Welcome to the Golden Age for Efficient Hoops

Blake Griffin (No. 23) of the Detroit Pistons poses for a portrait during Media Day at Little Caesars Arena.

Source Gregory Shamus/Getty

Why you should care

NBA scoring is the highest since 1986 and turnovers are lower than they’ve ever been. How has the league cracked the code?

There was a Warriors game back in January when something peculiar happened. That doesn’t narrow it down much because the California juggernaut does something extraordinary on a regular basis. But on that Saturday evening, in a 122-92 win over the New York Knicks, Golden State whipped the ball around the gym with such precision that dribbling was hardly necessary. Virality ensued.

While scoring 43 points, Warriors All-NBA shooting guard Klay Thompson dribbled the ball just four times in 34 minutes of play. That’s less than most NBA guards dribble in one possession. The bizarre feat was evidence not only of Thompson’s unmatched marksmanship, but also of just how well the entire Golden State team executes each possession. By swinging the ball across the floor, choosing to pass rather than over-dribble, the Warriors create open, efficient scoring opportunities better than any team in the league. That pass-first approach to finding the open man also means that they turn the ball over on just 12.6 percent of possessions, far less than the NBA’s historical average. But this year, that figure puts Golden State below par.  

The turnover rate is at an all-time low in the NBA this season.

That’s according to Basketball Reference. This season, a mere 12.4 percent of possessions league-wide ended in a turnover — only the second time the mark has sunk below 13 percent since 1973, when turnovers were first tracked. The Charlotte Hornets, who barely missed the playoffs, ranked first in the league with a 10.9 percent rate. Of the playoff teams, San Antonio ranks first at 11.0 percent of possessions turned over.

Why? The much publicized three-point revolution taking over basketball hasn’t just changed the way players are valued and points are scored. It’s also reshaped the way teams spread the floor. With teams shooting threes at a record pace, the ball is rarely being passed into crowded spaces where defenders can swipe at the rock and force a turnover. And when teams aren’t doing their best Golden State impression — swinging the ball across the perimeter in search of a perfect shot — there’s a good chance that one player is going “iso.” The generational rise in isolation offense, aka “iso,” is where one player clears the floor with no intention of passing, leading to fewer turnovers.

“Just look at the film,” says former NBA point guard Ronald “Flip” Murray when asked about the generational decrease in turnovers. “Some of that footage from the ’50s is tough to watch. The floor is cluttered and guys are kicking the ball around down low.”

 

But turnovers and a cluttered floor are not problems unique to the days of George Mikan and Bob Cousy. In fact, the 1990s were some of the lowest scoring, highest turnover years of the last half-century. Over time, though, those turnover figures are changing. Aside from a few outlier years, the NBA rate of possessions ending in turnovers has steadily decreased by about 1 percent each decade. Prior to the ’80s, when three-point shots were rare and most offenses focused on attacking the cluttered space surrounding the hoop, more than 16 percent of possessions ended in a turnover. Back then, league-wide average turnovers per game clocked in around 20. This season, NBA teams are averaging just 14.1 turnovers per game.

At first glance, that’s hardly a dramatic decrease — just six measly turnovers — but there are layers to this. Average effective field goal percentage (.524) is its highest ever this season, as is the league’s pace of play. According to Basketball Reference, the number of possessions per 48 minutes reached triple digits for the first time in 30 years. So, a season where NBA teams are playing faster and more efficiently, and averaging more possessions, is also one in which those teams are turning the ball over less than ever.

That means more scoring: The NBA average of 111.1 points per game is the 11th highest mark in league history and the first time scoring has exceeded 110 points per game since 1986.

Those days were great, but this brand of basketball is something different. The 1960s were the highest scoring days in NBA history. Conveniently, this era also predates the recording of turnovers, pace of play and any conceivable efficiency metric. What we do know, though, is that in 1961-62, when Wilt Chamberlain averaged 50.4 points per game, and teams scored a record 118.8 points per game, NBA effective field goal percentage (.426) was a full 10 percentage points less than it is today. Additionally, teams shot 18 more field goals per game and averaged more free throws per field goal attempt while not shooting any threes. Was it a fun era of hoops? You’d be a fool to think not. But, essentially, the NBA game back then was racing up and down the court, chucking two-point baskets and shooting tons of free throws. Now? It’s the opposite.

Take Houston, for instance. The Rockets this season, led by likely NBA MVP James Harden (36.1 points per game), are launching 45 three-pointers per game. More than half of their total field goal attempts are from distance. But a team with that philosophy could ultimately fail in the playoffs. As we saw in last season’s 0-for-27 Game 7 playoff debacle, cold shooting nights are inevitable. But with turnovers on just 12 percent of possessions this season, the Rockets’ undoing will likely come if a more well-rounded foe like Golden State simply outplays them.

But there is hope for Houston yet. A year after losing to Golden State in seven games in the Western Conference finals, the Rockets have cut down on their turnovers (13.3 per game on 12 percent of possessions down from 13.8 on 12.7 percent of possessions in 2018) and are shooting roughly the same percentage on three more three-point shots per game. Meanwhile, Golden State allows more points per game than Houston and ranks 19th in the NBA in turnover percentage to Houston’s ninth. If the Rockets can avoid another unconscionably awful shooting night while protecting the ball, a series upset won’t be out of reach. 

“With Harden playing like this and a healthy Chris Paul, the Rockets are an unstoppable force when it’s all going well,” says Turner Sports analyst Reggie Miller. “We just haven’t seen that work for seven games against the Warriors.”

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