The NBA’s scoring binge isn’t just a problem at the All-Star Game

High-powered offenses are everywhere and a a small but necessary recalibration could help restore balance.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jayson Tatum shoots a three-pointer at the NBA All-Star game in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Feb. 19, 2023.

Indianapolis • The 2023 NBA All-Star Game should have been a bonanza.

There were 3-pointers and dunks galore, as the game’s best players tomahawked and double-clutched and lobbed to one another, unabated, for 48 minutes in Salt Lake City. Boston’s Jayson Tatum set an All-Star Game record with 55 points and won MVP in leading Team Giannis — the 12 players picked by team captain Giannis Antetokounmpo — over Team LeBron, headed, of course, by LeBron James. The two teams were picked right before the game by the two captains, the latest innovation from a league dedicated to consistently goose fan interest and engagement.

Offense, front and center!

And the game … cratered on TV, producing the lowest ratings for the event, ever.

To be fair, Stephen Curry, out with injury, didn’t play. Antetokounmpo, who had a bad wrist, played just a few minutes, as did James. But the game still featured most of today’s superstars. And it was the logical conclusion of where the NBA has gone in the last decade — all offense, all the time, with no one even pretending to play defense for a single possession.

It felt, and looked, awful.

And that is a major challenge to this NBA, even as Curry returned for this year’s game and Giannis and LeBron were, again, relatively healthy. (James, rehabbing a sprained ankle, played sparingly in Sunday’s game, by design.)

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Donovan Mitchell at the NBA All-Star game in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Feb. 19, 2023.

Make no mistake: The NBA is not a broken league. It is not a damaged product. Franchise valuations, across the board, have never been higher. The league is poised for a monster media-rights deal in the next year with its current partners, and almost certainly will add new ones. Expansion is likely within the next decade. Teams in the league’s biggest markets, New York and Los Angeles, have winning, fun teams to watch in the Knicks and Clippers. And so do teams in smaller markets — Oklahoma City and Cleveland, Minnesota and Orlando, New Orleans and Phoenix.

You can marvel at any number of young superstars: Shai Gilgeous-AlexanderTyrese HaliburtonJalen BrunsonAnthony EdwardsPaolo BancheroTyrese Maxey and De’Aaron Fox and Scottie Barnes are on the launch pad. Nikola JokićJoel EmbiidLuka Dončić and Giannis are the game’s present; Victor Wembanyama’s future seems limitless.

“It’s just insane how dominant he’s going to be as he gets more comfortable in the game,” Kevin Durant said Saturday of Wembanyama. “Luckily, I’m on my way out, so I won’t have to deal with it too much.”

But the game nonetheless feels out of balance, with higher and higher scoring records and totals a nightly occurrence. Dončić scored an almost easy 73 points in a Dallas Mavericks win in Atlanta in January. That came just days after Embiid bully-balled his way to a 70-point night against Wembanyama and the San Antonio Spurs. The same night Embiid went for 70, Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns dropped 62 in a Timberwolves loss to the Charlotte Hornets.

Points are erupting, everywhere. On Jan. 3, five teams — UtahDetroitIndianaAtlanta and Cleveland — each scored 140 or more points in a game. And 10 teams in total scored at least 130 that night. Per StatMuse, NBA teams have already scored 130 points in a game 224 times this season; the single-season record is 266, set … last season.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson (00) pushes past Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green (23) during an NBA basketball game Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024, in Salt Lake City.

Last season, there were 203 40-point games by 57 different players — which, per NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, crushed the previous single-season record of 142 40-point games, set in the 1961-62 season, and the previous record of 47 players, set in 2020-21. (And: In that 1961-62 season, Wilt Chamberlain accounted for 63 of those 142 40-point games! Sixty-three 40-point games! In an 80-game season! That included a stretch where Chamberlain scored at least 44 points in 14 straight games. That season, Wilt had the 100-point game, a 78-point game, two 67-point games, two 65-point games and three 62-point games.)

So far this season?

As of this weekend, All-Star Weekend, per RealGM, there have already been 119 40-point games, by … 44 different players!

Yes, 40 is an arbitrary number. So is hitting .300 in baseball or scoring 50 goals in a season in hockey. There is, in every sport, a baseline for excellence. Cross it, and you are among the elite. And that’s the point. The standard for “elite” in the NBA is being stretched beyond all meaning. Or, more simply: If everybody can score 40, what’s the value in anybody scoring 40?

