A Historical Study
by Aqeel Phillips
With just a few weeks left in the regular season, some of us are left without much to root for anymore. HEAT fans remain optimistic in the surprisingly competitive battle for the first seed, and Suns, Mavs, and Grizzlies fans are biting their nails short in hopes that their teams can grab a playoff spot. However, a good percentage of us basketball fans now realize we have little to root for anymore (or if you’re a Sixers fan like me, you realized in about August), and are just waiting to see the final playoff seedings and end-of-season awards before the playoffs get underway. Besides the MVP, one of the most notable awards each year is the Scoring Title. Last season, we were treated with a thrilling ending as the battle for the Scoring Title came down to the wire between Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony.
This season, Kevin Durant aka the Slim Reaper has made things less interesting, currently scoring 32.2 points per game (PPG) over 2nd place Melo’s 28.0 PPG. Durant is the only player to average 30 points since he did in the 2009-10 season. The NBA has had a notable drop in scoring lately, a trend first starting when hand checking was instituted in the early 2000’s and extended as many teams have embraced sharing the ball throughout the team in order to better find open looks, namely threes, rather than relying on singular scorers. Durant’s current season widens eyes at first glance — averaging 4 points more than his next closest competitor will do that. But I find that PPG by itself doesn’t tell the full picture. Elgin Baylor averaged over 38 points in 1961-62, but that was over 50 years ago in a completely different league. So who had the most impressive season: 2014 Durant? 1962 Baylor? 2006 Kobe? We’ve witnessed plenty of monstrous seasons, and this study examines them in relation to the rest of the league at the time to contextualize the simple PPG marks.
League Scoring Average (Season)
To get a better comparison between scoring performances, we can divide a player’s PPG by their minutes per game (MPG) marks to see how they’re scoring with regard to the opportunities they’re being given. This is especially useful in calculating a league average scoring mark. We don’t want end bench players that average 0.6 PPG to drag down the entire league scoring average, most importantly because they outnumber the talented, 20+ PPG scorers in the league. Dividing PPG by MPG for each player across the league levels the playing field, and also accounts for the possibility that in any given season the league as a whole significantly played more or less bench/low-scoring players for whatever reason (for example, in the ‘60s there were much fewer players in the league and more minutes and points to go around).
For reference, here are the Points Per Minute values for the current league leaders in scoring:
(For those wondering about a full list of the league leaders in PPM, see the appendix)
In terms of points scored per time played, you can see that Durant is not just scoring at an average rate while playing more minutes, he is scoring more efficiently than the players below him on the list (shown by a higher PPM value than his competitors). It’s interesting to note that Melo averages more minutes than Durant, but Durant makes much better use of his time, scoring-wise, than Melo (Durant is also more efficient with his shot attempts – averaging 20.7 field goal attempts per game to Melo’s 21.5). This gives more evidence to Durant’s case for “best scorer in the league” – not only does he have the sheer output, but he also has the efficiency.
Next, we’ll calculate the average PPM value for the entire league, and compare each individual player to that average, to see how much better they score than the average replacement.
Unlike other studies I’ve done, I haven’t artificially subtracted out all of the players that aren’t contributing much (<20 MPG, <30 GP in previous articles), as using PPM should even out all contributions.
The Past Decade
For a bit of context, here are the league average PPG and MPG values for the past 10 or so years and each year’s corresponding scoring champions:
Scoring has recently dipped, with an unprecedented string of <30 PPG scoring champions from 2011-2013 (with the champions from the previous three years hovering right around 30 PPG). But is leading the league necessarily less impressive – dare I say, easier – now than it has been in years past?
To get a picture, we can compare each scoring champion’s PPM to the league average in PPM:
And a graphic representation (note all values along y-axis are in PPM):
At first glance, Durant’s current season in comparison to his peers seems to fall somewhere between Kobe’s 2006 season (which was absolutely bonkers, by the way) and McGrady’s 2003 season. However, it’s entirely worth noting that Kobe took 27.2 field goal attempts per game, and 24.2 per game for McGrady, compared to Durant’s mere 20.7 attempts per game. In addition, Durant has actually already eclipsed McGrady’s total points scored on the season due to McGrady only playing 75 games (Durant has 2411 points on the season compared to McGrady’s 2407). But when looking at efficiency in terms of time played in comparison to the rest of the league at the time (relevant due to the shifting pace of the league over time), he seems to be wedged right in between.
