Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Offense Is Up! Offense Is Up!

When researching some numbers a while back, I came across this pretty cool page of League Average Stats through the years, on Basketball Reference.

The page simply runs down the average per-game team stats for every NBA and ABA season ever.

For example, here is the average line of offensive stats for an NBA team in the 2006-07 season:

36.5 79.7 .458 6.1 16.9 .358 19.6 26.1 .752 21.3 98.7

A few things struck me:
1. Scoring is up significantly.

Last season's PPG average of 98.7 was the highest since 1995-96 (99.5).

The lockout season (1998-99) was the nadir. Offensive stats were disastrous - points per game (91.6) were the lowest of the shot-clock era, and FG%/FT% were the lowest since the '60s. Of course, that season was a bit of an aberration.

Excessive handchecking and the bumping/manhandling of cutters were removed from the game that offseason, and PPG temporarily shot up for a season, to 97.5, before falling back, with 2003-04 being a low point, at 93.4.

That offseason, the current rules interpretations - no handchecking allowed - were implemented and Steve Nash joined Mike D'Antoni and the Suns to bring back the fast break in earnest. Scoring immediately shot up to 97.2 in 2004-05.

2. Three-point shooting is up.

Three-point percentage has been at .358 for two straight seasons - that's the highest number ever, other than the three seasons (1994-95 to 1996-97) when the line was moved in.

As much talk as there is lamenting the supposed lost art of the midrange game, there is very little talk about how it's been offset by massive improvements in three-point shooting, with many more players able to hit the three better than they were a generation ago.

In 1987, the average team went a measly 1.4-4.7 (.301) from three-point land, while last season the numbers were 6.1-16.9 (.358).

Interestingly, three-point shooting numbers have gone back up since the new handchecking interpretation was instituted in 2004-05 - one could assume that more help defense is needed against penetrating guards, leaving more open shooters.

3. FG% shooting overall is up.

Last season's field-goal percentage of .458 was a big jump from .439 in 2003-04, and the highest number since 1995-96 (.462).

Even though overall field-goal percentage still trails the '80s, when FG% was in the .480-.490 range, the volume of three-point shots explains a lot of that.

In fact, in terms of Adjusted Field-Goal Percentage (i.e., granting an extra .5 FG made for each three-point shot made, to account for how many points are scored per field-goal attempt), the numbers are actually up.

In 1986-87, adjusted FG% was roughly .484 - last season, it was .496 (also comparable to the .495 ADJ FG% in '83-84).

Ever poor old free-throw shooting has rebounded from the .730s in the late '90s to the .750s today, comparable with the early '80s and the late '70s.

4. Assists have actually fallen.

Total assists, obviously a measure of team play, are still in the 21 range, which is down from the '80s, when they hovered around 26, an historic high.

Part of this is explained simply because fewer field goals are made in this era, so the more telling number is assists per field goal.

Last season, there were assists on roughly 58.4% of all field goals, which is down from 61.0% in 1986-87, and a general average of around 60% in the '80s.

Interestingly, assists per FG are actually down from the nadir year of 2003-04, when the 60.9% average was comparable to the '80s.

Again, the handchecking interpetations would seem to have made the difference, opening up more lanes for penetrators.

And in general, even in the lean offensive years of the past decade, the ratio of assists per field goal stayed competitive with the '80s - in 1997-98, it was 61.3%, for example.


Maybe I'm a little oversensitive after my Bill James rant, but it seems like there are many fewer articles heralding that we are in a glorious new NBA era, thanks to rising offensive numbers, compared to the countless sky-is-falling stories over the past decade which used declining offensive numbers to lament the NBA's overall decline.

I actually don't think the numbers mean a whole lot in and of themselves from year to year, which is why I thought they were overused in tracking the alleged decline.

My interpretation is that offensive numbers initially went down mainly because the quality of defense across the league increased drastically - a good thing, as that was a sign that the intensity of the average game went up. But then, games just became brutal (literally) in the late '90s when they got overly physical, before handchecking was curtailed and bumping cutters was stopped before 1999-2000.

By contrast, even though last season had the best overall offensive numbers in more than a decade, it was still a crappy season overall, thanks to so many injuries plus too many teams futilely tanking their way to more Oden/Durant ping-pong balls.

Still, I think we are headed in a good direction overall. I made notes of one comment Steve Kerr made during the Dallas-Golden State series, when he pointed out that games in the NBA are increasingly being decided by athleticism more than brute physical force, and that's a good thing.

Kerr developed the idea in this post on Yahoo! in the spring, Speed kills Heat, Mavericks, when he also noted that the elimination of illegal defense (implemented for the 2001-02 season) has had a strong effect as well:
    The future of the league can be summed up with one word: speed.

    Speed at all five positions. Skilled, multi-position players who blend together, play any spot on the floor and run like hell.

    The NBA deserves some credit for the current trend. By allowing zone defenses into the game in 2002, the league basically made the 7-foot stiff obsolete. Now it's impossible to hide a player who's a non-factor offensively. It used to be that every player on the floor had to be covered, so teams like the Utah Jazz would put Greg Ostertag near the hash mark on the sidelines, and his defender had to be above the free-throw line or be called for illegal defense. Ostertag was basically moved out of the play so that John Stockton and Karl Malone could play pick and roll, and then he'd go back and clog the lane defensively at the other end.. Now, since the big man doesn't have to be covered, teams can't afford to have him out there. So instead, they play five guys who are all actually skilled at the same time. And since there aren't any big slow guys in the lane, it's easier for both teams to score.
Just reading that comment gets me excited to start watching a new season. Even though last season was a bummer in a lot of ways, I still think we're headed in the right direction overall.


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