It’s usually a special occasion when LeBron James has one of his patented stat blasts. In Monday’s win over the Houston Rockets, James tallied a career-high 48 points, totaling eight rebounds, nine assists and zero turnovers. It was a remarkable production to help hold the Los Angeles Lakers short-handed – even from a player who continues to defy the father.
But this NBA season – and the modern NBA in general – LeBron’s blowout was just another piece in the league’s big puzzle. Several weeks earlier, Luka Dončić posted the second-ever 60-point triple-double in the NBA, and then followed that up with a 51-6-9 statistical streak four days later. Two nights later, Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell put up 71 points (!) against Michael Jordan’s former team—more than MJ himself has mustered in any game—to go with eight rebounds and 11 assists. A day later thatMilwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo had 55 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists.
These are just a few of the flashy performances that seem to be on a dime in the NBA this season… and it’s not clear when they will stop. In fact, we can explain it visually. Using Basketball-Reference.com’s game-point metric (which measures single-game statistical output using all of a player’s square point numbers), you can see that the team captain’s average game-by-play performance per 100 possessions has never been better stuffing a stat sheet in Modern NBA History:
Crucially, at this point in the season (more than halfway through), this overall score suggests that it’s not just one-off superhero performances like those from James, Donči and Mitchell, spoiling our perception that single-player output is getting bigger and bigger. And it’s not just about scoring: Although points have the most weight in a game’s point counting, they also account for a number of other stats, including rebounds, assists, steals, turnovers and more.
So what might explain all of these individual stat explosions sweeping the league? Is it sustainable?
The easiest and most obvious answer to this recent uptick in the raw production of top players is that the NBA offense, as a whole, has never looked better. The league’s 114.0 collegiate offensive efficiency is the highest since at least the merger, as teams have moved to cut fat from their scoring diet, focusing on better shots in and out of the 3-point arc. Beyond the occasional rule-breaking, NBA teams have found that winning basketball doesn’t just lie behind the 3-point arc…but inside it as well.
According to Cleaning the Glass, teams take just 30.8 percent of their shots from middle range, including just 9.4 percent from long middle range, the latter being the lowest number since at least the 2003-04 season. But it doesn’t appear that the latest increase in offensive efficiency has been due to teams hitting more threes. Aggregate 3-point try averages have leveled off in 2023, but teams are taking a greater share of their attempts on the rim — and making more — than they did last season.
What that might mean for the NBA stars, then, is that they have more space to work in and make more use of it. As the Athletic’s Mike Prada noted recently, the effect of the 3-point revolution wasn’t just the 3-point, but all the other shots made easier with defenses needing to focus on the arc. The Superstars still get the same shots they did in seasons past, but they’ve never been improved better to convert them efficiently.
From a player usage perspective, too, it seems clear that teams are asking their stars to burn brighter than ever before – an unsurprising development in the sun-centered era of basketball we live in – even three out of 10. Highest game scores since the merger During the first half of the 2022-23 season alone. Not coincidentally, Antetokounmpo, Donči, and Joel Embiid are on track this season to own three of the top 10 utilization rates in recent NBA history as well.
Playing time may also help explain why someone like Dončić excels — he’s No. 2 in minutes per game he’s played this season — but even he doesn’t play absurdly high minutes by historical standards, because his mark of 37.4 wouldn’t beat the top 200. minutes for every match played this century. It’s more about what Dončić and players like him are asked to do during those minutes, and how many numbers they still put up on a nightly basis.
Of course, it is not at all clear that this increase in the strength of individual chest points is associated with helping the team win. One notable hindrance of the heliocentric era, perennial MVP candidate Nikola Jokic, hasn’t caught the attention of traditional stat-stuffing metrics this season. Despite leading the league in FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR wins above replacement, Joki’s average game points average comes in at just a hair under 26.0 per game, well below the average NBA star this season. Nor is the track record of teams built around high-utilization stars. Michael Jordan, who posted a utilization rate of 34.7 percent (good for 43 all-time) during the 1992-93 season with the Chicago Bulls, is the most used player to win a championship since the merger. So, with three of the game’s superstars posting otherworldly USE rates — Dončić and Antetokounmpo at 38.2 and Embiid at 38.0 — we’re about to get a real test of whether the modern heliocentric basketball paradigm can finally win in a year. 2023.
But on a certain level, maybe none of that matters. As the saying goes, big box scores don’t lie, and we’ve undoubtedly been treated to the NBA’s biggest stars in the most groundbreaking collegiate performances in league history so far this year. When a 48-point barrage at the age of 38 by the greatest player of all time is treated as an afterthought, you know the bar of individual excellence has been raised.
Neil Payne contributed research.
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