The NBA is Back…but is the Level of Play Back?

After weeks of filling in the gaps in the posting schedule with some NBA history and a lot of waiting around, the “Whole New Game” relaunch of the coronavirus-delayed 2019-20 season started up last Thursday.

And looking at the box scores, one of two things happened.

Either the league’s offensive explosion never missed a beat…or the defensive level of play dipped to the level of an All-Star Game.

There are some interesting theories kicking around the NBA Twitterverse about what’s going on—J.E. Skeets pointed out that referees are calling the games tighter because without the crowd noise to drown out the sound of the play on the floor, they don’t just see the contact, they can hear the contact:

And, of course, once the referees get whistle-happy, players are afraid to make contact for fear of getting hit with the foul call themselves…so you get what we had here last week. Which is the way he wants it. Well, he gets it!

Not sure who “he” is here—I’m sure Adam Silver loves the fact that his league has been wildly entertaining but I’m not sure the commish is on board with it being for the wrong reasons.

After all, Marcus Smart of the Celtics went absolutely bonkers on the officiating and drew a hefty fine for his trouble, as Shams Charania reported.

But let’s take Skeets’ theory at face value and in turn extrapolate it to the hypothesis I just brought up here…and let’s look at the actual box-score fun from the past few nights.

T.J. Warren had 53 points in the Pacers’ first game back, a 127-121 win over the 76ers in which Indiana put up a 124.4 Offensive Rating to Philly’s 118.5 in a game with a 102.1 pace.

The Rockets and Mavericks played 53 minutes of ball on Friday night and scored a combined 302 points—Houston won 153-149, both teams had an Offensive Rating over 120 (HOU: 126.1, DAL: 122.8) in a game with a 109.9 pace.

Portland and Memphis played 53 minutes as well Friday, both teams’ Offensive Rating over 120, pace over 100, Blazers win 140-135.

Sacramento lost a game with a 112.1 Offensive Rating; San Antonio beat them 129-120 in a game played at a breakneck 107.1 pace.

Sure, not all the games have been this offensively stellar—the Celtics and Bucks played a fairly pedestrian outing relative to 2020 league averages, with Milwaukee winning 119-112…but pace was, you guessed it, super-fast at 104.5.

League-average pace this year is 100.2. Offensive Rating league-wide is 110.5. Basically, any team putting up more than 110 points is either doing so hyper-efficiently or the game’s being played faster than even the speedy outings that have come to dominate the NBA in recent years as the league moves back toward the up-and-down athletic fun-fest that was the 1980s, only more efficient.

And so far since the restart, the winner of the game has scored at least 110 points in 10 of the 13 games played so far. A game should post a total score of about 221 points between the two teams; nine games out of 13 have so far accomplished that feat, and the games that had overtime (so let’s keep things broadly in line with what would be expected by 10 percent more basketball and set that over/under at 243. Both overtime games topped that.)

Notably, the Lakers have been involved in two of the three games in which the winner failed to crack 110 (a 103-101 win over the Clippers and a 107-92 loss to Toronto), posting slower-than-restart-average paces (99.8 in the Clippers game, 101.2 against the Raptors) and sluggish Offensive Ratings (103.2 and 90.9 in the two games respectively.)

And even then, splitting the difference between those pace numbers gives us 100.5, still faster than the NBA as an entire league in the 2019-20 season.

So what’s my point here?

With a small sample size of 13 games, we’ve seen the NBA come back…and deliver a quality of play that is absolutely as good as any fan could have dreamed of when the league started back up. There have been wild highlights, high-scoring shootouts, players posting outstanding individual performances, Bol Bol doing…this…

The league’s back, baby! Enjoy the basketball.