Metrics 101: NBA's 10 Best Isolation Scorers
Isolation plays can be some of the most exciting possessions employed by any NBA offense.
Are they the most effective? Of course not, which is why many defenses are structured to force extra passes and compel the opposition into attempting an isolation attack. But they're still thrilling, whether a smaller player is dazzling with his dribbles before attacking the hoop or a bigger man is backing his way toward the basket before hitting a turnaround jumper.
Some excel in these one-on-one situations, while others struggle so excessively that they shouldn't ever be granted another isolation opportunity. It's the first group with which we're concerned today, and we're not leaning on reputations. Only what's happened in 2017-18 matters, allowing us to remain entirely objective.
We'll use Kyrie Irving as an example, since last year's premier isolation player has been thoroughly average—in this play type only, not overall—during his first go-round with the Boston Celtics. As a result, he will not be appearing in this countdown.
Heading into games on Nov. 20, 296 different players had embarked upon at least one isolation endeavor during the current season. They'd combined to score 3,616 points on 3,971 possessions—a lackluster 0.911 points per possession that indicates why this play type should so often be avoided by all but the league's most lethal scorers.
Irving, meanwhile, had produced 60 points on 62 isolation attempts—0.968 points per possession. A league-average isolation threat would've theoretically put up 56.48 points with the same workload as the C's floor general, so Irving's production is marginally positive.
A score of 3.52—his actual points minus the hypothetical points of the league-average player—is nothing to be ashamed of; it's just not quite enough to sneak into the top 10. In fact, it pushes Irving down to No. 30, and that's a placement he'll surely leave in the dust as the sample grows larger and he moves closer to last year's league-leading mark of 87.91.
10. Malcolm Brogdon, PG, Milwaukee Bucks: 8.89
Isolation Possessions: 10
Isolation Points per Possession: 1.8
Malcolm Brogdon hasn't committed to isolation attacks that often for the Milwaukee Bucks, who typically base their offense around Giannis Antetokounmpo's exploits. In fact, the team as a whole ranks 20th in isolation frequency, and the Greek Freak has literally taken over half of the qualified plays for himself.
As he should. It's a perfectly valid strategy.
But when plays break down and Brogdon takes over the possession, he's found quite a bit of success. On his 10 isolation possessions, the second-year point guard hasn't drawn a single foul, which runs counter to the attacking results of most backcourt players. Instead, he's gone 8-of-10 from the field, steadily seeking out his shots and only taking the best looks.
Plus, he benefits from having a wide arsenal of close-range shooting motions and the touch necessary to pull them off. The Dallas Mavericks learned this firsthand when he tortured J.J. Barea with some quick crossovers before hitting a floating bank for a tough deuce over Salah Mejri.
That ability to use the glass while fading away is key. Brogdon's 6'5" frame gives him a natural advantage over most 1-guards, but he's comfortable attacking in isolation against bigger players because he can lean back to create space and kiss the ball off the window perfectly, as he did to poor Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in a clash with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Brogdon was terrible at this play type during his rookie season, finishing in the 13th percentile with a meager 0.55 points per possession. Apparently (and he may still be benefitting from the small sample), he put in a lot of work on his touch game over the summer.
Honorable Mentions: Anthony Davis, Lou Williams, Mike James, Jordan Clarkson, Darren Collison
9. Tyreke Evans, SG/SF, Memphis Grizzlies: 8.93
Isolation Possessions: 33
Isolation Points per Possession: 1.18
What a pleasant surprise Tyreke Evans has been, and all for a cheap, affordable $3.3 million. The Memphis Grizzlies might have had high hopes when they inked the swingman to a new deal this summer, but they surely couldn't have expected this much production.
Evans has legitimately been the most impactful player on Beale Street during the opening salvo of 2017-18, and it all has to do with his perimeter improvements. The 28-year-old has always been able to use his size and physicality advantageously as he attacks the basket, but shooting 41.5 percent from downtown on 4.3 attempts per game has forced defenders to stop sagging back and respect his jumper.
In 2015-16, Evans suited up in 25 games for the New Orleans Pelicans, and his 0.77 points per possession in isolation left him in the 44th percentile. While splitting time between the Pelicans the Grizzlies last year, those numbers plunged to 0.52 and 10th, respectively.
But defenders have to respect the shot now.
