7 NBA Superstars Having Career Years
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There's a level of guarantee surrounding a player's statistical climb into his prime. A superstar, a guy given every opportunity to succeed individually, typically hits his peak level of performance in his mid- to late 20s.
Many of the NBA's newest wave of superstars are currently in or approaching that age bracket now. But while age can be telling, it's not always prevailing.
There are always aberrations. The game's all-time greats extend their primes well beyond their 20s and sometimes find resurgence later in their careers. Some guys hit that stride sooner than what's common.
As the 2012-13 season glides toward its midway point, it's clear that the following superstars are simultaneously having the best statistical seasons of their respective careers.
All stats current as of games played prior to Jan. 20.
Russell Westbrook is having his best season yet.
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Career per-game averages: 19.4 points (42.9%), 7.0 assists, 4.8 rebounds, 20.3 PER
2012-13 per-game averages: 22.7 points (42.3%), 8.3 assists, 5.3 rebounds, 23.9 PER
Westbrook's career year is the result of evolving into a better facilitator.
His shots are down slightly from last season, as is his shooting percentage, but he's averaging a career-high 8.3 assists per game, which is three more than last season. He's also recording a career-high two steals per game.
Westbrook's game hasn't fully matured to a point of reliability. The athletic combo guard still takes more shots than Snooki (18.8 per game).
His issue comes scoring close to the rim, where he shoots just 34 percent in the paint, according to NBA.com's advanced stats.
You can compare that to Chris Paul, who finishes at 53 percent in the paint. Even in the restricted area, mostly layup range, Westbrook is shooting just 55 percent compared to Paul's 63 percent.
Considering Westbrook is a blur and finds himself at the rim often, his game would improve dramatically if he could finish consistently at the basket.
Imagine how good Westbrook could be, or will be, when he begins to deliver there.
James Harden is creating a superstar identity in Houston.
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Career per-game averages: 14.8 points (44.3%), 2.9 assists, 3.6 rebounds, 18.3 PER
2012-13 per-game averages: 25.8 points (43.8%), 5.3 assists, 4.4 rebounds, 22.2 PER
Harden's career year was inevitable. The still-young scorer was never the driver of the Oklahoma City Thunder; he rarely even got shotgun, relegated more to back-right.
Since becoming the franchise player for the Houston Rockets, Harden is taking almost eight more shots per game than he was last season with the Thunder.
Of course, as his role increased, so did the focus of the opposing defense. That means fewer opportunities to knock down open shots off the creation of Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook.
According to The NBA Geek, Harden is shooting 49.1 percent on shots from inside three-point range and 33.1 percent from three-point range this season. That's down from a 57.9 percent two-point field goal percentage and a 39 percent three-point percentage last season.
But aside from the percentages, having the ball in his hands and playing an additional seven minutes per game has improved Harden's numbers across the board.
Carmelo Anthony is finding more success in seeking wins first.
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Career per-game averages: 24.9 points (45.7%), 3.1 assists, 6.3 rebounds, 20.6 PER
2012-13 per-game averages: 29.2 points (46.0%), 2.5 assists, 6.1 rebounds, 25.5 PER
The 6'8" scorer's defensive efforts seemed enhanced earlier in the season, but Anthony is still part of a New York Knicks team defense that is 19-3 when holding opponents to less than 100 points.
Anthony's blocks (0.6) and steals (0.9) per game are close to his career averages (0.5 blocks and 1.1 steals), but defense doesn't always show up in the box score.
He has shown a greater overall willingness to play team defense, and he has the size and quickness to thrive as a multiple-effort defender.
And, of course, he's still shooting the basketball.
Anthony is currently riding 25 consecutive games with 20-plus points, the longest streak of his career. He ranks third in the league in scoring.
To continue a career season, Anthony needs to remind himself what he said on media day (according to Al Iannazzone of Newsday):
At the end of the day, it's about winning basketball games. I'm done trying to score 30, 35, 40 points for us to win a basketball game. I don't want that role anymore. It's what I do best. But in order for this team to be successful with the guys that we have, we need a more well-rounded team. So if I have to sacrifice on the offensive end, I'm willing to do it.
Kobe Bryant, at 34 years old, is having one of his best seasons.
