Post-lockout, shooting, scoring have dipped

MINNEAPOLIS — Running out of options, his teammates covered, Ricky Rubio set his feet for a long jump shot, relatively unguarded and with time to spare. But from the moment the ball left his hands, there was something off about its arc, and the closer it got to the basket, the more wrong it seemed.

There was no sound, no ding of rubber hitting metal, no swoosh of friction between net and ball. It was nowhere near the basket. There was just the hollow bounce of an air ball hitting hardwood.

Situations like that have played out over and over this season, and Rubio is just one perpetrator of the ugly, misdirected shot. It’s happened all over the league, from Nikola Pekovic and Martell Webster to Washington’s Jan Vesely on his first-ever free throw attempt and Jimmer Fredette on a last-second 3-pointer that would have given his Sacramento Kings a win. It’s even happened to Kobe Bryant, the same Kobe Bryant who scored more than 40 points in three straight games this season. No one is immune.

The 2011-12 NBA season has so far been a vortex of ugly wins and air balls, with struggling offenses being forced to concede that an ugly shot is better than no shot at all. Poor shooting and low scores are the most visible consequence of the 161-day lockout, and teams are struggling to find their offensive identities.

“I’m sure that it’s better now than it was when we started,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “It was god-awful when we started. It was hard to watch a game. And it’ll continue to get better. But I think it’s getting to the point now where it’s doable and watchable.”

Not one to mince words, the four-time NBA champion coach might have described this season better than any of his more tight-lipped colleagues. It’s been ugly, and there’s not much else to say.

Last season, the league averaged 45.9 percent field-goal shooting and 99.6 points per game. In 2011-12, those numbers are down to 44.3 percent from the field and 94.4 points. Teams are shooting at a rate 3.5 percent worse than they did last year, and scoring is down by 5.2 percent. Those statistics are discouraging to coaches and players alike, but they’re not far from the precedent history has set.

After the 1998-99 lockout, scoring and shooting suffered similarly. Field goal-shooting was 2.9 percent worse in 1999 than it was the season before and scoring fell by 4.2 percent. And though the drop-off in scoring so far this season, at 5.2 percent, seems worse, teams still have time to settle into rhythms and improve those numbers.

Poor shooting has especially plagued the Timberwolves. They’re averaging 96.6 points per game, down from 101.1 last season. That’s a 4.5 percent decrease, better than the league average, but Monday night’s 120-point game in Houston — which was by far an exception rather than the norm — raised the team’s average points by 1.2 per game. The Wolves also are shooting worse from the field, at 43.4 percent to last season’s 44.1 percent, and they’re attempting fewer field goals per game, 80.3, than last year, when they were second in the NBA with 85.5 per game.

Minnesota coach Rick Adelman said he thinks much of any team’s offensive struggles come from coaches’ efforts to bring often out-of-shape and unfamiliar teams up to speed as quickly as possible without confusing them.

“Coaches are the same,” Adelman said. “They’re going to simplify things, and they’re going to try to be sure they get good opportunities. . . It’s got to be that they’re just not used to what they’re doing.”

There’s so much more to a shot than just getting the ball into the basket. Teams need to find rhythms, to develop their passing games and to let shooters take good shots, rather than forced ones. That’s where an almost nonexistent training camp really hurts a team — without the hours logged in the gym together, players can’t quite get to the spots they need to hit shots.

“I think it’s probably the repetition and just being in the gym,” Timberwolves swingman Wes Johnson said. “In the lockout, if it hadn’t been there we’d have been together a lot sooner, and the team would have gotten a different flow with each other.”

Shots are the most visible and memorable elements of a game. They’re what make people want to watch, or in the case of this season, turn away. Scoring and shooting troubles are a reality, but there are ways to work around them, to acknowledge and counteract them. For instance, on Sunday against the Lakers, the Timberwolves shot 38.5 percent to the Lakers’ 50.6 percent but had a chance to win in the game’s final seconds.

“We did a lot of good things,” Adelman said after Sunday’s game. “We had a lot of second-chance points, fast-break points, but we couldn’t make a shot.”

Second-chance points and offensive rebounds are bad shooting’s best antidotes, but they do nothing for the game from a cosmetic standpoint. They often come in the form of bobbled layups and sloppy corrections, just more trappings of this season’s ugly basketball, and they do nothing to counteract the impression that NBA players have seemingly lost their shooting skills.

But as Popovich said, shooting should improve, and Monday’s 120-108 win over Houston provided an example of how fun this Timberwolves team can be to watch. Basketball should again become bearable, even enjoyable.

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