NBA Metrics 101: Top 10 Individual Seasons So Far
This is not intended for consumption as an NBA MVP primer. Production prior to the 2017-18 campaign is entirely irrelevant, as is potential these players could tap into during future go-rounds. All that matters is what's come to pass during the present season.
That applies to narratives, too.
Kudos to LeBron James for playing at such a high level during his age-33 season, but his advanced age doesn't have any bearing on this particular competition. The quest for triple-doubles and rounded-off numbers is an argument best saved for another time. Ditto for team success—at least the portion of team success that isn't directly impacted by the players in question. Only individual production is relevant.
To objectively determine how this year's premier players stack up, we're turning to a modified version of the formula for Player Score used in previous articles.
For all 313 players who have logged at least 500 minutes this season, we pulled their scores in four different overarching metrics: NBA Math's total points added (TPA), ESPN.com's real plus/minus wins (RPM Wins), player efficiency rating (PER) and win shares (WS). The first two look at volume/efficiency combinations, while the third focuses on per-possession effectiveness and favors offensive production. The last element is a new addition, meant to reward those whose individual merits lead to more victories. Volume and time on the court matter more than they might in other evaluations.
To standardize between four metrics that operate on drastically different scales, we found the z-scores in each category and summed them to find a player's total score. Those cumulative z-scores are all that matter for this countdown.
- Kyle Lowry, 9.3 (No. 16)
- DeMar DeRozan, 7.48 (No. 21)
- Jonas Valanciunas, 3.76 (No. 49)
- Fred VanVleet, 3.06 (No. 63)
- Jakob Poeltl, 2.71 (No. 73)
- Delon Wright, 2.5 (No. 77)
- Pascal Siakam, 2.21 (No. 85)
- Serge Ibaka, 1.79 (No. 98)
- CJ Miles, 1.07 (No. 126)
- OG Anunoby, 0.79 (No. 137)
Victor Oladipo, SG, Indiana Pacers (9.3)
Putting together all the knowledge he'd gleaned from his time with the Orlando Magic and Oklahoma City Thunder has allowed Victor Oladipo to blossom into an All-Star for the Indiana Pacers who serves as a ceaseless source of offensive production. Finding a hole in his scoring game is a perilously difficult task now that he's making constant trips to the stripe, knocking down triples and controlling the tempo of a game from start to finish.
Kyrie Irving, PG, Boston Celtics (9.41)
Under the tutelage of Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens, Kyrie Irving worked on his defense and has become a solid spearpoint for Beantown's stopping efforts. But he's still only a mediocre point-preventer, and that isn't quite enough for a point guard who, in spite of widespread improvements after leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers, is averaging just five assists per game.
Nikola Jokic, C, Denver Nuggets (9.61)
If Nikola Jokic had played throughout the season like he did in the stretch just before the All-Star Game, he'd be a lock for the top 10. But the Denver Nuggets are still figuring out how to balance his dizzying array of offensive skills with the other pieces on their roster, which has led to some dry spells and passive stretches. Still, this big man is capable of averaging 19.9 points, 11.6 rebounds and 9.1 assists while slashing 53.3/47.2/86.4 over a 10-game stretch, as he's done dating back to Jan. 27.
Andre Drummond, C, Detroit Pistons (10.14)
Only RPM Wins hold Andre Drummond back, which is a direct reflection on his tremendous individual numbers not necessarily helping the Detroit Pistons win many more games. Even though he's grown as a distributor and defender in 2017-18, his offensive real plus/minus barely sits in the green. Keep in mind that we're picking at nits, because Drummond has been so effective that he just misses out on the top 10.
Chris Paul, PG, Houston Rockets (10.18)
Chris Paul finished the pre-All-Star-break portion of his first go-round with the Houston Rockets at No. 11 overall. There's no shame in that, especially considering he was adjusting to a new set of teammates and operating at a significant disadvantage after missing 18 games due to injuries. Had this point guard Point God remained fully healthy, you'd be seeing him much later in this countdown.
Various Players, PG/SG/SF/PF/C, Toronto Raptors (Various Scores)
Thanks to head coach Dwane Casey's widespread directives to share the ball more and stop engaging in isolation offense, the Toronto Raptors have put together one of the league's deepest collections of talent. However, that prevented any individual member from receiving the requisite touches to place within the top 10.
