If you are as into NBA Twitter as I am, I’m almost certain you have heard that this season there are more than 35 players averaging 20 or more points per game. Just eight years ago in the 2012-13 NBA season, only nine players averaged 20 or more. This stat may just seem like an interesting fun fact, but it is also an indication of the direction in which the NBA has been heading for years now.
Since the 2016-17 season, the league has almost set a new record for leaguewide offensive rating each season, with that trend continuing in the 2020-21 season. If the season ended today, this season would set NBA records in offensive rating, three-point percentage, three-pointers attempted and effective field goal percentage, as well as numerous other offensive statistics. The league is better on offense than ever before, but this comes with some unintended consequences.
Almost 40 years ago, Larry Bird, one of the original stat-sheet stuffers, averaged 24.2 points, 10.1 rebounds and 6.6 assists per game in his first of three consecutive MVP seasons. This season, newly minted Detroit Pistons star Jerami Grant is averaging 23.8 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.9 assists per contest. No basketball fan would compare Jerami Grant to one of the best players to ever touch a basketball, but just by counting stats alone, the gap between Bird and Grant is not that wide.
Sure, Bird averaged double Grant’s rebounds and assists numbers, but Grant is shooting 14% better from three than Bird did that season. His effective field goal percentage is higher too. I am nitpicking, but if in 50 years someone like me is scanning Basketball Reference, based on today’s counting stats, they might conclude 2020-21 Grant was nearly as good as 1983-84 Bird. This inference is where we get unintended consequences, because that is not true. Bird is an NBA legend –– Grant is not even being discussed as a possible All-Star this season.
For many years, statistics have done a decent job of quantifying a player’s impact on winning. Even with all the new advanced stats fans and journalists have created, players have always been introduced with their point, rebound and assist averages –– and probably always will be. Thus, while counting stats may not be the best way to judge a player, stats will always be an important part of their legacy. But is the offensive boom we are seeing today on the road to ruining the historical reliability of stats?
It might be, as it is fair to question if many players’ counting stats in today’s league are inflated by the unprecedented scoring and shooting seen this year. Inflated scores would not be a problem if it was just this season, but it does not appear that this trend will end anytime soon; if anything, it will only get worse. In 2035, are we going to have mediocre players throwing up 31 points a night? I hope not, but at this rate, it seems possible.
While this is not a pressing issue, players’ stats are a big part of their legacy, so it is important. After looking at accolades and rings, people compare players’ counting stats. No matter how popular advanced stats may be, in 30 years nobody will pull up Stephen Curry’s value over replacement player stats before they look at his regular numbers.
In my opinion, there are three main factors that are inflating stats this season. First, players are just more talented than ever before, which is a good thing. Second, coaches have become great at offensive scheming, which is a good thing too. The third, and in my opinion the primary reason, is that the league has swung the rules too far in offense’s favor. If the league continues to give offenses more advantages, it could ruin the integrity of counting statistics forever.
I hope the NBA is too smart to let this happen, but you never know. I do not want to have to explain to my future child that Jerami Grant was just a guy who got overpaid and had the ball too much, while Larry Bird is one of the best players in basketball history –– that should be obvious.
Tim Brennan is a first-year in the McDonough School of Business. Around the Association appears online every other week.