Having a child and moving across the country has pushed basketball writing down on my list of priorities, but in these pockets of corporate and domestic living, I’m trying to scratch and claw my way into the word documents and share with you the weird, the strange, the awesome, the historical. We’re some odd three fourths of the way into the season, and as is always the case, the world’s greatest basketball players are venturing into unchartered places where no men (or very few men) have walked, run, jumped or dunked before. And in honor of the Big O, Oscar Robertson, who led the league in scoring and assists 50 years ago, and wore number 14, I have 14* random ass stats for you to consume at your own leisure. As always, shouts to Basketball Reference, a site and group of humans truly doing the lord’s work.
Note: all stats are as of 2/28/18. By the time you click a link, a player’s average or percentages may have moved by a tenth of a point and thus negated the achievement. Such is the fickle nature of records.
*Some of the list items have more than one stat included.
Steven Adams, 5.1 offensive rebounds, 17% offensive rebound percentage: Steven Adams isn’t the GOAT offensive rebounder (that’s probably Moses Malone), and he’s not even the best right now (probably Andre Drummond), but he is one of just six players in league history (Malone, Drummond, Dennis Rodman, Larry Smith, Jayson Williams) to average as many o-rebs and as high of an o-reb percentage as he is this season. Beyond his devil-may-care attitude to crashing the glass, no player on this list has a greater percentage of his total rebounds come on the offensive end. 56% of Adams’s total rebounds are occurring on the offensive end. That’s 5.1 offensive boards/game to 3.9 defensive. A portion of the reading audience will point to reigning MVP Russell Westbrook as the sole reason for Adams’s lack of defensive rebounds, but regardless of snarling causes and effects, Adams’s inverted rebounding ratio is rare and probably historical.
James Harden 31-8.9: When I first pulled these stats together a few days ago, Harden was sitting at 31 points and nine assists-per-game. Since then, he’s dropped down to 8.9 and will likely straddle the nine (not a term I ever expected to write) for the rest of the season. As it stands, his 31-8.9 places him in cahoots with former Thunder teammate and Steven Adams rebound stealer, Westbrook, Tiny Archibald, and the Big O. I’ve never considered parallels between Robertson’s and Harden’s games, but the physical characteristics and positions are somewhat applicable. Robertson was a physically overpowering guard, much like Harden is; a pair of players who physically defy the flying Jordan paradigm in exchange for blunt force delivered with equal grace.
Ben Simmons 16-7-7: Counting this season, Ben Simmons makes the 36th occurrence of the well-rounded 16-7-7 line. He’s also joining fellow big guards, Magic Johnson and the Big O, as the only rookies to post the line. As we’ll see with the next few stats, the league as a whole is becoming more skilled and that includes our taller players who benefit from copious amounts of shooters, spread floors, and an advanced understanding of how to pick out open teammates. They also just happen to be have more broadly developed games than many of their back-to-the-basket predecessors. If Simmons came along in 1977, I have my doubts that he would’ve wound up as a point guard.
6’7” and taller, +7 assists/game, +5 assists/game: Assists are a somewhat arbitrary stat. If you’ve ever done any assist tracking, what score keepers constitute an assist can vary massively. Additionally, being surrounded by better shooters can rack up high assist counts for an otherwise average passer. Nitpicking aside, tall players are tallying assists in ways we’ve never seen. Three players at least 6’7” (LeBron James, Draymond Green, and Simmons) are averaging over seven assists/game which was last done 31 years ago by Magic, Larry, and Reggie Theus. If we expand our assist thresholds to five-per-game, the current season has eight guys qualifying; the aforementioned Bron/Draymo/Simmons trio in addition to Nic Batum, Boogie, DeMar DeRozan, Kevin Durant, and Nikola Jokic. Al Horford and Jimmy Butler are both sitting at 4.9. The previous record for players of this height picking up this many assists was six in 1986-87. No popping champagne this year, guys.
6’10” and taller, over one 3pa/gm: If we continue exploring the intersection of height and skill, we presently have 21 players at least 6’10” averaging over one three made/game. The list I linked to doesn’t even include the giant, Kevin Durant, who could be as tall as 7’2” after a good stretch but is insultingly listed as 6’9”. We know the game is spacing out further and further. Whether it’s Ryan Anderson bombing from the hash marks or the massive Embiid (a 7’2”, nearly 300lb mountain of a human flesh, bones, polysynthetic fibers, and rubber bands developed in labs) with his almost-set shot, we’re seeing the boundaries pushed out further by our biggest and tallest players which is fundamentally altering the style of play and rewriting the record books.
Stephen Curry, efficient shooter: Curry’s the best shooter to play in NBA history. It’s hard to dispute this and somehow, at age 29, he’s having his best season yet in terms of true shooting percentage. At a ridiculous 67.2%, better than his 2016 second MVP season (66.9%), he’s entered into a domain occupied by only big men – and Cedric Maxwell. Not to discount what Maxwell, Artis Gilmore, Rudy Gobert, DeAndre Jordan, Tyson Chandler, James Donaldson, and Wilt Chamberlain achieved, but none of these ultra-efficient big men attempted more than 11 shots per-game. Curry’s crossed the 67% TS threshold on over 17 attempts/game; the bulk of which come outside the paint. If we push outside of the single season, Curry becomes one of just five players (all bigs and again, Maxwell), to have appeared in over 600 games with a TS 62% or higher. This is a somewhat inverse of the previous stats where we’ve seen big men encroaching on the turf of wings and guards. Curry, with his Predator-like accuracy (47-43-90 for his career), deep shooting, and scorer’s volume, has barged his way into efficiency conversations previously limited to dunking big men.
Anthony Davis, 28-10-2: If we’re rounding up, this is Davis’s second 28-10-2 season as he was a 27.9ppg scorer last season. If we’re not rounding up, Davis is the first player since Shaq in 2000-01 to have this impact on the game in terms of points, blocks, and rebounds, and just the sixth to achieve it (David Robinson, Pat Ewing, Kareem, Bob McAdoo thrice, and Shaq). He’s also doing it in less minutes-per-game than anyone on the list except 97-98 Shaq. With the rise of Karl-Anthony Towns, Jokic, Kristaps Porzingis, Giannis, and Embiid, combined with Davis’s constant missed games and injuries, it has seemed, at times, like his star has dimmed. Since Boogie went down, the Brow has elevated his everything and reminded us of his place in the present and historic lens of the Association. Pray to the new gods and the old that his health continues.
Andre Drummond, rebounder: Are rebounds valuable? Are they an indicator of team success? Should anyone crash offensive boards? Is this a new market inefficiency? I don’t have the answers to any of these questions, but I can tell you that Drummy gets more rebounds than anyone in today’s NBA. Looking all the way back through Basketball Reference’s database, only three times has a player appeared in at least 30 minutes per-game and grabbed at least 26% of the available rebounds: Dennis “the Worm” Rodman did it in 91-92 and 95-96. And now, after having surgery to repair a deviated septum in the off-season, Drummond is doing it. Detroit’s not winning as much as they should, but who cares when their big man is rebounding at Rodmanesque levels? Someone cares, it’s just not me.
42% assists in 700+ games, Russell Westbrook: As stated above, assists are not necessarily indicative of great passing, playmaking, or even of unselfishness. In some cases, maybe they’re just indicative of control. Three players in NBA history have assisted on over 42% of their team’s scored field goals: John Stockton (did it on 19% usage), Chris Paul (24% usage), and now Westbrook on a whopping 33% usage. For context, for players who have appeared in over 700 games, Westbrook is second all-time on usage rate (Michael Jordan is first). I made an assumption that as players get older, their usage would decrease, but looking across Kobe, Jordan, and Wade (all close to Russ on career usage), they each had big usage numbers late in their careers so I have no idea where Westbrook’s goes from here. None of this is to say that Westbrook isn’t an excellent passer, but rather to articulate that his gaudy assist rates are a by-product of a ball-dominant style combined with high level passing.
>36 minutes, <1.8 assists, >23% usage, Andrew Wiggins: What an oddball stat I dug up here. Counting Wiggins this season, it’s been achieved 34 times; most recently by Dwight Howard in 2010-11. I don’t know what to make of this list. It includes guys like Moses Malone (an eight-time inductee), Dwight, Antawn Jamison, Elvin Hayes, Alonzo Mourning, Amare Stoudemire, Keith Van Horn (all twice), Rudy Gay, Dominique Wilkins, and Rashard Lewis (all once). And then there are a bunch of oddballs. The combination of high volume minutes and usage with virtually nil playmaking is something I want to attribute to low basketball IQ or perhaps a myopic perspective on the attacking side of the ball; but it’s not that simple as Jamison, Malone, Zo, Nique, Rashard were all dynamic players who were maybe just less-than-average passers. The player has opportunity, but it’s either outside of their skillset or not something the player is willing to do.