The All-Star Game is an exhibition, for fun. It is not to be taken literally. Yet even its history provides context to why things feel a bit askew.

For generations, there was an unwritten, understood rule about the game: For the first three quarters, you could do whatever you wanted with the ball, and no one would really try to stop you. But in the fourth quarter, if the game was at all close, both teams would hunker down and put forth All-Star defensive effort. They’d play defense for real and try to win the game. That led to moments like the fourth quarter of the 2001 game in Washington, D.C., when Dikembe Mutombo blocked everything in sight in the last 12 minutes, Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury went to work in the passing lanes, and the East team erased a 21-point deficit to roar back for the win in front of an excited, engaged crowd.

Two decades later, offense has overwhelmed the game. The NBA has become oversaturated, points on top of points.

The explosion in shooting skill means teams relentlessly hunt 3-pointers. The analytics of this choice are obvious; the practical result is that defenders, with almost no ability to use their hands or bodies to keep opposing players from going where they want to go, now have to cover far much more ground on the court, leaving gaping, chasm-like spaces for ballhandlers to penetrate. This forces defenses into crazy-long rotations, which leads to more wide-open 3s, which increases scoring. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. And, so, it should come as no surprise that the NBA’s scoring averages have exploded since 2000.

In 2000-01, teams averaged 94.8 points per game. At the All-Star break this season, that average is 115.5 points a game. The offensive rating in 2000-01 was 103; today, it’s 115.9. And, of course, that would be the highest-recorded single season offensive rating in league history.

“I just think that you have to give the defense a little more advantages, as much as you do offense. You have to give the defenses a chance,” Hall of Fame forward Dominque Wilkins said on Friday.

“People ask me all the time, ‘What would you average in today’s league?,’” Wilkins said. “And I say, ‘Under those circumstances?’ The 60s and 70s (point games), you don’t think we’d be scoring them? Because we loved physical contact. So the physicality was easy for us. Our bodies were conditioned to take it. So, now, a guy can’t touch me? I said, I don’t know what I’d average, but I can tell you it would be over 35 a game.”

The league, naturally, sees it differently.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) NBA Commissioner Adam Silver speaks at a news conference as part of NBA All-Star Weekend, in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Feb. 18, 2023.

“I want to dispel any notion that the league feels or that the league office necessarily feels that high-scoring games in the abstract are good,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in his annual All-Star news conference Saturday. “I think what we want are competitive games. That’s what’s most important to us, and that’s what we hear from our fans, as well. I think there’s a lot happening here, and I’ve talked to a lot of coaches and a lot of players about it. … I disagree with people who feel that teams aren’t playing defense. … The defensive intensity is there.”

There are disparate issues here.

There is the skill level of today’s players. This is not debatable: More players are more skilled today than at any time in the game’s history. More players can handle the ball expertly, able to break down defenses at will. Kyrie Irving is the Pied Piper of this craft, but he has many, many acolytes. More players can shoot from greater distances. Whether it’s Curry or Sabrina Ionescu, or Damian Lillard or Caitlin Clark, logo 3s are a regular part of the game now, a shot that is encouraged because so many can make it.

But the awesome skill level of today’s players does not, then, automatically mean the game, itself, is better. And, please: This is not about “wokeness” or any other canard some would use for gratuitous strays at the league or its players. This is about the game — five people trying to score, or prevent scoring, together. That’s what’s out of kilter.

At its best, basketball is a worthy tug-of-war, between one group of people determined to put the ball in the basket and another group equally determined to use their skills to stop them. In today’s game, though, that second group is at a clear and obvious disadvantage, every night. The tools used a generation ago to impede offenses — hand-checking on the perimeter, bumping people cutting through the lane, taking hard fouls in the paint to make people think twice about driving to the rim — have all been legislated out of the game.

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) David Robinson (50) has the ball stolen by Scottie Pippen, left, during the 1993 All-Star Game at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City, Sunday, Feb. 21, 1993.

Yes, this brings me to the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s. But not to Michael Jordan.

Jordan was an incredible defender, especially earlier in his career. But this isn’t another hosanna to MJ.

I’m thinking about Scottie Pippen.

Pippen, to me, was the difference-maker defensively for those championship Bulls teams, just as Michael Cooper was the secret sauce that fueled Magic Johnson’s Lakers to five NBA championships in the ‘80s. As Cooper harassed Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas and others, so Pippen disrupted offenses for Chicago. The Hall of Fame forward was the lead dog in what Bulls assistant coach Johnny Bach famously coined the Bulls’ “Dobermans” defense — Pippen, Jordan and Horace Grant. The threesome would trap, recover and contest shot after shot, usually without fouling.

