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5 NBA Trends That Have Emerged Through The 2021-2022 Season: Scoring And 3-Point Percentage Have Gone Down

5 NBA Trends That Have Emerged Through The 2021-2022 Season: Scoring And 3-Point Percentage Have Gone Down

We’re two months into the 2021-2022 season. What trends have emerged?

Defense. Defense. Defense.

Defense is up this year.

Teams across the league are dropping fewer points per night, and we’re seeing more bricks from deep. Several superstars are struggling to score the way they did in past years as the league’s lockdown specialists have been freed by recent rule changes to play more aggressive D.

We’ve also seen a re-emergence of the traditional center this year, with bruisers like Rudy Gobert and Deandre Ayton helping propel their squads to the top of the standings.

The Eastern Conference is deeper than it’s been at any time this century.

Finally, roster continuity seems to be the driving force behind the elite NBA team’s early season success.

We’ll dive deep into the five most glaring trends that have shaped the NBA this season.


Scoring Across The League Is Way Down

Tune into a game this season, and you’ll notice a more free-flowing product. Over the past decade, players like James Harden or Chris Paul have made their living creating fouls off none basketball plays. This season, the league has created new rule changes intended to eliminate “overt, abrupt, or abnormal” plays on offense.

The one-year drop in offense from last season to our current situation has been staggering.

Here’s a breakdown of the data:

2020-2021:

NBA points per game: 112.1

NBA offensive rating: 112.3

NBA free throw rate: .247

NBA true shooting percentage: .572


2021-2022:

NBA points per game: 107.9

NBA offensive rating: 109.2

NBA free throw rate: .231

NBA true shooting percentage: .555

The recent rule changes have led to nearly two fewer free throw attempts per game, which isn’t a massive drop but has led to a modification in the way coaches are game planning on defense. In 2021-2022, perimeter defenders don’t have to worry about their assignment launching into them off a long-distance attempt and creating artificial contact on the perimeter. Similarly, lockdown specialists no longer need to keep their hands back, scared of a swing through that led to a foul call in past seasons.

Referees across the league have put a lid on their whistles, generating a much more aggressive style of play out of perimeter defenders. Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault took it one step further, claiming the rule changes have essentially cut off the head of the snake from many teams across the association,

“If they enforce [the new rules] with the discipline they’re intending to throughout the course of the season, I think those are really impactful, because they’re impacting the highest-impact players in most cases. When you look at the guys that are getting the majority of those calls, they’re the guys that are driving offenses, so I think that’s a factor,” said Daigneault.

The math here adds up:

Less free throw attempts + More aggressive perimeter D + Superstar point guards are limited in their actions = A huge dip in offensive production thus far.


3-Point Shooting Is Down Too

Three-point shooting is way down from last season, so much so, we left the league’s long-distance woes off the above section and pledged 300 words to the problem.

In 2020-2021, players across the association shot 36.7% from deep. This year they’re shooting only 34.8% off the most attempts we’ve ever seen, 35.5 per game.

When we watch a World War II movie, our brains can’t take in the millions of deaths. That’s why movie producers focus on individual stories. It makes everything more real. War and NBA basketball are nothing alike, but we can also shift from the macro version where a 20% drop in league efficiency doesn’t seem like much and concentrate on the micro-stories.

Let’s look at some of the top superstars from last season and see how they’re fairing this year:

2020-2021:

Damian Lillard: 39.1 3P%

Luka Doncic: 35.0 3P%

James Harden: 36.6 3P%

Jayson Tatum: 38.6 3P%

Donovan Mitchell: 38.6 3P%

Paul George: 41.1 3P%

Bradley Beal: 34.9 3P%

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: 41.8 3P%


2021-2022:

Damian Lillard: 31.6 3P%

Luka Doncic: 32.6 3P%

James Harden: 33.7 3P%

Jayson Tatum: 33.2 3P%

Donovan Mitchell: 34.6 3P%

Paul George: 31.8 3P%

Bradley Beal: 28.3 3P%

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: 30.8 3P%

In past seasons, superstars had a considerable edge on offense; they could routinely launch themselves into their defender from behind the arc, nearly always drawing a foul that resulted in three shots at the free-throw line. This gave superstars a space bubble to work within that put them at a shooting advantage.

We saw a perfect example of how frustrating it could be for a defender to guard an offensive specialist two years ago when LeBron James’s Lakers took on James Harden and the Rockets during a mid-season clash. In the early stages of that game, LBJ was called for two fouls on Harden from behind the arc when The Beard jumped into him, manufacturing the contact. James then dramatically put his hands behind his back as he did his best to defend Harden without committing a foul.

This season, superstars no longer have the shooting buffer they became accustomed to in past years. As we said in the previous section, all non-natural contact from an offensive player is no longer whistled. Defenders can get up on shooters and harass them from the perimeter, resulting in the drop we’ve witnessed in three-point shooting across the association.


The Eastern Conference Is Deeper Than The Western Conference

If you’re a basketball fan, you know the decades-long script: The Western Conference has been much deeper and more talented than the Eastern Conference for what feels like forever.