If so much of these outlier stats serve as examples of an expanding skill set in the modern player, Wiggins, and Westbrook to a different degree, serve as sore thumbs of stagnation, of stasis. What is interesting in both players is their overwhelming athleticism and the potential opportunity to speculate how dependence on a certain skill can impede development of other skills. The need to evolve or die isn’t applicable because, in these scenarios, the player is already so developed physically, that other weaknesses can be hidden or overlooked. This isn’t to imply that Westbrook or Wiggins are not very good or even great at what they do. Rather, to differentiate their styles through statistical outliers.
Spring is in the air which means the playoffs will be here soon … soon
Last season I had a monthly post to look at how players were pacing against random historical statistical achievements and now that we’re now roughly a quarter of the way into the NBA season, I’m revisiting the concept. It’s no longer the “young” NBA season, but we’ve escaped the doldrums of “small sample-size theater” and can look at trends as markers of potential sustainability like Russell Westbrook preposterously averaging a triple double. The audacity! Let’s dive in and embrace the stats instead of telling the kids to get off our lawn while we spit shine our shrines to Oscar Robertson and Michael Jordan because goddamn it, yesterday wasn’t better than today and today isn’t better than yesterday. New frontiers await, let’s go!
Special thanks to Basketball-Reference for ALL stats
You want efficiency, here’s your damn efficiency: Kevin Durant scoring 27ppg on 17 or less FGA/gm. Since 1946-47, Basketball-Reference (BBR) tells us the only player with comparable volume and efficiency was Charles Barkley in 1987-88 when he averaged 28.3-points on 16 FGA/gm. Everyone said it would be easier in for KD in Golden State and so far it’s been historically easy.
Seems like everyone has strong opinions these days on how many threes big men should or shouldn’t be shooting. I may or may not be one of these people, but it doesn’t change the fact that players listed at 6’11” or taller are taking and making more threes than ever before. Prior to 2016-17, big guys had hit 1.5 or more threes/game 18 different times and it been accomplished by just seven players including the king of big man threes, Dirk Nowitzki who did it five times. But the throne is being challenged in 16-17 as six bigs are making at least 1.5 3s/game including Channing Frye who, if he keeps up his current pace, will tie Dirk for most appearances on the list. Also worth noting is that Frye’s on pace to set big man records for most threes made and highest 3pt-percentage.
With advanced stats like individual defensive-rating, defensive plus-minus, and opponent shooting percentage, we have more and deeper ways to measure defensive impact. This is good, but there’s still some traditional measures that help identify the havoc players are wreaking on that end of the floor and steals and blocks do a decent job. Since 1973-74 when steals and blocks started being tracked, just two players (David Robinson once and Hakeem Olajuwon four times) have accomplished full-season averages of 2-plus steals and 2-plus blocks. A quarter of the way into 16-17 and the dashing young Grecian prince Giannis Antetokounmpo is making a bid to join these Hall-of-Fame legends with his averages of 2.2 in both categories. Fellow basketball savant Anthony Davis isn’t far behind at 2.7-blocks and 1.8-steals. Do these youngsters dare to jointly pull off a feat not seen since 1992? Dare they may!
In all our years, we’ve only seen the greatest of the great reach the all-around statistical lines so indicative of great versatility as a 22-point, 8-rebound, 6-assist per-game average. These are players like Oscar Robertson (5x), Wilt Chamberlain (2x), John Havlicek (2x), Larry Bird (6x), Michael Jordan, Kevin Garnett, and Lebron James. But legends must make room for new jacks and those include Russell Westbrook (31-10-11) and the aforementioned Giannis (22-8-6). Russ is the headliner, but at 22, Giannis and Oscar (in 1960-61) are the youngest ever to stack these stats.
From the world of the weird, since the advent of this great game only a single player has averaged at least 25-points while making 8-or-less field goals/game. That lightning rod of making a lot out of a little is James Harden who reached the over-25/under-8 marker thrice is being threatened with new company this season as argyle-sock-puppet-loving Jimmy Butler throws his hat into the ring of mondo-efficiency with 25.6-points on just 7.8-field goals/game.
Joel Embiid doesn’t currently qualify for league leaders due to his lack of minutes which is a result of nightly restrictions and not playing back-to-backs, but for rookies, he’s embarking on some strange records:
Blocks & Threes: With all these unicorns like Embiid, Giannis, and Porzingis galloping around NBA cities, new frontiers are being explored with frequency. Since 1983-84, only one other player (not limited to rookies) has as many blocks (29) and threes (18) made through his team’s first 13 games and that’s Wilson Chandler in 2010-11.
28-points-10-rebounds-1.5 3s had never been reached before this season and now we’ve got two players breaking on through to the other side (interestingly enough, a montage of Westbrook drives, dives, and boards could easily be set to The Doors tune) of NBA statistics: Westbrook (31-10-1.8) and DeMarcus Cousins (29-10-1.7). There’s a lot of similarity in how these guys play so while positionally (not a word, but we’ll go with it) and physically they couldn’t be much more dissimilar, they’re both emotionally volatile players fueled by something deep in their guts and chest cavities. They’re wrecking balls with immense responsibilities riding on their shoulders and their carnage is leaving bulk stats and fragile records in their wakes from Sacramento to Oklahoma City.
A usage rate over 30% will typically land a player in the top-10 in the league in overall usage. But 30% usage and under two turnovers/game? That’s rare. So rare that prior to this season, it’s been accomplished just three times: by Kobe Bryant last year (more a result of his bullish shot jacking), LaMarcus Aldridge in 14-15 (30.2, 1.7), and Dirk in 08-09 (30.3, 1.9). Joining this rare combination of usage and efficiency are Kawhi Leonard (30.6, 1.9) and Zach Randolph (30.9, 1.3). Though I haven’t seen as much Z-Bo as I would like, I’m assuming there’s a lot of catching and shooting with little dribbling and not much playmaking. Kawhi, by contrast, has more assists/game than anyone else on this list.
Blocking shots and scoring the basketball at an elite level are the domains of Kareem, Hakeem, the Admiral and Pat Ewing, right? I mean those are the first names that come to mind when I think of that joint skillset, but prior to this season, only a single player had ever average 30-points and greater than 2.5-blocks for an entire season. Can you guess who it is? Think, think, guess, guess, don’t skip ahead. This year, Anthony Davis (31.5, 2.7) is flirting with joining Buffalo Brave great Bob McAdoo (30.6, 3.3) in this exclusive club of tall, lean basketball pros.
After tonight, the Brow of unibrow fame is already up to six 35-point, 15-rebound games. Since 1983-84, the most a player has had in a single season was Charles Barkley with 12 in 87-88. We know the Brow’s susceptible to missing games to aches, pains, strains, sprains and the like, but this is a fun one to watch.
50-40-90 club but with 48-38-88 thresholds so we can see who’s sniffing around. 20 games into the season and we’ve got four candidates: Stephen Curry (49-42-92), Patty Mills (51-45-96), Terrence Ross (50-44-94), and J.J. Redick (49-46-90). Only once since we’ve been threes came into the game have we seen more than one player reach this dead-eye shooting summit: 2007-08 when Jose Calderon and Steve Nash landed there together.
We’re a quarter of the way in, but this has the making of a legendary season for statistical achievements, driven by those former three Thunders rolling roughshod through the league in their own tradition-defying ways. Usage rates at the individual level are rising in line with individual scoring and the range expansion of big men means more of the court is open to new batches of players which means the entire ecosystem of stats is undergoing historical change. This is fun, it’s unseen, let’s get our sunscreen (I’ll make sure your neck is covered) and venture off into worlds unknown with Boogie and Russ and the Brow. Godspeed!
Aside from being wholly arbitrary and comforting with its round numbers, the 30-point, 10-assist, 0-turnover game is an indelible mark of pro basketball efficiency. Its achievers clearly shoulder the weight of an entire offense, acting as both elite scorer and distributor while taking care to not give away precious possessions. At this early time in the 2016-17 season, James Harden is trekking towards NBA infamy with a turnover-per-game ratio north of 5 which makes his induction into the 30-10-0 club on November 19th, 2016 all the more unexpected, but also all the more possible given his nightly responsibility.
Major League Baseball has an informal mark of master class in starting pitching referred to as “The Maddux,” in honor of Hall-of-Famer Greg Maddux who was known for his ultra-efficiency on the mound. The Maddux is a complete game shutout while throwing under 100 pitches. Not surprisingly, Maddux was the master of The Maddux. He accumulated 13 such performances over 740 career starts – just under 2% of all starts. The next closest pitcher is Zane Smith with 7 Madduxes. Since 1988 when pitch counts were regularly tracked, blogger/writer Jason Lukehart writes that there have been over 300 Madduxes thrown by 190 different pitchers – or roughly 11-per-season.
While it’s nothing near an apples-to-apples comparison, the 30-10-0 club has the feel of a Maddux in its combination of efficiency mixed with excellence. Our dear Player Index resource over at Basketball-Reference tells us that since the 1983-84 season, the 30-10-0 has been accomplished 46 times by 39 different players; or less than 1.5 times-per-season. Given the time constraints and lack of turnover numbers available for historical players, it’s safe to assume 30-10 luminaries like Nate Archibald and Oscar Robertson are grandfathers of the stat, but we’ll just have to move forward with our Reagan-era players.
