Why are NBA stars scoring so many points? Making sense of the league’s scoring boom

If you’ve noticed the sharp rise in scoring by NBA stars as of late, you aren’t the only one. Reigning two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Nikola Jokić sees it too.

Sometimes the Denver Nuggets have needed a 44-point triple-double from Jokić, as he had against the Phoenix Suns on Christmas. On Thursday night, Jokić noticed when Utah Jazz small forward Lauri Markkanen dropped a career-high 49 points on the road against the Houston Rockets. Markkanen just barely missed the 50-point club that has had five new entries since Christmas, highlighted by Luka Dončić’s historic 60-point triple-double against the New York Knicks, Donovan Mitchell’s 71-point masterpiece against the Chicago Bulls and most recently, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s career-high double nickel against the Washington Wizards.

“It’s a talented league, and the guys are extremely talented,” Jokić told The Athletic Thursday night. “I mean, everyone. Everyone. Luke’s game. Mitchell’s game. Giannis had a good game last night. Lauri had a good game today. So the talent around the league is amazing.”

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The list doesn’t end there. On New Year’s Eve, Dončic recorded another impressive performance as he poured 51 points on the San Antonio Spurs without a turnover. Golden State Warriors shooting guard Klay Thompson notched 54 points in a double-overtime home win against the Atlanta Hawks Monday night.

In games played through Jan. 8, there have been 14 50-point games this season. There have been an additional 77 40-point games, and all 30 teams don’t hit the midpoint of the regular season until Jan. 13. In each of the previous two seasons, there were 119 games of 40 or more points. So, it’s safe to assume that the NBA will surpass that number by the 2022-23 season’s end. It’s a phenomenon that has captivated both players and coaches.

Regular season 50-point games

Regular Season 50-point games High

2022-23

14

71 (D.Mitchell)

2021-22

19

60 (K. Towns, K. Irving)

2020-21

14

62 (S. Curry)

2019-20

23

61 (D. Lillard, x2)

2018-19

22

61 (J. Harden, x2)

2017-18

13

60 (J. Harden)

“You get home, you say, ‘This guy had 55,’” Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue said. “You look over, Donovan had 71. Come back the next night, Klay had (54). I think it’s good for the league.”

“We’re in the locker rooms before the games, and there’s 10 other games happening at the same time,” Clippers center Ivica Zubac told The Athletic. “So before the game, we’re checking the scores, we’re watching other games too. So we always talk about it.”

But as Zubac notes, it’s difficult to anticipate just when a player is about to go off.

“After it happens, like when you’re playing with someone who has a good game after it happens, you’ll see it makes sense,” said Zubac, who still has the NBA single-game season-high with 29 rebounds from his 31-point career performance against the Indiana Pacers from November. “Like before the game, he was feeling good, talking a little trash, whatever. He was in his mood of him. But it’s hard to predict stuff like that.

“I always like think a few guys in the league before the season, I’m like, ‘They might have a good year this year. They might have a breakout year.’ But it’s hard to predict games like, ‘This guy’s going to score 70 or 60, 20-10,’ whatever.”

The NBA is in the midst of a record offensive season. Through games played on Jan. 8, teams are averaging 113.8 points per game — the most since NBA teams averaged 116.7 in 1969-70. Even though 3-point field goals made (12.2) and attempted (34.2) are down this season, with only a marginal increase in 3-point percentage (35.7, up from 35.4 last year but down from 36.7 percent in 2020-21), the leaguewide offensive rating is up to 113.6 points per 100 possessions (for Basketball Reference). That’s the highest since offensive rebounds and turnovers were first tracked (1973-74).

While the turnover percentage is the highest that it’s been in five years, the offensive rebound rate is also higher than it’s been in eight years, more than evening out the possession component of offense. Free throws are bouncing back as well, with the highest average attempts per game (23.7) in 12 seasons to go with a record 78 percent shooting from the line; the highest for a full season is 77.8 percent set in 2020-21, when teams attempted the second-fewest free throws in league history (21.8).

Teams are shooting 47.1 percent from the field so far this season, the highest in 30 years. Back in 1992-93, teams averaged only nine 3s attempted per game. Now, you have eight individual players averaging at least nine 3-point attempts per game. The jump shots come primarily from 3-point range instead of the midrange, and teams are taking advantage to score more efficiently in the paint.

“The NBA is a very offensive game,” Zubac said. “They want to push the offense a lot. Everyone’s floor is spaced out. There’s a lot of space, and there’s a lot of space for guys to work. And you know, I think the guys that are in the league are more talented than — I don’t know, I think the level of talent in the league is incredible right now. I don’t know, guys are talented, and they want this to be an offensive game. So it is what it is.”

When asked why players might be going off at the level that they have been over the last two weeks, Lue cited two things primarily.

