Top 5 Scorers: Different Methods, Great Results
By Brian Martin
A look at the league’s top five scorers this season shows five players that dominate the game in different ways, proving that there is no prototypical scorer in today’s game.
From shot distribution to executing specific play types, these five players use a wide variety of paths to achieve offensive greatness.
Today we’ll examine the top five scorers in the league and break down how, where and when they amass their points and how they have set themselves apart from the rest of the league.
All statistics through games played on March 28
1. James Harden: 30.7 Points Per Game
- After finishing as the runner up for the scoring title and the Most Valuable Player award a year ago, James Harden is the favorite to claim both this season as he is putting the finishing touches on an amazing ninth season in the NBA.
- Harden leads the NBA in isolation scoring, with over a third of his points coming on isos (11.8 per game). The next closest player, LeBron James, scores 5.5 fewer points per game on isos than Harden.
- Harden is on track to become the first player in NBA history to average 10 3-point attempts and 10 free throw attempts per game. When it comes to Harden’s scoring it is either 3-pointers (league-high 249 3PM), free throws (league-high 574 FTM) or layups (4th among guards with 257 FGM in the restricted area).
- Harden has attempted only 120 mid-range shots all season, which is fewer than two per game (1.8 to be exact). Harden’s skill set fits in perfectly with Mike D’Antoni’s offense as the team is set to break its own record (1,181 from last year) for 3-pointers made by a team in a season as early as Friday night.
- Harden is the only player in the top five to score a higher percentage of his points from 3-point range (36.8%) than 2-point range (34.8%). In fact, only Harden and Lillard score more than 20% of their points from beyond the arc among this group.
- Harden’s signature move - the step-back 3-pointer - perfectly encapsulates Harden’s game. It’s an isolation play where Harden uses his dribble to set up his defender. With his ability to get to the basket (1st in the league with 11.4 points per game on drives), the defender has to give a cushion to Harden, which allows Harden to fake the drive, get the defender leaning back, then step back for an open 3-pointer from above the break. Harden leads the league in field goals made (4.8) and attempted (9.2) on seven or more dribbles. Among the 26 players that average at least three of those shots per game, Harden ranks second in effective field goal percentage (60.6%).
2. Anthony Davis: 28.3 Points Per Game
- Davis is one of the NBA’s unicorns - a 6-10 forward with guard-like skills; a player that can hurt you all over the court - big enough to dominate in the paint, skilled enough to score from the perimeter, and athletic enough to get anywhere in between depending on his defensive matchup.
- A look at Davis’ scoring breakdown by play type illustrates his all-around game beautifully. While other players dominate one facet of the game (see Harden in isolation, Lillard on pick and rolls), Davis has a near even split between his scoring types. While he does not lead a single category, he ranks in the top 10 in four different play types - 2nd on cuts (4.5 ppg), 5th on post ups (4.6), 8th on pick and roll roller (4.3) and 8th on putbacks (2.9). He even ranks 2nd in the miscellaneous category for plays that can’t be fit into a specific category.
- Davis is a matchup nightmare for opposing players and coaches on a nightly basis. He can punish defenders on the block (4.6 ppg on post ups) or pull defenders away from the basket and either hit the outside jumper (ranks 7th with 1.9 FGM between 8-16 feet) or drive past them for layups and dunks (ranks 3rd with 6.8 FGM inside 8 feet). Davis’ 3.3 points per game on drives ranks 5th among players 6-10 or taller.
- Davis has continued to expand his range beyond the 3-point line. This season he’s averaging career-high in 3-pointers made (0.8 per game) and attempted (2.2) and is connecting at a career-best 34.2%.
- There have been 28 games this season when a player scored 40 points and grabbed 10 rebounds; Davis has eight of them (28.6%), while no other player has more than three (LeBron James and Davis’ teammate DeMarcus Cousins before he suffered a season-ending injury).
- Cousins was lost for the season with a torn Achilles tendon on Jan. 26. In New Orleans’ first 48 games before Cousins was hurt, Davis averaged 26.5 points per game, while missing six games. In New Orleans’ 27 games since Cousins went down, Davis has averaged 31.2 points per game and missed just one game.
3. LeBron James: 27.6 Points Per Game
- What LeBron James is doing in his 15th season is unlike anything we’ve seen before in the NBA. LeBron has been a model of consistent dominance since the day he stepped foot on an NBA court. And while Father Time may ultimately be undefeated, no player has held him off as long as LeBron.
- LeBron is averaging 27.6 points per game in his 15th season, which is the highest average that he’s posted since 2009-10 when he averaged 29.7 points in his final season of his first stint in Cleveland. This will be the ninth year that LeBron has averaged at least 27 points and the first time since his final season in Miami in 2009-10.
- Two key stats illustrate LeBron’s consistency and longevity. First, he is the only player in NBA history to average at least 25 points for 14 consecutive seasons. While he may not have the scoring peaks that some of the game’s greats had (Wilt’s 50.4 points per game in 1961-62, Jordan’s 37.1 in 1986-87), no one has shown this level of consistency. Second, with 10 points in Friday’s game against New Orleans, he will break Jordan’s record for most consecutive games scoring in double figures (tied at 866 prior to Friday’s game).
