On NBA.com this week, we're running a bracket on the league's best one-on-one scorers.
While our bracket is made up of players from the post-Michael Jordan era - that is, from 2003 onwards - I wanted to take a closer look at who the best isolation scorers in the league are right now.
Before we get into it, some ground rules:
- All the stats I'm using are from NBA.com, which uses tracking data provided by Synergy.
- I'm only considering players who have been available for most of the season. That means no Kevin Durant. You won't find players who have missed significant time with injury either, such as Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving.
- This is about who the best isolation scorers in the league are, not post-up scorers. Who the best post-up scorers are is an entirely different post.
- I've applied some loose filters of at least one isolation possession per game and 20 games played. That weeds out players like Courtney Lee, who has been the most efficient one-on-one scorer in the league but has only scored 17 points in isolation.
With that in mind, onto the list!
The most dominant: James Harden
This shouldn't come as a surprise.
When you take volume into account, Harden might just be the most prolific one-on-one scorer in NBA history.
Consider this: Harden is generating 45.8 percent of his offence in isolation this season, which leads the league by a mile. (His teammate Russell Westbrook is in second place with 25.0 percent of his offence coming in isolation). That's helped Harden score an average of 16.2 points per game in isolation, which once again leads the league by a mile. (To no surprise, Westbrook ranks second with 6.6 points per game).
Harden shoots only 40.3 percent from the field in isolation, but he ranks in the 90th percentile in efficiency with 1.12 points per possession because he relies heavily on two of the most efficient shots in basketball: 3-pointers and free throws. His step-back 3-pointer makes the short-list of most unguardable moves in NBA history and he gets to the free-throw line at a rate that few players in the league can match, drawing a shooting foul on 14.4 percent of his isolation possessions.
Harden's step-back game was vicious against the Bulls last night 🔥 pic.twitter.com/D6AoIKsV79- NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) November 10, 2019
None of this is a one-off either. Harden has led the NBA in isolation scoring in each of the last five seasons. There's a chance he's led the league in isolation scoring even longer, but the tracking data only goes back to 2015-16.
When it comes to scoring one-on-one, nobody does it like Harden.
The most efficient: James Harden and DeMar DeRozan
Technically, Rodney Hood, Gordon Hayward and Karl-Anthony Towns have been more efficient one-on-one scorers than Harden this season, but none of them generate much of their offence on those plays, so I think it's fair to say Harden has been the most efficient.
The reason DeRozan is included here is that he's only a hair behind Harden in the efficiency department. Whereas Harden is averaging 1.12 points per isolation possession this season, DeRozan is averaging 1.11, ranking him in the 90th percentile.
What makes DeRozan so interesting is the way he scores in isolation is totally different from Harden. He's never been a big 3-point shooter, but he's basically eliminated 3-pointers entirely from his game to double down on what he does best - score from midrange and get to the basket. Close to half of his field-goal attempts have been 2-point pull-ups and you have to go back to his sophomore season to find the last time he was scoring in the paint as much as he is this season.
The thing with DeRozan is it's about the 100 possessions, not the individual possession.- Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) March 25, 2020
Because on any one single possession, he CAN beat anyone.
As in: pic.twitter.com/NkVlh8TfuQ
Something DeRozan does have in common with Harden is he rarely turns the ball over in isolation and he gets to the free-throw line at will. He's drawn a shooting foul on 21.9 percent of his isolation possessions this season, ranking him fourth in the league among qualified players behind only Montrezl Harrell (26.5 percent), Spencer Dinwiddie (23.9 percent) and Jimmy Butler (23.1 percent).
We don't usually talk about drawing fouls as a skill but it absolutely is, and there aren't many players as skilled as DeRozan in that regard.
Next in line: Luka Doncic
Doncic doesn't score in nearly the same volume as Harden, but the way he scores in isolation is Harden-like.
First and foremost, Doncic has a similar shot selection. He's almost as allergic to the midrange as Harden is, resulting in a shot chart that would make Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey proud.
Secondly, Doncic shoots similar types of shots as Harden. Despite being only 21 years old, he's already taking and making the second-most step-back 3s in the league. (It's hard to tell how efficient he actually is on those shots, but it's become his go-to move). He is also one of the league's more efficient finishers in the paint and he lives at the free-throw line.
