Ranking NBA's Best Pure Scorers Heading into 2013-14 Season
There's a big difference between the top scorers and the best scorers in the NBA.
The former only looks at points per game, while the latter is actually a more useful measurement. We'll get to how I'll be calculating it on the next slide.
When Raymond Felton was asked in an interview with NBA.com's Lang Whitaker about whether he felt Carmelo Anthony was the best scorer in basketball, he gave the following response:
Without a doubt. Without a doubt. Because he scores in so many ways. There’s a lot of guys who can score the basketball in this league. Kevin Durant, by far, is one of the top ones. Him and Melo could be neck-and-neck—those guys can score in a lot of ways. But Melo can score in more ways than KD, because Melo can post up, he can score off the dribble, he can score in the mid-range, he can score finishing at the rim, and he can shoot threes. You’re talking about a guy who has a total, complete game, and he’s big and strong—6-8, big body, strong body.
Good for Felton. You're supposed to support your teammates, and that's exactly what he was doing here.
But is he right? Is 'Melo actually the best scorer in the NBA?
Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Hoopdata.com and Basketball-Reference.
How Pure Scoring Was Calculated
Points per game is the most overrated stat in basketball.
It completely ignores both efficiency and the way in which points were scored. To compensate for that, I'm turning to my own metric, something that's just called "pure scoring."
The way to quantify pure scoring stems from total offense created, a metric Kelly Scaletta and I created to determine the most dynamic offensive players in the NBA. The only difference is that individual offensive rebounding, turnovers and passing were eliminated from the equation.
Here are the relevant sections from the initial development of the stat:
Essentially, you can argue that there are two components to every shot: the creation of the shot and the execution of the shot itself. Sometimes a player controls both of these components, but in some situations, multiple players are involved.
In that situation, Paul created the shot, and Griffin made it. Most metrics will give two points to both of them, essentially double-counting the basket. Only two points were scored though, not four. Therefore, we're splitting the credit evenly between the distributor and the finisher.
The field goals that a player made were split up into two categories: unassisted and assisted. Players received full credit for unassisted field goals if they served as both shot-creator and shot-maker, but they received only half credit for assisted ones. This applies to both two-pointers and shots from behind the three-point arc.
Additionally, credit was given for free throws made and taken away for free throws missed. Missed field goals counted against the player:
However, all missed field goals aren’t lost possessions. Many times, teams score on missed field goals. In fact, the tip-in is one of the most efficient shots in the game, and literally none of those happen without a missed shot.
As a result, missed shots were more detrimental to the cause on teams that were less effective on the offensive glass.
Essentially, pure scoring can be quantified by summing unassisted points per game, assisted points per game and free throws made per game, then subtracting missed free throws per game and the weighted version of missed field goals.
Note: The above text is an adapted form of the original version that can be found here.
Qualified but Missed the Cut
There were 43 players who qualified for the scoring title and averaged at least 15 points per game during the 2012-13 season. Of those, only Rudy Gay played for multiple teams. Unfortunately, that means I can't calculate the Toronto Raptors small forward's pure scoring here, so he's excluded from the rankings.
Once you move on, you'll see the top 10 pure scorers going into the 2013-14 season, but below are No. 11 through No. 42:
11. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers: 8.35 pure scoring
12. LaMarcus Aldridge Portland Trail Blazers: 7.86
13. Brook Lopez, Brooklyn Nets: 7.84
14. Kemba Walker, Charlotte Bobcats: 7.34
15. Ty Lawson, Denver Nuggets: 7.27
16. Jrue Holiday, New Orleans Pelicans: 7.14
17. Monta Ellis, Dallas Mavericks: 6.81
18. Brandon Jennings, Detroit Pistons: 6.73
19. DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings: 6.59
20. Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers: 6.45
21. David Lee, Golden State Warriors: 6.44
22. DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors: 6.41
23. J.R. Smith, New York Knicks: 6.39
24. David West, Indiana Pacers: 6.26
25. Al Jefferson, Charlotte Bobcats: 6.17
26. Zach Randolph, Memphis Grizzlies: 6.16
27. Paul George, Indiana Pacers: 6.16
28. Paul Pierce, Brooklyn Nets: 6.07
29. Jamal Crawford, Los Angeles Clippers: 5.72
30. Danilo Gallinari, Denver Nuggets: 5.69
31. Chris Bosh, Miami Heat: 5.58
32. Joe Johnson, Brooklyn Nets: 5.57
33. Greg Monroe, Detroit Pistons: 5.55
34. O.J. Mayo, Milwaukee Bucks: 5.43
35. Carlos Boozer, Chicago Bulls: 5.11
36. Luol Deng, Chicago Bulls: 4.86
37. Al Horford, Atlanta Hawks: 4.84
38. Chandler Parsons, Houston Rockets: 4.46
39. Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets: 4.42
40. Ryan Anderson, New Orleans Pelicans: 4.28
41. Josh Smith, Detroit Pistons: 3.37
42. Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors: 3.29
10. Deron Williams, Brooklyn Nets: 8.77 Pure Scoring
Deron Williams got it going toward the end of the regular season. His success carried over into the playoffs, where he served as a dynamic threat for the Brooklyn Nets. The big point guard is one of the premier offensive floor generals due to his proclivity for racking up both points and assists, but the latter has no effect here.
Williams thrives in these rankings because he's one of the best scorers in the league after working off the rock, which is a rather strange trait for a ball-dominant 1-guard to possess. According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), D-Will scored 1.17 points per possession in spot-up situations, the No. 35 mark in the league.
Another benefit Williams receives is playing alongside some rather big bodies. Last season, Kris Humphries and Reggie Evans ate up boards well enough that the Nets had a 30.6 offensive rebounding percentage when the floor general was on the court. Only three qualified player-team combos had higher marks.
What's going to be scary is how high D-Will rises if he stays healthy throughout 2013-14. He could very well move up into the top five, even though he's now surrounded by a number of other offensive studs.
9. Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat: 8.97
Can you tell that Dwyane Wade's supposed decline was quite overblown?
The Miami Heat shooting guard's role is changing as he takes more and more of a backseat to LeBron James, but he's coupling the declining number of opportunities with some incredibly efficient play.
He shot a career-high 52.1 percent from the field in 2012-13.
Wade abhors three-pointers, which is a positive since he has yet to develop a consistent jumper from the perimeter. By avoiding them, he's playing to his strengths more than ever before.
If you're surprised that Wade doesn't rank higher, that would be LeBron's fault once more. The forward is so good at feeding the ball to his talented teammate that Wade's percentage of makes at the rim that were assisted is remarkably high.
At 56 percent, it's well above every other member of the top 10.
8. Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers: 9.65
While it's impressive for every player in the top 10 to have made the rankings, Chris Paul stands alone as the most impressive member of the exclusive fraternity of top scorers.
CP3 is a pass-first point guard, and he averaged only 16.9 points per game. Twenty-nine players outscored him during the 2012-13 campaign, so it's quite surprising that the NBA's best floor general was able to leapfrog so many of them.
Paul is incredibly gifted at creating his own shots. Take a look at the percentage of his makes that were assisted compared to the league averages from each range, courtesy of Hoopdata.com:
|Three-Pointers||At Rim||3-9 Feet||10-15 Feet||16-23 Feet|
There's creating your own shots, and then there's whatever CP3 does. It's insane.
According to my calculations, Paul scored 6.36 times as many unassisted points as assisted ones. That's the top mark among the 42 eligible players, and it leaves him as just one of three players to break past four. Jrue Holiday and the next player in the rankings are the other two.
This is just further evidence that A) Paul can get to any spot on the court whenever he wants and B) he's the best point guard in the game. Even though he trails two floor generals, it's only barely, and it's tough to argue that either is on the same level as him as a distributor or as a defender.
7. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder: 10.69
Russell Westbrook is another player who thrives creating his own looks.
Let's take a peek at how he compares to both Chris Paul and the league average in turns of percentage of makes that were assisted from each area of the court, once more courtesy of Hoopdata.com.
|Three-Pointers||At Rim||3-9 Feet||10-15 Feet||16-23 Feet|
Westbrook was better at creating his own shots from mid-range, something that should come as no surprise to anyone who's watched him shoot those infuriating pull-up jumpers. However, he lags well behind from the two most efficient spots on the court: behind the arc and at the rim.
The difference between Westbrook and Paul can't be found here, though. It's all about volume.
Westbrook is able to maintain those numbers while carrying a much larger scoring burden. While CP3 averaged only 16.9 points per game, Westbrook checked in at 23.2. That's a big difference, and it more than makes up for the efficiency and shot-creating disparity.
6. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors: 10.71
How quickly did Stephen Curry rise up the ranks of the NBA?
It's simply unbelievable that he's made the transition from Davidson to the NBA without skipping a beat, and it's even harder to grasp that he's already become a bona fide superstar after just four full seasons, many of which were plagued by ankle injuries.
Curry has established himself as one of the best volume scorers in basketball, primarily because of his skill shooting from the perimeter.
It's not hyperbole to say that Curry just enjoyed the best shooting season in NBA history. After all, he did set the all-time record for three-pointers made in a single season, and he did so while shooting a scorching 45.3 percent from beyond the arc.
And even that overlooks part of what made him so impressive.
Curry was assisted on only 52.8 percent of his triples. He created nearly half of his own looks, and that's something that no other premier sharpshooter on Curry's level (we're talking about guys like Reggie Miller and Ray Allen here) has been able to say.
To put that in perspective, take a look at how the league's top five three-point shooters this past season fared in terms of percentage of their triples that were assisted:
|Makes Per Game||3P%||% Assisted|
If your jaw isn't on the floor, it should be.
5. Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks: 12.09
Here's where your jaw probably hits the floor again. And—before you flock to the comment section to call me a Knicks hater—it's also where I must encourage you to remember that these rankings are completely objective.
Even though Carmelo Anthony won the scoring title, he's not an efficient shooter. He made 44.9 percent of his shots from the field, 37.9 percent of his three-pointers and 83 percent of his freebies.
