Re-Ranking the NBA's Top 20 Scorers During the 2012-13 Season
Scoring is more glamorous than anything else that happens on a basketball court, which is why the top point-producers in the NBA tend to receive an inordinate amount of attention.
However, that attention is often focused incorrectly.
It's not enough to say that someone is great at scoring because they record a ridiculous number of points per game. The same is true if an efficiency stat like field-goal percentage is the sole basis of your analysis.
There's often a trade-off between volume and efficiency, which makes it all the more impressive when a player couples a high number of shots with an impressive ability to hit shots at a high clip. The type of shots matter as well.
As a result, this article focuses on re-ranking the top 20 scorers in the NBA—in terms of points per game—by looking at their shooting from the field. That last phrase is important, as free-throw shooting does not factor into the equation here.
To do this, I'm going to be using a new metric called "Shooting Above Average," or SAA.
The metric is similar to replacement-level statistics like baseball's WAR in that it compares a player to a replacement. In this case, we'll be looking at how shooter's perform from various spots on the court compared to the league average.
It can be calculated by summing the results from each of the 14 zones on the court. Those results are determined by subtracting the league average field-goal percentage from the player's field-goal percentage from that zone, then multiplying the difference by the number of attempts a player takes from that area.
For example, let's say a hypothetical player makes 10 of his 20 attempts from the top of the key. The league average from that zone is 34.2 percent, so the hypothetical player would receive the following calculation for the zone: (50.0-34.2)*20.
Once that was done for each of the 14 zones and the results were summed, you'd have his SAA.
The overarching concept is that you're comparing a player to a perfectly average shooter. This average player would shoot the league average from each of the 14 zones, thus earning an SAA of zero. Accordingly, a positive SAA is better than a negative one.
So, let's see how our top 20 scorers stack up in terms of shooting ability and performance.
Note: All stats are current through Jan. 31, and both shooting statistics and shot charts come from NBA.com.
20. Monta Ellis
Team: Milwaukee Bucks
Points Per Game: 18.6
Scoring Rank: No. 17
As you can see from Monta Ellis' decidedly negative score, earning a positive SAA is quite a feat. Shooting a perfectly average mark from every spot on the court is the way to earn a score of zero, and a player who could do that would be quite valuable.
Ellis in particular is hurt by his struggles right around the basket, where he spends the vast majority of his time.
His fancy finishes and circus shots at the rim have given Ellis the "fun to watch" label, but they've also decreased his field-goal percentage to the point that it's detrimental from that area. Shooting 2.6 percent below the league average there and lofting up 297 attempts isn't a recipe for success.
The shooting guard beats the league average at only three of the 14 zones, and they happen to be his second-, fourth- and 13th-most-used areas on the court.
19. Russell Westbrook
Team: Oklahoma City Thunder
Points Per Game: 22.5
Scoring Rank: No. 7
Russell Westbrook receives a lot of criticism for his shot selection, and a lot of it is deserved. The type of play that the dynamic point guard's detractors typically point to is his frustrating tendency to pull up early in the shot clock and clang a mid-range or three-point jumper off the rim.
Well, the shot chart doesn't lie.
Westbrook does indeed struggle from the zones in question. His top-of-the-key shot from downtown in particular is used far too often, considering he shoots only 29.6 percent from the area. Those jumpers from the elbows aren't exactly good choices for Westbrook either.
If he wants to be more successful, he needs to take a few steps in when directly in front of the basket and a few steps back when he's at the elbows.
18. Brandon Jennings
Team: Milwaukee Bucks
Points Per Game: 18.8
Scoring Rank: No. 14
Seeing as Brandon Jennings shoots only 40.7 percent from the field as a whole, you shouldn't be too surprised to see him near the bottom of these rankings.
The second Milwaukee Bucks backcourt member to show up in the bottom three, Jennings is hurt most by his complete inability to finish near the basket. He shoots 12.1 percent below the NBA average in that zone, and maximizes the damage by lofting up quite a few shots.
Jennings' game from just outside that zone is fantastic, and his three-point shooting—with the exception of the left corner and the top of the key—is excellent as well. He just needs to stick to those strengths a bit more.