So if the great Greg Maddux is the godfather of the Maddux, then we’re all inevitably asking, “Who’s the godfather of the 30-10-0? Whose illustrious name shall represent the ultimate in scoring and assisting efficiency?”
My own guesses went the way of Chris Paul, or Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, or Steve Nash. I wasn’t prepared for Stephon Marbury. Maybe it shouldn’t be a shock as the Coney Island Starchild had a 7-season stretch where he averaged roughly 22-points and 8-assists with 3-turnovers, but I was shocked anyway. Here are the top 30-10-0s:
The Godfather of the 30-10-0 Club honored with a statue for having 4 such games
Zero turnovers isn’t some ultimate mark of perfection in basketball anymore than differentiating between 99 pitches and 100 pitches is in baseball, but it’s a hell of a benchmark. Coupled with the points and assists, it’s also a good indicator of team success. In the 46 games we’ve seen the 30-10-0, teams featuring said players are 40-6, winning 87% of their games.
There’s no great takeaway other than acknowledging that something extremely rare and unlikely occurred this past Saturday. History is full of these little untold truths that lie waiting to be discovered through the accomplishments of the present. Alex English going for 46-10-0 while shooting 76% from the field? Larry Bird hanging 46-10-0 on the Magic as a hobbled 33-year-old? Or even Baron Davis’s 33-14rebound-10-0 effort in the playoffs back in 2002? These are masterpieces trapped in the memories of fans and beneath the dust of the archives. If Zane Smith can be Greg Maddux for a night, then even Stephen Jackson can be Larry Bird.
It’s a bit of Captain Obviousness at his most obvious, but after this latest weekend of norm-crushing outputs, it’s still worth acknowledging the statistical rampages on which Russell Westbrook and James Harden are presently embarking.
Harden’s latest salvo was fired across the electorally-commentating Gregg Popovich’s snout to the tune of 25-points, 11-rebounds, and 13-assists which marked back-to-back triple doubles and the third consecutive game of at least 24-points and 13-assists. The last guy to go three straight 24-13s was the Canadian maestroSteve Nash.
Russ responded in kind with an even nervier performance on Sunday (the day of my birth and the day after his own birth so thanks for the bday entertainment) when he unloaded for 41-points, 12-rebounds, and 16-assists while turning the ball over just twice and shooting 67% from the field. That OKC lost to the ever-struggling Magic is just details in the micro, but worrisome in the macro where there’s a collective evidence that disallows celebrating the individual performance in basketball unless there’s a corresponding team success. Aside from the tiresome debates of our day about winning, stats, and the individual in modern basketball, you can be reassured that Russell’s performance was of a most rarefied air. Since 1983-84 which is as far back as Basketball-Reference’s game logs go, only one other player has posted the 40-10-15 triple double and that was three-time NBA champion and ghost chasing coverboy, LeBron James – though Bron needed a full 47 minutes while Russ needed a mere 38. (As an aside, the night Bron executed the 40-10-15, the Cavs lost to Denver in a classic Carmelo-Bron duel where Anthony put up 40 in a game his Nuggets won in overtime. Can we get this on some NBA OnDemand platform? Please? Or is that too much to ask given that we can’t even get a workable version of League Pass?)
We’re a mere 10% into this new season, but inching further away from the small sample size theater and into some world of sustainability. These gaudy stats (32-9-10 with 5 turnovers and a 41% usage for Russ, 30-8-13 with 6 turnovers and 34% usage for Harden) would seem to taper off at some point and yet that assumption is driven by two notions: 1) neither player is physically capable of keeping up these torrid paces, 2) a single player carrying a disproportionate load eventually becomes an impediment to team success.
Physically speaking, Russ has proven his Wolverine-type resiliency over the years as he hadn’t missed a single game through the first five seasons of his career until Patrick Beverley notoriously dove into his leg during the playoffs. This is a man who had his skull dented and continued to play. He appears capable of carrying anything and has the second-highest usage rating in league history at 38.4% in 14-15 which he achieved over 67 games in a season when Kevin Durant was frequently absent with foot injuries.
Harden is a case in stylistic contrast, but has proven himself to be a player with a single-minded emphasis on forward progress. He’s in the midst of a stretch of over 300 games dating back to 2013 where he’s averaging right at 10 free throw attempts-per-game. Despite a bruising style that results in him getting hacked as much or more than any player not named LeBron, his only missed game since the 14-15 season happened in March of 2015 when he was suspended. He’s led the league in minutes played the past two seasons and appears more than physically capable of doing it again year. Iron Man, Iron Beard? So what, get your minutes Harden.
If you’ve seen OKC during one of its 14-minute stretches each game when Russ sits, then you’ve seen a train wreck of a directionless offense flying off the tracks, careening into the fiery depths of basketball hell. They have just one 5-man lineup that doesn’t include Westbrook and has a positive point differential and that lineup has seen just 4-minutes this season. Westbrook leads the league in both box score plus/minus and VORP (value over replacement player) and his on-off difference is a whopping +25.7. Whether you watch or study the data or just close your eyes and imagine, in any scenario, by any measure, OKC needs Russ like the winter needs the spring.
But if you think a +25.7 on-off is nice, Harden’s with the Rockets is +38.6. Like Westbrook, he appears in Houston’s most productive lineups and has become the singular point of propulsion for this potent offensive attack. Maybe the return of the knee-crushing Beverley does something to reduce Harden’s burden, but he’s never been a traditional point guard/playmaker either, so while his return may assuage some of the wear and tear, it’s not likely to limit the role of the bearded one.
By all visual and statistical appearances, these team’s hopes weigh disproportionately on the shoulders of these native Los Angelinos. It may not meet the aesthetic that some have of basketball, but it does create a space for insanity to reign and for us to plumb the depths of man’s ability to mythologize in a most John Henry (or early MJ) way.
Is it sustainable though? Russ is shooting a career-best 35% from three on a career-high 6 three-point-attempts per-game. Harden is averaging over 40% more than his best assists-per-game average. And both guys are rebounding at career-best levels.
Without Durant, OKC is playing the fastest pace of Westbrook’s career which is resulting in around three more possessions-per-game than at any other time in his career. Harden, conversely, is playing slightly slower than last season, but in line with 14-15. The big flip for Harden is that, per BBR, he’s seeing 98% of his minutes at the point guard position versus 1-2% the previous three seasons. He’s surrounded by glorious shooters like Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and even a blossoming Sam Dekker. The variables are in place for both guys to continue churning out offense at gluttonous levels.
Points and assists are so much more in the player’s control than rebounding and while the scoring/assist combinations are the stuff that Oscar Robertson and Nate Archibald can relate to, it’s the rebounding as lead guards that make these players so unique and dangerous. Like LeBron or Magic, both guys can retrieve the defensive board and catch a vulnerable, unset defensive off-balance. As of 11/14, Westbrook leads the league in transition possessions and Harden is tied for 5th. Neither player is exceptionally efficient, which, given the volume of their breaks doesn’t diminish from the overall impact.
All that defensive rebounding-leading-to-breaks aside, Harden maintaining 8-rebounds-per-game or Westbrook at 9 are the most likely stats to fall off.
To put these lines into perspective though, only one player in NBA history has maintained the 30-8-10 line for an entire season. Yep, Mr. Triple-Double himself, Oscar Robertson pulled off the feat three separate seasons: 61-62, 63-64, and 64-65.
Stats courtesy of the great basketball-reference.com – a great website
Like my presumption of Russ and Harden’s toughest counting stat being rebounding, the Big O’s greatest volatility was on the boards where he dropped from 12.5/game as a 23-year-old to a mere 9-10 in subsequent seasons. What makes the Robertson comparison interesting and what makes Russ and Harden’s outputs so damn ridiculous is the difference in pace between the mid-60s and today. Below I’ve included the same table, but with team pace included at the far right:
The numbers are frighteningly similar despite the massive gaps in both minutes played and pace. None of this should take away from the Big O who averaged a triple-double over his first six seasons in the league which spanned 460 games and a 30-10-10 stat line. But it feels almost like Miguel Cabrera winning the Triple Crown a few years back. There are hallowed numbers that feel out of reach, until the savants of today show up with their beards and fringe fashion statements and make you think the impossible is possible. Dinosaurs can walk again – but can they do it for 82 games? Shit man, you’re asking the wrong guy.
Russell Westbrook spent last spring (Feb-April) averaging 31.4 points-per-game, 9.7 assists, 8.6 rebounds, and two steals while shooting 85% on 11.4 free throw attempts/game. Because of that and because of hundreds of games of visual and statistical evidence, I shouldn’t be surprised when Westbrook unleashes hell’s scorn on opponents like he did against the Clippers tonight when he pulverized Chris Paul of Meet the Hoopers ad campaigns (“Kevin, where you get all them dimes from?”) and his Clipper friends/teammates to the tune of 25 points, 11 rebounds, and a career-best 20 assists.
