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NBA Offenses Are In A Funk. Will It Last?

Through two weeks of the NBA season, the league’s first major trend has already emerged: Offensive production is down in a big way. After the league saw mostly steady increases in offensive efficiency dating back a half-decade, that number has cratered to start the year:

At a glance, it would appear the gains of the last five years have been almost entirely erased in a single offseason. But is this really the case? Is the league about to experience its first true drop in offense during the modern spacing era? 

Let’s look at the factors that may be contributing to this offensive drought, plus their likelihood of continuing over the course of a full 82-game season, not just a two-week sample.

It’s early

Why it matters:

Based on past experience, a significant factor behind this early trend is likely just how young the season is. Offseason rust is a real thing in the NBA; it takes a while to get everyone up to full game speed after a summer off. Just look at leaguewide offensive efficiency through two weeks over each of the past five years, but then note where that metric eventually ended up over the full season.

Offense regularly slumps to start the season

NBA average points scored per 100 possessions in the first two weeks of the season vs. the full regular season, excluding garbage time minutes

Offensive rating
Season First 2 weeks Full season Diff.
2020-21 110.4 112.9 +2.5
2019-20 107.3 110.9 +3.6
2018-19 109.6 110.6 +1.0
2017-18 105.7 108.4 +2.7
2016-17 105.9 109.0 +3.1

Source: Cleaning the Glass

Across the past half-decade, NBA teams averaged 2.58 fewer points per 100 possessions in the first two weeks of the season than their eventual seasonlong total.

Will it hold?

Slow starts across the league are a relatively consistent trend. In fact, here’s reason to believe this year’s start could be particularly slow: The pandemic-shortened offseason has surely warped many an internal clock among NBA players, who are by and large creatures of habit with their bodies. Over a month of their typical summer recovery time was cut off this year.

But even if this is just typical early season malaise, the dropoff from last season is significant. At the same time, the first two weeks of the 2019-20 season saw nearly identical leaguewide offensive numbers. Will this year’s figures rebound in the same way they did that season? That likely depends on several other factors. 

The NBA’s new foul emphases

Why it matters:

The NBA has cracked down hard on “non-basketball move” fouls initiated by offensive players this year, and this is naturally the first explanation offered by many NBA fans and insiders alike when assessing the offensive drought thus far.

The impact has been hard to miss. While total foul rates themselves haven’t changed much (19.41 per 100 possessions in 2020-21 down to 19.16 so far this year, per PBPStats.com), the leaguewide free-throw rate has seen 9.3 percent of its total lopped off (21.98 free throws per 100 possessions last season; 19.93 so far this year).

A major culprit has been a massive reduction in 3-point shooting fouls, to a rate that would be the NBA’s lowest since 2012-13.

Given how many of the league’s rule emphases speak directly to fouls on 3-pointers and other jump-shots, it’s easy to connect them with the precipitous drop.

How much of the NBA’s overall offensive decrease can we attach to these decreasing free-throw rates, though? A significant amount, but perhaps a bit less than some might have assumed. The league as a whole has attempted 2.05 fewer free throws per 100 possessions this season compared to last, and if we assume a free-throw accuracy rate of 77 percent,1 that works out to roughly 1.58 points.2

Will it hold?

It sure seems that way, though to exactly what extent remains to be seen. Anecdotally, at least, the rule emphases have been well-received by most parties involved, including some vocal NBA players. The league itself is serious about seeing them through, as its competition committee has planned several meetings over the next couple of months specifically to address new situations that crop up involving the changes.

Both players and referees have already begun to adjust, and they will continue to. We’ll have to see where things stand come spring, but it seems safe to assume that the rule emphases will continue to put a moderate damper on leaguewide offense.

The impact of returning fans

Why it matters:

All NBA teams have spent some portion of the past 15 months playing games in front of limited or nonexistent crowds. Most arenas hadn’t returned to full capacity until around playoff time last season.

Research has found a direct link between the Orlando bubble’s empty stadiums and better shooting among NBA players; while it’s impossible to say precisely how varying crowd sizes throughout last season may have affected shooting (and other elements of play), it seems fair to assume there was at least some leaguewide impact. Three-point percentage is a reasonable proxy, even if imperfect:

Last season’s 36.7 percent accuracy wasn’t a huge outlier per se, but it was still the highest the league had seen since 2008-09. The numbers have tumbled so far this year, likely due to some combination of full-capacity arenas, the early season lethargy we already discussed and players missing shots that they ordinarily would have gotten fouled on (and, again, simple variance — 3-point shooting numbers can vary a lot over a two-week sample).

Will it hold?

We have years’ worth of evidence suggesting that the 34 percent leaguewide figure from deep will creep upward. But it’s tough to approximate exactly when players will reacclimate, both in terms of the fan experience and their own fitness levels, so precisely how much better shooting we can expect remains to be seen.

Players are shooting a new basketball

Why it matters:

Hey, remember this? This season, the NBA switched from its longtime use of the Spalding basketball back to Wilson, its original partner from league inception. Could this be playing a role? Some players think so.

"It's a different basketball, it don't have the same touch and softness that the Spalding ball had,” said Clippers star Paul George after a Monday night game against Oklahoma City. “It’s gonna be a lot of bad misses. … Not to blame the basketball, but it is different."

This is purely anecdotal for now. FiveThirtyEight has heard from other NBA players that they haven’t noticed too much of a difference between the balls, or at least wouldn’t blame it for any decreased performance. This seems like a player-by-player issue, so estimating its league-wide impact is tough.

Will it hold?

These are the best basketball players in the world. I’m betting those having issues with the ball will figure them out sooner rather than later.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. League average has fluctuated between 76 and 78 percent over the last half-decade.

  2. Note that this number remains an estimate; we can’t say with certainty that league rule emphasis changes account for 100 percent of these changes in free throws awarded, as other factors — including simple variance across a relatively small two-week sample — are also likely at play.

Ben Dowsett is a writer and videographer based in Salt Lake City. His past NBA work can be found at ESPN, GQ, The Athletic and elsewhere. He curates Jazz Film Room for in-depth Utah Jazz analysis.

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