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The NBA’s One-Man Band era has arrived

The NBA’s One-Man Band era has arrived

Jalen Brunson is more than just the leading scorer in the 2024 NBA Playoffs. He is the centerpiece of the best New York Knicks team in decades and the embodiment of one of the biggest trends in the NBA of the 2020s. his past five games, Brunson has scored an impressive 210 points. You have to go back to 1993, when Michael Jordan scored 215 points in a ridiculous five-game playoff series, to find the last time an NBA player has had a more productive postseason scoring streak than this one.

That’s Peak MJ, and while some binging Knicks fans might argue that Brunson is the second coming of his levity, that’s not what’s happening here. Brunson’s flashy box scores are great by any measure, but they’re also the byproduct of one of the biggest stylistic moves in the NBA right now; today’s NBA offenses are more concentrated around perimeter stars than ever before.

In a post-Moneyball NBA, teams continue to broker sacred efficiency wherever they can find it, and recently that has meant handing the ball to your star player and letting him cook over and over again. Usage numbers for the game’s brightest stars are soaring, and you don’t have to be Neil deGrasse Tyson to understand how this amazing trend is fueling more and more “big nights” and 40-point blowouts around the association.

For better or worse, the so-called heliocentric era has arrived, and if you compare its impact to the three-point revolution that turned the NBA inside out in the 2010s, you can begin to understand how today’s best perimeter scorers are doing. some of the craziest stats this league has ever seen. In my new book, Hoop Atlas, I explored the origins and impact of heliocentric hoops in the NBA. Here’s a short excerpt from the book that connects what we see from stars like Brunson and players like Jordan and Kobe Bryant…

All images courtesy of Harper-Collins

On January 2, 2023, Donovan Mitchell, the Cavaliers’ 26-year-old all-star guard, scored 71 points in an overtime win against the Chicago Bulls in Cleveland.

Mitchell’s outburst was the most points scored by a player in the NBA since Kobe Bryant scored 81 against the Raptors on January 22, 2006.

Bryant’s legendary night came during one of his most unusual seasons. In 2005-2006, the Lakers weren’t very good. But that season, Bryant set career highs in many per-game statistics, including field goals made, field goal attempts, free throw attempts and points. He also gave the league a taste of its future.

That season, Bryant averaged a ridiculous 35.4 points per game, but he had to. The selection was meager. There was no Jack. Pau Gasol had yet to arrive in town. Faced with an unusually shallow Lakers depth chart, Bryant took matters into his own hands…a lot. By the end of the season, Bryant had attempted 2,173 shots, a whopping 350 more shots than LeBron James, who was second in the league with 1,823 shots.

The best metric to quantify Bryant’s highest-shotting season is the usage ratio, which estimates the percentage of team possessions “used” by a single player when he is on the court. Most of these “uses” are shots, but turnovers and fouls are also counted. In a completely egalitarian team environment, every player on a five-person team would have a usage rate of 20, but that’s not the world we live in, and of course some NBA players shoot the ball and use possessions much more often than others. . Usage rate is designed to measure this effect.

That year, Bryant recorded a usage percentage of 38.7, which set a new record in the NBA. Usage rate estimates date back to 1977-78, when individual turnovers became an official statistic, but no one ever got around to that figure until Bryant did it.

Only two players even came close: Michael Jordan in 1986–1987 (38.3) and Allen Iverson in 2001–2002 (37.8). What do all these players have in common? They were hyperactive perimeter scorers who loved creating their own shots all over the court.

The night he scored 81, Kobe was special usable. He used a whopping 55.3 percent of the team’s possessions when he was on the floor. He took 46 shots and 20 free throws. He only had two assists, but who cares, Toronto was hopeless against his unassisted attacks. Bryant weaved to the rim at will, scoring 26 points in the paint alone. His silky middle rangers also fell. And in a harbinger of what’s to come in professional hoops, Bryant’s big night was aided by seven 3-pointers.

The Raptors threw several defenders his way, but no matter who tried to stop Bryant, they failed. Kobe had all the answers everywhere in the scoring zone.

This masterpiece is rightly considered one of the greatest scoring performances ever, but it also set an example. While no one has scored 81 or more since that game, the league’s biggest stars are scoring more than ever and are increasingly putting up wildbox scores, in part because they’re playing more like Kobe did in his most productive season.

In an average game that season, Bryant took 27.2 shots, more than twice as many as Lamar Odom, who was second on the team with 11.6 shots per game. Phil Jackson’s offense was based on a simple strategy: just give the ball to Kobe and let him work. It sounds basic, but it was also futuristic. The Kobe Bryant of 2005-2006 was ahead of his time.

The night Donovan Mitchell scored 71, he had a usage percentage of 40.9. In the NBA, more than 60.3 percent of shots made include an assist, but on Mitchell’s career night, only four of his 22 buckets were assisted.

