Later this week, just before the All-Star break, we will reach the midway point of this shortened post-lockout season. As a result, this seems like an ideal time to check back in on the effects the unusual schedule has had on the league as a whole.
The most obvious effect on a nightly basis is that, as expected, offense is down. To be exact, the league Offensive Rating has dropped by 4.3 points per 100 possessions from 108.8 to 104.5. So far, that's a larger drop than we saw after the last lockout in 1998-99 (when offense was down 3.8 points per 100 possessions), but offense tends to improve over the course of the season, so it's possible the final change will come in the same size or even smaller. Things could be worse; because league-wide offensive efficiency has improved since the rules reinterpretation limiting contact on the perimeter, this year's Offensive Rating is still better than those in 1998-99 (103.4) and the non-lockout 2003-04 season (104.2).
Three of the four offensive Four Factors have suffered. Naturally, teams are shooting less accurately both from inside (.487 to .475) and outside (.358 to .345) the arc and even at the free throw line (.763 to .747). They're turning the ball over on 14.2 percent of their plays, up from 13.4 percent a year ago. The surprise is how many fewer free throws are being attempted around the league. The ratio of free throw attempts to field-goal attempts was an even .3 a year ago; now it's .282. NBA Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Stu Jackson expressed his concern about that number in an interview with SI.com's Zach Lowe, but I can't say I have a good explanation. It doesn't seem like there have been fewer fouls this year and the game doesn't appear to have less flow because of increased contact.
Pace is also down slightly this year, from 90.8 possessions per game to 90.1, which would be the lowest mark since 2005-06. As a result of the combination of fewer possessions and fewer points per possession, the NBA as a whole is averaging 94.8 points per game, which would be the worst mark since the league averaged 93.4 points during the ugly 2003-04 season.
What I found a bit unexpected was how evenly that decline has been distributed. It seems like most of this year's scores have been relatively normal, with a handful of awful performances dragging down the league averages. As it turns out, that is not the case. Relative to the same point last season, and adjusted for the lower scoring per game, the distribution of points on a game-by-game basis has actually been slightly more consistent than 2010-11.
The percentage of the time teams fail to reach 80 points has indeed gone from 4.5 percent of all games to 8.5 percent, but the large change is the decline in high-scoring nights. Teams topped 110 points nearly one out of five games last season (19.6 percent, to be exact). This year, that's happening just 8.4 percent of the time.
What definitely has continued is the trend toward blowouts. The standard deviation of the outcome of each game is up from 7.4 points per game to 8.1 points per game. Through this point in 2010-11, there were 10 games decided by at least 30 points. Already this season, the Charlotte Bobcats alone have been beaten five times by 30 or more; there have been 18 such games overall. Wins by 20-plus points are also up from 12.2 percent of all games to 16.0 percent.
In a rhetorical manner, I've asked before whether such results might make point differential less meaningful this season. I don't know if we'll ever be able to answer that question, but it is worth noting that for the most part the distribution of season-to-date differential is not much different than it was this time a year ago. The standard deviation is up from 4.7 to 5.2, but the highest rating when adjusted for schedule (Miami, at +8.6 points per game) is actually down from last year's leading +8.8 mark (also the Heat). There are five teams with ratings of +5 or better; last year, there were four, with another at +4.9.
Pretty much the entirety of the difference can be attributed to the Bobcats, who currently rate an astounding 13.3 points worse than the average team. Give them the same rating as last year's cellar-dwellers at this point (Cleveland, at -8.5) and suddenly the deviation goes down to just 4.9. At the current pace, Charlotte has a chance to be historically awful. Since the ABA-NBA merger, only the 1992-93 Dallas Mavericks (-15.2 ppg) have been outscored by more than the Bobcats thus far. That Mavericks team threatened the worst record in NBA history and finished with 11 wins.
The good news for the Bobcats is they've played 18 of their 31 games on the road so far, meaning their schedule will even out the rest of the way. The bad news is home-court advantage is no longer as meaningful as it was earlier in the season. Despite research by College Basketball Prospectus contributor John Ezekowitz on Grantland.com showing playing at home has been a huge advantage in the second half of back-to-backs, home teams have only outscored their opponents by 0.6 points per game in the month of February. Overall home-court advantage is down to 3.0 points per game, a bit on the low end of where it's been the last few seasons.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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