Lockdown After the Lockout: The Scoring Dip in the NBA’s 2011-12 Season

I have not been paying a lot of attention to the NBA this season.  In part, it has been because of the lockout.  Also, my favorite player is busy playing in Russia (Andrei Kirilenko).  And, I have been busy moving [which also explains the dearth of articles and the lack of updates to the U.P Top 23].

Nevertheless, I catch an NBA game every now and then and I do see the scores online.  And something crazy is going on in the NBA.  No…I am not referring to “Linsanity”; I am referring to the low scores in the NBA this season.

While certainly the lockout and labor dispute can be blamed, there still appears to be a trend this season where not only are scores low, but also there appear to be more blowouts.  It could be conditioning and the impact of back-to-back-to-back games, but nevertheless scoring — the highlight of basketball — appears to be lacking.

For example, this season there are currently (as of 14 February 2012) four teams averaging under 90 points per game – Toronto Raptors (88.2), Detroit Pistons (87.2), New Orleans Hornets (87.1), and the Charlotte Bobcats (86.1).  You have to go back to the 2005-06 season just to find a team that averaged under 90 points per game [Portland Trail Blazers – 88.8].  The Bobcats’ average is the lowest since Toronto (85.4) in the 2003-04 season.  Just for comparison, the highest scoring NCAA team is the North Carolina Tar Heels, which average 83.5 points per game, but do so in eight fewer minutes.

[Side Note: in 2008-09, Virginia Military Institute outscored the lowest-scoring NBA team 93.8 to 93.6.  In 2006-07, VMI outscored 22 NBA teams!].

On the high end, the Denver Nuggets are the highest scoring team in the NBA by averaging 103.9 points per game.  This is followed by the Miami Heat (103.4) and the Oklahoma City Thunder (101.2).  These are the only three teams averaging over 100 points per game.  Denver’s average is the lowest high mark going to the 2002-03 season (Dallas Mavericks – 103 PPG).  The number of teams scoring over 100 points is the fewest since 2003-04 (two teams).

But how does the trend compare overall?  Let’s take a look at the last few seasons to see if a pattern exist, or is it just a consequence of the lockout-shortened season.  It should be noted that the statistics that I gathered for the 2011-12 season were obtained last Thursday (9 February 2012) and therefore covers 372 games through 8 February.  The total data goes back to the 2006-07 season.

First, let’s see how much scoring is down.  Through 13 February 2012, the average points per game for all teams is 94.7.  Over the study period, that is the lowest, although as will be noted later that is NOT the lowest since the 1976 merger.  But average for all teams does not tell us too much.  What about how much the winning team is scoring, versus how much the losing team is scoring?

On average, winning NBA teams in the 2011-12 season are scoring an average of 100.52 points per game while losing teams are scoring an average of 88.88 points per game.  Over the study period, these are the lowest numbers for average points per game.  Winning teams this season are scoring on average 4.68 points fewer than over the previous five seasons.  Losing teams are doing slight worse, averaging fewer than 5.37 points per game compared to the last five seasons.

Season

Games

Avg Win

Avg Loss

2011-12

372

100.5161

88.87634

2010-11

1230

104.8463

94.25447

2009-10

1230

105.9846

94.90976

2008-09

1230

105.422

94.47967

2007-08

1230

105.6756

94.17073

2006-07

1230

104.0472

93.43171

The highest score by a team was 129 by the Miami Heat; that is by far the lowest over the study period (144 in 2010-11 is the next closest).  The lowest score in 2011-12 was 56 points by the Orlando Magic.  That, however, is not the lowest (54 points in 2007-09, as well as a tie in 2010-11).

In terms of breaking down the scoring by amount scored, only 3.23 percent of winning teams in 2011-12 scored more than 120 points in their wins.  This is the lowest over the study period (2009-10 is the highest with 11.38 percent of winning teams scoring over 120).  Most winning teams in 2011-12 score between 90-99 points per game (41.13 percent), which is on average 15 percent more than any other season over the study period (the next closest is 2006-07 with 28.05 percent).  Typically, based on the previous five seasons, most winning teams score between 100-109 points (on average 35 percent of all winning scores fall in this range).

At the other end of the spectrum, 1.61 percent of winning teams scored between 70-79 points in their victories.  Over the previous five season, the percentage of winning scores falling in this range never topped 0.5 percent!!!  To put this in perspective, through 352 games in 2011-12, there were six winners scoring between 70-79 points.  That is equal to or greater than any of the previous five seasons!!!!!  Additionally, so far during the 2011-12 season, 7.26 percent of winners scored between 80-89 points…the highest over the study period.

