The Chicago Bulls had scored 26 points in the first half at home against the Atlanta Hawks back on Jan. 3. Shooting guard Richard Hamilton was out, and his replacements—Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver—were having brutal nights, finishing 3-for-12 from the field combined. Chicago shot just 33.8 percent from the field, and 4-for-17 on 3-pointers. It was so unsightly that star guard Derrick Rose said, “I felt bad for our fans to see us play that bad.”
Three days later, the Pacers were having a similar kind of night in Boston. Small forward Danny Granger was having an epically bad game, going 3-for-14 from the field, and newly signed David West was just 1-for-4 with two points. The team shot just 40.5 percent from the field, only the second time in seven games Indiana cracked 40 percent shooting.
And on Monday night, just about all of the flaws in the Knicks offense were on display. The team had just 16 assists, went 1-for-10 from the 3-point line, shot 38.0 percent from the field, missed 10 free throws and got just three points from the bench, the franchise’s worst production from its reserves in 40 years.
Funny thing about these three hard-to-watch performances—the Bulls, Pacers and Knicks all won those games. So far this year, the “ugly win” has been a staple of the NBA. That’s because, with the season starting on Dec. 25, after just two weeks of training camp and only two preseason games, the compressed schedule is crushing offenses across the league.
“I fully expect that,” said Pacers coach Frank Vogel, whose team is 6-3 despite a paltry 40.9 percent shooting clip. “You don’t get to work with your guys for five months, you’re not going to be able to prepare them to play this style of play. The conditioning, the timing, everything that goes into play is not going to be there. And then the schedule as well.”
Offense is a sensitive issue for the NBA, and while most fans are happy the lockout is over, they can’t be pleased with the quality of play to this point. Nine years ago, the league recognized that the slow pace and defensive bent were causing fans to tune out, and it responded with a set of rule changes designed to boost scoring. Hand-checking on the perimeter was eliminated, and defensive three-second violations were instituted.
That began in the 2004-05 season, and the results were immediately tangible. The previous season, the NBA had two teams average better than 100 points, with the average team scoring 93.4 points on 43.9 percent shooting. In ’04-05, the number of teams scoring more than 100 per game rose to six, with the average going to 97.2 per game. Over the past four seasons, NBA teams have averaged 99.9 points on 45.9 percent shooting. On average, 13.8 teams scored 100-plus points in those four years, including 18 teams in ’09-10.
But now, we’re down to the kind of numbers we saw before the rule changes. League-wide, shooting is down to 44.0 percent. Scoring is at 94.4 points per game, and only five teams are averaging at least 100 points. Six teams are averaging fewer than 90 points, including the Warriors, who averaged at least 103.0 points in each of the last five seasons, but are at just 89.9 points this year.
The lack of training camp time is the most obvious reason for these offensive woes—for some teams, this is still, in effect, training camp. Coaches have had to simplify their playbooks to ensure that their players are on the same page.
“Honestly, it makes our jobs easier,” one Eastern Conference scout said with a laugh. “There just are not as many wrinkles to the offenses. There’s a play call, and there may be two options off it because there just hasn’t been time to work on the third option and fourth option. So if you’re scouting, you can tell what your defense should be doing.”
There is also the issue of conditioning. With routines shattered by the lockout, players have shown up in varying states of fitness. It’s not hard to identify those who did not keep up with their offseason work—there’s no better example than the Mavericks’ Lamar Odom, who has admitted to being out of condition and is shooting just 29.2 percent. He shot 53.0 percent last season.
The lack of conditioning is exacerbated by the schedule, which has teams playing 66 games in about 124 days. That compression has yielded some bizarre trips, late arrivals, more back-to-back scenarios and 42 dreaded back-to-back-to-backs. That schedule exposes players who are not in good condition, and will make it harder for them to get back into shape.
Injuries, too, hurt offenses in a tight schedule—there just is not enough recovery time. Boston’s Paul Pierce missed the end of training camp and the first three games of the year with a bruised heel, and, unable to work on his own or with the team, has been inconsistent since returning, especially because the Celtics opened with eight games in the first 12 days of the season. Pierce is shooting 38.5 percent, after making 49.7 percent of his shots last year.
“I haven’t had any practice this year so it’ll be good for me to get back in and refreshed with some of the things we’re doing,” Pierce said of having the last four days off. “Add to our playbook, which we haven’t been able to do because of our lack of practice plus it’ll be a good rest for us. We’re playing every other day, so get our feet back up under us and regroup and get back on.”
Pierce can take heart, though. His offense may be struggling, but looking around the league, he is hardly the only one.
Since the league instituted rule changes in ’04-05, offense has been consistently better. The lockout appears to have changed that, though.
Year | FG% | Ppg | 100-plus pt teams
2011-12: 44.0, 94.4, 5
2010-11: 45.9, 99.6, 11
2009-10: 46.1, 100.4, 18
2008-09: 45.9, 100.0, 13
2007-08: 45.7, 99.9, 13
2006-07: 45.8, 98.7, 9
2005-06: 45.4, 97.,0 5
2004-05: 44.7, 97.2, 6
2003-04: 43.9, 93.4, 2