Is The NBA As Deep As We Think It Is?

Many people argue that this is the deepest the league has ever been. And the numbers back that up. But we explore why that’s really not the case

Much has been made this season about the depth of the NBA. Some argue that this is the deepest the league’s ever been, while some say that inflated statistics negate that argument. But just how deep is the league currently, all things accounted for?

It’s important to note that when grading depth, we’re referring to the depth of star players only, not overall roster depth.

From a statistical perspective, it’s difficult to make a case against  2016-17 being the deepest the league’s ever been.

There are currently 20 players averaging over 23 points per game, an absurd number, even by the NBA’s standards, and even as it relates to different eras.

Let’s take one of Jordan’s most iconic seasons for comparison: 1997-98. In a year widely regarded as one of the NBA’s best by those who were fortunate enough to witness it, only four players eclipsed the 23-point average mark in the regular season… FOUR!

And that trend transcends generations. Throughout the NBA’s “Golden Era” (80’s and 90’s), the closest any season came to the “23 over 20” of 2016-17 was 1990-91, when 14 players averaged over 23 points per game. And of those 14 players, 10 have been inducted into the Hall of Fame.

And for as deep as the league is scoring wise, it’s almost as deep rebounding wise. Right now, there are 15 players averaging over 10 rebounds a contest, the most in nearly two decades.

The Arguments Against

So, clearly, statistically this is one of the, if not the deepest league in history. But are these numbers in any way inflated?

Some say that the pace of the game, and the growth of the three-point shot, inflate the individual stats of the players. The numbers themselves contradict the former, but not so much the ladder.

In 2016-17, teams are shooting an average of 85 field goals per game. Believe it or not, that ranks in the bottom half of seasons since the stat started to get tracked in the late 40’s.

It’s needless to say, but the players of today are doing more with less volume, shooting at a 45.5 percent clip, which ranks in the top half of every tracked season. So any claim of “pace-inflated stats” can be shot down.

Accounting For Inflation

That leaves the other, and more legitimate, claim of inflation: the three-point shot.

The average amount of three-point attempts league wide has been on a steady increase for the better part of a decade, and has seen an exponential increase in recent seasons.

While at just over 18 attempts per night in the 2012 season, that number has skyrocketed to 27 this season as coaches continue to mold their offensive schemes to center around the three ball.

Which is why this argument has its merit.

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When the league first implemented a three-point shot in the 79-80 season, teams weren’t willing to go out of their way and cater their offense towards it. Which is why in the 3’s inaugural season, it was only shot an average of 2.8 times per game per team.

It wasn’t until almost 15 years later that teams were shooting threes in the double-digits per night.

And so as the three-point shot became more and more commonplace, coaches realized that they could make the shot an asset rather than a luxury. So the upward trend continued in the early 2000’s, and culminated in 2014-15 season, when Steve Kerr and his trigger happy Warriors took the three-point mentality to the next level.

Now, virtually all NBA teams are trying to follow suit. Most teams live and die by the three.

The Verdict

So just how deep is the NBA? Not as deep as the numbers show.

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