POINTS SCORED BY WINNING TEAM, by POINT RANGE and SEASON

Season

Games

> 120

110-119

100-109

90-99

80-89

70-79

<70

2011-12

372

3.23%

11.83%

34.95%

41.13%

7.26%

1.61%

0.00%

2010-11

1230

9.35%

23.41%

34.88%

25.45%

6.50%

0.41%

0.00%

2009-10

1230

11.38%

22.20%

36.67%

25.37%

4.07%

0.33%

0.00%

2008-09

1230

9.84%

22.85%

36.34%

24.39%

6.18%

0.41%

0.00%

2007-08

1230

11.14%

25.04%

34.23%

22.60%

6.50%

0.49%

0.00%

2006-07

1230

8.05%

20.57%

36.42%

28.05%

6.59%

0.33%

0.00%

As for the losing teams, a similar pattern emerges.  On the low end, 2.96 percent of losing teams in the 2011-12 season scored fewer than 70 points in their loss, far exceeding the averages over the previous five seasons.  The 11 games where the loser scores fewer than 70 points is more than in each of 2010-11, 2009-10, and 2008-09 seasons!  Losing teams score in the 70-79 range 13.44 percent of the time.  Most losing teams in 2011-12 score in the 80-89 point range (35.75 percent).  Over the previous five seasons, most losing teams score between 90-99 points in their losses (35.48 percent of the time).

On the high end, no losing team in 2011-12 scored over 120 points.  While that might seem extremely rare — and to be fair it is rare — it does happen 1.61 percent of the time.  Only five losing teams in 2011-12 have scored in the 110-119 range (1.34 percent of the time), compared to an average percentage of 7.04 percent of the time over the last five seasons.

POINTS SCORED BY LOSING TEAM, by POINT RANGE and SEASON

Season

Games

> 120

110-119

100-109

90-99

80-89

70-79

<70

2011-12

372

0.00%

1.34%

13.71%

32.80%

35.75%

13.44%

2.96%

2010-11

1230

1.38%

6.75%

22.28%

35.77%

25.69%

7.72%

0.41%

2009-10

1230

1.22%

6.83%

22.85%

37.97%

25.37%

5.20%

0.57%

2008-09

1230

2.28%

7.15%

21.06%

33.58%

26.75%

8.62%

0.57%

2007-08

1230

1.71%

8.54%

19.51%

35.93%

24.31%

8.29%

1.71%

2006-07

1230

1.46%

5.93%

21.06%

34.15%

26.67%

9.51%

1.22%

If you combine the data from above, typically a winning team scores between 100 and 109 points, while a losing team typically will score between 90-99 points.  However, for the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, we see a complete jump down to a lower point range for both winners and losers; winners now fall in the 90-99 range and losers are in the 80-89 range.  Given that the numbers were fairly stagnant but trending towards more scoring (for both winners and losers), the drop this season is not part of a longer trend and therefore does seem to be caused by the lockout.

Now, what about blowouts?  Are there more blowouts this season when compared to the previous five seasons?

The average point differential in 2011-12 is 11.639 points, which is the highest over the study period.  But the difference between this current season and the previous five seasons is minuscule.  In fact, the 2007-08 numbers are quite close to this seasons differential (11.504 in 2007-08).  The average point differential over the last five NBA seasons is 10.946.  So the 2011-12 season seems to generally fall in line with the previous seasons.

In fact, if we breakdown the point differential into ranges, most games tend to fall in the same range.  Over the study period, most games fall in one of two ranges: 6-10 points and 11-20 points.  In 2011-12, 30.47 percent of games were between 11-20 with 29.92 percent of games between 6-10 points.  The 2007-08 and 2006-07 seasons had percentages similar to this current season, while the other three seasons (2010-11, 2009-10, and 2008-09) had slightly more games in the 6-10 point range than the 11-20 point range.  So, in this case, the 2011-12 season is no different than previous seasons.

However, it is when we start to look at the extremes that the current NBA season separates itself from previous seasons.  Over the last five years, one-point margins of victory occurred in four percent of NBA games.  However, this season, one-point wins are only occurring 2.15 percent of the time.  At the other side, the percentage of margins of victory between 31-40 points is close to double the average over the previous five seasons (3.76 percent in 2011-12 versus an average of 2.02 percent in previous years).

