Paroxysmal Pursuit: When Do Scorers Reach Their Peak?

Welcome to the inaugural edition of Paroxysmal Pursuit! In this and subsequent editions, I will let my mind wander the landscape of the NBA, past and present, in order to answer nonsensical, mostly unimportant and definitely trivial questions.

Photo by gareth1953 via Flickr

For this first installment of Paroxysmal Pursuit, I tackle the issue of when NBA players reach their peak in terms of scoring prowess. Now, there’s no way on earth I could peruse each and every single player in league history. Nor would I really want to. I’m not too interested in seeing when Tree Rollins averaged a career high scoring for this exercise.

So, the players sampled here are those who averaged at least 20 points per game for their career and also played in at least 500 games in the NBA and/or the ABA. The points per game minimum is my way of singling out the best scorers, even if it does come with flaws. The 500 game limit is to dispose of players whose careers didn’t last long enough to descend from peak play.

This leaves us with 60 players and the following data:

Season: the season the player hit their ppg peak.

Year: the year of their playing career ppg peak was reached.

Age: the age the player at.

% of career ppg: How much larger the high avg. was than the career avg.

Player Season Year Age High average Career Average % of career ppg
Paul Arizin 1959 7 30 26.4 22.8 115.8%
Bob Pettit 1962 8 29 31.1 26.4 117.8%
Elgin Baylor 1962 4 27 38.3 27.4 139.8%
Walt Bellamy 1962 1 22 31.6 20.1 157.2%
Wilt Chamberlain 1962 3 25 50.4 30.1 167.4%
Oscar Robertson 1964 4 25 31.4 25.7 122.2%
Jerry West 1966 6 27 31.3 27 115.9%
Rick Barry 1967 2 22 35.6 24.8 143.5%
Dave Bing 1968 2 24 27.1 20.3 133.5%
Billy Cunningham 1970 5 26 26.1 21.2 123.1%
Spencer Haywood 1970 1 20 30 20.3 147.8%
Elvin Hayes 1971 3 25 28.7 21 136.7%
John Havlicek 1971 9 30 28.9 20.8 138.9%
Bob Lanier 1972 2 23 25.7 20.1 127.9%
Dan Issel 1972 2 23 30.6 22.6 135.4%
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 1972 3 24 34.8 24.6 141.5%
Charlie Scott 1972 2 23 33.4 20.7 161.4%
Julius Erving 1973 2 22 31.9 24.2 131.8%
Lou Hudson 1973 7 28 27.1 20.2 134.2%
George McGinnis 1975 4 24 29.8 20.2 147.5%
Bob McAdoo 1975 3 23 34.5 22.1 156.1%
John Drew 1977 3 22 24.2 20.7 116.9%
Pete Maravich 1977 7 29 31.1 24.2 128.5%
David Thompson 1978 3 23 27.2 22.7 119.8%
Marques Johnson 1979 2 22 25.6 20.1 127.4%
George Gervin 1980 8 27 33.1 25.1 131.9%
World B. Free 1980 5 26 30.2 20.3 148.8%
Adrian Dantley 1981 5 24 30.7 24.3 126.3%
Moses Malone 1982 8 26 31.1 20.3 153.2%
Mark Aguirre 1984 3 24 29.5 20 147.5%

 

Player Season Year Age High average Career Average % of career ppg
Bernard King 1985 8 28 32.9 22.5 146.2%
Alex English 1986 10 32 29.8 21.5 138.6%
Michael Jordan 1987 3 23 37.1 30.1 123.3%
Larry Bird 1988 9 31 29.9 24.3 123%
Dominique Wilkins 1988 6 28 30.7 24.8 123.8%
Charles Barkley 1988 4 24 28.3 22.1 128%
Clyde Drexler 1989 6 26 27.2 20.4 133.3%
Karl Malone 1990 5 26 31 25 124%
Patrick Ewing 1990 5 27 28.6 21 136.2%
David Robinson 1994 5 28 29.8 21.1 141.2%
Hakeem Olajuwon 1995 11 32 27.8 21.8 127.5%
Mitch Richmond 1997 9 31 25.9 21 123.3%
Glenn Robinson 1998 4 25 23.4 20.7 113%
Shaquille O’Neal 2000 8 27 29.7 23.7 125.3%
Vince Carter 2001 3 24 27.6 22.1 124.9%
Chris Webber 2001 8 27 27.1 20.7 130.9%
Tim Duncan 2002 5 25 25.5 20.5 124.4%
Tracy McGrady 2003 6 23 32.1 20.4 157.4%
Amare Stoudemire 2005 3 22 26 21.9 118.7%
LeBron James 2006 3 21 31.4 27.7 113.4%
Dirk Nowitzki 2006 8 27 26.6 22.9 116.2%
Paul Pierce 2006 8 28 26.8 22.2 120.7%
Allen Iverson 2006 10 30 33 26.7 123.6%
Gilbert Arenas 2006 5 24 29.3 21.2 138.2%
Kobe Bryant 2006 10 27 35.4 25.3 139.9%
Carmelo Anthony 2007 4 22 28.9 24.8 116.5%
Ray Allen 2007 11 31 26.4 20.2 130.7%
Michael Redd 2007 7 27 26.7 20 133.5%
Dwyane Wade 2009 6 27 30.2 25.4 118.9%
Chris Bosh 2010 7 25 24 20 120%
 Average 5.35  25.7  29.9  22.7

