The NBA is the second most successful sports league in the United States and a globally-recognized brand. Nightly during the season, professional athletes dazzle with feats of brilliance that, more often than not, take fans out of their seats and keep observers analyzing through the next morning.
That doesn’t mean the league is perfect, though. No matter what the scoreboards read after a given day, fans, analysts, former players, and media members will find axes to grind. Some observations are well-reasoned, others shot from the hip, but rain or shine, there’s always going to be something to complain about.
If you find yourself somewhat dissatisfied with the current NBA, we might have some bad news for you. Today we’re running a series describing ongoing issues the league will have to deal with...or not, as the case may be.
The first issue is obvious to anyone who’s watched the league this year: points are as easy to collect as sand on the beach. The NBA may be slow in addressing the issue. Here’s why.
We all understand the rule changes and officiating emphases that have made offensive production prolific in the 2020’s. Defenders haven’t been able to hip check or touch drivers for a couple decades. Nowadays they have to respect shooters in similar fashion. Give the player space to land. Don’t even think about putting your foot in their shadow, let alone underneath them. Bodily contact—almost impossible to avoid on a serious, non-vertical close-out—is a near-automatic infraction. And if the offensive player does the mystical, magical “gather” at the right time, they can somehow travel, charge, and take all your lunch money without getting called for a darn thing.
Anybody who watches Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard sprint around a pick, slow up to force a bump from a trailing defender, then toss a wild attempt in the air to draw the whistle for three free throws, understands the privileged position of point producers.
The attractiveness of high scores and the aesthetic beauty of the game are usually cited as rationale for the offensive emphasis. That’s valid, but not enduring. Eventually, seeing 135-130 contests will get as old as seeing 102-97 affairs was. The near-universal disgust accompanying the 2023 NBA All-Star Game score-fest shows there’s a limit to the dopamine that unlimited offense provides.
There’s a third, more subtle, contributing factor. In 2003—20 years ago—25 players averaged 20 points or more for the season. In 2013, that number fell to 9. This season, 42 players are averaging 20+ points outright, 45 if you round upward from 19.7.
Do the math on 30 NBA Franchises and, on average, your team probably has one of those scoring stars. That offers perpetual hope, something to celebrate, a reason to pay attention even when your team isn’t faring well.
Just as critically, it disguises the twin realities that dominate the NBA landscape:
- True superstars are still the rarest commodity in the league.
- So are real opportunities to win a championship, confined to a small handful of teams in any given generation, a couple of which appear to be perpetual contenders because of their advantaged situation.
Watching your franchise celebrity score big on highlight plays—which now include three-point shots and not just ultra-rare impressive dunks—has become the opiate of the masses. It helps fans avoid awkward questions about their team’s chances of contending, or at least soothes them when they try.
The rising tide of offense lifts all boats, and it’s never been easier to get one in the water. Those points may not help your team against similarly-equipped opponents They do allow your franchise to sell production now and dreams for the future even if they’re not among the few who are actually succeeding.
This obviously isn’t an optimal solution, but it’s decent incentive for the league to keep the offensive tap flowing as long as fans can stand it.
Defense may win championships when you’re allowed to play it, but offense sells. If you’re looking for a return to the defensive-minded days of the past, well...you may be waiting a while.
Up Next: A hidden force that could influence player movement and autonomy.