What exactly makes a certain NBA player better than his peers? One would assume the usual answers of practice, work ethic, and talent. Though these are all undoubtedly true and probably sufficient answers, I want to dig a little further. The skill I’m examining today is essentially the only one that matters — getting buckets. It is the hardest thing to do in the game, as the opponent is actively trying to prevent said buckets from occurring.
There are so many different types of buckets players can make, so I’ll list just a few: layups/dunks/posters, pull up jumpers, mid-range shots, post ups, three pointers, free throws, floaters/runners, alley-oops, heat check threes, and even half court heaves. I’m sure I’m forgetting some, but these will suffice.
How does someone like James Harden can get to the line so often with similar moves every possession? How in the world 5 foot 9 Isaiah Thomas is averaging nearly 30 points a game?! How does Kawhi Leonard get new skills programmed into him every season like he’s a robot? How the heck has LeBron put up 27 a game for the last 13 years? Don’t the opponents realize that these guys are trying to score on them? Why can’t they be stopped?
Those questions raise up so many more questions. A good place to start is examining more deeply how some of the most prolific scorers actually score their points. I’m going to dig into a few of the stars in the league to see just exactly how they manage to score so much so consistently. This is what I believe separates the bad, average, good and great players—consistency. Someone like Dion Waiters can and has exploded for a few 30 pt games, but he’s only averaging 15.8 points per game. Should he eventually be able to score 30 a game every game, then I’d probably be watching some tape and looking more into him and his game, but he lacks the consistency at the moment.
LeBron is the epitome of consistency, as well as a once-in-a-generation talent, living up to and exceeding any and all expectations coming out of high school. Most won’t mention it, but James has improved his stats from last season in nearly every category But how does he do what he does best—get buckets? LeBron is physically too much for most defenders to hold off by themselves, so most of the time he can overpower his man to the hoop. Other great players don’t have his build, so they can’t rely on doing size alone. There’s a saying—he’s too big, too fast, and too strong. That is essentially LeBron James. Oh yeah, and he’s shooting 54% from the field and 36.3% from 3. If he has any weakness in his offensive game, it would have to be his jump shot. Over his career, he shoots just 42.8% on shots from 3-10 feet from the basket, 36.3% at 10-16 feet, 38.6% at 16 and before the arc, and 34.2% from downtown. Contrarily, he has converted a ridiculous 72.9% of shots inside 3 feet, and we readily observe this when watching him play. He is just better at driving to the rim, absorbing the contact, and finishing. Teams breathe a sigh of relief when he pulls up or fades away or even takes a 3 himself because when he drives, he collapses the defense and can kick out to the open man or still just bulldoze his way to the rim should he be so inclined. But this year in particular, his above average 3pt shooting (league average is 35.8%) does not allow for other teams to just let him shoot willy-nilly. They have to play up on him so he doesn’t get to fire away wide open 3 after 3 after 3, but in that thinking lies the innate problem with trying to stop such a prolific player. If you’re up on LeBron, he will get past you and either dunk or kick to the helper’s man. A player with the skillset of his is demoralizing to a defense. This season, he’ll hit the open shot if you don’t have a man in his face, but if you put a man in his face, he will easily blow by him and break down the defense. The conundrum teams face on a nightly basis on how to guard the other team’s best player must keep coaches up at night. Imagine having to gameplan for Lebron and everything he does, and then realizing they have Kyrie Irving too who can easily put up 40 on anyone.
