Predicting the NBA's Best Scorer at Every Position Ahead of 2021-22
Our understanding of what impacts winning in the NBA has deepened considerably over the years. Points, rebounds and assists per game still dominate statistical conversations, but stats like true shooting percentage and box plus/minus show up as evaluative tools more and more these days.
That's a good thing! We're taking in more and better information when we focus on efficiency and on-off data, creating a complete picture of how players affect their teams' bottom line.
Here, though, we're focused on the simple stuff. This is all about who's going to get buckets.
We'll invoke more advanced metrics to flesh out justifications for our leading-scorer picks at all five positions (as determined by Basketball Reference's playing time breakdowns), but in the end, all we care about is who's going to pile up the most points in 2021-22.
Point Guard: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Stephen Curry led the league in scoring last year, so it's not like we need to make some wildly speculative argument for why he'll come out on top among point guards in 2021-22.
The main determinant of whether the 2020-21 Golden State Warriors scored at passable rates, Curry's 32.0 points and 21.7 field-goal attempts (in his age-32 season!) were both career highs. This offseason's moves brought much-needed supplementary shooting in the form of Otto Porter Jr. and Nemanja Bjelica, and Jordan Poole's transformation into a rotation-worthy, shot-creating lead guard should also help Curry reduce the overall difficulty of his attempts. When Klay Thompson returns, Curry should have even easier looks.
An improved Warriors offense could cut into Curry's overall scoring average. If he doesn't feel like he needs to play an ultra-aggressive style just to keep the team's offense afloat, his attempt rate could decline. But likely improvements in accuracy, brought about by cleaner shots, could offset that. An offensive style that head coach Steve Kerr told reporters will include "a ton of threes" doesn't hurt, either.
Either way, Curry seems the safest bet here to average around 30.0 points per game. And we know he can crank it up beyond that if he has to.
Honorable Mention: Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
Luka Doncic's shot attempt rate marginally declined last season, and his scoring average actually dropped from 28.8 to 27.7 points per game. It's possible the Dallas Mavericks' failure to provide him with a secondary creator will keep his touch time and playmaking burden at the same level, which could sap energy and keep his points in the neighborhood of where they were last year. Don't dismiss a breakout, though. If any point guard can average 30.0 points and 10.0 assists per game for a full season, it's Doncic.
Honorable Mention: Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
Curry was the only player to take and make more threes from at least 24 feet than Damian Lillard last season. The threat of a deep Lillard trey forces defenders way out toward half court, which sets up easy downhill drives and plentiful scoring options. Dame averaged 28.8 points per game last season, down from 30.0 the year before, but his average hasn't dropped under 25.1 since 2014-15.
Both he and Doncic lose ground on Curry because of less effective work off the ball.
Honorable Mention: Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks
Trae Young, 23, has as much growth potential as anyone other than Doncic in this section, which means his 25.3 points per game in 2020-21 could spike. Actually, we know Young can do better than that number because he averaged 29.6 points per game in his age-21 campaign two years ago.
Atlanta has a bevy of developing wings who could eat into Young's scoring average, preventing a return to his 2019-20 rates. But his scoring has such a high floor because of his elite foul-drawing skill. And even if the new rules designed to prevent the contact-seeking behavior Young has perfected shave off a couple of free-throw attempts per game, he could easily compensate by bumping up last year's 34.3 percent hit rate from deep.
Shooting Guard: Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
New teammate Spencer Dinwiddie's impact on Bradley Beal's scoring is an unknown. But it's safe to assume he'll be more helpful to Beal than Russell Westbrook was last season.
When sharing the floor with Russ, Beal got off fewer threes per 100 possessions and hit them at a far lower rate. The gap, 39.2 percent without Westbrook versus 32.3 percent with him, could be a fluke. But it may also have owed to the spacing crunch Westbrook's presence created. That Beal also got to the foul line more when playing without Russ suggests packed-in defenses were a factor. Ultimately, Beal averaged 46.5 points per 100 possessions when flying solo and just 35.7 when sharing the court with Westbrook.
Despite a suboptimal backcourt mate, Beal cracked the 30-points-per-game barrier for the second straight season in 2020-21.
Why can't he do it a third time, especially with Dinwiddie adding superior spacing and a handful of young wings who should continue to develop as threats to the defense?
Honorable Mention: Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
Opportunity is key to a bloated scoring average, and Donovan Mitchell will have all the chances he can handle. He ranked in the 99th percentile among combo guards in usage rate last season. With his foul-drawing and three-point attempt frequency both trending up (and reaching career highs) through last season, Mitchell's combo of steadily high volume and improving efficiency should lead to massive point totals.
After scoring 20.5 points per game as a rookie, Mitchell's average has grown every year, hitting 23.5 in 2018-19, 24.0 in 2019-20 and 26.4 this past season. You see where this is going.
