NBA teams scoring at record rate through first three months of season

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A decade ago, the NBA was chock-full of superstars and future Hall of Famers putting up eye-popping numbers night after night.

Kobe Bryant. LeBron James. Kevin Durant. Carmelo Anthony. 

Somehow, though, that version of the NBA had far less scoring than the current one.

The average NBA team in 2012-13 scored 98.1 points per game — under 100 per contest for the 16th time in the previous 18 years. Since then, that number has steadily increased, now at a staggering 113.7 points per game as of Tuesday afternoon — the highest in a single season since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976.

And Monday night provided the latest evidence for this high-flying era of basketball. Cleveland’s Donovan Mitchell scored 71 points — the most in an NBA game since Bryant dropped 81 in 2006. Golden State’s Klay Thompson put up 54 in a double-overtime win. And James, at age 38, scored 40-plus for the second-straight game in a Lakers win.

It isn’t accurate to say the NBA has more high-scoring players today than in past years. Sure, the league has plenty of stars. James and Durant are still playing at a high level. And a newer crop of players like Luka Doncic (34.3 points per game), Jayson Tatum (30.9) and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (30.8) have fully emerged as the future of the league alongside the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic. 

But why exactly has scoring increased so dramatically?

In one word: Efficiency. 

NBA teams and players today are playing more efficiently on the offensive end than they arguably ever have in league history. 

The effective field goal percentage (a metric that adjusts the regular statistic to account for the fact that a 3-pointer is worth more than a 2-point shot) in the NBA this season is 54.1% — the highest in league history. That’s up almost a whole percent over last year and up from 49.6% a decade ago. 

The Washington Wizards, for example, have a 112.7 offensive rating — the best in franchise history. Offensive rating calculates how many points a team would score if given 100 possessions, and the Wizards’ is nearly 1.5 points more than its previous best from 2020-21. The NBA average offensive rating is a record 113.5.  

The improved efficiency is in part a cause of teams being more analytically minded. Simply put, NBA analytics preaches teams should take fewer 2-point jumpers and make more 3-pointers, slam home more dunks and nail more free throws to maximize scoring output. 

Analytics have also changed the game to be more positionless, with players at all five positions capable of shooting 3s. As the league has fazed out the big men with poor shooting ability, free throw percentages have increased.

Fewer free throws for players like Shaquille O’Neal (career percentage of 52.7%), more for players like Stephen Curry (90.9%).

The free throw percentage this season is the highest it’s ever been at 78% — up two-tenths of a percent versus last year and about 2% higher than most years in the 1980s. 

Surprisingly, though, the scoring increase has little to do with an increased pace. This season’s pace (calculated as the number of possessions in 48 minutes) is at 99.3 — around the same as it’s been the last several years and multiple possessions lower than in most years in the 1980s. 

Now, a decrease in inspired defense could be playing a factor, as well. Previous generations of NBA players have been arguing for decades that the defense played in the 1980s and 1990s was far superior to that of today’s game. 

In the last five years, the average NBA team is turning the ball over about two fewer times per game than in the 1990s. The seven lowest turnover percentage seasons in NBA history have all come in the past seven years. Through almost the first half of the 2022-23 campaign, the league-wide turnover percentage is 13%. 

There are also rule changes over the years that have impacted scoring. Of course, the addition of the 3-point line in 1979 added a new element that drastically altered the way the game was played. In 1985-86, NBA teams averaged just over three 3-point attempts per game. In 1990-91, that number was 7.1. 

This season? 34.3. 

That means the average NBA game has both teams chucking up a total of nearly 69 shots from behind the arc.

The game is also less physical than it was in the late 20th century and is officiated as such. Driving to the bucket is no longer a one-way ticket to getting clotheslined. 

This season specifically, there’s a new rule change that may be playing a small role in the scoring uptick. The NBA instituted a take foul rule for when a defender commits a foul while not making a play on the ball in a transition opportunity. In these instances, the offense gets one free throw and possession of the ball. The larger impact of the rule change is likely how teams are defending in transition — playing less physical and more relaxed to avoid being charged with a take foul. 

Whatever the many reasons why scoring is up in the NBA, it’s more clear now than ever that the days of grind-em-out, sub-100-point slugfests are well in the past. Instead, high-scoring games like Mitchell’s and Thompson’s on Monday could become even more frequent. 

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