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LRB
02-26-2003, 03:01 AM
Has the NBA lost its shooting touch?
by Walter Lis, STATS. Inc.
Thursday, February 20 Updated 12:36 PM EST


As Michael Jordan joins the cast of 40-somethings this week, it's interesting to reflect on how much the NBA has changed since his rookie season of 1984-85.

The NBA of 1984-85 featured plenty of scoring and some pretty precise shooters. All 23 teams that season averaged more than 100 points per contest, and the league shooting percentage was an impressive .491. MJ the rookie averaged 28.2 points during that campaign, while shooting .515 from the floor. His scoring totals obviously were impressive, especially for a rookie, but what really stands out when you compare him to today's players is his high shooting percentage. Only four NBAers have been more efficient than .515 this season. But in the '84-85 campaign, 33 other players managed to post better shooting percentages than Jordan (minimum 300 field goals made).

Just as Jordan's game has evolved over the years, so too has the overall marksmanship of the NBA. Back in 1960-61, only Wilt Chamberlain shot better than .500 from the field. In 1970-71, however, the total number of shooters at or above .500 climbed to nine, while in 1980-81, the number of players knocking down at least half of their field-goal attempts jumped to 46.

Players with Field-Goal Percentages of .500 or Better
Season No.
2001-02 14
2000-01 11
1999-00 15
1998-99 7
1997-98 19
1996-97 26
1995-96 32
1990-91 44
1980-81 46
1970-71 9
1960-61 1
(minimum 300 field goals made)

And as Jordan's field-goal percentage has dropped into the .430s this season, so has the overall average for the NBA. Currently, only 10 players are on pace to make at least 300 field goals and post a shooting percentage of .500 or better. In fact, the NBA in 2002-03 is headed for its second-lowest shooting clip since the 1965-66 season. Only the 1998-99 season saw the entire league average a lower percentage from the field (.437) than the current .438 mark.


Lowest Field-Goal Percentages -- 1966-67 to Present
Season League FG% League PPG
1998-99 .437 183.2
2002-03 .438 188.7
1968-69 .441 224.6
1966-67 .441 234.9
2000-01 .443 189.6
2001-02 .445 191.0
1967-68 .446 233.2
1999-00 .449 194.9
1970-71 .449 224.8
1997-98 .450 191.1


The days of precision shooting in the NBA now seem like a distance memory. The last club to shoot at least 50 percent from the field for a whole season was the 1996-97 Utah Jazz. But why the current downfall in field-goal accuracy?

Jordan may have 40 excuses as to why his shooting percentages have slipped, but the league's reasons are a bit more complicated. Some of those factors include a dearth of low-post scorers, an increase in popularity of the three-point shot, the influx of less-experienced high school and college players, and the recent addition of zone defenses, just to name a few. And as the shooting percentages have decreased, so has scoring. Points per game is approaching an all-time low.

Fewest Points Per Game, NBA -- 1966-67 to Present
Season League PPG
1998-99 183.2
2002-03 188.7
2000-01 189.6
2001-02 191.0
1997-98 191.1


Just as the game has changed over the year, it will continue to evolve. It's conceivable that the success of the Dallas Mavericks and Sacramento Kings, two teams that rank in the top five in hitting two-pointers and three-pointers, will draw attention to the importance of dropping a high percentage of shots and eventually spark another era of precise shooting. Three young stars -- Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan and Yao Ming -- make up a new breed of high-percentage shooters, and they are good bets to assure the legacy of M.J. lives beyond his remaining days in the NBA.