All About Buckets: Predicting Top 10 Scorers in 2017-18 NBA Season
We're smarter for having embraced NBA analytics.
We understand the game more deeply, and we appreciate it to a greater degree when we care about the process as much as the results. There's beauty in the details.
But it's worth remembering that scoring more points than the other team is still the wonderfully simple goal.
In that spirit, let's figure out who'll lead the league in points per game for the 2017-18 season.
You'll note several of the usual suspects. Most names in our top 10 showed up among that select group a year ago. The normal qualification standard applies; a player must appear in at least 58 contests to be eligible for the scoring title (and inclusion here).
Based on health, situation, career trajectory and playing time, these 10 scorers will be the class of the league.
Isaiah Thomas, Cleveland Cavaliers
Take your pick: Thomas can fall short of the top 10 because of the 58-game requirement or the new environment he's in with the Cavs. His hip injury, though not surgically repaired, could lead to missed time. And he won't be the offensive focal point he was with the Boston Celtics. Even more broadly, Thomas had one of the best offensive seasons in memory last year, becoming the sixth player in history to average at least 28.0 points per game on 62.5 percent true shooting. That's not happening again.
Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers
Like Thomas, Griffin is an injury risk. He's played an average of 54 games the last three years, and though he's looked healthy in preseason competition, we're long past the point of giving the Clips' new offensive fulcrum the benefit of the doubt when it comes to health. Even if his role increases significantly without Chris Paul, and even if he somehow stays healthy enough to qualify, Griffin has averaged more than 22 points per game just once since his rookie season.
DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans Pelicans
Cousins averaged 24.4 points per game after joining the Pelicans last season. His effective field-goal percentage actually increased with his new team (49.4 to 51.0 percent), but he sacrificed about two field-goal attempts per game. That'll be enough to knock him out of the top 10.
DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors
Last year's fifth-leading scorer can't keep subsisting on mid-range jumpers and drawn fouls, right? Right?!
We hear the whole "he's adding a three-pointer to his game" story every summer, and it almost never amounts to much. Let's bet against a mid-career transformation like that until we see actual evidence.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
If the three-point shot materializes in season No. 5, consider this a mistake. But at 22.9 points per game last season, Antetokounmpo has a lot of ground to make up—and he's more of a do-it-all pan-skilled game-controller than a pure scorer. He's more likely to win MVP than a scoring title.
10. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
Predicted PPG: 26.0
No trend continues forever, and Damian Lillard's five-year run of scoring-average increases will draw to a close in 2017-18. Don't fret for the Portland Trail Blazers star; he's still in the top 10 after losing a whole point per game off last season's figure.
The bet here is that Lillard's usage rate (which has also been on the rise for five consecutive seasons) dips a bit as Jusuf Nurkic absorbs a few more touches. Lillard was marginally less involved in the offense during his minutes with Nurkic last season, but he was a much more efficient scorer. For that reason, he's got a good chance to make a bigger impact even if he plays and scores less.
Efficiency is king, after all.
Note, too, that CJ McCollum's scoring has been on the upswing more dramatically than Lillard's. After posting career bests in points per game (23.0) and effective field-goal percentage (54.4), McCollum established himself as one of the best pure shooters in the NBA last year. Perhaps Lillard will look to be more of a passer whenever sharing the court with McCollum, whose assist rate actually declined as he settled into his gunner role.
Portland's attack figures to be excellent after ranking fifth in offensive rating during the 26 games following the All-Star break. It's just that players other than Lillard—principally McCollum and Nurkic—should eat into Lillard's numbers a bit.
9. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics
Predicted PPG: 26.5
Maybe this feels conservative. Maybe we're underestimating Kyrie Irving's drive to prove striking out on his own was the right call.
Then again, 26.5 points per game would represent a career high for the new Boston Celtics point guard.
If Irving's Cleveland exodus is about establishing himself as a true superstar, scoring tons of points may not be the best way to do it. The holes in his profile are located in the playmaking, leadership, defensive and "does stuff that leads to winning" categories.
