Games like the one Anthony Davis had Sunday night don’t come along very often — at least not in the modern NBA.
With 59 points in the New Orleans Pelicans’ 111-106 win over the Detroit Pistons, Davis set new scoring highs for both his own career and the 2015-16 NBA season. He also pulled down a whopping 20 rebounds. Basketball-Reference.com doesn’t have complete game-by-game rebounding records from before the 1983-84 season (more on that later), but since then, there have only been two other 50/20 games: a 2000 contest in which Shaquille O’Neal scored 61 points and grabbed 23 boards against the Clippers and a 2001 tilt during which Chris Webber dropped 51 and 26 on the Pacers.
Davis’s eye-popping numbers on Sunday came through incredible efficiency. His true shooting percentage in the game was 76.8, far above the league’s season-long average of 53.9. (By comparison, Webber’s true shooting percentage was only 51.4 in his big game, and Shaq’s was 68.3 — outstanding, but below Davis’s mark.) On the other hand, Davis’s Pelicans also played a fast pace — 100.2 possessions — compared with other big scoring/rebounding games from the recent past. So where does Davis rank if we account for both these factors?
To answer that, I grabbed game-level data from Basketball-Reference.com starting in 1983-84, and adjusted each player’s scoring and rebounding totals for the pace of the game, setting them all to a pace of exactly 100 team possessions per 48 minutes. I also adjusted for a player’s efficiency, giving his scoring tally an extra bump if he was more efficient than the league average. This is to account for games like Webber’s that have impressive raw stats but required a large number of attempts.1 Finally, I took the geometric mean — a special average used when combining two numbers from different scales2 — of the player’s adjusted point and rebound totals, arriving at this list of the best scoring/rebounding games of the past 33 seasons:
After crunching the numbers, Davis’s game slips to No. 6, behind not only O’Neal’s and Webber’s but also games from Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and even Michael Jordan. (We don’t tend to think of Jordan as a big rebounder, but he snagged 18 boards in his 69-point game against Cleveland in 1990.) Davis gets extra credit — about 7 points’ worth — for his efficiency but loses ground in the pace adjustment. A faster pace means more chances to score and snag rebounds, and Davis’s game had about 7 percent more possessions than the average game above him on the list.
Of course, quibbling about where Davis’s game ranks among the biggest scoring/rebounding performances in recent memory misses the bigger picture that games like Davis’s (adjusted or no) are much more uncommon now than they were in the past. According to ESPN’s Stats and Info crew, there were 36 games in NBA history (before Davis’s on Sunday) featuring a player with a 59/20 stat line: the aforementioned Shaq game … and 35 games from Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain, all before the mid-1970s. Chamberlain himself accounted for 33 of those games — 17 of which came during his legendary 1961-62 season alone.
The simple truth is that outrageous single-game stat totals were a lot easier to come by in that era. The average pace factor for teams in 2015-16 is about 96 possessions per 48 minutes; the average in 1961-62, as best we can estimate it, was 126. In other words, compared with the modern game, that season’s players had over 31 percent more chances to score points and grab rebounds — 59/20, for instance, becomes a “mere” 45/15 after adjusting away those extra possessions — and there’s a good argument that rebounding numbers were inflated even further by the era’s abysmally low field goal percentages (resulting in more missed shots to rebound). There’s a reason that Kevin Love in 2011 became the first player to average 20 points and 15 rebounds since 1983 and that 92 percent of the player-seasons meeting those criteria took place before 1976’s NBA-ABA merger. The game was radically different back then, both on the court and in the stat sheets.
That’s why we should appreciate games like Davis’s even more when they come along in today’s NBA. Fifty-point, 20-rebound games have always represented special individual performances, but they’ve become exponentially rarer these days, especially given recent changes to how the game is played. (Hello, Warriors!) So it might be a long time before you see another statistical game quite like the one Davis produced Sunday.