The Whiteboard: Why has the NBA seen so many 50 point games this season?

Milwaukee Bucks, Nylon Calculus, The Whiteboard

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The NBA has seen an explosion of huge scoring performances over the past week, but it’s part of a season-long trend. What explains it?

On the same night that Donovan Mitchell went off for 71 points, Klay Thompson poured in 54. Just a day later, Giannis Antetokounmpo hung 55 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists on the Washington Wizards. And we’ve already seen a 60-point triple-double from Luka Doncic and 59 from Joel Embiid.

If it feels like we’re watching a historic scoring performance almost every night this season, it’s because we kind of are.

Giannis’ 55-pointer was the 14th 50-point game of the 2022-23 season, which is not yet at the halfway point. Last season, we saw 19 50-point games across a full 82-game season. Heck, the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons saw 14 50-point games combined.

There are 1230 games in a full 82-game season. In 2014-15 — with six 50-point games total, we saw one, on average, about every 205 games. That mark steadily declined over the past decade to a new low of one every 40 games this season.

In short, we’re seeing 50-point games more than twice as often as we were just six years ago.

Why are we seeing so many more 50-point games in the NBA?

It would be easy to attribute the change to simply an increase in talent but it’s hard to believe that such an increase would manifest so steadily across a span of 10 years or that a difference in talent alone can explain such a change.

I think we can, however, point out two specific changes that are driving this increase — more 3-pointers and more high-volume creators. It doesn’t line up perfectly with the increase in 50-point games but over the past decade, we have seen a sharp increase in the number of qualified players with a usage rate over 30 percent.

More offensive responsibility concentrated in the hands of a single player on each team means more opportunities for high-scoring games. And we would expect that with 3-pointers making up a larger and larger share of NBA offenses we’d see that trend at least partially driving an increase in 50-point games. But, at least for the past two seasons, things have gone in the opposite direction.

The share of points scored from the free throw line in 50-point games over the last decade has remained fairly steady. And we did see a jump in the percent of points coming from the 3-point line in 2018-19 and 2019-20 when there was an enormous jump in the number of 50-point games. But that pattern has changed over the past two seasons and this year looks like a complete outlier.

And here we have a reasonable argument that what we’re seeing this year is at least partially driven by talent, or at least the unique characteristics of present talent. Of the 144 50-point games over the last decade, just 25 came with 60 percent of more of the points being scored on 2-pointers. Of those 25, nine have come in the past two years with five from this season — three from Giannis, two from Joel Embiid, and one each from Ja Morant, DeMar DeRozan, Anthony Davis and Luka Doncic.

We have more high-volume scorers than we did a decade ago but we’re also seeing more who don’t rely on the 3-pointer for the bulk of their scoring. Giannis is a force of nature, able to bully his way into the paint with two or three strides from anywhere on the floor. Joel Embiid is perhaps the most dominant post-scorer we’ve seen in a generation. Ja Morant is a complete outlier as a 6-foot-3 guard who is regularly among the league leaders in points in the paint. Luka Doncic is comfortable pulling up from anywhere but he’s averaging a career-high in free throws this season and a career-low percent of his shots from beyond the arc.

By and large, NBA offenses have moved toward the 3-point line. But the best offensive players defy leaguewide trends.


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