Over on SBNation, Will Buikema put together an amusing piece suggesting that the “ideal” number of points to score in an NBA basketball game is 107, resting his argument on a combination of factors including bathroom breaks for fans watching at home, desired scoring efficiency, and the contrast of these things with the current state of NBA basketball in 2020.
Jon Bois chimed in down in the comments, saying he was more of a 94 points kind of guy, resting that argument on nothing but whatever bizarre surrealist pretzel logic underlies his cryptic sense of humor and, apparently, a masochist’s desire to watch Dark Ages basketball on television.
Don’t get me wrong. I am a huge fan of both of those guys and I write this not as a “stat guy criticizes the filthy casuals” but from a position of affectionate corrective action. In other words, I’m keeping the belt on but sending the kids to timeout.
Besides, Buikema raises a legitimately interesting question here—what is the ideal pace of an NBA game for maximizing fan interest, how efficient should a game be in order to not be too ugly but not completely ignore the fact that it’s no fun if neither team can get a stop (as any All-Star Game quickly proves)…in essence, it’s the question taken literally, exactly what it says on the tin.
What is the ideal score of an NBA game?
And, of course, personal bias matters. Look at baseball. I have complained on social media that three-true-outcomes (walk, strikeout, home run) baseball is boring, no better than a home run derby but taking three hours to play. I hate excessive substitutions, using five pitchers in a nine-inning game. I hate the LOOGY (Left-Handed One Out Guy.) I hate the shift, and I hate how the shift is so effective in the majors because the obsession with launch angle and swing timing means nobody can bunt or hit to the opposite field anymore.
And some people love all that and think baseball’s better than it’s ever been.
The same is true in basketball. Some people cannot stand “it’s all just threes and layups”, pining for the days of the midrange jump shot, while personally, every time I see a shot go up from beyond 10 feet and inside the arc, I want to reach through the screen and slap the coach of the team taking the midrange J. My longtime antagonism toward former Pacers coach Nate McMillan is essentially rooted in this trope.
So let’s break this down using Buikema’s own assessment of what he thinks constitutes a good basketball game to watch on TV and then apply Pace and Space’s own heavy biases about what should actually be going on in between the bathroom breaks.
First off, kudos to Buikema for having a quick-draining bladder. As a middle-aged man who…let’s just say every guy older than 40 reading this is like “don’t even go there, we know,” expecting to pee during the run of play is simply not an option and besides, there are 14 timeouts plus media stoppages plus quarter ends and the halftime show and what I’m saying is you should’ve gone during the commercial, that’s not an excuse and that’s all I’m going to say to that.
So when it comes to game pace, the only rule to consider is the rule of fun.
And I like ice hockey. I think that if the NBA had a 12-second shot clock and in-game line changes, it’d be great, with a bunch of guys coming over the boards, up and down, back and forth, there’s a shot! There’s another shot! It’s like a machine gun going off in here!
League pace this season was 100.3. But even that’s too slow. Back in 1973-74, the first year for which pace is available (because of the addition of counting team turnovers and offensive rebounds), league pace was 107.8. That’s the kind of game I like to see. Push that ball up the floor.
OK, fine. 107.8 is way too fast. But I was a kid in the ’80s. League pace in both 1985 and ’86 was 102.1. Let’s split the difference and just for mathematical simplicity call it 105.
On to the subject of Offensive Rating. I’m for it. The NBA hit a high-water mark in 1987, posting a 108.3 that season, which stood as a record for 30 years before hitting 108.8 in 2017 and hitting 108.6, 110.4, and 110.6 in the past three seasons.
And you know what? I’m OK with that. Again, let’s keep the math simple and say 110.
So that’s 1.1 points per possession. 105 possessions per team per game. That gives us 115.5.
But wait, there’s more! Did you think I was just going to end it there?
There are a couple of tweaks I want to make to the system.
For one thing, league-wide 3PAR (that’s 3-Point Attempt Rate, or the percentage of shots which come from beyond the arc, for those normally unversed in advanced analytics who might be reading) was .384 in 2020. Meanwhile, within 3 feet of the rim, which is to say layups and, more importantly, dunks, 28.2 percent of shots league-wide went up.
That leaves a third of shots that came between 3 feet out and the arc. 16.5 percent came between 3 and 10 feet, that “aborted drive” territory where a guy takes a floater because he couldn’t get to the rim, and field goal percentage drops from 66.7 percent down to 39.6. That dead zone is the lowest-efficiency two-point shot in the game.
I want to see more of those aborted drives turn into either dunks or kickouts for three. Either outcome is acceptable.
Furthermore, 7.7 percent of shots came between 16 feet and the arc, the long-two “worst shot in basketball” because it takes little extra effort to step back and sink that from long range and nobody—NOBODY—should be doing what we ought to call the Myles Turner Special because, thanks to coach Nate McMillan, Turner would have a good look from three, drive into the teeth of the defense, then pull up for an 18-footer that had less chance of going in and was worth fewer points than the 3-pointer he passed up.
Almost all of those shots should be threes.
So you gotta figure that we can drive eFG% up a bit and get a few more and-ones as guys get fouled going up for a dunk.
Let’s say that those last few tweaks make the league as a whole five percent more efficient.
115.5 plus 5 percent = 121.275 points per game.
Rounding down, that means that the ideal NBA score isn’t 107, as Buikema asserts. It’s damn sure not Bois’s 94.
The ideal NBA score is 121. It’s just math.
Now everyone get over to YouTube and subscribe to the Secret Base channel. They’re not paying me to say that. I just figure it’s only fair to give them a plug because they gave me an idea for a silly column to write.