Eighteen of them were homemade. He converted 18 of his 27 unassisted shots and four of his 10 assisted attempts.

Mitchell’s performance was great. It was also the ultimate example of one of the definitive trends in the NBA of the 1920s: NBA offenses increasingly give their best players the basketball and make them work. And in a perimeter-oriented league, that work usually starts in the center.

That night, almost all of Mitchell’s buckets started when he was outside the three-point line. Of his 122 touches in the game, 112 occurred outside the three-point line, only two of his 22 touches started with a touch inside the arc, and one of those came when he intentionally missed his own free throw with less than five seconds left. in regulation, he got his own rebound and put the ball back himself. In almost every other case, Mitchell brought the ball up the ground himself or got his first touch through a teammate far away from the goal.

When Wilt Chamberlain scored endless points, his first touches were usually all near the cup, in the low post or off teammates’ misses, but those days are gone. If today’s superstars are over 50, they look more like Kobe than Wilt. En route to 71, Mitchell had 10 layups and two floaters. He added five stepback jumpers, three pull-up jumpers, one 3-pointer over a ball screen and one catch-and-shoot jumper.

Mitchell’s big night was a modern masterpiece. Twelve of his buckets were in the paint, and seven came from downtown. Only three of his shots came in the midrange. With Darius Garland, his teammate and fellow Cleveland backcourt guard, not playing that night, Mitchell controlled the entire chessboard for the Cavs. He scored a total of 666 dribbles, more than twice as many as any other player in the game. The Bulls had no answer to Mitchell’s combination of off-the-bounce jumpers and driving rim attacks.

In the overtime win, Mitchell played 49 minutes, 48 ​​seconds. In that time, he drove the ball 29 times, scoring 22 points, but that wasn’t all. Many of his attacks involved Bulls defenders coming to the rescue – Mitchell was swamped – and his passing that night was also flawless.

In addition to his 71 points as a scorer, Mitchell created another 28 points for Cleveland via his 11 assists. Those dimes produced six threes and five made inside shots for his teammates.

All told, Mitchell had 99 points as a scorer and creator. That’s the second-most points scored in an NBA game of all time, behind Wilt Chamberlain’s historic 100-point game in March 1962.

As a player, Mitchell represents a new movement toward hyper-use of perimeter stars in the NBA. While rushing for 71 points, Mitchell used 41 percent of Cleveland’s possessions when he was on the floor. That 40 percent usage threshold is crucial here. With more and more of the league’s top stars playing more like Kobe in 2005-2006, we’re seeing a growing number of players exceeding the usage threshold in more and more games.

It’s no secret that Kobe Bryant is one of the most respected basketball players of the 21st century. Many of the league’s best players in the 2020s cite him as their favorite hooper of all time or as a major influence on their craft. From a stylistic standpoint, Bryant’s play was clearly inspired by Jordan, who showed the hoops world that perimeter players could control games and win titles with jumpers.

Jordan was known for isolating his perimeter defenders, beating them one-on-one and scoring in their faces. The GOAT may have been the league’s first heliocentric superstar — he led the NBA in usage rate in eight of his 15 seasons — but tactically, especially when it came to the 2005-06 campaign, Bryant took it a step further.

While he won five titles between 2000 and 2010, today’s superstars looked to Bryant. After the Lakers traded Shaquille O’Neal to Miami in July 2004, Bryant became the centerpiece of the league’s most prestigious franchise for more than a decade. He combined scoring and winning like everyone else in the 2000s, and he did it all in purple and gold. He was the rock star for a new generation of young people who fell in love with basketball. Those post-Shaq, Kobe-centric seasons in LA have become a template for many of today’s top superstars.

Simply put – and I say this lovingly – ball hogs are having a moment. Today’s top individual scorers are playing more like Kobe did in 2005-06 than ever before. Like Phil Jackson, coaches are content to design simple plays that get their superstars to work over and over again. Bryant’s influence is more striking than ever.

It’s hard to overstate Kobe Bryant’s impact on players like Mitchell, Devin Booker, Jayson Tatum and others in their age group. Bryant was one of the best pure scorers the game has ever seen. As he won those five titles with the Lakers, millions of kids around the world were taking notes, and a handful of them made it to the NBA and adopted the Mamba Mentality as scorers themselves. Later in life, Bryant mentored many of the NBA’s brightest young stars. Even though he famously made his own play on Jordan, from a stylistic and cultural standpoint, Bryant was perhaps the most influential player of his generation, and we’re seeing that play out in the 2020s both on the hardwood and in the box scores. .

Kirk Goldsberry has a new book out from Harper-Collins called Hoops Atlas. He is the New York Times bestselling author of Sprawl ball and a former Grantland staff writer. He is currently a professor at the University of Texas and previously served as vice president for strategic research at the San Antonio Spurs.