Metrics 101: Ranking NBA's Greatest All-Star Performances
How much does Kobe Bryant's unforgettable dunk against LeBron James matter in a statistical analysis of All-Star performances? Can it help the Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard outpace the best efforts of Wilt Chamberlain, who routinely put up massive scoring and rebounding figures before the implementation of the three-point arc?
What about Michael Jordan? Were Anthony Davis' record-setting 52 points last year enough to earn him admission into the leading group of NBA All-Star performances?
To see how literally each showing in the midseason festivities stacks up against all the rest, we're turning to the numbers—game score, specifically.
How It Works
The box-score metric is by no means a perfect measure, but it does boil all types of contributions into a singular number. We're using a slightly modified version here where every rebound (offensive and defensive) is weighted appropriately. But that's not the only step in finding All-Star Score.
Throughout league history, the complexion of these inter-conference contests has changed dramatically. Now more than ever, defense is entirely eschewed in favor of scoring. The last four years have produced the four highest average game scores for the players involved.
In 1955, average game score bottomed out at 8.45 in a 100-91 victory for the Eastern Conference. During the West's 192-182 win in 2017, the average player had a record-setting 17.4 game score.
To account for these ballooning scores over time, we're ranking these performances using z-scores, which show how a player stood out against his competition that specific day. This takes care of changing levels of pace, defensive intensity and three-point shooting.
All-Star Score is simply the z-score for each specific outing, and you can view all 1,525 marks throughout NBA history. Most of them just aren't in the same ballpark as these 10 memorable explosions (limited to one selection per player).
Karl Malone, 1989 (2.46 All-Star Score)
Looking back at the 1989 All-Star Game's box score, your eyes won't immediately be drawn to Karl Malone's relatively nondescript line of 28 points, nine rebounds, three assists and two steals. He may have tied Michael Jordan for the scoring lead, but he didn't produce anything that truly stands out—unlike John Stockton's 17 assists for the Western Conference.
But while the Utah Jazz point guard also turned the ball over a whopping 12 times—one of just three times in All-Star history someone has hit double-digit cough-ups, joining 1991 Michael Jordan (10) and 2017 James Harden (10)—Malone was a bastion of efficiency. The power forward shot 12-of-17 from the field and only handled the ball to the East twice.
Moses Malone, 1987 (2.462)
Efficiency reigns supreme yet again, even if Moses Malone didn't quite have the volume necessary to sneak past the other premier competitors throughout league history. Recording 27 points, 18 rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block seems snazzy in an exhibition setting, but the big man just didn't have the ball frequently enough while starting alongside Larry Bird, Julius Erving, Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins.
Plus, those numbers came during an overtime contest. Everyone was knotted up at 140 points apiece before the West broke the tie in extra action, dooming Malone to a loss and a spot among the honorable mentions.
Russell Westbrook, 2015 (2.491)
Russell Westbrook couldn't draw a start in 2015. He instead came off the pine to spell James Harden and Stephen Curry for the Western Conference. But he still played just over 25 minutes and got rather shot-happy.
The Oklahoma City Thunder floor general ended up launching 28 field-goal attempts (more than one per minute) and made four trips to the free-throw stripe, which propelled him to an ostentatious line of 41 points, five rebounds, one assist and three steals.
Anthony Davis, 2017 (2.535)
Much as is the case for Russell Westbrook above, Anthony Davis' score doesn't stand out as much as the raw numbers might indicate. He's been a part of the recent defense-free trend in the All-Star Game, as the 2017 festivities featured his Western Conference winning 192-182.
This, in a nutshell, is why we're using z-scores rather than raw game scores. The complexion of games changes, and exploding for 52 points, 10 rebounds and two steals on 26-of-39 shooting simply isn't as impressive in an exhibition with scores pushing toward two bills. That's not to discredit Davis' efforts; it's just a statistical reality.
Bill Russell, 1963 (2.624)
Bill Russell was involved in the 1963 All-Star action, so the NBA didn't have to worry about that same anti-defense mentality. We can safely assume he was a rather stifling presence for the Eastern Conference, which held its foes to 108 during a seven-point victory.
The big man himself may only have logged 19 points, but he also notched 24 rebounds and five assists while representing the Boston Celtics. The rest of the East combined for 27 boards, while only Oscar Robertson (six) and Bob Cousy (six) dropped more dimes.
