SAN FRANCISCO -- If you've watched a full NBA basketball game this season, you've surely noticed a distinct difference from previous years. Plays in which offensive players hurl themselves into a defender, which have traditionally resulted in a defensive foul that led to free throws, are increasingly being ignored by officials or deemed offensive fouls. This is one of the NBA's points of emphasis this season, designed to crack down on "overt, abrupt or abnormal Non-Basketball Moves" from offensive players, which had become a staple in the arsenals of some of the league's most prolific scorers.
Outside of some of those aforementioned scorers who feel many genuine defensive fouls are now going unpenalized, the rule changes have been met almost universally with approval, from fans to coaches to broadcasters to players.
"Can I say how satisfying it is to watch the game without all those terrible calls? Guys cheating the game and grabbing guys and getting the foul," said Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green, a six-time All-Defensive Team honoree and former Defensive Player of the Year. "I've been really enjoying watching basketball this year. I kind of had stopped watching the NBA a bit because it was just too flailing and flopping and guys cheating the game and getting free throws. So I think that's been great."
Correlation does not prove causation, but there's a corresponding change occurring in the NBA this season alongside the modified officiating that's worth noting: Scoring has plummeted.
Points per game across the league has gone up for six consecutive seasons. Offensive efficiency -- the number of points a team scores per 100 possessions -- has steadily increased from 105.6 in 2014-15 to a record 112.3 last season. All 10 of the top offensive ratings in NBA history have come from teams playing in the past three seasons, and the top seven are all from last season alone.
Given the offensive explosion of the past few years, the staggering difference in this season's numbers is impossible to ignore. According to Basketball-Reference.com, the average NBA offensive rating has dropped more than six points, from 112.3 last season to 106.2, which would be the lowest mark since the 2014-15 season. Points per game have also plunged from 112.1 last season to 107.6 this season, even with with 3-point attempts and pace (possessions per 48 minutes) both increasing.
Teams scored 90 points or fewer in roughly seven percent of games last year -- so far this season, that's more than doubled to almost 16 percent. As of this writing, the offensive efficiency of eight 2021-22 teams would have been the lowest in the NBA last season, and the highest-rated team, the Philadelphia 76ers at 114.9, would have placed eighth.
"I think it's important to note that offensive efficiency was sort of artificially high the last few years, said Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, whose 2018-19 team set a since-broken NBA record for offensive efficiency. "We were shooting so many free throws, getting so many and-ones. It was getting a little out of control. I think the league recognized that. I know coaches recognized that."
|NBA Team Averages||PTS||ORtg||FG%||3P%||FTA||3PA|
Now that you have more data than you ever asked for, we can start looking for the cause. The simplest explanation is the minuscule sample size of data that we're working with. As of this writing, 88 NBA games had taken place this season as opposed to 1,080 last season. The field goal percentages and 3-point percentages, which are significantly down this season, could get back to where they were last season and create an increase in scoring that approximates its previous marks.
"It's early in the season. All these teams, even with an offseason and four or five, however many preseason games, you're still trying to find your rhythm and your chemistry," said Memphis Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins, whose team is scoring two fewer points per 100 possessions than last season, but has still gone from 15th to seventh in offensive rating. "Over 82 [games], I think those numbers will definitely change league-wide."
The small sample size is certainly a real factor, but the dearth of offense is worth exploring further because it's been so dramatic, and the new variable of officiating changes has been so noticeable. As you can see in the table above, free throw attempts are down from last season -- in fact, it's the lowest free throw attempts average in league history -- but it's not enough to account for the nearly six-point drop in scoring.
Like anything in life, however, it's not that simple. The new rules leave defenders less afraid to commit fouls, which means they can be more aggressive. Going to the free throw line early and often sometimes helps scorers get into a rhythm, so that may be disrupted by a lack of calls. It's also important to look at which players the changes in officiating affect the most, and how those players affect the rest of the team.
"If they enforce [the new rules] with the discipline they're intending to throughout the course of the season, I think those are really impactful, because they're impacting the highest-impact players in most cases," Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault said. "When you look at the guys that are getting the majority of those calls, they're the guys that are driving offenses, so I think that's a factor."
Indeed, it would appear that superstar players have been hit hard by the changes in officiating. Take a look at the 15 official scoring leaders from last season, and how their points and free throw attempts per game have changed so far this season (not including Kyrie Irving, Zion Williamson and Kawhi Leonard, who have yet to play this season).
|Change from 2020-21 to 2021-22||PPG||FTA|
All but two of the 15 players have lower scoring averages this season, and all but four have seen decreases in free throw attempts, some significantly so. The player most affected thus far in terms of free throws, Hawks All-Star Trae Young, says the officiating changes have gone too far.
"I don't want to get fined too much, but it's frustrating," Young said. "There's a lot of missed calls. It's basketball. It's just, it feels that they're learning, and they're just -- I don't know. It's frustrating. ... There's a lot of things that, when guys are driving straight and guys are getting knocked off balance -- it's still a foul, whether they're using their lower body or their hands."
Brooklyn Nets guard James Harden, whose free throw attempts have dropped from 11.8 per game in 2019-20 to 5.7 this season, agrees with Young, and feels certain players are being unfairly targeted by officials for their foul-drawing techniques.
"I'm not the type to complain about it," Harden said. "I just ask every official [if] they see a foul just call a foul. Sometimes I feel like coming into a game it's already pre-determined or I already have that stigma of getting foul calls, but I just ask for officials to just call what they see."
There's surely going to be an adjustment period for referees, but the new rules might not be the sole reason for the scoring woes. Thanks largely to advancements in metrics and analytics leading to extreme emphasis on 3-pointers and shots at the rim, NBA offenses have become increasingly formulaic. A player attempts score or draw multiple defenders, usually through a pick-and-roll, and then kicks the ball out to the perimeter where a game of cat-and-mouse ensues as the offense tries to find the open 3-point shooter.
The homogeneity of NBA offenses has been a cause for concern among some critics, and we could be seeing how a relatively predictable style creates an advantage for defenses, who are becoming more familiar with how to scheme for that type of attack.
"The league is an efficient market, and is going to make adjustments," Daigneault said. "As offenses boom, you figure out new ways to defend. It's a constant ping pong game between both ends of the floor."
It might just be about time for the NBA's game of ping pong to be in the defense's favor, for a change.
Whether it's the new rules, defenses evolving, random shooting variance or some combination of the three, NBA scores are more closely resembling those of the early 1990s than the offensive explosion of the last few seasons. It will be an intriguing trend to track and, if it continues, to monitor how fans react to the lower point totals.
"I've noticed the games are more physical," Kerr said. "I'm really enjoying watching the games. I think defense has to be a huge part of basketball, and I feel like we're getting back to that -- in a good way."