NBA Stars Are Stuffing Stat Sheets Like Never Before. But Why?

It’s usually a special occasion when LeBron James has one of his patented statistical eruptions. In Monday’s victory over the Houston Rockets, James notched a hyper efficient 48 points, to go with eight rebounds, nine assists and zero turnovers. It was an eye-popping output to help carry his short-handed Los Angeles Lakers — even from the player who keeps defying Father Time.

But in this NBA season — and the modern NBA more generally — LeBron’s explosion was just another piece in the league’s big-game puzzle. Several weeks earlier, Luka Dončić posted the NBA’s second 60-point triple double ever, and then followed that up with a 51-6-9 stat line four days later. Two nights after that, Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell poured into 71(!) points against Michael Jordan’s former team — more than MJ himself ever mustered in a game — to go with eight rebounds and 11 assists. And one day after thatMilwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo went for a comparatively tame 55 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists.

These are just a few of the gaudy performances that have seemingly come a dime a dozen in the NBA this season … and it’s not clear when they’ll stop. In fact, we can demonstrate this visually. Using Basketball-Reference.com’s Game score metric (which measures single-game statistical output using all of a player’s box score numbers), you can see that the average team leader in game-by-game performance per 100 possessions has never been stuffing the stat sheet better in modern NBA history:

Critically, at this point in the season (more than halfway in), this overall mark implies that it’s not just one-off herculean performances like those of James, Dončić and Mitchell clouding our perception that individual player outputs are getting bigger and bigger. And it’s not just scoring, either: Though points hold the biggest weight in Game Score’s calculation, it accounts for a number of other statistics as well, including rebounds, assists, steals, turnovers and more.

So what might explain all of these individual statistical explosions sweeping across the league? And is it sustainable?

The easiest and most obvious answer to this recent uptick in top players’ raw output is that NBA offenses, as a whole, have never been better. The league’s collective offensive efficiency of 114.0 is the highest it’s been since at least the merger, as teams have moved to trim the fat out of their scoring diets, focusing on the choicest shots both inside and outside the 3-point arc. Outside of the occasional rule-breakersNBA teams have found that winning basketball lies not just beyond the 3-point arc … but deep inside it, too.

According to cleaning the glass, teams are taking just 30.8 percent of their shots from the midrange, including just 9.4 percent from the long midrange, the latter of which is the lowest figure since at least the 2003-04 season. But it doesn’t appear as if the most recent uptick in offensive efficiency has been due to teams shooting more threes. Overall 3-point attempt rates have stabilized in 2023, but teams are taking a higher share of their attempts at the rim — and making more — than they did last season.

What that may mean for the NBA’s stars, then, is that they have had more room to operate and are using it to great effect. As The Athletic’s Mike Prada noted recently, the effect of the 3-point revolution hasn’t just been on threes, but on all the other shots that have gotten easier with defenses needing to focus on the arc. Stars are still getting the same shots they got in past seasons, but they’ve never been better optimized to convert them so efficiently.

From the lens of player usage, too, it seems apparent that teams are asking their stars to burn brighter than ever — a not-so-surprising development in the heliocentric age of basketball that we live in — to the tune of three of the 10 highest Game Scores since the merger coming during the first half of the 2022-23 season alone. Not coincidentally, Antetokounmpo, Dončić and Joel Embiid are on pace this season to own three of the 10 highest usage rates in modern NBA history, too.

Playing time may also help explain why someone like Dončić has excelled — he’s No. 2 in minutes per game played this season — but even he’s not playing absurdly high minutes by historical standards, as his mark of 37.4 wouldn’t crack the top 200 of minutes per game played this century. It’s more about what Dončić and players of his ilk are being asked to do within those minutes, and how many eye-popping numbers they continue to put up on a night-by-night basis.

Of course, it’s not at all clear that this surge of individual box score power correlates to helping a team win. One notable holdout to the age of heliocentrism, perennial MVP candidate Nikola Jokić, hasn’t quite caught the attention of the traditional stat-stuffing metrics this season. Despite leading the league in FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR wins above replacement, Jokić’s average Game Score comes in just a hair below 26.0 per game, well below the average for an NBA star this season. And the track record of teams built around high-usage superstars isn’t a great one. Michael Jordan, who posted a 34.7 percent usage rate (good for 43rd all time) during his 1992-93 season with the Chicago Bulls, is the highest-usage player to win a championship since the merger. So with three of the game’s preeminent stars posting otherworldly usage rates — Dončić and Antetokounmpo at 38.2 and Embiid at 38.0 — we’re about to get a real test of whether modern basketball’s extreme heliocentric model can finally win in 2023.

But on a certain level, perhaps none of that matters. As the saying goes, big box scores do not lie, and the NBA’s biggest stars have irrefutably treated us to the best collective leading performances in the league’s history so far this year. When a 48-point barrage at age 38 by arguably the greatest player of all time is treated as an afterthought, you know the bar for individual excellence has been raised.

Neil Paine contributed research.

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