The Best NBA Iso Scorer at Every Position
While not the NBA's most efficient play, the isolation could be its most captivating set.
It's the game within the game, a two-player tango amid a 10-player contest. It's also responsible for some of the most memorable moments in the Association's history, from Kyrie Irving's clutch dagger to Michael Jordan's clincher over Bryon Russell to a million more big-time buckets before them.
Superstars have made careers out of isolation brilliance, and even if these play types aren't as prevalent as they once were—most everywhere outside of Houston, that is—many of today's top talents are elite in isolations.
So, we decided to crunch some numbers (using NBA.com's play type data from the past four years), blend them with the eye test and analyze the results to uncover the top isolation players at each position. In other words, statistics weren't the only tool utilized in these rankings, but they had the most input.
Point Guard: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
You might think the Golden State Warriors' commitment to the beautiful game—a style predicated on movement of player and ball—would keep Stephen Curry out of this discussion.
You'd be wrong.
While not quite the quantity iso scorer as some of his positional peers, the two-time MVP's iso quality is unmatched. Last season, he paced all point guards who ran 50-plus isolations with 1.08 points per possession (90th percentile). Over the prior three years, he never ranked lower than sixth at the position and twice ranked in at least the league's 94th percentile.
He has the toolkit needed to skewer defenders one-on-one. He dribbles with the skill and showmanship of an expert juggler, and he's both a shooting and passing threat at any time. Even though he's not the most explosive athlete, he consistently grades out as an elite point-blank finisher (career 64.6 percent shooter within three feet) thanks to a pillow-soft touch and an ability to work angles like a billiards pro.
Would his iso efficiency falter if Golden State went to that look more often? Perhaps, but maybe the lack of exposure simply hurts his quantity. Judging by his absurd three-level shooting (he's even at 45.3 percent from midrange for his career) and crafty shot-creating (fewer than 33 percent of his career two-pointers have been assisted), he could challenge for the league lead in iso points if he wanted.
There are unconfirmed reports the U.S. military has tried to find a way to weaponize Kyrie Irving's handles. Tack on a career 39.0 percent three-point stroke, and he's on a tiny list of the league's top isolation assassins.
Chris Paul and Damian Lillard sit a half-tier behind Irving, and if Isaiah Thomas never hurt his hip, he'd be deep in this discussion, too. In 2016-17, Thomas not only led all point guards with 1.12 points per isolation possession, but he also landed in the league's 96th percentile.
Shooting Guard: James Harden, Houston Rockets
James Harden is an impossibility.
His analytical approach to shot selection is hypermodern, but he's unleashed through a throwback stream of isolations. His attacks themselves are equally hard to describe. They often start with the ball being pounded into the floor, a ploy that disrupts flow but also potentially lulls defenders to sleep. But once Harden makes his move—front, back or side-to-side—he's gone in an instant.
"It's amazing to me that you have the best athletes in the world on him and then he, in one or two moves, can create enough space to get a wide-open three," Houston Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said, via The Ringer's Will Gottlieb. "People just don't do that. It's almost impossible."
Harden is almost playing a different sport thab everyone else.
Last season, he isolated 1,280 times. The Oklahoma City Thunder ran the second-most isolations, and they finished with just 854 as a team. Harden launched more pull-up threes (943) than every team outside of Houston and Brooklyn (965). He has expanded the hoops lexicon to include terms such as "double step-back" and, perhaps coming in 2019-20, "one-legged step-back."
Along the way, he has also scored an incredible amount of points, usually in a wildly efficient manner. Over the past two seasons, he has won two scoring titles, paced everyone in isolation points (by a mile) and finished in the 93rd percentile or better on isolations.
A move to the Alamo City hasn't diminished DeMar DeRozan's isolation output, as he averaged 2018-19's fifth-most iso points (4.1) while converting those plays in the 81st percentile. Super sixth man Lou Williams is another iso killer, and in 2015-16, he pumped in a tremendous 1.19 points per possession (97th percentile).
Two former Duke Blue Devils deserve a nod here, too. Austin Rivers has finished third or higher among shooting guards in isolation efficiency in each of the past two seasons (minimum 50 positions), while Rodney Hood has collected three top-five finishes over the past four campaigns.
Small Forward: Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets
Kevin Durant has post size, perimeter handles and the accuracy of a specialist. He might be the basketball gods' gift to isolation scoring, and he's been destroying defenses from the moment he arrived as the second overall pick in 2007.
His bag of scoring tricks is overflowing, and yet he's still adding to it by studying some of the sport's most celebrated isolation attackers.
