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Parity’s Subplot: An Offensive Explosion

My wife and I are currently binging One Tree Hill. Yes, I know, I’ve never watched it even though it’s an intense, basketball-infused show. I’m honestly shocked that it’s taken me this long to get to it. 

Anyways, we’re running through seasons like wildfire, each packed with 25 lonngggg episodes in true early-2000s high school TV drama fashion (they recently made a LeBron James rookie season joke for a point of reference). But when seasons drag on like that, you have to find ways to spice things up: this person is cheating with this other person’s best friend, that one guy from the team has a kid, there’s a car accident, a hurricane, a coach with a dead wife, and now the mom is going to Italy so this side character has to step up and be responsible, etc, etc. 

Through a million and one different ways this show pulls you in a number of directions to keep you interested in the form of sub-plots, which is, a part of a story that diverges, is separate from and less important than the main story. 

Sometimes, though, those sub-plots can get juicy, and when a story is really intriguing, the writer’s room finds a way to subtly and poetically tie in sub-plots with the main story and create something magical. 

Every season has an overarching story, every episode has a plot, and every character has their own motivations that, in turn, create these tiny sub-plots that build into something bigger in the season finale. 

The NBA is no different. Every season has a resounding theme, with new and old cast members entering, maybe even changing sides, trends developing, awards races turning into subplots, and so on and so forth. 

The overarching story this season? Parity. 

The Los Angeles Lakers, who sit in 13th in the West at 16-21, are only 8 games back of 1st in the conference. The dysfunctional Raptors, Wizards, Bulls, and Hawks have gone through numerous losing streaks this season and yet, are still only 4.5 games back of a top 6 spot. 

Every team in the league has at least 10 wins and 10 losses. Last year, at this time, the Warriors and Suns were still in single digits in the loss category and the Pistons and Magic were the same in the wins department. 

In the last month, the Nuggets, Pelicans, Grizzlies, and Suns have all played hot potato with the 1st seed in the West. The top 5 in the East are separated by a measly 3 games. 

Upsets are happening every night. Blow-outs are becoming less and less prevalent. 

Parity is here, ladies and gentlemen and it is beautiful. 

One of Parity’s prevailing subplots? Offensive explosion. 

Let me preface this by saying that the NBA’s offensive boom has been happening for quite some time – thanks in large part to the pace & space era and the rise in popularity of the 3-point shot – this ‘subplot’ has been brewing for a few seasons now. 

But…  not like this. 

Teams on average are putting up nearly 114 points per game, the most since the 1969-1970 season. The league average 113.5 offensive rating is the highest it’s been since the stat started getting measured in the 1972-1973 season. 

One would assume that is because teams are playing faster, but that’s not the case, teams, on average, aren’t even cracking 100 possessions per 48 minutes. League-wide 3-point shooting hasn’t had some miraculous surge, sitting at 35.7% – a relatively ordinary number for this era. 

Admittedly, one can look at defensive rating and see that the league’s best defense, the Cleveland Cavaliers, is allowing nearly 3 points per 100 possessions more than the best defensive team last season, the Boston Celtics. Take it even further and compare that to the 2018-2019 season, and the Cavs allow 4 points per 100 possessions more than the top-rated Bucks that year. 

Defenses are inherently finding it much harder to stop offenses on a nightly basis this season. 

Why? It all goes back to parity. 

Point differential, a stat most commonly used to signify how well or how badly teams are beating opponents is a good indicator of this. The Celtics and Cavs lead the NBA this season at +5.2. Last season, 5 teams had a better point differential than that. On the other end of the spectrum, the San Antonio Spurs with a -9.4 differential are somewhat outliers. The team with the 2nd worst differential at -7.2 is the Detroit Pistons. Last season, there were 5 teams with a worse point differential than this current Pistons team. 

Essentially, the difference between the very top of the league and the cellar dwellers is smaller. 

To put it into perspective, through the LeBron James Miami Heat days and during the height of the Warriors-Cavs battles for supremacy (2011-2018) on average there were 930 games decided by 15 points or more per season. In the 4 seasons since? 832 games on average decided by 15 or more points. 

We’re almost 50% through this current season and the league is on pace for 780 games decided by 15 points or more. 

Fewer blow-outs mean more close games. 

More teams think they have a chance late in games. 

And therefore, more teams are letting their stars stay in games. 

A 12, 13-point deficit entering the 4th quarter in this era of 3-point shooting doesn’t seem as insurmountable anymore. 

There have been 6 players this season with a 55+ point game, the most in any season in NBA history, and again, we’re not even halfway through. 

There have now been six players with a 55-point game this season. That’s already the most in a season in NBA history and we’re not even halfway through. They are from:

🔥 Joel Embiid
🔥 Anthony Davis
🔥 Devin Booker
🔥 Luka Doncic
🔥 Donovan Mitchell
🔥 Giannis Antetokounmpo

— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 4, 2023

Of those 6 monster games, 2 were decided in overtime: Luka Doncic’s unbelievable 60 points, 21 rebounds, and 10 assists game against the Knicks and Donovan Mitchell’s 71 points and 10 assists against the Chicago Bulls. 

Of the other 4, three were decided by 10 points or less: Joel Embiid’s 59-points (and a near quadruple-double) was in a 7-point win over the Jazz, Devin Booker dropped 58 on the Pelicans in a 4-point victory, and Giannis Antetokounmpo put up a career-high 55 points on the Wizards to help the Bucks win by 10. 

Only Anthony Davis’s 55-point, 17-rebound performance against the Wizards was decided in a game that was seemingly not close and that was a Lakers win… by 11. 

For those of us who were alive and awake on a late January night in 2006 remember that Kobe Bryant dropped 81 points not only because the Raptors refused to double-team the late & great superstar, but because the game was close… until it wasn’t.

You can only have these goliath-like scoring outings when games are competitive and that’s what we’re seeing now. 

5 players are averaging 30+ points a game, the most since the 1961-1962 season. Players are shattering record books virtually every night. The league is seeing unprecedented offensive outings. The game of basketball is in a beautiful place.

Parity, and all its glory, has given birth to this.

The plot has brewed and brewed and brewed until it finally caramelized, manufacturing with it this wonderful, fun little wrinkle of a subplot. 

And just like One Tree Hill – NBA fans can sit back and enjoy each and every plot-twisting episode. 

Because this might be the best season yet.