Has the NBA’s scoring boom gotten out of hand?

Has the NBA’s scoring boom gotten out of hand?

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

INDIANAPOLIS — When the NBA descended upon the American heartland Friday, it was greeted by snow flurries and a host city eager to flex its basketball bona fides.

All-Star Weekend visitors were treated to hand-knit beanie hands, in a blue-and-yellow Indiana Pacers color scheme, and handwritten welcome notes hailing the sport’s impact on Midwest communities. A downtown statue of John Wooden, one of the game’s great philosophers, was caked with snow, and it stood not far from artistic tributes to the movie “Hoosiers” and a massive mural of Pacers star Reggie Miller launching a jumper. Before Friday’s opening events, Jalen Rose, one of Miller’s former teammates, played to the home crowd’s old-school values with a well-worn slogan.

“In 49 states, it’s just basketball,” Rose declared. “But this is Indiana.”

Though the NBA is returning to an East-vs.-West setup and a standard four-quarter format for Sunday’s All-Star Game after recent dalliances with teams drafted by captains and an “Elam Ending” that sought to prevent blowouts, the modern game has evolved into a fast-paced, perimeter-oriented, high-scoring affair that would make Wooden blush and leave Jimmy Chitwood green with envy. Appropriately, the NBA’s all-star Saturday events were set to be held on a state-of-the-art LED glass court rather than traditional hardwood.

When Miller and Rose battled Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in the 1998 Eastern Conference finals, the Pacers averaged 96 points per game — just slightly above the league’s average of 95.6. This year, Tyrese Haliburton has guided Indiana to the NBA’s highest-scoring offense — a whopping 123.7 points per game — and the league average of 115.6 makes this its highest-scoring season since 1969-70 (116.7). Since January 2023, four all-stars — Donovan Mitchell, Damian Lillard, Joel Embiid and Luka Doncic — have crossed a once-rare threshold by scoring 70 points in a game.

“Talent is at an all-time high in every position,” Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry said. “Shooting ability, scoring ability, five-man units where everybody is a threat to shoot the ball — the game has changed dramatically. … I personally like the brand of basketball that’s being played because it highlights the amount of talent.”

While this sharp scoring boom has been cause for excitement, it has prompted confusion and consternation, too. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver criticized last year’s All-Star Game for its lack of competitiveness — Team Giannis beat Team LeBron, 184-175, in a pickup game snoozer — and league executive Joe Dumars stressed to the league’s players that they need to put on a better show this time.

The All-Star Game dud in Salt Lake City and the rise of eye-popping scoring totals have contributed to a perception that defense is a dying art in the NBA.

“Wilt [Chamberlain] scored 100, so it’s never too much [scoring]‚” Milwaukee Bucks Coach Doc Rivers said. “I don’t know what is too much. I think what stands out is that so many guys have [scored a lot] this year. You have [guys scoring in the] 50s, 60s and 70s, and it makes the layperson say, ‘What’s going on?’ I can tell you the guys are playing defense, but it’s harder to defend with the rules.”

Whether the superstar class cranks up the intensity at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on Sunday night is less important than whether the league’s decision-makers believe they need to make structural adjustments to restore the balance between offense and defense, or whether the increased fireworks are the new normal in a sport that has undergone a three-point revolution.

Silver acknowledged Saturday that some coaches have campaigned for rule changes to favor defenders, who are asked to cover more distance because of the growing prevalence of three-point shooters. However, the commissioner said he was “pleased with the state of the game” and said he “disagree[d] with the people who feel like teams aren’t playing defense.”

“I want to dispel any notion that the league office feels that high-scoring games are good,” Silver said. “What we want are competitive games.”

In the early 2000s, the NBA banned hand-checking and took other steps to boost scoring and appeal to television audiences. More recently, the NBA has shortened the shot-clock reset to 14 seconds to pick up the pace of play while also implementing freedom-of-movement rules that prevent defenders from being too handsy and physical.

During a recent nine-day span, the Atlanta Hawks were burned by Doncic for 73 points and Curry for 60 points.

“Great offense is going to beat great defense all the time,” Phoenix Suns forward Kevin Durant said. “I watched Luka’s 70-point game — he was making tough shot after tough shot. I feel somebody can break 80 points.”

After seeing the outbursts by Doncic and Curry up close, Hawks guard Trae Young said Chamberlain’s record could be in jeopardy.

“Possibly. If it gets to double or triple overtime, you never know,” Young said. “A lot of people say it’s bad defense — who knows? I think it’s more about guys being talented. … [Beating Chamberlain] can happen. I don’t know if it will happen soon.”

Paolo Banchero, a first-time all-star, pushed back on the notion that lackadaisical defense is the culprit; his Orlando Magic ranks fifth in defense. Of course, good defense is relative: The Magic concedes 110.9 points per game; Orlando allowed 94.4 points in 2008-09, when it made its most recent trip to the Finals.

“We guard,” Banchero said. “We try to shut down guys and high-paced offenses. I think the offense and the shooting is at a level it’s never been at.”

Some coaches, including Steve Kerr of the Warriors, have wondered aloud whether it’s time to allow defenders to get away with more contact so there is more give-and-take, especially during an 82-game regular season dotted by huge scoring totals and blowouts.

In addition to letting more contact go in the paint and basket area, the NBA could alter its defensive goaltending rules, loosen or remove illegal defense violations or push back the three-point line. One radical proposal would see the corner three-point shot be eliminated all together.

This year, eight teams have topped 150 points in a game, something no team did during the 2013-14 season. With two months to play, there have already been 51 games won by a margin of at least 30 points. There were only 39 such games during the 2013-14 season.

It’s worth noting that scoring dips noticeably in the postseason, when teams can expend more time game-planning for opposing stars and players tend to exert maximum effort.

Last year’s regular season scoring average of 114.7 points per game dropped to 109.6 during the playoffs. While there have been 19 instances of a player scoring at least 60 points during the past five regular seasons, no player has hit that mark in the playoffs since Jordan had 63 against the Boston Celtics in 1986.

“If you really want to watch defense, add the defensive three seconds back and people will stop complaining about [the scoring],” Young said. “It’s about what the fans want to watch. As much as [critics] want to talk about the defense we play, I think [the scoring boom] is about the talent of the offense and the rules they allow the offense to have [an advantage] over the defense.”

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It’s not entirely clear what the audience prefers: Over the past 20 years, television ratings for the Finals peaked with an average viewership of 20.3 million in 2017, when a high-powered Warriors team led by Curry and Durant faced Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James.

Since then, scoring has continued to skyrocket, but ratings for the Finals have dropped considerably. Curry brought the Warriors back to the 2022 Finals against the Boston Celtics in a series that averaged 12.4 million viewers, while the 2023 Finals between the Denver Nuggets and Miami Heat averaged 11.6 million.

Perhaps it’s time for a correction.

“All the rule changes over the last 10 or 15 years have all been offensive rule changes,” Rivers said. “My guess is they will bring back the way the game is allowed to be played — it will be a little more physical. The playoffs will be that way — don’t worry. Over the last 20 years, the same teams win it: the teams that are in the top five or 10 in offense and defense. That’s not going away. You can score all you want, but you better be able to defend, too, if you want to win.”

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