1962 Redux

Kliq

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Mar 31, 2013
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NBA historians will recognize the 1961-1962 season as the biggest statistical anomaly in the history of the NBA. Changes to the style of play (mainly more fast breaks and shots going up quickly) that had been bubbling since the introduction of the shot clock finally exploded, and the result was pure chaos. Basically everyone ran down the court as quickly as possible, flung up a shot almost regardless of quality, and then ran back down the other way.


This led to a lot of extreme statistical seasons. There were 107 field goal attempts per game (compared to 89 today, which is a lot relative to a decade ago) and the league only shot 41% from the floor (compared to 47% today) and that was without a three point line. Kind of like the juiced-ball era of MLB in the 90s, statistical accomplishments from that season need to be taken with a massive grain of salt.


Most people will remember that Wilt averaged 50 ppg that season (as well as 25 rpg) while averaging 39 FGA per game and 17 FTA per game. But there were insane seasons all over the place. Elgin Baylor averaged 38 and 19, while moonlighting for games as he was drafted into the army and forced to live in a barracks in Washington state. Oscar Robertson famously averaged a triple double (30-12-11). Bob Pettit averaged 31 and 19. Rookie Walt Bellamy averaged 31 and 19, numbers he would never get close to later in his career in what should have been his prime.


Eventually, the game calmed down a bit and by the mid-1960s, nobody was averaging nearly what they were averaging during that peak, even players that were in their primes. Today, a lot of records still stand dating back to that season.


Fast forward 60 years, and we are in a similar place. Due to various factors, scoring is way up over the last several years and the result is juiced-ball statistics that we simply don’t know what to do with. This was hammered home last night when Karl-Anthony Towns scored 62 points, and wasn’t even the high-scorer for that evening of NBA games, as Joel Embiid scored 70 points earlier that night.


League-wide, the offensive rating is at 115.7. Not only is that the highest in recorded history, it’s a huge increase from pretty much any other time. From 1980 to 2018, the league average for offensive rating was somewhere between 103 and 108–a pretty stable number despite numerous changes to the game over that period. Since 2018, it has been rising rapidly, jumping to where it is today.


The result is that traditional counting stats and per game stats that still dominate the conversation, have to be put into the context of this new era. Michael Jordan averaging 30 ppg in the late 90s, when teams were averaging under 80 FGA per game, is very different from a player averaging 30 ppg today.


This season, not unlike 1961-1962, is full of people having career years. Joel Embiid is averaging 36 ppg. Luka is averaging 33-8-9. Jokic is averaging 27-12-9 and shooting 58% from the floor. Giannis is averaging 31-11-6 and shooting over 60% from the floor. The stats are insane and there doesn’t appear to be any signs of them slowing.


Currently, there are 16 players averaging over 25 ppg. Ten years ago there were only five. 20 years ago, there was only one, Tracy McGrady. The 28 ppg that T-Mac averaged in 2003-2004 wouldn’t even crack the Top 5 today, the second leading scorer in that season, Peja Stojakovic at 24.2 ppg, would just sneak in at #20 today.


So what factors have led to this? I think there are bunch of them, but I’m going to focus on three in particular.


  1. Spacing

We all know that over the last 10+ years, the NBA has been shifting more towards three point shooting and spacing. What was once a novelty incorporated by the Warriors has become the default fundamental style of playing basketball. Not only does that mean more three pointers being taken (which historically has pretty much always been linked with higher scoring) but it also creates more space for players to attack the basket.


If you go back and watch the NBA even ten years ago, it’s kind of crazy how bad everyone is at spacing. The lanes are clogged, only one or two players on the floor are real outside shooting threats, it almost feels like a broken version of basketball. It’s often a tough watch in hindsight.


Not directly related to spacing, but worth mentioning is that another fundamental philosophical shift has been that teams no longer feel it necessary to start every possession with a designated point guard bringing the ball up the floor. Teams are putting the ball in the hands of their best offensive players and letting them cook. If Embiid wants the ball, he can bring it up the court himself and isn’t reliant on some unnecessary Eric Snow-type to be in the game to pass it to him. If you watch the Celtics, you’ll note that while it’s nice to have D-White or Jrue bring the ball up the floor, any player on the team, from Payton Prichard to Porzingas, will start the offense.


  1. More benefit to the offensive player

This is mainly due to more fouls being called for players attacking the basket. Clearly, the league has made some mandates from a refereeing standpoint to allow for less contact when players drive to the basket. The FT/FGA ratio is largely flat over the past ten years, despite an increase in three point shooting which would in theory mean less free throws per FGA, but it has not. So in addition to the spacing benefits players are getting, it’s also just easier to score at the rim because defenders can’t be as physical without being called for a foul. The result is smaller guards, like Dame, Donovan Mitchell and Jaylen Brunson putting up huge scoring numbers, in part because it’s now much easier to finish at the rim by getting a head of steam and aggressively attacking the basket.


Ten years ago, only 11 players averaged at least 6 FTA per game, but that number has nearly doubled in 2024. 10 years ago, only two of the top 10 players in FTA were guards (Harden and DeRozan) while four of the top six this year (Luka, Trae, SGA and Dame) are guards.


Watching Embiid’s 70 point game from last night, it looks like the Spurs can basically do nothing with him. The defense looks so soft inside, it looks like an exercise for Embiid and not a competitive NBA game. And it’s not like the Spurs didn’t try being physical with Embiid, he shot 23 free throws during the game, but it was like there was no real safe space between fouling or playing no defense at all. And while the Spurs are a bad team and this was an extreme example, I think any regular NBA fan would say this is an all-too-common occurrence.



  1. The players are better

An important thing to point out, it’s not all style changes and relaxed rules that have juiced scoring, the players are almost certainly more skilled than they were even ten years ago, which has led to higher scoring.


The early 60s had a lot of the same trends as today. During that time period, teams were adopting the practice most famously employed by the Celtics, which was having an athletic squad that ran a lot in transition, not unlike teams copying the Warriors by having more shooters and taking more threes. The game that had been very slow (and very white) was getting faster and more athletic, and it’s no surprise that the biggest statistical beasts of that time were the athletic outliers in players like Wilt, Elgin and Oscar.


Today, the players are more skilled, particularly in being able to shoot the basketball. You basically can’t be a guard and play real minutes in the NBA without being a decent three point shooter, and the number of bigs who don’t at least attempt to shoot some threes is diminishing every season. The reason the spacing works is because its now easier than ever to play five out offense because the personnel is there to fit that playing style.


That took some time to adjust, particularly with bigs learning how to be proper, all-around basketball players and not just limited to traditional “big” skills. It’s notable that Wemby and Chet entered the league at the same time–as they both come across as evolutionary players in their combination of elite length and athleticism with having traditional basketball skills like shooting, dribbling and passing.
 

joe dokes

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Jul 18, 2005
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Only 4 players shot above 50% in 65-66
3 in 66-67
6 in 67-68
7 in 68-69
13 in 69-70
12 in 73-74
48 in 79-80
And so on.
 

bankshot1

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Feb 12, 2003
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The physicality of the game between 60s and today is apples and hand grenades.

There was a level of mayhem back then that was part of the game, and is mostly absent from today's game.

A drive to the hoops was rarely uncontested. I think "Make the SOB pay" was Red's 11th Commandment.

If you can't touch a guy while guarding him, or you have to give him space to land on a jumper, or else its 3 shots and the ball, makes a difference.

Rebounding was a war back then, today its mostly one guy at the rim with everyone else at the perimeter.

You can throw an elbow, to clear out, but the closest guy to you is probably the mop guy as teams transition from D to O/ O to D.

While today's athlete are far superior and better conditioned and most don't need 2nd jobs to pay the mortgage, (most) its a different game.

I will now resume yelling at clouds.
 

Humphrey

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Aug 3, 2010
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The physicality of the game between 60s and today is apples and hand grenades.

There was a level of mayhem back then that was part of the game, and is mostly absent from today's game.

A drive to the hoops was rarely uncontested. I think "Make the SOB pay" was Red's 11th Commandment.

If you can't touch a guy while guarding him, or you have to give him space to land on a jumper, or else its 3 shots and the ball, makes a difference.

Rebounding was a war back then, today its mostly one guy at the rim with everyone else at the perimeter.

You can throw an elbow, to clear out, but the closest guy to you is probably the mop guy as teams transition from D to O/ O to D.

While today's athlete are far superior and better conditioned and most don't need 2nd jobs to pay the mortgage, (most) its a different game.

I will now resume yelling at clouds.
Clips from the games I've watched from the 70s and 60s (like the famous triple OT game w/the Suns); I'm amazed how passive the perimeter defense is; little pressure on the ball and no one picking anyone up until they're a good step inside what would now be 3 point distance.
 

bankshot1

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Feb 12, 2003
25,072
where I was last at
Clips from the games I've watched from the 70s and 60s (like the famous triple OT game w/the Suns); I'm amazed how passive the perimeter defense is; little pressure on the ball and no one picking anyone up until they're a good step inside what would now be 3 point distance.
Why guard a guy 23' out when they're not going to shoot a low % shot? Thats a shot you want them to take. And you don't want to foul them and put them on the line. The ball back then moved out to in to get a high % shot or FTs.

FYI I was lucky enough to be at the 3OT game