It’s a lazy Saturday afternoon in the NBA offseason. Our primary choices of discussion are the latest in Chris Paul rumors (nothing of substance will develop until after his meeting with NOLA brass Monday), Shaquille O’Neal rumors (the great celebration of the marginal), and a Las Vegas team that doesn’t exist.
So instead, I thought we’d take a look back at something everyone can love.
Throughout the history of the league we’ve seen a lot of changes. Fast paced, slow paced, physical, non-physical, hand-check prohibited, zone, the league has shifted and developed over the years. Often when we examine stats in historical contexts we’re ignoring the texture of the league in terms of pace, flow, and relevant rules. But one thing remains the same. We love players hitting shots at a tremendous clip. Stat-heads love efficiency, and shooting percentage is the very model of it.
So I started looking at some of the more memorable scoring season-long performances in NBA history, with a particular look at high percentage performances in FG%, FT%, and 3-point %. When I started poking around, I didn’t really anticipate any particular element of note coming to the forefront. As usual, I was surprised. But we’ll get there.
I limited my target over at Basketball-Reference.com to players scoring 25 points a game, shooting at least 40% from the floor and 80% from the stripe. I’m not going to give you the full list, you can check it out yourself if you’d like, but mostly I just wanted to appreciate some performances that may not be as famous as some others. Here are a handful I noticed.
The tops on the list is, unsurprisingly, not a sharpshooter. It’s a big. Kevin McHale, to be precise. McHale averaged 26.1 points per game on 60.4% from the field and 83.6% from the stripe in the 1987 season. The Celtics won the East before falling to the Los Angeles Lakers in six games. Six out of ten shots dropped for McHale that season, and he wasn’t even the leading scorer for the C’s, as Larry Bird averaged 28.1 points per game on 52.5% shooting from the field including 40% from the arc.
But you’d expect a player like McHale on this list, and certainly Bird. (You might be a bit surprised to know that based on our parameters, Amar’e Stoudemire was second, scoring 25.2 points per game on 59% from the field in 2007-2008, the last year of Seven Seconds or Less. Keep that in mind when you’re questioning D’Antoni’s ability to get the best out of STAT this year.)
Here’s a blast from the past. Adrian Dantley, the interim head coach of the Denver Nuggets while George Karl is recovering from throat cancer, had himself quite the year in the 1980-1981 season. Dantley scored 30.7 points per game that year, shooting 55.9% from the field and 80.6% from the stripe that year, and even 28.6% from the arc (on 2 of 7 shooting, the sniper that he was). That’s the highest shooting percentage for a player scoring 30 points per games over at least 80 games in NBA history. It’s also the highest True Shooting Percentage (factoring three point and free throw shooting performance) on the list. Guess who was second? Dantley, who three years later had a huge drop-off from that lofty 81 season, only scoring 30.6 points per game on 55.8% from the field. Tsk tsk, Coach.
You probably know Kiki Vandeweghe as the four-eyed executive and brief coach of the New Jersey Nets this season. But in 1984, he had one hell of a shooting season. Vandeweghe scored 29.4 points per game while shooting 55.8% from the field, 36.7% from the arc (only 30 attempts), and 85.2% from the stripe. That’s ridiculous. I mean, that’s absolutely ridiculous. Scoring nearly 30 points per game while hitting over half your shots. Not bad for a guy who looks like the tall guy from “The Simpsons.”
As if to outline how underrated he is in NBA history, George Gervin pops up on the list, scoring 29.6 points per game on 54.4% shooting from the field and 82.6% from the stripe in 1979.
The usual suspects arrive. Jordan. Bird. Chris Mullin, the beer-swilling jump shooter (check out Chris Ballard’s The Art of a Beautiful Game for more) had one of the better overall shooting seasons in 1990, scoring 25.1 points per game, 53.6% from the field, 37.2% from the arc and a whopping 88.9% from the stripe. Shooter like that, it’s painful that he and Don Nelson couldn’t get along.
Jordan’s 30.4 points per game, hitting 49.5% from the field, 83.4% from the stripe and a devastating 42.7% from three hits you in the face like a sack of hammers. But he’s the greatest of all time. Can’t exactly be all that stunned.
Then I decided to look at the easiest shot to make, the shot where so many points are left on the floor and that so many critics of the NBA say is its fundamental weakness: free throws. And therein I discovered that we’ve got some greatness happening right now, in this very day and age.
All-time high in free throw shooting for a player scoring 25 points or more is Calvin Murphy with the Rockets in 1977-1978. It was a stellar season for Murphy, scoring 25.6 points per game, while shooting 49.1% from the field, and at the stripe… the man did work. 91.8% from the stripe. He left almost nothing at the line. It was a phenomenal season for the 5-9, 158 pound dynamo. Unfortunately, that’s the season you probably know best as the year The Punch happened, with Kermit Washington leveling Rudy Tomjanovich with a punch that broke nearly every bone in his face, causing enough damage for spinal fluid to leak into his mouth. Stories, man.
Number three on that list is what really caught my eye, though. It’s a name we take for granted, which is bizarre considering how many syllables are contained within it. Last season, Dirk Nowitzki was an All-Star, but wasn’t even an official starter, starting only when Kobe Bryant pulled out with one of his zillion injuries. Nowitzki is rightfully criticized for his defense, rebounding, and all-around game. But then you look at the shooting numbers, and, well, geez.
Last season, Nowitzki plugged in 25.0 points per game, hitting 48.1% from the field, 42% from the arc (!), and 91.5% from the stripe. While not on par with the incredible numbers put up by other players on this list, his shooting efficiency is stunning and a reminder of how great Nowitzki is. His name appears five times on the list.
But there’s another player playing now that appears on the list.
Durant won t
he scoring title last year, averaging 30.1 points per game. He shot 47.6% from the field and 36.5% from the arc. Not bad, but not elite, certainly. But then you realize he hit 90% from the stripe, while attempting the ninth most number of free throws (840) on the list. Oh, and by the way, Durant is 21. Twenty-one. Freaking. Years old.
What got me started on this kick was thinking about Chris Paul. Not the trade demands or his relationship with LRMR or any of the other stuff. The fact that prior to injury, Paul had started the year rocking at 61% from the field, 64% from three. He would have come back to the pack regardless, but it’s worth noting just how good Paul was to start the year last year, even as his coach was fired and his team was floundering.
Along with Nowitzki and Durant, to go along with the king of the 50-40-90 club Steve Nash, we’re looking at an era of amazing shooters. There’s potential for some all-time numbers, and even if none of them touch the shooter’s ceiling, the sheer number of them is enough to make us realize that we’re living in a time of a shooter’s paradise.
The NBA has had a world of attention on it the last few weeks for all the wrong reasons. Legacy, selfishness, branding, marketing agencies, trade requests, “The Decision,” free agency, “teaming up,” “being your own man,” “the Championship of Me” these are all distractions from why we really love watching the NBA. The game itself. It’s a few months away, but it’s coming. Try and remember that for all the off-court ridiculousness, we’re still living in a special era. Embrace it.