Personal Musings on the Frustrations of the Game

PP2020 takes a deep dive into his own basketball mind.

Guest Column from Matthew D. Milligan (PP 2020). You can follow him on Twitter @mattdmilligan.

If you’ve watched—or, rather, just paid attention to—the NBA over the past few seasons, probably the most salient thing on your mind is the frustrating number of three-pointers that everyone, including the bigs, take. Indeed, even though I don’t have the time to prove it, it’s likely that since the introduction of the three-pointer to the NBA, game strategies to win an NBA game have increasingly utilized this valuable shot, perhaps (hopefully?) culminating in today’s strange game situation where even Andre Drummond occasionally camps out at the three-point line. Again, I have no hard data right now to prove it, but I’d be willingly to bet that the average three point attempts per game has steadily risen, especially in recent years. For me, a lover of defensive basketball and efficiency, this is incredibly annoying. In fact, I must confess: I don’t even watch basketball anymore. Not college. Not NBA. Not the Olympics. Not even Starbury in China.

I don’t even care to watch basketball anymore. This is a huge change for me as I watched nearly every game I could of the Pistons (and, eventually, Spurs) from around 2004 until around 2010/2011. It was around this era that I got into fantasy hoops and became dedicated to conquering/breaking the game—for literally no gain. None of my leagues have ever had a reward to victory. Nevertheless, I routinely played in 20-30-40-50 or more leagues per season to test various strategies, player combinations, and explore the limitations to the format (I exclusively play on Yahoo!, although I have played ~5 leagues on ESPN). My area of expertise is Head-to-Head as I find Rotisserie a bit too specialized for most players to be competitive.

This year feels dramatically different. I feel like “three pointers made” as a category are outrageously high and abnormal. I have no real evidence to back this up (although one could theoretically crunch these numbers), but it has led to other types of frustrations. Namely, in the games themselves. I also feel like the NBA schedule itself has a few discrepancies, leading to some awkward weeks where either me or my opponent having a large difference in number of games played by their squad’s players (For you amateurs, number of games played by your squad usually increases your chance at winning for sheer statistical reasons). I ran some numbers back in November and found this to be a total lie; in fact, I’m chalking it up to my frustrations with the three-pointer phenomenon. There is no real average difference per week between my total number of games for my squad and my opponents’. It all basically evens out from week to week.

Another frustration I have experienced that I’m analyzing more specifically today: blowouts. It feels as if there are a huge, increasing number of blowouts. In fact, I scoff at blowouts big time as it pertains to fantasy basketball because that usually means your stars/starters do not get as many minutes and thus underperform their expectations. Therefore, in my mind at least, more blowouts means less statistics for my players. Obviously, this probably isn’t a real thing given that the Warriors over the past several seasons likely have the most blowouts but yet Steph, Durant, Draymond, and even Klay (I hate him) are all quite valuable fantasy assets.

So frustrated am I that I crunched some numbers.

Below, I have charted the first three months to each of the past three NBA seasons, ranging from 2016 to 2018 (now).

Why this dataset? Well, I’m super busy and super lazy generally so this is all I have the patience for right now. It may be worth re-visiting later but probably not and nobody really cares anyway.

So first things first: the data.

2018 Avg. Margin of Victory
November: 11.66
December: 11.85

2017 Avg. Margin of Victory
November: 11.99
December: 9.9

As you can see, there is almost no discrepancy. Now, I’m no data scientist, although I do occasionally use some basic data tabulations in my academic work on the social history of South Asia (I’m a PhD historian of religion professionally), but I don’t really see any correlation. We could do some linear regression or something but there’s no need—aside from December 2017’s low number, everything seems to hover around 11.6 points. Even though there’s no strangeness to the dataset, if we take a step back and think about it the fact that the average NBA game is basically a blowout on average (I consider a blowout a game decided by 11 or more points), it’s quite shocking to see that the parity in the NBA has, at least for the last three years, been pretty bad. But as we can see—it is not really getting any worse, contrary to perhaps some popular perception.

I also ran the month-by-month numbers on the following categories: 1) total number of blowouts; 2) total games played; and 3) % blowout games (blowouts/total games). Again, there was hardly anything interesting in this data but here it is:

Average number of blowouts by month between 2016-2018
October: 37.66
November: 99.67
December: 93

Besides October of 2016 which was a bit strange with a very low number of blowouts (only 38% were blowouts!) the statistics were quite consistent.

Finally, our final bit of evidence rests in the percentage of blowouts for the first three months of each of the seasons. The tables read as follows:

2018 1st Three Months
Total Number of Blowouts:
Total Games: 548
% Blowout Games (blwts/gms): 43.40%

2017 1st Three Months
Total Number of Blowouts:
Total Games: 544
% Blowout Games (blwts/gms): 42.65%

2017 1st Three Months
Total Number of Blowouts:
Total Games: 506
% Blowout Games (blwts/gms): 43.68%

As is easily seen, there simply is no increase in blowouts. In fact, it is kind of insane how consistent the NBA is in its “blowout rate.” Even though I’m shocked at the sheer number of games that are indeed blowouts, I am in awe of the consistency between the years.

To conclude: in this stupid brief essay I have argued that personal frustrations with the game of NBA basketball (mostly because of a perceived drip of bad games’ effect on my fantasy basketball teams) have led to some outrageous conspiracy theories crafted in my own mind about the “decline” or “profane-ness” of the NBA. Because of a perceived increase in three-pointers attempted and made, I somehow constructed a narrative in my mind that this led to a larger number of blowouts and bigger blowouts. Neither seems to be true.

The impact on my fantasy team(s) may be real but that will be much more difficult to prove and discuss given the slipperiness of applying real life NBA statistics to fantasy basketball values. Some people have nearly solved this issue through AI and an insane amount of accumulated statistics (see the sharks and whales who play FanDuel, DraftKings, etc.) but for us the question remains only a conspiracy until proven otherwise.