When Kevin Durant entered the NBA in the 2007-08 season, the NBA was so overrun with 20-point scorers that the Golden State Warriors had three, the New Jersey Nets had two and Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson each averaged 25 points for the Denver Nuggets. In all, the league tied its record of 27 players averaging at least 20 points, with two others right on the cusp at 19.9.
“You would see a guy on every team that could get 20 points,” Durant recalled.
Durant ranked 24th in scoring as a rookie at 20.3 points per game, but this season that same total would put him at 12th. And while the Oklahoma City Thunder forward has kept up his high-scoring rate — Durant is on pace to become just the fifth player to win four NBA scoring titles — the number of other players who have maintained a 20-point scoring average has continually declined.
Twelve players averaged 20 points last season during the lockout-shortened campaign. That number has dropped to 11 this season, which would be the lowest total since 1965-66 – when the NBA had just nine teams.
“It’s very difficult to be a scorer in our game,” Nuggets Coach George Karl said. “Everybody thinks it’s easy, and everybody kind of wants to be that guy – most players think they can make their careers scoring points — but the truth of the matter is, when the defenses are designed to stop you, it’s very difficult to be a successful scorer every night. The guys who get 25 to 30 every night, it’s a pretty incredible talent.”
That number can now probably be brought down to 20 to 25 points, because of several factors that have contributed to a decline in big-time offensive weapons.
Defenses have adjusted to create schemes that crowd one side of the floor to limit scoring opportunities for individuals. Coaches have changed offensive approaches to focus more on ball movement than isolation, leading to more balanced attacks. And the number of players capable of erupting for big games has been reduced with the establishment of super teams that are stocked with above-average players to provide more help for all-star talents.
Of the 11 active players with career averages of at least 20 points, Durant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant are the only players who are scoring at that clip this season. Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, Amare Stoudemire, Vince Carter and Tim Duncan are all well below career averages, which has a lot do with advancing age and injuries.
The Chicago Bulls’ Derrick Rose, who has averaged 21 points over his career, has missed the entire season with a torn left anterior cruciate ligament, robbing the league of one of its most dynamic scorers. And Minnesota power forward Kevin Love, who has averaged at least 20 points the past two seasons, has missed most of the year with a broken hand.
“There are fewer prolific scorers,” said NBA Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins, who ranks 11th all-time in scoring at 26,668 points and averaged 24.8 points in 15 seasons. In Wilkins’s first 10 seasons from 1982-83 to 1991-92, the NBA never had fewer than 20 20-point scorers and averaged about 25 each season.
“It’s hard for me to compare eras, but I don’t think there’ll ever be another era like that,” Wilkins said. “I mean, I’m a little partial, but that’s fact. I think that the type of scorers we had back then, there are not a lot of those guys around. You had your top guys getting 30-plus. You just don’t have that any more. Only those elite guys — LeBron James, Durant, Carmelo, even Wade — have the potential to do it.”
Thunder Coach Scott Brooks said parity is most responsible for change. “There’s more skilled players on each team. When I was playing, your role was more definitive; this guy is a defender, this guy is a shooter, this guy is a post player, this guy is a driver. Now, just about every position has the ability to expand their game.”
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.