Dancing with Noah is nothing if not interested in random historical comparisons for the sakes of context and connecting to a shared past – one that often creates feelings of nostalgia in me if we’re being honest. And while it might be a poor carpenter who blames his tools, it’s a resourceful blogger that utilizes the genius gift-giving of basketball-reference’s Player Game Finder tool.
It was last accomplished by Steve Nash in January of 2006 in a triple overtime losing effort against the Knicks. Nash played 55 minutes scoring 28 points on 3-13 shooting from three with 22 assists. Also of note: Shawn Marion played 60 minutes for the Suns (39 and 14) and Eddy Curry of Baby Bulls fame went for 20 and 15. But painfully (for Bulls fans at least) we digress.
Perhaps it was a glimpse into the future: Stephon Marbury running the offense to near perfection, Keith Van Horn scoring on jump shots and powerful drives, the other Nets contributing in various ways and, maybe, just maybe, Don Casey on the sideline planning the strategy.
It wasn’t a glimpse into the future, but it was a hell of game from Marbury and he wasn’t hesitant to let everyone know: “A lot of people don’t have enough heart to throw the ball (referring to behind-the-back passes) because they think they’re going to get a turnover. I’m totally different. I know that it’s going to get there if I see him ahead of time and the guy steps to the ball.”
I won’t go through every occurrence, but call out a couple because every impressively unique performance is wrapped in a story. There are a couple more games that stood out for various reasons like John Stockton’s (he of four appearances on the 25-20 list) 26-point, 24-assist, 6-steal on 12-16 shooting effort against the Rockets in January of 1988. He also had just one turnover. In a most Stockton quote ever, Houston Chronicle writer Eddie Sefko reported that Stockton said, “The night means nothing without the win.” Of course not.
There’s a 10:30 condensed version of Stockton’s gem on Youtube which I’ve included below. And maybe it’s the splicing, but the game feels like it’s played at a breakneck pace. There’s something kinetic about it and it’s not just Stockton pushing breaks or Malone filling in those breaks and celebrating with weird fist pumps after dunks (fast forward to 2:00), but there’s constant movement and a radio-style announcer describing every moment of activity.
The condensed clip is worth watching as an artifact of three of our greatest players at or near the peak of their powers. Stockton as the engine, Malone as the body, and Olajuwon and as a lean do-everything center who went for 26-13 with seven steals and five blocks. Stockton is the show-stealer though as he single-handedly dictates how Utah would run in a way which Sefko described as “passing (that) would have made Boomer Esiason envious.” For a team associated in their later years with the Stockton/Malone pick and roll, their fast break was a purple wave rushing with Stockton at its head, flanked by Malone, Darrell Griffith and Thurl Bailey. Oh the breaks! As if Sefko wasn’t enough, one announcer (at 6:35) can be heard saying, “The Cowboys ought to forget about Troy Aikman, they oughta sign up John Stockton to quarterback that ball club.”
We can expand the criteria from merely the paltry, lazy man’s 25-20 to include the double digit boards as well which narrows our list down to Russ, Magic (twice), Isiah once, and the aforementioned Robertson with three.
But such was Magic’s game that he evoked highest of praise and who can blame Edes for hyperbole when he writes that Magic scored 12 of his 32 in the last four-and-a-half minutes including a three that put the Lakers ahead for good. Magic’s game only seems appropriate against the backdrop painted by Edes who describes a scene that included Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s farewell ceremony in Philadelphia accompanied by Grover Washington Jr. playing sax, Laker Tony Campbell getting ejected for apparently telling the ref “I love you, but that was a terrible call,” Orlando Woolridge getting kicked in the head and being unable to feel his fingers, and Charles Barkley shooting 5-14 from the line to muddy up an otherwise gorgeous 31-point, 23-rebound, 6-assist game with 13-19 shooting from the field. We throw around “what a time to be alive” with vulgar irony, but Christ, November 28th, 1988 was the time to be alive and Philadelphia was the place so sayeth Magic, Charles and Gordon Edes. Edes wraps the piece with a spookily prescient quote from Magic, “Two, three, four years, I’ll be gone. Then I’ll be delivering in a Park and Recreation League.” Magic was right about the timeline, just no one could’ve foreseen the circumstances.
And to take it back to where we started with Russell, he just so happened to be born just 16 days before Magic recorded his game against Philadelphia which was the last time we had an induction into the 25-20-10 club. There’s something oddly circular to the timing here, but let’s not dwell on coincidences. But damn, in some kind of cosmic nod to Stockton, all Russ was concerned with was the win as he said, “Just a win, man. More important just to see all my teammates happy and all see my teammates enjoy the game and enjoy this win.” It’s all too much coincidence or else there are some threads streaking through basketball space-time connecting Oscar to Magic to Stockton to Steph to Steve to Russ. Sometimes the continuity is too great.
Since the All-Star snubbing of Damian Lillard, one of the more compelling roadshows of the league has been the Damian Lillard does-Kill Bill on the rest of the NBA. He’s averaging nearly 33 points, hitting nearly four threes/game with a TS% of 64% and a pair of +50-point-games to boot. In my worst Clyde Frazier parlance, he’s feasting and beasting on the rest of the league. And most important for the post-season coffers, the Blazers have gone 6-4 in that post All-Star stretch and played themselves into the 7th spot of a crowded Western Conference playoff race.
But alas, the world doesn’t revolve around Lillard. Other players, through transaction, renewed role, or just revitalized visualization, have accepted the challenge of the last leg of the season with vim and vigor.
Thank you to the creators of Excitebike for the time I spent playing your game as a child.
I’m happy you dumped me, my new friends are great: The Hawks and the Jazz are often connected for some strange reason. Pistol Pete Maravich enjoyed success with both franchises, Dominique Wilkins was drafted by Utah then traded to Atlanta, Demarre Carroll and Paul Millsap both left Salt Lake City for the ATL, and now we can add Shelvin Mack to the great culture shock pipeline. In what Kevin Arnovitz described as the Hawks “doing (Mack) a solid,” the team sent the Butler point guard on his way on the trade deadline day. The Jazz might be 2-6 since acquiring their new guard, but Mack’s had a positive plus/minus in five of those games and has appeared in more minutes in every game with the Jazz than he did in any game with Atlanta. More John Stockton or more Raul Neto? Let’s move on.
Speaking of players reaping personal benefits of changing scenery, everyone’s favorite New Yorker nicknamed “Born Ready,” (Lance Stephenson for the uninitiated) has been enjoying a renaissance in Memphis where he was dealt (along with a 2019 first rounder) in exchange for Jeff Green. Stephenson’s appearing in seven more minutes/game with a 9% increase in usage rate (15% to 24%) while also seeing an improvement in TS% (from 57% to 59%). The Grizz are 5-3 since Lance joined and he’s no doubt tickled pink to be out of Doc Rivers’ doghouse once and for all. (Note: Memphis went into Cleveland as I wrote this and despite being painfully shorthanded, beat the Cavs as Stephenson scored 17 in 27 minutes though he did have the Grizz’s worst plus/minus.)
Just gimme a chance, I’m the right one for you: The Suns have descended into a crustiness where players are injured, the coach was fired, Earl Watson (he of very little coaching experience) has been given the keys to the car which he may or may not be able to drive and nothing seems to be going right (except they’ve won back-to-back games). But then there’s some glimpse of the future wrapped in the body of 7’1”, 22-year-old Ukrainian Alex Len. Now in his third year, Len has had these mini-spikes throughout his time in the league where he’s strung together double doubles and swatted shots with impunity. So what to make of his latest run? Post-ASB he’s averaging 11 more minute minutes/game, scoring 12 more points (19ppg), and has recorded as many double doubles (five) in eight games as he has all season. On the flipside his net-rating is -11.3 and his plus/minus is -6.1. His counting stats are up, but his rate stats are down or flat. Things are ultra-shitty in Phoenix right now though, so maybe the jury’s still deliberating on Len.
Speaking of youngsters, a few of last year’s rookies have been given green lights galore: Jabari Parker, Zach LaVine, and Aaron Gordon have had their collective training wheels removed and are being thrown into the wide world of Excitebike. Dunk contests hold some level of basketball cultural meaning, but at the same time, dunk contests don’t score points and defend the pick and roll. Maybe they build confidence though and for a trio of kids that are legally too young to drink, confidence is as critical as legs. Like Len, these youngsters have experienced sporadic successes, poor coaching, and injuries in their 1.75 seasons in the league, but this post-ASB has hints and hopes of something sustainable:
Pre-post ASB variance
They’re all getting more playing time, scoring more and shooting better. None is more notable than the rest, but Parker’s becoming the scorer we thought/hoped he could be with running mate Giannis Antetokounmpo picking up triple doubles in a most Draymond Green manner. LaVine’s accuracy and shooting are seeing spikes as crackpot coach Sam Mitchell does the unthinkable and plays the evolutionary Gerald Green at off guard instead of point. LaVine’s usage is down 5%, but he’s shooting so much better – for once the armchair coaches were right! And All-Star weekend’s big winner in Aaron Gordon is seeing more minutes which is coinciding with a swing in NetRtg (per NBA.com) from -1.7 pre-ASB to +4.7 post-ASB alongside a -1.2 to +2.7 improvement in plus/minus. He’s able to defend multiple positons as well as take the defensive board and push the break himself. Oh the places you will go, Mr. Gordon.
