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John Schuhmann

League-wide numbers indicate that defenses may be catching up to the rule changes.
League-wide numbers indicate that defenses may be catching up to the rule changes.
Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

After a decade long slumber, defense makes a stifling return

Posted Sep 24 2010 12:43AM

A new season is nearly upon us and it's time to put together our lists of players to watch, teams to watch and games to watch. But while we look to see how the Superfriends come together in Miami, how Shaq fits in with the Celtics and what uniform Carmelo Anthony wears, we also have to watch some statistical trends.

League-wide numbers from the last 10 seasons indicate that defenses just may be catching up to the rule changes that were implemented over the last 20 years to increase scoring.

Between 1994 and 2001, the NBA implemented a series of rule changes designed to open up the game and put more points on the scoreboard. Hand-checking, forearm contact (except in the low post), and "re-routing" players away from the ball were disallowed. The defensive three-second rule and zone defenses were also put into place.

The changes certainly made a difference. Last season, combined team scoring hit the 200-points-per-game mark from the first time in 15 years. But the jump from 199.9 points per game in 2008-09 was about pace (possessions per game), not efficiency (points per possession).

League-wide offense, last 10 seasons
Season Pace Off Rat EFG% OReb Rt TO/Poss FTA/Poss
2000-01 93.8 100.2 0.473 0.282 15.9 26.3
2001-02 93.3 101.6 0.477 0.289 15.4 25.3
2002-03 93.6 100.7 0.474 0.285 15.8 25.9
2003-04 92.7 100.0 0.471 0.286 16.0 25.9
2004-05 93.6 103.1 0.482 0.287 15.4 27.6
2005-06 93.0 103.4 0.490 0.273 15.4 28.0
2006-07 94.3 103.7 0.496 0.271 15.9 27.4
2007-08 94.8 104.7 0.497 0.267 14.8 26.1
2008-09 94.1 105.4 0.500 0.267 14.8 26.1
2009-10 95.1 104.9 0.501 0.263 14.8 25.6
Pace = Possessions per team per 48 minutes Off Rat = Points scored per 100 possessions
EFG% = Effective field goal percentage
OReb Rt = Percentage of available offensive rebounds obtained
TO/Poss = Turnovers per 100 possessions
FTA/Poss = Free throw attempts per 100 possessions

The 2009-10 season was the fastest-paced season in the last 10 seasons, with teams averaging 95.1 possessions per 48 minutes, up from 94.1 the season before. But pace hasn't exactly been trending up over the last 10 seasons. Rather, it has fluctuated between 93.0 (2005-06) and 95.1 in that span.

One reason for the increased pace last season was a decrease in offensive rebounding. As offensive rebounding declines, possession changes will occur more frequently.

But there was also a big increase in fast-break points, from 13.0 per 100 possessions in 2008-09 to 14.7 last season. Fast-break points had been hovering around that 13.0 mark for the last seven seasons, so last season's jump was somewhat out of the blue.


The increased pace allowed scoring to go up despite a dip in offensive efficiency. After trending up for five straight seasons and hitting a mark of 105.4 points per 100 possessions in 2008-09, efficiency dipped down to 104.9 (still the second highest mark of the last 10 years) last season.

Shooting actually improved by a hair, and turnovers remained low, but offensive rebounding decreased and free throw attempts both decreased. The league attempted just 25.6 free throws per 100 possessions last season, which was the lowest mark since 2001-02. That number has gone down each of the last four years, so it's very possible that players are learning how to defend better without using their hands.

Also, free-throw percentage (75.9) was down from 2008-09 (77.1), which was the second-highest mark in NBA history.

Down from downtown

Though effective field goal percentage was up slightly from 50.0 percent in 2008-09 to 50.1 percent last season, there were some clear changes within the types of shots the league attempted.

Note: Effective field-goal percentage takes into account the extra point rewarded for a 3-point shot: EFG% = (FGM + (0.5 * 3PM)) / FGA

Like efficiency, 3-point shooting had been trending up, both in frequency and in accuracy, entering last season. But just when we thought we'd get the best 3-point shooting season ever (even better than when the 3-point line was moved in from 1993-94 to 1995-96), the trend hit the brakes.

The league went from hitting 36.7 percent of its threes in 2008-09 to hitting 35.5 percent last season. This is probably a case of where defenses finally caught up to offenses. The 3-point shot has become more efficient over the years and coaches have realized that they need to change the way they defend it.

The best way to keep your opponents' 3-point percentage down is to take away the easiest threes to make. It's no secret that the corner three, taken from 22-feet rather than 23-feet-9, is the most efficient. The league has made 38.5 percent of its corner threes over the last 10 seasons, which is four percent better than its mark from other spots on the floor.

With offenses making the corner three more of a priority, the percentage of threes that were taken from the corner had been increasing, reaching a peak of 28.5 percent in 2008-09. Last season, defenses did a better job of taking that shot away. Only 26.7 percent of threes were taken from the corner, which is the lowest mark of the last seven seasons.

Accuracy from the corner took a slight dip, but it was the frequency, along with accuracy from the other spots, that was more responsible for the large decrease in overall 3-point percentage last season.

The vanishing mid-range jumper

If 3-point shooting went down, but effective field goal percentage still went up, then the league must have shot better from inside the arc. This is where offense continues to trend up.

The league shot 49.2 percent from inside the arc last season, the highest mark since 1985-86. And while traditionalists may bemoan the lost art of the mid-range jumper, stat-heads celebrate it, because it's the most inefficient shot in the game.

Over the last 10 seasons, shots from 0-15 feet have resulted in 1.02 points per attempt, 3-pointers have resulted in 1.07 points per attempt, and all other shots from the field have resulted in just 0.80 points per attempt.

Last season, mid-range shots made up just 23.2 percent of all field goal attempts, which was a 10-year low. With 3-point frequency also going down, attempts from 0-15 feet reached a high of 54.6 percent. That's how overall field goal percentage continued to trend up.

What to watch for

It will be interesting to see if free-throw attempts continue to go down this season. A decrease in trips to the line was probably the biggest reason for the dip in efficiency last year. The disappearing mid-range jumper is certainly another trend to watch.

On the macro level, in addition to total points per game, keep an eye on pace and efficiency. Since pace has tended to bounce up and down over the last several years, it could take a dip from last season. If efficiency goes down again, we could see a decrease in scoring.

The shot distance numbers above were compiled with the help of the NBA and StatsCube.

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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