NBA points per game highest level since 1969. Why?

Feb 2, 2024, 11:00 AM | Updated: 1:06 pm

utah jazz player kris dunn, the jazz v warriors game was postponed today...

Utah Jazz guard Kris Dunn (11) celebrates after hitting a three point shot as the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Lakers play at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024. Utah won 132-125. (Scott G Winterton/Deseret News)

(Scott G Winterton/Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — The average number of points scored in an NBA game is the highest it’s been in 55 years. But why are scores so much higher than they have been in the past decades?

So far this season, the average number of points scored per game is 115.6, the highest since the 1969-70 season.

While it would be nice to identify one single reason why nearly every game is scoring well over 100 points, several factors play into today’s high-scoring situations.

Faster games with more possessions

One reason NBA scores have skyrocketed since the early 2000s is the increase in possessions on both sides of the court.

“There’s more possessions every night than there’s ever been,” said David Locke, play-by-play commentator for the Utah Jazz.

In the early 2000s, there was an average of about 91 possessions per game. 91 opportunities for teams to score. That number has now jumped to nearly 100 possessions per game.

“There’s 12% more opportunities to score on each side of the ball,” said Locke.

Increasingly skillful players

More possessions wouldn’t be as potent without more talented players, which Locke said is a huge difference compared to teams 20 years ago.

“The best players are 7’1 [tall] and have point guard skills and are able to dribble and shoot and do more things,” he said.

Locke said that there is more versatility in players than there used to be in the 90s.

“Everybody on the floor can now shoot a 3 which means that everyone has to be guarded at 22-25 feet… Creating massive amounts of space for the greatest athletes in the world to make plays,” he said.

Potent 3-point culture

Another huge change to the game came with the addition of the 3-point line in the 1979-80 season, and with it, the 3-point king Stephen Curry.

The points per game average started to pick up in the 2012-2013 season, only a few years after Curry was drafted to the Golden State Warriors and began implementing his then-unique 3-point style of shooting. A style that quickly spread to young players around the globe.

“We’ve now had 10 years of players with skill development that matches that of what the Warriors did,” said Locke, adding that the league now maintains a high acquisition of players based on their 3-point ability.

“Not only are you having an advent of more 3’s and better 3-point shooters, but now everyone can do it. And everyone is playing in that style,” he said. “It stems back to the Golden State Warriors offensive revolution of a decade ago.”

Why did points per game drop in the 90s

While an average of 115.6 points per game is extremely impressive, it’s only the sixth highest average in recorded NBA history.

The record remains with the 1961-62 season, with an average of 118.8 points scored per game. That average stayed above 100 from 1957-1995.

The question now becomes, why would points per game drop in the mid-90s?

Locke says one reason is the physicality of players in the paint.

“In the 90s the game got very physical,” he said. In addition, “possessions were very slow, everything was into the post, there wasn’t 3-point shooting. So it was all played in a very clogged area… That led to not as much scoring and open floor.”

Another difference between then and now are the skills each player possesses. There is not as much of a defined line between a player’s position and their skill.

“If you think of the Jazz, they had a Mark Eaton and a Greg Ostertag and these big guys who rebounded and blocked shots,” said Locke. “But now, the guys that rebound and block shots can also shoot 3’s, put it on the deck, drive to the basket.”

Modern-day examples of these versatile players include Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokić.

Luka Dončić, who scored 73 points in a game last weekend, is another example of a player who wasn’t common in the 90s, according to Locke.

“He’s a 6 foot 9 inch point guard, that was this anomaly with Magic Johnson back in the 80s and now it’s kind of commonplace that every one of your players can do that.” He continued, “Even look at the Jazz’s Lauri Markannan. He’s 7’1… [and] pretty regularly grabs a rebound and takes it the length of the floor. And he’s one of the 15 best shooters in the league at 7 foot 1 at the 3-point range.”

Will points per game continue to increase

Average points per game have been steadily increasing since 2011, and it’s likely they will continue their current trend.

“If you look at month by month in the NBA, scoring increases as the month goes on,” said Locke, meaning the current average of 115.6 ppg will likely increase by the end of this season.

Locke continued to say that last month was the highest scoring efficiency rate in recorded NBA history.

Also, for the first time ever this year, we will average more than 1.2 points every time someone crosses half-court. We used to be below a point.

“Yes, I think the trend will continue as the skill of the players continues,” said Locke. “There is some point in this process where I would think it has to slow down, I just don’t know when.”

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NBA points per game highest level since 1969. Why?