Kyrie, in my humble opinion, is the best pure offensive bucket getting point guard in the game. He has every single finish in the book, and ESPN analyst and former coach and player Doug Collins touts him the Layup King. I’ve never seen an offensive talent like him, and the stats back it up. In his 6 year career, he has shot 48.5% on 2s and 38.2% on 3s. His ability to finish tough drives is absolutely incredible, and he does it on a nightly basis on some of toughest defenders. He has arguably the nicest handles in the league, which allows him to do so much of what he does–gets into the lane, breaks down defenses, creates cutting lanes for teammates, shake and bake to get his own, etc. He is one of the premier mid-range shooters in the league, shooting 49.5% on long twos this season, and he will just rain pull up jumpers if the defender doesn’t stay attached to his hip around screens. He must visualize the game in a fundamentally different way from others based on some of the angles he contrives and finishes with. He hit one of the most clutch shots in recent NBA history last finals in game 7 to seal the championship for his cavs. Irving is a smooth, cunning, yet surprisingly strong player, extremely skilled in all aspects of getting buckets, while his teammate James is more rugged and physical and imposes his will on defenders and even entire teams. Any sane person would take James over Irving for his team, but that’s not what I’m talking about right now. We are strictly discussing getting buckets, at which at this point, I would give the 24 year old Uncle Drew the nod over anyone, even The King.
The point of the James and Irving descriptions is to show that there are different ways each player gets his buckets. Irving’s pure skill and talent gets him his points, while James’ speed and strength give him his boost. Speed kills, as is evident by two of the league’s top scorers—Russell Westbrook at 31.6/game and Isaiah Thomas at 29.1/game. These guys are essentially impossible to stay in front of on a consistent basis, even though they have completely different styles of play, skillsets and physical builds. Russ overpowers defenders often like James does, and can get to the hole pretty much whenever he wants. He also never seems to get tired, despite that he goes all out all the time. He leads the league in clutch-scoring at 6.2ppg, scoring over a point more than the next highest. And for those of you living under a rock, he averages a triple double (31.6ppg, 10.4apg and 10.7rpg).
Thomas stands at only 5 foot 9, but he’s dang good. To start, he’s a lefty, which is just uncommon among any group of people, and thus is a commodity just like lefty pitchers are in baseball. Is it a coincidence that two of the top three scorers in the league are lefties? Thomas is so fast and crafty with the ball, and has so many unique finishes to get the ball over shot blockers. Zach Lowe of ESPN made a great video documenting his offensive prowess and ingenuity. I noticed from watching the last Celtics cavs game that at least one time, Thomas would be open behind the ark and someone would pass to him and he would start his way towards the basket just a half second before the ball got to him, giving him a head start on his recovering defender, who invariably would be left in his wake as he easily converted a layup. Over his 8 year career, Thomas has converted 61.4% of shots within 3 feet of the hoop despite his height. He also really wants to be great and plays with a huge chip on his shoulder, as is evident from hearing his last interview with Bill Simmons. I guess, this is to say, all great scorers have their own unique bag of tricks they pull from.
Just like in any profession, players try to accentuate their strengths while hiding their weaknesses. Players also improve over time, assuming they haven’t already reached their full potential. James Harden was a 6th man at first. Isaiah Thomas was the last pick in the draft. Steph Curry was a massive injury concern until he wasn’t and won two consecutive MVPs. Kawhi Leanord is a top 5 player now, and has won back to back defensive player of the year awards despite having a really bad shot coming out of college. What he did to James Harden and the Rockets on March 6th helps further this point. People weren’t sure if Russell Westbrook was a point guard or shooting guard, and his game has been picked apart by the talking heads and pundits as too manic and too aggressive and too this and too that but he shut them all up with his massively improved play.
Every player has different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to getting buckets. DeAndre Jordan appears to be a good shooter because his field goal percentage leads the league at nearly 70%. The reason he shoots so well is because he pretty much just catches lobs which are extremely high percentage shots, and he can’t really even shoot outside of a few feet. Jordan literally hasn’t even attempted a shot outside 10 feet this entire season, showing that he knows his own limitations. It would only take a viewer one game to realize Jordan has an atrocious shot, which can be further noted by his 49% free throw shooting.
As the league winds down, the role of the most important bucket-getters will be heightened, especially in the playoffs. They will have to add new wrinkles to their games to score because defenses will have more time to scout them and their tendencies. Most great players concurrently adjust and still get their points, but some are unable to adapt and fold in the playoffs. It will be interesting to see which players rise to the occasion and which do not.
Sports Analytics and Business, Indiana University