Thursday, February 6, 2014

All-time top scorers through first 7 seasons

Since Kevin Durant is in his 7th season, and destroying everyone in his path, it seemed like a good time to ask: how does he stack up against other all-time scorers through their first seven seasons?

There's an easy way to answer this: just look at the all-time chart. But... there are a couple of problems with simply looking at total points:

  • It doesn't account for pace. During Wilt Chamberlain's first three seasons, NBA teams averaged 126 possessions per game. LeBron James started his career with teams averaging about 90 possessions per game. We need to account for this enormous difference to get a more accurate barometer of scoring prowess.
  • Not all seasons have had 82 games. Elgin Baylor played in seasons as short as 75 games, then 75, 79, and 80. Same for Wilt, Jerry West, and Oscar Robertson. Meanwhile, Durant got hit with a lockout-shortened season in 2011-12, and obviously hasn't finished this season either.
So I adjusted Basketball Reference's numbers to an average-pace season (about 107 possessions per game), and I projected everybody's historical stats to 82 potential games played. (Note: we don't make any such allowance for injury, because that's more within a player's control and not a league-wide phenomenon.)

Alright, enough chit-chat. Here are the (adjusted) top scorers in NBA history through their first seven seasons.

(Having trouble seeing this chart? Click here.)

Some takeaways:

  • You can adjust for a lightning-fast pace, or anything else you want, but no one can touch Wilt. He had 21,486 actual points; our adjustments bring him down to under 20K, but he's still more than 1,500 points ahead of LeBron James.
  • Actually, Michael Jordan COULD have approached Wilt, had it not been for missing most of his second season with a broken foot. If you look just at seasons 3-7, Michael had more pace-adjusted points than even Wilt, so it's entirely possible he would've been the greatest scorer ever through 7 seasons.
  • Durant benefits greatly from the pace adjustment: without it, he would probably end this season about 8th on the list. With the adjustment, he's 4th (and if he scores like a madman the rest of this season, it's conceivable he could move up to 2nd, though it's very unlikely).
  • By the way, the average league pace during Durant's career has been 92.3. That's the second-slowest of anyone on the list (LeBron's first 7 years averaged a glacial 91.5.)
  • David Robinson passes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in years 6 and 7 to finish 5th on the list. I knew the Admiral was a great scorer, but I didn't think he'd be the second-best scoring center in history through 7 seasons.
  • Elvin Hayes was actually 2nd in most FGA (and minutes) through his first 7 seasons, behind only Wilt. Alas, with a 44% FG, he doesn't make the top ten in pace-adjusted points.
  • Karl Malone! Dominique Wilkins! The 80's really were a magical time for superstar scorers. (By the way, in case you were wondering, Larry Bird was 15th on the all-time unadjusted list.)