First things first, I know LeBron James fans are going to think I’m only saying this because LeBron currently leads the scoring race, but that’s just not the case. I don’t hate LeBron. He’s the GOAT in my eyes. He’s still one of the best players in the league, and what he’s been able to do at 37 is nothing short of remarkable. That being said, he shouldn’t win the NBA scoring title this year. Yes, he leads the league in points per game and I understand that PPG has been the determining factor in the NBA’s scoring race forever, but as basketball has changed, so must its traditions and values.
Now, you’re probably assuming that I’m going to say Trae Young should win the scoring title because he currently leads the league in total points scored. After all, that would be the easiest way to get the LeBron stans off my back. I could just say “Yeah, LeBron shouldn’t win it this year, but he should’ve won it in 2018 when he played all 82 games and scored 60 more points than James Harden.” But no.
It would be easy to compare basketball to other sports like football and baseball and say “We don’t give the touchdown crown or home run title to the player with the most per game, do we?” But basketball is a little more complicated than either of those sports when it comes to statistical leaders. Where a good baseball player will likely play the entirety of every game they take the field for and a good quarterback will likely play every offensive down for their team during the season, an elite basketball player will usually play less than three-quarters of every game. Take a look at the scoring leaders in the NBA right now. LeBron averages 37.2 minutes per game. Aside from him though, there are only four other players in the top-20 that average more than 36 minutes played per game. Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo plays only 32.8 minutes per game, almost four minutes fewer than LeBron. Still, Giannis is second in the league in points per game. Why isn’t that talked about more?
I understand the main argument for keeping the scoring title as is: “It shouldn’t be an award based on health.” And I agree for the most part. Minor injuries shouldn’t derail a players’ chances at winning a scoring title. However, that argument fails to take into account the flaws that the PPG statistic brings to the table. If a player gets injured in the first five minutes of a game and is forced to sit out the remainder of the contest, that game still counts against his average.
What about a player like Golden State’s Klay Thompson, who was put on a minutes limit after he returned from injury this season? He’s averaging his fewest points per game since 2014. He’s also playing his fewest minutes per game since his rookie season. Is he playing poorly? No. In fact, despite not having played in either of the last two seasons, Thompson is averaging more points per 36 minutes in 2022 (23.3) than he did in 2018 (21.0) or 2019 (22.8). In all fairness, his field goal percentage, three-point field goal percentage, and effective field goal percentage are all down from where they were prior to his injury, but that’s not important. The point is that Thompson’s base stat of 18.7 points per game is not indicative of how prolific a scorer he’s been.
It’s not Thompson’s fault that his coaches want to play it safe with his injury, just as it’s not LeBron’s fault that he got hurt and was forced to miss eight straight games in November. It’s also not Antetokounmpo’s fault that his coach forces him to sit out for so many minutes a game and routinely forces him to take nights off. Giannis has even said in the past that he doesn’t like how Mike Budenholzer handles his load management. Giannis wants to play. He wants to score, but he can’t do it as often as he likes because of the system he’s in. Still, several fans consistently punish him for not being able to put up as many points per game as his competitors, who get to play four or five more minutes per game than him.
Of course, if the NBA scoring title were to be determined by a player’s stats per 36 minutes played, there would have to be a qualifying number of minutes played. Right now, a player has to play in at least 58 games in order to qualify for the scoring title, so I don’t think this would be that huge an ask. We could put the cutoff at say 2000 minutes, which would be equivalent to a player playing about 35.1 minutes per game in at least 57 games. That seems fair, no? If that were the case, Memphis’s Ja Morant probably won’t reach that threshold by the end of the season, but he’d be the only casualty. It’s not a perfect system, but I literally just thought of this idea an hour ago. Please excuse me for not having it totally fleshed out.
I’ve never thought that total points scored or points per game was a proper way of determining the league’s best scorer in a given year. I don’t think that my “per 36 minutes” suggestion would be a perfect alternative either. While basing the scoring title off “per 36 minutes” statistics would theoretically encourage players to go all-out more often (since they would not have to fear losing the scoring title due to having to rest on the bench), it may also encourage players to sit out the late stages of blowouts, as whichever team is winning would likely try to just run the clock out — not giving either team much of a chance to score at all. We’ve had former players say that NBA stars do change the way they play when contract incentives are on the line. It stands to reason that arbitrary titles like “NBA scoring leader” would also influence a player’s style of play, so there would definitely be some bad implications with my alternative. I’m not saying it’s perfect, but let’s not pretend that determining the scoring leader based on points per game is perfect either.