- The Washington Times
Thursday, November 4, 2021

Deni Avdija caught the pass and stepped into a wide-open 3-pointer. The roar of the Capital One Arena crowd began before the shot left his hands. The Washington Wizards forward held his shooting form as he, teammates, opponents and thousands of fans in the stands watched the jumper’s trajectory.

Airball. The crowd groaned.

Even the top basketball players in the world are badly off the mark sometimes. But this season, if it seems like players are missing more shots than normal — your eyes aren’t deceiving you. More than two weeks into the new campaign, teams are averaging 107.6 points per game and shooting a collective 44.8% from the field. That’s down almost a full five points (112.1) and two percentage points (46.6%) from last season. 

And while offenses typically start slow, this year has left players and coaches puzzled.

“It gives me a little peace out here to know that I’m not the only one out here struggling,” Wizards star Bradley Beal smiled.

Beal, whose 38.7% field goal percentage and 24.5% three-point percentage are career lows, said “there’s really not one thing” people can pinpoint to explain the poor start. But that hasn’t stopped the theories from flying.

Is it the new basketball that the NBA introduced — as the Clippers’ Paul George suggested following the league’s switch from Spalding to Wilson? How about the reduction in foul calls? Or perhaps the return of fans has impacted the game in bigger ways than expected. 

Let’s dive in.

Theory 1: ‘WILSONNNNN’

For the first time in 37 years, the NBA has a new manufacturer for its basketball. Wilson, who produced basketballs for the NBA from 1946 to 1983, took over from Spalding as the league’s official supplier once the latter’s contract expired at the end of last season.

The change hasn’t been a hit.

“Not to make an excuse or anything about the ball, but I said that it’s just a different basketball,” George said. “It don’t have the same touch and softness that the Spalding ball had. You’ll see this year. It’s going to be a lot of bad misses. … There’s no secret. It’s a different basketball.”

Here’s the funny thing: If there are indeed differences, they are very subtle. Wilson general manager Kevin Murphy told the Los Angeles Times the company went as far as to source the ball’s leather from the same leathery that Spalding used and his employees have spent time breaking in the basketball’s leather at a facility in Ohio so players would feel comfortable using it. 

But for the best shooters on the planet, any small difference might be enough to notice. Portland Trail Blazers star C.J. McCollum, who serves as the president of the players’ union, told reporters he would “get feedback” from players on the new ball.

“It is not the ball’s fault I missed shots lol,” McCollum later tweeted. “That’s the shooter’s fault. For the record.” 

McCollum’s averages aren’t out of the ordinary. He is shooting slightly worse from the field overall (43.8%, down from last season’s 45.8%), but he’s shooting better beyond the arc (up to 42.9% from 40.2%). 

Theory 2: Fewer fouls

Kyle Kuzma had a sound theory. The Washington Wizards forward suggested that the league’s new points of emphasis for officials have resulted in fewer foul calls and, in turn, have led to fewer points. He added the reduced foul rate also affected the flow of the game.

“A lot of times great players, they want to get to the free-throw line for a rhythm, for touch,” Kuzma said. “Guys aren’t getting there and that’s not really allowing them to get that rhythm, to see the ball go through the rim.”

The math backs Kuzma’s theory. This season, teams are averaging 19.9 free throws per game — currently the lowest rate in the NBA. While teams only averaged 21.8 attempts per contest last year, star players like Brooklyn’s James Harden and Atlanta’s Trae Young found an overwhelming amount of success in the past by learning how to hunt for fouls. After averaging 7.3 free throws per game in 2020-21, Harden’s average has dropped to 4.8. Young went from 8.7 to 5.1.

The NBA cracked down on foul calls to eliminate what it called “non-basketball” moves. Harden, for instance, was a master at initiating contact by going out of his way to flail his way into a defender — arguably an art in its own right, but not the most natural-looking motion.

“There’s a lot of missed calls,” said Young, unhappy with the officiating last week. 

Theory 3: And the crowd goes wild

After playing in mostly empty gyms last year, Beal admitted the return of packed stadiums was “definitely a little different.” Players, he said, got used to the heavy amount of space on the sidelines and underneath the baselines — where fans usually sat.

Then, there’s the noise. 

“Definitely having fans and (them) engaging,” Beal said, “it’s definitely different.”

It’s pretty much impossible to quantify just how much of a difference a lively atmosphere can make at games. But this season, players are uncharacteristically missing wide-open shots — especially on the Wizards.

According to NBA.com, Washington’s field goal percentage is 33.6% on shots considered “wide open” by the league — defined as having no defender within six feet of the shooter. Last year, the Wizards shot 41% on such socially distanced opportunities.

Overall, teams are shooting 41.6% on wide-open attempts, though that is only slightly down compared to last year’s 42.3%.

Arguably the most extreme drop-off, perhaps besides free throws, has been beyond the arc — where teams are hitting only 34%. NBA teams hit a record 36% from deep in 2020-21. 

“I don’t know,” Beal said. “Everybody keeps pushing and hopefully guys can figure it out.”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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