- When breaking down LeBron’s scoring by play type, three stand out from the rest: transition (6.3 ppg), isolation (6.3) and pick and roll ball handler (5.4). LeBron’s combination of size, speed and power make his a virtual locomotive barreling down the court in transition wiping out all would-be defenders in his path. He shoots 63.9% in transition - fifth among players with at least 200 transition points - and his 6.6% and-one frequency ranks second only to Giannis Antetokounmpo.
- When working in isolation or coming off a screen in pick and roll sets, LeBron has the ability to hit pull-up jumpers (2.6 per game) or drive past his defenders and convert in the paint. James scores 8.5 points on drives per game, which ranks 5th in the league and there is no better finisher at the rim as James converts on 76.2% of his shots inside the restricted area.
- Efficiency is a calling card to LeBron’s offense. Among the 26 players that average at least 20 points per game, no player shoots at a higher percentage than LeBron’s 54.7%.
- James has been at his best when the game is on the line. He ranks second in the league in fourth-quarter scoring (7.2 points per game) and no player has scored more points than LeBron’s 181 in clutch situations - game within five points with five minutes or less to play.
4. Giannis Antetokounmpo: 27.2 Points Per Game
- Giannis is the youngest (23 years old) and least experienced (in his 5th season) of the league’s top five scorers. While the rest of the players on this list came into this season with multiple 20 point per game seasons under their belts, Giannis has just one as he’s made huge leaps year over year. After averaging just 6.8 points per game as a rookie, he nearly doubled it to 12.7 in year 2, then jumped to 16.9 in year 3, went up by 6 points to 22.9 in year 4 and is now in the upper echelon of scores at 27.2 points per game.
- His field goal percentage has steadily risen as well as he is currently shooting a career-best 53.7% from the field, his 3rd straight season over 50 percent. A key to his high field goal percentage comes with his shot distribution. Giannis averages the fewest 3-pointers per game of any player in the top 11 in scoring and the second-fewest among the league’s top 24 scorers. Only four players in the top 40 average fewer than one 3-pointer made per game (Giannis, Davis, LaMarcus Aldridge and TJ Warren).
- Without a reliable 3-point shot in his arsenal, Giannis has used his superior size, speed and athleticism to create shots both in the mid-range (4.4 FGA per game) and in the paint (3.1 outside the restricted area and a league-high 9.4 inside the restricted area). Giannis leads the league in shots made in the restricted area (6.8 per game) and ranks fourth in FG% at the rim (72.1%) among players with at least five attempts per game in the restricted area.
- Giannis ranks second in the league behind Harden in free throw attempts per game (8.7) and trails Harden and Lillard in free throws made per game (6.6).
- Giannis is similar to Davis in showing balance among play types with the exception of transition, where he leads the league with 6.9 points per game on transition plays. With his 6-11 frame, 7-4 wingspan and incredible athleticism, Giannis is a dangerous man in the open court. How many players other than the Greek Freak can take just one dribble to go from half court to the rim and not travel?
5. Damian Lillard: 26.8 Points Per Game
- This is the third consecutive year that Lillard has averaged over 25.0 points per game, with this season eerily similar to last season in terms of scoring average (26.8 in 2017-18 to 27.0 in 2016-17), overall shooting percentage (44.4% to 44.1%) and 3-point percentage (37.0% to 36.7%).
- Another similarity to past seasons is Lillard’s dominance as the ball handler in pick and roll sets. In the three years with this play type data, Lillard has ranked 1st (10.0 points per game in 2015-16), 3rd (11.2 in 2016-17) and 1st (12.8 in 2017-18) in the league. Lillard doesn’t need much space to pull up and knock down shots, which is a big reason why Portland leads all teams with 11.8 screen assists per game.
- Lillard ranks 5th in the league in points scored on pull-up shots (8.8 per game) and is one of three players to knock down at least two pull-up 3-pointers per game along with the Rockets’ duo of Harden and Chris Paul.
- Lillard has gotten stronger as the season has progressed. He averaged 26.1 points per game prior to the All-Star break (6th) and 28.9 since the break (4th).
- Lillard (6.6) ranks second to Harden (8.7) in free throws made per game. And while no player gets to the line more often than Harden (10.1 FTA/game), Lillard takes advantage of his 7.2 attempts by knocking them down at a 91.7% rate, second only to Stephen Curry.
- Lillard ranks eighth overall with 125 points scored in clutch situations (ahead or behind five points in the game’s final five minutes), with his 12 3-pointers ranked fourth and his 92.5% free throw percentage ranked 3rd among players with at least 25 attempts. Lillard ranks 7th overall in fourth-quarter scoring (6.7 points per game) and is 5th since the All-Star break (7.6 per game).
- In addition to being a great closer, Lillard also plays at his best when his team is trailing in games. In 1,119 minutes with the Blazers either behind or the game tied, Lillard has scored 890 points (0.795 pts/minute) on 46.3% shooting from the field and 37.5% shooting from three. In the 1,332 minutes the Blazers have been ahead, Lillard has scored 905 points (0.679 pts/minute) on 41.9% shooting from the field and 36.0% shooting from three. When the Blazers are ahead, Lillard excels from the free throw line, making 258 of 273 attempts (94.5%) to help his squad close out games when opposing teams are forced to foul.