 

Paroxysmal Notes of Interest

Averages by Decade

Decade Season Age High average Career Average
1950s/60s 4.11 25.7 33.7 25
1970s 3.63 24.2 29.4 21.6
1980s 6.25 26.6 30.9 23
1990s 6.5 28.2 27.8 21.8
2000s 6.6 25.7 28.6 22.7

 

It’s important to note that Tim Duncan, Ray Allen, and Tracy McGrady are likely to drop out of the 20 ppg career average club. Michael Redd is sitting right at 20.0 ppg and is gearing up for a season in Phoenix of spot minutes, so his average is assuredly about to fall below the line.

Scoring Spike: 1962 is often noted as the most statistically ridiculous season in NBA history. The distinction is well-deserved since it’s the year Wilt averaged 50 points and Oscar threw up a triple double average for the season. However, did you notice that in 2006 and 2007 NINE of the 60 players here set their career high in ppg? Something was definitely in the water.

The Least Deviant: Glenn “Big Dawg” Robinson was the most steady of scorers in this survey. his career average was 20.7 and his career high ppg of 23.4 represented only a 13% increase. Other steady-as-they-come scorers are LeBron James (13.4% increase), Paul Arizin (15.8%), Jerry West (15.9%), Dirk Nowitzki (16.2%), Carmelo Anthony (16.5%), and John Drew (16.9%).

The Most Deviant: These are the players who certainly scored in bunches during their career but at some point they cut back on the binging. Unsurprisingly, Wilt Chamberlain paces this group with his 50.4 ppg high being 67.4% larger than his career average of 30.1.

Other deviant scorers include Charlie Scott (61.4%), Tracy McGrady (57.4%), Walt Bellamy (57.2%), Bob McAdoo (56.1%), and Moses Malone (56.1%).

Baby Faces: Spencer Haywood at 20-years old is the youngest player here to set a career high in ppg. His 30 ppg in 1970 were good enough to take home both MVP and ROY for the ABA that season. LeBron James during his 3rd season at age 21 is the only other player to set a career-high under the age of 22.

Walt Bellamy is the only other player to set a career-high during his rookie season in the go-go season of 1962. Dave Bing, Charlie Scott, Dan Issel, Bob Lanier, Rick Barry, Julius Erving, and Marques Johnson all set their high ppg during their 2nd season.

Fine Wine: Only 8 of the 60 players set their career high in ppg after reaching age 30 and only two of these did so prior to 1986, showing that player longevity and ability to produce during their career arc has increased. The two super studs who defied the aging processes of their eras were Paul Arizin and John Havlicek. Arizin did so at age 30 in his 7th season (1959). Havlicek hit his peak at age 3o, too, in his 9th season (1970).

The most vintage of these wines, though, is Hakeem Olajuwon. In his 11th season at age 32, he crested at 27.8 ppg. Centers at age 32 are usually creaky and starting to resemble the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz. Hakeem’s 27.8 ppg represent the single highest scoring average for a center over thirty years of age. His average of 20.8 ppg overall after passing 30 years of age is 2nd only to the wondrous Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

And really, perusing Hakeem’s career stats is what inspired this Paroxysmal Pursuit, so let’s go ahead and see him and his Rockets do their thing back in the mid-90s as he was entering his most vintage years.

[flash http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ixyMQX9_wo w=600 h=400]

Seth Carstens