Are Elite Scorers a Dying Breed in the NBA?

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Are Elite Scorers a Dying Breed in the NBA?

If you've scrolled through NBA stats at all recently (perhaps on the league's revamped numbers hub), you might've noticed something rather unusual. 

 That is, an abnormally short list of 20-plus-point scorers. At present, only 11 players are averaging at least 20 points per outing—by far the fewest since the institution of the three-point line in 1979-80:

Hypothetically, there should be more volume scorers now than there were in 1979-80. After all, the NBA has added eight franchises to its roster since the dawn of the 1980s.

More teams means more players, good and bad. More teams means more games in which those players, good and bad, can rack up points. More teams also means a dilution of the basketball talent pool around the league, which, in theory, should make it easier for the best players to dominate and carry heftier scoring loads.

If that alone were the case, then we could come to a quick conclusion that today's lack of top-notch scorers likely has something to do with an overall decline in talent across the basketball world.

Except, it's not that simple. There are many more factors at play, both within and outside the game, that may (or may not) explain how guys who can fill it up like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony have become rarer than ever. 

But before we delve too deeply into this discussion, let's take a moment to recap some key developments in the pro game over the years whose effects are justified in most of the stats tracked for this investigation.

- 1980-81: The Dallas Mavericks come into being.

- 1981-82: The NBA tightens restrictions on zone defenses.

- 1988-89: The league welcomes the Miami Heat and the Charlotte Hornets.

- 1989-90: The NBA continues its expansion with the Orlando Magic and the Minnesota Timberwolves.

- 1994-95: The three-point line is shortened from 23 feet and nine inches to 22 feet.

- 1997-98: The league returns the three-point line to its former distance.

- 1998-99: The NBA locks out its players until January of 1999, resulting in a shortened 50-game schedule and poorly executed offense league-wide.

- 1999-2000: The league introduces the "Charles Barkley Rule" (i.e. the five-second rule) and further clarifies the difference between legal and illegal contact.

- 2001-02: The NBA replaces its previous definitions of "illegal defenses" with a defensive three-second rule, which essentially legalizes zone defenses.

- 2004-05: The league starts cracking down on perimeter contact, and the Charlotte Bobcats play their inaugural season.

- 2011-12: Players and owners engage in another labor dispute that shortens the season to 66 games, which, like the previous lockout, takes a significant toll on offensive productivity.

We'll revisit some of these changes in greater detail later on.

 

Difference in Defense

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

To start, let's consider how the ongoing revolution in defensive schematics has affected the ranks of volume scorers. As Denver Nuggets coach George Karl recently told Michael Lee of the Washington Post:

It’s very difficult to be a scorer in our game. Everybody thinks it’s easy, and everybody kind of wants to be that guy—most players think they can make their careers scoring points—but the truth of the matter is, when the defenses are designed to stop you, it’s very difficult to be a successful scorer every night. The guys who get 25 to 30 every night, it’s a pretty incredible talent.

It's certainly not easy to score at a high level in the NBA, nor has it ever been. However, one could argue that shifts in prevailing thought, technology and, of course, the rule book have raised the typical threshold of talent required to be a truly prolific producer of points.

Philosophically speaking, the average defensive scheme used by coaches today is much more sophisticated that the ones in decades past. Nowadays, the use of double- and triple-teams and the crowding of one side of the floor have become commonplace in the NBA, which, like most pro sports leagues, is replete with copycats.

Tom Thibodeau is a shining example of this. The current head coach of the Chicago Bulls learned the art and science of defensive strategy while working under the likes of Gregg Popovich with the San Antonio Spurs and Jeff Van Gundy with the New York Knicks and the Houston Rockets.

Once Thibs signed on with the Boston Celtics as their "defensive coordinator" in 2007, his spearheading of the league's defensive revolution took off. The C's led the NBA in defensive efficiency that year by a comfortable margin while executing to perfection a slew of Thibs' patented tactics. They regularly overloaded the strong side of the court, protected the paint at all costs and forced the opposition into launching long twos—the least efficient shots in basketball. 

All of which made it that much more difficult for post-up bigs and perimeter slashers alike to get easy buckets, especially once the rest of the Association caught on.

Advancements in scouting and the increased integration of video into what's now considered standard preparation have helped to hasten the dissemination of such schema while also making it more difficult than ever for teams to fool one another. Coaches, scouts and players study tendencies, both individual and team-wide, more closely by way of film sessions and the use of advanced stats and analytics.

As such, they're better prepared for anything the opposition might do. They know what to expect and have a better grasp of the probabilities and success rates associated with each potential scenario.

It's certainly not uncommon for a well-coached squad to anticipate a particular play or a given player's next move based on said studies, or to redirect a particular offensive action based on a player's differential efficiencies from one spot or off one move.