Not to keep picking on J.J. Barea, but the Dallas Mavericks point guard would've dropped much further back on this play against Evans in previous seasons. He'd have no reason to begin his defensive stance out at the three-point line, because shuffling back into the paint and forcing Evans into anything but a run toward the rim would be beneficial. Not anymore, and Evans gets to use his size to create an easy lay-in at the hoop.
Count Brandon Ingram as another victim.
Evans loves working up a head of steam as he moves down the court, and stopping him is tough enough when you're not ferociously backpedaling. Now, it's downright impossible, leading to plenty of easy finishes and otherwise-avoidable whistles.
8. Rudy Gay, SF/PF, San Antonio Spurs: 9.22
Isolation Possessions: 25
Isolation Points per Possession: 1.28
Though Rudy Gay has always been known for his isolation proclivities, he's never produced quite like this.
Not only is the oversized forward able to leverage his strength and shot-making habits into a higher field-goal percentage on such plays for the San Antonio Spurs, but he's forcing the opposition into one foul after another while almost never making mistakes.
So far this season, 55 different players are embarking upon at least 1.5 relevant possessions per game. Of that group, only four are drawing fouls on at least 15 percent of their possessions while turning the ball over no more than 5 percent of the time: Jaylen Brown, Spencer Dinwiddie, Gay and Mike James.
That's already a good group to be in. All three of the other mentioned names have experienced plenty of success in isolation throughout the 2017-18 campaign.
But Gay further differentiates himself because he's making shots. A whopping 8.0 percent of his possessions have even ended in and-1 buckets, which leaves him behind only Eric Gordon and Khris Middleton among the original group of 55. As he's demonstrated time and time again—like on this play against Jerami Grant (and a helping Raymond Felton)—he has the strength to maintain his form and shooting stroke even while fighting through contact.
Not bad for a player attempting to return to form after a devastating Achilles injury.
Gay's involvement might decline when Kawhi Leonard returns to a struggling San Antonio Spurs offense and immediately resumes functioning as the unquestioned alpha dog. But he's done tremendous work to at least keep the scoring unit afloat when he's on the floor, and the tools he's developed in isolation might not disappear when his role changes.
7. Mario Chalmers, PG, Memphis Grizzlies: 10.33
Isolation Possessions: 15
Isolation Points per Possession: 1.6
Impressive as Tyreke Evans has been, he's failed to function as the best isolation player on his own team.
That honor, though by a relatively small margin, goes to Mario Chalmers.
The veteran point guard hasn't spent much time working in one-on-one situations, but nearly all of them have gone well. Five of his 15 possessions have resulted in free-throw attempts, and he's gone 7-of-10 from the field in the remaining portion. That success rate is tough to argue with, allowing the former Jayhawk to rise above plenty of players far more involved in the proceedings.
But will it last?
Unfortunately, the answer is probably a negative one.
Chalmers, now a 31-year-old point guard, isn't quite as fleet-footed as he was during his prime days. And while he still has the speed necessary to get by defenders who turn their hips in the wrong direction, he's not explosive enough to generate lightly contested attempts. And that's where it's problematic that he's intent on finishing almost every close-range attempt with his right hand, even if he's driving from the left side and exposing the ball to a defender closing from behind. Sometimes, that forces him into awkward attempts and unnecessary misses.
But the bigger problem is the lack of history. Chalmers doesn't have a new tool in his arsenal and is actually playing some of his worst offensive basketball; he just happens to have found success in the puny number of isolations upon which he's embarked.
Enjoy the early-season fluke while it lasts.
6. Dennis Schroder, PG, Atlanta Hawks: 10.33
Isolation Possessions: 60
Isolation Points per Possession: 1.08
Speed, speed and more speed.
Dennis Schroder's isolation possessions don't contain much nuance. Once he gets a matchup he likes, he's going to put his head down and the ball on the floor, then explode toward the hoop with all the acceleration he can muster. The German point guard is one of the league's quickest players in the half-court set, and this is where he truly shines.
Just look how easily he gets by George Hill for an uncontested layup. And that's against a guard known, in part, for his defensive chops. If he forces a big man to switch onto him, he's either going to blow through the defender (sorry, Ryan Anderson) or jet past and then slow down to seal him behind for a relatively clean finish (your turn, John Henson).