McGrady’s season is particularly notable because the league crawled to a watching-paint-drying level of boring that year, with an average of 93.4 points scored per game. And, of course, Kobe infamously put up 35 PPG on a team where the title of “next best player” was a battle between Lamar Odom and Smush Parker. So how does Durant match up? The league average of PPM is higher than it has been recently – but Durant’s current output eclipses that difference (if the league had stayed around 0.389 PPM, Durant would be at 0.450 above average, getting into Kobe territory). We cannot fully quantify each season due to the varying situations that each player is stuck with (though it is particularly notable that Durant has been putting up great numbers while sharing the ball with another All-Star). To draw a conclusion, however, it appears that Durant’s season is at least one of the most impressive of the past decade, most likely second behind Kobe’s 2006 season.
This study was initially conceived in an attempt to compare players across different eras. The previous calculations applied to the last decade can also be applied to some of the best scoring seasons in league history:
So while Elgin Baylor put up a resounding 38.3 points per game, he had two circumstantial elements against him: his high amount of minutes played (44.4 vs. 38.8 for 2014 league leader Melo), and the high scoring average throughout the league (probably mostly due to an up-tempo game and a small number of players in the league). The result is that he only scored 0.380 PPM over the average, which might be best compared to Dwyane Wade’s 2009 season. In comparison, Kareem’s 1972 season just seems disappointing, even though 34.8 PPG is a crazy feat. Overall, it appears that MJ’s 1987 might just be the most impressive scoring season, ever. His 0.486 PPM over replacement is the highest number that we’ve seen so far. He puts up almost as many points as Baylor in four less minutes per game, in a league where scoring is down overall.
Here is a graphical representation – including Durant and Bryant. Take a close look at the green bars to draw a comparison between the player’s output vs. the league average (the green bars are theoretically directly comparable to one another):
So while Durant’s season doesn’t quite match up to MJ’s greatest season, his season is still historically relevant – most comparable to Iceman or Bernard King’s best seasons. (Quick thought: it’s interesting to see that statistically, Kobe’s 2006 season was closer to MJ’s best scoring season than Durant is to Kobe’s best scoring season).
However, here is Durant’s current season in comparison to some of Jordan’s best seasons (specifically his five seasons from 1986-1991). By comparing each of Jordan’s season to the league averages at the time, it seems that only one of Jordan’s seasons during that stretch eclipses Durant’s currently season mark (the godly 1986-87 season). The data and graphical representations can be found below:
The Bulls drafted Scottie Pippen in the 1987 offseason, much to Jordan’s relief, and Pippen’s impact is seen in Jordan’s gradual decline in PPG from his 37 PPG peak. Once Jordan passed that 1987 season, we see a bit of a parallel between his and Durant’s situations – granted, Pippen isn’t the shoot-first point guard that is Russell Westbrook, but they both were first options on a team with another All-Star (and a Sixth Man of the Year, in Durant’s case). Could Durant hit 0.48+ PPM over the league without Westbrook for a season? We can’t know for sure, but we can definitely say that it’s amazing to see Durant even sniffing these levels of production. The competition would tip in Durant’s favor even more if efficiency was further taken into account. Jordan shot 48.2% in 1986-87 and Kobe shot just 45% in 2006, compared to Durant’s marks of 51.2% FG% and 41.2% 3PT% this season. We should keep in mind that it’s a privilege to watch a player that we can compare to two of the greatest offensive wing players ever.
The 100 Point Man
What’s that, you think I forgot about Wilt Chamberlain? How could I forget somebody who averaged over 50 points in a season? I actually chose to leave him out of the discussion until now. His jaw-dropping statistical accomplishments are certainly accompanied with plenty of controversy. Nevertheless, his achievements should be respected, but taken with a grain of salt. Here is Wilt’s 1962 season in context:
And here is the graphical representation, in which Wilt aptly towers over the competition:
All data and statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference. Total player data for each year can be found at B.R.’s Per Game pages (for the calculations in this article, the “total” listings for players traded midway through the season were omitted, as they were superfluous and created duplicates).
Aqeel Phillips is a native of Philadelphia and current freshman in the department of Computer Science at Princeton. He is a fan of long drives to the hoop, and dinners lit by the glow of televised NBA games.
PPM League Leaders
Here are the top 20 players in PPM this season: