A history of NBA scoring trends

With the 72nd regular season of the NBA having wrapped up last week, let’s take a look at how scoring trends have changed over the course of the sport’s history. From the sport slowing down in terms of points scored to the impact the addition of the three-point line has had, the NBA has changed a lot over half a century.

NBA scoring over time

The highest scoring season in NBA history was the 1961-62 season, in which the league averaged 118.8 points. Unsurprisingly, the lowest scoring year was the first season (1946-47), with an average of 67.8 points.

Points per game

The 13 season stretch from 1995-96 through 2007-08 is the longest stretch in NBA history in which the league averaged under 100 points. However, scoring has been up in recent years. This past season (2017-18) saw an average of 106.3 points, the most since the 1990-91 season (106.3 points).

The NBA seasons that have seen the most field goal attempts are also some of the highest scoring years in league history, which all came before the advent of the three-point line.

1960-61: 109.4 shots, 118.1 points (2nd all time)

1959-60: 108.7 shots, 115.3 points (T-7th all time)

1961-62: 107.7 shots, 118.8 points (1st all time)

1966-67: 103.1 shots, 117.4 points (3rd all time)

1965-66: 102.4 shots, 115.5 points (6th all time)

Points vs Shots

The NBA has not seen a season with over 100 shots attempted since 1967-68 (100.8). The league has not seen a year with over 90 shots attempted since 1979-80 (90.6), which was the first season the three-point line was introduced. In fact, from 1983-84 until 2015-16, the NBA averaged under 85 shots attempts per season until the past two years (2016-17, 85.4 and 2017-18, 86.1).

PPG vs leading scorer

From 1959-60 until 1971-72 every season in the NBA saw at least 110 points be averaged per season. This span was also when the 9 of the top 12 top scoring seasons by a player in NBA history happened.

Player Year PPG Scoring Avg. Shots per game
Wilt Chamberlain 1961-62 50.36 118.8 (1st) 107.7 (3rd)
Wilt Chamberlain 1962-63 44.83 115.3 (T-7th) 101.2 (8th)
Wilt Chamberlain 1960-61 38.39 118.1 (2nd) 109.4 (1st)
Wilt Chamberlain 1959-60 37.60 115.3 (T-7th) 108.7 (2nd)
Michael Jordan 1986-87 37.09  109.9 (17th)  88.8 (29th)
Wilt Chamberlain 1963-64 36.85 111 (11th) 99.1 (12th)
Rick Barry 1966-67 35.58 117.4 (3rd) 103.1 (4th)
Kobe Bryant 2005-06 35.40  97 (49th)  79 (62nd)*
Michael Jordan 1987-88 34.98  108.2 (T-23rd)  87.8 (34)
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 1971-72 34.84 110.2 (T-15th) 95.5 (17th)
Elgin Baylor 1960-61 34.77 118.1 (2nd) 109.4 (1st)
Wilt Chamberlain 1964-65 34.71 110.6 (13th) 99.8 (10th)

*Only seasons with less shot attempts were 1998-99 (78.2), 1952-53 (77.1) and 1953-54 (75.4).


The battle of two-pointers vs. three-pointers 

In the 1979-80 season, the NBA introduced the three-point line, which has had a profound impact on the league in recent years. While it took over a decade, the three-pointer really exploded in the middle of the 1990s and has risen across the league ever since. The 2017-18 season almost saw more three-pointers attempted (29), then two-point field goals made (29.1).

Shots taken and attempted

shot percentage

Although fewer two-pointers are being taken since the three-point line was introduced, the rise of the three has seen an increase in the percentage of two-point shots made. The last two seasons, 2016-17 (50.30%) and 2017-18 (51%), saw the first time over half of two-point attempts had been made.

Meanwhile, the NBA’s overall field goal has suffered as more three-pointers are being attempted. Despite the increased significance of the three, the NBA as a whole has not gotten better at making them. Since the 1991-92 season, the three-point percentage for each season has been between 33.10% and 36.70%.

The NBA’s embrace of the three-point shot

The most successful teams over the past few seasons have embraced an increase in three-point attempts, in no small part due to data analytics which has taken over much of the league.

Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and the Golden State Warriors often get credit for ushering in this three-point revolution, In the last six seasons, Curry and Thompson have accounted for six of the top seven seasons in NBA history in terms of made threes.

However, it appears as if the Houston Rockets are taking it to the next level, led by GM Daryl Morey, head coach Mike D’Antoni, and All-Star James Harden. In the last two seasons, Houston has averaged 41.3 three-point attempts per game, 6.5 more on average than the next closest team.

To see the full extent of the change lets look at the Minnesota Timberwolves, who attempted the least threes per game (22.5) this year. Even the team taking the least threes is shooting more then what the league average was in 2014-15 (22.4), only three years ago.

It will remain to be seen how much higher this three-point revolution could go. Next season could possibly be the first to see more three-pointers attempted per game then two-point field goals made.

The rise of the three-pointer has revitalized scoring in the NBA to levels it has not seen in over two decades. If this rise in three-pointers continues at its current pace, it is possible the NBA could see 1960s levels of scoring.


Info and sources:

Featured Image: “Wilt ‘The Stilt” Chamberlain, 1967, Philadelphia, PA., 1967” by Cliff is licensed under CC BY-2.0

https://www.basketball-reference.com/leagues/BAA_1947.html (analyzed league stats for average points, two-pointers, three-pointers, shooting percentage and the league leader in points for each season up until 2017-18)



Charts and graphs made using Google Spreadsheet in Google Docs


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