“I think getting to the free-throw line is important,” Lue said. “Usually, when you have those big explosive scoring nights, guys are getting to the free-throw line. I think the amount of 3-point shots guys are taking too. Guys are taking 15, 16 3s in some games. So if you get hot and make 9 to 10 of those 3s, you’re looking at 30 points right there. And you get to the free throw line 20 times, you know. So guys are scoring a lot of points. Like I said, the 3-point shot is up. Teams are encouraging guys to take those 3-point shots. So if you take so many shots, if you get hot and make some, you can score a lot of points.”

But when it comes to defending scorers and trying to win games, priorities change. Lue’s Clippers, for example, have shown in the past that they are willing to let scorers go off if it means shutting down a scorer’s teammates. In addition to free throws and 3s, that introduces a third element, and those are assists. So many of the players scoring at a high rate are also capable of beating defenses with the pass.

“It’s very possible (to give up a historic game and still win), but you have to just kind of pick and choose the guys you want to try to double-team,” Lue said. “Get the ball out of their hands, because they’re not great passers. But you have some guys who can score but can also pick you apart with their passing. So when you have guys like that, you want to try to let those guys get theirs and try to take everybody else out. But sometimes it can come back and backfire on you as well. So it all depends on how the flow of the game is going, and what type of player you’re trying to fire and get the ball out of his hands.”

The five 50-point games since Christmas offer an interesting sample of the different ways to score. All five came in games where the scorer’s teams were in games within single digits at some point in the fourth quarter, and some required comebacks from significant deficits. Mitchell’s 71 points, for example, came in a game where the Bulls led by as many as 21 points.

Some of the elements Lue discussed are shown in these five 50-point games: Mitchell making 20 free throws, Thompson making 10 3s, Dončic having 10 assists as part of a 21-rebound triple-double. But Antetokounmpo only made one basket outside of the paint in his 55-point game. And a player like Dončic is capable of hitting the midrange field goal frequently, as he showed on the last day of 2022.

50 point games since Christmas 2022

Player

Total points

Team

Opponent date result

Largest deficit

Paint FGs

FTs

midrange FGs

3s

assists

71

Cavaliers

1/2/23W vs CHI (OT)

21

12

20

3

7

11

60

Mavericks

12/27/22 W vs NY (OT)

12

16

16

3

2

10

55

Bucks

1/3/23W vs WAS

4

19

15

1

0

7

54

Warriors

1/2/23W vs ATL (2OT)

9

6

2

5

10

3

51

Mavericks

12/31/22W at SA

7

6

9

6

6

9

Even Markkanen’s 49-point game stands out from the 50-point games. Markkanen, seeking to make his first NBA All-Star appearance this year unlike the four post-Christmas 50-point scorers, did not make any midrange field goals and only had a single assist in his performance. But he made six 3s, scored nine times in the paint, made all 13 of his free throws and didn’t have a single turnover. Only one of Markkanen’s field goals was unassisted; all five of the 50-point performances since Christmas featured multiple unassisted field goals.

Defending games like this is a chore. It’s something Zubac says defenders can’t do much about sometimes, and they just have to focus on winning the war when losing the battle.

“You’re mad, you want to stop them,” Zubac said. “But sometimes the guys are just in their zone and there’s nothing you can do about it. Sometimes the game plan is like, ‘OK, let this guy score whatever, let’s stop the other guys.’ So you know, you take it personal, you’re mad. But you still got to trust the plan, trust the game plan. You know, it is what it is every night. Someone can go off, and there are some guys there that you just can’t do anything about. Guys are going to — you can play great defense — but guys are going to get to their spots. They’re going to make tough shots. You got to live with it.”

It will be interesting to see if these huge individual scoring performances continue into the playoffs. There have been only 10 50-point games in the last five postseasons. Four of those came in the bubble (Mitchell and Jamal Murray). Two more came in overtime losses, including LeBron James’ 51-point performance with Lue’s Cavaliers in Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals.

Lue believes it could be possible due to the fact that scorers are surrounded by lineups that can shoot at a high level.

“It’s tough, I mean, because like I said, everybody on the floor now are decent 3-point shooters,” Lue said. “So if you double-team Luka, or you try to get the ball out of his hands from him, our you double-team Steph, you got guys on the backside that can shoot 38 to 40 percent from 3. So you got to pick your poison. So it’s tough, it’s a little different than when I first started in Cleveland. The game is changing every year. So you got to be able to adapt to the times.”

Don’t be surprised if there are more spectacular games to come. In Jokić’s opinion, the superstar scoring boom is just getting underway.

“They work on their game,” Jokić said. “I think it’s only going to be better and better. We are witnessing some crazy talent in the league.”

(Illustration: Samuel Richardson / The Athletic; photos by Giannis Antetokounmpo, Donovan Mitchell, Luka Dončic / Stacy Revere, Michael Reaves and Tim Heitman via Getty Images)

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