This season the script has flipped. Recent Western Conference playoff pillars—the Trail Blazers, Mavericks, Nuggets, Lakers, and Clippers—are hovering around .500 (except for Portland, which has a 12-18 record) due to an assortment of bad injury luck.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, outside of Miami, which lost Bam Adebayo to injury, or Brooklyn (you know about Kyrie Irving), it’s hard to find a playoff contender that’s missing a critical piece. Instead, the Eastern Conference has seen nearly every squad offer its full roster nightly until the past week as the coronavirus has reared its ugly face again, creating a fascinating playoff race.

Here are the numbers:

The Western Conference has nine teams at or within one game of .500, while the Eastern Conference sports eleven such teams.

The Eastern Conference has six teams ranked in ESPN’s most recent power rankings versus four squads for the West.

The Eastern Conference features nine teams with a positive net rating, and the Western Conference has only seven.

The Eastern Conference isn’t drop-your-jaw-on-the-ground better than the West. The Suns and the Warriors might be the two best teams in the league. Still, the East is clearly the deeper conference, which is an event we haven’t seen in the NBA this century.


Traditional Centers Are Making A Comeback

Over the past decade, unicorns (a big man who can knock down a three on offense and block multiple shots per game on defense) were all the rage. Many experts around the league believed the game had changed. They thought the day of the none-shooting-low-post-stay-on-the-inside-center was over.

In 2021-2022, not so much.

Scan the top-6 teams in the Western Conference, and you’ll see none of them have a sweet-shooting starting center.

The Phoenix Suns: Deandre Ayton, 16.7 3P% off 0.3 attempts per game

The Golden State Warriors: Kevon Looney, 0.0 3P% off 0.0 attempts per game

The Utah Jazz: Rudy Gobert, 0.0 3P%, off 0.0 attempts

The Memphis Grizzlies: Steven Adams, 0.0% 3P% off 0.0 attempts

The Los Angeles Clippers: Ivica Zubac, 0.0 3P% off 0.0 attempts

The Los Angeles Lakers: Anthony Davis, 17.9 3P% off 2.1 attempts

We can see that the top-5 teams above feature a starting center who doesn’t even look to shoot from outside (Ayton has made one three-pointer for the season).

Shift over to the Eastern Conference, and the center position isn’t quite as polarizing. Still, only one top-6 squad (Brook Lopez on the Bucks) features a starting center shooting over 35% from deep.

Tune into one of the many nationally televised NBA analysis shows, and you’ll constantly hear the word “space.”

Space is crucial for the modern-day offense.

LeBron James needs space.

Stephen Curry creates space for his teammates.

Space. Space. Space.

This year, it’s clear that the best teams have a defensive-minded center who can harass opposing players at the rim and control the boards off misses. Starting centers don’t need to create space with a sweet outside stroke. They need to play D because defense leads to wins in the NBA.


The Teams At The Top Of Both Conferences Had Little Roster Turnover

Last season the two eventual NBA finalists—the Suns and Bucks—swung big trades during the offseason for a difference-making point guard.

The Suns landed Chris Paul, who helped change their culture while lending a steadying hand in crunch time.

The Bucks traded away four draft picks along with Eric Bledsoe and George Hill for the rights to Jrue Holiday. The deal paid off immediately as Holiday’s defense, playmaking, and clutch shot creation in the postseason helped the Bucks win their first championship in decades.

We saw a lot of action over this past summer, but the teams that find themselves at the top of both conferences mainly stayed pat, only making fringe moves.

The Suns, Warriors, Jazz, and Grizzlies are the top-4 teams out West and outside of Memphis, which made a semi-big center swap for Steven Adams; no other team made any substantial additions.

In the Eastern Conference, the Bulls are the only top squad that made a splash over the summer, landing DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball, and Alex Caruso. The Nets ran it back, and the Cavaliers added backup point guard Ricky Rubio and drafted rookie Evan Mobley. Rounding out the top-4, the Miami Heat brought in Kyle Lowry, but at age 35, he is nowhere near an All-Star anymore.

As we watch the Lakers, one of the teams that made a mega-trade for a maxed-out player (Russell Westbrook) flounder, it seems that in 2021-2022, continuity is the key for the best squads.


We’re not even halfway through the season. Still, the noteworthy trends we’ve seen through the Christmas season are mostly genuine.

The league’s rule changes stopping non-basketball plays from offensive players have made the most meaningful impact on the game. Players no longer have the same room on the perimeter they did over the past five or so years, and that’s not changing.

Similarly, the best squads in the league need a defensive anchor in the middle, not a big man with a nice jumper. That’s not changing either. Defense leads to titles.

The East is deeper than the West this season, and even when players like Kawhi Leonard for the Clippers or Jamal Murray for the Nuggets come back, things will not shift drastically. The league’s other conference has gotten more talented.

In 2021-2022, continuity and familiarity have set up a good recipe for success, which might be the most one-offish trend on our list. We’ll have to wait a few seasons to see if the teams that run it back one more time, come out on top or if the organizations that ink massive deals climb up the mountain.

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