13/04/2024

The NBA is experiencing explosive growth... in points scored (Photo: Gobierno CDMX / Flickr)

If you’re a fan of players scoring 60+ points per game or teams dropping 140 points on opponents, then this NBA Season has been great to watch     

If you’re a fan of defence and balanced games, then maybe not so much.

Joe Dumars, former NBA Champion with the Detroit Pistons and Hall of Famer, is the NBA’s Head of Basketball Operations. He concedes the league is interested in making sure the offence hasn’t swung too far out of balance.

“It’s a topic that we’re monitoring,” Dumars confirmed in a statement this week.

“We’re [looking into the data] right now and just a ton of film and putting together a ton of reels to be able to look at this and go, ‘OK, yeah, we do have a problem’.”

Teams have dropped 140 or more points on 61 occasions since the start of the 2023-24 season – that’s compared to 36 times during the entire 2020-2021 season (which was shortened by 10 games due to COVID-19).

In a span of four days in January, 4 separate players scored 62 or more points – Joel Embiid had 70, Karl-Anthony Towns 62, Luka Doncic scored 73 & and then Devin Booker notched 62.

The historic Golden State Warriors offence during the 2016-2017 season, the first year Kevin Durant joined and modified the ‘Death Lineup’ to the ‘MegaDeath Lineup’ set the highest Offensive Rating (ORTG) for a team in 30 years. This season, that 115.6 ORTG would rank 18th out of 30 across the league.

So yeah, things are getting out of hand. But what’s driving this explosion?

Rookies coming in with new weapons

Depending on who you ask, the answer lies somewhere between poor officiating, stylistic decisions, lack of effort from players, and the athletes growing up with Steph Curry as an idol now entering the league.

Incoming Rookies are increasingly coming into the league more capable from deep.

In Steph’s rookie campaign through 2009-10, the hall-of-fame bound shooter made 2.1 threes a game at an average of 43.7 percent. Compare that to last year’s rookie season from Sacramento’s Keegan Murray – Murray shot above league average as a rookie at 41.1 percent making 2.6 each time he stepped onto the hardwood.

Big men are often on par with the trend too.

OKC’s Chet Holmgren shoots over 4 threes a game at 40.1 percent. French Victor Wembanyama launches five 3s a game, although makes them at a lower clip (31.7 percent). Both rookies are well over 7 feet tall.

The year after Steph’s rookie year in 2010, five players 6 foot 10 or taller were drafted in the first half of the first round – DeMarcus Cousins, Ekpe Udoh, Greg Monroe, Cole Aldrich & Larry Sanders. Cousins shot 3 of 18 from deep across the season, Sanders missed his only prayer, and Udoh, Monroe and Aldrich didn’t even attempt a single bomb.

‘3 is greater than 2’

It’s simple mathematics that the league struggled to understand until the dominance of the Warriors resulted in the first ever unanimous MVP award to Curry in 2016, and Golden State winning a record 73 regular season games. Ever since then, other teams have individually had their own Archimedes-esque realisation (some running through the streets of Sicily quicker than others).

The Houston Rockets pushed the theory of ‘it’s a make or miss league’ to the absolute limit in 2018. Led by James Harden’s 10 3-point attempts a game, the Rockets top six players all shot at least five per game. That volume ethos came crashing down in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals against Steph himself, Houston missing 27 consecutive attempts from 3-point range to lose by nine points.

Compulsory viewing for all Rockets haters

Teams like the Indiana Pacers took a little longer. Still averaging 24.5 3-point attempts as a team that same season, they adjusted the volume up to Spinal Tap levels by 2022-23. Star Tyrese Haliburton and the Indiana Pacers played at an extreme pace, letting 37 three-point attempts fly per game on average and purposely designing their offence to score quickly at the rim.

and if they can’t, they retreat for looks above the break.

Refereeing

Sports fans love to trash referees – are they to blame here?Probably a little, if I’m being honest with you.

One afternoon on social media after any slate of NBA games will be enough to convince you that refereeing ruined the game for either, or both, teams – but there is a little bit of truth to the overwhelming negativity.

There is a hard to quantify trend over the last couple years in basketball to call softer, ‘ticky tack’ fouls on defenders.

Additionally, illegal moving screens (where a player on the offensive side illegally stops a defender from chasing the ball-handler) feel more prevalent then ever.

Green # 27 Daniel Theis sets a normal screen at the top of the play, and then a second illegal ‘Gortat’ screen in the lane while moving to allow Jayson Tatum a free drive to the rim.

Add those with offensive creators being rewarded for deliberate foul-baiting like the below, and you’ll start to corrupt your own worldview.

The league did away with deliberate fouls like this attempt where Luka Doncic jumps out of his established space to draw unnecessary contacts like this a couple years ago, but similar fouls in the lane or closer to the hoop continue to annoy fans

Should they just play harder?

Or is it simply a lack of defensive effort? The League brought in new rules during the previous off-season that allow them to increasingly fine teams that ‘rest’ players that aren’t in a specific set of circumstances. One of the unintended consequences may be those stars conserving energy on the defensive end of the floor.

So what can they do about all of this?

If we gather around and peer into my crystal ball, a major rule change is not in our shared future. That withstanding, the Competition Committee has a couple of levers they can pull.

If the goal is to favour the defensive players to bring back a balance of play, an option might be to reduce the Defensive 3 Seconds rule to 5 seconds. This would allow bigs to remain as defenders under the hoop for slightly longer before having to exit the paint – the implication being there is less time in each possession for an offensive player to attack a gap inside.

You may also see more consideration to allowing defenders, particularly on the low block, more leeway with contact on the ground and when challenging a shot vertically. 7’2” Centre Roy Hibbert made two All-Star teams in the early 2010’s with his impeccable shot defence mid-air, but as the league has trended towards more athletic players it’s harder to identify true up-and-down movement in defence.

Paul George defends first with a great block, and then stopping a Miami Heat player by jumping straight up

While you might see pundits online call for the return of handchecking (contact by a defender’s arms to impede forward or lateral movement), the league’s longstanding policy would make that extremely unlikely.

If the Committee wanted to reduce the tools of offensive players, you could expect to see more calls on the moving screens (as above) and offensive calls when ball-handlers utilise armbars to hook and drive to the hoop.

Restoring the balance – historical precedent

I’ll send you out with a quick recap of some notable changes in NBA history.

In 1947, the NBA banned zone defence, the practice of leaving defenders in specific areas of the floor and not on a specific player. This decision was prompted by a desire to allow burgeoning stars like Bob Pettit and Dolph Schayes more room to operate to design and deliver spectacular moments at the basket. Zone defence would make it’s way sparingly into teams rotations throughout the following decades, and the ban was removed completely from the rulebook in 2001 (it’s now critical to modern basketball).

In 1954 the league introduced the Shot-Clock to limit the amount of time each team had to execute an offensive possession. Points per game jumped from an average of 79.4 to 93.1 PPG the following season.

By the time 1964 rolled around, the NBA had a different problem; Wilt Chamberlain had become too dominant. Wilt averaged 34 PPG and 22 RPG over a five season span. To even the playing field (or hardwood) the NBA changed the ‘lane’ from 12 to 16 feet.

In general, the NBA has seen an increase in scoring since the 2004-2005 season when they eliminated ‘hand checking’ – the ability of defenders to leave a hand on ball-handlers to impact the play. Star players like Kobe Bryant or Dwayne Wade could more easily get to the hoop, and scoring jumped by 4 PPG that first season.

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