The 2022-23 Sacramento Kings scored more efficiently than any team in NBA history, at 119.7 points per 100 possessions. This performance comes the year after they raised eyebrows by trading rising star guard Tyrese Haliburton for All-Star center Domantas Sabonis and hired head coach Mike Brown, who implemented many principles used by the Golden State Warriors, where he was an assistant for seven seasons. Brown has orchestrated an offensive symphony of ball and player movement centered around Sabonis’ passing and dribble-handoff game (Light the Beam!).
And yet, DraftKings gives Sacramento 80-to-1 odds to win the NBA title. The team’s offensive efficiency, while eye-popping in a vacuum, is less impressive when put in context of the entire league, which scored 115.1 points per 100 possessions and shattered the record of 112.8 set two seasons ago, according to Cleaning the Glass. This year’s 22-60 Houston Rockets had an 111.0 offensive rating that would’ve ranked fifth in the NBA in 2014-15.
The league’s offensive surge over the past decade follows a propensity for shooting more 3-pointers. This season, 35.5% of all shot attempts were threes, versus only 22% in 2012-13.
But 3-point attempt rates have flatlined since 2019-20. The NBA boasts its deepest talent pool ever, and several teams improved their rosters in the offseason, but it’s difficult to isolate just one factor driving the offensive explosion relative to last year, specifically.
Finishing percentage at the rim increased more than a full percentage point from last season, which could be a product of the continued move towards small-ball lineups that feature more skilled playmakers but fewer shot blockers. With fewer behemoths manning the paint, teams are also crashing the offensive glass more. The percentage of misses rebounded by the offense this year was 26.8%, higher than the 26.2% recorded during 2021-22.
Teams are also relying more on their star players, which 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 2022-23, the average highest usage rate on an NBA roster was 30.6%, the largest figure ever, and up from 29.8% last year, meaning some offensive actions have been siphoned away from role players and towards the most talented players.
Refereeing, however, could be the most overlooked reason for this season’s offensive explosion. Two offseasons ago, the NBA league office announced a crackdown on “non-basketball moves'' by offensive players to draw fouls. The new guidelines were strictly enforced at first, but in every calendar month of the 2021-22 season, shooting fouls were called more frequently than the last. That trend carried over into this season, in which 16.6% of all 2-point shot attempts drew fouls, a massive increase from 15.2% last season, which was already the highest mark of the 21st century.
Despite the notion that the refs “let ‘em play” in the playoffs, free-throw rates almost always go up. The percentage of 2-point shots that have yielded free throws has been higher in the postseason than the regular season in 19 of the past 22 years, per PBP Stats.
Perhaps partially driven by more foul calls, average offensive rating increases in the playoffs about half the time. Sample sizes are small, and there is huge variation between teams based on matchups, but five of the 16 playoff teams last year and seven of 16 the previous year were more efficient offensively in the postseason than in the regular season.
It may be just as difficult to get stops against the Kings in the playoffs, but they have only the 24th-ranked defense in the NBA. No team with a below league average defense has ever won the championship, except for the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers, who were defending champions led by Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. They flipped a switch in April and posted the best defensive rating of any team in the 2001 playoffs, something the Kings are likely not capable of doing in their first playoff appearance in 18 years.
After a season marked by historic offensive efficiency, expect a lot more scoring in the 2023 NBA playoffs, but Sacramento fans shouldn’t expect to light too many beams in late May and June.