Threes, not fouls, causing NBA scoring inflation


From the mouth of ‘90s NBA legend and elite defender, Gary Payton:

“It’s (modern NBA) no defense, it’s just run and gun… There’s too much touch fouls. Every time you touch and they stay on the free throw line. That’s no way to watch basketball. When we were playing, it was rough and tough… This is what kids want to see. You see these Playstations, they scoring 50 and 60 with one player, that’s what they want to see on TV and I don’t go with that.”

Gary-Payton-Nike-Zoom-GP(1)Mr. Payton has issues with syntax and grammar. He also is correct, in that foul calls are on the rise in the world’s premier basketball league. 20.7 personal fouls per team, per game are being doled out – that’s 41 between two squads in a given contest. Lots of folks want to attribute the increased foul calls and in-turn, free throws attempted, as a reason behind higher scoring in the NBA right now. And that is what Payton and many traditionalists are getting at; that the NBA is too focused on high point tallies with protected players, rather than a no blood-no foul mentality that saw 13 years in which scoring per team never surpassed triple digits (years Payton was an NBA fixture). Too many points, too much sexy – or so say some.

Payton’s logic tracks; more fouls mean more foul shots which means more points and softer players. But the numbers say otherwise.

Foul shots attempted hit its all-time high in 2005-06 when NBA scoring was at 97.0 points per team per game. This season, scoring is at the cusp of being the highest it has been since 1994-95 at 100.4. Is the scoring bump coming from more made shots from the foul line? No sir, as that number has not fluctuated enough year-to-year in the last 20 seasons to have changed scoring numbers by even one point per game.

So why are final team tallies above 100 points so often now? Hint: it has everything to do with made shots, but not ones granted from referee’s whistles.

Recently, I watched a game between the Clippers and Raptors that had a halftime score of 71-65. There is no denying – NBA SCORING IS NUTS RIGHT NOW!

I couldn’t find a statbook detailed enough to offer first half scoring against second half averages, league-wide. But it is a no-brainer that points taper in the latter half due to fatigue and the point margin often widening.  Needless to say, that Clips-Raptors game was very lucrative in points but fell off in the second act, ending 126-118. That is still a filthy amounts of points.

I hope Gary Payton shielded his eyes. Terrence Ross (WHO?) dropped 51 points in that game, Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford completed a double alley-oop (WHAT?) and it happened in Canada (I bet Payton hates Canada too).

Mr. Payton’s hypothesis about foul shots was partially at work; the Clips and Raptors combined for 63 free throws attempted (16 more than is normal this season).

But the real answer to NBA scoring inflation and my much, much, much too-delayed thesis of this blog post – is that it is raining three-balls in the Association today, which is causing the burgeoning scoreboard figures.

L.A. and Toronto put up 51 treys and connected on 26 of them in their showdown. That’s only eight more threes jacked than normal for the NBA yet 11 more made. Dudes are flinging up trifectas at a historical rate and while the made-percentage is close to the median for the last two decades, it doesn’t matter. Wayne Gretzky played on ice but his sentiment “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take” has struck a serious chord with ballers these days. J.R. Smith and Marcus Thorton are unabashed gunners that prescribe to the mentality that if I put it in the sky, some will fall in, but the league is full of deadly shooters right now who can be consistent, which totally undermines Payton’s point that the game is going south. Shooting is basketball in its purest form and shooting has never been more exciting than it is now (save watching Larry Legend).


The top six teams in three-pointers attempted right now: Houston, Phoenix, Atlanta, Portland, L.A. Lakers and Golden State. Top six teams in three-pointers made: Portland, Golden State, Phoenix, L.A. Lakers, Atlanta. All of these teams are playoff squads right now, save for the Lake-Show. See a trend? Three-point shooting is being deployed as a weapon more than ever in the history of the league.

Some of the league’s most-exciting and banner players for this era: Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Paul George and Kevin Durant, are incredible deep shooters.Unknown

Curry leads the NBA in threes taken and made. Lillard shoots at a much higher percentage from downtown than Curry and is third in the league in makes from behind the arc. George is sixth in treys drained and Durant is fifth in three percentage amongst guys who have attempted more than 225 long-balls this season.

Wow, this has been a lot of numbers and some serious modus ponens arguments for three-point shooting.  But it all comes back to “The Glove” (Gary Payton). Payton is purporting that defense needs to step-it-up and rough and tumble hoops should be allowed. I agree. The issue is, DUDES DON’T PLAY DEFENSE ON GUYS WHO SHOOT FROM 30+ FEET OUT!

Damian Lillard steps across the mid-court line and he is ready to fire. Kevin Durant enters the arena and he is wide open. Stephen Curry is at home in his bathtub and the man is within three-point range. How do you defend the court? Commentators are always talking about the importance of spreading the floor on offense, but they are talking about width-wise. Stars in the NBA are doing it in length from the basket. Teams need a sixth defender in their zone scheme responsible for DEEP. If you look at Curry’s shot chart on there is a green dot from out-of-bounds, signifying a made three.


^^Steph Curry’s shot chart. Check the left corner (green dot out of bounds). WHAT?!

How is that even a thing? Basketballs are flying through the air like never before.

0123_warriorsthunderNeed more proof?

On January 24, Chandler Parsons set an NBA record with ten threes in a half. Also in January, the Blazers became the first team in league history to make 20 threes in a game on two different occasions. As of January 27, Kyle Korver has hit a trey in 109 straight games (an NBA record). Across four games in December, Durant averaged 30 PPG at 65 percent from three. On December 16, Joe Johnson had eight threes – in one quarter.

So, Mr. Payton – if you think the numbers are too high, don’t blame it on the whistles, tell guys to pick up their man at half court. The game may be getting more “touchy” but the best ballers are bringing it with a smooth stroke from further out. The game is evolving and gritty defense needs to start at the mid court line.


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