If we define a blowout as margins exceeding 20 points, then 15.32 percent of games this season would qualify as a “blowout” versus an average of 12.24 percent over the last five seasons (second highest is 14.39 percent in 2007-08).  If we define a blowout as margins exceeding 30 points, then the percentage of games in the 2011-12 season that are blowouts would be 4.03 percent (versus an average of 2.42 percent).

MARGIN OF VICTORY, by POINT RANGE and SEASON

Season

Games

1-pt

2-5

6-10

11-20

21-30

31-40

>40

2011-12

372

2.15%

23.92%

29.03%

29.57%

11.29%

3.76%

0.27%

2010-11

1230

4.63%

24.07%

30.57%

29.84%

8.46%

2.03%

0.41%

2009-10

1230

4.07%

21.46%

31.54%

30.73%

9.51%

2.44%

0.24%

2008-09

1230

3.50%

24.23%

30.98%

29.59%

9.27%

1.95%

0.49%

2007-08

1230

3.09%

22.52%

28.05%

31.95%

11.87%

1.95%

0.57%

2006-07

1230

4.88%

25.45%

28.46%

29.19%

10.00%

1.71%

0.33%

What is this telling us?  Simply put, there does tend to be fewer close games and more blowouts, but not exceedingly so.  Most games still tend to fall in the middle ranges (6-10 and 11-20) and the average margin of victory is not far off of the average.

What does stand out is that scoring in general is much lower.  But if the lockout is to blame, how is it truly translating on the court?  Sloppy play?  While turnovers per game are at the highest since 2006-07 (15 per game this season versus 15.1 five seasons ago), it is not far off the trend (average turnovers per game since the 2000-01 season is 14.55).  More personal fouls?  Actually, the average number of personal fouls per game is at the lowest since the merger in 1976 (20 fouls per game).  So, it is not necessarily sloppy play.

But, if we look at field goal shooting — the heart of scoring — we can see part of the problem.  The average field goal percentage across the league this season is 44.3 percent.  That is the lowest since the 2003-04 season, when it was 43.9 percent.  Not surprisingly, the 2003-04 season had the second-lowest scoring average since the NBA-ABA merger (93.4 points per game).  The lowest since the merger?  The 1998-99 NBA season, where teams average 91.6 points per game.  That season also had the lowest field goal percentage since the merger — 43.7 percent.  At the current rate, the 2011-12 season will have the third-lowest points per game average and the fourth-lowest field goal percentage since the merger.  Low free throw shooting also leads to lower scoring (intuitive, i know, but worth noting).

The 2011-12 season does share something in common with the lowest-scoring season; the 1998-99 season was also a lockout-shortened season.  Thus, the lockout does indeed seem to have an adverse effect on field goal shooting, which in turn affects scoring.  Additionally, both lockout-shortened seasons had more back-to-back games and the atypical back-to-back-to-back games.  So, does the three games in a row really matter?

Well, unless I overlooked a series, back-to-back-to-back games have occurred 18 times for 17 teams (the Denver Nuggets have had it twice).  In those series, two teams have gone 3-0 (Chicago Bulls and the Oklahoma City Thunder); seven teams have gone 2-1, eight teams have gone 1-2, and only one teams has gone winless (Detroit Pistons).  In other words, it is split right even with nine back-to-back-to-back sequences producing winning records and nine producing losing records.  Teams are also 10-8 on the back end of that series.

In terms of scoring, it is also not clear if such grueling games decrease scoring as the three days progress.  The average score on the third game of the back-to-back-to-back is 95.3 points, with the high being 109 and the low being 78.  The average for the opening game of that series is 96 points (high 112 and low 74); so the difference is marginal.  The toughest game may actually be that middle game, where teams average 92.7 points per game (112 the high and 78 the low).

In four cases, the team gradually improved their scoring (or equaled the first games score in the third game), whereas a team gradually decreased its scoring only once (Orlando Magic).  In most cases, the scoring simply fluctuated with the highs and lows in the three straight games occurring in any of the three games.  And, in seven series, the team scored more points in that third game — even in losses — than in the first game.

So, in the end, it appears that the general fatigue and rustiness affects shooting and therefore scoring more so than the grueling back-to-back-to-back games.  Of course, the increase in back-to-back games plays a role in this, as does the fewer days off.  Hopefully, for NBA fans used to high-scoring games, this is only a temporary, one-season setback.

If previous precedent prevails again, scoring will return next season!

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