NBA Metrics 101: Best Under-15-PPG Seasons Since 2000
While you ultimately win NBA games by putting up more points than the other team, so much more goes into player evaluations than mere scoring prowess. Those bucket-getters are often the sport's most glamorous figures, gaining most of the national attention and creating the most cachet with casual observers, but they're not always the most valuable presences on the hardwood.
Despite the paucity of the spotlight they receive, we won't overlook defensive aces, dime-dropping distributors, efficient shooters who enjoy more limited touches and so many other archetypes that aid the winning cause. As such, we're going to highlight some of the best during the current millennium by looking at the most valuable seasons compiled by players who failed to move past the 15-points-per-game threshold (limited to one appearance per player).
To determine both the selections and the order, we're turning to the methodology I used while compiling GOAT rankings for various franchises at NBA Math, which you can read about in more detail here. GOAT points, which show value relative to the field during any given season in league history, are all that matters and serve as the numbers parenthetically included next to players' names.
In the interest of full disclosure, you should prepare yourselves to see plenty of defense-first centers who consistently shut down the interior of half-court sets. But that's not the only type of contributor who'll populate these rankings.
10. 2009-10 Nene: 2.669
Team: Denver Nuggets
Per-Game Stats: 13.8 points, 7.6 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.0 blocks
Nene doesn't fit the typical big-man profile you'd expect to sneak into these rankings. Though he spent 33.6 minutes per game on the court, he only mustered 5.6 defensive rebounds during his average appearance—a far cry from the physical-behemoth mold you might expect, one that lends itself to vacuum powers after shots are lofted by the opposition.
Naturally, he made up for that relative deficiency by contributing admirably in other areas.
The Denver Nuggets center wasn't heavily involved in the scoring game, often deferring to the fearsome offensive contributions of Carmelo Anthony (28.2 points per game), Chauncey Billups (19.5) and JR Smith (15.4). But he picked up plenty of easy buckets on the interior, shooting 58.7 percent from the field and converting 70.4 percent of his 5.1 free-throw attempts per game. Not only was he a solid roll man with soft hands, but he corralled a pair of offensive boards per contest and set himself up for plenty of gather-and-rise shots next to the hoop.
Even more importantly, he thrived on defense.
Nene might not have been a high-flying, shot-blocking menace—a Mile High City role capably filled by Chris Andersen—but his instincts served him well in the passing lanes when he wasn't serving as an immovable force in the painted area. Pure strength and physicality paid off as he led the Nuggets in defensive win shares (3.7) with room to spare.
Honorable Mentions: 2002-03 Andrei Kirilenko, 2013-14 Nicolas Batum, 2014-15 Tim Duncan, 2013-14 DeAndre Jordan, 2011-12 Andre Iguodala
9. 2007-08 Marcus Camby: 2.717
Team: Denver Nuggets
Per-Game Stats: 9.1 points, 13.1 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.1 steals, 3.6 blocks
Apparently, the Denver Nuggets have a type.
Nene was still on the roster two years prior to his featured season, but the Brazilian big man could only suit up in 16 contests for a total of 266 minutes during the 2007-08 calendar. In his place, Marcus Camby roamed the hardwood as a lesser offensive presence but an unabashed defensive force.
This 6'11" center was rarely featured on the scoring side, and his methods of contribution weren't particularly valuable. A whopping 32.9 percent of his field-goal attempts were two-pointers from at least 16 feet, on which he connected at a meager 35.4 percent clip. But some level of involvement was necessary to appease the dominant defensive presence, and the Nuggets weren't set up to extract pick-and-roll prowess with Carmelo Anthony jab-stepping ad infinitum and Allen Iverson commandeering possessions.
Camby could knock down those occasional mid-range jumpers, and he was a surprisingly adept passer. But truthfully, he could've just sat down when Denver's iso-heavy attack possessed the rock, biding his time until he was again ready to stifle the opposition. He'd have remained quite valuable even with that unorthodox mentality.
Leading the league in blocks is one thing; Camby did so while also remaining disciplined on the interior and pacing the Association in defensive box plus/minus. He might not have displayed the switchability that's become commonplace in today's NBA, but he didn't need to while altering myriad shots at the hoop and preventing any dreams of second-chance opportunities.
When the other team can't score against you, does it really matter if you average just 9.1 points of your own?
