Given the ongoing evolution of basketball, the relationship between usage and efficiency is a work in progress.
You pretty much can’t dip your toes in the waters of basketball digital media without hearing something about how 3-pointers are changing the game. The 3-point shot is one of the most obvious points of evolution in basketball but those are shots are part of an ecosystem of pace, space, individual skill sets, creativity and the understanding of efficiency, all of which are undergoing constant and interrelated changes.
The are lots of eye-popping data points that illustrate the evolution of the game over the past decade or so, but I find the extremes of usage and true shooting percentage to be particularly compelling.
In the 25 years from the 1979-80 season, the first with the 3-point line, through 2003-04, LeBron James’ rookie season, there were 99 player seasons with enough minutes to qualify for the minute leaderboard, a usage rate above 28 percent and a true shooting percentage above 55. That’s an average of roughly four per season. In the 15 seasons since, including this year, we’ve seen it 131 times, an average of nearly nine times per season.
The animated graph below shows each of these seasons, charted by usage and efficiency. All pre-2004 seasons are shown in blue, then year-by-year each successive season is added in red. See if you can spot Stephen Curry’s 2015-16 campaign.
It’s always been understood that there is a relationship between usage and efficiency, that is to say, generally, it’s harder for a player to be as efficient the larger their offensive load is. While nothing in this group undoes that relationship, it should be clear that the evolution of basketball is changing the outer boundaries of that relationship.
In 2012, Evan Zamir did some work at his old blog defining the edges of the relationship between true shooting and efficiency, highlighting a hypothetical boundary. The images are no longer available on that archived version of Zamir’s work, but you can see similar versions in this Deadspin post from 2014.
In the 32-year sample Zamir used for his initial analysis, he had eight player seasons that fell outside the boundary his calculations identified — Adrian Dantley in 1980-81, Michael Jordan in 1986-87 and 1987-88, Karl Malone and Jordan in 1989-90, Kobe Bryant in 2005-06, Amare Stoudemire in 2007-08, LeBron James in 2009-10. Since Zamir’s post was published, it’s been done 15 times (including this season).
It is a lot more than just 3-pointers that is driving this surge in high-volume scoring efficiency. Hand-checking rules, increased space and up-tempo offenses are all helping allow perimeter scorers to thrive. The number of 3-point attempts has climbed league-wide but last year’s overall field goal percentage was also at a 22-year high (which means 2-point percentage has gone way up).
Every year we are seeing players like LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo and now Joel Embiid reset our understanding of what’s possible physically. As players become savvier and more skilled, we’re resetting our understanding of what’s possible statistically as well.