Three things to know: NBA scoring down this season and it’s not just free throws

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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks going that make the NBA great.

1) NBA scoring down this season and it’s not just free throws

This season, the average offensive rating in the NBA is 106.2 (points scored per 100 possessions, using Basketball-References‘ numbers).

Last season it was 112.3. The bubble season it was 110.6. The season before that it was 110.4.

Through the first two weeks of this NBA season, scoring is down — way down, 6.1 points per 100 possessions compared to the season before. For a league that has leaned toward opening up the offense and letting the athleticism and skill of its players shine, it’s an unexpected trend.

What is causing the drop?

The easy line to draw is to point to the change in foul calls around the leagueJames Harden, Trae Young and others are not getting whistles for “non-basketball moves” and their free throws are down. Across the league, we are seeing 3.6 fewer free throw attempts per game this season, and compared to the last pre-COVID season free throw attempts are down 6.2 per game.

However, talk to players and they point to something bigger than the referees:

This is the second NBA season coming off a shortened off-season, and players point to reduced time for their bodies to recover and work on skill development. The Milwaukee Bucks closed out the Phoenix Suns on July 20, a whole month later than the traditional NBA Finals ends, yet the league wanted to get back on its regular schedule, so the season tipped off on Oct. 19 — that’s a month less time to rest and recover. The season before that was the bubble championship for the Lakers, then a rushed offseason to start games in time for Christmas.

Players say they are feeling the effects.

Some top NBA scorers also got off to slow starts this season due to injury, including Harden (the hamstring that slowed him last playoffs limited his offseason work) and Damian Lillard (the career 37.4% shooter from 3 is hitting 23.2% to start this season).

Maybe the offensive numbers will tick up around the league as the season wears on, but the pandemic took a toll on just about everything we know and love the last couple of years. We are still dealing with the fallout. NBA scoring appears to be simply part of that trend; the short offseasons to get back to “normal” have come at a cost.

2) Shorthanded Milwaukee has dropped three straight games

On paper it should have been a good early-season measuring stick game: The defending champion Bucks against maybe the hottest team in the league to start the season, the Utah Jazz.

Instead, it was a third straight game to forget for Milwaukee, which fell to Utah 107-95.

It’s not hard to see why when you look at the Bucks injury report: Jrue Holiday missed his fourth straight game with an ankle injury, Brook Lopez missed his sixth straight game with a back issue, Khris Middleton was ill and missed the game against the Jazz, and Donte DiVincenzo has yet to play this season following the foot surgery that sidelined him last playoffs.

Without Lopez as the drop-back center protecting the rim, and without the strong defense of Holiday at the point of attack, the Milwaukee defense has fallen to 24th in the NBA. The Bucks offense has been pretty average this season as well, but when they struggled on that end in years past they could always count on an elite defense to keep them in games. Not so far this season, with so many key players out.

The Bucks’ fortunes will turn once they get healthy, but it has been a rough patch to open the season.

Utah continues to roll: 5-1 with a top-five offense and defense to start the season. They are healthy and on top o the West standings, where they likely will be most of the campaign.

3) James Harden is finding his groove, Kevin Durant ejected in Nets’ win

Remember that slump James Harden was in to start the season, the one everyone wanted to blame on the new foul call enforcement and the drop in free throws (rather than the hamstring issue that severely limited his offseason work)?

It’s over — James Harden is back. Harden had a triple-double against the Pistons on Sunday — 18 points, 12 assists, 10 rebounds — two days after he scored 29 and got to the free throw line 19 teams in a win over the Pacers. Harden is back to attacking, and you can see the confidence grow game-to-game. He looks like himself again.

Behind Harden, Brooklyn had little trouble keeping the Pistons winless, taking the game 117-91. Kevin Durant led the Nets in scoring with 23, but he was ejected in the third quarter when he got his elbow up to the neck of Kelly Olynyk. Durant was tracking Saddiq Bey, who was moving to the top of the key, when Olynyk set a screen and KD did too much trying to fight through it.

The Nets went on an 11-0 run after Durant was ejected and the game was never in doubt after that.

Highlights of the night:

LeBron James did this in his 19th NBA season at age 36.

LeBron was a walking highlight against the Rockets.

Savor watching this man play basketball, it’s not going to last forever, and we will never see the likes of him again.

Last night’s scores:

Dallas 105, Sacramento 99
Charlotte 125, Portland 113
Utah 107, Milwaukee 95
Brooklyn 117, Detroit 91
L.A. Lakers 95, Houston 85

Scoot Henderson says he has skills to be No.1 pick but not hung up on it

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Scoot Henderson came out like a man on a mission Tuesday night against the Metropolitans 92 and Victor Wembanyama — he was in attack mode. He used his explosive athleticism to get to the rim, his impressive body control to get off good shots, and his strength to finish with authority. And if the defender played back, he would drain the jumper over him.

A year ago, Jaylen Brown called him the best 17-year-old he’d ever seen. Scoot is better than that now.

Many years, Henderson would be a clear No.1 overall pick. But, not this year, Wembanyama has that crown because he breaks the mold with his size and skill set (in the NBA, height still wins out).