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Career per-game averages: 25.5 points (45.4%), 4.7 assists, 5.3 rebounds, 23.5 PER
2012-13 per-game averages: 29.7 points (47.4%), 4.7 assists, 4.9 rebounds, 24.3 PER
Bryant is having the best shooting season of his career.
That's saying something for a guy who's one of the greatest scorers of all time. He's also doing it well past the age range of a player's peak.
According to Basketball-Reference, Bryant's true shooting percentage (an efficiency percentage based on two-pointers, three-pointers and free throws) is higher than it has been his entire career, at 58.4 percent.
Bryant is leading the league in scoring, and his points-per-game average is the highest it's been since 2006-07. Bryant also earned the most votes of any player selected as an All-Star starter, his 15th consecutive appearance in the game.
While it's statistically one of Bryant's best seasons, the superstar has not been able to lift the disappointing Lakers. Per Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com after a Sunday loss to the Toronto Raptors, Bryant appeared ready to take on the blame, saying:
Everybody wants to know what's the reason, whose fault it is and this, that and the other. I just made it more easy. You should just point the finger at me. Let me take all that. This way, we won't have to worry about that as a team. It's part of my responsibility. I'll take [the criticism] and we can just focus on what we do best, which is playing together and trying to figure out how to get out of this losing.
Defensively, Bryant has not been the same player who earned nine NBA All-Defensive First Team honors. He's the leader of a Los Angeles Lakers defense ranked 26th in the league, allowing 101.6 points per game.
He can't do it all on his own—just as he learned in 2004-05 through 2006-07.
Even a career season might not be enough for Bryant and the Lakers.
Chris Paul has never had so much success.
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Career per-game averages: 18.7 points (47.2%), 9.8 assists, 4.4 rebounds, 25.5 PER
2012-13 per-game averages: 17.0 points (47.8%), 9.7 assists, 3.6 rebounds, 26.6 PER
When you watch Paul on the floor, you see an on-court coach with acuteness more fierce than perhaps any superstar other than Kobe Bryant.
The Los Angeles Clippers are the best team out West, and Paul is the justification as to why.
His offensive stats don't tell the whole story, a side effect of lessened minutes due to leading a winning team with big leads and a bench filled with talent.
In fewer minutes (33.5) than he's played his entire career, Paul is averaging the second-most assists of his career (10.4) per 36 minutes. His win shares per 48 minutes (an advanced stat found on Basketball-Reference that estimates the number of wins a player contributes) is the highest of his career at .300.
His pesky defense sets the tone for the Clippers, who are fourth-best in the league at allowing opponents 92.7 points per game.
While his initial figures may not jump off the screen, advanced and team-based statistics show Paul is having one of his best seasons yet.
Kevin Durant is on top of the NBA and having his best overall season.
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Career per-game averages: 26.5 points (47.3%), 3.0 assists, 6.7 rebounds, 23.2 PER
2012-13 per-game averages: 29.3 points (52.0%), 4.2 assists, 7.5 rebounds, 29.1 PER
Durant has improved in nearly every major statistical category.
That is scary.
Durant hasn't even reached those typical prime ages of an NBA player yet. Imagine what his statistical graph will look like if he continues the traditional upward trend into his mid- to late 20s.
From last season, Durant is scoring more and shooting at a higher percentage, tallying more assists and suffering fewer turnovers. He is getting to the free-throw line more and has the highest true shooting percentage (65.3 percent) of his career.
KD is actually looking nicer than ever.
LeBron James is hitting his stride as one of the all-time greats.
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Career per-game averages: 27.6 points (48.7%), 6.9 assists, 7.2 rebounds, 27.4 PER
2012-13 per-game averages: 26.3 points (55.0%), 7.0 assists, 8.1 rebounds, 30.2 PER
Every season might be a career-best season for James.
James continues to be one of the league's top scorers, and he's now doing it with a higher shooting percentage than ever. He is embracing his ability to score inside, as evidenced by his 30 points in the paint at the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday.
According to NBA advanced shooting stats, James is finishing at 75 percent when he has the ball in the restricted area, where he averages 7.2 attempts per game this season. He's getting to the basket more, as his attempts are up from 6.89 last season.
James is also shooting a career-high 40 percent from three-point range, up from 36.2 percent last season. His previous high before that came in 2004-05 with the Cleveland Cavaliers when he shot 35.1 percent from behind the arc.
James appears to be playing with an even greater confidence than ever after earning his first title last season.
And he still may not have hit his peak yet.
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