Y’all must have forgot! (the Roy Jones Jr. version): Even though trainers and sports scientists need injuries and destructible human bodies in order to stay employed, injuries are no good. But the occasional silver lining that accompanies an injury is the return from said injury. Chandler Parsons muddled through an injury-riddled season in 2014-15 and struggled to find the form that earned him a three-year, $46-million deal in the summer of 2014. An off-season knee surgery (something described as “hybrid microfracture”) slowed his 2015-16 season with minute restrictions, but with an ASB to recharge (perhaps mentally as well as physically), Parsons has come out guns blazing. He’s taking and making more attempts with fat upticks in 3p% and TS%, but most impressive has been a jump in plus/minus from -1.3 pre-ASB to +17.2 post.
And sometimes it’s not just a player rediscovering his own motor or touch, it’s an injury-generated opening that creates circumstances where a formerly-injured pro seizes the opportunity. That’s what it feels like in Miami where Chris Bosh is unfortunately undergoing complications related to the same blood clots that knocked him out of last season, but meanwhile super-pro Luol Deng is stepping into a much-needed role. His post-ASB numbers show a beefy 5.3% increase in rebound percentage (nearly doubling his rpg from 4.7 to 9.3) and he’s getting to the line for three more attempts/game while scoring 17/game compared to under 11 previously. The Bosh-hole is huge and gaping, but Deng, along with Hassan Whiteside, Amare Stoudemire, and Josh McRoberts are finding ways to fill it as best they can. Miami’s 8-2 post-ASB.
Speaking of unfortunate blood clots, Mirza Teletovic has had better fortune with clots that ended his 2014-15 season than Bosh. And like Len, he’s a beneficiary of the Phoenix flop. It’s not enough to just have an opportunity, but those who shine on like crazy diamonds are the ones who grab the opportunity and Teletovic’s done that. Since the ASB, he’s making over three threes/game while pulling down nearly 6rpg. For context, there’s not a player in the league who’s averaging that combination.
I never dreamed my game would leave in spring: As much as it’s fun to celebrate success, it’s only fair to recognize the struggle because it’s real. Let’s start with Draymo Green who’s seen his post-ASB shooting touch flushed straight down some East Bay sewer. Post-ASB he’s 5-26 from three (19%). Anything scoring related is down – FG%, FT%, PPG, eFG%, TS%. Golden State keeps winning games, but as Draymo has struggled, so too has the team. For a player that appears to be powerfully driven by his own confidence, whatever it is that’s impeding his return to pre-ASB shooting would ideally be rediscovered prior to May.
Stats via basketball-reference.com.
Speaking of performances tied into coaching changes, all we heard in Cleveland was how Tyronn Lue was going to get the Cavs running and take full advantage of Kevin Love’s elite skill set. That hasn’t necessarily been the case though as Love’s post-ASB splits have taken some odd turns. He’s getting less three-point attempts/game (not necessarily a bad thing), but his accuracy has dipped from 37% to 23.5%. His rebound percentage is down over 5% resulting in a pedestrian 7.5rpg. The Cavs have lost four of 10 games and each loss results in internal reflection and LeBron admonishments. All is not well in The ‘Land.
It’s a small sample size, but every trend starts somewhere. Now if we can just follow Lillard’s lead, I suppose we’ll all end up in a decent place. Even you, Ty Lue.
Except for October, February’s the leanest, lightest month in the NBA season. There’s the All-Star break, a short month, and the trade deadline throwing wrenches into players and their pursuits of historical nobility, but what applies to today’s players applied to the players of yesteryear and so the locomotive pushes forth down the tracks headed to the inevitability of an 82-game stopping point. Niceties aside, let’s get into the cold inflexibility of the numbers:
Andre Drummond: 902 rebounds in 60 games: For a while it felt like maybe Drummond’s pace was slowing but that was back in the day, back in January when he averaged just 12.6rpg in 15 games. February was a new month and like the first buds sprouting on the branches of spring, Drummond’s arose with his consumption of 24.3% of all rebounds with a 15.2 average for the month. The last player to rebound like this was Kevin Love in 2010-11 and before that Dennis Rodman did it thrice and Kevin Willis once. Sadly, Drummond is the worst free throw shooter of the bunch.
Hassan Whiteside: 195 blocks in 50 games: He’s not starting anymore, but he’s blocking more shots. February was Whiteside’s best shot blocking month since November as he swatted 37 shots in nine games while turning in a DRtg of 89 and his best plus/minus of the season at +3.1. Honestly, he was a beast across the board with season highs in TS%, ppg, and rpg all while playing his least minutes/game. Whiteside’s blocking the most shots since Marcus Camby back in 2007-08, but it doesn’t mean the enigma of his emotional volatility is any clearer. Someone’s rightly going to pay that man his money, but is this the guy you want as the defensive anchor for your team? I’m unconvinced, but I’ll listen.
James Harden: 268 turnovers in 60 games: By some measures like points, rebounds, and assists, Harden’s having the most prolific season of his career. By other measures like turnovers, he’s having the worst. But one thing we can say for Harden is that he’s been steady Eddie when it comes to turning the ball over. He took a cool 4.42 TOV/game average into February, turned the ball over 47 times in 10 games and cranked that average up to 4.5 – the type of ball control messiness not seen since Allen Iverson in 2004-05. Before that it was Charles Barkley and Isiah Thomas in 1986-87. The Rockets went 4-6 over that stretch and Dwight Howard was not traded.
Stephen Curry: 288 3s made in 58 games: I’m all Steph’d out. 288 threes in 58 games (he’s only played 56, but I’m handicapping his number by including his team’s total games) is 90 threes more than the next closest player – Ray Allen from 2005-06 when Seattle used to have a pro basketball team called the Sonics.
Kristaps Porzingis: 67 3s and 116 blocks in 61 games: He’s no Karl-Anthony Towns, but big fucking deal. Not everyone can be the heir to Tim Duncan. Instead Porzingis is just a 7’3” kid making over a three/game while blocking nearly two shots/night. For a 20-year-old kid unaccustomed to the grind of an 82-game season with travel and living in a new country, the Zinger’s been impressively consistent. Last month he had four peers within this stat set, but this time around it’s just three; the most recent Serge Ibaka last season.
Paul George: 161 3s made and 423 rebounds in 60 games: Maybe more impressive than George being the third player since 83-84 to average 7+ rebounds while making over 2.5 3s/game through 60 games is that he hasn’t missed a single game in his first full year returning from injury. All season long it’s been George and Antoine Walker holding down the fort for this club, but a steady month-over-month decline in 3PM/game has opened the door to the inclusion of Ryan Anderson (2011-12) of stretch four trade rumor fame.
Kawhi Leonard: 51% FG, 48.8% 3pt, 88.2% FT in 59 games: With the Spurs getting their asses kicked a couple times in the past month or so, some of the clamor around Leonard quieted a bit, but in the meanwhile (aka, February), he had a 65% TS on the strength of 50% from three and 54% from the field. Through 59 games (the number of games his team has played – Kawhi’s played just 54), the only other player that has shot as well (51-48-88) is Fred Hoiberg back in 2004-05 when he went for the remarkable 52-53-88 through 59 games.
Karl-Anthony Towns: 615 rebounds and 106 blocks in 60 games: The best rookie in nearly 20 years, Towns is proving Duncan-esque in his consistency and that’s appropriate since Tim Duncan’s the last rookie to rebound and blocks shots as well as Towns. But if we want to get super exclusive, we could just expand the criteria to include Towns’s 20 made threes and we’ll filter out Duncan, Shaq, Hakeem, etc. That feels unfair though since the game is entering a period of evolution so let’s add free throw accuracy to the mix instead. If we set the FT% at 80% (Towns shoots 82%), Karl-Anthony will be singing “one is the loneliest number” all by his damn self. Karl-Anthony Towns: Only rookie since 83-84 (and possibly ever) to average 10rpg, nearly 2bpg while shooting over 80% from the line. You sweet bastard, you.
Kobe Bryant: 288 FGs on 822 FGAs (35%) in 49 games: Every month this one stings just a bit as Kobe’s the only player (since 83-84) who has needed 822 shots to make just 288. He had his best TS month of the season at a paltry 48%, driven by a season-best 32% from three, but even his best this year is well below average. (Note: At this moment on March 1st, Kobe has made as many FGs as Steph has 3s.) Old Kobe is grossly inefficient, but he’s still a human so let’s just move on.
Ricky Rubio: 149 FGs on 411 FGAs (36%) in 54 games: Rubio’s game couldn’t be much more different from Kobe’s which makes the fact that the 2016 versions of each both shoot like shit a weird kind of coincidence, but it’s still true. If you want to find silver linings in Rubio’s shooting, you need to look at his free throws (shooting career-best 83%) because everything else is bad or sporadic. While we’re grasping for straws, it’s worth mentioning that in 11 February games, Rubio had his best FG%, FT%, and TS% of the season while averaging a season-high points for a month with a 124 ORtg – also a season high. Maybe some of that can be traced to the addition of Zach LaVine to the starting lineup or maybe it’s just part of Rollercoaster Rubio’s peaks and valleys. The last guy to shoot this bad through 54 games was Eddie House in 2003-04.
