Random Stats Brought to You by Me for No Particular Reason: NBA Scoring

By Dr. Brian Schrader

It’s November.

That means that baseball has likely come to an end and while we still have college football, things won’t really heat up for a few weeks.

What are we left with?

The NBA.

By default it becomes the best show around with the obvious downside that the season won’t end for another 8 months (probably with another title going home to Oakland).  I know there are lots of people for whom the NBA represents a high point in the sports calendar but I have always had trouble getting into basketball until the end of the regular season and by the time the playoffs start I am fully invested.

As a Denver native and lifelong Nuggets, I am more interested in the current NBA happenings than in years past and have done some early season reading and thinking about the NBA and my team’s prospects.  In particular, I am curious to see if the Nuggets’ hot start is a fluke or if they have a chance to make it deep in the always-competitive Western Conference.

Because I believe that analytics allow us to look past the superficiality of the standings and understand more fully the relative quality of individual teams, my investigation began with a look at point differential.  We know that in baseball, for example expected win/loss, which is simply a projection of a team’s record based on the difference between the runs they have scored and the runs they have allowed their opponents, effectively predicted the teams who would have success in the post season with the top 3 teams in run differential (Huston, Boston, and LA) making it to the Championship Series of their respective conferences.  Similarly in basketball, point differential can be useful in determining if teams are lucky or good.

What surprised me when looking at aforementioned stats had nothing to do with point differential, but how many points were being scored across the league. This predictably led me down a digital rabbit hole in search of… I don’t know what.

What follows is some of the stuff I found and not much of an explanation of what it might mean.

As of right now, the NBA team scoring average is 112.5 points per game.  I know, it’s early in the season and regression to the mean is bound to occur.  But, were this number to remain it would make the 2018-19 season the 9th-highest ever in terms of PPG, which is crazy.

While you may think that this year is an outlier, the league average PPG has been steadily creeping up over the past handful of years.  It was 101 in 2013-14 and has increased a little each year with the 2017-18 season ending with a whopping 106.3 PPG average.

It gets better!

In 2003-04 there were only two NBA teams who averaged fewer than 100 points per game while last year only two teams didn’t average at least 100 PPG.

This year all 30 NBA teams are averaging 100+ points per game (Orlando is last with 100.6).

What does this say about the NBA?

I’m not sure.

Maybe nothing.

But it makes you think if there is something about the composition of teams, coaching, or style of play that is leading to this surge in scoring.

Because I am a baseball fan first, this has made me think of an argument I heard someone make (it may have been Sports Science or something like that) that baseball either by coincidence or luck managed to set the pitchers mound the perfect distance from home plate.  Any closer and the players would be at too great a disadvantage because of reaction time and hits would extremely scarce.  Any farther and professional hitters would take advantage of the increase reaction time by launching homers with impunity.

I wonder if a similar logic can be applied to this most recent spike in NBA scoring.

I heard another possible apocryphal story about the invention of basketball that suggested the reason that the hoop in basketball is 10 feet off the ground is not because of some advanced mathematical formula or the result of years of experimentation/trial and error.  But rather, when Dr. James Naismith invented basketball, there just so happened to be some convenient structural feature where he affixed his prototypical hoop and it happened to be at 10 feet.

I am not sure this is true but perhaps unlike baseball, Dr. Naismith did not luck into the right height on the first try.

Sure, 10 feet worked for a long time but given the size and athleticism of modern NBA players, wouldn’t a 12-foot hoop provide more of a challenge and perhaps change the NBA into a more strategic and defense-oriented sport as opposed to the shootouts that are so common today.

Before you answer ponder this, the Timberwolves just beat the Jazz by a score of 128-125…