The NBA season is only a few weeks old yet we have already got our first surprise of the year: an unprecedented scoring explosion that has taken root across the league. Teams are averaging 113.4 points per game, the highest output since the early 1970s with the leaguewide offensive rating reaching 110.8 points per 100 possessions. If that’s maintained, it would be the highest rate in NBA history.
“Defense isn’t really an emphasis anymore in this league,” Draymond Green told reporters after his team’s first loss of the season at the hands of the Denver Nuggets. “So I think you’re seeing it all around the league with these high scores.”
Green has a point. At this time last year there were 61 games that saw a team score 100 or more points in a game. In 2018 that number has climbed to 81 games.
And before you point to a small sample of games and teams simply kicking off rust after the offseason, consider this: According to research done by ESPN’s Kevin Pelton, “[w]hen it comes to leaguewide pace, the first three games are predictive of season-long results,” with the end-of-season projected pace expected to be the " the NBA’s highest in nearly three decades.” Pelton also found that offensive efficiency “tends to start slowly and improve over the course of the season,” meaning teams should get better as the season wears on.
Better shot selection is having an effect. Teams like the Washington Wizards have emphasized the three-point shot at the expense of the long two in an attempt to become more efficient offensively, a blueprint made successful by perennial championship contenders like the Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers and Houston Rockets.
“If it’s an early shot clock situation, try to shoot threes, not try to shoot deep twos,” Wizards point guard John Wall told The Post’s Candace Buckner. “So trying to get situated with that. A couple times in practice I’m like, ‘Oh, am I supposed to shoot this shot? Am I not supposed to shoot this shot?’ But I can still take the shot, [Brooks] just don’t want it early on in the shot clock unless it’s a layup or a three, which is understandable. I think all of us are just trying to get adjusted to that type of style of play.”
Growing pains aside, the share of midrange shots leaguewide has already dropped from 19 last season to 16 percent, while the rate of high-efficiency shots like those in the restricted area and behind the three-point line have surged from 65 to 69 percent of all field goal attempts combined.
Rule changes enacted this season, specifically the new rule resetting the shot clock to 14 seconds after offensive rebounds rather than 24 seconds, has some effect, but it’s negligible. Daniel Massop of Nylon Calculus figured out just six percent of all offensive rebounds from last season resulted in possessions that are 14 seconds or greater, creating one half of a rebound per team per game — hardly enough to impact scoring in any meaningful way in 2018-19.
Other initiatives, such as an increased emphasis on clutching and grabbing off the ball, also known as freedom of movement, has contributed to an increase in personal fouls called per game (19.9 in 2017-18 to 23.2 this season) yet that’s only translated to three more free throws per game, not enough to account for a huge increase in scoring on its own, either.
The biggest driver of the video-game scoring numbers might be pace of play, which we alluded to earlier with Pelton’s research. Teams are producing 101.8 possessions per 48 minutes during the early going of the 2018-19 season, a huge increase over the last few seasons. In fact, you have to go back to the mid-1980s to find the last time the NBA played this fast and loose.
No team has embraced this new philosophy more than the New Orleans Pelicans. Coach Alvin Gentry is seeing his team create more than 107 possessions per 48 minutes with a league-high offensive efficiency of 122.2 points per 100 possessions. To put that in context, the Houston Rockets led the NBA last season with a 114 offensive rating off a pace of 98 possessions.
More efficient shots and more possessions in addition to a shorter shot clock after offensive rebounds, combined with less clutching and grabbing, are all playing a role in driving the NBA’s overall scoring rate to new heights, but the big question remains: is it sustainable?
Signs point to yes, so buckle up.
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