In the NBA, there’s a certain class of scorer who puts up monumental counting stats but isn’t actually any good.
You know the type. The guy who scores 30 points on 30 shots while his team loses by 20. The guy who’s as likely to shoot you out of a game as into it—as Pacers GM Kevin Pritchard once said of Lance Stephenson, “some nights he was the best player on our team and other nights he was the best player on the other team.” Guys like Josh Smith, Allen Iverson, and Jerry Stackhouse in the old days and guys like Donovan Mitchell and Devin Booker now.
But the funny thing about high-volume shooters is that they leave a whole lot of clues lying around as to just whether their chucking is really killing their teams, and it’s that big pile of data I’m going to chew through today in order to determine, much like we did with triple-doubles earlier this week, whether the high-volume scorer really is a net liability when they have too many bad games.
I’ll define a bad game like this:
20 or more field goal attempts and fewer points than FGA. Because if you’re making up for your inefficient pure shooting by making a bunch of threes or getting to the free throw line, that’s not actually having a bad game—consider James Harden and Kevin Durant for the prime examples of guys who are so good at scoring in ways other than pure shotmaking that they rarely have one of these kinds of bad game.
Then it’s just down to comparing the team’s performance in games where one guy takes too many shots and makes a mess of things as opposed to other games by the same team where the player doesn’t shoot them out of the ballgame.
Sounds simple because it is simple, and as with the triple-doubles, if a team isn’t mentioned, that just means they never had one of these kinds of game.
And we’re off and running, as the Hawks establish a baseline where when a high-usage player stunk out the joint efficiency-wise, they lost all three times.
The Celtics lost all five games where Irving took on too much of the scoring load and didn’t score. They won the Tatum game, against Dallas at home on January 4.
Curiously, considering the Celtics’ 2019 playoff second-round opponent, two of the losses in Kyrie stinkers were against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Russell had one of the worst stinkers on this whole list, a game where he shot the ball 31 times but scored only 30 points and the Nets lost at home to Cleveland 99-97. Russell shot just one free throw…and missed it. It was a classic Russell Game in a lot of ways, where he puts up big numbers while hurting his team, and Brooklyn’s 2-8 record in these low-efficiency stinkers leaves serious question whether Russell’s gunning makes him overrated by people who only count points without context.
Ten games in which Walker (2-5) and Lamb (1-2) tried to do too much, and Charlotte missed the playoffs largely because they finished four games under .500.
Things that make you go “hmmm…”
A volume scorer, so far, has proven an absolute killer. There are good teams and mediocre teams in this sample whose “stars” are downright atrocious when given the ball too much.
Wow. The Bulls are downright impressive for the fact that they have not one but TWO guys who were equally adept at playing like they were secretly on the other team trying to help them win.
Nine times LaVine, Markkanen, or (in one sad outlier) Portis tried to take over the game. All nine times, the Bulls lost.
Nine times. Niiiiine tiiiiimes. How Chicago can you get?
At least nobody did it in the same game, but don’t give them any ideas for next year.
OK, you know that game I mentioned up in the Nets section where D’Angelo Russell had 30 points on 31 shots and the Nets lost?
Clarkson had 20 points on 21 shots. One of these Cleveland wins was because the other team was even more putrid than they were at the same measure of disgusting NBA futility.
I can’t be the only one who finds that hilarious. I hope the NBA puts that game (from December 3) on Hardwood Classics on NBA TV so we can all marvel at just how bad this sport can be even in an efficiency-uber-alles universe.
Dirk shows up on this list twice, and the first time, he had 30 points on 31 shots in a win over the Suns on April 9; the second time, he had 20 points on 21 shots in a loss to the Spurs on April 10.
Those were the last two games of Dirk’s career. The Suns game was his home finale.
Doncic, meanwhile, had his worst game on Nov. 19; he’s a rookie, so that’s almost to be expected.
The Basketball Gods didn’t even know what to make of Dallas this year, so the Mavs split their four games where someone had a bad one, and let’s face it; Dirk was allowed to go out firing every bullet he had left.
Four results in five games? That’s right. Murray and Jokic had a bad game by this metric…in the same game.
Denver won anyway, because their opponent that night was the Oklahoma City Thunder, who got a stinker out of Russell Westbrook (16 points on 23 shots including 1-of-12 from three) and beat themselves with very little input required by the Nuggets.
This is a good remedy for being bad. Play against a team that’s even worse than you are on that particular night.
Not all bad games are created equal. The Pistons won one of them where Drummond had 14 points on 6-of-20 shooting but also had 16 rebounds in an insane 133-132 win over Philadelphia where Griffin went for 50 points.
That might say something about Detroit’s next-man-up ethos, or it may say something about this study’s methodology where two of the wins involved Jackson scoring 19 points on 20 shots, and that’s somehow not as bad as that 16-on-23 Westbrook barfed out against Denver.