10. Dwyane Wade, 2010 (2.637 All-Star Score)
Modified Game Score: 34.9
Line: 28 points, six rebounds, 11 assists, five steals
He and LeBron James (25 points, five rebounds, six assists, four steals) fed off one another, peppering the Western Conference with alley-oop feeds and on-point dimes that served as a sign of what would soon come for the Miami Heat during the famed Big Three era. But it was the shooting guard who emerged as the biggest standout with his attack mentality and well-rounded play.
No one in the proceedings outscored him, with Carmelo Anthony (27), James (25), Chris Bosh (23) and Dirk Nowitzki (22) serving as the lone men also in the 20s. Meanwhile, only Steve Nash (13) racked up more assists than Wade, while James (six) and Deron Williams (six) were the closest to joining those guards in double digits.
Wade simply did everything, and he rarely made mistakes.
Turning the ball over just three times is decent. Shooting 12-of-16 from the field is a bit better.
8(tie). Tim Duncan, 2000 (2.64)
Modified Game Score: 34.3
Line: 24 points, 14 rebounds, four assists, one steal, one block
Tim Duncan's name isn't exactly synonymous with All-Star highlights. The legendary big man didn't play the most glamorous game, preferring to dominate the opposition with fundamental excellence, consistency and longevity. He rarely sought to demoralize his foes with SportsCenter material.
But in his prime, Duncan was so damn good that he couldn't help but emerge as a leading figure for the Western Conference.
The line you can read above might not seem like it belongs among the best of the best in All-Star history, but that's because those basic numbers mask so much of what happened. Not only did Duncan throw up a double-double with room to spare during an 11-point victory for the West, but he did so while shooting 12-of-14 from the field and turning the ball over just twice.
Throughout the entirety of All-Star history, Duncan is one of just eight players to score at least 24 points on no more than 14 shots, joining Ray Allen, Carmelo Anthony, Paul Arizin, Anthony Davis, Gus Johnson, Magic Johnson and Randy Smith. None of the others, however, stuffed the stat sheet quite like he did while splitting MVP honors with Shaquille O'Neal (0.944 All-Star Score).
8(tie). Kobe Bryant, 2011 (2.64)
Modified Game Score: 38.3
Line: 37 points, 14 rebounds, three assists, three steals
Grabbing 14 rebounds, dishing out three assists and swiping the ball away from opposing All-Stars three times is impressive enough. Throughout the history of this exhibition game, Kobe Bryant is literally the one player to do so. Removing the thievery from the equation, he's still joined by only 17 other performances (some of which may have joined him in the first club had steals been tracked).
But in typical Bryant fashion, the scoring is still what stood out most.
"Kobe was not passing the ball. At all," Amar'e Stoudemire said after the game, per NBA.com's Shaun Powell. And maybe you want to believe in an elaborate conspiracy that the future Hall of Famer was supposed to shoot relentlessly in front of his hometown crowd, cementing a Los Angeles celebration that also featured Blake Griffin jumping over a car to win the Dunk Contest.
Thing is, Bryant might also have been gunning frequently because he was serving as such an efficient scorer that night. His 37 points came on 26 field-goal attempts (and it's worth noting Stoudemire took a team-high 20 of his own for the Eastern Conference).
Oh, and he was the leading vote-getter that year, operating in front of a raucous Staples Center crowd comprised of many fans who had selected him for the starting lineup. Of course he was going to let fly early and often, as he did while exploding for a 21-spot in the first half alone.
7. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 1976 (2.655)
Modified Game Score: 32.4
Line: 22 points, 15 rebounds, three assists, three blocks
Somewhat shockingly, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar doesn't have too many transcendent All-Star performances. He sits at No. 76 in the all-time rankings for his 1983 exploits. His second-best outing places him behind 21 others, just shy of the cut-off for this article's honorable mentions.
But his premier game was spretty darn special.
With a starting five of Elvin Hayes, Bob McAdoo, Dave Bing, John Havlicek and Walt Frazier (plus Dave Cowens, Doug Collins and George McGinnis coming off the pine to score in double figures), the Eastern Conference stomped its Western counterparts. But that didn't stop Abdul-Jabbar from becoming the game's clear-cut standout.
No one in the West could touch his scoring total; only Rick Barry (17), Fred Brown (14), Tiny Archibald (13) and Bob Dandridge (10) joined him in double figures. His 15 rebounds outpaced the combined efforts of any two teammates, with Dandridge (six) and Scott Wedman (six) coming closest. Archibald (seven) was the only Western representative with more assists, and Abdul-Jabbar accounted for three of his team's four rejections.