On the whole, such defensive progress has contributed to basketball becoming a slower, more methodical game:

 

Wherein high-percentage shots are tougher to come by, resulting in a drop in field-goal accuracy:

 

Which both, in turn, have contributed to the overall decline in scoring since the 1980s:

 

So, too, has individual scoring become more of a chore. Defenses are schooled much more thoroughly and carefully in the moves, abilities and tendencies of star players. Thus, to thrive as a scorer, one's proverbial bag of tricks must be deeper and more diverse than ever to achieve the same effect against headier, more disciplined defenders.

Likewise, crowding defenses like those Thibodeau currently employs with the Bulls make it more difficult for volume scorers to move freely and find open shots in their respective sweet spots, impeding a star player's progress and forcing the ball into the hands of a less threatening option.

Moreover, with team defenses slowing down the pace of play, shooters and scorers naturally have fewer opportunities to do what they do best. Taking away 10 or 11 possessions may not seem like much at first glance, but when you consider that so many players are still hovering around the 17-, 18- and 19-point ranges per game, the impact on the ranks of 20-point scorers can be immense.

At least one rule change (the scrapping of "illegal defense" in 2001-02) enabled defensive masterminds like Thibodeau to make life on the court more difficult for the league's elite. The institution of the three-second rule kept bigs from patrolling the paint, but it also freed up players to provide help from any number of angles, so long as those leaving less threatening scorers weren't lounging around in the lane.

 

An Offensive Shift

The rule book hasn't worked solely to slow down offenses while empowering defenses. There have been numerous noteworthy changes made to the NBA's official codex since the late 1970s that have forced coaches and players to rethink the way offense is played, with primary scorers catching much of the flak.

Oddly enough, the general decline in scoring and field-goal shooting has coincided with the advent of the three-point shot. The arc first arrived in the NBA for the 1979-80 season, but it didn't truly take off as a staple of offensive schemes until 15 years later.

Prior to the 1994-95 season, the league decided to standardize the distance of all three-pointers to 22 feet, rather than having short-corner threes in addition to the longer looks on the wings and straightaway.

Predictably enough, three-point attempts and percentages spiked between 1994-95 and 1996-97, until the league decided to move the arc back to its previous place for the 1997-98 season. As seen in the charts below, that initial shock from the switch ultimately gave way to continued growth in the popularity of the three-point shot up to the present day. Now, teams are taking and making more long-range looks than at any other point in league history:

 

What does this have to do with the decline in volume scorers? Shouldn't there be more guys piling up points if threes are more prevalent?

Not necessarily. Despite improvements in shooting league-wide, players still only hit three-pointers at around a 35 percent clip.

That's well below the average accuracy at just about any spot inside the line, and even less efficient when compared to how frequently the NBA's Joe Schmo converts shots at or near the rim into points. Thus, the shift toward the three-point shot has likely led to more than a few potential points being left on the proverbial table, many at the expense of volume scorers. 

 

"Big" Is the New "Small"

USA TODAY Sports

The three-point shot has done plenty on its own to coax players away from the paint and "open up" the floor. Innovative coaches like Mike D'Antoni have also gone to great lengths to incorporate the more valuable attempts (particularly from the short corners) into a "new" strain of high-scoring offense.

But NBA players have also been pushed outward by other rule changes that tilt the odds toward smaller, faster guys on the perimeter and away from traditional big men in the middle. The tightening of restrictions against hand-checking and a further emphasis on whistling players for defensive three-second violations led to an immediate jump in nearly every offensive index.

More specifically, the more recent rule changes rewarded those who operated primarily from the outside, where the shots are tougher to hit, by allowing them greater freedom of movement, while simultaneously penalizing those players—big and small, offensive and defensive—who had previously made their bones from camping out in the lane.

Such changes, when coupled with the ever-expanding popularity of the pick-and-roll, also encouraged tinkering minds to rethink the roles that traditional power forwards and centers might play in an NBA offense. D'Antoni's Phoenix Suns teams, with Steve Nash at the helm and Amar'e Stoudemire up front, challenged the long-held belief that a perimeter-oriented team couldn't win games and compete in the playoffs, particularly without the assistance of a back-to-the-basket big who could get buckets in half-court sets.

There were very few back-to-the-basket bigs in the mid-2000s and there are fewer still today. Not long ago, the league's list of 20-point scorers was perennially populated by the likes of Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Amar'e Stoudemire, Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Bosh—all of whom are/were upwards of 6'10" in stature and spent a significant portion of their time in the low post.

Shaq now works for TNT; Timmy, KG, Stoudemire and Dirk are all on the decline; Bosh took his talents to South Beach to join forces with two other elite scorers (more on that in a bit). All of them used to be virtual locks to tally at least 20 points on any given night.

