Believe it or not, as of yesterday the 2009-10 NBA season is a month old. With the calendar turning from November to December, now is a good time to take a big-picture look at the direction of the league.
A week and a half into the season, I took stock of early upticks in scoring and three-point percentage and concluded it was too early to tell, particularly in the latter case. Now that we have a much larger sample of games with which to work, what do the numbers say? Here's a comparison between how things stand now and how they looked this time a year ago.
Year PPG Pace ORtg 2P% 3P% FT% eFG% OReb% FTA/FGA TO%
2008-09 98.7 90.7 107.5 .478 .355 .748 .491 .263 .317 .138
2009-10 99.3 91.6 107.9 .488 .350 .755 .496 .267 .302 .138
Lo and behold, it appears the league's fast start beyond the arc was nothing but a hot streak. In fact, as a whole the NBA is now shooting worse on three-pointers than at this point of the 2008-09 season, though the difference is largely trivial. Instead, a slight improvement in scoring efficiency is now being driven by the fact that players are shooting better from inside the arc.
The numbers tracked by the new Web site HoopData.com on shot locations can help break down this improvement on two-point shots into greater detail. Here's how the league's shooting percentages by distance break down this year as compared to the entire 2008-09 season (when the accuracy on twos, .486, was nearly the same as it has been so far in 2009-10).
Year At Rim <10 10-15 16-23
2008-09 .604 .427 .391 .401
2009-10 .609 .436 .404 .391
The difference has come entirely on shots inside the paint (or within 15 feet on the baselines and toward the elbow). In particular, players have been significantly more accurate on short jumpers thus far.
The other area of improved shooting has come at the free throw line. Last season saw the NBA set an all-time record by hitting 77.3 percent of its attempts from the charity stripe. That came after a relatively slow start. If the league makes the same kind of progress this season, free throw percentages will reach unprecedented heights. Teams are shooting far fewer free throws this year, the most substantial change in the numbers between now and this time a year ago.
As far as the other trends we observed very early in the season, the faster pace of play has continued. Teams are averaging nearly a possession more per game than last year, which is a pretty considerable jump. New coaches have pushed the pace in Memphis (+3.7 possessions per 48 minutes as compared to last season, when Lionel Hollins took over in late January), Minnesota (+3.6) and especially New Orleans (+4.4, that uptick coming almost entirely after Jeff Bower replaced Byron Scott on the sidelines).
Meanwhile, the Golden State Warriors are quietly playing faster than ever. The Warriors, who already averaged a league-high 96.9 possessions per 48 minutes last season, have upped the tempo this year. Golden State's pace is a remarkable 100.2 possessions per 48 minutes. If that continues, it would mark the first time an NBA team topped 100 possessions per game in 18 seasons. (Charlotte and these same Warriors were over the century mark in 1991-92.) Here how Golden State stacks up compared to the fastest teams of the last decade, a list already filled with Don Nelson Warrior teams.
Team Year Pace
Golden State 09-10 100.2
Denver 07-08 98.2
Sacramento 99-00 97.8
Golden State 06-07 97.6
Golden State 07-08 97.4
Golden State 08-09 96.9
(In case you were curious, Phoenix's fastest pace in the decade came in 2007-08, when the team averaged a relatively calm 96.1 possessions per 48 minutes.)
Because of the combination of a slight increase in offensive efficiency and a bigger one in pace of play, the league-wide scoring average of 99.3 points per game is up by 0.6 points from this time a year ago. The difference might be larger if not for the odd fact that there were considerably more overtime periods last October and November (78) than there have been so far this season (65). Nonetheless, the NBA is well on its way to seeing scoring rise for the fourth straight season. Meanwhile, the league Offensive Rating has gone up every year since the reinterpretation of hand-checking rules prior to the 2004-05 season.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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