If averaging 20 points per game is the traditional benchmark of the NBA star, scoring 30 a night vaults a player into another category entirely. Not including this year’s early hopefuls — Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans and Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder — it’s been done 65 times in all of NBA and ABA history, most often by the Michael Jordans and Wilt Chamberlains of the world. Joining that rarified club, or even coming within striking distance of it, is a big deal.
Before he had an off night against the Sixers on Monday, Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan was positioned to join that group. And given how much freedom to shoot he’s been granted in the Raptors’ offense, he’ll probably flirt with the 30-PPG barrier again before the season is over. Considering that DeRozan set a career high in scoring last season with 23.5 points a game, his sustained run at the 30-point level has been a revelation. In the NBA, players don’t just wake up with an extra 6 or 7 points per game in their pockets.
DeRozan’s improvement is especially rare for a player who already scores a lot: Among all the players in NBA history who improved on their existing career high in scoring by at least 5 PPG in a season, DeRozan currently has the 18th-highest scoring average. It’s a leap nearly identical to the one Steph Curry made last season.
DeRozan has continued a long trend of dragging his efficiency up to match his perpetually high usage — despite the additional workload this season, he’s up to 80th in true shooting percentage among qualified scorers1 this year, which is a career high for him. Part of that is DeRozan benefitting from the Raptors’ faster pace this season — they’re averaging 2.1 more possessions per game this year than last — even if that’s not always coach Dwane Casey’s preferred way to play. And in the half-court, he’s developed a near-mastery of the two-man game with teammate Jonas Valanciunas, with both players ranking among the league’s most efficient in the pick-and-roll. DeRozan’s probably sinking his deep 2s (a longtime staple of his game, much to statheads’ chagrin) at an unsustainably high rate, but he’s also hitting far fewer of his 3s than he did last year, so that should balance out.
But DeRozan may also have maxed out just how much impact a player of his particular style can have. Among the 86 cases since the merger where an NBA player scored at least 28 points per game in a season — including six players so far this year — DeRozan is tied for the eighth-lowest Box Plus/Minus. As a group, those players averaged an offensive BPM of +6.1; DeRozan’s is only +3.8. And although the Raptors have the second-best offensive efficiency in the NBA this season, their offense scores only 0.4 more points per 100 possessions when DeRozan is in the game than when he’s on the bench.
Obviously, some of that is the residue of a relatively deep team being able to press that advantage against other teams’ reserves. But to use DeRozan’s most common floor-mates as comparison points, the Raptors’ offense loses 5.9 points per 100 possessions when Kyle Lowry exits the game and 6.6 points per 100 possessions when Patrick Patterson leaves the court. And then there’s his porous defense: His defensive BPM ranks 17th-worst among that group of 28-point scorers, and Toronto opponents are scoring 4.2 more points per 100 possessions with him on the floor than off.
In other words, the metrics say DeRozan’s overall impact on the game isn’t anywhere near as valuable as his raw scoring would suggest.
Perhaps none of this should come as a surprise. When I analyzed NBA players and sorted them into archetypes for a story in October, I found that DeRozan belongs to a class of player I dubbed “one-dimensional scorers” — players characterized by very high usage rates, good numbers in shooting efficiency and assists, and almost zero contributions on the boards or on defense. That kind of player is custom-built to put points on the board, and DeRozan is scoring the 10th-most points per game of anybody in that classification since the merger. But like DeRozan, they also lack in other areas of the game, and it almost always makes them less valuable than we’d expect based on their scoring averages alone.
For instance, using all qualified players since the merger, I ran a regression that used each player’s points-per-game average in a given season to predict his Box Plus/Minus (to measure his overall performance, regardless of how he generated his value), then separated the results out by player archetype. The archetype that underperformed its predicted BPM the most (by far) was DeRozan’s group, the one-dimensional scorers, a trend that can be seen clearly when we graph them in comparison with all other archetypes:
It’s not impossible for a one-dimensional scorer to have an outsized impact on the game, even relative to his scoring average. Curry, for instance, is suffering a down season to begin 2016-17 — causing him to slip into the same archetypal category as DeRozan (quelle horreur!) — but he’s still been a better player, according to BPM, than his 26.6-PPG would suggest. And DeRozan himself isn’t far from the apex of what a one-dimensional scorer can be. He currently ranks 94th in BPM out of the 1,162 qualified player-seasons that fit into the archetype since 1976-77.
It’s also possible that the traditional statistical outlook on “pure” scorers misses some of the complexities of team dynamics. In the same way that the Warriors can cram more skill sets onto the floor by adding Kevin Durant — the rare superstar who also functions as a floor-spacing sharpshooter — perhaps scorers who can carry an inordinate burden without leaking efficiency allow teams to stuff the rest of the roster with more diversely talented players. But even if that’s the case, it hasn’t turned up in the stats yet, despite a lot of people looking for a way to pin down that dynamic (or something like it) over the years.
The debate over the value of one-dimensional scorers is far from settled even in today’s age of advanced analytics, and there’s plenty of evidence that it’s difficult to replace what a top scorer brings to his team. But the numbers also suggest that certain playing styles tend to produce less value than others. It will be interesting to see if that holds true even when the performance is as prolific as DeRozan’s has been early this season.