Power Ranking the 10 Best Isolation Scorers in the NBA
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What comes to mind when thinking of a great isolation player? Is it someone who can break opponents down off the dribble and get to the basket at will? Is it someone who can shake his defender and hit mid-range jumpers en masse? Or is it someone who can break down a defense and get easy shots around the basket for himself and teammates?
It is all of these things.
Isolation players differ in style and results. A point guard in isolation may not produce the same scoring numbers (points-per-possession), and his usage rate may not be as high, but one can't ignore the effect that the players' isolation has within the offense. Accordingly, it's not so surprising to find that five of the top 10 isolation scorers in the NBA are point guards.
And then, beyond pure results, there is the fact that isolation plays can be overrated in terms of what comprises an NBA offense. The New York Knicks had the highest number of isolation plays last season, and we saw the middling results.
Of the four teams that followed them in the top five, only two of them even made the playoffs. The Sacramento Kings and then-New Jersey Nets came in second and third in isolation plays, and each had a winning percentage of 33 percent, as both teams went a dismal 22-44.
Despite the fact that isolation seldom produces the best results, it's worth taking a look at the 10 players who did it best. It is, after all, a good measure of how talented a player is offensively.
If a guy can score in isolation, he should be able to draw double teams, which can allow a coach to diversify the offense. The fact that the Knicks did such a poor job of that, and the L.A. Clippers (No. 4 in isolation offense percentage) and Oklahoma City Thunder (No. 5) did such a great job of it is another discussion for another day.
This slideshow excludes post players and focuses on the best perimeter isolation players. Let's take a look at them.
10) Derrick Rose
One of the league's most exciting iso-players, Rose suffered a career-threatening injury last year.
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Derrick Rose had the eighth-highest usage rate in the NBA at 30.6 percent. For a player who comprises most of his team's offense, that is hardly surprising. His assist percentage ranked second among those in the top 10 for usage last year, with only Deron Williams posting a higher percentage (47 percent for Williams, 40 percent for Rose).
Rose has the moves to be the best player on this list, but this list isn't about who has the best moves.
It's about who does the most with them, and Rose shot just 36.7 percent on long twos last season and had a true shooting percentage of 53.7 percent, which ranks significantly lower than LeBron James and Kevin Durant. The figure would be lower still if Rose wasn't so adept at getting to the line. He shot 6.1 free throws per game last year and hit 81.2 percent from the line.
Rose also must become a better three-point shooter so that defenders can't lay off him as much when he isolates from behind the arc. Last year, he shot just 31.2 percent from distance.
Last season, Rose sought to involve teammates more in the offense, and his field-goal attempts dropped from nearly 20 a game in his MVP campaign of 2010-11 to under 18 per game last year. The Bulls know that the key to being a better team isn't to get more from Rose, but rather to involve his teammates more.
With Rose out for the majority (or possibly entirety) of the season, the Bulls will be able to focus on finding which players can be high usage guys when Rose returns.
Rose has some of the best moves in isolation in the NBA, but as to whether or not that will ultimately render him an NBA champ is highly debatable. The Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder both have two isolation players on their team that rank higher than Rose on this slideshow, and Rose is the No. 1 option in Chicago.
Rose's value as a player is indisputable—he won an MVP award—but his talents as an iso-player are overstated, at least when you analyze his actual results.
9) Dwyane Wade
Dwyane Wade is beginning to decline, but remains one of the best at iso-plays.
Dwyane Wade ranked fifth in the NBA in usage rate last year at 31.5 percent. He became a much better isolation player last year, as he stopped shooting as many threes and focused on more on taking higher percentage shots.
He hit 42.3 percent of his long twos, but his true shooting percentage fell to 55.9 percent because he hasn't been getting to the line as much as he did over his nine-year career prior to last year.
He shot just 6.1 free throws per game last year, which was well below his career average of 8.9 per game. It was his lowest figure since his rookie year when he attempted 5.1 per game. That may indicate that he's beginning to decline, as Wade is now 30. His best years are likely behind him.