Tony Parker: 285 FGs on 553 FGs (51.5%) in 54 games: The only other guard to make 285 or more shots on 553 or less attempts is John Stockton; a player probably as steady as any in history though Tim Duncan and Karl Malone may have bones to pick with that idea. Whatever, Parker’s shooting his eyeballs out this season. He’s extra-selective in his shot selection as evidenced by his taking less than a three/game, but making 47% of them including 57% in February on 14 attempts. I still don’t see him being a significant contributor in a Spurs/Warriors series, but there’s a reason I’m here writing this and not giving snarky answers to sideline reporters in between quarters of NBA games.
Russell Westbrook: 1458 points and 619 assists in 60 games: Since 83-84, the only other player to go for at least 24-10 was little Michael Adams, but this is all about Russ (sorry, Michael). In addition to the rare 24-10, Russ is leading the league in steals and averaging nearly 8rpg. He’s second in the league in triple doubles (has 9 to Draymo’s 10) and has somehow found a way to be the Russ the pundits always wanted him to be while doing it his own way – and no, I’m not referencing his pre-game fashion eccentricities though that is an implicit part of the package. But two thoughts on Russ: I’ve always considered him a modern version of Barkley in his violently raw athleticism that allows him to impact every part of the game at a high level. And now I’m wondering if, like Barkley with MJ, Russ is doomed to the shadow of Steph. It’s too early for this kind of talk though, the future is a doorway to tomorrow in the shape of a question mark. After you, my friend. I insist.
James Harden: 614 FTA and 417 assists in 60 games: Speaking of the great unknown, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see Harden pop up twice. Harden’s one of our most skilled players and because of that he’s in select company with LeBron James and Iverson as the only three players since 83-84 to average at least 7apg while shooting 10 FTA/game. These are true attackers of the basket, a rare breed of player that batters defenses with body shots instead of the one-punch KOs of Curry/Pacquiao. Also worth noting, 2015-16 Harden and 2004-05 Iverson both averaged over 4.5 TOV/gm along with their 7apg and 10 FTA/gm.
Draymo, Russ and Triple Doubles: This is a new addition to the list. Draymo and Russ have combined for 19 triple doubles this season and with a quarter of the season remaining, NBA players have already registered the most triple doubles (47) since 1996-97 when players combined for 50; led by Grant Hill’s 13. For context, the most in a season since 83-84 was 88-89 when players put up 78. Magic had 17, MJ 15, and Fat Lever 9.
Almost 25 years ago to the day, a perturbed Karl Malone nursing hurt feelings and a bruised ego stepped onto the Salt Palace court as the Jazz hosted the Milwaukee Bucks. What ensued was something akin to a pissed off Andre the Giant going off script at a Royal Rumble and tossing all comers out of the ring so quick that the pay-per-view ends two hours early and no one is quite certain what just happened. The game itself was a bloodbath and Malone scored a career-high 61 points on 21-26 shooting while snatching 18 rebounds in just 33 minutes of game play.
The only reason I found this game was thanks to modern-day efficiency king Stephen Curry’s precision in Washington D.C. less than a week ago when he scored 51 in 36 minutes in a road victory over the Wizards while shooting 19-28 from the field and 11-16 from deep. It was peak Curry and peak Warriors in that the reigning MVP needed just 36 minutes to fill it up. In the nationally televised game, he opened the bidding with a 25-point first quarter on 7-8 from three and playing all 12 minutes. In what (as of this writing) Sacramento Kings Coach George Karl refers to as a “California cool” style, Golden State relaxed, turned the ball 15 times through the following three quarters and was outscored over that same period. But the game was close enough that Curry put up his second most shot attempts of the season, tied his most three-point attempts, and exceeded his average minutes/game.
Wizards point guard John Wall described the performance:
It’s like Kobe (Bryant) when he had 81. He couldn’t miss. You keep defending the best way you can. We challenged some shots. He didn’t have too many open looks. He just made them.
Scoring 51 in 36 or less has been accomplished just 12 times since the 1983-84 season with Curry now owning the two most recent occasions. The only other player to appear on the list more than once is Kobe Bryant at four times. What’s unique and I guess predictable is that in all 12 games, the team with the +51-point scorer won. The big scorers are hyper efficient from the field (except Tracy McGrady in 2003) and get to the at least 10 times (except Curry last week who made it to the line just three times).
For me, the most memorable on this list was Kobe’s 62 points on Dallas during his Chamberlain-esque scoring binge of 2005-06 when he had single handedly outscored Dallas through three quarters (62-61). (As a side note, ESPN’s Baxter Holmes reported then-Dallas Assistant Coach Del Harris was the primary motivator for Kobe’s 62-point outburst as Harris had been Kobe’s coach as a rookie and he still held a desire for revenge for Harris “driving him crazy” as a rookie. The unlucky coincidence (for Harris at least) is that Harris was present as the Bucks head coach the night Malone scored his 61. To my knowledge, Del Harris was in no way affiliated with the Wizards during Curry’s performance.)
The anatomy of 51 in 36 is one thing whereas motivation is something altogether different and in some cases less discernible.
After his single-handed destruction of Washington, Curry described what we most frequently refer to as the zone. There was no other apparent motivation, no driving force, just “some of the shots that you’re like ‘Oh that’s off,’ they end up going in. It’s a fun feeling, and you want to ride that until you can’t anymore.”
But for other players, the motivations are clearer for various reasons:
Kobe, by contrast, has often appeared to tap into anger or feelings of being slighted, as he did during his 62-point game where, in addition to retroactively pointing to Harris as a source of motivation, at the time of the 62 in three quarters, it was a recent loss that fueled him: “I was very angry, I felt like I wanted to come out and send a message, that we’re going to dominate at home. We’re going to hit you, we’re going to bring it to you. I wanted to send that message.”
Kobe’s first-such game was again fueled by anger and emotion when he lit up the Grizzlies for 56 in 34 minutes in 2002: “It was a combination of emotions. I was upset because we lost in Chicago, and two in a row. I was upset that Shaq was suspended.”
A 22-year-old Shaquille O’Neal went for 53 and 18 in 36 minutes back in 1994 as he (and his Magic teammates) went all in trying to get him the scoring title which would ultimately land with David Robinson who scored 71 points in a season finale. Shaq, in his most Shaqness, was also partly inspired by visit from Michael Jackson.
(Note: For a thorough reading on athletes and vengeance, Bill Simmons’ Vengeance Scale from ~2004 (?) still holds up pretty well with an exceptionally robust rating scale.)
But no one on this list can reach the grating disrespect the Mailman felt back in 1990 after the results of the All-Star Game fan vote (hat-tip to Danny Hazan for putting me onto this storyline). It was January 26th, 1990 when Malone, the defending ASG MVP, found out the fans had selected the Lakers’ A.C. Green to start the game. Green edged him out by all of 1,226 votes – less than 1% of the total votes Malone received. At the time, the Mailman was an MVP candidate putting up 30.5ppg on 58% with nearly 11 rebounds and three assists/game. His lividity was so great that Kurt Kragthorpe of The Deseret News wrote: “Before the game, Karl Malone called the NBA office to complain about the voting results and told teammates he would boycott the All-Star Game.”
Teammate John Stockton and the aforementioned fan-selected starter Green were less confounded, both offering more contextual responses. Stockton said,
I don’t know that being selected this way (by fan vote) is any better than being selected the other way (by coaches). It’s tough to be thrilled about a selection process when an absolute shoo-in doesn’t make it. That amazes me.
I’m surprised to be on the team. I never knew my position in the balloting, and it’s really out of the players’ control who the fans vote for. Neither one of us did any campaigning. On paper, you’d think (Malone) would be on the team. I mean, he does it night in, night out. That’s what you have to do to be an All-Star.
But on a first glance that didn’t matter to Malone. And so the following day on the 27th of January, he came out with bad intentions, powered forth by the conviction that he had been wronged in the most egregious fashion. He scorched and burned the Bucks big men in the paint and around the rim. All of his points have been wrapped nicely into a single 12-minute Youtube post (below) and a couple things are powerfully evident: of his 21 made field goals, just two came outside the paint and the topic of the All-Star snubbery was hot all night evidenced by the condensed clips where the announcers mention it three separate times including references to “that message was sent airmail, special delivery!”
The way this drama unfolded is fascinating in the sense that Malone was enraged by the fan vote which is something we’ve come to accept 25 years later as a completely uninformed popularity contest. Stockton and Green seemed to grasp that from different perspectives and maybe it’s all the Yao voting or some of the oddities we’ve seen over the years have reinforced the notion that it’s all about popularity, but clearly players in 1990 understood that. And on some level Malone did too, which I’ll explore, but the announcers repeatedly stating that he was “sending a message to voters” is revealing of the most MJ manner of allowing a slight (however significant) to become an all-consuming obsession and that obsession isn’t just accepted by the community, it becomes a rallying point.
