Ask Adam Smith or bucatini enthusiasts: value is determined by supply and demand. This idea has been transformed by generations of wannabe McKinsey dweebs into an immutable rule of the universe—and, in turn, a generation of wannabe Daryl Morey nerds have turned it an immutable rule of the NBA. The demand is fixed: 30 teams that have $109,140,00-ish to fill out a 15-man roster, five spots in the starting lineup, and 240 minutes of combined playing time per game. The supply is every person who could credibly stand on an NBA court. At the high end are the handful of bonafide stars, the Lebrons and Durants and Kawhis; towards the bottom is the churn of two-way players. The bottom is Damian Lillard’s cousin. In the middle, the tango between the supply of players and the demand for their respective skills is a bellwether for how the game is being played.
Prior to the relaxation of illegal defense rules in 2001, scoring was largely an independent pursuit. The surest way to create a good shot was not some symphony of ball and player movement, but rather, merely giving the ball to a player who’s better than the guy guarding him. As such, individual scoring was king—the rare player who could win any matchup was the ultimate trump card.
This year, though, individual scoring has never been so abundant, largely because today’s offenses have created an incredibly scoring-friendly environment. Now that nearly every NBA player can either shoot or is being bullied into learning how, team defense can often look like an effort to dig trenches with bendy straws, each minor victory offset by a new crush of problems. Against a modern five-out attack, every decision is difficult: is tagging the roller worth sacrificing a corner three? Where should help come from when there’s no safe place from which to send help? In this sense, volume scoring is now as much nurture as nature, equal parts system-quarterback and Mamba Mentality. Even a soloist as acclaimed as Joel Embiid couldn’t be fully unleashed until he was complemented with shooters and placed in the proper context this season. Although truly elite scorers--much like jeans or smoking--will always be in style, the mundanity of the 20-point scorer during the regular season has revealed that the true value of an offensive player is not how many buckets he procures but how much he contributes to an environment that is conducive to procuring buckets.
Boasting a 41-14 record, the Utah Jazz are statistically the best team in the NBA this season. More, they are also perhaps the purest manifestation of the devastating interplay between talent and infrastructure. Donovan Mitchell, averaging 26.5 points per game with a 34.9 percent usage rate, is a superstar scorer—vibes-wise, at least. With the ball in his hands, he radiates chutzpah; he pops into off-the-dribble jumpers after shaking defenders with tight crossovers; he bursts into the lane and evades defenders mid-air with cursive finishes; he does good dunks. If basketball were scored like Olympic diving or pommelhorse, his artistic instincts and degree of difficulty alone would promise a spot among the league’s elite. The end result of all this coolness is murkier. Basic on/off statistics may be rife with issues and blindspots, but it’s notable that the Jazz are 8.5 points per 100 possessions better when Mitchell is on the bench than when he is on the court (per Cleaning the Glass).
None of this is to say that Donovan Mitchell is a bad player. In fact, he’s a near-great one. Rather, Mitchell’s pedestrian on/off numbers are a testament to the Jazz’s offense, which will hum along whether it’s steered by Mitchell, Michael Conley or Jordan Clarkson. Quin Snyder’s system of “advantage basketball” facilitates scoring so effortlessly that Mitchell’s incandescence isn’t necessary until the Jazz run up against rabid postseason opponents. The benefits of Mitchell’s elite ability to convert tough opportunities (BBall Index rates him in the fifth percentile in terms of shot quality but 92nd percentile of shot-making) are muted on a team that produces the most wide open looks in the NBA.
Leading the league in made three-pointers, the Jazz are paradoxically built around Rudy Gobert, a low-usage non-shooting center whose most notable offensive contribution is standing in people’s way. In addition to being basketball’s most dominant defender, Gobert moonlights as the silent fulcrum for Utah’s offense. Ceding control of the ball and the spotlight to Mitchell, Gobert traffics in subtle destabilization. His screens spring small advantages that Utah’s guards then turn into big ones; his gravity as a roller demands defensive attention, allowing shooters to slip undetected into open space. Despite his modest point totals, Gobert’s +12.7 net rating is fifth amongst all bigs (per Cleaning the Glass) and advanced metrics universally place Gobert as somewhere between the first and 10th most valuable player in the league
The widespread monopolization of the ball by the best players that caused this current scoring boom has also shifted the calculus of which players hold value. Joe Harris, a largely unidimensional three-point shooter, is a common denominator for four of the Nets’ five most effective quartets since they acquired James Harden. Robert Covington is a limited one-on-one player, yet is an integral cog for the Trail Blazers because of his shooting gravity and pterodactyl off-ball defense. Opponents practically point and laugh at Draymond Green when he shoots, but his essential Draymond-ness guarantees that he’s the only member of the Warriors who isn’t actively sabotaging Steph Curry at any given moment. Lonzo Ball has the same stilted dribble package of a point guard in NBA Live 06 and will still secure a hefty salary this summer because he can be a frictionless sous-chef next to any high usage player.
Similar to how Scrabble isn’t really about words, NBA basketball isn’t really about points: both games are ultimately won by controlling and capitalizing on space. As a result, the explosion of individual scoring has actually highlighted the importance of lineup cohesion. The surplus of scoring has made the most valuable players those who reconfigure the geometry and geography of the court, opening corridors of space on offense while bolting them shut on defense. By the time a shot is attempted, the arc of that possession’s central conflict—the tension between the offense’s desire to create and the defense’s need to erase—has already been told in full. Points are just punctuation.