Before the 2009-10 NBA season, when Kevin Durant first emerged as a generational efficient scorer, only four players averaged 30 or more points per game on 60% true shooting or better: Kareem Abdul- Jabbar, Karl Malone, Michael Jordan and Adrian. Dantley, or the three most prolific scorers of the league’s first 67 years and a guy so adept at making free throws that the line multiplication became “The Dantley.”
Through the first month of this season, eight players scored better than 30 points per game and seven of them had a true shooting percentage higher than 60 percent. The one who didn’t, Giannis Antetokounmpo, has a career 60% true shooting percentage. A ninth player, Ja Morant, could join their team in short order.
If the NBA hasn’t maximized shooting efficiency, the last three seasons have reached a level never imagined before the league’s 3-point advantage, and it will take another revolution to raise the bar again.
The Dallas Mavericks scored an NBA-leading 116.7 points per 100 possessions during the 2019-20 season, according to Basketball Reference. Seven teams eclipsed that number in empty arenas the following season. Another was matched last season, and three more are on pace to match or eclipse it this season. That list includes the Boston Celtics, who are currently scoring a record 119.5 points per 100 possessions.
Seven of the 12 teams on this list featured either Durant, Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum or Donovan Mitchell — five of the aforementioned eight players averaging 30-plus points per game this season:
Luka DoncicDallas Mavericks: 34.4 PPG (54.6 eFG%, 60.4 TS%)
Joel EmbiidPhiladelphia 76ers: 32.3 PPG (56.0 eFG%, 63.9 TS%)
Jason TatumBoston Celtics: 31.9 PPG (57.5 eFG%, 64.1 TS%)
Donovan MitchellCleveland Cavaliers: 31.6 PPG (60.8 eFG%, 64.9 TS%)
Stephen CurryGolden State Warriors: 31.5 PPG (64.7 eFG%, 69.2 TS%)
Shai Gilgeous-AlexanderOklahoma City Thunder: 31.5 PPG (56.4 eFG%, 63.3 TS%)
John AntetokounmpoMilwaukee Bucks: 31.3 PPG (54.5 eFG%, 58.4 TS%)
Kevin DurantBrooklyn Nets: 30.3 PPG (56.6 eFG%, 65.1 TS%)
If Curry maintains those numbers, his season would rank as the most efficient high-volume scoring season ever, twice better than his unanimous MVP campaign. Mitchell’s season would rank third, and together that group would account for six of the 16 most efficient high-scoring seasons in history.
It’s no coincidence that Antetokounmpo, Embiid, Doncic, Durant and Tatum are the top five in free throw attempts this season, averaging at least nine per game (more than Jordan did at any point in the 1990s ).
Antetokounmpo, Doncic and Gilgeous-Alexander rank in the top seven in field goal attempts per game at the rim, each shooting better than 70 percent (roughly the equivalent of a Shaquille O’Neal freshman season).
Curry, Mitchell and Tatum rank in the top nine for attempts per game from 3-point range, with Curry and Mitchell both shooting 43% (all three make more 3-pointers per game than did Ray Allen ever do).
They’ve perfected the game’s most effective shots and cranked up their volume from every location to 11 — literally. Curry’s 11.5 attempts per game from 3-point range lead the league for the third straight season. (Only James Harden, who topped 30 points per game and 60% true shooting three times from 2017-20, averages more in a season.) Antetokounmpo is averaging 11.6 attempts at the rim per game, the second-most (behind Williamson’s 13.4 in 2020-21) since the NBA began keeping track in 1996. Doncic, Embiid and Antetokounmpo could become the top three at each position term of at least 11 free throw attempts in the same season by Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Oscar Robertson in 1965-66.
It’s not just that they get the right shots. The precision with which they convert creates space to facilitate difficult shots. Teams are burdened to defend the rim and perimeter, so the midrange opens up enough to make those efforts manageable. Kobe Bryant made a league-leading 12.2 mid-range shots per game (nearly half of his nightly total) during the 2005-06 campaign, when he averaged a career-high 35.4 points and made just 42.4% of them. That’s an awful lot of work to get 10 points a game.
