Karthik’s Take: The evolution of NBA offense

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Miami Heat forward Kelly Olynyk, left, sets up for a shot in front of Orlando Magic forward Gary Clark during the first half of an NBA basketball game on Sunday, March 14, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. Three-point shooting plays an integral role in NBA offense. Photo by Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP Photo.

Professional basketball has evolved a lot since its inception in 1898. The NBA has seen players push the physical limits of the human anatomy. These athletes run faster, jump higher and increasingly resemble comic book superheroes with each passing season. The league today would be unrecognizable to someone who watched the game in the mid-2000s, let alone a century back. While listing all the changes the league has undergone would warrant its own article, there is one massive change that fans have quickly grown accustomed to: The absolutely insane amount of scoring over the past 10 seasons.  

NBA teams currently average 112.2 points per game. The last time NBA teams cumulatively averaged such a staggering number of points was during the 1971-72 season. The 70s and 80s featured a breakneck pace that resulted in teams getting more offensive possessions which led to more fast-break points. Adjusting the NBA league averages to statistics per 100 possessions reveals that NBA scoring has never been this prolific. The last three seasons have all been record-breakers in average league scoring per 100 possessions. This means that the recent uptick in scoring is not because of teams just getting more opportunities to shoot but because NBA offenses have fundamentally evolved.  

With that being said, it’s time to address the elephant in the room. Everybody is aware that three-point shooting is now an integral part of the league. Celtics legend and former Indiana Pacers president of basketball operations Larry Bird summed up this idea best when he said “if you’re not firing up thirty 3’s, you’re just not playing basketball.” While Bird is correct, the root of the scoring explosion goes far deeper than the NBA just shooting more threes.  

In the 2010-11 season, there were only seven players who averaged 25 ppg or more. There are 16 players who have scored at this volume in the 2020-21 season. In fact, when analyzing all the game’s best scorers from 2011-2016, there were only twenty three players who averaged 25 points per game. In comparison, there have been 58 players who have averaged a minimum of 25 ppg in the past five seasons. The league has never had such a surplus of elite scorers. Players are having 30 point performances every other night and shattering scoring records on a consistent basis. There were 775 30 plus point games during the 2019-20 NBA season in comparison to just 368 such games in the 2003-2004 season which had a similar number of games. Scoring 30 has become a norm in the NBA, a feat not exclusive to the game’s premier scorers. This discrepancy is even evident when observing the frequency of 50-point outbursts. There was only one such scoring performance in 2010, two in 2011 and three in 2012. The league broke a record for 50-point games in 2018-19 with 11 and the last half decade represents the highest frequency of 50-point games with just one exception — Wilt Chamberlain’s absurd scoring totals of the early 1960s. He even averaged 50 points a game in the 1961-62 season which is the only outlier in the data.  

The most telling part of the NBA’s scoring jump is that role players are now routinely scoring 20 to 30 points per game. Instantaneous offense has become a necessity in the current basketball era of pace, space and isolation greatness. At this point, just to be a serviceable player in the NBA, you have to be able to defend multiple positions while having the ability to create instant isolation offense. Players that specialize in certain aspects of the game but can’t score are now a relic. The sole exception is Ben Simmons who has still managed to average 16.3 ppg for his career. Simmons is one of the few players in the league that is able to influence the game by excelling in skills other than shooting. His size advantage at the point guard position, surreal passing ability and defensive prowess make him an asset to the Philadelphia 76ers who also composed their team to cater toward his style of play. Most other average or even above average players that can’t shoot are now seen as liabilities as they restrict floor spacing and the shooting efficiency of other players.  

The analytics boom has expedited the NBA’s offensive revolution by educating teams on statistically efficient shot selection. This has given nearly all players the green light to shoot and execute flashy moves to create opportunities. Ray Allen, the NBA’s current all-time three point leader, even said “I was getting it up but not like these guys are today” and that he felt like he was settling if he took five three pointers a game.  

This offensive freedom and shift in team philosophies has made 30 points in today’s NBA mean as much as scoring 20 points 10 years ago. Consequently, there are several all-time great players from previous eras that never averaged twenty points a game in their careers that would see their averages skyrocket had they played in today’s league. Some prime examples of these players include Steve Nash, Manu Ginobli, Bill Russel, John Stockton and Jason Kidd. All of these players shot with incredible efficiency and would exponentially increase their scoring output if they attempted shots with the same frequency as today’s top scorers.  

Additionally, the average player in the NBA is far more skilled than ever before while defenses are struggling to adapt at the same rate. Defenses are often forced into playing zones because teams field lineups where every player on the court is a threat to score and produce ESPN top 10 highlights. Ultimately, defense, regardless of the individual talent of the players, is reactionary and entails physical and strategic limits while offensive skill sets are constantly expanding. Centers are shooting threes with accuracy, guards are pulling up for shots near half-court, the vast majority of the league can play above the rim and more. This begets one critical question. How have the offensive skills of NBA players improved so dramatically in recent years? 

There are four primary drivers of the NBA’s recent jump in offensive production. The NBA is an advocate of more scoring from a financial standpoint and has facilitated this style of basketball through rule changes, the inherent advantage offense has in basketball being exploited through better player training regimens, the social media marketing of high school prospects and the incorporation of analytics.  

Players have realized that developing their offensive skill set has a direct correlation to increasing their chances to land larger contracts and endorsement opportunities. The teambuilding tactics of franchises now are simple. Why should they sign a player who specializes in rebounding and defense when they can sign a guy who can do that and score with the best players in the league? When putting the ball in the basket is what actually yields the points, why should any other skill matter as much as scoring prowess? Positions no longer matter. The league is about letting your players maximize their natural talents and rounding out a team with versatile pieces that supplement the star’s deficiencies. It is no wonder that older players crave the opportunity to play in today’s league given their freedom to shoot as they please with zero repercussions.  

The lack of defense in the NBA is a myth. The game’s offensive talent is simply improving at a faster rate than ever before. While there are several players from the late 80s and 90s that would flourish in today’s league, it is undeniable that the league is continuing to raise the bar of possibility in athleticism and sheer talent. With offense thriving, The NBA is in a great place and will undoubtedly continue delivering iconic moments for years to come.  

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