My first game as a Memphis Grizzlies employee was a little over 11 years ago, on Dec. 17, 2012. We scored 80 points that night and won. That wasn’t a particularly unusual event: We would also win games that season scoring 76, 81, 82 (thrice) and 85 (thrice again).
That was barely a decade ago, but it might as well have been a different century. NBA offenses have gone wild in the intervening years, and the trend is only increasing. Do you know how many teams have won while scoring 80 points this season? Zero.
The Grizzlies’ opponent on that night, Chicago, scored 71 points … or two fewer than Luka Dončić scored by himself on Friday in Atlanta. Six players had scored 70 or more points in an NBA game in the league’s entire seven decades of history before January 2023. It’s happened four times since then, including twice in the last two weeks.
Look at what happened this past weekend. In addition to Dončić, Devin Booker scored 62 and then 44, Stephen Curry had 46, Anfernee Simons had 40 and P.J. Washington scored 43 points on 22 shots. P.J. Washington! Dončić aside, did I mention all of their teams lost?
Meanwhile, Joel Embiid is on pace to be only the second player in NBA history to score more than a point per minute (Wilt Chamberlain was the other, when he averaged 50 points a game in 1961-62) after a recent 70-burger of his own.
Aldridge: Joel Embiid’s 70 took the NBA back to unprecedented heights
Even compared to 10 years ago, the changes are mind-boggling. Consider: The LA Clippers led the NBA in scoring in 2013-14 at 107.9 points per game; that figure this season would put them 29th, a tenth of a point ahead of last-place Memphis. The Clips also had the league’s most efficient offense that season, at 112.1 points per 100 possessions; that figure would put them 25th this season.
We thought the revolution was when Mike D’Antoni and Seven Second or Less took us from a league that averaged 94 points per team per game in 2003-04 to one that averaged 101.0 in 2013-14. But it turns out we were just getting started.
The offensive revolution has only accelerated in the decade since, with scoring averages jumping from 101.0 to 115.6. It’s an increase monumental enough to throw off some of our standards — Kelly Oubre averaged 20 points per game last season and got a minimum contract. This season, a whopping 45 players boast 20-point scoring averages — including Terry Rozier, Kyle Kuzma and Cam Thomas.
The increase in offense in the pace-and-space era shows little sign of abating. The league averaged 112.0 points per 100 possessions just two seasons ago but is up to 115.9 this season. Remember, offense usually increases in the second half of the season too, so the final tally is likely to be even greater.
While the pace of play has increased somewhat, helping to jack up scoring totals on its own, the main story is one of massively improved shooting efficiency. Compared to a decade ago, teams get slightly fewer offensive rebounds and draw slightly fewer free throws (sorry, Steve Kerr) and also turn it over less. But the two big movers are that A) teams have weaponized the 3, and B) it’s resulted in an avalanche of easy 2s.
A huge related story is the ever-increasing power of the 3-point line. Even the Moreyball Houston Rockets of 2013-14 only took 26.6 3-point flings a game; they were league-leading outliers at the time, but that figure would rank last by a mile in 2023-24. (The 30th-place Los Angeles Lakers still launch 30.1 per game and had their center firing away from the corners in a double-overtime game Saturday night.)
We might at least be hitting an asymptote on that latter figure; the league-wide rate of 39.2 percent of shots coming from 3 has been steady for the last four seasons, topping out at 39.9 percent two years ago.
There’s a good reason that might be happening: Teams have become so good at getting shots in the paint that 3s no longer have a greater expected value than 2s. Sob for the decline of the midrange all you want, but when teams shot 36.0 percent from 3 and 48.8 percent from 2, as they did 10 years ago, it was obvious money was being left on the table by not converting more 2s into 3s.
Contrast that with today’s NBA, where nearly all long 2s off the catch have been excised from the shot chart. As a result, teams shoot 35.0 percent from 3 and 54.5 percent on 2s this season. The 3 is there as much as a ruse as a weapon; defenses stretched to their limit by five-out spacing end up ceding interstate-highway-width driving lanes. The relationship between shooting a ton of 3s and elite offense also has weakened; teams like the Denver Nuggets and Philadelphia 76ers that “only” take 35 percent of their shots from 3 still have elite offenses.
That’s the math, but let’s take this back to the central discussion point: Are offenses getting far enough ahead that the league needs to do something about it? The natural ebb and flow of the game is best when teams score roughly half the time, and we’re still not too far off from that, believe it or not: The average of 115.9 points per 100 possessions becomes 102.9 when you subtract 3-pointers, which implies the offense scoring on 51.5 percent of possessions. (It’s not quite that simple, of course, with and-1s and split free throws and flagrant and technical fouls to consider, but humor me.) That same number 10 years ago was 49.1 percent; the overall efficiency numbers were a lot worse because there were just a lot more 2s.
Still, we’re seemingly at a worrisome tipping point, because the current trend line shows no sign of a flattening curve. The game right now is still in great shape, but offenses seem hell-bent on changing that, and defenses might have a hard time catching up without some help from the league. If offenses keep adding a point in efficiency every season, games like “Indiana 157, Atlanta 152” will become a nightly mockery of the game instead of a once-a-season spectacle.
It’s not that the league hasn’t tried: Already, we’ve seen rule adjustments to address some of the dodgier foul-grifting from crafty operators like Chris Paul and Trae Young, and of course, the league has allowed zone defenses. It’s just that they might need to do a bit more to help defenses bring this back toward parity. Free throws aren’t even the issue, as outlined above; it’s just a stream of buckets.
