NBA offenses are historically prolific — does the league need to step in?


THE NBA IS in the middle of an offensive explosion.

Scoring averages this season are the highest since 1969-70, and the league has set a record for offensive efficiency six times in the past eight seasons.

Stars are churning out eye-popping performances at rates not seen since Wilt Chamberlain’s prime. In January, four players scored 60-plus points in the span of four days: Joel Embiid (70) and Karl-Anthony Towns (62) on Jan. 22, Luka Doncic (73) and Devin Booker (62) on Jan. 26.

Less than a month later, the Eastern Conference All-Stars became the first team to surpass 200 points in the league’s midseason showcase.

After the game, a dull 211-186 win for the East, Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James was asked about the recent explosion of offensive numbers around the sport.

“This is what a lot of the [regular-season] games are starting to look like too,” James said Feb. 18 inside Indianapolis’ Gainbridge Fieldhouse after his record 20th All-Star appearance.

“We wanted to get more pace into the games. We wanted to get more shots. We wanted the game to be more free flowing. … It’s a deeper dive into a conversation of how we can shore up this game.”

James isn’t the first star to join that conversation. The question of whether offenses have become too overpowering has been driving years of discussion.

Now, the NBA’s leadership is having those discussions too.

Joe Dumars, the league’s executive vice president and head of basketball operations who was a pillar of the defensively elite “Bad Boys” Detroit Pistons of the 1980s, told ESPN the league’s competition committee has officially begun reviewing whether the game has tilted too far toward offense and whether changes need to be implemented to achieve better balance.

“It is a topic that we’re monitoring,” Dumars told ESPN earlier this month. “We’re diving in right now to make sure that we’re on the right side of this.”

And while the NBA takes a closer look into the generational shift in defensive and offensive parity, finding a solution — if one is necessary — is going to be a challenging proposition.

“The rules really favor offense, in general, right now,” Rudy Gobert, Minnesota Timberwolves center and front-runner for his fourth Defensive Player of the Year award, told ESPN.

“Keeping a team under a hundred is way more rare than it was a few years back.”


RISING POINT TOTALS are a relatively recent NBA phenomenon. After the 1984-85 season, which set a then-NBA record at 110.8 points per game, scoring began to decline. It eventually bottomed out at 93.4 points per game in 2003-04, the fewest in a non-lockout season since the introduction of the shot clock.

“When defense was prioritized like that, the game wasn’t as popular,” Portland Trail Blazers coach Chauncey Billups, the star guard of the 2004 NBA champion Pistons, said before a game in Brooklyn last month. “It’s not fun to watch that.”

Billups pointed to the 2005 NBA Finals — one of the lowest-rated viewerships in league history — as a turning point. Throughout that seven-game series between Billups’ Pistons and the victorious San Antonio Spurs, the average winning point total was just 93.0.

“That changed the game,” Billups said. “Because if you get to the pinnacle like that, and the ratings are that poor, something has to change. Well that’s what we’ve seen. And that’s why offense is so elevated. And that’s what sells tickets.”

The league responded to that nadir in offense by implementing an important rules reinterpretation. In 2001, then-Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo convinced then-commissioner David Stern to create a special committee to address what was considered the problem of too few points.

When the committee’s initial changes — the addition of zone defenses and the cut from 10 to eight seconds before a backcourt violation — proved insufficient, the league went one step further. In the summer of 2004, the league started strictly enforcing the already established rule that banned hand-checking on the perimeter.

The impact was immediate. With Colangelo’s Suns leading the way under offensive-minded coach Mike D’Antoni and MVP guard Steve Nash, scoring jumped 3.8 points per game in 2004-05, the biggest increase between full seasons since 1969-70. Yet, a decade later, teams were still averaging just 100.0 points per game. From 2005 to 2016, offensive efficiency remained stagnant.

Reaching the heights of today’s offenses — where the league’s elite regularly surpass 130 points on any given night — required a dramatic surge.


THE BIGGEST DRIVER in the NBA’s recent rise in scoring? Teams getting smarter about how to attack defenses.

The league’s record for effective field goal percentage — which counts 3s as 1.5 field goals to reflect their added value — has been broken in eight of the past nine seasons. In 2014-15, the average shot produced 0.99 points. Today, that number is nearly 1.1.

“More high-percentage shots, which are shots at the rim and 3-point shots, are going to lead to more points,” 76ers coach Nick Nurse said before a game in Philadelphia last month. “Most everybody’s kind of got that as their theme of how they’re playing.”