Now, LaMarcus Aldridge of the Portland Trail Blazers stands as the only "traditional" big man who still averages 20 or more, and even he's known far more for his mid-range game than for anything he does down low.

The NBA, as a whole, hasn't necessarily gotten any smaller, per se, though the ranks of those capable of bullying their way to 20-point efforts whilst on the block have clearly thinned. 

 

Decay at the Grassroots Level

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

This seismic shift in low-post scoring, as an important offshoot of the volume-scorer discussion, would seem to emanate from a more insidious origin in youth basketball.

The current culture of the game at the AAU level has often been targeted as the source of what some see as the degradation of basketball fundamentals. The American youth system seems more concerned with having kids play competitively as frequently as possible than with teaching those kids how to play and how to better themselves. 

As Kobe Bryant recently told Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated:

I feel fortunate that I was in Italy when AAU basketball [got big] over here. They stopped teaching kids fundamentals in the United States, but that didn't affect me. Over there, it wasn't about competition and traveling around and being a big deal; it was about fundamentals, footwork, spacing, back cuts—all of those things. When I came back it was about acclimating myself to the competition, but I had all the fundamentals they didn't have. Look at Pau Gasol. Same thing. Look at all the skills he has compared to the guys who grew up playing AAU ball.

Rasheed Wallace expressed similar sentiments in speaking to Michael Lee of the Washington Post:

There were more bona fide one-on-one scorers, because they were seasoned. Now, you have a lot of young guys, AAU guys, and in AAU you can get 30 or 40, but on this level, it’s not that easy. I would say it’s half on defense and half on some guys lacking skills. Hopefully it won’t be like this for long.

Both Kobe and 'Sheed seem to agree that "kids these days" aren't learning the same tricks of the trade that have worked so well for so many over the years. Floaters, low-post footwork and the nuances of the mid-range game have since been eschewed in favor of vicious dribble drives and long-range bombs that, while effective at times, render players all too predictable and easy to defend once they reach the NBA. 

Bryant and Wallace also share the experience of being early entrants into the NBA draft. Wallace spent two years at North Carolina before jumping into the 1995 draft as the fourth overall pick. Bryant went straight from starring at Lower Merion High School to being the 13th pick of the Charlotte Hornets in 1996.

Their experiences are atypical for young players who have followed similar paths to the pros. For every prep phenom and one-and-done collegian who went on to achieve superstardom in the NBA—as Kobe, LeBron James and Kevin Durant have—there are countless others whose talents were trumped by poor decisions, bad coaching and a lack of preparation for the NBA game and the lifestyle that accompanies it.

Would J.R. Smith be something more than a solid bench scorer today had he opted to play at North Carolina rather than skip college entirely? How good could Marvin Williams have been if he had stayed a Tar Heel for more than a single season? Might another year at Kansas State have molded Michael Beasley into a more mature person, both on and off the court?

And that's to say nothing of all the busts, from Ndudi Ebi to Robert Swift, who have become cautionary tales of going pro at an early age. 

This isn't to suggest that 18- and 19-year-old kids shouldn't be allowed to ply their trade in the NBA. If teams are willing to take risks on the talents of such youngsters, then more power to all involved. However, it doesn't take a gumshoe to connect the dots between the rudimentary development of talent at the amateur levels and an apparent dearth of supremely skilled scorers in the pros.

 

Friends Don't Let Friends Score in Bunches

Chris Trotman/Getty Images

It's not hard to see how AAU ball has made players friendlier with one another while indirectly undermining the NBA's stock of scorers. Close connections established between players early in their careers have manifested themselves as mad dashes to superteams in recent years.

The biggest stars to come out of the NBA draft between 2002 and 2005 (i.e. LeBron, Carmelo, Bosh, Amar'e, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Deron Williams, etc.) are all products of a more tightly knit youth basketball community, one in which many dream of winning alongside one another rather than doing so at each other's expense.

Of course, no superstar (not even Michael Jordan) can rightfully claim to have won a championship on his own, but the coalescing of LeBron, Wade and Bosh with the Miami Heat in 2010 did excise at least one player (Bosh) from the honor roll of 20-point scorers. 

Stoudemire appeared primed to remain in that same category upon arrival with the New York Knicks, until 'Melo's desire for a superteam of his own eventually undermined STAT's standing as the focal point at Madison Square Garden.

The 2012-13 season has seen the scoring talents of Deron Williams and Joe Johnson offset one another with the Brooklyn Nets, even more so when factoring in the touches Brook Lopez requires down low.

The same goes for Dwight Howard in L.A., where he's had to cede his usual share of the spotlight to Kobe, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash.

The Milwaukee Bucks are hardly anyone's idea of a "superteam," though pairing Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings in the same backcourt is bound to drag both of them down as far as scoring is concerned.

