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The Story in a Box Score

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The NBA has been around for over 60 years, and you might be surprised at how the box score has evolved in that time.

Sacramento Kings v Portland Trail Blazers

On a recent episode of The Lowe Post, Zach Lowe asked former Trail Blazer Nicolas Batum if he still had the box score for his 5x5 game in 2012-13.

Remember that game? The Trail Blazer’s played the New Orleans Hornets at home on Dec. 16. Despite a 31-point push by the Hornets in the fourthth quarter, the Blazers held them off to win 95-94.

The Hornets’ Greivis Vasquez nearly had a triple-double with 23 points, eight rebounds and 11 assists (he also had six turnovers). Three current or former Trail Blazers played together on the opposite team (Al-Farouq Aminu, Brian Roberts, Robin Lopez). Budding superstar Anthony Davis came off the bench. Trail Blazer J.J. Hickson was at his typical gaudy best as the game’s high scorer with 24 points and 16 rebounds.

And Nicolas Batum recorded 11 points, five rebounds, 10 assists, five blocks and five steals to become only the 11th player in NBA history to fill five statistical categories with at least five marks.

Batum says he does not have a copy of the box score. Does anyone keep a hard copy of the box score anymore?

Fortunately, Batum (or anyone with an internet connection) can look up that box score or any other game going back to day 1 of the NBA. Sure, looking up an old box score on the computer is not as romantic as pointing to a framed hard copy on the wall. However, having all the old box scores available on nba.com or Basketball Reference is a boon for NBA fans and anyone who needs to settle a bet.

Many of the stats we bring into water cooler conversations (or on FANalyst podcasts) start with the basic box scores, so let’s take a look at the fundamentals of the box score and how long they have been around. I am a box score junkie, so I have a few favorites I’ll post at the end—see if you can guess which games they are from.

Box score basics

Like any good story, a basketball game has a beginning a middle and an end, all of which are documented in the box score. The beginning: the lineup. The middle: stats recorded during the game. The end: the final score. Together, they tell the tale of the game.

The following statistics are recorded by scorekeepers/statisticians during the game. This list does not include stats that are actually calculations (like shooting percentage, or the +/-, both of which are calculations based on what the scorekeeper enters.)

  • Minutes played
  • Points
  • Assists
  • Offensive Rebounds
  • Defensive Rebounds
  • Total Rebounds
  • Field Goals/Field Goal Attempts
  • Blocks
  • Steals
  • 3-Pointers Made/3-Point Attempts
  • Free Throws Made/Free Throw Attempts
  • Turnovers
  • Personal Fouls

Most of these stats are straightforward but some are more subjective than others.

By far the most controversial box score stat is an assist. In a notorious story on Deadspin, an anonymous scorekeeper admitted to giving Nick Van Exel 23 assists on a night he clearly didn’t earn them. The rules simply state that an assist is attributed to a player when they pass it to another player who subsequently scores. No parameters are given on how many dribbles the scorer can take, or how long they hold on to the ball.

How the box score has changed over the years

The box score has changed over time, with new stats being added throughout the years. Here is a timeline leading up to the current box score.

1937-38: On basketball reference.com, box scores go back to the National Basketball League (NBL) inaugural season. At that time they recorded Field Goals, Free Throws and Points.

1940-41: NBL adds Free Throw Attempts.

1946-47: Basketball Association of America (BAA) forms. They record Field Goals, Field Goal Attempts, Free Throws, Free Throw Attempts, Assists, Personal Fouls, Points.

1949-50: NBL merges with the BAA to become the National Basketball Association (NBA).

1950-51: NBA adds Rebounds

1951-52: NBA adds Minutes Played

1967-68: American Basketball Association (ABA) forms, they add the 3-Point Shot, 3-Point Attempts, Steals, Blocks and Turnovers (originally called Errors). However, according to Lee Meade, (quoted in Loose Balls, via wagesofwins.com) the ABA’s official statistician, teams were reluctant to start keeping these additional stats and as a result many box scores are incomplete in those early years. NBA had not yet adopted the 3-point shot or additional stats.

1968-96: ABA adds Offensive Rebounds and Defensive Rebounds

1973-74: NBA adopts the ABA stats (excluding 3-point shots) Offensive and Defensive Rebounds, Steals, and Blocks.

1975-76: Last season of the ABA

1977-78: NBA adds Turnovers

1979-80: NBA adds 3-Point Shot and 3-Point Shot Attempts

You may note some discrepancies between box scores on NBA.com and Basketball Reference. That is because NBA.com owns the stats for all of the games while Basketball Reference has compiled the many of their earlier stats from newspaper records which did not necessarily show all of the different categories.

Calculations based on box scores

The Basketball Reference Glossary includes descriptions of the box score stats as well as the formulas for advanced stats derived from the box score. For instance, Usage % is calculated based on Field Goal Attempts, Free Throw Attempts, Turnovers and Minutes Played, not on actual player tracking. If you really want to know:

Usage Percentage (available since the 1977-78 season in the NBA); the formula is 100 * ((FGA + 0.44 * FTA + TOV) * (Tm MP / 5)) / (MP * (Tm FGA + 0.44 * Tm FTA + Tm TOV)). Usage percentage is an estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while he was on the floor.

Here is why it is important to know how the box score has changed over the years: whenever someone comes up with a new advanced statistical formula, it can be retroactively calculated as far back as the raw data exists.

For example, when I come up with the holy grail of basketball stats--a definitive formula for determining an individual player’s defensive effectiveness (no, I would argue that a definitive formula does not yet exist), it can be retroactively applied as far back as all of the variables in the formula exist. If this holy grail formula includes turnovers, it can only be applied back as far as 1977-78 when turnovers were first recorded in the NBA.

Favorite Box Scores

I love looking at old box scores. This may have started at a young age with baseball. I had a cousin, Bobby Beall, who played for the Atlanta Braves and we kept track of him through the box scores in the Oregonian. It was not the best of times for the Braves, but those rows and columns let us know if Bobby got to the plate, if he got a hit, or had any errors. Ultimately, he lost his spot at first base to Dale Murphy but by then I knew how to read a box score.

I love how box scores can tell you parts of the story that you may have forgotten. For example, in the 2000 NBA Western Conference Finals Game 6 between the Trail Blazers and the Lakers, do you remember that both Shaq and Kobe played all 48 minutes? Or that coach Mike Dunleavy only played eight players, or that Portland was 28-for-34 from the free throw line and Los Angeles was a miserable 13-for-27?

Here are some of my favorite box scores. What stories do they tell beyond the final score? See if you can guess which games they represent. I’ll bet you can--they are all big games in Trail Blazer’s history. Share some of your favorites below.

Game 1

Full box score

Game 2

Full box score

Game 3


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