Couple those wheels with finishing touch and a penchant for reverse lay-ins, and you have a potent isolation weapon.
The Atlanta Hawks have also fully unleashed Schroder in 2017-18, turning to him more and more to compensate for the offseason departure of Paul Millsap to the Denver Nuggets. He's tasked with initiating a disproportinate amount of the offense, and 19.5 percent of his plays fall under the isolation umbrella—up from a relatively meager 11.1 percent last year and 6.9 percent in 2015-16.
Apparently, that trust is paying off.
This score isn't merely the result of a volume uptick, since Schroder is also scoring at—rather easily—his highest clip of the SportVU era, which encompasses these last three season. In fact, if he maintained this exact rate and the Hawks ran every possession as a Schroder isolation, their 108.3 offensive rating would tie the Indiana Pacers for No. 5 in the league-wide hierarchy.
5. Austin Rivers, PG/SG, Los Angeles Clippers: 10.82
- Austin Rivers, 43 isolation possessions with no turnovers
- Victor Oladipo, 36
- Tobias Harris, 30
- Mike James, 29
- Spencer Dinwiddie, 28
Isolation Possessions: 43
Isolation Points per Possession: 1.16
Austin Rivers is only shooting 46.2 percent from the field during his many isolation opportunities, but he's still been one of the league's most efficient players in those mano-a-mano situations.
Forty-three times, the underrated guard has settled into one of these attacks and finished the play with one of the three true outcomes in basketball—a field-goal attempt, a drawn foul or a turnover. Except he's entirely avoided one of those possibilities, refusing to turn the ball over on even a single possession.
That's not normal.
Throughout the early portion of the 2017-18 campaign, 139 different players have embarked upon at least one isolation try and avoided turning the ball over even once. Just 22 members of that group have recorded double-digit possessions, and none can keep pace with Rivers:
Rivers is solid at finishing plays off the dribble. Doing so has served as his speciality ever since he burst onto the scene back in Durham, commandeering possessions and frequently calling his own number. He's also adept at drawing whistles and converting at the stripe, though he's by no means a standout in that particular area.
But he has a recipe, and it seems to work. A quick dribble between the legs or behind the back, a crossover in the opposite direction and a burst to the rim for a lightly contested layup. Sometimes, he eschews the initial moves and takes a straight-line path toward the hoop, using his strength to stave off contests from the primary defender.
Rivers' style might not be too glamorous, and he can struggle to finish looks when the lane isn't cleared out and he finds himself playing in traffic. But the isolation game works.
4. Victor Oladipo, SG, Indiana Pacers: 11.2
Isolation Possessions: 36
Isolation Points per Possession: 1.22
Just like Austin Rivers, Victor Oladipo has gone about his isolation business without recording even a single turnover. But he's done so while using seven fewer relevant possessions, so what pushes him slightly ahead of his Los Angeles Clippers counterpart and allows him to take home the No. 4 placement?
Well, while Rivers has shot 46.2 percent from the field and drawn fouls on 14 percent of his attempts, those numbers stand at 51.6 and 13.9, respectively, for this breakout player from the Indiana Pacers.
They're comparable when it comes to earning trips to the stripe and avoiding the worst possible outcomes (turnovers), but Oladipo has been the slightly superior shot-maker. Perhaps that's the result of his impressive athleticism, which allows him to fight through more contact before finishing plays. Rivers can occasionally be thrown off course by the bodying efforts of a defender, but a ripped version of this combo guard has had no such issues.
"I worked really hard this summer. Investing in my mind, my body, my game. I'm just seeing the results from working hard, but I've got to get better," he told Yahoo Sports' Michael Lee. "I'm trying to be one of the best, so I've got to keep working hard, striving for that goal."
This play against a 6'9" JaMychal Green isn't particularly easy, but Oladipo can now capably finish through contact better than ever. Of course, stringing together moves like cyclone-level spins and reverse layups helps, as well.
Defenders no longer understand how to stop Oladipo on a consistent basis. Do they force him to shoot jumpers? Attempt to play him physically? Go for steals and hope not to get tormented by growing levels of ball-handling acumen?
Last year with the Oklahoma City Thunder, he was slightly above average in isolation. Not anymore.
3. Kevin Durant, SF/PF, Golden State Warriors: 14.62
Isolation Possessions: 52
Isolation Points per Possession: 1.19
Dominating in isolation is nothing new for Kevin Durant.