The next-best All-Star Score from someone working in conjunction with the Hall of Fame center? Archibald's 0.831. On the other team? Dave Cowens' 1.781.
Dave Bing (0.668) may have won MVP, but Abdul-Jabbar was quite obviously the best player on the court.
6. Dave Cowens, 1972 (2.726)
Modified Game Score: 26.3
Line: 14 points, 20 rebounds, one assist
While Dave Cowens' score might have lagged behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's mark in 1976, the Boston Celtics big man was even better four years earlier. Still only a second-year player in Beantown not far removed from his collegiate days at Florida State, the red-headed center couldn't be kept off the glass.
In typical Cowens fashion, he didn't score too many points, checking in with 14 on 5-of-12 shooting from the field. But he made up for that deficit with relentless hustle and a willingness to sacrifice his body on just about any play, which helped him finish with a game-high 20 rebounds.
That number sounds impressive enough in a vacuum, but it's better still when Cowens needed only 32 minutes of action to finish well ahead of the game's other leading rebounders. Dave DeBusschere (11), Billy Cunningham (10) and Wilt Chamberlain (10) were the only other players with double digits on the night.
Cowens won All-Star MVP one year later with 15 points, 13 rebounds and one assist, whereas he ceded the honor to Jerry West (1.366 All-Star Score) during this particular outing—the 5's midseason-classic debut, it should be noted. But he was never better than in this showing, even if he didn't have any hardware or a victory for his indefatigable efforts.
5. Charles Barkley, 1991 (2.74)
Modified Game Score: 29.6
Line: 17 points, 22 rebounds, four assists, one steal, one block
The rebounding theme continues.
Anyone in an All-Star game can score with aplomb, but precious few players are capable of fighting through other big bodies and hauling in more than 20 boards. Yet Charles Barkley did so for the Eastern Conference in 1991, single-handedly making a larger rebounding impact than the combined efforts of the four men joining him in the starting lineup: Michael Jordan (five), Patrick Ewing (10), Bernard King (three) and Joe Dumars (one).
For that matter, he also doubled the efforts of the Western Conference's leading glass-crasher, as Karl Malone's 11 boards paced the losing squad.
Of course, Barkley wasn't just a rebounding stud. He also scored 17 points on 7-of-15 shooting, dished out four assists with only three turnovers and made a defensive impact during the 116-114 victory.
The power forward was rewarded for his efforts with MVP honors, and that was the appropriate choice. Next up in All-Star Score came Ewing (1.991), Malone (1.724) and David Robinson (0.789). As so often seems to be the case, numbers and analytics love Barkley, even if that affection isn't typically reciprocated during TNT broadcasts.
4. Wilt Chamberlain, 1960 (2.777)
Modified Game Score: 37.8
Line: 23 points, 25 rebounds, two assists
During the regular season, 20/20 lines are always notable achievements. But they're far more rare in the All-Star setting, when the world's best players are competing against fellow game-changers, splitting time with their notable teammates and often engaging in more egalitarian offensive schemes.
Wilt Chamberlain is an exception.
Only five such performances have ever been recorded on the midseason stage, and Chamberlain accounts for two of them. Interestingly enough, the other three all belong to another Hall of Famer who checks in at No. 2 in this countdown but doesn't enjoy nearly as much name recognition these days.
Chamberlain's other 20/20 showing came two years later when he again made the Philadelphia Warriors proud, this time with a staggering 42 points and 24 rebounds. But that performance only yielded an All-Star Score of 2.696—otherworldly and good enough to feature in the top 10 if single players could earn multiple spots, but not quite on the same level as this one.
The legendary 100-point scorer used far more possessions to get his 42-spot, taking an additional three shots from the field and nine free-throw attempts. He also recorded just one assist and got into some foul trouble for the Eastern Conference during a fast-paced game that featured significantly less defense. Whereas the two squads combined for 240 points in 1960, they logged a cumulative 280 two years later.
Remember, we're not looking at these performances devoid of context, or else Chamberlain's 52.6 modified game score in '62 would take the cake. He separated himself from the field to a greater extent in this marquee outing.