"Kobe [Bryant], MJ [Michael Jordan] and Kyrie," Durant told The Athletic's Shams Charania. "Just the way they move, I don't understand why people don't realize what they're seeing in these three, especially Jordan and Kobe."
Durant can ditch defenders off the dribble or shoot over the top of them. Despite possessing the requisite touch for the three-ball revolution (career 38.1 percent), he hasn't eliminated the mid-range shot from his arsenal. In fact, he attempted a higher percentage of his shots from 10 to 16 feet last season than ever before (23.8 percent).
From fadeaways to aerial finishes, pull-ups to post-ups, he has everything you would want in an isolation scorer—including results. The four-time scoring champ finished third or better in isolation points per possession among qualified small forwards (minimum 50 possessions) in each of the last four seasons and twice took the top spot.
Among the 94 players with 50-plus isolations last season, only James Harden averaged more points per possession than Khris Middleton (1.09, 92nd percentile). That was by far Middleton's best season over the past four years in the category, but his All-Star ascension deserves recognition.
The rest of this position grades out how you'd expect. LeBron James (a 6'8", 250-pound locomotive), Kawhi Leonard (an impossibly long 6'7" swingman cut from the Kobe cloth) and Jimmy Butler ("Jimmy Gets Buckets" is not just a clever name) round out the honorable mentions.
Power Forward: Blake Griffin, Detroit Pistons
Imagine you're in the NBA, lounging in the locker room before a game, and your coach hits you with this: "You've got Blake Griffin tonight."
What's the one thing you're looking to take away? The easy answer is Griffin's rim-rockers, both because his aerial artistry has viral potential and because of the old—and always misinformed—scouting report that he's strictly a dunker.
Truth be told, there is no comfortable answer. Upon relocating to the Motor City, Griffin has dipped even deeper into his offensive arsenal to become the isolation force he is.
"He's shooting a lot of threes and handling the ball in pick-and-roll at the top of the key," Kevin Durant said, per The Athletic's James L. Edwards III. "... I think Blake is well-rounded as a player, and he's getting better every single year. He's adding the step-back three, the off-the-dribble three, and it's making him tough to guard."
One-on-one defenders didn't have much luck last season, when Griffin's 0.97 points per isolation possession put him fourth among qualified power forwards and in the NBA's 73rd percentile. Then again, he's always been a tricky cover, like in 2015-16, when he did enough during his injury-shortened season to sit second among power forwards and in the 93rd percentile with 1.06 points per possession.
This position is witnessing a changing of the guard, and if we reexamined it in a year or two, an up-and-comer would likely claim the top spot. The most obvious candidate is reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, although his 0.95 points per isolation possession weren't quite elite (sixth at power forward, 69th percentile). Pascal Siakam (0.97) and Jaren Jackson Jr. (0.96) are right there, too.
Tobias Harris took last season's power forward crown at 0.99 (77th percentile), which is yet another testament to his near-perpetual improvement. Rudy Gay and Michael Beasley remain consistent bucket-getters into their 30s, though the latter missed the quantity cutoff last season.
Center: Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
Karl-Anthony Towns looks like an interior bruiser from basketball's yesteryear and shoots like a long-lost Splash Brother (40.9 percent from deep over the past two seasons).
He can post up. He can pass. He makes plays off the dribble. He shreds nets with fadeaways and hook shots. And if he finds a path to the rim, he's putting someone on a poster.
"He is one of the most versatile guys in this league," New York Knicks coach David Fizdale said, per Zone Coverage's Dane Moore. "He's in the top tier of centers, no doubt about it. ... He's got all of the ingredients."
Towns is a 7'0", 248-pounder who's submitting annual applications to the famed 50/40/90 club. He hasn't been accepted yet—he came closest in 2017-18 with a 54.5/42.1/85.8 line—but that feels like a formality considering he's just 23 years old.
He is the proverbial walking mismatch. Few have the size to handle him, and those who do struggle with his combination of quickness, agility and comfort on the perimeter.
All of it contributes to a set of isolation scoring skills no one at this position can match. In three of his four NBA seasons, he has finished either first (once) or second (twice) among qualified centers in points per isolation.
Nikola Jokic is more like a 1B than the second-best isolation player, but he's hurt by his slow build up to offensive assertiveness and less-consistent-than-you'd-think outside shooting. Still, he possesses a wealth of one-on-one talent from the paint to the perimeter.
Anthony Davis led centers in points per iso last season (0.98, 76th percentile), but he had two other years outside the top five. Joel Embiid—a modernized Hakeem Olajuwon—could be coming for Towns' top spot with top-three finishes in each of his three NBA seasons.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.