During his first season with the Golden State Warriors, the lanky forward used 152 possessions and scored 1.05 points during his average take, which left him in the 90th percentile. One year prior, while he was still suiting up for the Oklahoma City Thunder, he dropped 0.99 points per possession (86th percentile) on 273 relevant plays.
But his continued excellence isn't the only piece of good news in this particular competition.
When Durant first threw on a Dubs uniform, his frequency went down. During those final OKC days, isolation fun comprised 14.9 percent of his total body of work. That dipped to 11.5 as he joined Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Now, it's back up to 15.5 percent, as Golden State trusts the former MVP to size up matchups and take over possessions as he sees fit.
Could he do this even more frequently? Probably. But he doesn't have to, since the Warriors boast a plethora of offensive options and prefer to generate most of their offense via assists. These are the change-of-pace plays, even if they still work rather well.
Of course, guarding Durant in isolation remains a nearly impossible task.
If you're a smaller player, he'll back you down and either finish a close-range attempt or rise for a high-release jumper that makes use of his historically excellent shooting stroke. If you're big enough to contest those jumpers, he has ball-handling skills no 7-footer (please, don't cite his listed height) should possess, allowing him to put you on skates or just drive right by you for an easy rim attack.
Important note: He also has the speed necessary to burst by a 6'9" defensive stopper like Robert Covington.
2. LeBron James, SF, Cleveland Cavaliers: 18.82
Isolation Possessions: 88
Isolation Points per Possession: 1.13
Defenders might be a bit hopeless now that LeBron James looks comfortable isolating against DeAndre Jordan and then cooly draining a step-back 25-footer as he fades away from the center's ineffective contest.
The four-time MVP has always been a devastating force in isolation, capable of bulling (bullying?) his way through countless defenders while making the most of his unrelenting combination of physicality and size. Even if they sag off and dare him to shoot jumpers, he can rush through them and finish plays around the rim, regardless of whether any contact is present.
And now he's dropping in 40 percent of his triples while taking 4.4 per game, effectively eliminating any preexisting solutions. If you dare him to shoot, he's going to do so. And he's going to drain the jumpers frequently enough for that to be a viable strategy.
That would be dangerous enough if that's where the improvements ended.
James is playing such confident basketball that he's now shooting over the outstretched arms of towering figures playing him all the way out to the three-point arc. Back on Nov. 13, Kristaps Porzingis literally set up with a foot on the rainbow during a crunch-time situation, and the Cavaliers superstar still torched the 7'3" New York Knicks center with a simple step forward, a step back and a 27-foot trey.
Long known as an isolation battering ram who opponents were supposed to try forcing to the left, James is changing the script in 2017-18. He's now scoring in every conceivable way when he goes into the isolation bag of tricks, allowing him to separate himself from the pack and easily take home the No. 2 spot.
That said, the gap between James and No. 3 Kevin Durant (4.2) is almost seven times smaller than the chasm between James and our No. 1 finisher.
1. James Harden, PG/SG, Houston Rockets: 48.16
- Kyrie Irving: 87.91
- Damian Lillard: 51.19
- James Harden: 49.53
Isolation Possessions: 148
Isolation Points per Possession: 1.24
How good has James Harden been in isolation?
Well, he's added 48.16 points more than a league-average player would have with his possessions. LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Victor Oladipo—the top three runners-up in this countdown—combined to add 44.64 points.
But let's look at this another way. Last year, only three players posted a score above 48.16:
That is how good Harden has been at Euro-stepping his way past defenders, beating them off the dribble and stepping back for contested triples. He's a foul-drawing machine who has seemingly mastered the art of playing offensive basketball, torturing one defender after another by exploiting even the smallest weaknesses and never veering too far from the game he wants to play.
In just 17 games, he's added more isolation value than all but three players did throughout the entirety of 2016-17...and one of those three players was last year's version of himself.
How are you supposed to stop a guard who can easily drain lefty jumpers in the face of stifling contests? What do you do against someone who can force a switch and use one simple move to leave a big in the dust? What's the game plan when facing an offensive juggernaut with tight handles, a lightning-quick first step and the physicality to hold up against tough closeouts?
Apparently, no answers exist.
Last year's version of Harden was great. This one is that much better.