The first week of the NBA season has been highlighted by full-throttle offense and not much defense. Scores in the 130s and 140s were once seldom blips but have typified several final scores to start the season. This may be a good week to avoid your friend who says no one plays defense in the NBA.
If only things were that simple. Yes, the worst team in the NBA is surrendering 10 points more per 100 possessions. The Suns were the worst defensive team a season ago with a 112.8 defensive rating. But that number would rank 18th this season after the first week of the season.
The Nets had the highest-scoring offense last season through the first five games of 2018 averaging 121.2 points per game but the Pelicans have dropped 132 points per game to begin this season.
In reality, there are a number of factors influencing the NBA’s scoring spike.
You don’t just score more points for out of nowhere. Teams have been increasing their pace of play or possessions per 48 minutes each year since 2012, the season after the lockout. In 2012, teams averaged 91.3 possessions per 48 minutes. By comparison, the league average for the 2018 season was 97.3.
And then there’s there’s this season. So far, teams are averaging 101.8 possessions per 48. It took us six years to see a six-possession increase but we’ve seen a 4.5 possession per 48 minutes jump almost overnight. The last time pace was this high, Magic Johnson was leading the Showtime Lakers in the Finals against Larry Bird’s Celtics every year in the 80s.
The effect on offenses has been significant. Here are some other incredible stats from the first week of the season.
What does this mean? Teams are playing at a high of a pace as ever but they’re shooting and taking care of the ball better than ever. To give you an idea, teams in 1985 had a 49.6 effective field goal percentage and turned the ball over nearly 15 percent of the time. Of course, the league average for 3-point attempts per game was 3.1 and the league averaged has ballooned to 31.6 so far this season.
When you combine that volume and proficiency of 3-point shooting, fewer turnovers, and a quicker pace, it’s no wonder teams are scoring at incredible rates.
Around the time of the jump in pace, the league began to shift towards positionless basketball. Shooting guards became wings or ballhandlers. Big men saw a change in job description that phased out the plodding back-to-the-basket seven-footer in favor of versatile seven-footers who could rebound and play inside and outside. This was good news for Tweeners — players who were neither small nor power forwards — as they often became Stretch 4’s as the forward positions became more ambiguous as teams began playing smaller lineups.
We saw the 2012 Miami Heat win a title with Chris Bosh at center and LeBron James playing minutes at power forward. This was highly unusual at the time. Just a few years prior, teams were built around great centers like Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan. The Spurs won multiple titles with Tim Duncan and David Robinson in the early 2000s.
Now, it’s not uncommon to see things like two point guard lineups. The idea now is that you have two ballhandlers or more on the floor at all times. Not only that, shooting is at a premium. If you can’t shoot, you better be good at a lot of other things. Take Jimmy Butler. He’s not a great shooter but he can do everything else on the floor so it doesn’t matter. Now, when Andrew Wiggins isn’t shooting, rebounding, passing, or playing defense, you’re playing 4-on-5. You can’t afford that anymore.
Fifteen years ago, Karl-Anthony Towns likely would’ve been told to stay on the low block versus flaring out behind the 3-point line as he does now. Players that enter the league now have been brought up in this ideology and even veterans like Brook Lopez and Marc Gasol have become deep threats in order to extend their careers.
When you play smaller, you’re better suited to get up and run the floor. The 1997 saw teams played at a pace of 90.1 but shot and turned the ball at a similar level to the mid-80s. Think of all of the great big men of the 1990s and how much of the offensive action involved the point guard dribbling up the floor and dumping the ball off to the big man on the block. The approach has changed entirely and teams are finding ways to get as many weapons on the floor as possible on the floor at once.
In the Timberwolves 30 years of existence, they have never played at a pace quicker than 97.3 but are up to 101.8 through four games. After setting franchise records for offensive rating each of the last two season, they’re on pace to do that again. As somewhat of a byproduct of that pace, their defensive rating would also be a franchise worst.
Do these things hold? Probably not at this level but there’s a good chance these things hold up to some degree. The same is true for much of the league. Numbers will likely regress closer to the mean but it stands to reason that the shooting and general fast pace will continue. There has been too much change and enough evidence over the last five years to think that the volume of shooting and pace of play will slow.
I had the opportunity to ask Anthony Tolliver and Tom Thibodeau about this trend after last Friday’s victory and Tolliver said that the team practices for these low shot clock situations which force them to create quicker offensively.
I was curious if teams just hadn’t gotten their defensive legs underneath them and weren’t connected yet on that end with a shorter preseason.
“Overall every team at the beginning of the year emphasizes speed, emphasizes playing faster. I think that’s a part of it and then I think teams settle into their speed and it’s probably a little slower than what they started at,” said Tolliver. “But I think that the NBA is just going to a faster pace, more points, and more points allowed.”
“Obviously, it’s still gonna require you to play defense but we both had two or three buckets off of made baskets where we pass it in quickly and get a layup or a dunk at the other end. So I feel like in the past it was so much like that; there were maybe one or two teams like that. Now I think more teams are going to that approach.”
Thibodeau offered a different possible answer. The game is being officiated differently and what we’ve seen in the first week of the season is players adapting to that.
“It’s interesting because you bring up a good point. I think the game is being called differently right now and the players are adjusting and you’re seeing a lot of fouls and teams getting into the bonus very quickly,” said Thibodeau. “So it seems, in general, it’s a very small sample size but it seems like there are a lot of high-scoring games right now.”
What Thibodeau says is key. This is still a small sample size in the sense that we’re five games or so into the season. However, pace and shooting have been steadily increasing over the last six season. Based on Tolliver’s comments, teams are preparing differently, perhaps due to the new offensive rebound and shot clock rule. We’ve also seen over the last six years how teams are playing smaller lineups than before and are constructing their rosters to suit this strategy.
It’s entirely possible that what we’re seeing now is the culmination of six years of an intentional or purposeful shift in strategy and thinking. We’ll know more about where the season is headed once we reach the one-quarter mark of the season in about 15 more games but it seems that we’re headed for one of the highest scoring and most fast-paced seasons in league history.