Or it’s just a blip in what’s otherwise pretty convincing data, but let’s move on.
Golden State Warriors
When one guy plays badly for Golden State, they’re often deep enough to make up for it with the other guys coming up big.
The exception seems to be Thompson. When he gets it in his head that he wants to shoot, and his shots aren’t falling, he costs his team like nobody else on the squad.
Not only were the Dubs 2-3 in the games in this sample, but Thompson also had 31 points on 31 shots in a November loss to the Clippers.
Then again, Steph had a 33-point, 33-shot performance in a loss at Orlando, so the overarching moral of the story seems to be that the Warriors stink when they don’t distribute the shots well.
Which is true of a lot of teams with volume shooters.
Bad Games: James Harden (4), Eric Gordon (3)
Record in Bad Games: 3-4 (.429)
Record in All Other Games: 50-25 (.667)
In all seven of these bad games, either Gordon or Harden shot too many threes without making them. Gordon was a combined 8-of-36 in his three stinkers (.222) and Harden was 9-of-49 (.184) in his.
Houston lives by the three and dies by the three, and in one game, Harden shot 1-of-13 from three in a loss to the Spurs where even going 10-of-13 at the line wasn’t enough to get him back to level for the game (he had 25 points on 7-of-27 shooting in that one.)
Bad Games: Victor Oladipo (4)
Record in Bad Games: 0-4 (.000)
Record in All Other Games: 48-30 (.615)
The Pacers’ commitment to a balanced offensive attack meant they only had 14 games all season (and only three by someone other than Oladipo) where someone even attempted 20 shots.
To no great surprise, four of those games were losses where Vic tried to do too much and came up short.
Pacers fans know that situation too well, and it’s one of Nate McMillan‘s bright spots that he keeps the team out of that kind of hero ball by design.
Los Angeles Clippers
Bad Games: Lou Williams (2)
Record in Bad Games: 1-1 (.500)
Record in All Other Games: 47-33 (.588)
Speaking of teams who don’t rely too heavily on volume shooters, the Clippers had 17 games where someone took at least 20 shots.
Nine of them involved Williams. The other eight involved Tobias Harris before he was traded to the 76ers. That’s what balance looks like, and to no great surprise, the Clips had the third-fewest bad games out of an individual of any team in the whole league.
Los Angeles Lakers
What, you were expecting LeBron James on this list? Fat chance. LeBron is simply not that kind of shooter.
None of these five games featured a shooter with more than 21 attempts, part of the reason the won-lost record broadly squares with the rest of the Lakers’ season. Also unsurprising should be the fact that three of these five bad games featured an injured LeBron on the sideline.
Shouldn’t be surprising that a team without a high-volume scorer doesn’t have a lot of bad games, should it? We’ve seen this before, with the Clippers, another team with just two bad games all year from an individual (and that’s Lou Williams, a guy whose damage can be limited when his shots go cold because he’s a bench scorer.)
Wade’s game was on April 10, when he had 25 points on 28 shots in the last game of his career, a loss at a Brooklyn team that still had something to play for.
Richardson just had a few stinkers where he couldn’t get shots to fall, and Waiters Island is its own NBA universe.
If there’s a lesson to be learned, it’s that sometimes a team just stinks and someone has to shoot the shots.
Milwaukee’s offense generally revolves around Giannis Antetokounmpo driving into the paint and either scoring, getting fouled, or passing to an open teammate.
Those open teammates rarely get to shoot high volumes because the ball ideally just goes to whichever shooter got left open by a help defender. It’s how Milwaukee won 60 games in the regular season.
But sometimes one guy gets the ball a lot, because Greekazoid’s hurt or because he’s the designated safety valve by defensive design, and sometimes that guy misses a lot of shots, and sometimes Milwaukee loses.
The system defines the stat, but the song remains the same. High-volume, low-efficiency shooter kills team.
Pssst…Andrew Wiggins sucks! Although your guess is as good as mine how Dieng got his name on this list…OK, it was the last day of the season, but still…Gorgui Dieng got 20 shots?
The Timberwolves are really good at being really bad, letting everyone have a turn at being trash, but nobody does it like Wiggins.
Someone get KAT off that team before he turns into garbage himself.
New Orleans Pelicans
I’m not even going to pretend the Pellies make a lick of sense. They lost at the Knicks when Holiday had a trash game, Clark’s stinker was on April 9 against his old team the Warriors, and nothing this team did after things went to crap with Anthony Davis is even worth serious analytic consideration, but here we are.
We’re almost to the O portion of the program (I am breathless), but…
New York Knicks
If this makes a lick of sense to you (one of the wins was against the Bucks), please do let me know (Twitter: @RealFoxD) because it doesn’t make much sense to me.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Yes, there was only one duplicate, and Westbrook wasn’t involved. PG13 had 20 on 8-of-21, Schroder had 19 on 8-of-21, Westbrook didn’t even play, and the Thunder lost to the Mavs 111-96 in Dallas.
