The opening games of the 2018-19 NBA season have been modernized basketball on drugs with team’s point totals and offensive efficiencies reaching uncharted territory. While analytics gurus have been preaching pace, space, and the importance of the deep ball for years, this is the season a majority of the league is taking a full step forward.
Prior to games on Oct. 25, one-third of final scores this season (36 of 124) eclipsed 120 points. (One-hundred and twenty points!) By this same date last season, it’d only been done 15 times.
The drastic increase in points is in part due to teams playing at a maddeningly quick pace that’s giving them four more possessions per 48 minutes than a year ago. Teams are turning those extra possessions into six more points per game too, though that’s not merely because they have more opportunities to score. The league is also valuing shot selection like we’ve never seen before.
Basketball analytics can take you down a deep mathematical rabbit hole, but the simplest idea anyone who follows the sport can understand is the inefficiency of the deep two-point shot. Simply put, why take a long jump shot when it’s only worth the same amount of points as a dunk? With dethroning the Golden State Warriors as the goal, nearly every team in the league is buying into this progressive basketball basic: cutting down on mid-range shots.
Through the first 62 games this season, 22 of the league’s 30 teams shot a lower percentage of their total shots from the mid-range area than last. That includes two teams (the Nets and Bucks) that cut their mid-range attempts by 10 percent or more. The most stark example is seen in Mike Budenholzer’s new Bucks offense, which a season ago took 17.3 attempts per game from the lowest efficiency area in the sport, and now takes seven (tied for second-fewest.)
Milwaukee’s whole offensive mentality has changed, and it might give them a chance to win the East. Just ask Giannis Antetokounmpo, who, when asked about a quarter in which the Knicks shot a perfect 8-of-8 from mid-range while the Bucks went 1-of-13 from deep had the perfect response for why the team’s new system was still in the right.
“There are going to be days like that,” he said according to The Athletic’s Eric Nehm. “And I feel like the other teams cannot win the game by shooting twos. We force them to shoot twos and twos and twos and twos. We’re living with that. That’s our game plan and we know we’re going to come down on the other end and it’s gonna be a layup or a dunk or it’s gonna be a three.”
It’s not just Budenholzer or Giannis. On the whole, the league shot 20.4 percent of its field goal attempts from the mid-range in 2017-18, and this season, that number is down to 16.4 percent.
So where are those shot attempts going?
The league is seeing a slight uptick in shot attempts from the two highest efficiency areas in the game: the restricted area (layups and dunks) and the three-point line. Year-over-year the league is shooting 3.4 percent more often in the restricted area and 1.3 percent more often from three-point range.
It’s no wonder that the Bucks are off to a 4-0 start, scoring 13 more points per game than last season. Not only have they cut down mid-range looks, but they’re up from 24.7 three-point attempts per night (25th-most) to 40.8 (third-most), and up from 28.8 restricted area attempts to 33.3.
The teams that aren’t up to par are struggling mightily as the rest of the league adapts. As of games before Oct. 25, the winless Cleveland Cavaliers were one of nine teams in the league attempting fewer three-point shots per game than it did in the previous season. And they’re the only to drop off by more than 15 percent. In fact, Cleveland doubles that to 32 percent fewer threes attempted than last year, firing just 21.8 per game. That’s nearly half the amount of attempts the league-leading Mavericks take (42.5). It’s not a coincidence the Cavs are also taking the second-most mid-range shot attempts in the league (24.5). It seems LeBron James masked a number of flaws in that offense.
While it’s only been nine days of the regular season, expect a similar pattern to last through the year. There’s a recipe for success on the offensive end, and teams are finally deploying it. This NBA season will be like no other as everyone — even those 7-feet or taller — are given the green light to launch from deep, and the mindset to avoid mid-distance looks. Mike D’Antoni and the Rockets may be the extreme, but they aren’t alone anymore.