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Who Had the Greatest Scoring Season In The NBA?

By: Ryan Liu and Shaash Sivakumar


Source: Vincent Laforet / Getty Images

Introduction


In the world of professional basketball, individual performance and team success are often inextricably linked. Understanding a player's true impact requires delving beyond traditional statistics to uncover deeper insights into their influence on the court. This article will explore some of the most iconic seasons in NBA history, and by examining how a player's presence affects their team's offense and success, we aim to paint a comprehensive picture of their contributions. From Wilt Chamberlain to Michael Jordan to Kobe Bryant to Stephen Curry, our article aims to reveal the indispensable roles these athletes have played in their teams' successes. Join us as we analyze these standout seasons and celebrate the players whose extraordinary performances have left an indelible mark on the game.


Methodology


To analyze which NBA player had the greatest individual scoring season, we collected data from their best individual scoring seasons and compared. We selected 21 of some of the best scorers the game has ever seen, but we only selected one season from each player. For example, Wilt Chamberlain had multiple seasons where he averaged over 30 points per game, so we selected only one season of his, the one where he averaged an incredible 50.4 points per game. Most of the data we looked at is pretty self-explanatory, like points per game, minutes per game, etc. However, there are a few variables that we would like to elaborate upon. We collected the player’s On/Off stats for that season, which highlights the team’s offensive rating when the player is on and off the court. Offensive rating is an estimate of how many points the team scores per 100 possessions, which can be a good representation of how much workload a player had to contribute to their team’s success. True shooting is a measure of shooting efficiency that takes into account 2-point field goals, 3-point field goals, and free throws, so it essentially summarizes a player’s efficiency. Additionally, we collected information about the league’s average offensive rating and number of possessions for that season. Please note that some of this data was not even collected by the NBA for some players who played in the early era of the NBA, so for parts of the analysis, these players will not be included.



Here is a bar graph showing the players’ points scored per minute played, in an effort to show who truly dominated with scoring during their time in the game. Wilt Chamberlain's iconic 1961-1962 season stands out as a beacon of scoring prowess, where he astoundingly averaged 50.4 points per game. What's truly remarkable is that Chamberlain's dominance extended to the rate at which he scored, as he remains the only player among the 21 chosen to have averaged over a point per minute, boasting an incredible 1.03 points per minute. While Chamberlain's record may seem insurmountable, recent seasons have seen players come very close to matching his numbers. James Harden's fantastic 2018-2019 campaign saw him lighting up the scoreboard with an average of 0.98 points per minute, showcasing his scoring prowess in the modern era. Similarly, the 2022-2023 season witnessed Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid making their mark with averages of 0.967 and 0.955 points per minute, respectively. However, context is key when assessing these remarkable feats. It's important to consider that all of these standout seasons occurred during periods of exceptionally high league-wide scoring averages, with each surpassing the 111 points per game mark. In stark contrast, the seasons of the likes of LeBron James, Shaquille O'Neal, and Allen Iverson saw the league average for points per game peak at a comparatively lower 97.5. This juxtaposition highlights not only the individual brilliance of these players but also the shifting landscape of scoring dynamics in the NBA over the years. It is important to take into account the changing landscape of scoring in the NBA throughout the years, so we must look at some more data to get a better understanding of who really had a better scoring season.



The graph here takes a look at the on/off numbers for all these players. The green bar measures the team’s offensive rating when the player is playing, and the black bar shows the team’s offensive rating when the player is not. This metric serves as a tangible measure of a player's influence on their team's offense, shedding light on their importance to the overall team. Leading the pack in this regard is Kobe Bryant, whose presence on the court translates to a staggering difference of 18.9 points in offensive rating compared to when he is off the floor. This substantial margin underscores Bryant's indispensable role as a catalyst for offensive production during his illustrious career. Following closely behind are Tracy McGrady and Steph Curry, with differentials of 17.5 and 13.6, respectively. The inclusion of Curry in this elite group is particularly intriguing, given that his remarkable season coincided with the Golden State Warriors' historic 73-9 record. Despite the team's exceptional success, Curry's impact remains palpable, highlighting his unparalleled ability to elevate his team's offensive output. His presence as an outlier among contenders emphasizes the depth of his influence, transcending the collective prowess of his star-studded teammates. In contrast, players like Bryant and McGrady faced formidable challenges without the luxury of an equally talented supporting cast. Despite their teams' limited success and absence of All-Star caliber teammates, both Bryant's Lakers and McGrady's Magic relied heavily on their offensive prowess. Their resilience and individual brilliance served as the driving force behind their teams' competitive performances, even amidst early playoff exits. Unfortunately, on/off numbers only started being recorded in the 1996-1997 season, so we are not able to see what kind of impact other legends like Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, or Larry Bird had on their teams, but this offers a more nuanced understanding of player impact on their team. 



These three graphs compare the selected players' offensive rating, PPG, and true shooting percentage to the league averages. Stephen Curry’s 2015-2016 season particularly stands out, as he ranks first in all three categories. This highlights his extraordinary impact on his team, as no other player comes close to influencing their team the way Curry did. James Harden also had a significant impact on his team’s offensive rating, though his effect on PPG was less pronounced. Wilt Chamberlain and George Gervin also contributed notable increases in team PPG, with Gervin showing higher efficiency. Interestingly, as the years progressed, the gap between the league's average offensive rating and the teams’ offensive ratings widened, likely due in part to the increase in the league’s average PPG. In terms of efficiency, the top-ranked players all competed in the 2010s and beyond, which can also be attributed to the overall higher league offensive rating and PPG during these years.


Conclusion


From our observations, five players stick out the most. The first is Stephen Curry, who in his 2016 unanimous MVP season, averaged 30.1 PPG on 66.9% TS. His Offensive Rating, Points Per Game, and True Shooting Percentages surpass the league average by a larger quantity than anyone else in their respective GOAT seasons. Additionally, he ranked 3rd in the On/Off numbers and was 9th place in points per minutes played. Wilt Chamberlain’s 1961-1962 season is another historical season that deserves consideration, where he averaged 50.4 PPG on 53.6% TS. His insane point-per-minute ratio is unheard of, and he had a significant impact on the PPG of his team, but his TS% is below average. George Gervin averaged 33.1 PPG on 58.7% TS in his 1979-1980 campaign, helping his team to a much higher PPG average than the league, all the while being very efficient in his time on the floor. Kobe Bryant, in the 2005-2006 season, averaged 35.4 PPG on 55.9% TS. This season stands out in particular due to his extraordinary On/Off numbers, where he improved his team’s offensive rating by 18.9 when he was playing, a testament to how much he impacted that Lakers team, but he was not nearly as efficient as some of the other players considered. And finally is Kevin Durant’s season in 2013-2014, where he led the league in scoring with 32 PPG on an ultra-efficient 63.5% TS. He helped his team perform well above league average in terms of OffRtg and PPG, but his On/Off numbers are not as significant as Bryant’s or Curry’s. Overall, we believe that Stephen Curry’s 2015-2016 MVP season reigns as the best scoring season ever, as he ranks first in impact on team scoring, offensive rating, and his TS%, whilst also being 3rd in On/Off numbers and 9th in points-per-minute. As the league continues to become more offensively-minded, we probably will eventually see someone score at a mind-blowing level, but for now, we will crown Stephen Curry’s 2015-2016 season as the greatest scoring season in NBA history. 




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