Honorable Mention: James Harden, Brooklyn Nets
Positional designations are tricky with James Harden, who logged the majority of his minutes at the 2 last year (and in two of the past three seasons overall), despite clearly being a primary facilitator. We're listing him here, but point guard probably would have been fine, too.
Surrounding superstar talent could keep Harden's scoring down a touch, as could his clear status as Brooklyn's lead playmaker. He'll probably go for 15 assists more often than 40 points.
Just as the new rules could hurt Young, Harden may lose a few free throws when the whistles go silent on his contact-baiting three-point shots. Of course, considering we've seen Harden put up 36.1 points per game as recently as 2018-19, a down year could still see him average over 30. And if Kyrie Irving can't be a contributor this year, Harden could easily challenge for his fourth scoring title.
Honorable Mention: Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
Only six players in league history scored more points through their age-24 seasons than Devin Booker. Few shooting guards come with a firmer guarantee of big point totals than he does.
Honorable mention is the best we can do, though. Booker's scoring average dropped from 26.6 to 25.6 last season, due to a combination of Chris Paul's frequent work on the ball and a three-point clip that slipped all the way to 34.0 percent.
That said, Booker has great size for his position (6'5") and is a complete three-level scorer. His mid-range game makes him an impossible cover for smaller guards, and most wings aren't quick enough to stay in front of him. He could average 25 per night in his sleep.
Small Forward: Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
Jayson Tatum's usage rate and points per shot attempt are both angling up over the last three years, and there's no reason to expect a trend-line reversal in his age-23 season.
The Boston Celtics forward made major gains last season by improving his scoring at the rim. Tatum still frequently resorts to an off-arm shove when trying to create space, but he's developed craft and learned to use his increasing strength to finish more effectively at close range. His 68 percent hit rate at the rim in 2020-21 was easily a career best.
It's not just the scoring that's coming together for Tatum. He's also making strides as a passer (career-high 19.6 percent assist rate), rebounder and defender. We only care about the buckets, though, and Tatum's upward trajectory from last year's 26.4 points per game makes him the logical pick here.
Honorable Mention: Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers
Kawhi Leonard is set to miss some or all of the 2021-22 season as he recovers from a partial ACL tear, and that's good news for Paul George's counting stats. PG shifts into overdrive without Leonard on the floor, bumping up his scoring from 30.0 to 38.8 points per 100 possessions with only a moderate dip in efficiency.
Last postseason, the difference in George's numbers with and without Leonard was similarly pronounced.
George is dangerous at all three levels and can do damage on or off the ball. He only managed 23.3 points per game overall last season, but that'll climb without Leonard. And don't forget, we're not so far removed from 2018-19, when PG finished third in MVP voting with 28.8 points per game.
Honorable Mention: Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves
The No. 1 pick in 2020, Anthony Edwards struggled out of the gate but settled in nicely as his rookie season wore on. He cranked out 23.8 points per game in 36 tilts after the All-Star break that included 27.0 points per game over his final eight contests of the year.
Sure, a sophomore slump is always possible, but when a player so obviously figures things out midway through a season, another step forward is at least as likely. If you're making a case against Edwards belonging here, it has to be based on positional designations. He spent 62 percent of his minutes at the 3 last year, but he feels like a quintessential 2.
Honorable Mention: LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
The party has to end eventually, and while LeBron James isn't going to suddenly lose all his scoring touch in his upcoming age-37 season, it'd be best to expect some modest declines. James took just 39 percent of his shots at the rim last season after attempting at least 46 percent from that range in each of the last five years. Coupled with an average shot distance of 13.9 feet, the longest of his career, it's clear LeBron doesn't have the same burst that once made him such an unstoppable driver.
He's still ridiculously efficient, he's still the smartest player in the league, and he's still put up at least 25.0 points per game for 17 straight seasons. You can't keep him off this list.
Power Forward: Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets
Over the last nine years, Kevin Durant has ranked no lower than the 94th percentile in points per shot attempt among forwards. He's been in the 96th or higher in eight of those campaigns—good evidence that KD is the league's most reliably efficient scorer year in and year out.
KD hasn't led the league in scoring since 2013-14, but perhaps only because of his restraint. He hasn't averaged more than 20 shots per game since he was 25 years old, and he ranked 33rd in field-goal attempts per 36 minutes last season. If Durant wanted to average 35 a night, he could. He just picks his spots more carefully than most high-frequency scorers.
Perhaps with Kyrie Irving's status for the season in flux, KD will decide it's "fill it up" time and treat us to an aggressive, bucket-hungry season like he used to regularly produce in his younger days.
Durant's 26.9 points per game last season, which came in his first year back from an Achilles tear, feel like his floor in 2021-22.
