Thank the three-point shot.
The NBA will finish this season with its highest scoring season in nearly three decades, and the offensive explosion can be directly attributed to two reasons: pace and efficiency.
This season, all 30 NBA teams have combined to average 106.4 points per game, nearly a full point better than last year’s 105.6 average. The NBA hasn’t averaged that many since the 1989-90 season, when a typical scoring output was 107 points.
Pace, or the average number of possessions per game, has skied to 97.3 this season. That’s the highest since the 1990-91 season. Efficiency, meanwhile, has never been higher: the league’s 52.2 effective field goal percentage this season will set a league record, and the average of 108.7 points scored per 100 possessions is the second-highest ever recorded. The first happened last season, when teams averaged 108.8 points per 100 possessions.
For just the numbers, here you go:
- 106.4 points per game (highest since 1989-90)
- 97.3 pace (highest since 1990-91)
- 52.2 eFG% (highest ever)
- 108.7 points per 100 possessions (second-highest ever)
There’s about four weeks left in the NBA season, and these numbers will still fluctuate somewhat. Still, offense and shooting percentages tend to improve over the course of the season, and it’s more likely these numbers will tick up another percentage or two than decline. Even if they fall slightly, it won’t dramatically alter where they stand historically.
Why is scoring up this season?
NBA offenses are quicker than past decades and more efficient than ever before, and that can be directly attributed to three-pointers. The league will break the record for three-pointers made and attempted this season, and players are currently shooting those shots at a 36.3 percent clip. That’s the third-highest tick in league history — only the 1995-96 season (with a shorter three point line) and the 2008-09 season (just random variation) were better, but teams didn’t take as many as they have this year.
Another forgotten aspect of efficiency is turnovers. Teams are turning the ball over on just 13.1 percent of possessions, second lowest in league history. The three lowest turnover percentages for a season have all come in the past three years.
Wait, this is the best offensive season ever?
You’d barely recognize basketball in the 1960s and 70s. It was played at a frantic pace with plenty of fouling. This year’s 106.4 points per game might be high for this era, but in the 60s, scoring never once fell below 111 points per game. It wasn’t efficient, but they took so many shots that it didn’t matter.
Basketball began to become more deliberate in the 80s as teams sought out efficient two-pointers. If you look for the league’s highest field goal percentages and assists per game, they began in the late 70s and continued throughout the following decade.
The 90s were just weird — a few star players (Jordan, Magic, Bird) retired, causing panic. The league shortened the three-point line for a couple years. In the late 90s and early 2000s, scoring dipped to near historic levels. The league killed the hand check rule and permitted zone defenses, which in turn led to a help defense revolution, which led us to the pace-and-space era that is currently thriving.
What does that mean on a team level?
Just a few seasons ago, it wasn’t unusual to see the league’s best defenses allow under 100 points per 100 possessions. During the 2014-15 season, four teams did just that. This year, only four teams are allowing fewer than 103 points per 100 possessions, and the lowest is the Boston Celtics’ 101.2 points allowed per 100 possessions.
What else has changed league-wide?
Teams have never cared less about offensive rebounds, and this season’s offensive rebounding rate (22.4 percent) will be the lowest ever by nearly a full percentage point.
Free throws are also at a league low — just 21.9 per game. You can attribute that to the increased three-point shooting, a shot that draws fouls at a much lower rate than two-pointers.
Will this continue in the playoffs?
Pace and scoring usually drop slightly in the postseason, so no, these numbers will fall off to an extent.
But the cliches that “defense wins championships” and “jump shooting teams can’t win championships” have been debunked. (For example: defenses do win championships, but so do offenses, and it really takes both.)
Will this continue in the future?
That’s a bigger question than I can answer in a single paragraph here, but the short answer is yes. Three-point shooting is increasingly valued among veterans and incoming draft picks alike. The definition of a good shot, especially three-pointers early in the shot clock, continues to change and become more inclusive. Immobile centers are being mothballed, especially if they can’t shoot from outside.
The NBA is changing, and these trends aren’t going anywhere.
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