The 44/37/83 club just isn't as impressive as the 50/40/90 club. In fact, while the latter has 12 entries, the former has 324.
'Melo is an absolutely fantastic scorer, and there's a rather large gap between him and everyone below. However, he still isn't on the same level as the four players yet to be announced, simply because his efficiency isn't that great. It's more a fault of his role than his skill set, as the New York Knicks count on him remarkably often.
If he wants to move up higher, he'll have to either start hitting shots at a higher clip or begin creating more of his looks for himself.
'Melo scored 12.56 unassisted points per game and 4.67 assisted during the 2012-13 season. While the first number trails only LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Russell Westbrook, that ratio leaves him trailing three of the four remaining players.
4. James Harden, Houston Rockets: 13.26
James Harden lives to play offense. And grow a beard, which unfortunately doesn't give him the same boost here that it does in real life.
The Houston Rockets shooting guard doesn't appear to have impressive efficiency numbers at first glance thanks to his 43.8 percent shooting from the field. But when you factor in his three-point shooting, tendency to get to the foul stripe and ease with which he makes the charity shots, then you get a much more impressive true shooting percentage: 60.
There were 13 players who beat Harden in that category during the 2012-13 campaign, and they generally fall into two categories. There are the limited big men (Tyson Chandler, Serge Ibaka, DeAndre Jordan, Tiago Splitter and Carl Landry) and the three-point specialists (Kyle Korver, Jose Calderon, Kevin Martin, Steve Nash, Martell Webster and Danny Green).
If you counted, that accounts for 11 of the 13 players ahead of Harden in true shooting percentage. The other two are Kevin Durant and LeBron James, so it's not like Harden is in anything but elite company.
The bearded shooting guard has the whole scoring thing figured out. Now it's time to focus on defense.
3. Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers: 13.43
Kobe Bryant is one of the older stars in the NBA, but he still managed to lead the entire league in unassisted points per game. Checking in at 13.17, the difference between the Mamba and No. 2 (Russell Westbrook) was actually fairly sizable too.
Love him or hate him, you can't deny that Kobe is a great shot-creator.
He might call his own number a little too often, but the shots he hits have a higher degree of difficulty than those of anyone else in the league. Carmelo Anthony might challenge him for that title occasionally, but Kobe's spinning jumpers, fadeaway perimeter shots and ridiculous finishes around the basket take the cake.
The only things holding Kobe back are efficiency and three-point shooting.
While he's improved his perimeter shooting throughout his career, the 2-guard still made only 1.7 three-pointers per game. Seventeen of the qualified scorers in these rankings made more triples during the 2012-13 season.
Additionally, his 46.3 percent shooting from the field, while a much-improved number that's actually pretty solid for a volume-scoring shooting guard, lags well behind the top two players in the rankings.
Kobe has enough motivation to produce a few more elite seasons, but the Achilles injury is going to make for an interesting challenge now.
2. LeBron James, Miami Heat: 13.58
Here's just a bit more evidence that LeBron James is easily the best player in the NBA.
Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Carmelo Anthony, Stephen Curry and Kobe Bryant are all known for their scoring. It's their best trait. And they all still rank below LeBron.
Is scoring the MVP's best trait? Nope, absolutely not. In fact, I'd rank it third, behind both his distributing and his defense.
Yet he's still checking in at No. 2 because he's an unstoppable point-producer who has added a terrific jumper and an impressive arsenal of post moves to his game. LeBron finished third in unassisted points per game and 17th in assisted points per game, giving him a raw points figure of 16.93.
Only Carmelo Anthony produced more raw points, which doesn't factor in efficiency or offensive rebounding numbers. When you bring efficiency (which may as well be James' specialty) into the equation, it's clear that he rises even higher.
As scary as this sounds now that Greg Oden is on the roster, LeBron's biggest weakness in terms of pure scoring was his team's offensive rebounding. The Miami Heat grabbed 22.5 percent of available offensive boards when LeBron played, making all of his misses hurt him even more than most other players.
1. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder: 14.57
Kevin Durant is the best pure scorer in the NBA, and it's not even close.
His score of 14.57 is nearly a full point ahead of LeBron James' 13.58, and as you've seen by the sluggish pace at which that number has been climbing as we move up the rankings, that's a big difference.
Not only did Durant finish second in scoring during the 2012-13 season, but he did so while posting one of the most efficient seasons in NBA history. He joined the 50/40/90 club, joining Larry Bird as the only players in history to do so while truly competing for a scoring title.
Dirk Nowitzki was close in 2006-07, but he didn't even finish in the top five of the scoring race, losing out to Kobe Bryant by seven points per game.
This combination of volume and efficiency simply isn't supposed to happen, and yet Durant has shown no signs that he's doing anything but continuing to improve. If he starts creating his own shots...look out, NBA.
En route to finishing No. 1, Durant scored 5.23 assisted points per game, a number that's shockingly high for a player this high in the rankings. Once he starts turning some of those assisted points into the unassisted variety, the competition won't even be remotely close.
Not that it is right now, either.