In an essay in Pro Basketball Prospectus 2009-10, I took a look at NBA trends primarily in terms of scoring, pace of play and offensive efficiency. Now, just a few weeks later, I'm concerned it might already be time for a rewrite. While it is very early in the campaign, the league is already showing signs of continuing to evolve.
ESPN.com's Marc Stein first noticed an early increase in scoring, tying the uptick to the NBA changing rim manufacturers and styles this season. Through the first 10 days of the schedule, teams are averaging 99.4 points per game. While that may not sound like much of an improvement, since they averaged an even 100.0 ppg a year ago, historically defenses tend to be ahead of offenses early in the season. Through Nov. 5, 2008, teams were averaging just 96.3 points a night, meaning scoring is up 3.2 percent so far.
As John Hollinger noted in an ESPN Insider follow-up, the most significant difference has come beyond the arc. The league is hitting 35.8 percent of its threes so far this season, a considerable improvement from last year's 34.3 percent mark at the same time. Could this be tied to the rim? Certainly, although it is awfully early to draw any conclusions.
The standard deviation on the league-wide three-point percentage is high enough that the "true" accuracy of the NBA from beyond the arc could reasonably be anywhere from 33.8 percent--worse than last year--to a sizzling 37.8 percent. Also, since three-point shooting has improved from 35.8 percent in 2006-07 to a record 36.7 percent last year, we'd expect some increase no matter what. So file the rim's effect on long-distance shooting away as something to watch. By the end of the month, we should have a much better idea of whether the uptick is real.
While hot three-point shooting explains most of the improvement in Offensive Rating in the early going (from 105.6 points per 100 possessions to 107.3), it is not responsible for all of the increase in scoring. Take a look at a fuller breakdown of the numbers through Nov. 5 from this season and last:
Year PPG Pace ORtg 2P% 3P% FT% eFG% OReb% FTA/FGA TO%
2008-09 96.3 90.5 105.6 .472 .343 .753 .481 .271 .321 .142
2009-10 99.4 91.7 107.3 .478 .358 .760 .490 .266 .325 .140
While most of the other changes have been minor, note that the increase in scoring has been caused almost as much by a faster pace as by improved scoring efficiency. 2008-09 managed to be the NBA's highest-scoring season in 14 years despite the fact that pace actually declined slightly last year, as portended by the stats from the first month of the season. 2007-08's pace of 91.0 possessions per 48 minutes was the fastest in the NBA since 1999-00, and teams played slightly slower in the first month (91.5) than they have so far this year. Combine that faster pace with improving efficiency and you have the recipe for high-scoring games.
(One interesting sidenote: Those high-scoring games have not been equally distributed, with last night's TNT double-header serving as a microcosm. Chicago and Cleveland combined for 171 points in the opener, while San Antonio and Utah put up 212 in the nightcap. The standard deviation of points per game is up from 5.7 this time a year ago to 8.1 in 2009-10, suggesting a much greater spread in teams' scoring numbers.)
Last year, a team-by-team look at pace differences helped make it clear that the league had in fact slowed down. Here's a comprehensive list at the changes so far this season as compared to pace over the course of the entire 2008-09 campaign:
Team Change 0809 0910
Golden State 8.4 92.0 100.4
Atlanta 6.3 88.2 94.4
Phoenix 5.7 91.6 97.3 IC
Memphis 5.6 88.8 94.3 IC
Denver 4.9 91.0 95.9
Indiana 4.1 91.8 95.9
Minnesota 3.3 89.8 93.1 X
L.A. Clippers 3.1 89.9 93.0
Houston 3.0 88.6 91.6
Philadelphia 3.0 90.6 93.5 X
Miami 2.2 89.1 91.3
New Jersey 2.0 90.3 92.3
Cleveland 2.0 86.9 88.9
New York 1.6 93.0 94.6
Team Change 0809 0910
Chicago 1.0 88.7 89.7
Boston .9 87.9 88.8
New Orleans .8 89.8 90.5
Detroit .7 85.5 86.3 X
Orlando .5 90.2 90.7
Utah .5 92.4 92.8
Dallas .2 90.4 90.6
Milwaukee .1 91.4 91.5
Portland - .2 88.3 88.0
L.A. Lakers - .6 93.1 92.5
Toronto - .6 92.7 92.1 IC
San Antonio -1.1 90.4 89.3
Charlotte -1.8 88.2 86.4
Sacramento -2.1 93.8 91.7 X
Washington -4.6 94.0 89.4 X
Oklahoma City -4.9 92.5 87.6 IC
(Note that X marks teams with new coaches. IC denotes that the team changed coaches during last season and is now in the first full year with a new coach at the helm.)
This list certainly is affected by sample size. For example, the Warriors have played just three games so far, and two of them have come against other run-and-gun teams, so it's unlikely Golden State will quite keep up its current frenetic pace. No team has averaged 100 possessions per game since these same Warriors (then as now coached by Don Nelson) and the Charlotte Hornets did so in 1991-92.
While some of the changes seem likely to be permanent, like Alvin Gentry keeping his foot on the gas pedal in Phoenix after Terry Porter's stint as head coached slowed down the Suns' pace last season, it is tough to determine whether others will stick. There is no obvious reason, for example, why Atlanta's pace has increased so dramatically. At the other end of the spectrum, the biggest surprise to me is that the Kings have played slower under Paul Westphal, who pledged to push the pace when he got the job and played at a fast pace during his most recent tour of duty as a head man in Seattle.
The speed at which the league ultimately plays this season may take some time to shake out. For now, however, a faster pace combined with more accurate shooting is producing plenty of points and some entertaining basketball.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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