3. Scottie Pippen, 1994 (2.977)
Modified Game Score: 34.8
Line: 29 points, 11 rebounds, two assists, four steals, one block
During the 1993-94 season, Scottie Pippen did everything for a Chicago Bulls squad attempting to survive Michael Jordan's baseball adventure. Averaging 22.0 points, 8.7 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 2.9 steals and 0.8 blocks, he enjoyed the following per-game ranks on the Windy City roster:
- Points: First (Horace Grant was second at 15.1)
- Rebounds: Second to Grant (11.0)
- Assists: First (B.J. Armstrong was second at 3.9)
- Steals: First (Grant was second at 1.0)
- Blocks: Second to Grant (1.2)
Even though he teamed up with a significantly stronger supporting cast while representing the Eastern Conference in the 1994 All-Star Game (Shaquille O'Neal, Derrick Coleman and Kenny Anderson are far better fellow starters than Pete Myers, Grant and Bill Cartwright, while Armstrong featured in both groups), that well-rounded feel persisted.
Putting up 20 points, 10 rebounds, one assist, one steal and one block during an exhibition showcase is tough enough. Throughout NBA history, only Tim Duncan, Julius Erving, Kevin Garnett, Moses Malone (twice), Bob McAdoo, Shaquille O'Neal (twice) and Pippen have done so.
But en route to earning MVP honors during the East's 127-118 victory in 1994, Pippen didn't just match those rounded-off tallies.
He blew them out of the water while submitting one of only 60 performances in which a player swiped the ball away from his All-Star opposition at least four times.
2. Bob Pettit, 1956 (3.166)
- Wilt Chamberlain, 19.096
- Bob Pettit, 17.753
- LeBron James, 13.504
- Oscar Robertson, 13.335
- Kobe Bryant, 12.629
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 12.264
- Magic Johnson, 11.893
- Elgin Baylor, 11.55
- Michael Jordan, 10.007
- Shaquille O'Neal, 9.817
Modified Game Score: 37.8
Line: 20 points, 24 rebounds, seven assists
If we removed the one-appearance-per-player restriction, Bob Pettit would have a whopping three spots in the top 10. This was his best of the bunch, thanks to an out-of-character seven assists to go along with his 20 points (on 17 field-goal attempts) and 24 rebounds. But he also has the Nos. 3 and 9 performances throughout NBA history, earned in 1958 and '59, respectively.
As if that's not enough, the St. Louis Hawks legend made eight more All-Star appearances and earned positive scores in each and every one. In fact, his cumulative All-Star score (simply summing all the individual finishes) would leave him in a rather lofty position. Here are the 10 best career marks among all 406 men who have ever suited up for their conferences:
That's a who's-who list throughout league history, and it's no mere accident Pettit enjoys a prominent spot among the much bigger names of NBA annals. He's a forgotten superstar, overshadowed by contemporaries such as Chamberlain and Bill Russell despite a laundry list of achievements that includes sparking the Hawks to a Finals victory over the juggernaut Boston Celtics.
1. Michael Jordan, 1988 (3.281)
- Wilt Chamberlain, 42 of 280 points in 1962 (15.0 percent)
- Michael Jordan, 40 of 271 points in 1988 (14.8 percent)
- Anthony Davis, 52 of 374 points in 2017 (13.9 percent)
- Russell Westbrook, 41 of 321 points in 2015 (12.8 percent)
- Paul George, 41 of 369 points in 2016 (11.1 percent)
- Russell Westbrook, 41 of 374 points in 2017 (11.0 percent)
Modified Game Score: 43.6
Line: 40 points, eight rebounds, three assists, four steals, four blocks
Michael Jordan doesn't have as many legendary All-Star showings as some other Hall of Famers (see: placement on the career rankings), but he does have the one untouchable performance. He simply did everything while representing the Chicago Bulls as a 24-year-old, propelling the Eastern Conference to a 138-133 victory and earning MVP honors in the process.
The man widely considered the G.O.A.T. still stands as one of only five men to drop 40 points in a single All-Star exhibition, joining Wilt Chamberlain, Anthony Davis, Paul George and Russell Westbrook (twice). However, he did so during a year in which the affair was a much lower-scoring event, as you can see by looking at the percentage of total points scored:
Jordan put on a scoring show, and he didn't even need to hog the ball to do so. He drilled all six of his shots from the charity stripe, went 17-of-23 during live action (without even attempting a triple), found time to record three assists and turned the ball over just twice.
As if that's still not enough, he became one of only 38 players to record four steals in a single All-Star event and one of just 11 to block four shots. He and Dirk Nowitzki remain the only two men to achieve both feats in the same game.
No other All-Star performance is on the same level as this one, which should still be viewed as the all-time standard by which other celestial contributors are measured.