Instead of being disappointed that Kyle Lowry or DeMar DeRozan barely missed the cut, take solace in the fact that a whopping eight players finished with top-100 scores—and another two wound up in the top 150:
Just missed the cut: DeMarcus Cousins (8.89), Paul George (8.45), Kemba Walker (8.39), Al Horford (7.98), LaMarcus Aldridge (7.43), Otto Porter Jr. (7.27), Clint Capela (6.99), Ben Simmons (6.82), Steven Adams (6.56), Bradley Beal (6.44), Draymond Green (6.07), Joel Embiid (5.94), Tyreke Evans (5.78)
10. Kevin Durant, SF, Golden State Warriors (10.22)
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 26.0 points, 6.8 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.9 blocks
2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 212.33 TPA, 25.8 PER, 7.9 WS, 7.17 RPM Wins
Where do you start with this new, fully idealized version of Kevin Durant?
The 29-year-old forward is averaging a career-high 5.5 assists per game—technically, he was "only" at 5.49 in 2013-14. He's scoring 26 points per contest and is sitting on the cusp of a certain efficiency club by slashing 52.3/42.1/88.6. Oh, and he's playing some of the best defense of his NBA tenure, blocking shots with aplomb and constantly rotating into proper positioning.
As Jonathan Tjarks detailed for The Ringer, you don't want to loft up attempts around him:
"The most striking part of Durant's defensive transformation is his shot-blocking. He has become an elite rim protector. After never averaging more than 1.3 blocks a game in nine seasons with the Thunder/SuperSonics franchise, he's no. 4 in the NBA this season at 1.9. Opposing players shoot a lower field-goal percentage at the rim against Durant (57.9 percent) than high-level interior defenders like Steven Adams, Clint Capela, and Myles Turner. No shot is safe when he is on the floor, no matter where it is taken. There's almost nothing an offensive player can do when Durant is hunting them down at the end of a possession. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, he has guarded 67 shots taken with fewer than four seconds left on the shot clock this season and allowed only 24 points."
Durant's game may be complete enough to merit even higher placement from a subjective standpoint. But there's only so much credit for the Golden State Warriors' success to divvy around the rotation, and too much talent populates the Bay Area for any one player to get inordinate amounts of love.
Sorry, KD. You'll have to settle for a top-10 spot that leaves you trailing another notable member of the Dubs. Must be tough.
9. Damian Lillard, PG, Portland Trail Blazers (10.97)
- Stephen Curry (2015-16, 2017-18)
- James Harden (2014-15, 2015-16, 2016-17, 2017-18)
- LeBron James (2008-09, 2009-10, 2010-11, 2011-12, 2012-13, 2013-14, 2016-17, 2017-18)
- Michael Jordan (1988-89)
- Isaiah Thomas (2016-17)
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 26.1 points, 4.5 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.4 blocks
2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 228.11 TPA, 24.5 PER, 8.1 WS, 8.42 RPM Wins
Subtle changes have allowed Damian Lillard to quietly evolve and work toward submitting the best season of his impressive career.
He's been slightly more involved as a distributor, thriving in the Portland Trail Blazers' flow offense and hitting open teammates with perfect feeds all over the half-court set. He's cut back his mid-range jumpers and floaters from the outskirts of the paint in favor of more triples and finishes at the rim. He's shooting 37.0 percent from downtown for the second straight season, but he's now doing so while taking an additional 0.5 triples per game and connecting from the stripe at a career-best 92.4 percent clip.
In a vacuum, not one of these offensive developments is a game-changer. But in concert, they've boosted Lillard among the league's deadliest weapons on the more glamorous end. He's now one of only six qualified players throughout NBA history to average at least 26 points per game with a true shooting percentage north of 59 percent and an assist percentage no worse than 30 percent.
The others? I'm glad you asked:
That company ain't too shabby, especially as Lillard learns to hold his own defensively and no longer treats screens like impenetrable brick walls.
8. Stephen Curry, PG, Golden State Warriors (11.21)
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 26.6 points, 5.2 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.1 blocks
2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 238.93 TPA, 27.4 PER, 7.7 WS, 8.26 RPM Wins
When Stephen Curry won his unanimous MVP in 2015-16, he did so while scoring 30.1 points per game, dishing out an average of 6.7 dimes and submitting a league-best 66.9 true shooting percentage. His counting numbers are slightly down this year as he spends less time on the floor and defers touches to a stronger supporting cast, but he's still averaging 26.6 points and 6.5 assists on a league-best 66.8 true shooting percentage.