8. 2016-17 Rudy Gobert: 2.795
- Rudy Gobert: 47.2 percent on 7.1 shots per game
- Draymond Green: 50.2 percent on 5.3 shots per game
- Hassan Whiteside: 52.0 percent on 5.6 shots per game
- Giannis Antetokounmpo: 52.4 percent on 4.2 shots per game
- Marc Gasol: 54.0 percent on 4.6 shots per game
Team: Utah Jazz
Per-Game Stats: 14.0 points, 12.8 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.6 steals, 2.6 blocks
Rudy Gobert's offensive game improved immensely during the 2016-17 campaign, allowing him to finish in the 96th percentile for points per possession as a roll man. He showed a newfound level of patience around the basket, no longer flailing away with his Pterodactyl length but instead waiting for opportunities to develop and converting at a 66.1 percent clip. Shooting 65.3 percent from the stripe also helped smooth these strides, as did collecting 3.9 offensive rebounds per game.
But let's not fool ourselves. Even a version of Gobert with improved offensive chops was primarily valuable because of his suffocating defense.
No matter how you slice it, this Frenchman was a governing force on the preventing end. The Utah Jazz saw their defensive rating plummet 6.9 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor, dropping to a drool-inducing 100.6 (the San Antonio Spurs led the league at 100.9). He blocked 2.6 shots per game and altered countless others. Opponents could only shoot 47.2 percent against him at the rim.
However, convincing as it may be to reel off a litany of impressive statistics and anecdotes, let's focus on that last one.
Thirty-seven players faced at least four shots per game at the hoop while suiting up in no fewer than 40 contests during the 2016-17 campaign. Gobert paced them all in volume, going up against 7.1 relevant shots in his typical appearance—0.3 more than Myles Turner and Robin Lopez. He also led the field in opponents' shooting percentage:
That, in a nutshell, is finding that proverbial next level.
7. 2011-12 Joakim Noah: 2.827
Team: Chicago Bulls
Per-Game Stats: 10.2 points, 9.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.4 blocks
Somewhat surprisingly, the Joakim Noah representative of choice doesn't stem from his 2013-14 efforts for the Chicago Bulls, during which he earned 2.066 GOAT Points, won Defensive Player of the Year and finished fourth in the MVP voting, behind only Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Blake Griffin. Instead, we're rewinding two years to the 2011-12 campaign even though he hadn't yet made an All-Star squad or earned a single vote for the league's most prestigious individual accolade.
Also, as a note of caution: This was a lockout season limited to just 66 games for each team, so don't be thrown off by Noah appearing in "only" 64 outings.
The bun-boasting big man wasn't quite as finely tuned on the defensive end during this age-26 season, and he certainly wasn't fully developed as a distributor; Chicago hadn't yet figured out that it could allow him to run the show as a primary facilitator both in transition and during half-court action. But efficiency is often the name of the game, and Noah's efforts in that realm were altogether unbesmirchable.
He rarely fouled. He shot 50.8 percent from the field and 74.8 percent from the stripe (better than 2013-14's marks of 47.5 and 73.7 percent, respectively). He almost never handed the ball over, generating just 1.4 turnovers per contest and a career-low 13.7 turnover percentage. Despite showcasing fewer strengths, he seldom contributed negative plays to the Chicago cause.
You can't really go wrong selecting either of the two discussed seasons. Truthfully, he was a superior player during his 2013-14 efforts. But we're measuring performance relative to the rest of the field during the year in question, and maintaining this lofty a level during a lockout-shortened (and delayed) season in which so many players were scrambling to gain a rhythm grades out with the higher number.
6. 2011-12 Paul George: 2.836
- Paul George, 1.9
- Danny Green, 1.2
- Kevin Durant, 0.5
- Mario Chalmers, 0.4
- Ray Allen, 0.3
Team: Indiana Pacers
Per-Game Stats: 12.1 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.6 blocks
These days, Paul George averaging fewer than 15 points would border on unfathomable. He failed to hit the threshold just 16 times during his first go-round with the Oklahoma City Thunder (20.3 percent of his total appearances), and that's after going for 15 or more in all but 10 appearances throughout his final season with the Indiana Pacers (13.3 percent).
But as a sophomore just two years removed from his Fresno State days, George wasn't yet an established go-to scorer. Sure, he was showing signs of developing that ability, but his primary contributions came as a three-and-D wing—one of the other molds that typically allows players to boast immense value even without posting gaudy scoring figures.