No one is attempting more than nine mid-range shots per game this season. Only two players get more than seven, and both convert better than 50% of them. Only 13 players are making more than four mid-range shots per game this season, and 11 of them are making more than 45% of those attempts.
That speaks to the skill level and discipline across the league. It’s not just the stars, either. Past seasons have seen many specialists shoot better than 45% on at least three 3-point attempts per game. You can probably name off the top of your head half of the list of 35 players who have ever done it for more than half a season. JJ Redick, Steve Nash, Kyle Korver, Joe Harris, Dale Ellis, Hubert Davis, Stephen Curry, Seth Curry and Brent Barry are the only ones to have done it multiple times. Beyond them, a Brandon Rush, Eric Piatkowski, Steve Novak, Troy Murphy or Anthony Morrow might catch fire for a year.
This season, 18 players are set to join this club, albeit early in the season. The Celtics have three of them: Grant Williams, Al Horford and Sam Houser, who shoot a combined 46% on twelve 3-point attempts per game. The Celtics have built the roster around Tatum. Defend their shooters and Tatum attacks the rim. He closes in on Tatum and picks up his venom around the arc. (No NBA duo scores more points per possession than the Celtics’ 1.34 when Tatum and Houser share the court.) Try to defend both, and Jaylen Brown steps into the middle, where he shoots 60.5 % this season.
How far can players and teams take this math? There is only so much pace and room to create.
The past three seasons have seen the highest average offensive rating in NBA history, peaking earlier in the year at 112.3. That’s four points better than the heyday of the 1980s, when the league last averaged 100 possessions per game. Regulation ratings reach 120 and 130 on a nightly basis, and the Sacramento Kings scored 153 points against the Brooklyn Nets in four quarters on Tuesday, when their pace for the game (109 possessions) would have set a record if they averaged over total. time.
Obviously, the increase in 3-point attempts has had a profound impact on that efficiency. A team’s average attempts per game didn’t reach double digits until 1995 and only topped 20 in 2013. That number rose steadily every year until 2020, when it reached 34 per game, which is exactly where we are this season. The league’s average three-point conversion rate has hovered around 35%-36% over the past 25 years.
The last time the league’s average 3-point attempts held steady was from 2007-12, when teams took 18 shots per game. During that time, then-Houston Rockets executive Daryl Morey scaled the brand of basketball we see so often today. His teams topped a record 45 attempts per game in 2018-20. The Rockets peaked at 114.9 points per 100 possessions while shooting 35.6 percent from distance in 2018-19, and their offensive rating dipped to 112.5 when their 3-point shooting percentage as a team dipped to 34.5 percent.
There are signs of a decline in open and open 3-pointers, as the Rockets increased their attempts from 26.6 in 2013-14 to 45.4 in 2018-19. Defenses caught up to Houston’s scheme, and Harden had to work even harder as the centerpiece of the offense. There’s only so far you can go over the line, and we shouldn’t be surprised that the league average has stabilized amid Houston’s growing efforts.
There are similar indications that pace has its limits before efficiency is tolled. No team has ever averaged more than 103 possessions per game, shot at least 36% from distance and scored better than 1.13 points per possession (an offense that would rank outside the top 10 this season). Up the pace by a handful of possessions per game, and 33 teams have hit those marks — 30 of them since the 73-win Warriors did it in 2015-16. A record eight teams are on pace to surpass those numbers this season.
We may have peaked for the pace-and-spacing era, and that has resulted in a record number of 30-point scorers and the highest offensive rating in NBA history. Or maybe players will continue to become even more skilled than they already are. That’s essentially asking someone to become a hybrid of Antetokounmpo and Curry — hitting those 11 shots at the rim, the 3-point line and the free-throw line at 70/45/90, which would translate into the game’s first 40 points per game. game by Chamberlain.
Whether that’s possible or not, NBA stunts — and the stars who drive them — have never been better.
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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Do you have a tip? Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach