The Evolution of Basketball

BaseballJones

goalpost mover
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Oct 1, 2015
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Inspired by the positionless-NBA thread...did a little looking at https://www.basketball-reference.com/leagues/NBA_stats_per_game.html

Compare 2018-19 with, say, 1985-86, with that great Celtics' team, but with other legendary teams still going strong too (and the Pistons just about to start their ascendency).

Average size
85-86: 6'7", 208 lbs
18-19: 6'7", 218 lbs

Points scored
85-86: 110.2
18-19: 111.2

FG attempts
85-86: 88.6
18-19: 89.2

FG made
85-86: 43.2
18-19: 41.1

FG%
85-86: 48.7%
18-19: 46.1%

3pt FG attempts
85-86: 3.3
18-19: 32.0

3pt FG made
85-86: 0.9
18-19: 11.4

3pt FG%
85-86: 28.2%
18-19: 35.5%

FT attempts
85-86: 30.3
18-19: 23.1

FT made
85-86: 22.9
18-19: 17.7

FT%
85-86: 75.6%
18-19: 76.6%

Effective FG%
85-86: 49.3%
18-19: 52.4%

Pace
85-86: 102.1
18-19: 100.0

Turnovers
85-86: 17.8
18-19: 14.1

FT/FGA
85-86: .258
18-19: .198

Assists
85-86: 26.0
18-19: 24.6

Off Rebound%
85-86: 33.4%
18-19: 22.9%


So what's happening? In some ways, the numbers are just eerily similar. The size of the average player is almost identical (just a little heavier now but otherwise the same). So the game isn't "bigger" than it was back then. Nor is it "smaller". The average scoring per game is almost identical (off by just one point per game). But how is it being done?

In 1985-86, they:

- Ran more (faster pace of play)
- Converted more fast-breaks
- Got a lot more offensive rebounds
- But turned it over more, so it didn't necessarily result in a lot more shots
- Shot a higher percentage overall
- Got to the free throw line a lot more, even with rules that allowed defenses to hand check
- Barely ever attempted three-point shots - it was a novelty still with just a few specialists; it wasn't really a weapon

In 2018-19, they:

- Assisted on fewer made FG
- Shot worse
- BUT... had a higher effective field goal percentage because...
- They shot SO MANY MORE threes. Essentially ten times the number of three-point attempts...
- Shot threes at a much higher rate
- Didn't hit the offensive glass as much, which meant fewer offensive rebounds (even though their team FG% was worse and that meant more offensive rebounds to be had), but it also meant getting back on defense, thus slowing the other team's fast break down
- Turned the ball over less, which led to slightly more shots taken
- Got to the FT line a lot less, even though the floor spacing is better and defenses aren't allowed to hand check; this has a lot to do with so many outside shots being taken


It's just interesting. Teams are scoring essentially the same number of points, with the same sized humans playing, but the game is SO different - they're getting to the same point (110-111 points per game) just in very different ways.
 

lovegtm

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Apr 30, 2013
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Kiev, Ukraine
Interesting...

Two (three!) things:
1. Average size is less useful than modal size and distribution of sizes. My hunch is that teams are clustering more around 6-7 type guys (Celtics ftw!), which keeps the average up, even as the top and bottom squeeze a bit.
2. Need to adjust points for pace of play
3. The type of offense you have to play to score the same number of points is different because of the abolition of illegal defense. I.e. if you tried to play 80s style offense now, you wouldn't really score much at all--you have to jack 3s and play efficiently just to keep up with the Joneses. This isn't hypothetical: Tom Thibodeau-type defenses initially exploited the lack of illegal defense, and before teams adjusted to space and move the ball, you had some low-scoring games by today's standards. (2010 NBA Finals, for example).
 

BaseballJones

goalpost mover
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Oct 1, 2015
5,486
I agree that you can't run a 1986 Celtics' offense in today's game. I think that if that group of players suddenly were transported and grew up in today's atmosphere, they'd be great. Two bigs with a third in reserve (Parish, McHale, with Walton as depth). Bird playing the role of Nowitzki. Goodness, imagine if Bird actually took 12 threes a game and that was a main part of his arsenal? Wedman and Sichting and Ainge, if they all actually worked on their three-point shot, they'd be deadly. I bet their best lineup wouldn't look like what it actually did in '86. I'd think something more like....

Ainge, Bird, Wedman, McHale, and either Sichting or DJ, depending if you needed DJ's defense or not. DJ would be like Marcus Smart basically.

