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Five Box Score Trends That Are Defining the NBA Season

Basic stats are falling out of vogue as advanced analytics continue to rise, but a few key numbers from this season explain how some star players—including James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo—are taking their games to new heights

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There’s still deep value in basic box score stats. Even as advanced analytics pop up in every corner of the NBA viewing experience, some of the most important developments this season are showing up in the box score. James Harden is taking more free throws; Devin Booker is taking fewer 3s, which is actually a good thing! The box score will never reveal the efficiency of Robert Covington’s assist percentage off elbow touches post-stroopwafel—which may become more necessary if he keeps eating them on the bench (3 pounds of Le Chic Patissier for just $44.99 at Costco, my friend)—but it can be a gateway to visualize the most simple adjustments some players have made to help their teams this season.

Here are very basic stats that are saving seasons so far:

James Harden Is Shooting Even More Free Throws

The jump: averaging 14.5 free throw attempts this season, compared with 11.0 last season

Harden’s just here to give the people what they want. The increase in fouls drawn is turning already-long Rockets games into acid-trip-level-slow events—without any of the fun stuff, though Harden’s game does often seem to warp the bounds of reality. But the extra trips to the line are necessary for Houston, which began the 2018-19 season by forgetting how to defend. The Rockets defense has been much better lately, and the offense has stayed: They’re scoring a league-high 119.5 points per game (which is a substantial jump from last season’s 113.9), and their average point differential with opponents is 5.8. That’s the seventh-best mark in the league, but for the Rockets to keep up with elites like the Lakers (10.2 point differential) and the Bucks (9.5), Harden needs to frequent the free throw line.

Harden reaps an average 12.8 points from his free throws, nearly a third of his league-best 39.2 points per game (that scoring output is surely unsustainable, but let’s gawk while we can). The egregious free throws are incredibly annoying to some people, but the Rockets are 11-3, second place in the West.

Giannis Antetokounmpo Is Making 3s

The jump: shooting 42.4 percent from deep over his last six games, compared with 17.4 percent his first seven

The rim pitches many perfect games against Giannis’s 3-pointers. Already this season, he’s failed to connect even once on four occasions. (He’s attempted an average of three 3s on those nights.) Last season, when that would happen, the sentiment was, “Well, at least he’s trying,” which (1) was said purely out of resentment against Ben Simmons, and (2) made us sound like we were raising a trust fund kid.

Making an effort is half of it. During Giannis’s first seven games, he was averaging 3.3 deep shots; over the past six, he’s averaging 5.5. That, combined with the rate at which he’s making them, is one hell of an increase from last season’s 25.6 percent on 2.8 attempts. Mike Budenholzer’s system depends on activity at the perimeter, and without Malcolm Brogdon or Nikola Mirotic, Giannis’s growth as a shooter is something Milwaukee needs to not be an aberration.

Karl-Anthony Towns Is Taking More 3s

The jump: averaging nine 3-point attempts this season, compared with 4.6 last season

It’s criminal how rarely Towns is mentioned as one of the league’s best 3-point shooters. He shot 40 percent last season and 42.1 percent the year before that, which should be a bigger deal because he’s 7 feet tall. One time Towns said that his hands are so big that he can’t hold PlayStation controllers. He’s an Xbox man by default. And those hands are shooting 43.5 percent from deep this season—22nd best in the league, and third best among centers taking at least three 3s per game. (Just below Aron Baynes, the greatest 3-point shooter in history.)

No big man is touching his shot count. Minnesota is averaging 39.3 deep attempts this season under Ryan Saunders, fifth highest in the league. It’s a beautiful stat that should be framed and hung in every living room in Minnesota. The Wolves have come a long way since Tom Thibodeau’s antiquated perimeter strategy (i.e., to ignore it); they shot the fifth-fewest attempts last season, and came in dead last the two seasons before that. Led by Towns, that added element of Minnesota’s offense has helped push the team to the eighth spot in the Western Conference.

Andrew Wiggins Is Passing More

The jump: averaging 3.6 assists, compared with 2.5 last season

Last week I wrote about Wiggins’s early-season improvements, and the game Minnesota fans play: tracking how many shots Wiggins takes before he throws an assist. (Before this season, many.) But he’s learned to share. Wiggins has stepped into something of a facilitator role for the first time in his career, which the Wolves have needed now that they don’t have Jimmy Butler. Behind Jeff Teague, the team’s primary ball handler, Wiggins is responsible for the most points scored off assists, the most potential assists, and the most secondary assists (making the pass to the player who actually has the dime). Those numbers show an aptitude for court awareness—Wiggins is finding teammates who are open enough to get a shot off—and a newfound respect for ball movement. He’s passing the rock like the ghost of Ricky Rubio, averaging 35.5 passes compared with 26 last season.

Wiggins used to live by the forced shot and die by the forced shot, and Minnesota’s chance of winning would die by it too. Becoming a more conscious passer isn’t the kind of stat that evens out as the season goes on; it’s a growing-up stat. The Wolves are decent, in part, because of it.

Devin Booker Is Shooting Fewer 3s

The drop: averaging five attempts this season, compared with 6.5 last season

Booker is the only one on this list whose notable stat is a decrease, but the decline in 3s has been replaced by other helpful contributions. He’s already proved capable of running the point, but has found a better mix now between pushing the offense for himself and showing patience for others (ironically, since the Suns are paying homage to their Seven Seconds or Less predecessors by playing really, really fast). There have already been many possessions this season where the old Booker would’ve pulled up at the perimeter—in transition, or after waltzing with a defender for a couple of seconds—and instead he has driven inside or passed it off. The restricted area has been good to Booker (he’s connecting on 68.9 percent of his shots there). So has the shot selection: Booker is taking fewer 3s, but he’s shooting 50 percent from deep (last season he was at 32.6 percent) and scoring more points from behind the arc than before. Efficiency looks good on you, Book.