But he's still good enough to crack the top 10 in a list of the best isolation scorers, both because of his high usage rate and the fact that he shot nearly 50 percent from the floor last year as the Heat's No. 2 option offensively. Wade isn't going to shoot 20-plus shots a game anymore, as he did in 2008-09 when he led the league in scoring.
Wade is likely going to start focusing more on posting up as his athleticism continues to decline (following in the footsteps of His Airness and the Mamba). Still, for all Wade was, he's still very good in isolation and is still a top-10 player in the NBA.
8) Russell Westbrook
Russell Westbrook will only shoot even more with James Harden out of the picture.
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Westbrook ranked behind only Kobe Bryant for usage last year at 32.9 percent. His involvement in the Thunder offense was more substantial than the NBA's leading scorer and teammate Kevin Durant, but the results were far less impressive.
Westbrook shot 40.9 percent on two-point shots 10-feet and further, and he shot too many of them. He's far better getting to the rim. He shot 61.6 percent in the basket area and he got to the line with frequency (6.3 free-throw attempts per game).
If Westbrook could concentrate on getting to the rim and take less contested two-point jumpers, he would sky rocket up this list. But right now, he's too focused on doing what has been the least effective for him. He shot three threes per game last year and hit just 31.6 percent of them.
Why would a player so talented at breaking down defenders choose to shoot so many jumpers?
His true shooting percentage was 53.8 percent, which is still pretty high, but it ranks far behind LeBron James (60.5 percent) and Kevin Durant (61 percent). If Westbrook worked more on getting to the basket and taking high percentage shots, he could easily contend for a top-three rank on this slideshow.
7) Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant will isolate a lot less with Dwight Howard in the paint.
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Kobe Bryant is slowing down, but that overwhelming sentiment among NBA fans and analysts may be a bit overstated. Last year, Kobe's usage rate was 35.9 percent, which was still three full percentage points behind No. 2 in the NBA (Russell Westbrook, 32.9 percent).
Bryant is still one of the league's best closers and is still one of the best isolation scorers. But he has declined. Last season, Bryant averaged 0.90 points per play in isolation settings and shot 37.7 percent in isolation (with an effective field goal percentage of 40.8 percent). He scored on 41.9 percent of his isolation plays, which just doesn't measure up with the guys that are to follow him on this slideshow.
Kobe has changed his game and become more post-oriented, and now his role has changed with Dwight Howard and Steve Nash joining the Lakers. Accordingly, his usage rate will go down this season. The Lakers have had to heavily rely on Bryant until this season, and now he's likely to see an up-tick in efficiency, and he's likely to shoot much better shots.
The Black Mamba's days as an elite isolation player may be coming to an end, and that's why he's fallen to No. 7 on this list. Without debate, he would have headed the list years ago.
6) Carmelo Anthony
Will Melo focus more on doing what he does best, or continue to shoot ill-fated jumpers?
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The Knicks led the league in isolation plays last season, with 16.8 percent of their offense coming from isolation. They ran 1,183 plays in isolation last year, and Carmelo Anthony was the recipient of most of those plays.
His usage rate of 32 percent ranked fourth in the NBA last year, and he did well with those opportunities, hitting 45.4 percent of his two-point field goals and he shot a true shooting percentage of 52.5 percent.
The thing that keeps Anthony from going higher on this list is how many long two-point jumpers he settles for. He shoots only 36.9 percent on two-point shots from 10-plus feet, and he took almost eight of those per game last year. He also likes to settle for threes, which is even worse, since he shoots 30.5 percent from behind the arc.
He needs to focus on getting to the rim. He had the eighth-best free throw rate of all small forwards, and if he could get that up into the top four or five, his scoring average would improve dramatically. After all, Melo shoots 80-plus percent from the line, and he finishes well enough at the rim that he shouldn't hesitate to take the ball all the way there.