Surround McHale with those shooters and they'd score a ton of points in today's game. With the exception being that that group has almost no penetrators at all. They wouldn't beat many guys off the dribble. So they'd have to get their points by going into McHale then kicking back out. And unlike most post players (per our other thread), McHale would roll today's post defenders, so they'd HAVE to help on him. That would leave a great shooter open.

Defensively...uh...this team would struggle though. McHale could protect the rim, and Ainge would likely be ok, but leaving Sichting, Bird, and Wedman in space? Yikes.
 

Jimbodandy

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Jan 31, 2006
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around the way
Great thread idea.

Agreed that average height is not optimal as a measure. A bar graph by percentage of guys at each listed inch would likely show clustering in the middle now, I think.
 

BaseballJones

goalpost mover
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Oct 1, 2015
5,486
Great thread idea.

Agreed that average height is not optimal as a measure. A bar graph by percentage of guys at each listed inch would likely show clustering in the middle now, I think.
I'd tend to agree, but I don't know where to look for that info.
 

BaseballJones

goalpost mover
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Oct 1, 2015
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If post play still works for really good post scorers and passers, I'd think that it would be a tremendous advantage to a team that has such a player - assuming he's not a liability on defense. Such was the great power of a McHale or Olajuwon - elite defenders (who could handle small forwards as well as centers) to go along with dynamic post offense. So does it make more sense to develop a big man's three point shooting or post shooting? I guess it all depends on the relative efficiency, right?

If you can get a big to shoot better than 50% from the block but he'll never shoot more than 33% from three, it's advantageous to develop his post play. If he only shoots 48% from the block and 35% from three, the math tells us that it's better for him to shoot from three.
 

lovegtm

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Apr 30, 2013
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Kiev, Ukraine
If post play still works for really good post scorers and passers, I'd think that it would be a tremendous advantage to a team that has such a player - assuming he's not a liability on defense. Such was the great power of a McHale or Olajuwon - elite defenders (who could handle small forwards as well as centers) to go along with dynamic post offense. So does it make more sense to develop a big man's three point shooting or post shooting? I guess it all depends on the relative efficiency, right?

If you can get a big to shoot better than 50% from the block but he'll never shoot more than 33% from three, it's advantageous to develop his post play. If he only shoots 48% from the block and 35% from three, the math tells us that it's better for him to shoot from three.
It is a really big advantage to have such a player--that's why Giannis and Embiid are so valuable, and why LeBron added it to his game. The former two guys had faster paths to post dominance than to 3-point dominance.

Most dudes don't have anywhere close to their size and athleticism, so it makes sense to start with ball-handling, jump shooting, and playmaking.

For Capela/Gobert/DeAndre types, they're so far from having post games that their teams generally focus on using their vertical rim pressure and getting them to work on that timing. Hell, with DeAndre they just wanted him to be able to make FTs, forget anything else.
 

BaseballJones

goalpost mover
SoSH Member
Oct 1, 2015
5,486
It is a really big advantage to have such a player--that's why Giannis and Embiid are so valuable, and why LeBron added it to his game. The former two guys had faster paths to post dominance than to 3-point dominance.

Most dudes don't have anywhere close to their size and athleticism, so it makes sense to start with ball-handling, jump shooting, and playmaking.

For Capela/Gobert/DeAndre types, they're so far from having post games that their teams generally focus on using their vertical rim pressure and getting them to work on that timing. Hell, with DeAndre they just wanted him to be able to make FTs, forget anything else.
I think I see it as like having Gronk - just a total mismatch out there. So you'd think that more players would work to develop this part of their game...because if you get good at it, you become super valuable. Assuming, of course, that you can play D and pass and such. Being a one-trick post scorer doesn't seem to be the path to success, as you pointed out with the Jefferson example.
 

DrewDawg

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Dec 16, 2010
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I agree that you can't run a 1986 Celtics' offense in today's game. I think that if that group of players suddenly were transported and grew up in today's atmosphere, they'd be great. Two bigs with a third in reserve (Parish, McHale, with Walton as depth). Bird playing the role of Nowitzki. Goodness, imagine if Bird actually took 12 threes a game and that was a main part of his arsenal?
Next time I'm bored I'm gonna redo Bird's stats---same number of total shots/game but change it to a more three-point heavy thing, like today. Starting in 84/85 through end of his career (first year after rookie season that he took more than 1 three-pointer/game) he hit nearly 40% of his threes.