On the flip side, the new collective bargaining agreement has, perhaps, sewn the seeds of a new generation of prolific point producers. Most notably, the costs and restrictions associated with the league's new luxury tax rules led the Oklahoma City Thunder to part ways with James Harden prior to the start of the season. Now with the Houston Rockets, Harden has blossomed into an All-Star as well as one of the NBA's premier individual scorers in the absence of Durant and Russell Westbrook.

In the minds of some, like OKC head coach Scott Brooks, the fact that Durant and Westbrook are among the few players who still account for 20 points a night is the result of an overall increase in talent and ability amongst NBA players (per Michael Lee):

There’s more skilled players on each team. When I was playing, your role was more definitive; this guy is a defender, this guy is a shooter, this guy is a post player, this guy is a driver. Now, just about every position has the ability to expand their game.

Versatility has, indeed, become the order of the day in the NBA, with Durant and LeBron serving as the prototypes for the modern player. The aforementioned rethinking of NBA offenses has opened coaches up to the possibilities of an approach governed less by isolation play and "hero ball" and more by passing, sharing and creating high-quality shots.

The numbers bear out Brooks' point to an extent. According to data gleaned from Basketball-Reference, the crop of double-digit scorers has rebounded in size since a lull between the late 1990s and mid-2000s:

 

As has the overall percentage of 10-plus-point scorers in the NBA over that time:

 

To Brooks' point, the apparent growth in the number of players who are average or slightly above average in their general level of productivity would, in theory, give the very best greater incentive to spend less time scoring for themselves and more time dishing to teammates they trust to do the job for them.

This would appear to run contrary to the point made earlier about potentially elite players squandering their talents by way of the AAU system and early entry. However, when such prospects do stick in the NBA, they often wind up strengthening the league's middle class, as those like J.R. Smith have done over the years.

Thus, it's possible that the NBA isn't losing singularly great scorers so much as it's gaining parity amongst its players.

 

A Random Act of the Basketball Gods?

It's also entirely possible that the drop in 20-point scorers is due more to timing and random chance than anything else. Injuries, in particular, have exacted a toll on players who would otherwise be expected to boost the NBA's scoring standards.

Derrick Rose has yet to play a single minute for the Bulls. Danny Granger has only just returned to active duty with the Indiana Pacers. Kevin Love has been hampered by a hand injury for most of the season. Eric Gordon has been in and out of the New Orleans Hornets' lineup with knee troubles. Dirk Nowitzki has been slow to recover from knee surgery, as has Dwight Howard from a major operation on his back. Amar'e Stoudemire's knees have been a collective wreck for some time now.

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And, of course, there's the tragic case of Brandon Roy, whose own bad knees appear to have forced him back into an early retirement. Such are The Breaks of the Game, about which David Halberstam once wrote so poignantly.

Attrition among big men was discussed earlier as a possible cause behind the lack of prolific scorers, though the ravages of time aren't limited to them. Vince Carter, Joe Johnson and Paul Pierce have all fallen off on account of old age, as well.

If nothing else, might this season's slump in superstar scoring levels simply be the residual effect of last season's lockout? Could it be that the NBA is still readjusting to the usual rigors of an 82-game schedule after the 66-game sprint to the finish that became of the 2011-12 campaign? If the 1998-99 lockout is any guide, some of the league's offensive indicators should rebound to an extent, as they did during the early 2000s.

More importantly, is it bad that there are fewer 20-point scorers now than ever? Is the NBA any less interesting with just 11 guys in that category, as opposed to the usual 25 or so seen in years gone by? Might this "downturn" be the byproduct of a new age of smart, technologically savvy, team-oriented basketball?

Or should hoops heads bemoan the modern game and pine for the "good old days," when individual brilliance supposedly trumped all else? Or is all of this much ado about nothing?

Frankly, fewer players may be averaging 20 points or more than ever, but that doesn't necessarily mean that there are fewer guys capable of getting hot and blowing up the box score on any given night.

The lengthy list of quality players (i.e. Rudy Gay, Josh Smith, Monta Ellis, Al Jefferson), budding young talents (i.e. Damian Lillard, Kemba Walker, DeMarcus Cousins), All-Stars (i.e. Blake Griffin, David Lee, Paul George, Brook Lopez, Deron Williams) and future Hall-of-Famers (i.e. Paul Pierce) currently on the fringe of the 20-Point Club speaks to the depth of talent in today's NBA and the exciting lack of predictability that it lends to the game. 

At its core, this "issue" also speaks to the nature of basketball itself—that there's only one ball that can be used for only so many shots over the course of a game. 

And that those who are able to score in bunches consistently, despite the ever-more-burdensome constraints of the NBA game, are playing basketball at a level rarely seen in the history of the sport.


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