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What the Preseason Can Tell Us About the Regular Season

Wins and losses may not count in preseason, but the exhibition slate can tell us a thing or two (or three) about what’s in store for the 2019-20 season

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The NBA preseason doesn’t have much predictive power for individual players. Sure, this preseason’s leading scorers are James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Steph Curry, all of whom finished in the top five in that category last season, but it’s hard to glean any meaning from a tiny number of low-stakes games. We don’t expect Ben Simmons to shoot 100 percent on 3-pointers this season.

Individual teams’ preseason numbers aren’t all that useful for forecasting the coming season, either. Since 2007-08, the first season that comprehensive preseason numbers are available at NBA.com/Stats, the correlation between preseason and regular-season winning percentage is just 0.30, on a scale in which zero means no relationship and one a perfect match.

On a leaguewide scale, however, the signal is much stronger because of the larger sample. At that scale, statistical trends act the same way they do in the regular season, which means this preseason contains some clues about the season to come. Recent iterations of baseball’s spring training have presaged the ongoing rise of strikeouts and home runs; much in the same way, the NBA preseason tells us that the sport’s recent style of play—more points, more 3s, and more pace—should continue in 2019-20. (All stats in this piece refer to only those collected by the 30 NBA teams; international teams, the focus of a column earlier this week, are excluded.)

1. Lots of Points

Scoring isn’t up that much this preseason compared to last—110.9 points per game now versus 110.6 points per game then. But we should expect even more points this regular season, given historical patterns.

NBA teams averaged 111.2 points per game last regular season, the highest number since 1970-71. We should have seen it coming: Scoring jumped by nearly seven points per team game last preseason, and, for as long as we have data, regular-season scoring has always tracked the preseason dips and surges. The correlation between the two numbers is extremely high (0.96).

Scoring increases every regular season, as players get back in rhythm and starters play more minutes; on average, regular-season scoring has jumped by 2.6 points per game from the preseason since 2007-08. If that trend continues, the leaguewide scoring average would rise to 113.5 points per game this season—a number that no single team reached between 1991-92 and 2015-16.

2. Lots of 3-Pointers

Unlike with points, the 2019-20 preseason 3-point totals have grown substantially compared with last preseason. An astounding 40 percent of all field goal attempts this preseason have come from beyond the arc. For context, only eight teams in regular-season history have ever reached that number—and that’s the average this preseason. Six teams are above 45 percent, which only the Rockets (in 2016-17, 2017-18, and 2018-19) have ever reached over the course of a full season.

We should thus expect many more 3-pointers this season, above and beyond the record total from 2018-19. The correlation between preseason and regular-season 3-point attempt rate (the proportion of shots that are 3s) is 0.98, meaning a near-perfect match. In almost every season, the two data points map onto each other perfectly.

As the blue line denoting the preseason 3PAr keeps rising, so too should the red line denoting regular-season rate. Compared with the 2018-19 regular season, 23 teams have increased their 3PAr this preseason, and 11 of those teams have increased the rate by at least 5 percentage points. Even in small samples, these numbers are meaningful: The correlation between preseason and regular-season 3PAr on a team level is still strong, at 0.85.

So expect many more 3s this season from teams like the Wizards (14 percentage point boost from the 2018-19 regular season), Cavaliers (12 points), and Clippers, Bulls, and Timberwolves (10 points each). And don’t expect the midrange-happy Spurs to pivot to a modern offense; San Antonio ranked 30th in 3PAr last season and has seen its number decrease more than any other team’s this preseason.

3. Lots of Possessions

In addition to a more efficient distribution of shot attempts, teams are scoring more in part because of an increase in pace, which last season reached its fastest leaguewide mark since 1988-89. And they are still zooming around the court this preseason—the league average of 106.8 possessions per 48 minutes is the highest on record. That preseason rise matters, as the correlation between preseason and regular-season pace is a robust 0.93.

Like points, and unlike 3-pointers, this average represents just a small increase over last preseason rather than another massive surge. And as the graph shows, pace always declines somewhat between preseason and regular season—the average decline since 2007-08 is 3.8 possessions per 48 minutes. This is true of the beginning of the regular season, too, when teams play faster than they do the rest of the season. Even a typical decrease in possessions once the games start to count, though, would yield the league’s fastest pace in more than three decades; at the very least, play should remain frenetic this season.

Other hallmarks of this era of basketball can also be seen in the leaguewide preseason numbers, and thus expected to continue into the regular season: Free throw attempts and offensive rebounding are down, while effective shooting percentage and Zion Williamson stock are up. Even as the competitive landscape has shifted from a dynasty surrounded by challengers to a more democratized slate of potential front-runners, the system and style in which those teams play doesn’t appear to have changed. The NBA’s 3-point boom is far from over, and every accompanying statistical trend looks alive and well heading into this season.