Honorable Mention: Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets
I was all set to just hand this category to MPJ, comfortable with the heat of a take that placed him over Durant. After all, Porter is the only active player not named Stephen Curry to take at least 800 shots and post at least a 66.0 true shooting percentage in a season. The 6'10" forward only attempted 13.4 field goals per game last year. If he expands his role in the offense with Jamal Murray out, adding five or six shots per game to his average, MPJ could easily push up toward 28 or 29 points per game.
But then, reality set in. Durant is perhaps the greatest pure scorer who's ever walked the earth. His jumper can't be bothered, his handle is that of a guard and his array of moves is unmatched. He's the perfect point-producer. Porter Jr. is on a historic pace after last year's volume-efficiency combo, but he's not ready to overtake the scoring GOAT.
Honorable Mention: Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans
This one's simple: If Zion Williamson stays healthy, avoids minutes restrictions and sustains a rhythm over the course of a full season, he has the highest scoring upside of anyone in this group. He's his team's unchallenged alpha, and the Pels figured out last season that he needs the ball in his hands as the primary shot-creator. He has more to prove than Durant, will have the rock more than MPJ, and his hard-charging physicality could lead to a record number of free-throw attempts.
Of course, Williamson's ability to log a full, uninterrupted season is already in doubt following the revelation that he underwent foot surgery over the summer. Physical breakdown is the only thing keeping Zion, who has bulldozed to 29.2 points per 36 minutes in his career, from the top spot at power forward.
Honorable Mention: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Everybody good with including a 26-year-old two-time MVP who hasn't averaged fewer than 27.7 points per game over the last three seasons? You know, the guy who hung 50 on the Phoenix Suns in a title-clinching Game 6? The same one who could easily add five points per game to his average by ditching the yips at the foul line and finally developing a reliable three-point shot?
Giannis has made a habit of exceeding expectations, whether it be backing up that first seemingly improbable MVP with another or breaking through to win a title, despite some clear weaknesses in his game. So we can't rule him out as this season's highest-scoring power forward. Instead, his placement here is a nod to the possibility he'll see his minutes trimmed and a few more nights off after last year's long grind.
Center: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Joel Embiid was almost impossible to stop last season, scoring 28.5 points per game despite a floor constricted by Ben Simmons' shooting limitations. So what's he going to do when Philly no longer fields a lineup with an off-ball threat defenders totally ignore?
Here's a hint, but you'll want to make sure you're sitting down first: Embiid averaged 40.4 points per 36 minutes without Simmons on the floor last season. It's not like he struggled with Simmons in the game, posting a points-per-36 average of 30.3. But 40.4? Come on.
As was the case for Zion Williamson at power forward, Embiid's health is the only thing that might prevent him from dominating the scoring race at center. His overwhelming physical strength, balletic feet and gift for suckering defenders into shooting fouls make him an almost unsolvable problem on offense...and that was all true when Simmons was out there clogging things up.
This year, operating in more space, Embiid is going to run wild.
Honorable Mention: Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
Nine players 6'11" or taller have attempted at least 1,500 treys in their careers, and Karl-Anthony Towns sits atop the list with a 39.4 percent hit rate. He's only 25, but if KAT doesn't end his career as the greatest three-point-shooting center in NBA history, it'll be a shock.
Towns' lowest scoring average of the last three years was 24.4 points per game in 2018-19. Surrounded by more talent than he's seen since Jimmy Butler was in Minnesota and further removed from a year of personal tragedy, Towns is poised to have his most prolific scoring season yet.
Honorable Mention: Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Nikola Jokic, the reigning MVP, would probably be content to register a scoring average in the teens, but he seemed to learn last season that the Denver Nuggets are at their best when he looks for his own offense as often as that of his teammates.
Jamal Murray's absence could force Jokic to be even more aggressive, but it's likelier Michael Porter Jr. will take up that slack—with Jokic happily facilitating the imminent MPJ breakout. Jokic could nudge slightly past last year's 26.4 points per game, but it's hard to imagine him coming anywhere close to Embiid.
Honorable Mention: Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
At 21.8 points per game in 2020-21, Anthony Davis put up the second-lowest average since his rookie season. While it's fair to expect AD to get back into the mid-20s range he's occupied for the last half-decade, it'll be tough for him to move beyond that with LeBron James still deserving the lion's share of touches and Russell Westbrook gumming up the works.
One bonus to Westbrook's arrival: Davis now has to play much more center to keep the floor spaced, and he's too quick and skilled for conventional bigs to cover. If opponents downsize, Davis will destroy smaller matchups down low and on the offensive glass.
That positional pivot won't be enough to give him the league lead in scoring at center, but it should help keep him in the top three or four.