Malone’s approach to this game – constant post-ups on the right block, relentlessness on the offensive glass (he had nine offensive boards), and tearing up the court like a demonic man-tank on amphetamines – are indicative of a sustained fixation. All that anger not just harnessed by Malone, but reinforced by who? Reinforced by the local media, teammates, coaches? In The Deseret News the day after the 61-point game, there was a paragraph and anecdote from Stockton that provides some of the insight into the kind of mind that propelled Malone forward:
So who said Malone was overrated this time? In Charlotte last month, teammate John Stockton planted a fake story that the Hornets’ Armon Gilliam had downgraded Malone in a TV interview and the Mailman went out and scored 52. Stockton claimed innocence Saturday, smiling and saying, “Who knows what can lurk in his mind?”
Reviewing the story from the Gilliam game in December of 1989, it sounds like Stockton definitely planted the seed that got Malone going and speaks to the power of security and insecurity, respect and disrespect, succeeding and failure, and fiction versus reality in addition to Stockton’s ability to know which buttons to push and how hard to push them. For the Mailman, just the suggestion that Armon Gilliam or some fans misunderstood his proper place as one of, if not the preeminent power forward in the NBA simultaneously sent him off the rails and pushed him to new heights.
On the one hand, being overlooked by the fan vote feels insignificant. Malone was so obviously at the peak of the game that it seems like it shouldn’t have mattered. The other angle to take is that having achieved so much already (ASG MVP, All-NBA first team, playoffs, top power forward status) and being accepted by his peers, the only audience left to convert was the fans. Where Jordan had his Nike contract and Magic his smile and Larry the faithful of the Boston Garden, Malone was still – at least based on the voting – an unknown. What more did he need to do? What more could he do? Losing out to a clearly lesser player in Green had to be discouragingly Sisyphean and unfair. It had to hurt.
Within this intrusive exploration into the mind of Karl Malone is a glimpse into how that mind works which is what I find so intriguing. If we look at the drama of early 1990 linearly, there’s a nice a smooth narrative arc: the release of the ASG voting which shakes Malone and results in him going as far as reportedly calling the league office. Then there’s the response, the attempt to “send a message to the voters” as if they were a singular mind, as if the vote was indicative of his standing relative to Green’s even though Malone at his most rational had to know how little it implied. The 61 points was intentionally symbolic, but most likely sent to an audience the majority of whom weren’t even listening and the people who were listening already knew Malone’s standing. Even before the eruption, his tone was somewhat more revealing:
“The first couple of days, it hurts, but after a while you have to take a little time and think about things.”
From the AP via Seattle Times: `When you get put into the situation that I’m in, it’s hard. You get hurt. Everyone has a sense of pride, but I’ve had time to think about it and I think I will go if I’m asked.’
They’re both variations of the same quote and the same theme of having his pride and feelings hurt. Most of us can relate to being stung – whether it’s being disrespected, not being appreciated, being rejected – and responding first with anger expressed through lashing out – or calling the NBA’s front office and saying we’re not going to participate in the ASG. But what we do next is where people’s individual processes vary. Sometimes when I’m angry, I have an immediate outlet and it’s rarely competitive sports. Maybe I dive into work or writing or I’m unfairly being a jackass to my wife. But whether I channel that anger with or without intention, it doesn’t result in anything resembling 61-point games. Other times I’m able to easily identify that what I’m feeling isn’t even anger, but hurt or sadness and I can skip the anger-manifested-as-fill-in-the-blank step and resolve the damn thing in the immediate.
Where it would seem our species can walk fine lines is in how much these real or imagined slights grow and fester. For the pro basketball community, Michael Jordan is the standard bearer who leveraged slights and insults as well as any basketball player in history. For anyone who saw Jordan’s Hall of Fame speech, there was a sad bitterness at how MJ articulated his motivations dating back his high school years (sorry Leroy Smith) and carrying through his entire career. I don’t have any desire or intent to judge MJ’s vindictiveness or the benefits or risks of using that mentality as a value principle for succeeding in life other than to observe that it looks fucking exhausting.
What followed Malone’s seeming acceptance and resolution was no less interesting. On January 31st he was chosen as a reserve for the ASG, but awkwardly stated: “Maybe somebody would say, ‘He doesn’t really want to go.’ After all the attention, I don’t think it would have been a big disappointment not to be selected by the coaches.”
He still wasn’t comfortable with having missed out on the fan vote (again, by a ridiculously narrow margin) and it’s not crazy to at least ask if that frustration factored into his comments on February 6th when he said he would retire in five years – after the 1994-95 season when he’d still be 31.
I won’t go deep on the retirement comment other than to say the timing raises an eyebrow if nothing else. The last piece of this particular Malone-driven drama is what actually ended up happening at the All-Star Game in Miami. Malone didn’t end up playing and cited an injury as the reason. This would be one of two games Malone missed between 1989 and 1997 including regular season, playoffs and ASGs. I have no issue with players sitting out the mid-season games, but sitting this game coupled with the retirement talk are at least anecdotal evidence that this enormous chip that helped him achieve so much (like an insane 61-point game) had the power to impede progress.
These two weeks in the winter of 1990 serve as a dramatic microcosm of Malone’s psyche. Always well-respected, but long labeled a choker, Malone was truly a great player, but a great player who on occasion struggled with the mental aspects of the game. In this way, he’s infinitely relatable. Who among us hasn’t struggled with some mental hurdle that seems pre-loaded into our psyches? And who hasn’t accomplished some thing by some inborn flame which is as old as our individual history? Malone in greatness and bitterness is still just a man – who happens to be 6’9”, 270lbs capable of scoring 61 points and grabbing 18 rebounds in 33 minutes of a pro basketball game.
We’re in the thick of things now. Iowa caucuses are dominating the Twitter and cable periphery. Hell, the caucuses and nauseating Presidential politics are dominating everything, but still the NBA game goes on like the little men and women at the center of the Earth pushing the giant gears that keep this frightening globe spinning. And as long as the NBA goes on, we’ll have stats and contexts and histories to thumb through – which is exactly what we prefer to do here. So damn the elections, let’s check in with the NBA, 2016 style:
[NOTE: All stat comparisons use www.basketball-reference.com’s Player Index Finder which cross-references data going back to the 1983-84 season. Anything that occurred pre-83-84 is not included.}
Andre Drummond: 720 rebounds in 48 games. When we last checked in with Drummond, he was averaging over 16rpg. Through January and 48 games, the Middleman in Motor City has dropped to 15rpg, but he’s still semi-prolific. We haven’t seen a player board like this since Kevin Love in 2010-11 and Drummond is just the fourth player in this +30-year data set. His new friends include Love, Dennis Rodman (seven times!), and Kevin Willis.
James Harden: 221 turnovers in 50 games. The Rockets have been a hot mess this year and some chunk of the responsibility for their suffering falls on the bearded shoulders of Harden. His stats have been gaudy as he’s averaging ~28ppg, 6rpg, and 7apg, but the most consistent element to his play has been turnovers. So many turnovers. If I told you his TOs/game had decreased since early January, maybe you’d nod in approval. But if I told you his average dropped from 4.47/game to 4.42, maybe you’d shake your head in disgust. The last player to mishandle this much through this many games was that ode to anti-efficiency measures, Allen Iverson back in 1996-97. At least that AI was a rookie with mistakes to make and lessons to learn. Harden is … not a rookie. He shouldn’t be making this many mistakes.
Steph Curry: 221 3s made in 46 games. This stat is a video game. Side note, back when I was in college I had NBA 2k-something on Dreamcast. I added classic players (Wilt, Jordan, Russell, Dominique, etc) to all the rosters, then did a draft. I was in college and had a ton of time on my hands, don’t ask. I’d play games with every team and was a bit of a stickler for having at least somewhat realistic stats. My roommates would sometimes play my season when I wasn’t there – I didn’t care much because I was playing games with every But one day I come back and am looking at the records and see my roommate went nuclear with Jerry West and scored 122 points in a single game. The next most threes any player has made through 46 games is also Steph with 154 two seasons ago. His 221 threes so far this season would’ve led the league as recently as 2010-11. Steph is the Jerry West of my Dreamcast 2k. He is Barry Bonds. He is Tom Brady. He is Tiger Woods.
Draymond Green: 445 rebounds and 343 assists in 47 games. These numbers translate into 9.5rpg and 7.3apg which are both improvements on his thru-December averages from last post. Using basketball-references’s game finder to adjust for number of games played, no player since 83-84 has reached these numbers. But if we open the filter to look at entire seasons, Green gets company in the forms of Larry Bird (89-90), Magic Johnson (81-82), Wilt (twice), and Oscar (four times). We know Draymo’s elevated himself to that next, but sweet mother of triple doubles that’s a historic wrecking crew.
