In many ways, the NBA's lockout last summer and fall now seems like a distant memory. That's true in terms of the action on the court. As we near the end of this abbreviated, compacted 66-game schedule, the lockout is having less and less impact on the level of play all the time.
Just as after the last lockout, the NBA has seen offense decline for a variety of reasons. Without access to team facilities, players did not arrive in camp as physically fit as during usual seasons. The brief camp and preseason gave coaches little time to install their systems. The schedule also means less time off between games, making it difficult for players to recover and get back to full strength.
As a result, the league's Offensive Rating has dropped by 2.8 points per 100 possessions, from last year's 108.8 mark to 106.0 so far this season. That's an identical change to the one we saw in 1998-99, when the NBA went from averaging 106.2 points per 100 possessions to 103.4. However, looking at the overall mark obscures an interesting trend toward improved offense over the course of the season. Teams typically tend to score better as the season goes on, for many of the same reasons that hamper offense after a lockout. That trend has been more dramatic than normal this season.
According to monthly splits provided by NBA.com/Stats, teams averaged a dismal 99.7 points per 100 possessions this January. (Note that their measure of possessions is slightly different than the one used by Basketball Prospectus, so these numbers are lower across the board and should only be compared to each other.) So far in April, the league's Offensive Rating is all the way up to 104.1 in the month of April--not far from the 105.0 points per 100 possessions teams averaged this time a year ago. Graphing month by month performance--including the partial schedule for October 2010 and December 2011 as the first month--makes it clear how rapidly offense has improved this season.
In part, last season is a bad comparison because offense was essentially flat after the New Year. When our Bradford Doolittle ran these same splits in 2007-08, he found that league-wide scoring improved by 2.7 points per 100 possessions between October/November and April. That's a more typical change. This year, going from January to April, the NBA's Offensive Rating has gone up by 4.4 points--an increase 50 percent higher than normal.
The splits offered by NBA.com/Stats also allow us to look at what areas are responsible for the offensive uptick by charting three of the Four Factors of offense.
Month eFG% OReb% TO%
December .479 .265 .119
January .482 .263 .121
February .481 .278 .115
March .495 .271 .111
April .497 .272 .110
Shooting has really come around since the All-Star break, with the league approaching a .500 effective field-goal percentage. That's essentially the same as the season-long marks for recent campaigns. In 2010-11, the final eFG% was .498. It was an even .500 in 2008-09 and slightly better in 2009-10 (.501). Before the shooting caught up, turnovers were already dropping, as they typically do over the course of the season. Miscues were really only a major problem in December and January. The last two months, they've been about the same as throughout 2010-11.
The more surprising split is a tend toward more offensive rebounding, starting in February. There's no particular reason for the rebounding balance to shift much over the course of the season, and no such trend is evident in last year's numbers, so I'm not sure what explains the change. It's possible that coaches were more conservative in terms of sending defenders back rather than crashing the offensive glass without a full training camp to work on their transition defense, but that's nothing more than a guess.
The overall trend suggests that, by the time the season finishes, we'll see less of a drop in offense this year than after the last lockout. If teams continue to score as they have so far during April, the final league-wide rating will be about 106.3 points per 100 possessions--down by 2.5 from last year. That makes sense to the extent that this shortened season is 66 games rather than 50, giving offense more time to catch up.
The upward climb for offense is also good news for the playoffs. It suggests that we should see a similar level of play to a typical postseason. Playing this kind of 66-game sprint over four months without a real training camp certainly isn't ideal, but the NBA has largely been able to overcome it and put a quality product on the court.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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