First Quarter Report: Reaching The Top Tiers In Season Scoring
By Brian Martin
For the first 23 seasons of the NBA, the league leaders in points, rebounds and assists were determined by season totals rather than season averages.
That changed following the 1968-69 season, and for the last 47 seasons those three category leaders have been decided by average, with a minimum threshold of games played (currently set at 70% of team games, which equates to 58 games in an 82-game season). Steals and blocks became official statistics during the 1973-74 season with the season leader always determined by average rather than totals.
The benchmarks for an outstanding season when looking through the lens of averages are fairly well known at this point. Any player that averages over 30 points per game had an incredible offensive season. For example, this season only James Harden is averaging over 30 points per game at 31.7 a night for the Houston Rockets. Last season, only league MVP Russell Westbrook eclipsed the 30 points per game average at 31.6 for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Over the past 10 seasons, there have only been six instances when a player averaged at least 30 points for an entire season, with Kevin Durant being the only player to do it more than once.
30 Points Per Game Seasons, Last 10 Seasons
|Season||Player||Points Per Game|
|*season limited to 66 games|
But what about season totals? What is the proper benchmark for total points scored in a season? And how many players this season on pace to reach or exceed those benchmarks? Let’s dig into the numbers to figure it out.
Here is a look at the top five scorers in the NBA based on total points, through games played on Monday, Nov. 27, one day into Week 7.
Top Scorers, 2017-18 Season, Totals
|Player||Points||Games Played||Team Games Played|
This week is a perfect time to examine these marks as all teams have played between 18 and 22 games so far this season. Near the quarter pole of the season, we can easily look at what season total numbers these players are on pace to reach. Of course, that assumes good health to keep them on the court and playing at such a high level.
But before we project stats for this year’s players, first we have to determine the benchmarks those players are aiming to reach. To help make those decisions we must look at history from both past and present players.
First, let’s hit the record books for the most total points scored in a single season and say hello to Mr. Wilt Chamberlain!
Most Points, Single Season, NBA History
4,029: Wilt Chamberlain, Philadelphia, 1961-62
3,586: Wilt Chamberlain, San Francisco, 1962-63
3,041: Michael Jordan, Chicago, 1986-87
3,033: Wilt Chamberlain, Philadelphia, 1960-61
2,948: Wilt Chamberlain, San Francisco, 1963-64
Wilt is the only player in NBA history to ever eclipse 4,000 points in a single season and one of only two players to even hit 3,000 points, with the other being Michael Jordan. These two players also happen to own the top scoring averages in NBA history – the only two players to average at least 30 points per game for their careers.
Wilt pretty much needs his own tier when it comes to points and rebounds as he dominates the record books in both categories. For our purposes, he will simply be at the very top of Tier 1, which signifies a historic season.
Tier 1: Historic
When it comes to scoring, history shows us that a 2,500-point season qualifies as Tier 1. That mark has only been reached 27 times in the history of the NBA, with only two active players hitting that milestone – Kevin Durant in 2013-14 and Russell Westbrook in 2016-17. Both came as members of the Oklahoma City Thunder and both helped solidify a Most Valuable Player honor in the same season.
As expected, Tier 1 is dominated by Chamberlain and Jordan, who own nearly half of the 27 total seasons by themselves with Chamberlain surpassing 2,500 points seven times and Jordan six times. The only other players to hit the mark more than once are Elgin Baylor, George Gervin and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, with each having two such seasons.
With 633 points scored through 20 games, James Harden is on pace to join this elite group. If he were to play 80 games at his current scoring rate, he would finish the season with 2,532 points. Harden has been incredibly durable, playing in at least 81 games in each of his last three seasons.
Now that we’ve established what a historic season looks like – and added some perspective into how incredible Wilt Chamberlain was back in the day – let’s move on and decide the proper number for Tier 2 and Tier 3.
Tier 2: Exceptional
Tier 2 is set at 2,250 points, which is a step down from historic, but still an incredible accomplishment when compared to all other players and eras. There have been 105 instances when a player has scored at least 2,250 points in a season, with Westbrook and Harden both reaching the mark last year.
This tier is still a who’s who of elite NBA scorers, with only six active players making the cut – LeBron James (4 times), Durant (3x), Harden (2x), Dwyane Wade, Stephen Curry and Westbrook. The fact that this list excludes Dirk Nowitzki – the NBA’s sixth leading scorer of all-time with 30,492 career points – shows just how hard it is to reach this mark in a single season.
LeBron is currently on pace to hit Tier 2 for the fifth time in his career, should he continue to play night in and night out like he has been through the first six weeks of the season. While Harden has played at least 80 games in each of his last three seasons, LeBron has played in 80 games only two times in his 14-year career, with the latest coming in 2008-09. Of course, LeBron continues to defy the laws of aging as he’s currently having one of his most productive (highest scoring average since 2009-10) and most efficient (highest FG% and 3P% ever) seasons in Year 15, so maybe he’ll suit up for all 82 games this year.
Another Tier 2 candidate this season is Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Bucks are tied with Chicago for the fewest games played at 18 so far this season, with Giannis scoring 502 points despite missing one of those games. Should he remain healthy, Antetokounmpo is on pace for his first Tier 2 season in what has been a breakout year for the fifth-year pro.
The ability to reach the top two scoring tiers requires both consistency and durability. While a player needs only to play in 70 percent of his team’s games to qualify for the scoring title based on average, there is no way to reach these top ranks when it comes to season totals without being on the court nearly every night.
Part of the reason Chamberlain was able to put up numbers that will most likely never be matched is because he simply never left the floor. In the 1961-62 season, when he scored over 4,000 points, Chamberlain actually averaged over 48 minutes per game because he played all the overtime periods and never fouled out. With teams and players more focused on career longevity and productivity by understanding the importance of rest, the task of reaching these top tiers is more difficult for today’s players.
Tier 3: Outstanding
While the top two levels of single-season scoring may only be reached by one or two players each season, Tier 3 takes that crack in the doorway and opens it up slightly to allow more players to enter while still being relatively exclusive.
The 2,000-point season is a benchmark that has been reached 254 times in NBA history, including seven times last season with Isaiah Thomas, Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Damian Lillard and DeMar DeRozan joining Harden and Westbrook. Curry missed Tier 3 by a single point last season.
Out of that group of seven players, five were selected to the All-NBA teams, with only Lillard and Towns missing that cut. Harden, Westbrook and Davis were all First Team selections, while Thomas made the Second Team and DeRozan landed on the Third Team.
All five of this season’s top five scorers in terms of total points – Harden, James, Lillard, Cousins and Antetokounmpo - are well on pace to reach Tier 3. The next three players – Curry, Davis and Kristaps Porzingis could threaten to join them should they also maintain their current scoring pace and remain healthy.
Over the past five seasons, the number of players to hit Tier 3 has varied from as few as one (2014-15) to as many as seven (2016-17), with an average of 3.8 players per season scoring at least 2,000 points.
Nearing the quarter mark of the 2017-18 season, there are a handful of players on pace to join that elite scoring group. How many will get there? Who will be the first to break 2,000 points? How many games will it take? Those questions will be answered in the months to come.
In the meantime, we’ll examine the other major statistical categories throughout the remainder of the week to help determine the proper milestones to watch for in rebounds, assists, steals, blocks and 3-pointers made.