Fastbreak Factoids is a new series we’re starting. Each week we’ll look at some fancy charts and see what they can tell us. They’re not there to “prove” a point so much as to just glean new information. If you have a question you’d like answered or something studied for a future version, just ask on Twitter with the hashtag, #FastbreakFactoids.
The NBA has developed and changed and grown over the last 60 years, and even in the last five. But one thing that never changes is the ultimate goal: put the ball in the basket while preventing your opponent from doing so. All the analytics are just observations about the best ways to make that happen.
For all that has changed, there’s the argument that they’ve also changed the same. Ultimately, getting a dude who’s effective at putting the ball in the hoop is still a game-changer. We just look at things a little more thoroughly nowadays.
So who are the best guys in the world at it? And how can you tell? Just looking at raw scoring numbers doesn’t tell you much about efficiency. Just looking at efficiency doesn’t say much, either, because efficiency tends to go down as usage goes up for various reasons.
For example, DeAndre Jordan led the NBA in field goal percentage last year because almost everything he shot was near the rim. And while that’s not a “bad thing” per se, it’s hard to expand too much on that. His skill set isn’t expandable.
To get a better look at who the best scorers really are, I first looked at how many points they scored per 100 team possessions and their usage, or the number of points they scored compared to how many possessions they used:
In the first look, you can see (unsurprisingly) that the more possessions a guy uses, the more he scores. But players to the left of the line are efficient, and those to the right of it are inefficient.
So if you look over near the top, right corner you’ll see Dwyane Wade, who used 34.7 out of every 100 possessions for a 35.7-point return. Sliding your cursor all the way to the left at that height, you’ll find Anthony Davis, who scored 35.4 points — just a smidge more than Wade — but took only 27.8 possessions to do so.
Ergo, Davis was a far more effective scorer than Wade last season. That’s great for comparing players who scored at a like level, but by tweaking the chart’s parameters a bit, we can get a better look at who was most effective. This shows usage and points per possession used by the player:
We can generally group the players into four categories, based on the median for points per play and usage percentage. The top right quadrant is efficient scorers, the top left is speciality scorers, the bottom right is your “chuckers” or volume scorers, and the bottom left is non-scorers, i.e. the guys who job is to do other things well.
Based on these four quadrants, we can make a few observations.
Here’s Korver’s shot chart:
But you’re about as likely to see Korver start driving to the rim with regularity as you are to see Chandler stretch his range out beyond the outer arc. The guys in this arc tend to be specialists, who can score efficiently as long as they stay in their sandbox.
Moving to the bottom left and the non-scorers, there’s still some star power there. Draymond Green, Joakim Noah and Nerlens Noel all are found there. Green is the only one who might be a bit of a surprise, but he’s really not that far below the median in points per possession used.
Throw in Tony Allen, and you start to see that the thing a lot of these guys have in common is their ability to make it harder for the other guy to put the ball in the hoop, which is why they’re still getting minutes.
Now, moving to the right and looking at the volume scorers, one name stands out: Lance Stephenson. He averaged just .773 points per possession he used, which is easily the worst of any player who qualified for the scoring title. Things are going to have to improve drastically for that trade to the Los Angeles Clippers to be validated.
Kobe Bryant’s name isn’t there because he failed to qualify for the scoring title, but he would’ve been near the bottom right corner if he were, with just .95 points per possession used and a whopping 34.9 usage percentage.
And finally, we come to the efficient scorers, where you’ll see the four of the top five finishers in last year’s MVP voting, Anthony Davis, Stephen Curry, James Harden and LeBron James sloped along the right. Then all the way to the right, on the median line for points per possession, you’ll see the fifth, Russell Westbrook. That suggests that his inefficiency is overstated, particularly considering everything else he did for the Thunder last year.
But another observation here is J.J. Redick and Jimmy Butler near the top center, albeit for different reasons. Redick is really a specialist who has a higher usage percentage than most people realize. This is an indication that he was an underrated aspect of the Clippers’ No. 1 offensive rating last season.
Butler is intriguing for another reason. First, he’s already more of a scorer than most of the guys who are logging better efficiency than him. In fact, as I noted here, only Davis and Kevin Durant (not listed on the chart because he didn’t qualify for the scoring title) averaged 20 points more efficiently than Butler last year:
Among 20 ppg scorers last year, only Anthony Davis and Kevin Durant averaged more pts/poss used than Jimmy Butler. pic.twitter.com/heKZianHlx
— Kelly Scaletta (@KellyScaletta) September 22, 2015
And it’s also true because he’s the guy on this list who has the best chance to see a usage percentage spike without his points per possession used going down.
That’s true for several reasons, such as with the Bulls’ new scheme next year, he’ll get more transition opportunities, he has a great ability to draw fouls and “Hoiball” will likely emphasize his talents more.
He also is a complete scorer rather than a specialist. As I noted for BBallBreakdown, Butler was the only player in the league who scored at least 2.5 points per game in each of the scoring types (drives, pull-ups, catch-and-shoot and close shots) tracked by SportVU for NBA.com. He has room to grow.
What’s absolutely stunning to the point of making me shake my stat machine to make sure it’s not broken is that Butler had the exact same usage percentage as Stephenson last season. But Butler used his 21.6 possessions out of 100 to score 26.8 points, and Stephenson only got 16.4 with the same usage.
Somebody needs more chances, and somebody needs fewer because that’s just morally wrong.
So with that, we have a good idea of not only who the most efficient scorers are, but what type of scorer they are. Remember, if you’d like some numbers crunched for a future article, just use #FastbreakFactoids on Twitter or comment on the article.