Added 76ers forward Nicolas Batum: “It just shows the talent of basketball players right now. … Seventy is the new 50, I guess.”

It’s tempting to attribute that shift to NBA teams abandoning defense in the quest for more scoring. However, teams are shooting as well as ever from 3-point range despite an increasing share of difficult contested or pull-up attempts rather than open catch-and-shoot opportunities.

An increase in free throw percentages also reflects the NBA’s growing emphasis toward shooting. The league as a whole surpassed 78% for the first time in 2022-23 and is on pace to do it again this season. A decade ago, that number was just 76%.

Turnovers, meanwhile, at 13.4 per game across the NBA this season, are at their lowest rates since the statistic was first tracked in 1970-71.

Even offensive rebounding, an area that had fallen by the wayside in recent years, has seen a renaissance. Since bottoming out at 22% of available missed shots in 2020-21, overall offensive rebound percentages have ticked up. This year’s 24.5% is the NBA’s highest rate since the 2014-15 season.

On top of that, based on player tracking data, the space covered by offenses has increased about 5% since 2021-22, according to analysis provided to ESPN by Sports Info Systems. In that same span, the space covered by defenses has increased just 0.3%, indicating teams can no longer cover the necessary ground without either leaving the basket exposed or allowing open looks from deep.

“The cat’s out the bag a little bit,” Mike Brown, who began coaching in 2005, said last month before his Sacramento Kings faced the Philadelphia 76ers. “Back then, you only had a couple of guys around the league that you really had to worry about from the 3-point line.”

While Brown has witnessed the rise in offense up close, he doesn’t have an answer for what could be done to curb today’s record scoring.

“I don’t know if there’s anything,” he said. “Guys are just so freaking good compared to back then that it would be tough. It’d be tough.”


IT MIGHT BE ironic that Dumars is overseeing the league’s basketball product at its scoring zenith, considering his own title contending run with the “Bad Boys” Pistons. But the former five-time All-Defense guard prefers to focus on the quality of basketball rather than skyrocketing point totals.

“Whether the score is 150-151 or whether the score is 100-101, I think what fans really wanna see is incredible competition,” Dumars said.

“‘Man, did you see the game last night? It was incredible.’ If that’s what fans are saying, then that’s a great place for the league to be. What the score is is secondary to that.”

Among today’s premier defenders, meanwhile, there isn’t a consensus on what the NBA should do next.

Consider Boston Celtics guard Jrue Holiday, a five-time All-Defense selection, who made it clear that he doesn’t like the upward trend in scoring. His fix: Let the players ramp up the physicality.

“People like to see people get 60 and 70 and do all that,” Holiday said. “How are you going to do that if somebody can be physical and be handsy and be aggressive in that way? So, I personally don’t think that the balance is there.”

Celtics guard Derrick White, Holiday’s backcourt partner on the league’s third-ranked defense, added, “It’s harder to just clog the paint, which is what you really need to do against these top players. … offenses are just so spaced and wide-open that if you give these great guys space, they’re almost impossible to guard.”

On the other end of the argument, Denver Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon dismissed the idea that defenders are at a steep disadvantage.

Gordon, in fact, put the onus on the players themselves to slow down these wild scoring numbers.

“I think it’s balanced,” Gordon told ESPN. “You got to just have better defenders. People are going crazy because you just don’t really want to play defense.

“You got to want to play defense, you got to have a little bit of technique and you got to have some of the intangible stuff.”

But players, coaches and executives across the league all acknowledge the past two decades in the NBA have evolved into an ecosystem where defending has become more difficult. And the range of opinions on its severity underscores the challenges that lie ahead for Dumars and the competition committee. For now, the league is closely examining the numbers but isn’t close to taking any action.

“It’s not to that point yet,” said Dumars, who regularly fields calls from teams. “We’re diving [into the data] right now and just a ton of film and putting together a ton of reels to be able to look at this and go, ‘OK, yeah, we do have a problem.’ But you don’t make changes like that just on an anecdotal call.”

Holiday, for his part, had a more immediate solution.

“Ref it like it’s a playoff game, every game,” he said. “Ref it like every game is important. I’m not saying that it’s not now, but in the playoffs it’s a lot more physical. You can quote unquote, get away with a lot more.

“Those are the times I feel like people actually watch the games.”





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