A Golden Age in the NBA, In Techni-Color

A Golden Age in the NBA, In Techni-Color

Recently, browsing this season’s statistical leaders quickly turned to perusing, which in turn shortly became borderline obsession when I noticed that the number of players shooting 50% or better from the floor had risen sharply over the last decade.

I had to know why and how this had happened, so spent the better part of an entire day charting in color every single *qualified player that had done so over the last ten seasons to try and identify trends that may have been contributing factors.

*Qualified denotes those players who made, or are on pace to make, 300 field goals in a season. The purpose of this is to weed out those who may skew the stats with small sample sizes.

What I got was a very-interesting-to-look-at chart that clearly shows an upward trend in the number of players topping that 50% field goal-shooting benchmark over the last decade.

Before we continue, a few words on the results of this fun (obsessive) exercise:

All percentages for the current 2010-2011 season are through December 23 of this year.

I made an attempt to stagger names a bit wherever possible so you could see them. However, it soon became evident that in places this was impossible due to the shear amount of players shooting similar percentages. In the instances where names are staggered, their actual percentage will be within 1% of where it appears on the chart. Many appear side-by-side, slightly overlapping, but if you know your ball you know who it is, even from a partial, coupled with the team color.

You will notice that I used an approximation of a given player’s name in his team colors. This quickly became difficult for teams with shades of blue or red, of which there are many in the NBA. But I did adjust those players’ names to their corresponding teams’ colors, if ever so slightly. For instance, Minnesota Timberwolves got a more pale, lighter shade of blue than Memphis Grizzlies, who in turn were a more medium, flatter blue than the darker shade I chose for Orlando Magic’s player appearances.

Teams like the Detroit Pistons and New Jersey Nets, who both use variations of a red, white, and blue color scheme, had a primary color chosen for them by myself based on whichever would stand out more to the surrounding player colors, which turned out to be basic red for Pistons and a flat, medium blue for Nets players. To be perfectly honest, neither the Pistons nor Nets were on the list very often at all, anyway.

In instances where a player was traded during the season, I made the first half of said player’s name the color of the team he started on and the back half of his name the color of the team he finished the season on. The most identifiable player in this instance is ’07-’08 Shaq, but there are a handful of these in all. A couple others are ’05-’06 Ruben Patterson (who showed up on this chart a lot more than I would have initially suspected) at just a bit under the .520 mark and last season’s Carl Landry at a tick under .540.

I used almost all surnames for players, except in the cases of “Shaq” and “Dirk” (who somewhat surprisingly only pops in twice). I considered it for “Amar’e” but realized that of the three shades of orange, light for Charlotte Bobcats, medium for Phoenix Suns, and dark for New York Knicks, “Stoudemire” stood out far more. Take Steve Nash, for example, he’s in there in the majority of the seasons (the only guard to do so), but hard to find because 1) the color and 2) he tends to be in those uber-clusters. Besides, if you don’t know who Shaq and Dirk are you probably took one look, and like my wife, said “Um…uh… pretty colors. Nice job?” and shouldn’t be reading this anyway.

A final editor’s note before we move on to the meat of it, the observations and implications:

Dude, Wally, so sorry about that lost, rogue “z” of yours in ’01-’02. By the time I noticed it had gone missing it was way too late. If it makes you feel any better I was able to find and reattach it by the time you made your second, and last, appearance on the list, in ’04-’05. By the way, congrats on making the list at all! Seeing guards sneak into this chart, largely inhabited by giants-among-men, is a rare and impressive feat indeed.

Observations

-Many have forgotten at this point just how dominant Shaqille O’Neal used to be in his prime. The number of times he led the league, and the huge gap in many of those years, should be a gentle reminder that his dominance cannot be so easily dismissed

-That gap, between the league leader and the rest of the field, has closed considerably over the years. Not because the leader got worse, but because the rest of the league got better over the last five years

-There are a few Seattle Supersonics on the chart, but only one Oklahoma City Thunder player, Serge Ibaka, this season

-A number of players made more appearances than I thought they would, including the aforementioned Patterson, Mark Blount, and Eddy Curry

-Also in there more often than you would suspect is Grant Hill, first as a member of the Orlando Magic, then as a member of the Phoenix Suns. He makes the most appearances for wing players. And it’s not even close. Tweener, Boris Diaw, is next, although he’s played the 4-spot quite a bit somewhat disqualifying him as a pure wing for the purposes of this list. Gerald Wallace says “Hi” too. In fact, there were more appearances by Bobcats than I would have thought there would be, initially

-After Steve Nash, who we already noted shows up far more often than any other guard, Tony Parker can be found next-most among guards

-Speaking of guards, the ’07-’08 season saw an influx of guards on the list. This perplexed me to no end, but I think I found at least a partial explanation for it which will be addressed later in the post

-The naked eye will quickly show you that indeed there has been a clear rise in the shear number of players shooting at least 50% from the floor, as illustrated here

The waning and waxing of this chart will have an easily recognizable pattern in many of the following illustrations. There’s a clear pattern emerging, a undeniable trend.

