Should We Be That Impressed by the NBA’s Latest Monster Statlines?

In every NBA season, the league’s deep stable of stars find new ways to entertain and amaze us. They deliver unprecedented performances, display unforeseen athletic feats and reach new statistical milestones.

Today’s sports media climate is ultra-competitive, so it’s driven by clickable highlights, headlines and eye-popping stat lines. The NBA and its media mouthpieces don’t miss a chance to hail the latest monster performance by touting a player’s lofty box-score stats.

And oftentimes, the latest gigantic stat line is instantly compared to numbers or benchmarks from the past—without much context offered.

Give the players credit where it’s due. If dropping 40 or 50 points in an NBA game was a piece of cake, a lot of non-stars would do it. If dishing 10-plus assists was a cinch, there would be far more playmakers across the league.

However, not all monster box score numbers are created equal, and many of this era’s headline-grabbing performances should not be equated with the top games of all time.

The evolution of the sport and the way we evaluate success makes inter-generational comparisons increasingly murky. The athleticism, officiating, and playing style have all changed dramatically within the past couple of decades.

NBA games are officiated noticeably differently today than they were 20-plus years ago, or even 10 years ago. And for the most part, the rules cater to offensive players more than ever before. Physicality and footwork are the two areas where scorers are getting increased benefits.

Dec 14, 2019; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) dunks a basket in the fourth quarter during the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Fiserv Forum. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes the disparity in physicality between previous decades and today gets overblown. Our memories of the 80’s and 90’s often get exaggerated as glorified rugby matches (though certain games and playoff series certainly devolved into that). But there’s truth to the assertions that the sport was different. Defensive hand-checking, pushing and jostling for position was more prevalent during that period just as a lack of spacing and player movement on offense was de jour.

The NBA curtailed hand-checking in 1994 and then essentially outlawed it in 2004. This paved the way for easier drives for offensive attackers, helping create a defensive culture where many players are often hesitant to be aggressive for fear of picking up a cheap foul.

The hand-check crackdown and waning perimeter physicality is only part of the equation. Modern defenses are also inhibited by rules like the defensive three-second rule or the (rightfully) stricter rules about giving shooters space to land. NBA refs now protect jump-shooters somewhat similarly to how the NFL protects its quarterbacks.

The wrong reach or wrong bump from a defender could translate to easy free-throws. Consequently, more scorers are catering their playing styles to earn trips to the free-throw line or deter defenders from being assertive. Occasionally, the heightened focus on player safety—which is a good thing to strive for—leads to refs erring too much on the side of blowing the whistle on fastbreaks or mid-air plays. 

Former Philadelphia 76ers Vice President of Basketball Strategy and founder of Cleaning the Glass Ben Falk stressed how much those rule changes have gradually influenced the sport:

Before the change in illegal defense rules and the change in enforcement of hand checking, it was a different game…I don’t think it’s clear to everyone just how much those rule changes mattered since it’s taken years to fully play out.

The NBA has also become more forgiving in the footwork department. With the increased emphasis on the “gather” being the key point before a driver’s allotted two steps, officials’ game-to-game interpretation of what constitutes a travel has been inconsistent.

Players tend to push the envelope as much as possible with extended euro-step moves. One of the most difficult players to officiate is Giannis Antetokounmpo, whose gazelle-like strides are tough to track. Watch this march to the hoop by the Greek Freak. There’s a strong argument that he gathered the ball and then took three full steps (left, right, left) before dunking it:

There’s the James Harden stepback that’s become the posterchild of this discussion, though he’s also the reigning King of the Eurostep in his own right as well:

In that scenario and many other similar sequences, refs often refrain from penalizing drivers. Atlanta Hawks veteran Vince Carter agrees. He acknowledged that the refs have a difficult task, and offensive players often get the benefit of the doubt when there’s a gray area (per Jesse Washington of The Undefeated):

Live action is tough, guys are doing the Eurosteps, that’s when it gets dicey. You’re probably Eurostepping in traffic. Referees are looking at a lot…We get away with … 2 1/2 steps. I know the referees don’t want to hear that, [they say] that’s not the case, but it’s the reality. I know I get away with it.