Kristaps Porzingis: 54 3s and 93 blocks in 49 games. It seemed in late December or early January like maybe the Zinger had hit the wall, but he bounced back a 7’3” piece of laffy taffy in January when he played his most minutes, scored his most points, and had his highest true shooting percentage month of any month in his young career. Quite possibly the most popular Latvian man in America, the Zinger’s 54 3s and 93 blocks in 49 games make him one of just five players since 83-84 to put up these stats. The most recent was Serge Ibaka who accomplished the feat as a six-year vet. Porzingis isn’t even 21 yet.
Paul George: 131 3s and 335 rebounds in 47 games. George makes just the third player since 83-84 to average over 2.3 3s/game and over 7rpg and the first since current New Orleans Hornet and trade rumor hot topic Ryan Anderson pulled it off in 2011-12. The other is the king of the shimmy, Antoine Walker with Boston back in 01-02. This has the feel of a replicable line for George and could we see him become the honorary chairman of the 2.5/7 club sometime?
Ricky Rubio: 336 FGAs and 118 FGs in 43 games. Kind of like Kobe, there’s a sense of acceptance with Rubio. The guy can’t shoot. He’s in his fifth year and you have to scoot around his percentages to find signs of improvement: His TS is matching his career-high (49%), but his FG% (35%) is at a career-low. His FT% is a career-high (82%) while his eFG% (39%) is below his career average. The last player to shoot this poorly on as many shots was Sebastian Telfair back in 08-09. Rubio’s no Telfair, but they share an affinity for crappy shooting.
Tony Parker: 430 FGAs and 225 FGs in 43 games. It’s kind of amazing that at 33 and in his 15th season, Parker is having one of the most efficient shooting seasons of his career, but that’s what’s happening. Seeing Kawhi on this list and knowing how well Duncan has aged, it’s easy to want to praise the Spurs system and they deserve it, but these players have to be working as hard as anyone in the game to do what they do when they do – IE, putting up ultra-efficient seasons well after their athletic primes have been reached. Dwight Howard and Marcin Gortat were able to shoot as efficiently in the same amount of games last season, but it’s not as impressive a feat for the big man to do it. The only other guards to make as many shots while attempting so few are John Stockton and Maurice Cheeks.
Russell Westbrook: 1181 points and 485 assists in 49 games. Relatively speaking, Westbrook had a down January. His points, minutes, steals and shooting stats were all down from previous months, but he compensated by bumping emphasizing his rebounding and assists. At this point, we all know Westbrook is a heatsinking missile with bad intentions and with the addition of a new Euro-step, he’s even more Westbrookian. It’s popping in the stats too as he’s joined by little Michael Adams as the only players since 83-84 averaging roughly 24 and 10 through 49 games. If Westbrook can make it to the end of the season with these benchmarks, he’ll join Adams, Tiny Archibald (72-73) and Oscar Robertson (five times) as the only players to do so.
James Harden: 507 FTA and 348 assists in 50 games: Sure, Harden’s sloppy with the turnovers, but with all those possessions a lot of good things happen. He’s getting to the line more than 10 times/game while distributing just a hair under 7 assists/game. He’s the first player with these numbers this deep into the season since LeBron back in 07-08.
The All-Star game and trade deadline are coming soon so February’s a light month for the best basketball league in the world, but the games keep coming. It’s the stretch before the last stretch, a time when people can and do fall off as the playoff picture crystallizes, soft tissues strain and tear and NBA Cinderellas turn into pumpkins late at night – is that you Pumpkin Cousins? The onslaughts will continue so let’s rendezvous here in two fortnights with finger sandwiches and refreshments.
Happy New Years, friends. Back in early December, I slogged through a handful of season-to-date performances to see who was performing at historical levels and now we’re here again to revisit those players, their performances and add a few more to the list:
Andre Drummond531 rebounds in 33 games. Back in December, his company included Dennis Rodman (twice) and Kevin Willis once. In January, it’s four Rodmans and still one Willis. Drummond’s still dominating the glass, but his November/December splits show a two rebound/game dip in production. That’s accompanied by an increase in plus/minus from +2.7 to +6.8 so all’s fair in Drummond and rebounding. For those keeping score, Drummond is 22.
Hassan Whiteside125 blocks in 31 games. When we last checked in with Whiteside he was averaging 4.7 blocks/game. That’s down to four/game which invites a lot more company than we saw at the end of November. The last player to block at least 125 shots in 31 games was Alonzo Mourning in 1999-00 when he averaged 4.5 bpg through 31 games. The most on record through 31? David Robinson back in 1991-92 averaged 5.2/game. Blah blah blah, this is the Mr. Robinson’s neighborhood.
James Harden152 turnovers in 34 games. Since 1985-86, just four players in the league have committed more turnovers than Harden has through 34 games. Not too surprisingly, Allen Iverson appears on the list twice along with Charles Barkley, Isiah Thomas, and, oddly, Gary Grant who marshalled moribund Clippers teams back in the early 90s. His monthly splits show a slight decrease in TOs in December, but this is a season that’s been pockmarked with team and individual struggles. I have no idea where Harden goes from here.
Steph Curry 140 threes made thru 32 possible games and 916 points thru 30 games played. Just because I’m not a Curry fan doesn’t mean that he hasn’t put together one of the best openings to a season in recent memory. His 140 threes made thru 32 possible games (he’s sat two, but I handicapped the criteria just because he’s so far ahead of his historical peers) is 29 more made threes than the next closest player: Ray Allen with 111 in 2001-02. At the end of November he was averaging 31.5. That’s fallen a full point and where he was 22nd all-time on total points thru 19 games, he’s dropped to 30th all-time thru 30 games. Injuries, massive margins of victory, and what should be a desire to keep their most valuable player healthy into June make me think this number will continue to drop.
Draymond Green230 assists and 290 rebounds thru 32 games. When we looked at Draymo’s 130 assists and 150 rebounds thru November, he had a lot of company – LeBron, Bird, Pippen, Magic, Kidd, and Fat Lever. Nice company, ay? A month and 13 games later and Draymo has no company. In 32 games, no other player has ever picked up as many assists and rebounds – 7.2apg and 9rpg. He’s also averaging nearly 1.5 steals and blocks/game. Green’s versatility reminds me most of Jason Kidd and he’s taken the Swiss Army Knife metaphor to some kind of Texas Chainsaw Massacre levels where the knife has motorized blades that hack flesh without discrimination. He’s a nightmare.
Karl-Anthony Towns311 rebounds and 62 blocks in 33 games. Towns is the most polished rookie I can recall seeing in some time. His game and athleticism have a refinement that shouldn’t be prevalent in a 20-year-old kid. The last time we saw a rookie put up this many rebounds and blocks thru 33 games, the year was 1997-98 and the rookie was Tim Duncan. The other guys on the list? Zo, Shaq, Mutombo, the Admiral, and Patrick Ewing. For further reading, explore Shaq’s rookie season. In his first 33 games, he was averaging nearly 15 rebounds, over four blocks, and 23 points/game.
Kobe Bryant499 field goal attempts and 170 makes in 29 games. Kobe’s November-to-December splits show much-needed improvement in field goal shooting, but it doesn’t change the fact that since 1985-86, Kobe’s the only player to take at least 499 shots and hit so few. In 08-09, Baron Davis shot 36% on 501 attempts and 03-04, Quentin Richardson shot 40% on 499 FGAs. Those are both extremely bad and still preferable to Kobe’s 34% thru the end of December.
Ricky Rubio218 field goal attempts and 73 makes in 27 games. Speaking of horrific shooting, Ricky Rubio’s somehow shooting worse than Kobe from the field although he’s taken less than half as many shots so the impact is significantly reduced. Kobe comparisons aside, we haven’t seen someone shoot as poorly as Rubio on as many shots since Toney Douglas cursed us all back in 11-12 when he shot 32% thru 27 games. The most interesting inclusion this list of sub-standard shooters is everyone’s favorite Canadian back-to-back MVP winner, Steve Nash who spent the first 27 games of 98-99 languishing in shooter’s hell where he shot 36% from the field in his first year as a Dallas Maverick.
Russell Westbrook800 points and 300 assists in 33 games. Thru 33 games, Russ put up 854 points and 310 assists. No player since 85-86 has put up those numbers. The only way we can find company for the Oklahoman hero is to open the filter to the nice, rounded 800/300 club and doing so pulls in the little leg-pumping jumper Michael Adams, who back in 90-91 averaged 25 points and nearly 12 assists/game to start the season.
James Harden 358 free throw attempts and 232 assists in 34 games. It stands to reason that Harden appears on this list twice. Once in a positive context and another in a negative. With a game that is the anchor of an entire offense, Harden constantly has the ball in his hands. He takes and makes more free throws than anyone in the league and as part of that attacking barrage, he frequently turns the ball over. Whether charging into defenders, getting stripped or making errant passes, the same tree that yields all those free throw attempts and open looks for teammates contributes to the messiness of nearly five turnovers/game. The Beard giveth, and the Beard taketh, my Houstonian friends.
Meet me back in here February where we’ll compare notes on historical Valentine’s Day performances and see who’s falling off and who’s still going strong.