But given a quarter-of-the-season sample size, we find that the Thunder, who had by far more of these games than any other team, were far worse when they shot themselves out of the contest, and while Westbrook was the worst offender, he was by no means the only offender.
The Thunder need to figure a way to more evenly distribute the shots because it’s their Achilles heel as a team.
Bad Games: Nikola Vucevic (1)
Record in Bad Games: 0-1 (.000)
Record in All Other Games: 42-39 (.519)
On January 18 against the Nets, Vucevic had 16 points on 7-of-20 shooting, taking (and making) just one free throw. The Magic lost 117-115. It was their only individual “bad game” all year.
And oh by the way Vucevic had 17 rebounds in that game, so he may have been an inefficient scorer but he wasn’t even THAT bad!
The Magic deserve some kind of award for their shot discipline.
Sometimes you have a bad game because you can’t shoot the three and have to count by twos (Simmons had 14 points on 5-of-20 from the field and zero three-point attempts.)
Sometimes you have a bad game because you shoot too many threes and they don’t go in (Redick; 20 points on 7-of-21 overall and 4-of-14 from long range.)
And sometimes you have a game where the threes fall just fine but you stink out the joint on the twos (Embiid: 19 points, 4-of-7 three-pointers, 2-of-13 two-pointers.)
The Sixers are good at variety.
There’s something to be said for being just good enough not to make this list, and Booker, for the most part, at least managed to match his FGA total on the scoreboard the bulk of the time.
Jackson just can’t shoot at all, and Oubre is one of those guys who can get himself believing he’s better than he is.
But really, a trash team lost games when they were more trash than usual. Stop the presses.
Portland Trail Blazers
When a team relies on an elite backcourt to shoot the lights out, and the backcourt does the opposite of that, they lose.
Sometimes the old joke about “you want analysis, the team with more points wins” is a bit too true.
Curiously, the Blazers had 66 instances of a player taking at least 20 shots. 63 were by Lillard or McCollum or both in the same game.
Two were Jusuf Nurkic.
The last was Anfernee Simons on the last day of the regular season.
Hield had a stretch in March where he stunk out the joint three times in about a week and a half.
The rest of the season was a mainly disciplined Kings team not relying too heavily on the cold hand; Hield or Fox would share the ball when their shots weren’t falling.
Didn’t do much for Dave Joerger’s job though.
San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs are too well coached to consistently stink out the joint, but when your two best players can’t make a three to save their lives, bad nights are going to happen.
Mills, meanwhile, was a bizarre case of Gregg Popovich doing something right (giving a shooter the green light from long range) and getting it wrong (Mills was 4-of-12 from three and ended up with 20 points on 8-of-22 overall.)
Exception that proves the rule, I suppose…
Bad Games: Kawhi Leonard (1)
Record in Bad Games: 0-1 (.000)
Record in All Other Games: 58-23 (.716)
January 31. Home loss to Milwaukee. Kawhi had 16 points on 7-of-20 shooting.
The Raptors were otherwise perfect at staying off this list.
Bad Games: Donovan Mitchell (8)
Record in Bad Games: 1-7 (.125)
Record in All Other Games: 49-25 (.662)
When Mitchell’s shot isn’t falling, he isn’t shy about forcing it. Mitchell holds the dubious honor of the most points in a bad game, when he got 32 points, took 35 shots (13-35 FG, 1-11 3PT) to get those 32 points, and the Jazz lost to the 76ers 113-107.
Mitchell is a lot like Westbrook when he’s at his worst, gunning his team clean out of games, and it’s why the Jazz were a sitting duck for the Rockets in the playoffs.
Two of Wall’s games were stinkers on the scoreboard, but they involved games where he had 18 points and 15 assists in one and 19 points and 12 assists in another.
The Wizards wrap this study up in a neat little bow, because it seems that guards are a lot more prone to these kinds of games than are forwards, especially when the guards are expected to shoulder a lot of the shooting load on bad teams.
So What Have We Learned?
Well, here are the NBA leaders in bad games in 2018-19:
Russell Westbrook (12)
D’Angelo Russell (9)
Donovan Mitchell (8)
Kemba Walker (7)
Paul George (6)
Two of those guys are on the Thunder, a team that unto itself has a reputation for playing ugly basketball that is a good chunk of the reason they got wrecked in the first round of the playoffs despite being 8:5 betting favorites.
And the other three guys are guys that casual fans think are good but who are way too prone to playing like trash for extended stretches.
And teams’ records when at least one player has a bad game: 54-120. That’s a 25-57 team over an average 82-game season.
If your team relies heavily on a volume shooter who’s prone to bad games, you’re not winning a lot of games in general, and you’re especially not winning them in April and May.
There is no greater liability than a chucker who can’t hit his shots.