Everybody knows he can score.
"I just think that, playing with LeBron, Kyrie probably couldn't be everything that he possibly could be," Al Horford told Chris Forsberg of ESPN.com. "... I just think now, Kyrie will be in a position where people will see him and it's going to be like, 'This guy is elite.' That's what I sense with him."
It's possible Irving doubles down on what he knows, shoots 25 times per game and runs away with a scoring title. He's got the talent to do it. The likelier scenario, though, involves him rounding out the edges of his game in head coach Brad Stevens' system. He'll have Horford and Gordon Hayward sharing shots, too, not to mention an emerging Jaylen Brown and rookie Jayson Tatum.
Irving will always be a score-first gunner; he's not overhauling his game.
But expecting him to step in and duplicate Thomas' 2016-17 season in Boston feels overly simplistic. The Celtics have more scoring talent than they did a year ago; there won't be a call for Thomas-like takeovers for quarters at a time.
If Irving's out to prove himself, he'll need to do it in ways other than scoring.
8. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
Predicted PPG: 26.7
Any analysis of Anthony Davis' prospects for the upcoming season—from usage to role to stats—has to start with DeMarcus Cousins. Their co-functioning is the make-or-break determinant of the New Orleans Pelicans' season.
But that's not where it ends.
Davis added just under one point per game to his average following the Cousins acquisition, so it's safe to assume Boogie isn't going to cramp AD's offensive style. At the same time, on a per-possession basis, AD shot far less frequently in his minutes with Cousins, averaging 23.9 field-goal attempts per 100 possessions with Boogie on the floor against 30.6 in his solo stints.
After setting personal bests in points per game (28.0) and shots per 100 possessions (27.6) last year, Davis' scoring should decline a bit because of teammates other than Cousins.
Rajon Rondo is set to start, and his presence on the floor will destroy spacing and stop the ball. Tony Allen could see significant minutes on the wing, and pairing him with Rondo might create the first instance in memory where defenses completely ignore two perimeter players at the same time.
New Orleans has one of the weakest wing rotations in the NBA, and the overall makeup of this roster isn't one that portends high point totals for anyone.
"The parallels here to Grit 'N' Grind are obvious, given the addition of Allen, the market, the two bigs, and the surplus of surliness," the Ringer's Justin Verrier explained. "Diving headfirst into the mud may be trickier against today's stretchier competition; even the original Grit-'N'-Grinders have evolved past it."
The Pels could rank among the top five in defensive efficiency if a trimmed-down Cousins gives enough effort in a contract year. But expecting Davis to match last year's scoring average in this environment is a mistake.
7. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
Predicted PPG: 27.1
Karl-Anthony Towns will rank higher in total points scored than points per game, as he's never missed a contest in his career and plays for Tom Thibodeau, who treats every contest like a relentless chase scene in Mad Max, where the rule is: You rest when you die.
That said, we're still foreseeing an uptick in Towns' scoring average.
Jimmy Butler is a high-usage star who handles the ball a ton and should be a lock to average at least 20 points per game. Andrew Wiggins, another "needs the rock" wing who, at 22, may look to justify a max contract extension by pumping up the 23.6 points per game he averaged in 2016-17, will also make shots tougher to come by.
But Towns is so gifted, so unlimited in his scoring skill from all areas of the floor, that it feels impossible for him to post fewer than the 25.1 points he averaged in 2016-17. In his sophomore season, Towns shot and made more threes than he did as a rookie, got to the foul line more often and finished more efficiently at close range (70.7 percent inside three feet; 49.9 percent from 3-10 feet).
Why, in his age-22 season, should he do anything but keep improving?
Whatever spacing concerns arise from a Wiggins-Butler wing combo and Thibodeau's demonstrated preference for two-big lineups shouldn't distract from the lead story here: Towns is in the early phase of his ascent.
He's going to score a zillion points.
6. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
Predicted PPG: 28.0
Go ahead, be the guy predicting anything but improvement for Kawhi Leonard.
Note his lingering quad injury, which will cost him the entire preseason, according to the San Antonio Spurs, and bet against him adding 2.5 points per game to last year's scoring average.
It'd be logical on some level, calling for stasis or a step back in Leonard's seventh season. A guy can't keep getting demonstrably better forever, can he? And let's not forget the Spurs' only meaningful offseason addition was Rudy Gay, who's coming off a torn Achilles. He's not going to help ease Leonard's burdens.
Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge are older, Tony Parker will miss a chunk of the season while recovering from his own quad injury and Manu Ginobili...Wait, did you think I was going to say something negative about Manu? Like that he's in his fifth decade of life and cannot possibly hold up for another year?
There's a strict "no knocking Ginobili" policy around here, so look someplace else for pessimism on that front.
But you can see the rational case against Leonard improving his numbers, can't you? With an injury setting back his preseason timeline and less help than he's ever had, surely he'll at least start slowly. And maybe he won't add six or seven new offensive facets to his game for the first time in his career.
That's possible, but so is yet another step forward in his age-26 season.
I know where I'm putting my money: on the guy who keeps adding to his game in ways that would have seemed unfathomable not so long ago. On the guy who'll have no choice but to take on an even bigger role with his supporting cast aging and recovering from injury. On the guy who finished third in MVP voting last year and will have to be at least that good for the Spurs to be as good as they always are.
5. James Harden, Houston Rockets
Predicted PPG: 28.2
James Harden's production will hinge on dirty looks.
Because while Houston Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni wants to cut back Harden's minutes and playmaking burden, those intentions may not hold up to the intensity of a bearded glower.
"You probably have to ask James that," D'Antoni told Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. "We can have really good plans and he gives me the death stare and guess what, he gets to play more. We'll see."
Chris Paul isn't going to be in Harden's way—partly because he told The Vertical so but mostly because the two are smart and multiskilled enough to make the union mutually productive. In fact, Paul may be the reason Harden gets enough breaks to avoid breaking down in the postseason.
"We got him down a minute-and-a-half last year (from the previous season's average.)," D'Antoni said of Harden's minutes, per Feigen. "We'd like to get him down another minute-and-a-half. But I don't think it's the minutes; it's the responsibilities. If he's playing 35 minutes and has to make every play or you can play 35 minutes and make half the plays, it's a big difference."
Guess who'll be handling that other half?
Harden should be more efficient playing with Paul, who's made a career out of creating good looks for others. And he should also play and score a little less, which will be by design and can only benefit the Rockets' long-term plans. Finally, no, the new "Harden rule" designed to prevent gratuitous continuation calls will not be a problem. Harden would figure out how to score if there were a rule mandating the basketball be wrapped with venomous snakes.
Weigh all those factors, and Harden loses nine-tenths of a point from last year's average.
4. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
Predicted PPG: 28.4
Last year, Kevin Durant had to learn the workings of a hyper-functional NBA offense for the first time. This, after spending his entire career in a "your turn, my turn" stagnation game. He also had to navigate the emotional and mental obstacle course of integrating himself into a new team, with immense pressure attached, under considerable scrutiny.
He even missed 20 games due to injury.
Nonetheless, he posted the most efficient scoring season of his career. In fact, KD became the sixth player in history to average at least 25.0 points per game with a true shooting percentage of 65.1 percent or better.
So what happens now that he's won his title, collected a Finals MVP, had a full season to work out the kinks with his star teammates and no longer has to justify his decision to leave Oklahoma City?
More scoring. That's what.
You could see him hesitate last season, held back by whichever of the factors you'd like to choose from that opening paragraph up there. He'd pass up clean looks once in a while, defer a little too much. In all, Durant's 23.8 field-goal attempts per 100 possessions was the second-lowest figure of his career.
He's free now, unfettered by concerns about fitting in and uncertainty about where to be on the floor. Better chemistry with his teammates and a mind at ease will produce an additional 3.3 points per game.
