Breaking Down the NBA's Most Efficient Scorers of All-Time
There has been much discussion this week about Kobe Bryant reaching the hallowed 30,000-point plateau. Other than tipping a cap to the man who has now scored the fifth most points in NBA history, the first thing most media outlets mentioned was that Bryant, 34, is the youngest to ever reach this milestone.
Others were quick to point out that while he is the youngest, it also took him more games (1,179) than Karl Malone (1,152), Kareem Abdul Jabbar (1,101), Michael Jordan (960) or Wilt Chamberlain (941).
The implications of this are clear: Kobe may be the least efficient scorer among these five greats.
But is he? And more importantly, who among those who have piled up the most points in history have been the most efficient scorers?
Here is a list of the top 50 scorers (by total points) in NBA history, ranked by eFG%.
Before breaking down the numbers, let's discuss the actual meaning of 30,000.
I found the most interesting remark on the subject to come from the guys of The Basketball Jones. On their podcast the last few days, they have discussed the difference between the landmark career statistical benchmarks that exist in baseball (e.g., 500 home runs, 300 wins) and the complete lack thereof in basketball.
Does 30,000 points mean anything? I couldn't have told you how many players had eclipsed it until three days ago when I first caught wind that Kobe was approaching the number. I generally know who the lifetime leaders are in the major statistical categories, but the precise numbers have always seemed irrelevant.
Basketball does have single-game touchstones (e.g., triple-double, 50-point games), and numbers like 20/10 and 90/50/40 also qualify as season-long accomplishments. But as the TBJ guys have noted, none of these have the same cache as baseball's 20-win season, the Triple Crown or the 40/40 club. No matter how many All-Star Games Deron Williams plays in, Jay-Z will never name his night club "The 20/10 Season."
The NBA will just never be as numbers-obsessed as MLB is.
One thing the Association does share with the Major League, however, is a recent awakening to a new statistical way of looking at the game. It has not been nearly as radical in basketball (Brad Pitt will not be playing John Hollinger in an Academy Award-nominated film), but the careers of guys like Allen Iverson and Mitch Richmond have been reevaluated in the same way that guys like Joe Morgan and Nolan Ryan were around the start of the millennium.
Which brings us back to efficiency.
The merits of so-called advanced stats in the NBA have been debated endlessly already. So no need to rehash that here. But it is interesting to see which players on the chart above look better or worse than their reputations though this lens.
- The first thing that pops out is that, unlike nearly every other statistical list in NBA history, Michael Jordan doesn't dominate. He does have the highest per-game scoring average, highest PER and highest point-per-minute scoring rate. But his eFG% (field goal percentage that accounts for three-pointers being worth more) ranks him behind 21 other players. (If you use true shooting percentage, which adds in threes and free throws, he is 16th.)
- Check out Adrian Dantley. First in TS%, 7th in eFG%, and first in points per field goal attempt. That's very impressive for a guy who a lot of casual NBA fans and '90s babies couldn't pick out of a lineup.
- Charles Barkley has some extra ammunition for his ongoing attempt to let everyone know he was better than Karl Malone. He out-ranks the mailman in eFG%, TS%, PER and points per shot, where he ranks second to Dantley.
- Old timers who played in the low-FG% era get killed here. Renowned scorers Elgin Baylor and John Havlicek are hanging at the bottom of the list with Allen Iverson—below Reggie Theus and Antawn Jamison in terms of percentages and points per shot.
- The three-point shooters are elevated. Reggie Miller, Ray Allen and Dale Ellis all rank way above players who were much more dynamic scorers than they were.
Ultimately, looking at players—especially those no longer playing—in terms of efficiency will never change the way we think about them. It only marginally did so in baseball, a sport where numbers more directly relate to performance.
But it does help show some things that nobody should ever forget: Under-heralded players like Dantley, Dirk Nowitzki, David Robinson and George Gervin can get buckets as well as anyone who has ever pick up a basketball.
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