17. James Harden
Team: Houston Rockets
Points Per Game: 25.9
Scoring Rank: No. 5
Russell Westbrook's former teammate checks in just two spots above him, although the gap in SAA between the old backcourt mates is still rather large.
Harden has thrived in his role as the go-to scorer for the Houston Rockets, but he doesn't excel from any one area in particular. Instead, his ability to score from everywhere on the court gives him an advantage over the opposition.
The bearded shooting guard is notoriously averse to letting fly from mid-range, recognizing the overall inefficiency that comes with that area of the court. Instead, he attacks mostly from downtown and at the basket.
When Harden sticks to the right side of the court and stays behind the three-point arc, he tends to be an average shooter, although he uses quite a few possessions from those zones. He's also 1.3 percent below the league average at the basket, but he makes up for the difference by drawing an insane amount of contact and finishing at the charity stripe.
Unfortunately for Harden, though, his prowess from the free-throw line doesn't help him here.
16. Paul Pierce
Team: Boston Celtics
Points Per Game: 18.7
Scoring Rank: No. 15
Paul Pierce's shooting chart is just about as erratic as it gets. There just isn't much consistency anywhere on the court.
The Truth knocks down three-pointers best from the top of the key, and he's slightly above average when he shifts to the left. When he moves to the right, he's just a bit below average, but that's somewhat understandable given the fact that he's taken 90 triples from that zone.
The right baseline in particular treats Pierce well, but the left baseline doesn't unless he's shooting long two-pointers.
If there's any consistency here, it's the fact that the longtime Boston Celtic can't knock down his shots from the corners.
15. Damian Lillard
Team: Portland Trail Blazers
Points Per Game: 18.1
Scoring Rank: No. 19
The 22-year-old rookie might be a first-year player in the NBA, but he plays like he's a longtime veteran in the league.
Lillard displays tremendous moxie on the offensive end of the court, and he's emerged as one of the better scorers in the league with just a handful of games under his belt. All those extra years in college—compared to many other first-year players—have been quite beneficial for the Portland Trail Blazers' floor general.
He's particularly deadly with his jumper.
The only zones from which he shoots below average on the perimeter involve three-pointers from the right side—both above the break and from the corner—and deep two-pointers from the baseline. Fortunately for Rip City, those are the areas he chooses not to shoot often from.
As good as Lillard's jumper might be, he won't have a positive SAA until he learns how to finish at a higher rate around the rim.
14. Jrue Holiday
Team: Philadelphia 76ers
Points Per Game: 19.4
Scoring Rank: No. 13
Holiday has been one of the biggest breakout players in the Association, securing an All-Star spot while emerging as the unquestioned star of the Philadelphia 76ers. His playmaking—both in terms of scoring and passing—has been simply phenomenal.
The fourth-year point guard has been particularly impressive from two sections of the court when shooting the ball.
Driving into the interior of the defense and spotting up on the baseline, Holiday has exceeded the league average from every spot along the top edge of the shot chart except for the left corner three and at the basket. In the latter zone, he's only 0.7 percent below the typical efficiency.
Holiday also knocks down above-the-break three-pointers from the sides with consistency. He doesn't let fly from those zones often, but he tends to shoot well from them when he does choose to pull the trigger.
13. Brook Lopez
Team: Brooklyn Nets
Points Per Game: 18.6
Scoring Rank: No. 16
Lopez rarely ventures far from the basket, and he tends to do more harm than good when he does. The big man hasn't taken a three-pointer yet, and the long two-point zones are filled almost exclusively with red.
The high-scorer for the Brooklyn Nets thrives when he gets closer to the hoop, though. His short mid-range jumper from the right side is particularly deadly, as he checks in at 10.5 percent above the league average with his 51 attempts.
His free-throw line jumper is potent as well, but nothing can compare to the volume of work he does at the basket.
While taking 363 shots from the closest zone, Lopez has knocked down 59.2 percent of his attempts, 2.7 percent above the league average.
12. Carmelo Anthony
Team: New York Knicks
Points Per Game: 29.1
Scoring Rank: No. 2
It might surprise you to see Carmelo Anthony check in outside of the top 10, but one area in particular keeps him from rising any higher.
As good as Melo's jumper may be, he's struggled to finish around the basket. Making 129 of his 257 attempts from the closest zone, the small forward who commonly plays power forward checks in at 6.3 percent below the league average.