The Golden State Warriors' big-picture plans mean KD won't log much more than the 33.4 minutes he averaged last season. That would seem to put a scoring title out of reach.
But don't be surprised if he winds up producing the most efficient high-volume scoring season in NBA history.
3. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
Predicted PPG: 28.5
Yes, Russell Westbrook will finish with a scoring average one-tenth of a point higher than Durant's. And yes, he'll do it on purpose.
What Russ won't do is match his league-leading figure of 31.6 points per game from last year.
Talent consolidation was the trend of the offseason, and the Thunder got in on the fad in a way that'll cut into Westbrook's point totals and overall responsibilities. That's probably good for OKC, as Westbrook's stratospheric usage rate of 41.7 percent simply couldn't continue. Even athletes like him (to the extent there have ever been any) can't do that much indefinitely.
Because the mere presence of Westbrook means the Thunder's offense will never be free-flowing, new addition Carmelo Anthony will mostly score in slow-it-down isolation situations—which is fine because that's how he likes to get his buckets anyway. Maybe there will be scenarios where OKC generates a few more catch-and-shoot opportunities for Melo and Paul George, but if playing with Durant and a pre-stardom Harden couldn't get Westbrook into ball and player movement, it's not happening now. Not for any sustained period, anyway.
The Thunder's offense should be excellent nonetheless.
Westbrook will just no longer constitute the entire operation himself.
2. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Predicted PPG: 28.8
The standards are skewed for Stephen Curry. Because somehow, 25.3 points per game and an effective field-goal percentage of 58.0 constitute a "down" year.
Get ready for up.
For many of the same reasons Durant is in for a big season, Curry figures to light up the league.
Bold prediction time: Dude's going 50-40-90 this season, regaining the efficiency of his two MVP campaigns while giving back just enough volume to prevent him from easily collecting a third. Three straight trips to the Finals is cause enough for a couple of extra minutes on the bench here and there—respites which will go a bit further now that the league has extended the season and axed torturous four-in-five stretches.
This isn't just some premonition. It's a calculated wager on Curry hitting a few more of the looks he inexplicably missed last year. After nailing 43.0 percent of his pull-up treys in 2015-16, Curry made just 36.5 percent in 2016-17. He was also less accurate on threes deemed open (defender within 4-6 feet), making 43.7 percent of those shots after drilling 49.4 percent the season prior.
His accuracy on wide-open triples dipped as well (46.2 percent to 45.3 percent).
You can zoom out and be confident in Curry's regression to the glorious mean, too. He shot 41.1 percent from deep last year, the worst mark of his career. That's just not going to happen again—not with Durant fitting in more snugly, not with added rest between games and not with even more shooting spread across the roster (Hi, Nick Young and Omri Casspi!).
The Warriors tied the record for offensive rating in a season last year at 115.6. Curry's return to form will be the biggest reason they break it in 2017-18.
1. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
Predicted PPG: 29.2
LeBron James' only scoring crown came back in 2007-08 when he averaged a clean 30 points per game. Believe it or not, that was the only time he led the league in any of the five traditional statistical categories.
So why, in his age-33 season, would any right-thinking prognosticator expect James to do it a second time?
Because the best player alive is "obsessed," according to workout observers polled by ESPN's Dave McMenamin.
Because head coach Tyronn Lue has no compunction about playing James more minutes per game than anyone in the NBA.
Because this "James on the warpath" narrative is too good to deny, too tantalizing and oozing with wish fulfillment and hero worship to cast aside.
Because James, this generation's greatest player and perhaps the best ever, is the only guy who could possibly shrug off obscene mileage and advancing age to make a point in his (likely) final year with the Cavaliers.
Because he needs to send a message in the wake of Irving's departure, a signal to the league at large that he is not to be underestimated, underappreciated or in any way marginalized.
For a player who's made the spectacular mundane and the impossible routine, a second scoring title, collected a decade after the first, should be cake.