There are currently 33 qualified players shooting at least 50% this season, a high water mark for the last decade. But, the odds are that a few fall out along the way due to injury or some other reason that might keep out of enough games to knock down the required 300 makes. That would leave the ’07-’08 season as the lone season in recent memory to feature 30 players at the benchmark. As noted, that was the year so many guards made the list, putting it at that high of a level. There are quite a few this year too, so maybe, just maybe, that high water mark can be topped after all, if the trend continues. We’ll see.

Historical Implications

During the 1990s scoring went down dramatically in the NBA, leading to several of the next few years seeing a tweaking of the rules of the game to try and up the tempo and scoring opportunities, most notably with the “no hands” rule changes of 1999-2000, a rule change that would see several clarifications and incarnations in the coming years.

In the backcourt, there is no contact with hands and forearms by defenders. In the frontcourt, there is no contact with hands and forearms by defenders except below the free throw line extended in which case the defender may only use his forearm. In the post, neither the offensive player nor the defender is allowed to dislodge or displace a player who has legally obtained a position. Defender may not use his forearm, shoulder, hip or hand to reroute or hold-up an offensive player going from point A to point B or one who is attempting to come around a legal screen set by another offensive player. Slowing or impeding the progress of the screener by grabbing, clutching, holding “chucking” or “wrapping up” is prohibited.

However, scoring continued it’s downward trend despite these tweaks and subsequent ones.

2000-2001 saw the shot clock being reset to only :14 seconds, instead of :24, in certain situations, the clear-path fouls rule, a stricter reiteration of the “no hands” rules, and the beginning of the end of the confusing “illegal defense” rule that had plagued the league for years.

The following 2001-2002 season finally realized the utter death of the lame-duck illegal defense law, replaced with David Stern’s blessing to allow teams to finally play zone defense, with a stipulation of the 3-seconds in the paint rule to keep bigs from simply camping out on defense. Also implemented was a plan to up the pace by reducing the backcourt-to-frontcourt time from ten seconds to eight, where it remains today.

Still, scoring and pace continued to fall, and dramatically so.

That is until the 2004-2005 season, where it spiked dramatically. This I just had to see, to find out if the trend between better FG% and the number of players pulling it off followed suit. A (scant) few of the questions were:

-Was there a gap similar to the one between the league leader and the rest of the field like there was from ’01-’02 to ’05-’06?

-Was there a difference between the qualified field goal shooters and the league as a whole (because unqualified players can skew those stats, remember)?

-Are these isolated incidents, or did the entire league improve as a result of the rules changes of the last few years?

To help answer these questions (which, to my dismay/delight, in actuality had the end result of raising even more), I superimposed the *qualified median and league-wide FG% averages for each season onto the above chart to see if they followed along with the trend.

*Qualified Median represents the middle percentage of all qualified players for a given year. For example, if 108 players qualified for the league’s FG% list in a given year, as described above, I took the percentage shot by the player(s) at exactly halfway down the list, the 54th spot in this instance

Two things you’ll notice right away:

-The league as a whole did indeed follow suit

-The 50%ers mean (their average) did not follow along as closely, in fact flourishing when the league’s pace was at it’s slowest in the last ten years (as you’re about to see). The 2003-2004 season was their time alone. All other offense was down in ’03-’04

The rise and subsequent spike in the 50%ers numbers, culminating in ’03-’04, makes sense when their smaller sample size of only ten players that playing year is taken into account, coupled with the softened-up defensive rules changes of the past several years.

However, points-per-game and the pace of the game continued to plummet to an all-time low, as seen here.

This would not do. A plodding halfcourt game wasn’t what fans paid to see, and credit to the commish for realizing this and taking steps to rectify it over the years.

So what was the cause of the sudden spike the following 2004-2005 season, and subsequent continued rise to prominence of scoring, pace, and excitement, league-wide?

One reason was yet another crackdown of the “no hands” rule for the 2004-2005 season, piling onto the rule yet again. Surely officials were told to enforce it en masse this time.

New rules were introduced to curtail hand-checking, clarify blocking fouls and call defensive three seconds to open up the game.

