With rule changes helping to establish zone defenses and eliminate hand-checking, the game is also focused more on perimeter players who can break down defenses off the dribble and through pick-and-roll sets. There also are fewer reliable big men: This could potentially be the first NBA season that doesn’t have a center average at least 20 points. Portland big man LaMarcus Aldridge (22.3 points per game) is the only player listed at 6 feet 11 or taller in the top 10 in scoring.
Rasheed Wallace, 38, entered the NBA in 1995 and remembers when the league had dominant big men in Duncan, Nowitzki, Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Garnett, Yao Ming and explosive individual perimeter talents in Iverson, Bryant, Carter and Tracy McGrady, to name a few.
“There were more bonafide one-on-one scorers, because they were seasoned,” Wallace said. “Now, you have a lot of young guys, AAU guys, and in AAU you can get 30 or 40, but on this level, it’s not that easy. I would say it’s half on defense and half on some guys lacking skills. Hopefully it won’t be like this for long.”
Joe Dumars, the Detroit Pistons’ president of basketball operations, said he was “very surprised” to see that the league has so few 20-point scorers but could see that the league was beginning to transition away from the one-man shows even before he constructed a rare championship team in 2004 that lacked a true superstar talent.
“The way teams attack now, it’s more a spread around; we’d rather have four guys with 16 points than one with 40 and the other three with 10,” Dumars said. “I do think our ’04 team did create a path for teams; a blueprint for putting together a real balanced attack and that you could win that way.”
Players also haven’t been afraid to seek assistance, either through free agent moves or trade demands in order to maximize their championship windows rather than collect empty statistics on mediocre teams. After watching the Celtics sacrifice individual numbers to win a championship in 2008, Wade, James and Chris Bosh plotted to join forces in Miami with an understanding that their numbers would take a hit.
“I think teams are better overall,” Wade said. General managers “have done a better job putting more talent on teams than just being top heavy.”
Bosh averaged at least 22 points in five seasons before signing with Miami, where he has seen his average drop from 18.7 points to 17.7 points in his three seasons with the Heat. And after recording eight 50-point games in his first seven seasons in Cleveland, James has only had one 50-point game since arriving in Miami for the 2010-11 season.
The elite scorers continue to produce, but Anthony joked, “I know we make it look easy, but to go out there and get 20 points on a daily basis, it’s definitely a lot of work.”
Durant agreed that the challenge of getting 20 is much harder than before. “It’s so many different types of junk defenses now,” he said. “It’s a copycat league, and so many of the great defensive schemes are starting to be copied. So it’s tougher to score, but that’s what makes it fun.”
And even more unusual.