On Sunday, Damian Lillard scored 71 points against the Rockets, becoming just the seventh player to pass the mark. He shot 22-of-38 from the field, 13-of-22 from three-point range and 14-of-14 from the free-throw line, in what was the most efficient 70-points in NBA history. He also became the first player over 30 years old to drop 70. The performance upped his career total of 60-point games to five, placing him behind only Kobe Bryant (6) and Wilt Chamberlain (32).
Despite these historic feats, many fans probably checked out the highlights quickly and then moved on, like it was no big deal. After all, Donovan Mitchell scored 71 points in a game in January.
That two of the 13 70-point games in NBA history have occurred in the past two months could be fluky—after all, the three most recent perfect games in the MLB were thrown within a 90-day span in 2012. The 21 50-point games this NBA season, however, is on pace to be the highest rate of any NBA season since Wilt Chamberlain had 45 and 30 such games by himself in 1961-62 and 1962-63, respectively. (As with most NBA records, it’s more fun if you pretend Chamberlain didn’t exist.)
Game score, a holistic measure of individual performance using the entire box score, further reveals the outlier nature of this season. The 2022-23 season has produced five of the 12 highest game scores since 1983-84, the first year for which the statistic can be calculated, per Basketball Reference. In fact, quite literally at the same time that Lillard was working on his 71 points, Nikola Jokić was on his way to the 92nd highest game score on record, ending up with 40 points, 17 rebounds and 10 assists with just a single turnover.
More than a thousand games happen each season, and two of the top 100 most impressive individual performances in modern NBA history happened simultaneously.
What’s with all the eye-popping individual stat lines? Firstly, offenses are simply more efficient than ever, as Sportico recently broke down in detail. This season’s league-wide 114.7 points per 100 possessions is going to easily break the record of 112.8 set two seasons ago, according to Cleaning the Glass, and that average has been a whopping 116.0 since New Year’s Day. Even the 13-47 Houston Rockets that Lillard ran circles around last night have an offensive rating that would’ve ranked fifth in the league in 2014-15.
Higher team scoring, though, only partially explains a rise in individual point totals; also consider that teams are running more heliocentric offenses than ever. This is apparent when looking at usage rate, the percentage of team possessions that result in a scoring attempt or a turnover by a player while he’s on the court. In 2003 and 2013, the average highest usage rate in an NBA lineup was 28.0% and 27.7%, respectively. In 2023, teams’ leading offensive engines are averaging a 30.5% usage rate, the highest ever, meaning the league's best players have more opportunities each game to get buckets.
Certain variables driving the increase in scoring this season also benefit stars in particular. Overall, players are shooting 66.5% at the rim this season, up from 65.3% in 2021-22 and 64.2% the year before that. The prevalence of small-ball lineups means fewer rim protectors are on the court to deter scoring at the basket. Additionally, recent officiating changes relating to traveling allow a “gather step” that enables players to more easily maneuver in tight spaces. Combined, stars with the ball-handling skills to break down defenses and get to the rim disproportionately benefit.
Last, the sport’s talent pool is simply stronger and deeper than ever. Just take Lillard, for example. There has rarely if ever been another player who can pull up from the mid-court logo without even altering his textbook form, as if he’s shooting a free throw.
At this rate, it might not be long before we see someone join Wilt Chamberlain and Kobe Bryant in the exclusive 80-point-game club.