Each Monday throughout the NBA season, Basketball Prospectus will investigate the latest trends in the NBA on ESPN Insider. Kevin Pelton is keeping an eye on all the numbers and will have a first look at how players, teams and the league as a whole are evolving.
Trending player: Kevin Love, F, Minnesota Timberwolves
After winning the World Championship with the U.S. team this summer, Love is ready for his close-up. With Al Jefferson in Utah and Ricky Rubio still in Spain, the Minnesota Timberwolves are Love's team, and his performance during the preseason indicates he is up for the challenge: Love led all NBA players in Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP), our core metric, during the exhibition schedule as the Timberwolves went 6-2.
More noteworthy is the newfound skill Love has demonstrated during the month of October: the 3-point shot. Love made 58.3 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc, a dramatic improvement on the 33.0 percent he made during the 2009-10 season. Since that's over just eight games, the accuracy may fade, but Love has shown that the 3 will be a regular part of his offensive arsenal. Shots from long distance made up more than a quarter of Love's total attempts, a major increase from his first two seasons.
10-11 (pre) .261
In a league in which stretch 4's have become prized commodities, Love's improved range would be a positive no matter what. However, it takes on added importance for a Minnesota starting lineup that is short on long-distance shooting. None of the team's likely starters made more than 82 3-pointers in 2009-10. If Love is a threat on the perimeter, that creates more room for newcomer Michael Beasley to operate in the paint as a small forward.
The change did come with a cost. Love has been one of the league's best offensive rebounders over the past two seasons, but it is hard to establish position for second chances while hanging out beyond the arc. Love rebounded 10.3 percent of available offensive rebounds during the preseason, down from 14.4 percent last season. But he compensated by crashing the defensive glass even harder than usual, finishing fourth in the league in exhibition rebound percentage (23.2 percent), trailing only Dwight Howard, Blake Griffin and Udonis Haslem.
Trending team: Atlanta Hawks
Looking to put his stamp on the Hawks, first-year head coach Larry Drew has made significant changes to an Atlanta offense that fizzled during the postseason. Specifically, Drew hopes to replace the iso-heavy sets that were a staple under predecessor Mike Woodson with better ball movement in a motion offense that will lead to easier scores.
The preseason demonstrated that Atlanta has a lot of work to do to get comfortable in the new offense. The Hawks finished last in the league in offensive rating, scoring just 94.7 points per 100 possessions. And that improved passing has yet to materialize. Atlanta was slightly below average in assists per field goal last season, ranking 16th in the league, and ranked just 17th this preseason. In turn, the Hawks have gotten few easy baskets. Their 2-point percentage of 44.3 percent was 23rd overall.
The danger to Drew's strategy is that Atlanta will lose the strengths that made its offense so effective during the regular season, when the Hawks boasted one of the league's three best attacks on a per-possession basis. As unattractive as the isolation offense may be, it played to the team's strengths and limited miscues. Atlanta turned the ball over less than any other NBA team a year ago. During the exhibition season, the Hawks committed turnovers slightly more often than average. The team's offensive rebounding has also suffered badly.
Atlanta scored well at times during the preseason, shooting 51.9 percent against Memphis and putting 98 points on the Miami Heat on national TV. However, the Hawks struggled badly in losses to the Orlando Magic and Charlotte Bobcats last week, scoring a combined 139 points on 171 possessions. Atlanta mostly played its typical rotation in those two games, so the performance cannot be blamed on the "meaningless" (but really not) nature of the preseason.
The Hawks are attempting a number of changes as part of the transition from Woodson to Drew. They quickened their pace during the preseason and have resolved to switch less frequently on defense. With players like second-year point guard Jeff Teague banged up during training camp, Drew may need more time to implement his entire game plan.
League trend: Technical fouls
The dominant story of the preseason has been the rash of technical fouls called by referees as part of the league's crackdown on post-whistle histrionics. The numbers show the magnitude of the change. According to DougStats.com, there were an average of 1.1 technicals per game during the preseason. That's an increase of 79.2 percent over last year's regular-season average of 0.6 technicals per game.
The Boston Celtics were most affected by the frequent technicals, but four teams averaged at least one technical per game (counting only the Knicks' games against other NBA opponents). Toronto's Reggie Evans led all players with four technicals, including his double ejection for a spat with Phoenix's Grant Hill.
Most preseason technical fouls
11 Boston Celtics
9 Toronto Raptors
8 Minnesota Timberwolves
7 Charlotte Bobcats
7 New York Knicks
Inevitably, the rate of technicals will slow at some point, whether because referees ease up on their whistles or players adjust to the new standards. In 2006-07, when the league last made player reactions a point of emphasis, by season's end the average number of technicals per game was just 0.7. Still, the crackdown could have important implications early in the season. The Celtics and other teams that have a tough time containing their emotions will see an impact on the scoreboard. During the preseason, Boston was called for nearly a technical per game more than average.
The lasting effect could be felt later in the year, when technical fouls have accumulated. Last year, three players--the Celtics' Kendrick Perkins and Rasheed Wallace and Orlando's Dwight Howard--reached 16 technical fouls and drew automatic one-game suspensions. Perkins is injured and Wallace is now retired, but there are plenty of other players who will be at risk if more T's are called this season.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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