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Unravelling the NBA’s Evolving Game - Weakening Defence or Strengthening Offence?

Credit: Joe Camporeale/USA Today


On January 26, 2024, NBA fans were treated to one of the greatest performances by a single player in league history as they watched Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks go nuclear and drop a franchise record 73 points against the Atlanta Hawks. 


In 45 minutes of game time, Luka dropped a ridiculous stat line of 73 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists, three assists away from dropping the highest-scoring triple-double of all time, a record already held by none other than Doncic himself. With 73 points, Luka also managed to tie legendary big man Wilt Chamberlain and the “Skywalker” David Thompson for the fourth highest-scoring individual performance in league history. 


However, what is most impressive and thought-provoking about Doncic’s 73-point night is not just his incredible scoring abilities and prowess - it’s the idea that NBA fans could be seeing a real-time, visible shift in the NBA’s defensive abilities and offensive capabilities. 


Luka’s career-high night came four days after the reigning league MVP, Philadelphia 76ers centre Joel Embiid, dropped a franchise record and career-high 70 points against Victor Wembanyama’s San Antonio Spurs. Embiid put up an unbelievable 70 points, 18 rebounds and five assists on 59% shooting while also shooting 50% from the three. His 70-point night is etched into the NBA history books as the seventh-highest-scoring performance all-time in the NBA, an impressive feat for a seven-footer.


Embiid credited his career night to the unselfishness of his teammates, as they fed him the ball when he was hot, and put him in the best position to score. Luka gave credit to his teammates as well, but with this performance, he also affirmed the comments he made two years ago when the former EuroLeague player highlighted that it is “easier to score compared to Europe, of course.”


Dame Time

Credit: NBA/Getty Images


Doncic's massive performance alongside Embiid's 70-point night contribute to a visible shift in just the last year in the NBA alone. From 2023 to 2024, there have been a total of four 70+ point games across the league. Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Donovan Mitchell dropped 71 points in 2023, alongside Milwaukee Bucks point guard Damian Lillard who also dropped 71 points in 2023 back when he was with the Portland Trail Blazers. From 1960 to 2022, there was a total of only eleven 70+ point games in the NBA, with six of those coming from one player in 76ers legend Wilt Chamberlain.


While it is true that the NBA is witnessing an offensive explosion with a league-wide average of 231.2 points being scored per game, it is also evident that the defensive standard has dropped monumentally compared to ten years ago.  


This season, the Minnesota Timberwolves have the best defensive rating in the league with a defensive rating of 108.6. Just a few years ago in the 2015-16 season, The San Antonio Spurs led the league with a 98.2 defensive rating, meaning teams are scoring about ten more points per 100 possessions against the league’s best defence than they were eight years ago. 


The consensus is that more offence leads to a better product - and scoring is fun. Nobody wants to go back to the 1990s when the final scores even in the playoffs were in the 70’s and the play was slow and violent. But, has the offensive explosion gone too far? And is defence becoming a lost art?


Jaylen Brown Flexing 

Credit: Forbes/Getty Images


In 2023, Boston Celtics star Jaylen Brown went on the record saying that he thinks “the league has made an emphasis that they want to see more scoring, see more high performances”. Adding that: “It’s better for the branding and marketing of our league”. 


The NBA has a long history of creating rule changes or curating certain aspects of the league to alter a product or fit in with their agenda one way or another. The biggest rule change however arguably came in 2004, when the league wanted to inject some offensive punch into a defensively sound league, by eliminating the use of hand-checking, which had allowed defensive players to keep opposing ball-handlers in front of them. In recent years, the NBA has cracked down even further on physical contact, especially on the perimeter.


The problem with the league curating the rules to benefit the offensive aspects of the NBA, is that the rules have failed to keep up with the dramatic increase in player skills. From five superstars starting on the court to a star sixth man and a bunch of multi-talented role-players on the bench, the league is at an all-time high in terms of talent, and coaches are taking advantage of this. 


Players have also figured out how to manipulate the league’s rules on offence. With teams averaging 23 free throw attempts per game this season, players and coaches who pride themselves on their defensive capabilities are not being given a fair chance to succeed. Of course, officiating basketball is no easy task with physical contact on nearly every possession. However, the amount of calls being made in conjunction with the inconsistency of referees this season produces a no-win situation. 


The reality is the league is trending too far in the offensive direction. Considering the NBA’s long history of rule changes to benefit certain aspects of the game, perhaps bringing back hand-checking, or adding time to the defensive three-second rule which would allow bigs to stay in the paint for longer, could shift the game back to a more balanced manner. 


Although the NBA will always put entertainment first, which generally generates from high-scoring games and massive performances from players, the league should consider the impact that curating the game only towards offensive aspects will have on the NBA for years to come. As the talent only gets better each draft year, it is hard to envision the offence slowing down and the defence having a chance to compete, unless the league makes some much-needed changes.



Edited By: Josh Reidelbach




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