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(Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY Sports)
(Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY Sports)

With Scoring Higher Than Ever, NBA Offense is Being Solved

Statistics in this article were compiled from basketballreference.com, teamrankings.com, and inpredictable.com. 

Two 70 point games. Six 60 point games. Box scores not seen since Wilt Chamberlain terrorized the NBA in the 60s. A game score of 157-152 without the game going to overtime. A points bonanza that seems to include everyone, as evidenced by the 145 players who are averaging 10 or more points every game. If you feel the NBA has lost control of its scoring, you aren’t alone. In fact, the statistics agree.

For instance, in the 2016-2017 NBA season, the Golden State Warriors, a year removed from their 73-9 campaign and with Kevin Durant newly minted as a member, broke the record for offensive rating, which is how many points scored per 100 possessions. Their rating was 115.6 points per 100 possessions, a mind-boggling number at the time, indicative of their enormous firepower led by four All-Stars and two former MVPs. It helped them to 67 wins and a championship.

That offense would rank 18th in the NBA this season in offensive rating, just in front of the 21-33 Brooklyn Nets who are at 115.3 points per 100 possessions. The offensive explosion that has occurred over the past decade and a half has gone into overdrive, and comparing the 2003-2004 season, the 2013-2014 season and the 2023-2024 season (so far) paints a stark illustration of just how intense this jump has been.

The 2003-2004 season can largely be looked at as a swan song to the physical bully ball that had been the norm of the 90s. It was the season that the Detroit Pistons won nearly 60 games and the championship by grinding away at opposing teams in a brutal affair, where points were scarce, with the newly-unbanned zone defense wreaking havoc on offenses across the league. Tracy McGrady led the league in scoring at 28.0 points per game, albeit on a brutally inefficient 41% shooting. Only two teams scored more than 100 points per game, and eight were scoring less than 90 points per game. It was a slow, methodical game, full of big men clogging the paint and perimeter defenders hand checking mercilessly.

Fast forward to the 2013-2014 season, and a young rookie from that 2003-2004 season had become the face of the NBA. LeBron James had won four MVPS and two championships, terrorizing teams while leading the Miami Heat superteam along with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. However, a silky shooter from Oklahoma City named Kevin Durant won the scoring title that year, scoring 32.0 points per game on 50% shooting, and the last great team of Greg Popovich and Tim Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs dynasty won the title. Offense had progressed by this point, largely due to the outlawing of hand checking. Sixteen teams were scoring more than 100 points per game, and there were not any that were averaging below 90 points per game. Analytics had not yet overwhelmed shot selection and offensive systems, but more rules against defense and for offense had scoring in what seemed like a healthy place.

Only ten years later, it has become a completely different game. Those Warriors led to an influx of a style that was built around pace and shooting that had really only been experimented with by a few teams before them. With this shift in style, and a struggle to adjust defensively, scoring shot up exponentially, culminating in this season’s mind-numbing numbers. Six different players, not including the ineligible Joel Embiid, are matching or outpacing McGrady’s 28.0 points per game from 2003-2004. Luka Doncic paces the pack at 34.2 points per game, but he is one of three players scoring more than 30. Five teams are scoring more than 120 points per game, and 27 of them are scoring more than 110.

What about the past decade has caused such exponential growth in scoring? Simply put, NBA coaches and players have solved the game of basketball. The math says that three is greater than two, and the only time a two-pointer is worth more points per possession than a three-pointer is when it is at or around the rim. Midrange jump shots are being exiled from the game, with only the biggest stars getting the green light to shoot them. In addition, with this newfound emphasis on range, players now work relentlessly on their three point shot, as a proficiency in shooting is the surest bet to getting playing time. The result is thus predictable, but nonetheless stunning. 

In 2003-2004, there were only two teams with more than 20 threes attempted per game, led by the Seattle SuperSonics at 23.6. In 2013-2014, that number shifted as the value of the three was beginning to be realized, with 20 teams shooting at least 20 threes per game, led by the Houston Rockets at 26.5. In the current season, every single team is shooting more than 30 threes per game, with three of them shooting more than 40, including lead-leading Boston at an unbelievable 42.6. On top of the outrageous amount being shot, three point percentage is at an all-time high, with the league-average of 36.7% tied for first with three other years (2020-2021, 2008-2009, and 1996-1997, a year where the three point line was shortened).

The other major solution teams have come up with is pace. After all, the more times you have the ball in your hands in a 48 minute game, the more chances you have to score. In 2003-2004, an average possession before there was a shot or a turnover took about 15.7 seconds, and there were about 90.1 possessions per team in a game. A decade later, in 2013-2014, the pace rose slightly, with an average possession taking about 15.1 seconds, and 93.1 possessions per team in a game. A decade more to get to the present, and the time of an average possession has plummeted to 14.4 seconds, and teams have an average of 99.1 possessions per game. On top of this, teams are shooting the most shots per game since 1982-1983, at 89.2. The average shots per game in 2003-2004 was 79.8, and in 2013-2014 it was 83.0.

Combine these two changes, and you get the eye-popping offense of this year. Teams are shooting better shots at a higher rate with a higher percentage of success than ever before, and with the limitations on defense, there is no real current way to stop this growth. Players continue to get more athletic and skilled, analytics continue to get more precise, and scoring continues to soar. Is it possible to qualm this seemingly-overwhelming wave?

In technicality, yes. There are several rules that inhibit a defense’s ability to slow down the relentless flow of current offenses, such as no hand checking, defensive three second rules, and the inability to take a foul in transition without the opponent keeping possession. Reversing or tweaking some of these rules would allow defenses to better account for the frantic ball movement that dominates today’s game. (There have been many arguments made that rewarding flopping has made it impossible to play defense as well. While there may be some truth to that, the foul rate has actually decreased in each of the decades looked at here.)

However, even if defenses are given more tools to try to slow the current avalanche of points, there is no guarantee that it will actually help defenses in a meaningful way. How to score the most points has been distilled and formulated, and unless there is a drastic change in the fundamental rules of basketball, that formula is only going to become more and more precise.

For many fans, this is a sign of a decay in the quality and integrity of the game, but it should not be considered a bad thing. Games have been solved before, with real positive impact. For instance, chess has been solved for decades. Every winning move has been found and permuted, and it is extremely rare that a new method is found. However, chess has not only maintained popularity, but grown. The difference is in where the intrigue of the game is. Everyone who plays chess knows what both players are going to try to do. However, it is a psychological war in who will make the fatal mistake, and whether their opponent will pounce on it. The players can manipulate each other’s movements, trying to force their opponent into the move that sets off the permutation that ends in a checkmate.

Basketball can now be watched in a very similar light. Both teams are trying to score points via a well-known formula: pick and roll or pick and pop, ball handler drives and kicks when the defense collapses or scores when the defense doesn’t. The intrigue, much like chess, is in who makes the fatal mistake, and whether the opposition takes advantage. Defense can be used to manipulate and bait opponents into those mistakes, but it is not the end-all-be-all that it was in years past. Tweaking the mindset for basketball into watching a chess match between the teams on the court and the coaches on the sideline reinvigorates the watching experience, creating a new sense of suspense and catharsis.

Some fans will refuse to accept this new mindset, which is fair. It is hard to accept that something you’ve watched and loved for so long has shifted. It’s even harder to shift with it to continue to enjoy it. The reality is clear, though: basketball has been solved, and thus has evolved. We can choose whether to continue to enjoy it, or reject its new form.


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