The Numbers Never End: Reranking the League’s Top Scorers

By Zachariah Blott

Gerald Wallace: The NBA's Most Efficient Scorer?Basketball fans have no shortage of statistics to measure a player’s ability to score. First and foremost, there’s points. A more common method of tracking someone’s scoring prowess, though, is points per game (PPG). And for those people who value scoring efficiency, there’s field goal percentage (FG%), effective field goal percentage (eFG%) to factor in threes, true shooting percentage (TS%) to factor in threes and free throws, and even points per shot (PPS) as a basic barometer of what a player creates against the commodity of shots.

Each of these stats measures a different mix of abilities and opportunities; none of them is the perfect way to judge a player’s success as a scorer. Each number, though, provides a unique view of what a player does toward the end of putting points on the board, allowing fans to pinpoint who they see as the best based on certain criteria.

I propose two new ways to assess and discuss the qualities of players and the context within which they score their points. One of these numbers will try to weigh players’ points per after accounting for the pace their teams play at and how often they see the ball. The other number will put a new spin on PPS that is more dependent on bad shots, not all shots.

Gerald Wallace Photo Credit: Icon SMI

Again, none of these measurements are the end-all-be-all of scoring statistics; each is but another window to look at what a player is capable of.

Adjusted Points Per Game (AdPPG)

As of March 22, LeBron James was leading all players with 29.7 points per. But were there any better scorers in the league who weren’t getting their due simply because they weren’t the unquestioned number one scorer on their team like James is in Cleveland? Is Carmelo Anthony only in the top three at 28.8 points per because Denver plays at such a fast pace? Would Brandon Roy be the NBA’s top scorer each year if Portland wasn’t consistently one of the league’s slowest and most no-I-in-team squads?

AdPPG is meant to get to the heart of these two issues with PPG: the speed teams play at and how much an individual is allowed to be “the guy” in taking a team’s shots. I have tried to normalize scoring numbers with regards to pace (how many possessions per game a team has) and Usage Percentage (what percentage of a team’s possessions end with that player taking a shot or foul shot, or turning the ball over).

For the top 30 scorers in the league, I adjusted each one’s PPG by multiplying it by 30 and by 95, and then dividing by the individual’s Usage Percentage and their team’s pace. This forces all the players’ new scoring number to reflect what they would create at 30% Usage Percentage and if their team’s pace was 95. This formula looks like:

AdPPG = (PPG x 30 x 95) / (USG% x Pace)

Three players distanced themselves from the others after making these two adjustments, and you’re not going to guess who came out on top. Gerald Wallace, who barely ranks among the league’s top 30 scorers, ended up leading everyone at 29.1 AdPPG primarily because Charlotte plays so darn slow and he’s the team’s number two behind Stephen Jackson. Therefore, Wallace’s 18.3 points per received some serious boosts, so much so he’s now the league’s best scorer according to this measurement tool. He’s followed up by Kevin Durant at 28.6 (dropped a little because he always has the ball in his hands) and James at 27.9 (same deal).

The next three players before there’s a clear drop-off are Dirk Nowitzki at 26.8, Rudy Gay at 26.7, and Roy at 26.5. At the back of the pack are Tim Duncan at 21.4, Chris Kaman at 21.4, and Corey Maggette at 21.5. None of these three averages above 20.2 by the regular methodology, so they all actually received a bump to their normal numbers. In front of this lowly trio is a tightly bunched group of nine players who came out between 22.6 and 24.0 AdPPG that notably includes Dwyane Wade at 23.7 (he is currently fifth at 26.5 points per). The remaining 12 players fall in the middle, illuminating that Anthony and Luol Deng might be much more similar scorers than anyone had imagined.

Looking at Points Per Miss, after the jump …

Points Per Miss (PPM)

Kobe Bryant and LeBron JamesA popular tool used by many outlets—including ESPN—to examine a player’s scoring efficiency is PPS. Teams can only shoot so many shots in a game, so PPS measures how many points someone is creating with the shots they use (threes and free throws significantly help players in this measurement). I’ve tweaked this rudimentary formula to only look at how many points a player contributes for each shot he misses.

A team, and by extension players, need to use shots efficiently in order to win games. Therefore, I chose to divide a player’s points by how many times he misses in a game, something that clearly has negative consequences and shouldn’t be too high if a team hopes to win. The result, PPM, honors those players who can score many points without wasting teams’ possessions by taking shots that don’t go in.

One player lapped the other 29, leading by nearly a 50 percent margin over the second best guy. Dwight Howard scored an amazing 4.63 PPM, achieved by hitting a high percentage of his shots, going to the free throw line a lot, and missing a ridiculously low four shots per (some others on this list tripled that amount). The next two were Amar’e Stoudemire at 3.35 (high shooting percentage and lots of free throws) and Corey Maggette at 3.31 (he hits a few triples and shoots a ton of free throws).

The follow-up cluster includes Carlos Boozer (3.08), Chris Bosh (3.01), James (2.96), Wallace (2.92), David Lee (2.91), Paul Pierce (2.83), and Durant (2.80). The bottom of the list is made up of players who don’t shoot at a decent clip and/or who don’t hit many free throws. Stephen Jackson bottoms out the group at 2.05, followed by Monta Ellis at 2.12, Joe Johnson at 2.14, and Aaron Brooks at 2.17. A sextet of players lies just ahead of the bottom four, with the notable inclusion being Kobe Bryant at 2.32. The remaining 10 players lie in the middle somewhere.

Kobe Bryant and LeBron James Photo Credit: Icon SMI

Conclusions and Patterns

It can’t be stated enough that these numbers, along with any others, are not the ultimate stat to be used in measuring how well a player scores points. The more information one examines, though, the better picture they’ll have when comparing players. That being said, a few patterns began to emerge as I looked at both of these new data points together in order to jointly judge production and efficiency.

Players who seemed prime candidates to pass more based on a low PPM but who still ranked well in AdPPG (Ellis, Johnson, Bryant, and Gay) had a few things going for them. Some benefited from being on teams with strong offensive rebounders who could extend a possession after a miss, allowing them multiple shots on a single trip up the floor (Gay, Johnson, Bryant). All four benefited from being among the 11 guys who play the most minutes per in the league.

On the flip-side, some players showed great efficiency in PPM but still weren’t strong contributors in AdPPG (Bosh, Stoudemire, Howard, Lee, Boozer, Pierce, and Maggette). You see many of them are their team’s top rebounder (Bosh, Stoudemire, Howard, Lee, Boozer), so they’re the ones extending their teams’ possessions, probably allowing teammates to take more shots, not necessarily creating for themselves. Pierce and Maggette were affected by not playing many minutes compared to the group (33 and 30 minutes per, respectively).

If you’re interested in looking at the numbers, you can download the spreadsheet with all the data here.

Zachariah Blott cannot recommend Rick Telander’s “Heaven Is A Playground” enough.


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