If Melo spent as much time analyzing his advanced stats as analysts do, he would have drawn this conclusion a long time ago. Until he does, he'll continue to post impressive scoring numbers—and the Knicks will continue to be mediocre.
He's a very good player, that's indisputable; he's not very good at making teammates better nor doing the things that best suit his skill-set.
John Hollinger of ESPN (subscription required) even makes the point that he is a "dominant power forward masquerading as a 3." While Melo likely won't make the shift to power forward, it seems maybe he should. He's best suited getting at the rim, and he's just not doing nearly enough of it.
5) Jeremy Lin
Jeremy Lin has struggled this preseason, but things may get better with James Harden coming aboard.
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Putting Jeremy Lin this high on a power rankings list of isolation scorers may seem "Linsane," but only if you're the type of fan to discredit a player solely based on hype without actually looking at what he did on the court.
Last season, Jeremy Lin posted the third-highest Points per Possession rank in the NBA on isolation plays, scoring 1.02 points per isolation. His field goal percentage in isolation was 43.1 percent and he had the third-highest field goal percentage on jumpers made off the dribble last season, with 47.9 percent. Only Steve Nash and Stephen Curry shot higher percentages off the dribble.
Lin may not be quite on the All-NBA level that people pegged him to be when he had his incredible series of breakout games, but he's not far off either. The question will be whether or not he can do it this season in Houston, as he has struggled mightily in the preseason so far.
With the Rockets acquiring James Harden, some pressure will be removed from Lin. Harden can be the high usage alpha dog, and he'll attract double teams to take pressure off Lin.
Part of Lin's success comes because the Knicks led the NBA in isolation plays last season, so the offense was designed for he and Carmelo Anthony to do their thing one-on-one. But if Lin is as good in isolation long-term as he was during his breakout (half) season last year, then he warrants a place this high on this list.
4) Kyrie Irving
Kyrie Irving had the 12th highest usage rate in the NBA last year, as a rookie.
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Kyrie Irving ranked second in single covered isolation plays last year, scoring 1.07 points per play, while shooting 48.7 percent in isolation and shooting an effective field goal percentage of 51.3 percent. His 50.7 percent scoring percentage on isolation plays also ranked second in the league. And overall, Irving shot 49.1 percent from two-point range last year.
Irving may not be relegated entirely to the perimeter in the future either. In single-covered post-up plays last season (only nine total), Irving had the sixth highest points-per-possession, scoring 1.11 points in the post per-possession.
Considering that only Al Horford and Gerald Wallace are relevant players ahead of him on this list (Greivis Vasquez, Michael Redd and Kosta Koufos round out the irrelevance), the argument can be made that Irving could eventually be the best post scoring guard in the NBA. Nine plays is hardly a huge sample size to base this on, but Irving's talent lends credence to the fact that he could eventually be posting a lot of opposing point guards up in the future.
The only point guard with a higher point-per-play rating in isolation is the player next on this slide show, a guy who Irving may eventually eclipse with more work and more time in the NBA. Irving must improve aspects of his game, still, though.
Irving shot only 35.3 percent off of the dribble last year, which ranked 62nd in the league. As the Cavaliers continue to add more talent and Irving improves, that figure should rise dramatically. For now, he'll continue to utilize his handles and speed in getting to the rim.
Irving shot 196 free throws last year (hitting 87.2 percent), and can continue to increase his free-throw attempts by remaining focused on getting to the basket and settling less for pull-ups. Right now, Irving is ranked high based on what he has done, but his potential to go number one on this list eventually hasn't escaped our grasp.
Kyrie Irving is only 20 and shot 60.4 percent at the basket as a rookie. In three years' time, he could enter the elite territory occupied by the top two players on this list.
3) Chris Paul
CP3 is the highest ranked point guard in isolation plays.
