NBA point production – incredible, or inevitable?

If the style and culture of NBA ball continues to evolve as it has been in recent years, it won’t be too, too long before some team or other eclipses the 2.00 barrier in the saber-metric category of Points-per-Possession (PPP).

For the record, the pathetic Lakers surrendered a league-worst 1.131 PPP this past season while the stylish Dubs topped the good side of that ledger at a 1.157 rate.

I’ll acknowledge those figures look downright skimpy versus that lofty standard – the necessary increase in scoring would be in excess of 80 points per 100 possessions.

But I’ll also contend that certain wheels are already in motion that may prove to make that notion a little less outlandish than your “jerking” knee seems to think.

Before proceeding, let me be clear that I am not advocating any changes to the game’s current scoring procedures – though I’m not opposed to a deeper three-point line and an enlarged playing area.

As a starting point, let’s consider a team that converts exactly one-half of its possessions. Let’s further assume that this paragon of mediocrity racks up exactly as many successful three-point shots as it does unsuccessful free throws (3FG’s = missed FT’s).

Such a team, one deduces, is earning two points on every other possession (on average) – or exactly 1.00 PPP. [Of course, some of this “exactitude” is hypothetical, given that the calculation of “possessions” is an estimated – as opposed tallied – count.]

Simple mathematical logic implies two methods to elevate a team’s PPP: execute your offense more effectively so as to convert possessions at a higher rate, and/or improve the differential between your made treys and foul-line failures.

While that reasoning is straight-forward, its implementation has always required a deft touch – and not just with one’s shooting hand.

Despite the explosive increase of three-point shooting in recent times – this season saw the second-greatest jump in 3Par in league history – the large majority of games (70 - 80 percent) are won by the team that wins the conversion battle.

But teams are not only using the three-ball more frequently these days, but more effectively. Were you aware, for example, that all 30 NBA teams – even the woeful Sixers and Nets, even the Dwight- and De’Andre-saddled Hawks and Clips – recorded more threes than missed freebies? Did you know that had never happened before?

It had taken 29 years for the league as a whole (i.e. the average team performance) to negate every missed FT with an accurate long-distance shot. That first happened in the 2007-08 season – and even that year there were 14 teams with a negative score in that column of the stats – when the average team missed 6.10 FT’s per game while draining 6.55 treys.

Since the NBA’s adoption of the three-pointer, the average team’s per-game FT misfires have ranged from a high of 7.38 (1985-86) to a low of 5.48 (2012-13), with some minor fluctuation accenting an overall decline. Notice the spread – over a sample size of nearly four decades, mind you – is less than two shots per game.

Over the same span, and despite dropping from the prior season’s total on seven occasions, per-game treys have climbed from a low of 0.50 (1980-81) to this season’s high of 9.66. The average team’s accuracy has ranged from a low of .238 (1982-83) to a high of .367 (1995-96 with a 22’ arc; 2008-09). The usage rate has ever so slightly dipped but twice since the 23’9” distance was restored over two decades ago, and it surged past 30 percent for the first time ever with this season’s .316.

This pattern of prodigious point production through specialty shooting has been equally dramatic in playoff competition. As recently as five years ago (the 2012 post-season), a team accumulated as many or more missed FT’s as made treys 83 times in 94 playoff games – that constitutes 44.1 percent of that season’s playoff efforts. The first three rounds and 74 games of the 2017 playoffs have seen only 24 such team performances, a paltry 16.2 percent. Here’s the six-year progression:

2012 – 94 games / 83 “negatives” / 44.1 percent
2013 – 85 games / 69 “negatives” / 40.6 percent
2014 – 89 games / 62 “negatives” / 34.8 percent
2015 – 81 games / 55 “negatives” / 34.0 percent
2016 – 85 games / 48 “negatives” / 28.2 percent
2017 – 74 games / 24 “negatives” / 16.2 percent 

Bearing in mind this trend, let’s go back to that sample team of ours with the hypothetically exact 1.00 PPP rate. They “convert” (i.e. score an FG or go to the foul line) every other possession and their 3FG’s equal their errant FT’s.

Of course, before the adoption of the three-point shot, a team would essentially have to make every shot (FG and FT) in order to earn two points a possession – the only leeway was provided by any and-1’s along with the inevitable technical foul(s) the other guys would incur in such a game.

Logically, the “trey” introduces a whole new variable into the algebra of the game, potentially a quite impactful one.

Consider the night of March 13, 1998 – yes, a Friday the 13th – when the Clippers repelled the Raptors 152-120. In so doing, LA posted what calls an Offensive Rating of 162.8, i.e. 1.628 PPP. To this day, that performance has yet to be matched. Indeed, since 1983-84 (when “bask-ref” records for this measure begin), a team has reached 1.500 PPP in a single game a mere nine times, only once in the playoffs.

But the bar graph of possession-based efficiency is on the rise – and at a pretty staggering rate to judge by this season’s data. The increase in the usage of the three-point shot from 2015-16 to 2016-17 exceeded 10 percent.

As for Points-per-Possession, chew on these numbers: in 2015-16’s 1,230 regular-season games, a team reached or exceeded a 1.200 rate on 319 occasions (right about 13 percent of team performances), the highest total in five years.

During the 2016-17 season, that total increased by over 40 percent to 455, 18.5 percent of all team performances. 52 separate times – FIFTY-TWO – a squad matched or exceeded the point production (1.333) of the victorious Western Conference team in this season’s glorified Pop-a-Shot Contest during All-Star Weekend.

Here’s the breakdown by team for those 52 games and 21 teams:

7 times – Cleveland
6 times – Denver, Golden State
4 times – Houston
3 times – LA Clippers, Memphis
2 times – Brooklyn, Dallas, Minnesota, Portland, San Antonio, Toronto, Utah, Washington
1 time – Charlotte, Detroit, Miami, Milwaukee, Orlando, Phoenix, Sacramento

Now, I can hear the skeptics out there saying, “Numbers be damned, Abacus, two points per possession is impossible!”

In parting, I offer you this. Over their past two playoff runs (34 games), the Cavs have attempted 2,761 shots of which 1,072 were three-pointers, nearly two out of every five attempts.

It wasn’t that long ago that such a style – for an also-ran, much less a champion – would have elicited a similar evaluation.

Abacus Revelation for the Road 

That lone NBA playoff game during which a team notched a point-and-a-half a possession?

I don’t imagine it’ll come as too much of a shock that the distinction belongs to the Boston Celtics. After all, it was Bob Cousy and Red Auerbach who taught the world what fast-paced, fast-break basketball was all about.

And as for the three-ball, was it not our Birdman who introduced the term “dagger” to the basketball lexicon?

But it was a more nondescript green team, led by a young Paul Pierce and coached by Jim O’Brien, who would turn that little trick, drubbing the defending Eastern Conference champions 120-87 in an opening-round “ultimate” Game 5 at the Fleet Center 15 seasons ago.

Curiously, the C’s shot “only” 54 percent as a team that night and took only 11 FT’s, yet their Offensive Rating computes to 154.2 (1.542 PPP). But they took 29 treys – their usage rate of .341 was matched fewer than 50 times that season – making 19 of them. The Truth was eight for ten en-route to 46 points against Allen Iverson and Company. (It also helped that Boston committed a measly four turnovers.)

Graphs: Arturo Galetti;;;