Kevin O’Conner of The Ringer asked Henderson why he should be the top prospect and got a confident answer.

There will be a lot of people making the Henderson case this season — and with good reason. He could be a franchise cornerstone player for the next decade.

Henderson, however, is trying not to get hung up on No.1 vs. No.2.

There’s a long list of legendary players selected No.2: Bill Russell, Kevin Durant, Jerry West, Jason Kidd, and that is just the tip of the iceberg. Henderson can be one of them.

Unless Wembanyama’s medicals come back with red flags, he is destined to be the No.1 pick next June. That, however, will not be the end of Henderson’s story. Instead, it will be just the beginning.

Doc Rivers says he wants Harden to be ‘a scoring Magic Johnson’

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We’re not in Houston anymore.

James Harden in Philadelphia will not be chasing scoring titles and dominating the game in quite the same way. Instead, he’s been asked to be more of a facilitator — but not too much of one. Doc Rivers told the team at ESPN’s NBA Today he wants scoring to go with the facilitating. Just like one of the all-time greats.

“I think we’ve talked so much about him being a facilitator… I need him to be James Harden too. If I had to combine, I would say a scoring Magic Johnson, I don’t know, but that’s what I want him to be. I want him to be a James Harden, but in that, I want him to also be the facilitator of this basketball team too. So in a lot of ways, his role is growing bigger for our team, and I just want him to keep thinking, ‘Do both.'”

Just play like Magic, no pressure there. For his career, Magic averaged 19.5 points a game (with four over 20 PPG) with 11.2 assists.

Harden can get close enough to Rivers’ lofty goals to make Philly a real threat, so long as defenders still fear his first step and step back. Harden can get his shot and get to the line, and he’s long been a great passer who has averaged 10.5 assists a game over the past two seasons. Now it’s just a matter of finding the balance of when to set up Joel Embiid, when to turn the offense over to Tyrese Maxey, and when to get his own shot.

Philadelphia is a deep team poised to win a lot of regular season games — the Sixers being the top seed in the East is absolutely in play. The questions Harden — and, to a degree, Embiid — have to answer come in May, when the second round of the playoffs start and Harden has faded while Embiid has had poor injury luck. In a deep East with Milwaukee, Boston, and maybe Miami and Brooklyn in the contender mix, there is no margin for error.

A Magic-like Harden would be a big boost for the Sixers in that setting.

As he chases record, LeBron says he has ‘no relationship’ with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

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Later this season, health permitting, LeBron James will pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer.

Kareem has said LeBron has earned it, but also has called out LeBron on COVID issues (something Abdul-Jabbar apologized for). Have the two legends started to build a relationship as LeBron marches toward the record? Not so much.

“No thoughts, no relationship.”

This question was asked of LeBron days after Abdul-Jabbar slammed former LeBron teammate Kyrie Irving in a Substack newsletter, calling him a “comical buffoon” and saying he is a poor role model. Abdul-Jabbar has been a vocal proponent of getting the vaccine, Irving remains unvaccinated, and LeBron has posted on social media questioning the severity of the virus and the response. Plus, LeBron and Irving are friends, which could have sparked LeBron’s terse response (as could the fact he was ready to get out of the arena after a dull preseason game).

A week earlier at media day, LeBron had been kinder when discussing Abdul-Jabbar and chasing his record.

“And you know, obviously Kareem has had his differences, with some of my views and some of the things that I do. But listen, at the end of the day, to be able to be right in the same breath as a guy to wear the same [Lakers] uniform, a guy that was a staple of this franchise along with Magic and Big Game [James Worthy] over there for so many years, especially in the 80s, and a guy that does a lot off the floor as well,” LeBron said. “I think it’s just super duper dope for myself to be even in that conversation.”

Abdul-Jabbar has been more of a public persona in recent years, both around the game of basketball and discussing social justice issues through his writings. The NBA named its new social justice award after him. With that has come new relationships around the league.

One of those is not with LeBron. Will Abdul-Jabbar be in the building when LeBron does break the record?

We’ve got months for this relationship to evolve — if it does — before that big day.

 

Watch Zion Williamson score 13 in return to court for Pelicans

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Zion Williamson is back.

He certainly looked in better shape and flashed his insane explosiveness on his way to 13 points and four rebounds in 15 minutes Tuesday night against the Bulls, his first game after missing all of last season following foot surgery.

There was some rust, and the Pelicans are wisely bringing him along slowly and not breaking out the entire playbook for a preseason game, but in the moments we saw Zion looked like he was all the way back.

The questions now are can he sustain it, and how to the Pelicans mesh him with other scoring options in CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram.

And maybe we shouldn’t leave rookie Dyson Daniels off that list, he looked good in his first NBA preseason game.

The Pelicans are one of the most intriguing teams this season, a team that made the playoffs last season with a push after McCollum arrived, and now they add the elite interior scoring and athleticism of Zion to Ingram’s outside shot and slashing, not to mention and a solid core of role players. This team has top six potential if it can get stops. But in a deep West, nothing will be easy.