Washington agrees with Carter, suggesting that stars occasionally get away with more than what the league allows.

“These dudes are running right on the edge of legal,” Washington said. “Sometimes, when they take that extra quarter- or half-step, refs swallow their whistles because they have seen them make similar legal plays before.”

These leniencies afford scorers loads of freedom to maneuver past defenders after they’re done dribbling. Therefore, players who have great ball-handling skills and footwork have copious opportunities to get buckets.

Another factor that’s influencing the value of some regular-season stats: load management. Several of the NBA’s biggest stars are resting more than their predecessors did. In this era of players sitting out games as healthy scratches, some stretches of regular seasons aren’t as competitive as they used to be. It’s hard to quantify how much the load management trend has affected the statistical balance of the league, but the final weeks of the last few regular seasons have showcased some sloppy, lopsided basketball.

What we can quantify is the Association’s overall trend toward more scoring in recent years. The league-wide average for points-per-100 possessions eclipsed 110 for the first time in league history in 2018-19 (110.4), and the NBA’s top four scoring seasons of all time are the past four seasons.

Just look at today’s scoring leaders—where James Harden is pacing the pack with almost 40 ppg.— and then compare the same list from 10 years ago. Dial it to 20 or even 30 years back, and notice how the overall averages for players listed 4th-through-30th continue to creep up, even as the top-3 leaders are typically around 30ppg. Clearly, a variety of changes have occurred to allow this beyond simply believing, “today’s scorers are better than yesterday’s!”

The uptick in league-wide scoring doesn’t mean that all of today’s big individual scoring performances, triple-doubles and other milestones aren’t meaningful, however.

Many of them are incredible, unprecedented displays. And it also doesn’t mean that this era’s players wouldn’t dominate among the stars of previous decades. They probably would. Part of the reason scoring numbers are up is that, on average, today’s NBA players (across all positions) are more skilled outside shooters than their forerunners. Many of today’s larger players are also far more competent ball-handlers than their historic counterparts, even as they’ve often traded post footwork in exchange for faceup and driving skills.

However, the NBA’s offensive boom and uptick in scoring should change our glorification of statistical yardsticks. Offensive players are met with less resistance, in part because the sport is played and officiated differently.

So the bar for box-score appreciation should be set higher.

With all due respect to Luka Doncic and his blossoming skills, his stats might not be quite as amazing if today’s NBA was officiated like it was in 1999. We’re less than halfway through the 2019-20 season, and he already equaled the 1999-00 season’s league-wide total of 30-point triple-doubles:

It might seem like I’m disparaging the league’s current stars, or putting the “good old days” up on a pedestal. (Or both.) But that’s not the case at all. I’m just calling for a greater appreciation for the context of each of the game’s eras rather than worshipping stat-lines.

Even Doncic himself indicated there may be too many statistical milestone comparisons thrown around. Here is his reply when he was asked about breaking Michael Jordan’s record for consecutive 20-point, five-assist, five-rebound games:

Our culture loves the quick highlights and re-tweetable, eye-popping stats. It seems as though every 40-point outburst goes viral and every triple-double begs for a comparison with past elite performers. But when we watch the games, it’s clear that not all monster games in the same category thresholds are of equal merit. And some 13-9-8 games are more impressive than 20 or 30-point triple-doubles.

Sometimes, it’s just better to let the sport speak for itself rather than letting benchmarks dictate greatness.

Today’s statistical outbursts are indeed impressive and should be enjoyed. But let’s not forget out the modern player is both better equipped skill-wise and rule-wise to do so.

They shouldn’t be arbitrarily penalized for playing in such an era—as the “back in my day” crowd is often wont to do—but neither should we forget the similar context of the game’s past exploits.