Put it all together, and Doncic's isolation numbers are eerily similar to Harden's. Again, he doesn't score in nearly the same volume, but everything else - his field goal percentage, effective field goal percentage, free throw rate, efficiency, you name it - is almost the same.
That's a scary sign considering Doncic's career is just getting started. He's positioning himself to carry the torch from Harden when that day comes.
The hardest to pin: Russell Westbrook
In a vacuum, I'm not sure Westbrook deserves to be on the short-list of best one-on-one scorers in the league, but he's almost impossible to stop in those situations in Houston's system.
We've already gone over some of the numbers - Westbrook ranks second in the league in isolation frequency (25.0 percent), second in isolation points per game (6.6) and in the 55th percentile in efficiency (0.88 points per possession). He gets to the free-throw line at a similar rate as Harden, but he's basically eliminated 3-pointers from his game to focus more on playing to his strengths as a midrange and paint scorer just like DeRozan.
Westbrook got off to a slow start this season, but he has been practically automatic from midrange recently. Whereas he made 39.9 percent of his 2-point pull-ups prior to the All-Star break, he's up to a scorching 53.7 percent in games played since. Him being able to make that shot at a high rate does wonders for his driving game because the closer defenders have to guard him, the easier it is for him to blow by them and finish strong at the rim.
That's always been the case for Westbrook, but the difference this season is he is almost always surrounded by four shooters, so when he is able to get by his defender, there are times when there is nobody at the rim to challenge him.
7 straight Rockets points from Westbrook 🔥 pic.twitter.com/On2ePfVe2T- Houston Rockets (@HoustonRockets) March 11, 2020
So has Westbrook been one of the best isolation scorers this season? Statistically speaking, yes. He's just more dependent on his environment than other players on this list, which is why he's the hardest to pin.
The scariest: LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard
I went back-and-forth between James and Leonard for this one.
On one hand, James isn't as efficient of a one-on-one scorer as he once was. He doesn't get to the basket quite as much as he used to and he settles for some tough jumpers, resulting in him ranking in the 61st percentile in isolation efficiency this season. On the other, he's still the smartest player in the league. There ultimately aren't many players who can keep him from doing what he wants on an island and if someone is open, he's going to find them.
Jrue Holiday is LeBron's latest victim!- Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) February 26, 2020
As for Leonard, if you needed a bucket in the closing seconds of a game, is there anyone you would trust more than him right now? He doesn't shoot as many 3s as Harden and Doncic, but he's perhaps the best midrange scorer in the league and he proved in the playoffs last season that he has a knack for getting to the free-throw line when everything grinds to a halt.
On the season, only 10 players have scored more points than Leonard in isolation and he ranks in the 85th percentile with 1.07 points per possession. It's incredible to think that he's become as dominant of a 1-on-1 scorer as he has when you think back about what was being said about him when he first entered the league.
Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors - Did you know that there are only four players averaging more isolation possessions per game than Siakam this season? Shocking, I know. He's around the league average in efficiency (54th percentile), but that's more impressive than it is worrying to me considering he's doubled the frequency with which he's scoring in isolation compared to last season.
Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers - Only two players are averaging more points per game in isolation than Lillard this season and he ranks in the 86th percentile with 1.08 points per possession. He's developed into one of the league's most feared one-on-one scorers, someone who is capable of scoring from anywhere on the court.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks - You might be surprised to hear that Antetokounmpo only ranks in the 51st percentile with 0.87 points per isolation possession this season, but he's a matchup nightmare with his speed, length and athleticism. Smaller players don't have the size to keep him out of the paint and bigger players don't have the foot speed to stay in front of him. Just ask Bismack Biyombo.
Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics - Last season, Tatum scored 12.8 percent of his offence in isolation and ranked in the 17th percentile with 0.63 points per possession. This season, he's generating a similar amount of his offence in isolation (15.2 percent), only he now ranks in the 73rd percentile with 0.99 percentile. His handle has improved tremendously, as has his 3-point shooting off the dribble.
Chris Paul, Oklahoma City Thunder - While Paul isn't scoring nearly as much in isolation this season as he did in his last two seasons with the Rockets, he's as complete of a scorer as there is in today's NBA. He was one of the league's best pull-up 3-point shooters in Houston and he's back to being one of the league's best pull-up midrange shooters in Oklahoma City.
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