Indeed, this was the lone line of notable changes to the rules for the ’04-’05 season, a rarity for the NBA. Stern was serious about raising the quality of the product he’s responsible for to the fans. And it worked masterfully this time.

But it wasn’t the only reason the game suddenly opened up.

Remember how the league’s restrictions on zone defense had been lifted, yet had no effect for the next several years? That’s because although the tool was in the toolbox, it was lying there unused. It was, in fact, detested by players and coaches alike, deemed “unmanly” and an “infringement on the purity of the game,” their game that had sadly become mostly one-on-one or two-on-two at best.

No one used this tool for the longest time, until slowly but surely, zone defenses, that hadn’t been seen in the NBA for virtually it’s entire existence, finally started leaving an impression on teams and their sideline directors. Nowadays, every team in the league employs a zone defense at some time or another.

The league received another shot in the arm to it’s scoring and pace in 2004 in the form of Mike D’Antoni.

Promoted to head coach of the Suns partway through the previous season, his first full year as lead dog saw him raise the Suns out of the ashes like a –pardon the pun– phoenix. Under his direction the Suns would vault to the top of the PPG and FG% list and stay there for his tenure. They were also tops in pace his first two seasons as head coach and would never be lower than 4th in pace under D’Antoni.

In 2007, Max Levin and Dylan Bothamley of 82 Games.com chronicled D’Antoni’s role in helping the league get to where it had tried, yet struggled to get to with it’s rule changes. D’Antoni was the first to take full advantage of the loosened-up defenses with a full-tilt offense that ran right at you, often popping an open look long before a defense had even found their spot on the floor and set up.

The article begins with, “Conventional wisdom holds that the best offense is a patient one,” which is exactly what we’d seen, as born out by the above charts. D’Antoni would challenge that conventional wisdom, indeed, shattering it.

There are many great and interesting points made in the article that seem to support the fact that an open jumpshot is an open jumpshot, after all,” with statistical evidence to back up the fact that just because a team pushes the ball the quality of the possession doesn’t necessarily fall. Indeed, the evidence presented shows the opposite of the conventional thinking of the last several decades to be true, although of a sample size at the time that was not convincing enough even for the writers to fully buy into their own assertions.

Faster offenses were slightly more efficient than the slower ones in 2004-05 (by only a slight margin: 0.03 points per 100 possessions). In 2005-06, this gap increased to 0.80. This year, the gap is up to 1.4. This means that, rather than shrinking, the benefits to be gained from a faster paced offense are actually increasing…

What implications do these numbers have? Well, first of all, they mean that the mavens—from Charles Barkley to your high school coach—are wrong. In today’s NBA, working the defense for a better shot will not necessarily lead to a better chance. This may seem rather counter-intuitive, but when examined more closely, the logic becomes apparent…

I urge you to use the link,  given again here, to read the entire presentation, if only because it helped me to understand my own charts better, to identify a part of what happened to bring the league back to the dynamic juggernaut of excitement it has once again become, when it was once on the verge of becoming a plodding dinosaur doomed to a suffocating death.

I’d made many of the same observations as Max and Dylan before stumbling upon their article, but still felt like there was a missing piece to the puzzle. A piece perfectly fitted by Mike D’Antoni and his frenetic pace. His Seven Seconds Or Less offense had an undeniable effect on the league that, while on it’s own cannot account for all the upside we’ve experienced, nevertheless played a rippling role in a culmination of events that helped accomplish what rule-making on it’s own could not.

D’Antoni opened up and dug into that proverbial toolbox, and went about changing for the better the complex machine that is the NBA.

This trend is unlikely to be permanent,” say Max and Dylan, in their closing paragraph. Well, it’s sure had staying power so far, even though this year has seen a slight drop in PPG and overall FG%. But pace is still at an all-time high in the current era, and the number of players shooting at an efficient level is doing anything but dropping.

If they are right, and we are simply in a cycle, then we should take the time to soak it in, to bask in the light of an era that will be viewed from afar in the future as a “Golden Era” of the game, the time the league changed forever, for the better.

If they are wrong, and the cycle can sustain itself at this level for an extended period of time, may-hap even build on it taking us to all new heights, then we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

___

A final note:

Remember the influx of guards on the chart in ’07-’08?

It coincides with the first spike in the league’s pace of play, indicating that guards were pushing it up the floor and driving to the bucket more, where high-percentage shots are found by the bundle.

However, like the D’Antoni effect, it feels like there’s a missing piece or pieces as of yet. Little help, readers? Drop us a dime.

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