Pippen used everything — his feet, his core, his chest, his long arms, his hands and his sense of anticipation — in a frenetic assault on ballhandlers, never letting them relax. His defense on Johnson, picking up the Hall of Fame guard 94 feet on multiple occasions, turned the 1991 NBA Finals in Chicago’s favor. And Pippen didn’t play dirty. He didn’t undercut people. He didn’t grab jerseys or knock opponents to the ground. He just defended the hell out of everyone. And it was beautiful to watch, just as Magic’s full-court passes were beautiful or Isiah’s shotgun dribbles or Bird’s electrifying 3s or Kareem’s skyhooks. There was balance in the game, that tug-of-war between offense and defense a core element of the league’s character.

Of course, coaches grouse about the inability of defenders to slow down the offensive onslaught. But, sometimes, they have a point.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr made his feelings plain in December, after Jokić got to the foul line 18 times in the Nuggets’ Christmas Day win over Golden State. Kerr did not criticize the officiating in the game; he criticized the way the NBA teaches its officials and what he termed the Nuggets and other teams “baiting” officials into making foul calls on defenders who, in Kerr’s view, are in legal guarding position.

“I have no problem with the officials themselves,” Kerr said. “All across the league we have really good officials. I have a problem with the way we are legislating defense out of the game. That’s what we’re doing in the NBA. The way we are teaching the officials, we are enabling players to BS their way to the foul line.”

Notably, though Kerr said it was “disgusting to watch,” the NBA did not fine him for his comments.

The reason many people think the league has its thumb on the scale today when it comes to wanting more offense in the game is that every rule change in the last 40 years, and almost every re-interpretation of a rule in a given season, has favored the offense. Adopting the 3-pointer, putting in illegal (zone) defense guidelines, eliminating hand-checking in the backcourt, first to the free-throw line (1995) and then altogether (2004). Introducing defensive three-second rules. Eliminating “re-routing” of opposing players coming through the lane or off screens. And on and on.

But, there is no question, most people who play the game today like the way the game is played today.

“I like the brand of basketball because everybody who is out there can put the ball on the floor, for the most part, can, like I said, be a threat to shoot,” Curry said Saturday. “You’re going to see a sway toward higher scoring, but I think the cycle of the league, it will reset itself at this point. I don’t know how quickly that will happen or what rules will change this summer and the following summer, but I personally like the brand of basketball that’s being played because it highlights the amount of talent that we have around the league.”

To be sure, also, there are teams that do more than pay lip service to defense. There are players who understand the scouting report can provide a roadmap for the best ways to try and take away a team’s pet offensive actions.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson (00) and Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) as the Utah Jazz host the Los Angeles Lakers, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024.

“Every team is different,” James said before the game Sunday. “Every team’s portfolio is different of how they attack the game. If you do your scouting, if you do your research, you know players’ tendencies, you can be proactive more than reactive. You’re absolutely right, the game that’s definitely got to, because of analytics, when that tapped into our game, it’s more just like layups, dunks, free throws, 3s. A lot of teams are trying to shy away from the midrange. A lot of teams are trying to shy away from a lot of other things that, when I came into the league, that was very important.

“Depending on the teams that you’re playing, you know the teams that want to shoot 40, 50 3s a game. You know the teams that want to shoot 25 to 30. You just have to do your scouting and be prepared for it.”

Are there fixes? Yes.

• What if the NBA again allowed defenders to hand check the opposing ballhandler in the backcourt? This would cut down some — some — on transition opportunities but not eliminate them. And it would give defenses a few more possessions per game where they could fully set their half court defenses.

• What if the league put in new guidelines that no longer reward players for drawing fouls like this, where the offensive player is not at all a part of the play, but just creates contact to draw a whistle?

• And, what if the league allowed individual players seven fouls per game instead of six? Yes, you run the risk of slowing the game down with 12 additional fouls per team per game. I grant you that. But you also would incentivize defenders to take more chances with four or five second-half fouls, rather than having to sit back passively to stay in the game. And: Don’t we want the best players to stay in game as long as possible and play at their best?

Balance. Just balance. To allow this game’s best players to do what they do best — at all times and everywhere on the court.

This article originally appeared in The Athletic.