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Chris Paul occupies the third spot on this list, but his game is radically different than the other isolation scorers mentioned in this slideshow. The Clippers were fourth in the league in isolation offense, with 13.5 percent of their plays being iso-plays for Paul or Blake Griffin.
Paul's game is predicated upon getting teammates involved, and that hurts his usage rate. Paul ranked 61st in the NBA in usage percentage at 24.4 percent last year, a result of mostly using his possessions to set up Griffin and DeAndre Jordan at the rim.
Still, what Paul does in isolation shouldn't negate the fact that he is great when isolated. He hit 44.5 percent of his two-point shots beyond ten feet and hit 49.7 percent from three-to-nine-foot shots, which ranked him fourth in the NBA. His tear drop jumper is his go-to weapon after breaking down his man in isolation and his deft ball handling skills lead to very few turnovers considering his high usage.
Last year, Paul averaged a career-low 2.1 turnovers per game, and considering he is the key to the Clippers' offense, that's a good sign for their chances as title contenders this year.
Placing Paul this high on a list of isolation scorers may seem a bit unorthodox, but one can't argue with the results he has produced in isolation situations. The fact that he chooses to use isolation opportunities to set up teammates around the basket or hit jumpers in traffic doesn't change the fact that he's still one of the league's best in isolation situations.
2) LeBron James
LBJ finishes better than anyone in the league.
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LeBron James has continued to improve his post game and his jump shot, and the hard work has translated to success. Last year, he was No. 2 in points per possession, averaging 0.88 points per possession.
He's nearly impossible to stop when he gets hot, and he shot 55.6 percent on two-point field goals last year, which ranked the highest among all small forwards. He also had the third-highest usage rate of all players last season, with a usage percentage of 32.1 percent.
James is the Heat offense. As good as James is at creating for himself, he's just as effective at getting teammates involved, averaging 6.2 assists per game last season. His assist percentage (33.8 percent) ranks higher than all of the players in the top 10 for usage except for point guard Derrick Rose.
But this isn't really about how well James involves teammates. It's about how good he is in isolation.
James got to the line 501 times last year, a result of how impossible he is to stop once he gets a step on a defender. He was first among all small forwards in shooting percentage and second among all small forwards in points per minute.
He almost led the NBA in shooting percentage at the rim at 75.4 percent and he was fourth in the league in shooting three-to-15-foot shots. It's all a testament to what a 6'8", 265 pound frame can do.
When James gets a full head of steam, he's likely going to either score or get to the line. Against the Boston Celtics, arguably the league's best defensive team, he shot 52.7 percent from the floor and averaged 33.6 points.
What's scary is that James is only just now entering his prime. With the offensive refinements he has made in adding a post game and continuing to strengthen his long range shooting, he will remain a fixture in the league's best isolation scorers.
1) Kevin Durant
The number one scorer is also the best isolation scorer. Surprise?
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Kevin Durant led the league in points per possession last year. By far. Durant scored 0.95 points per possession, which ranks .07 points per possession higher than LeBron James, who clocked in at No. 2.
Durant's usage rate was 31.5 percent, and his two-point field goal percentage was 53.5 percent, which ranks higher than than all of the players in the top 10 in usage, besides James (55.6 percent).
Durant's isolation game is so unstoppable because of his length. At 6'9" with a 7'5" wingspan, his pull-up jumper is almost impossible to block, and merely getting a hand in his face does little to deter him from taking and hitting the shots. His shot is smooth coming off screens, and even though opposing defenses expect Durant to shoot (he averages only 3.5 assists per game), it doesn't seem to make him any easier to stop.
Durant shot a true shooting percentage of 61 percent last year, as he improved his three-point stroke to a career-high 38 percent. Adding that weapon is only going to make it even more difficult to stop him, and he hit 72.2 percent of his shots at the rim.
He can shoot. He can finish. And he can score. He's the best in the NBA in isolation, and it's not really as close as James supporters would like to believe.
Advanced Stat Sources:
2) NBA Stuffer