While holding his own as a rebounder and distributor who rarely coughed up the ball to the opposition, George took 3.5 shots per game from outside the rainbow and connected on 38.5 percent of those hoists. During the 2011-12 campaign (again, the lockout-shortened one that featured a low outlier in the offensive-rating column of league history), only 27 qualified players found enough of a rhythm to match or exceed both those numbers.
Not many of them could also match George's defensive exploits, though. Let's sort the group by defensive box plus/minus:
That's it. Everyone else finished at or below the break-even point indicative of league-average play.
George may have just made it into that group of elite marksmen, but he separated himself with his preventing work by jumping into passing lanes, racking up deflections and locking down opposing wings on a nightly basis. Now that, unlike his offensive output, does sound rather similar to the present-day version.
5. 2001-02 Jason Kidd: 3.094
Team: New Jersey Nets
Per-Game Stats: 14.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, 9.9 assists, 2.1 steals, 0.2 blocks
At this early stage of his Hall of Fame career, Jason Kidd couldn't shoot.
He knocked down only 39.1 percent of his field-goal attempts, hit 32.1 percent of his treys (while taking an unfortunate 4.4 per game) and connected on 81.4 percent of his freebies. Among the 97 qualified players in 2001-02 who averaged double-digit points, only Michael Olowokandi, Alvin Williams, Anfernee Hardaway, James Posey, Marcus Fizer and Larry Hughes posted inferior true shooting percentages.
Of course, Kidd's shooting woes didn't exactly hold him back on a New Jersey Nets outfit that saw its net rating climb 5.7 points per 100 possessions when this floor general graced the hardwood. After all, he did just about everything else.
Care to guess how many other qualified men in NBA history have averaged at least 7.3 rebounds, 9.9 assists and 2.1 steals for a full season? I'll give you a hint: The answer is "one" and includes a certain legendary 1-guard for the Showtime Los Angeles Lakers.
Though this was the only season in a six-year stretch during which he didn't pace the Association in dimes per game (shoutout Andre Miller), Kidd still fell just shy of double figures while keeping his turnovers in check. He rebounded like a big man. He played pestilent, hounding defense that led to a plethora of deferred shooting attempts, constant deflections and plenty of easy fast-break opportunities for the Nets.
But perhaps most telling is the respect he earned during an iso-heavy era that, often at the expense of quality shot-selection and laudable efficiency levels, prioritized volume shooting (see: Iverson, Allen and Bryant, Kobe). Kidd received 45 first-place votes for MVP this year, narrowly finishing second to Tim Duncan in the quest for the Maurice Podoloff Trophy.
4. 2015-16 Draymond Green: 3.326
Team: Golden State Warriors
Per-Game Stats: 14.0 points, 9.5 rebounds, 7.4 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.4 blocks
This was peak Draymond Green.
The swagger was omnipresent. The skills were palpable. The passion bled out onto the court. Most importantly, the production was undeniable on both ends of the floor.
Green has been a defensive menace for quite some time now, but he was never better than in 2015-16 when he could switch onto any player for multiple possessions at a time and fill every role admirably. Maybe he didn't lead the league in steals, as he would one year later. He didn't swat a ridiculous number of shots. But he impacted every possession and lent the Golden State Warriors their miserly identity while they quested toward a 73-9 record and the league's No. 4 defensive rating.
And he was so much more.
No member of the Dubs recorded more assists on a nightly basis, and his pass-first role still didn't prevent him from knocking down a career-high 38.8 percent of his triples. Even though he took on a tertiary role alongside Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson (sometimes even a quarternary one when Harrison Barnes was feeling it), he functioned as a potent weapon shooting with enough confidence that he couldn't be left alone on the perimeter.
"When he's at his best, we're at our best," head coach Steve Kerr told Bleacher Report's Howard Beck about Green. "When he's at his worst, we suffer. I've said many times, he's like the heartbeat of the team."
It should come as no surprise that peak Green helped the Warriors' modern-day dynasty earn the best record in NBA history, even before Kevin Durant hopped aboard this juggernaut.
3. 2012-13 Marc Gasol: 3.398
Team: Memphis Grizzlies
Per-Game Stats: 14.1 points, 7.8 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.7 blocks
Some players boast an innate understanding of positioning, fine-tuned to the point that they can read and react to plays in the blink of an eye before beating their assignments to the proper spots. During the 2012-13 season, Marc Gasol was not one of those players for the Memphis Grizzlies.
