Last night was full of coincidences. On the anniversary of Kobe Bryant’s 81-point game, Karl-Anthony Towns exploded for 62 points (somehow in a loss) while Joel Embiid went off for a historic 70-point game against the Spurs, breaking Wilt Chamberlain’s franchise record in the process, making Victor Wembanyama’s impressive 33-point night seem ho-hum, and overshadowing the fact that the Spurs admirably hung around the entire game against a contender (perhaps to their own detriment).
The other coincidence was earlier that same day, one of my favorite basketball YouTubers Rusty Buckets released his latest video discussing if NBA offense has gone too far, and I gave it a watch before last night’s game (which kind of made it more maddening for reasons listed below). It’s some great stuff when you have an hour and goes over the history of NBA offense, how it evolved into what it is today, and if it’s actually good for the game.
To summarize for those who don’t have time to watch, even though NBA teams are scoring more points today than ever before, the low scoring 2000’s is actually the outlier in the history of NBA offenses, not the 2020’s. Back in the 1970’s, the NBA actually changed the rules to make the game more fair thanks to players like Chamberlain being too unstoppable, such as the introduction of offensive goaltending, no inbound passing over the backboard, and free throw shooters having to stay behind the line. That allowed defense to evolve to the point that it was valued, with the Detroit Bad Boys using it to ride to two championships and making amazing scorers like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan stand out more than they may have today.
However, as defenses became too good and was perceived to be hurting viewership in the pre-YouTube/social media era of the early 2000’s, the NBA started adjusting defensive rules to make scoring easier, such as narrowing down hand checking, adding the three-second rule to prevent defenders from clogging the paint, and evening out the three-point line. Teams like the Beautiful Game Spurs began the natural evolution to more team-oriented offense to take advantage of the extra space this created, and three-point shooting became more prominent due to that open space and smaller players becoming less keen on banging into bigger defenders.
The final steps in bringing NBA offense to the near unstoppable force it is today is the evolution of analytics, which in part showed that the most efficient shot in the game is...the free throw. With the NBA becoming more lenient to offense, “foul baiting” became commonplace, led by its original king, James Harden. Slightly different from the original idea of “flopping” (or exaggerating actual contact to get the call), foul baiting is more defined as the offensive player creating contact or straight up hunting fouls for the soul purpose of getting to the line without actually putting up a shot with any chance to go in. Today, Embiid is one of the players who has mastered this art, and Spurs fans surely noticed last night when he got 23 free throws, often on minimal or created contact.
Although the NBA has paid lip service to the idea that contact created by an offensive player is not a foul, they have done little to stop it, with refs still mostly siding with the offensive player unless forced to overturn on a challenge (and even then you can never be too sure what to expect out of video review). Players are becoming legitimately concerned about getting into foul trouble too easily because there is so little they can do without being whistled. That, combined with an increased pace, has led to playing solid defense becoming nearly impossible, and the end result of an offense-oriented game is likely the opposite of what the NBA expected.
Despite scoring being at an all time high this season, ratings are down. NBA games have become an offensive shootout where defenses are nearly helpless if they want to stay out of foul trouble, and free throws — the most boring thing in basketball — are abundant. It’s no longer an even matchup. A team hitting 20+ threes per game is more expected than fun, and the novelty players jacking up 30-footers (and making them) has worn off. Games have become more about outscoring the opponent than stopping them, and viewers are getting tired of it.
So what can be done? Somehow, the NBA has to empower defense again and bring more parity to the game. Rusty’s three suggestions are simple: change the three-second rule to six, actually allow some physicality to the game, and stop allowing fail bating. To me, that last one is the biggest. The league can’t just pay lip service anymore, they need to actually enforce the idea that contact generated by the offensive player is not a foul and teach the referees what to look for in that regard. Teach them to trust their eyes, not their ears hearing a player yelling to imply contact. If they see minimal contact but a player thrusts his head back, he’s probably acting. If a player draws contact then jacks up a shot that has no chance of going in just to get free throws, make it a non-shooting foul, and so on.
The NBA has always been about evolution and has made adjustments in the past. As offense became too prominent 50+ years ago, they adjusted to empower defenses more. Then, as scoring became too low for their liking and they desired a less physical game to prevent injury, more adjustments were made, and offense has become the super power. Now, as ratings drop once more due to fans becoming uninterested in one-sided games and watching players shoot so many free throws, will the NBA adjust again? Only time will tell.