It's not enough for Melo to finish with a negative SAA, but it does have enough of an impact that he can't make it into the truly elite group. And that's saying something, since the league's second-leading scorer shoots an above-average percentage from eight of the other zones.
11. LaMarcus Aldridge
Team: Portland Trail Blazers
Points Per Game: 20.7
Scoring Rank: No. 10
Aldridge gets a nice boost to his SAA because of the crunch-time three-pointer he hit against the Dallas Mavericks, but it really doesn't have all that much of an impact. Even if he'd missed that shot, he'd still finish at 1232.1, well ahead of Carmelo Anthony.
The power forward excels as soon as you move to the second-closest circle.
From that ring, Aldridge knocks down shots at a higher rate than the average NBA player in each zone. He's particular impressive from the right block and just outside, hitting half of his 36 attempts. That's 11.5 percent more than the league average.
Unless he gets too close to the three-point line from the right baseline or lets fly from the top of the key, the Blazers' leading scorer tends to be rather successful.
10. David Lee
Team: Golden State Warriors
Points Per Game: 19.6
Scoring Rank: No. 12
Lee has been an offensive dynamo for the Golden State Warriors, becoming the team's first All-Star representative in over a decade. Part of the reason for his success is his ability to play to his strengths.
The big man isn't a particularly great finisher around the rim, although he still provides an enormous service just by being slightly above average and spending a lot of time in the basket's general area.
Lee is more impressive with his mid-range jumper, unless he's hanging out to the left of the basket. His percentages from the left elbow and over, regardless of distance on his two-pointers, are above average.
9. Dwyane Wade
Team: Miami Heat
Points Per Game: 20.7
Scoring Rank: No. 9
Dwyane Wade is another guy who usually manages to play to his strengths, even during a season in which he's supposedly slipping. "Supposedly" is quite the key word here.
Take his three-point shooting for example. Wade only takes those attempts when the need arises, although he's a little overconfident in his ability to hit from downtown on the left side.
Instead of using his deep jumper, Wade continues to function as an elite slasher for the Miami Heat. He gets to the rim quite often, and finishes around the basket 61.2 percent of the time. Considering he plays shooting guard and the league average is 56.7 percent, that's pretty impressive.
8. O.J. Mayo
Team: Dallas Mavericks
Points Per Game: 17.9
Scoring Rank: No. 20
Seeing as O.J. Mayo ranks only 20th in terms of points per game, the fact that he's leapt all the way to No. 8 in these rankings is quite impressive.
The Dallas Mavericks shooting guard has been beyond potent from downtown during the 2012-13 campaign, making the best of his fresh start with a new team. Although his percentages at the beginning of the season were unsustainable, Mayo has continued to thrive from the outside.
With the exception of the right corner—the area which he uses least often—Mayo has been well above average from the perimeter. Exceeding the league average by 8.1 percent from the right side above the break and 17.4 percent at the top of the key is incredible when you consider how often the 25-year-old lofts up attempts.
7. Stephen Curry
Team: Golden State Warriors
Points Per Game: 21.0
Scoring Rank: No. 8
As good as O.J. Mayo is from downtown, he's not even in the same league as Stephen Curry. The Davidson product is playing with a historically unmatched combination of volume and efficiency.
See all of that green beyond the three-point arc? That's how you know you're looking at the league's best sharpshooter from the outside.
And it's not like Curry is earning the green by shooting just a handful of attempts. Think about how ridiculous it is that the point guard is shooting over 50 percent from each zone on the right side while taking 91 attempts above the break and 19 in the corner.
The only reason Curry doesn't rank even higher is that he shoots below league average from every spot within the half-court set's two innermost circles.
6. Kyrie Irving
Team: Cleveland Cavaliers
Points Per Game: 23.9
Scoring Rank: No. 6
Irving might only be 20 years old, but he's already a complete scorer on offense. He's going to be well within the running for best point guard in the NBA in the very near future.
Just look at how much green is on that shot chart.
Irving is a below-average shooter from the closest zone, but that will change as he gains more experience and gets stronger. It's not like his body is done developing, given his age.
From everywhere else, though, Irving is potent.
