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What’s Behind All These Crazy NBA Stat Lines?

As the calendar approached 2017 Saturday night, Houston’s James Harden decided to provide his own New Year’s Eve fireworks. The triple-double line he dropped on the New York Knicks was nothing short of mind-boggling: 53 points, 17 assists and 16 rebounds — the first 50-15-15 game in NBA history, the finest game of Harden’s career (according to John Hollinger’s Game Score metric, which assigns a rough value to all the good and bad things a player does on the court), and the top performance of the 2016-17 NBA season to that point.

But no sooner had Harden finished that outburst than Chicago’s Jimmy Butler responded with his own bit of insane stat-stuffing: 52 points, 12 rebounds and 6 assists against the Hornets on Monday night. Since it came with a better shooting percentage, fewer turnovers and more steals and blocks, Butler’s performance unseated Harden’s for the best Game Score of this NBA season so far.

And it wouldn’t be surprising if Butler’s own mark fell sooner rather than later. This season has already seen 12 individual performances eclipse a Game Score of 40,1 the same number as the previous five seasons had through this stage of the season2 combined. As my ESPN colleague Zach Lowe wrote Thursday, scoring is up across the league this season, and it’s going hand in hand with some truly prodigious individual performances.

Here’s the breakdown of the individual games that eclipsed certain Game Score milestones (30, 35 and 40) during the first 38 team games of each season since 1983-84, the first year for which Basketball-Reference.com has complete game-level box score data:

paine-nba-stat-games-1

Aside from a brief spike in the post-handcheck era, when Allen Iverson, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Gilbert Arenas — remember how good he was at his peak? — were blowing up the scorebooks in 2005-06, we haven’t seen a spate of stat-padding close to this since 1990-91, when Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and company were putting up ridiculous numbers from Day One of the season. And even that year didn’t see as many performances crack a Game Score of 40 as there have been this season; to find more of those at this stage of a season, you’d have to go back to 1987-88.

It probably isn’t too shocking that the number of big Game Score outings in a given season is reasonably correlated with the league’s pace factor.3 The more possessions per game, the easier it is to produce eye-popping stat lines — and this season has featured the NBA’s fastest pace since the early 1990s. So, given the game’s more up-tempo state, perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised by this year’s explosion of big statistical games.

But there’s also evidence that we’re in an age of better NBA talent than we’ve seen since the days of MJ and Sir Charles. When I borrowed FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief Nate Silver’s “baseball time machine” technique — which infers the amount of talent present in a given season by comparing the performances of the same players in adjacent seasons — and applied it to basketball to prove millennials weren’t ruining the NBA, I found that the past few seasons contained the NBA’s strongest talent base since the early to mid-1990s. (As measured by Box Plus/Minus, which is pace-adjusted and accounts for both offense and defense.) It was part of a trend in leaguewide quality that’s been on the upswing since the mid-2000s, as the game finally stabilized after adding seven new teams between 1988 and 2004.

Lending further credence to the theory that there’s simply a wealth of good players in today’s NBA, 2016-17 has also seen its big stat-stuffing games spread across more players than past seasons have. This season, there have been 89 games with a Game Score of 30 or higher, recorded by 38 different players — an average of 2.3 big games per player. By contrast, the 1990-91 season featured an average of 2.8 big games per player, meaning the performances were more concentrated among players; the same was true in all of the big-game-heavy seasons of the late 1980s and early 1990s. This season has featured a lot of great performances, but they’re not being being hogged as much by the same small group of usual suspects.

(Even Russell Westbrook, freed to summon a hellstorm of statistical vengeance in Kevin Durant’s absence, leads the league with “only” nine 30-plus Game Score games. At the same stage of the 1987-88 season, Jordan had twice as many!)

Between expansion, rule changes, the advent of superteams and sweeping strategic developments (many of which owe to the increasing influence advanced analytics wields over teams), the league has undergone a lot of upheaval over the past couple of decades. It may be that this season’s jaw-dropping statistical feats are a product of all that evolution — and we could just be witnessing the beginning of a trend toward ever-crazier numbers.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. For reference’s sake, this LeBron James game against the Hornets on Dec. 10 — 44 points, 10 assists and 9 rebounds — earned a Game Score of exactly 40.

  2. Specifically, through 38 team games — the same number as the league-leading Clippers, Grizzlies and Lakers had when this story’s research was conducted on Thursday.

  3. Since 1984, there’s a correlation coefficient of 0.59 between the league’s pace and the number of individual games breaking a Game Score of 30, for instance.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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