The league is likely reluctant to step in since it seems like good times right now: Having a league tilted slightly more toward offense is probably the best-case scenario in terms of entertainment. The danger, however, is that it slides toward farce. Having teams score 52 percent of the time is fun; have the rate get much higher than that, and it starts looking ridiculous, the flip side to the league’s no-offense nadir of the mid-1990s.
Thus, in the wake of a 15 percent jump in offense in just 10 years, we have to ask: How much offense is the league comfortable with? When does the entertainment value diminish because guys are scoring on every play? And what remedies are even possible to derail the steady charge of offenses? Would eliminating the illegal defense rule entirely be too radical?
I don’t have good answers to those questions right now, but it’s easy to see how this might be an increasingly important topic as the league wrestles with space-age scoring exploits.
Stat Geekery: The All-Star vote
So … the system worked?
The league’s new system for determining All-Star starters had two victories of a sort this past week, when it effectively overruled the fans from having Young and Curry as starters. Instead of relying solely on fan voting, that part is now effectively weighed at 50.1 percent (it’s half, but it’s also the tiebreaker), with added components of player and media voting.
While the player voting was often ridiculous and indefensible (11 votes for Santi Aldama? 12 for Nikola Vučević?), their aggregate choice of Oklahoma City’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander over Curry in the West was obviously the correct one. In the East, however, things got a bit more wild. The Milwaukee Bucks’ Damian Lillard was the second backcourt starter (next to no-brainer Tyrese Haliburton) despite not ranking in the top two among guards in any of the three categories; he was third among fans, fourth among players and fifth among media.
However, Lillard essentially won a tie with New York’s Jalen Brunson, who was voted second among the media and third among players. My choice here, Cleveland’s Donovan Mitchell, was somewhat bizarrely fifth among players, as well as third in the media vote. Meanwhile, Philadelphia’s Tyrese Maxey was the players’ choice for the second starter, garnering 53 more votes than Brunson.
NBA All-Star Game 2024: Our voters’ picks for East and West starters
This is likely an issue of semantics involving players who will almost certainly make the All-Star team anyway; it seems hugely improbable any of Brunson, Mitchell, Maxey or Lillard would have been left off by East coaches when they name the subs later this week. Installing any of them over Young was the right call.
Nonetheless, it’s interesting to see where it could have been different and how the margins of a few votes from one of the three columns can matter a lot when the players are ranked in each category separately. Mitchell would have been the starter with just 17 more player votes; as it was, he was fifth. Young would have been the starter with just seven more player votes, even though he got just one of the 100 media votes. And with 23,416 more fan votes and just three more player votes, the starter would have been Maxey.
Brunson, however, can’t say the same, even though he lost a “tie” to Lillard that was broken by Lillard having more fan votes. Brunson had basically maxed out his vote; he would have needed half a million more fan votes, or to more than double his media vote, or to nearly double his player vote, to end up a starter.
Prospect of the Week: Cody Williams, 6-8 freshman SF, Colorado
(Note: This section won’t necessarily profile the best prospect of the week. Just the one I’ve been watching.)
I stopped in Seattle this past week to check out Cody Williams as the Buffaloes took on Washington. The brother of Oklahoma City forward Jalen Williams, Cody has been a rapid riser on draft boards in the first half of the season after initially falling out of favor with scouts during an underwhelming Hoop Summit week last April.
Williams has been one of the few freshmen to exceed expectations, with a PER of 20.5 and 59.4 percent shooting inside the arc thus far. He scored 19 points on 10 shots in Colorado’s win on Wednesday while scoring on drives, a short floater and catch-and-shoot 3s. He also had a sweet transition jam over Washington’s 7-foot Braxton Meah.
Williams also had a stinker Saturday in Colorado’s loss at Washington State, scoring just six points on 0-of-4 shooting with no assists, but that was his first bad game in ages — he’d put together nine straight double-figure games for one of the Pac-12’s best teams.
Listed at 6-8, Williams is nonetheless a pure perimeter player at this point. He’s rail thin at 190 pounds but very comfortable handling the ball (albeit very right-handed), pushing his own rebounds in grab-and-gos and keeping his head up to see the next pass.
Defensively, Williams can move his feet decently but doesn’t create a lot of events — he has low rates of blocks and steals for a lottery prospect — and his lack of physicality means opponents often get where they’re trying to go despite his efforts to slide with them. His 7.4 percent rebound rate also is rather underwhelming for a player of this height.
More generally he’s a smooth glider but not an explosive leaper. In contrast to the clip above, for instance, here’s a missed jam against Washington State after he pushes in transition and then broad jumps into his finish.
At the offensive end, scouts will want to see more of his jumper to see how much they can believe in it. Williams has made 52 percent from 3 but has only attempted 25 triples this season; he has a low push shot that seems decent enough from a standstill, but getting to any kind of pull-up or off-the-dribble jumper could be problematic.
Finally, because he’s only played 13 games this season due to a wrist injury, Williams remains a bit more of a mystery than some other top prospects. With two other draftable players on Colorado’s roster, scouts will likely be checking in on him frequently between now and the end of the season.
While Williams probably projects more as a late lottery pick in a normal draft, with intriguing size and tools offset by iffy shooting and defensive event creation, the top of the board is a shrug emoji this year. Thus, with a strong finish, Williams could end up being one of the first names called this June.
(Top photo of Joel Embiid: Jesse D. Garrabrant / NBAE via Getty Images)