2020-21 version, but the basic idea is after the first week of the season, when every team has played two or three games, there are all kinds of wacky statistical anomalies from players and teams getting off to hot (or ice-cold) starts. Projecting them for the entire season can be all kinds of fun and produce some insane forecasts that speak to just how powerful the Law of Averages can be.

Let’s get right to it.

As Chris Denari pointed out on the Pacers’ broadcast against the Miami Heat Saturday night, Indiana was the first team to start 0-2 while losing both games by just a single point since the 1955-56 Fort Wayne Pistons. Fort Wayne ended up going 37-35 but ended up in the 1956 NBA Finals, where they lost to the Philadelphia Warriors. The Pistons had gone to the 1955 Finals as well but lost to the Syracuse Nationals.

Speaking of Indiana and weird stats to start a season, two of Indiana’s first three games have gone to overtime. That projects out to 275 minutes (55 games!) of bonus basketball over the course of a season. That’s almost six full regular games’ worth of extra minutes.

Indiana’s strength of schedule is the highest in the NBA so far, and their Simple Rating System from Basketball Reference is also tops in the league. On paper, a 1-2 team is the best team in the league. And while 1-2 projects to 27-55, a plus-2.8 Net Rating is generally good for 48-34. The Los Angeles Lakers had a plus-2.8 Net Rating in the 2021 season and went 42-30 over 72 games.

Rudy Gobert is off to a wild start for WS/48, leading all NBA starters with .413. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar‘s .3399 in 1971-72 stands as the all-time record; Kareem also holds the record for most WS/48 on a championship team, as his .3256 in 1970-71 is the second-highest WS/48 of all time.

Paul George leads the league in points per game with 35.0—70 points in two games. Trae Young, who topped the list in each of the previous two seasons, has only scored 43 points in two games. He led the league in each of the previous two editions of this feature.

George is on pace for 2,870 points if he keeps scoring 35 a game and plays all 82 games. This speaks to just how difficult it is to score 3,000 points in a season. Only two men in NBA history have ever done it—Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan. Wilt scored 3,000 or more three times and even topped 4,000 in 1961-62, when he scored 50.4 a game in an 80-game season to reach 4,029 points.

Wilt’s 1962 season included 100 points on March 2. If the Knicks had held him to “only” 70 points, he’d have fallen short of 4,000.

Myles Turner leads the league in total blocks with nine in three games. Al Horford leads the league in block percentage with 13.5; Daniel Gafford of the Wizards is at 12.0 in 50 minutes and Chris Boucher has a 10.6 BLK% in 45 minutes for Toronto.

There have been only three qualified seasons in NBA history where a player posted a 10.0 or better block percentage; the three men to do it are Manute Bol, Manute Bol, and Manute Bol. Of all players not from Sudan in NBA history, Serge Ibaka holds the record at 9.78 in 2011-12. Bol’s best years were 1986-87 and 1988-89, when he posted identical 10.81 marks. Turner’s 8.85 in 2020-21 was 11th all-time.

The Utah Jazz have once again started the season with a Net Rating on crazy pills; they’re at plus-15.1 after two games. The Miami Heat are second at plus-13.5; they kicked the crap out of the Bucks in their opener by a 137-95 score and a smackdown in overtime at the hands of the Pacers last night (Indiana won the overtime period 16-5 and the game 102-91) dragged them down only to second place.

The 1996 Chicago Bulls posted a plus-13.4 Net Rating and went 72-10.

League-wide, D’Antoni Index is trending down again; it’s not that the league is any less given to shooting 3-pointers—league 3PAR is .394, up from .392 last season and .384 in 2019-20. Free throw rate has absolutely cratered at .211. When the league said referees were going to stop calling cheap fouls (call it the James Harden Rule), the refs took that to heart. FTR was .248 last year and .264 two years ago. Players are not getting to the line like they used to. Are we on the way to rules favoring physical defense like the grind-it-out mid-90s? The sine wave of history seems to be trending back that way.

As for the third component of DAI, shots within 0-3 feet, the league average is .260, or 26.0 percent of total shots. That’s up from .254 last year but down from .282 in 2019-20. For all the talk of 3-pointers being more efficient, there’s still no shot on the floor better than a layup or dunk. League-wide eFG% on threes is .534; on shots inside 3 feet it’s .669. 1.34 points per shot is better than 1.07, but it’s a whole lot better than 0.84, the result of teams shooting .421 on true midrange jumpers, between 10 and 16 feet out.

Folks who watched Khris Middleton and Kevin Durant duel in the midrange on Tuesday night’s season-tipoff game between the Bucks and Nets watched two excellent scorers intentionally handicapping themselves. Even when fully 53.4 percent of midrange shots drop, they’re still less efficient than a league-average 3-point shooter. Durant is hitting well over 50 percent of his midrange shots, but he is a career 38.4 percent 3-point shooter. Even one of the best midrange jump shooters in the league is still statistically better off shooting threes.

And finally, no discussion of weird, screwed-up stats is complete without Russell Westbrook. The man is the darling of the barbershop. This doesn’t make him good.

Westbrook has 23 points, 16 rebounds, and 13 assists on the 0-2 Lakers. Besides stealing rebounds from LeBron James and delaying Bron’s Career Triple-Double (30,000 points, 10,000 rebounds, and 10,000 assists, which he’s highly likely to reach this year) by a few games, Westbrook has minus-0.2 Win Shares.

That’s minus-.108 WS/48. In 70 minutes, Westbrook is by a mile the worst player in the entire league. To steal a line from Bill Simmons, Westbrook not only brings nothing to the table, he actively takes things off the table. The Lakers look terrible this year. Only three of their players—LeBron, Anthony Davis, and DeAndre Jordan—have over .078 WS/48 (.143, .168, and .178 WS/48 for the trio respectively.) Four of their players have negative WS: Westbrook, Rajon Rondo, Kent Bazemore, and Avery Bradley. When Carmelo Anthony, who is completely washed up, is your fourth-best player, you’ve got yourself a bad team.

Get ready to be disappointed, Lakers fans. Not since the “This Is Going to Be Fun” 2012-13 disaster movie of a Lakers team (Sports Illustrated famously whiffed on that headline, although it was a ton of fun for Lakers haters!) has a Lakers team been this good in media hype and this bad on the court. That 0-2 start isn’t looking like a fluke.

On the bright side, if the Lakers drop out of contention and LeBron decides to simply take over and score like he did in Cleveland just to pad his stats, that makes Kareem’s all-time scoring record (38.387; LeBron is at 35,426 and is scoring 29.5 a game this year) look more vulnerable.

LeBron will be 37 in December. Kareem played until he was 41 and was still topping 20 a game at 38. LeBron’s 25.0 a game last year was the lowest since his rookie season, but he still needs somewhere between two and three seasons at that rate to get to 38,388. This is one of the most intriguing record-chases in sports.

And finally, there’s the annual reminder that better shooting since the NBA Stone Age puts the all-time rebound record firmly in “forget it, nobody will ever even come close” territory.

Wilt averaged 27.2 rebounds a game in 1960-61. Gobert’s 21 boards in the season opener against Oklahoma City stands as the top count so far. The best rebounding game in the entire league through the first week is still 6.2 shy of what Wilt averaged 61 years ago. That’s how ridiculous rebounding was in the NBA’s ancient history.

The stats will smooth out as the season goes on, but for now some wild ones pop off the page.

As the season goes on, stay tuned to Pace and Space for commentary on weird stats, historical perspective, and all the other thought experiments and basketball nerding out you know and love. And thanks for reading!

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