He's an incredible shooter from the top of the key, and his mid-range game is already in that vaunted Christ Paul/Steve Nash/Tony Parker territory. And of course, he's only getting better.
5. Kobe Bryant
Team: Los Angeles Lakers
Points Per Game: 28.1
Scoring Rank: No. 3
I'm guessing that some people expected Kobe Bryant to fall significantly further down in the rankings, given the reputation he's developed as an inefficient volume scorer. Of course, there's also the camp that will be surprised the Mamba isn't No. 1.
To be fair, Kobe's placement at No. 5—while determined in completely objective fashion—is almost like a compromise between the two camps.
Kobe still isn't the most efficient player out there, despite his great offensive season, but he's slightly above average in a lot of zones and shoots so often that the sheer volume pumps up his SAA.
Take his above-the-break three-point shooting from the right side of the court. Kobe's 36.9 percent shooting is 1.5 percent above the league average, but his 103 attempts from that zone makes it both more impressive and more beneficial to his SAA.
4. Blake Griffin
Team: Los Angeles Clippers
Points Per Game: 18.5
Scoring Rank: No. 18
Perhaps the most shocking member of the top 10, Griffin checks in at No. 4.
His presence in the top five should underscore just how ridiculous it is to call his scoring ability overrated because "all he does is dunk." Yeah, Griffin dunks a lot, but there are two problems with that statement.
First, Griffin does a lot more than dunk, otherwise all of his makes would be isolated in the zone closest to the basket. Second, if it was so easy to do what Griffin does, what doesn't anyone else in the NBA do it?
Not including the small-sample-size fluke that is his top-of-the-key three-point shooting, Griffin is above average in only three zones: deep twos from the right baseline, short twos from the left baseline and at the basket.
It's the latter that gives him this lofty ranking. 64.6 percent shooting on 396 attempts tends to do that.
3. Tony Parker
Team: San Antonio Spurs
Points Per Game: 20.1
Scoring Rank: No. 11
It should come as no surprise that Parker finds the most perimeter success from the corners, seeing as Gregg Popovich's system for the San Antonio Spurs is designed to produce good looks from those areas of the court.
What should be rather surprising is that Parker checks in at No. 3 despite his lack of attempts and efficiency when it comes to above-the-break threes. Credit for that goes to Parker's mid-range abilities.
Except for his shooting from the right elbow, Parker puts up above-average numbers from each and every zone within the two-point arc.
The French point guard is one of the most cerebral players in all of basketball. He consistently picks and chooses the right spots, always playing well within the flow of the Spurs' offensive machine. It shows in his SAA.
2. LeBron James
Team: Miami Heat
Points Per Game: 26.5
Scoring Rank: No. 4
As impressive as Tony Parker may have been up to this point in the 2012-13 season, LeBron James and the No. 1 player in these rankings (I bet you can't guess who!) are just on another level. The SAA gap between James and Parker is as large as the difference between Parker and Jrue Holiday, who came in at No. 14.
LeBron's shot chart might be littered with red and yellow areas, but the green area at the top more than makes up for everything.
When the best player in the world gets a full head of steam and goes into freight-train mode, it isn't possible to stop him. His 71.2 percent shooting is tops in the NBA, checking in at a mind-boggling 14.7 percent above average, and he's done so on 361 attempts.
More so than ever during the Miami Heat's follow-up campaign to their first championship, James has made sure to stick to what he does best while avoiding the areas from which he struggles.
1. Kevin Durant
Team: Oklahoma City Thunder
Points Per Game: 29.6
Scoring Rank: No. 1
While I'm sure it was somewhat surprising to see Carmelo Anthony rank outside the top 10 and Blake Griffin and Tony Parker check in at No. 4 and No. 3, respectively, the biggest surprise of all might be seeing Kevin Durant finish at No. 1 by such a narrow margin.
He's just an offensive machine, capable of scoring in any way you can dream up.
Do you want him to knock down three-pointers? Sure, no problem as long as he can do so from above the break.
Need him to finish at the hoop? That percentage that checks in at 7.4 percent above the league average looks pretty good right about now.
Durant's only discernible weakness shooting the basketball appears when he lets a deep two-pointer fly from the free-throw line or further to the left. And that's something that could change at any point, seeing as all four of the areas in red on this chart checked in at above average during the 2011-12 season.