Those are, again, historic numbers.
Curry isn't chasing after three-point records this season, and he has missed a handful of games for the Golden State Warriors. Kevin Durant's presence on the Dubs serves as a bit of an anchor for his MVP chances, since voters are more reticent to award a player with another superstar making his life that much easier. But this isn't about narratives or the pursuit of awards, so much as the unblemished individual contributions of an improbable basketball player.
We could wax poetic about the point guard's unyielding efforts from beyond the three-point arc or his creativity finishing plays and drawing whistles around the basket. But the most telling element of his success is what happens when he leaves the floor and takes a seat.
When Durant hits the pine, Golden State's net rating dips from 10.3 to 9.5. Draymond Green? 10.6 to 9.2. Klay Thompson? 11.7 to 6.3.
Those swings all pale in comparison to the Curry effect. The Warriors outscore opponents by 13.6 points per 100 possessions when he plays and "only" 6.0 when he doesn't.
7. Anthony Davis, PF/C, New Orleans Pelicans (11.32)
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 27.4 points, 10.7 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.3 steals, 2.1 blocks
2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 177.88 TPA, 28.2 PER, 9.2 WS, 8.85 RPM Wins
Are the Boston Celtics going to pull off a blockbuster trade and land a disgruntled Anthony Davis who's tired of losing games with the New Orleans Pelicans? Do the Golden State Warriors have the firepower necessary to add yet another star to their deep coffers? Could he be headed toward the Los Angeles Lakers when he gets a chance to leave?
Rather than worry about Davis' long-term future, instead enjoy the shows he's putting on by the bayou every night. He's been so relentlessly excellent throughout 2017-18 that the Pelicans have managed to stay in the Western Conference playoff picture even after DeMarcus Cousins suffered a season-ending Achilles injury. In fact, New Orleans—which boasts a roster that hardly qualifies as "deep"—has mustered a 1.36 net rating when Davis plays without Cousins, according to PBPStats.com.
The Kentucky product and 2012 No. 1 pick is a defensive monster growing more disciplined by the day, and his ceaseless quest for steals and blocks no longer forces him into as many ill-advised gambles. He's a tremendous rebounder and is a versatile scoring force capable of hitting 74.6 percent of his looks within three feet, 42.1 percent of his jumpers between 10 and 16 feet, 40.5 percent of even longer twos and 36.7 percent of his triples.
This is the version of Davis the NBA has dreamed about since he exploded onto the scene as a sophomore averaging 20.8 points, 10.0 rebounds and an Association-pacing 2.8 blocks. That hypothetical force has now become a reality.
6. Jimmy Butler, SG/SF, Minnesota Timberwolves (12.11)
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 22.4 points, 5.5 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.4 blocks
2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 204.56 TPA, 23.8 PER, 8.6 WS, 11.49 RPM Wins
The Minnesota Timberwolves are a far different team when Jimmy Butler plays.
With the All-Star swingman on the floor, they outscore opponents by a staggering 8.1 points per 100 possessions—a number that would leave them trailing only the Houston Rockets (8.6) and Golden State Warriors (10.0) in the season-long standings. But without him, that number plunges to a minus-8.3 net rating that would place them ahead of just the Sacramento Kings (minus-9.0) and Phoenix Suns (minus-9.1).
No one else comes close to matching that differential. Karl-Anthony Towns (13.0) and Taj Gibson (10.2) are the only other 'Wolves with double-digit on/off splits, but they still fall well short of the two-way force averaging such a well-rounded line while asserting himself as an unrelenting defensive force.
This isn't because of confounding factors, either. It isn't just that Butler gets to spend time next to stronger sets of teammates and is the beneficiary of favorable matchups. He paces the NBA in RPM Wins (11.49), and the gap between him and No. 2 Russell Westbrook (10.62) is more than two times larger than the chasm between Westbrook and No. 4 Giannis Antetokounmpo (10.25).
What can't he do this season?
If Minnesota needs a defensive stop against a marquee foe, it turns to Butler. If it needs a clutch bucket, it typically calls upon him. He's been the MVP candidate no one wants to talk about, lending his tough-nosed identity to the rising Timberwolves and making them capable of winning games on either end of the floor.