Of course, that's only because his reactivity was even quicker. He didn't read and react to the play, so much as display a preternatural understanding of defensive basketball that allowed him to anticipate developments before they, well, developed. Cliche as it may be, he was a step ahead of the opposition, beating foes to those aforementioned spots before adversaries even realized their locations.
Yes, Gasol was a capable scorer who could put up points in back-to-the-basket scenarios or knock down mid-range jumpers. His passing chops were among the best in the business for a man blessed with his size (7'1", 255 pounds). But defense remained the hallmark of his game, overshadowing the other elements to such an extent that it's easy to forget the 2012-13 Defensive Player of the Year was also a two-way contributor.
Gasol has since made strides to become more of a featured offensive option, but that may not be a good thing. He's sacrificed some of his defensive prowess to meet the energy expenditures required to serve as a top offensive option, and his scoring efficiency has decreased as he tries to expand his shooting range. In fact, he hasn't matched his 55.9 true shooting percentage from 2012-13 even once in the last five years, though he's come tantalizingly close on a number of occasions.
Maybe this is a good thing for the Grizzlies. Maybe it's a change mandated by the unstoppable advances of Father Time.
Either way, this mid-career version of the Spanish center was the best we've seen.
2. 2001-02 Ben Wallace: 3.423
- 2001-02 Ben Wallace (3.423 GOAT points)
- 2003-04 Ben Wallace (3.133)
- 2005-06 Ben Wallace (2.965)
- 2007-08 Marcus Camby (2.717)
- 2002-03 Ben Wallace (2.525)
Team: Detroit Pistons
Per-Game Stats: 7.6 points, 13.0 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.7 steals, 3.5 blocks
If we allowed for repeats and tightened the restrictions to look only at players who failed to average double-digit points, Ben Wallace would claim each of the top three entries, as well as four of the top five:
He's rather easily the best player of the modern era who legitimately didn't score with any semblance of volume, and that's particularly astounding because he didn't make up for the offensive deficit with passing chops that belied his 6'9" frame. Wallace really was an unmitigated offensive non-factor who still provided immense value to the Detroit Pistons (and a select few other teams over the course of his career) through pure defensive excellence.
As he told SLAM Magazine back in 2005, he just had other priorities:
"I can score the basketball. Anybody in this League can score the basketball. But what can you do when you're not scoring? That's the big thing for me. I don't need to score to impact the game. I can impact the game in many other ways...
"Nobody can score without the ball. IF you're a scorer, you're going to need a guy like me to get the rebound for you. If nobody rebounds for you, you can't score. I rebound the basketball. I just take pleasure in getting wins and seeing everybody out there just having fun. I just love to see the ball go through the basket, especially when it's for my team."
1. 2001-02 Brent Barry: 3.464
Team: Seattle SuperSonics
Per-Game Stats: 14.4 points, 5.4 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.5 blocks
Brent Barry, standing only 6'6" and most frequently lining up at the 2 (90 percent of his minutes), doesn't fit the mold established by the other representatives featured throughout this countdown. He's not a dominant interior defender. He doesn't typically draw mention as a three-and-D wing, even though he more than held his own on the preventing end for the Seattle SuperSonics. He wasn't a pass-first point guard who buckled down on the less glamorous side.
Instead, he was that good at shooting while providing above-average contributions in the other facets of the game. And it's the first part we'll focus on here, even if that comes at the expense of highlighting his distributing work, rebounding instincts and solid perimeter defense.
Though the 2001-02 campaign came well before the three-point explosions of the present day, Barry's efforts remain some of the best shooting displays we've ever witnessed. He was elite across the board, knocking down 66.3 percent of his shots from inside three feet, 49.4 percent of his attempts between three and 10 feet, 53.8 percent of his 10-to-16-foot jumpers, 55.3 percent of his longer twos and 42.4 percent of his triples.
Where was the weakness? That's a rhetorical inquiry, if only because none ever emerged. Barry paced the field in two-point percentage and still lagged behind only 13 qualified contributors from downtown. He's actually the lone backcourt player in NBA history to set the league-wide standard from two-point territory.
According to offensive box plus/minus, this was the best offensive season of his career with some room to spare. According to defensive box plus/minus, this was his No. 2 defensive effort, narrowly trailing his work for the 2005-06 San Antonio Spurs. According to value over replacement player, this campaign doubled the output from any other in his 14-year NBA tenure.
Good luck picking holes in this go-round.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.