For those who have gotten their thrills in NBA games from watching teams score points in bunches, the Orlando Magic -- in the two seasons before this one -- was the team to watch. Two years ago, the team's average of 110.9 points a game led the league. Last year, Orlando's 104.5 points per game put it second only to the NBA champion Chicago Bulls.
All of which made the night of Dec. 4 difficult to stomach for Magic fans. That night against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Magic could manage just 57 points -- the lowest-scoring performance since the 24-second shot clock was introduced in the 1954-55 season.
"Record?" Magic guard Gerald Wilkins said after the game. "I didn't know we set a record."
Wilkins may not need to worry long about the dubious distinction. The way NBA teams are scoring this season, , that record is in danger.
Or maybe "not scoring" is a better choice of words. Entering Friday's games, the 29 teams in the NBA were averaging 94.2 points per game -- the lowest average since the 1954-55 season.
In a league in which the scoring average had once reached as high as 118.8 points per game (1961-62 season), last season was the first time in 39 years that it had dropped below 100 points.
Last season was also the first in the shot-clock era in which a team had failed to average at least 90 points (Vancouver averaged 89.8.). Going into last night's games, there were five teams (Atlanta, Cleveland, Orlando, San Antonio and Vancouver) scoring below 90 points a game, and several others were precariously close.
So why -- in this day and age when the athletes are considered bigger, stronger, more athletic and better skilled, when the NBA is reaching worldwide popularity and when attendance numbers have reportedly increased -- can't players score? Why is it almost normal now to see teams score in the 70s?
It all depends on whom you ask.
Dearth of talent?
There are quite a few older players, led by the always vocal Charles Barkley, who subscribe to the theory of "they can't play the game," meaning that a lot of the up-and-coming athletes who are considered to be the league's future don't have a clue about the fundamentals of basketball.
"It's expansion. The league is getting younger and they play basketball -- but they don't know how to play basketball," said Barkley, a Houston Rockets All-Star forward. "People seem to think that just because you play basketball that you can play."
Consider the shooting accuracy of some of the "young stars" entering last night: Jason Kidd was making 36.5 percent, Jamal Mashburn 34.2, Nick Van Exel 39.9, Isaiah Rider 40.6, Stephon Marbury 37.1 and Sam Cassell 41.0.
Also playing a role is the expansion that has added six teams during the past seven years, leading to a dilution in talent.
Said Detroit Pistons coach Doug Collins: "With expansion and so many teams now, you have a roster of players who can't score."
To support Collins' claim, one needs to look no further than this season's New Jersey Nets, a team with just one regular -- Shawn Bradley -- who is shooting better than 44.0 percent. As a team, the Nets are shooting 40.5 percent from the field, and had to wait until the 16th game of the season before they shot better than 50 percent (51.2 percent in Wednesday's victory over Seattle).
Moving in the three-point arc from 23 feet, 9 inches to 22 feet before the 1994-95 season has also had an effect, and now more big men are launching from long distance. Chris Webber, in his rookie season with Golden State, missed all 14 of his three-point attempts. A year later, playing in just 54 games with Washington, Webber had 145 attempts.
Movement hasn't helped
Player movement during the summer via the free-agent and trade routes, as well as injuries, also have played roles in the decreased scoring. For some teams, the first month of the season was nothing more than an extension of training camp.
The New York Knicks, Washington Bullets and Denver Nuggets each had seven new faces on their opening-night rosters. The Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks were breaking in five new players. With that much movement, teams have suffered a lack of continuity, leading to sloppy play.
"We're not familiar with each other," said Denver coach Dick Motta. "I would say that's been the biggest stumbling block for us."
On the other hand, the four top-scoring teams in the league -- Houston, Chicago, Seattle and Utah -- have remained intact, or at least managed to keep their key players.
"It's no coincidence about the teams that are playing well," Rockets guard Clyde Drexler said. "I think of the teams doing well, a lot of them had little change and also have some pretty good, consistent veteran leadership."
Added Charlotte coach Dave Cowens: "Teams that are together longer know each other. You don't hear about Chicago having a tough time scoring."
Injuries to David Robinson (San Antonio), Anfernee Hardaway and Dennis Scott (Orlando), Rik Smits (Indiana) and Gheorghe Muresan (Washington) also have hurt their respective teams.
Scouting is a factor
In the 1980s, when there were just seven teams unfortunate enough to average under 100 points a game, NBA players had a reputation of not playing defense. That has changed; today, emphasis is placed on scouting and watching videotape.
Thus, when Cleveland Cavaliers guard Terrell Brandon called out a play during a recent game against Washington, Bullets point guard Rod Strickland signaled the play to the bench. Almost immediately, Bullets assistant coach Bob Staak was shouting out the play Cleveland was about to run.
"It's like that every night," Brandon said. "Teams are scouting better. And here we emphasize contesting every shot. I think there are still a lot of good shooters in the league; you just have to give credit to the defense."
And no one plays it better than the Cavaliers. Going into last night, the Cavaliers were leading the league in points allowed (81.5) and were third in field-goal percentage allowed (.416).
By slowing games to a snail's pace on offense and playing intense defense, the Cavaliers, through 20 games, had held 10 opponents under 80 points (including three under 70, including the record 57 points in Orlando).
Some would like to blame Cleveland for what's wrong with the league. Collins, the Detroit coach, disagrees.
"Sometimes, the score doesn't have to be 120 to see two teams out there playing good basketball," Collins said. "[Cleveland] plays the game the right way. I think they are a real credit to the way an NBA game should be played."
If there is some concern at the NBA offices in New York, they are not letting on. Not at a time when the NBA is gaining popularity on a global level and ratings and attendance figures are up.
"I think the fans let you know what they want," said Rod Thorn, the league's senior vice president. "What we have now is playoff basketball being played during the regular season. Always during the playoffs, the game became more half-court and scores went down."
And, while the league says its overall attendance numbers are up, some markets have suffered. Cleveland averaged more than 17,000 fans last year, but has been attracting an announced 14,800 through its first 11 home dates (with no-shows bringing that number down to about 12,000) this season.
The Lakers have sold as many tickets as they expected with the addition of Shaquille O'Neal. But the Magic, affected by O'Neal's departure, had a string of 248 straight sellouts (over six years) that ended on Nov. 21 in a game against Minnesota.
Asked about the quality of the product, Thorn responded: "The intensity and the competition in the vast majority of games are as high as you've seen."
The ugly numbers
8: Points five teams have scored in a quarter.
10: Points scored by Gerald Wilkins, Orlando's leading scorer in 84-57 loss to Cleveland on Dec. 4.
20: Field goals made by Denver at Portland on Nov. 23.
22: Times Vancouver has scored below 100 points (23 games).
21: Points Miami scored in first half at Atlanta.
22: Combined third-quarter points scored by Minnesota and the Los Angeles Clippers, setting an NBA record low.
27.4: What Denver shot from the field at Portland on Nov. 23.
.405: Shooting percentage of New Jersey, the league's worst shooting team.
44: Games in which both teams have scored at least 100 points.
57: Points scored by Orlando against Cleveland on Dec. 4, tying an NBA record low.
73: Times a team has scored fewer than 80 points.
86.4 Points per game scored by Vancouver, the league's lowest-scoring team.
136: Combined points scored by Atlanta and Cleveland on Nov. 19. (Through Friday's games)
Pub Date: 12/15/96