5. Karl-Anthony Towns, C, Minnesota Timberwolves (12.66)
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 20.2 points, 12.2 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.5 blocks
2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 235.11 TPA, 24.7 PER, 10.2 WS, 9.61 RPM Wins
Devastating as Jimmy Butler's production may be in 2017-18, he still lags behind Karl-Anthony Towns by a razor-thin margin. The center might not be quite as important to the identity of the Timberwolves—yes, in spite of his improving defensive chops—but his individual numbers are undeniable.
Let's forget about his 12.2 rebounds per game, which leave him behind only Dwight Howard (12.6), DeMarcus Cousins (12.9), DeAndre Jordan (15.0) and Andre Drummond (15.7) among qualified players. Ditto for his defense, which has manifested itself both in solid counting numbers and more palatable positioning.
Towns is so effective as a scorer, it often seems like basketball scientists must've cooked him up in a laboratory. Seven-footers aren't supposed to be able to dominate opponents in all areas of the half-court set, but this 22-year-old big man can torment adversaries in the post, knock down face-up jumpers, complete putback slams and provide plenty of floor spacing for the 'Wolves.
Towns isn't just shooting 54.6 percent from the field while averaging more than 20 points per outing. He's also taking 3.5 triples per game and is connecting at a 42.1 percent clip—numbers only 12 other players are matching or exceeding in 2017-18. Oh, and he's lofting up 4.5 free-throw attempts per game and hitting a career-high 85.8 percent of his freebies.
This all adds up to a 64.9 true shooting percentage that registers on a historic level. Among every player in NBA history who's achieved that level of efficiency during a qualified season, only Charles Barkley, Stephen Curry, Adrian Dantley, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Kevin McHale, Reggie Miller and Amar'e Stoudemire have maintained a higher per-game scoring average.
4. Giannis Antetokounmpo, PG/SG/SF/PF, Milwaukee Bucks (13.61)
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 27.8 points, 10.4 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.3 blocks
2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 265.72 TPA, 28.8 PER, 9.6 WS, 10.25 RPM Wins
Stop me if you've heard this before, but no singular element of Giannis Antetokounmpo's game makes him inordinately special—yes, even his ability to Eurostep past an opponent and dunk without taking a dribble inside the three-point arc. Those go-go-gadget arms are fun and unstoppable, but they pale in comparison to the total package residing within the elongated frame of the aptly nicknamed Greek Freak.
Antetokounmpo has sacrificed some of his assists while playing alongside Eric Bledsoe, but he's made up for the decline by undergoing further growth as a scorer and rebounder. He still ranks prominently in every single box-score statistic.
- Points per game: trails only James Harden (31.3) and is most comparable to Anthony Davis (27.4)
- Rebounds per game: sits at No. 11 overall and is most comparable to Nikola Jokic (10.6)
- Assists per game: places No. 31 overall and is most comparable to Devin Booker (4.8)
- Steals per game: checks in at No. 23 overall and is most comparable to Kyle Anderson (1.4)
- Blocks per game: ranks No. 14 overall and is most comparable to Bismack Biyombo (1.3)
That's already a dizzying array of statistical superiority, and we haven't even touched on Antetokounmpo's career-best 60.6 true shooting percentage or his No. 22 rank in ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus.
The 23-year-old still can't shoot threes, but that doesn't matter for a player whose athletic gifts help him warp opposing schemes through the sheer threat of his quick bursts to the basket. Given his long arms, he sometimes seems to prefer having defenders lag back and give him more space to attack their exposed hip.
Even with an incomplete game, Antetokounmpo has become a complete player in 2017-18.
3. Russell Westbrook, PG, Oklahoma City Thunder (13.68)
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 25.4 points, 9.4 rebounds, 10.4 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.2 blocks
2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 355.04 TPA, 25.2 PER, 7.4 WS, 10.62 RPM Wins
Russell Westbrook's scoring figures have dipped dramatically, especially because he's struggling to connect on his three-pointers (29.6 percent) and free-throw attempts (72.6 percent). His defensive efforts have been inconsistent, and he frequently can be found watching the action at a standstill, conserving his energy for the next rebound or offensive opportunity.
Yet it's only against the backdrop of last season's MVP efforts that his year looks remotely disappointing.
