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InsideHoops NBA [HOME] Dec. 15, 2003

Has NBA shooting really gone south?

 


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The NBA is gaining the reputation as the league that can't shoot straight. Plummetting scoring and lowered field goal percentages in the season's first month have sent NBA experts scrambling for explanations. A shortened pre-season, the effect of zone defenses, the preponderance of teams with new coaches, and the radical roster shifts of many teams have all been offered as reasons. Scoring is down about 3.5 points per game and shooting percent is down, a little more then a percentage point league-wide. Are offensive skills actually deteriorating?

The fact is, scoring and shooting percentages have been gradually but steadilly decreasing since the mid 1980s and the game has looked markedly different since the beginning of the 1990s. Rather then succumbing to myths, this might be a good opportunity to examine some of the root causes of change. The real issues probably have more to do with poor shot selection and game management rather a deterioration in shooting skills. The tremendous increase in pressure defense and radical changes in the way NBA offenses operate, have resulted in mostly "low percentage shots" being taken in the typical NBA game today.

The two biggest factors that have changed the game since the early '90s, are the success of the Detroit Pistons "Bad Boys" and the increased role of three point shot.

When the Pistons overthrew the "Showtime" Los Angeles Lakers as NBA champions, it created a change in thinking that still influences the league today. It became gospel that strong defense was necessary for winning an NBA title, and that quality defense was as least as important as offense. Since it was automatically assumed that all NBA players were proficient in offense, a disproportionate amount of effort has gone into improving defensive skills and developing defensive strategies. All of this implemented of course by the boom in available information via satellite and cable TV, the Internet, etc. etc. The increased pressure on defense has translated into fewer uncontested shots and a far slower game pace.

Game pace is by far, the biggest factor for lower scoring in the NBA today. Current NBA statistics compared to those of the past is a study in extremes. The year 1960 was the heyday of Run and Gun basketball in the NBA. Each team had an average of 152 Ball Possessions (a good measure for the number of offensive sets a team will run in a game) and scored an average of 115 points a game. In recent years, the average NBA team will have about 105 Ball Possessions a game (it's slightly down to 103.7 this season) and score about 95 points a game.

Teams are scoring 91.5 points a game so far this season (as of a week ago) and shooting percentage is a little under 43%, after being in 44-45% range in recent years. However, field goal percentage is less central to scoring then one might think. In 1962, that Run and Gun era, the league scoring average was 118.8 a game, the highest in history. The league's field goal percentage was 42.6%, which is lower then today's standards.

The Showtime Lakers and Boston Celtics of the 1980's were considered the apex of NBA basketball, because they executed fast-paced, highly efficient basketball on offense that constantly led to high percentage shots.

The Lakers won the title in the 1984-5 season by averaging 118 points a game and hitting 54.5% of their shots (the highest in league history). The Lakers attempted 478 three point shots that season, about double the league average but less then a third of what the average NBA team attempts today. The Lakers' effectiveness was based on fast break basketball that resulted in numerous uncontested layups. The epitome of this approach was a set play where Kurt Rambis would catch the ball out of the net after an opponent's basket and fire a fullcourt pass for a layup to a teammate camped out at the other end of the court. This was the ultimate in offensive efficiency; two points in one tick of the clock.

By contrast, today's offenses take a lot more time to get set up because of pressure defense. Often shots are forced at close range and are highly contested and there is a temptation to "work the ball" in order to set up a three point shot. There is a mantra that mid-range shooting is a neglected art these days. I don't know if it's a lost art, or that NBA offenses just aren't run effectively enough to set these shots up properly. In short, we aren't really seeing poor shooting but a plethora of highly contested and low percentage shots, being attempted.

One of the reasons this won't change so soon, is that the fans and David Stern, are probably a lot more concerned then NBA coaches.

Teams tend to do whatever it takes to win. This season, the Indiana Pacers have one the league's best records, and they are doing it with defense. The Pacers allow 80.7 points a game, the lowest in the league - 13 points a game fewer than last year. They are also scoring eight less than a year ago but I'm sure haven't lost a moment's sleep because of it.

Two largely unexamined factors, which also may be effecting the steady decline offense since the early '90s are the effect of expansion and changes in officiating.

The league has added six teams (over 20% growth) from the time the Bad Boys became champs, and defense has become king. I wonder if there really are enough quality point guards out there to run NBA offenses competently?

As for officiating, the increase in defensive intensity has put the refs under tremendous pressure. As a result there is a short leash and a tendency to call games by the book . I wonder if this has affected the number of offensive fouls being called. The NBA keeps no detailed stats on the ratio of offensive to defensive fouls that are called, but I would love to see them and would be amazed if it hasn't shifted radically over the years.

It's really too early to draw conclusions on whether the slow start on offense this year constitutes a real change or just an exacerbation of an ongoing trend. This is the third season since zone defensives have been legalized and no changes in scoring or game pace occurred during the first two years. The eleven teams which started the season with new coaches are scoring 2.2 points a game fewer then last year, but this is better then the overall league average. Many teams do look rusty and still out of sync, but NBA averages traditionally rise about two points a game after the All-Star break.







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