Westbrook is just 0.6 rebounds per game shy of a second consecutive campaign averaging a triple-double. He's the NBA's eighth-highest scorer and leads the league in assists per contest. The Oklahoma City Thunder's net rating improves by 11.3 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor (the highest mark on the roster), and his Nos. 8 and 2 ranks in RPM and RPM Wins, respectively, indicate this isn't just because he plays with high-quality teammates such as Paul George and Steven Adams.
Perhaps these advanced metrics are slightly inflated due to Westbrook's extreme usage levels, as was the case last year with box plus/minus and NBA Math's total points added. But even the uninflated numbers would paint the picture of a staggeringly effective player whose notable strengths outweigh the weaknesses by monumental margins.
The Thunder have improved around their point guard—this might not remain as true with Andre Roberson now done for the year—and trail only four teams in the Western Conference standings. But one thing hasn't shifted from 2016-17 to 2017-18: the overwhelming importance of the organization's premier player.
2. LeBron James, SF, Cleveland Cavaliers (14.49)
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 26.5 points, 8.1 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.0 blocks
2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 371.31 TPA, 27.7 PER, 8.8 WS, 9.65 RPM Wins
LeBron James has put on a basketball masterclass throughout his age-33 season, but he's been even better in recent outings. As Nathaniel Friedman explained for GQ, his mentality has shifted after the Cleveland Cavaliers overhauled their roster at the trade deadline:
"That's not to say LeBron wasn't doing enough before or that the revamped Cavs require less energy or effort on his part. But he's looked like a different player in these last two games. He's both looser and more economical, striking confidently instead of roiling in survival mode. James is as resourceful and surprising as ever, but instead of being expected to conjure up every possession out of thin air, he's taking a certain level of competence, of structural soundness, as a given and going from there. The most terrifying weapon in the sport has been freed up to do what he wants to do as opposed to determine what, if any, viable options might present themselves. There's a flow to the Cavs, and James is riding high on it."
During James' last four outings, he averaged a mind-numbing 30.0 points, 13.0 assists and 9.5 rebounds while shooting 55.3 percent from the field and 45.5 percent from downtown. If he maintains that level of play during the season's second half, he'll have a significant chance to overtake our No. 1 finisher at the break.
We aren't worrying about the future here. And fortunately for the Cavaliers, James has already done plenty of heavy lifting throughout the 2017-18 season, often seeming like the only player in a Cleveland uniform capable of consistently sparking his team to victory.
The 33-year-old ranks No. 2 throughout the league, and he blows everyone else in Northeast Ohio out of the water. The next-best placement from anyone who's spent the majority of the season with Cleveland? Kevin Love at No. 40, then Kyle Korver at No. 120.
Think back to the honorable mentions, and you might remember that the Toronto Raptors boast eight players with superior scores to Cleveland's third-best contributor.
1. James Harden, PG/SG, Houston Rockets (16.93)
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 31.3 points, 5.1 rebounds, 9.0 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.7 blocks
2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 402.37 TPA, 30.5 PER, 11.2 WS, 10.62 RPM Wins
James Harden isn't just our top-ranked player. His efforts during the season's opening half have allowed him to stand head, beard and shoulders above the rest, producing a gap between himself and LeBron James (2.44 Player Score points) that's larger than the one between James and No. 6 Jimmy Butler.
The 2-guard has been masterful for the Houston Rockets, both working in conjunction with Chris Paul and operating as the solo backcourt star. He's exhibited more effort on defense and has continued to assert himself as one of the league's best rebounding guards. He's served as a leader for a team posing a serious threat to the Golden State Warriors' long-standing dominance over the Western Conference.
But as you might expect, those contributions all pale in comparison to the overwhelming nature of his offensive production.
Harden is leading the league in scoring while shooting 44.8 percent from the field, 38.4 percent from downtown and 86.5 percent from the free-throw stripe. He also engages in the latter two elements so frequently that he has a 62.2 true shooting percentage. For perspective, that's the sixth-best efficiency mark among every qualified scorer in NBA history to post at least 30 points per game.
And his offensive prowess doesn't stop there. Not when he's also dishing out nine dimes per appearance and sparking the Rockets' relentless scoring machine. He's on pace to become the first player other than Tiny Archibald, Oscar Robertson or Russell Westbrook to average at least 30 and nine, and we haven't even touched on his remarkable penchant for finding open three-point shooters.
Harden has basically mastered NBA offense while operating under head coach Mike D'Antoni and taking advantage of the modern stylings that suit his game so well. He's been the league's best player so far, and it hasn't been close.