Each week, NBA.com’s writers will weigh in on some of the most important topics around the league.
Through Sunday’s games, eight players are averaging more than 29.5 points per game. Who will emerge as this season’s NBA scoring champ?
STEVE ASCHBURNER: With Election Day still fresh in our minds, I’m going with a little ranked-choice voting (which is how the NBA and most leagues determine their annual awards, just not stats leaders). So I’m going with these as my Top 3:
1. Luka Doncic, Dallas
2. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City
3. Steph Curry, Golden State
Doncic has everything in place to snag his first scoring title. He currently leads (33.5 ppg through Monday) the bunch of them, the Mavericks are built around him as if his last name were Nowitzki, his field-goal attempts and usage rate are at career highs and frankly, he’s overdue to lead the league in some traditional category. Also, I’m assuming his 3-point shooting, currently at a personal low (28.8%) will regress to his mean, which could add an extra half-point to his scoring average the rest of the way.
Gilgeous-Alexander has been a meteor streaking across the NBA sky, and I think he’s legit. He likes this breakout season he’s having, and targeting a scoring crown is a great way for him to stay focused in what likely will be another long year for OKC (improved but still losing).
As for Curry, he just notched his sixth 50-point game since turning 30 (11th of his career) and no one can score in bunches like the all-time 3-point king. He already has two of these titles, but winning one at 35 years, 26 days, Curry would break Michael Jordan’s stranglehold on the Top 3 spots as the oldest scoring champ (MJ did it at 35-72, at 34-72 and at 33-72 in 1998, ’97 and ’96 respectively). That might appeal to Steph.
BRIAN MARTIN: Out of this field, my top three contenders are Luka Doncic (33.5 ppg), Stephen Curry (32.3 ppg) and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (31.1 ppg). Of this group, my predicted scoring champ is Doncic.
Curry is shooting the lights out this season: 52.9% from the field, 44.7% on 3-pointers (on 11.8 attempts) and 90.3% on free throws. He could join Hall of Famers Larry Bird and Steve Nash as the only players with multiple 50-40-90 seasons if he maintains this level of efficiency. What hurts Curry is that he has the second-lowest usage of this eight-player field (29.7%) and Golden State needs Klay Thompson and Jordan Poole to get going to get back in the playoff picture.
Gilgeous-Alexander is averaging a career-best 31.1 ppg (up 6.6 ppg from last season) and is also currently posting 50-40-90 shooting splits (although with nearly nine fewer 3-point attempts than Curry). Gilgeous-Alexander has the fifth-highest usage of this group (31.5%) and averages the second-most field goal attempts (21.3), which is 7.1 more attempts than any OKC teammate. However, all of those numbers fall below what Doncic does.
He has a combination of usage rate (37.3%, which ranks third, slightly behind Joel Embiid and Kevin Durant), field goal attempts (league-high 22.8), free throw attempts (11.4, third, slightly behind Giannis and Embiid), and lack of competition for shots (9.1 more per game than any other Maverick) that make him the lead candidate to maintain his current lead and earn his first NBA scoring title.
Doncic is not quite at 2018-19 James Harden levels in terms of usage (39,6%), shot attempts (24.5) and dominance in shot attempts over teammates (10.7) when Harden averaged 36.1 ppg, but the two are similar as the unquestioned offensive fulcrum of their respective teams.
By comparison, Durant doesn’t lead the Nets in shot attempts (Kyrie Irving does); Embiid has the aforementioned Harden and Tyrese Maxey to compete for shots; Giannis plays the fewest minutes of this group and still has Khris Middleton returning; Jayson Tatum has fellow All-Star Jaylen Brown; while Donovan Mitchell has fellow All-Star Darius Garland in the backcourt and the lowest usage of any player in this field (29.5%).
MARK MEDINA: Mavs coach Jason Kidd warned that Luka Doncic’s usage rate is so high that “he will not be human if he gets past Christmas.” Nonetheless, Dallas appears better off seeing if Doncic can show he’s a machine rather than relying on other options.
Consider the difference between Doncic’s scoring output (league-leading 33.5 ppg) to the Mavs’ other double-digit scorers (Spencer Dinwiddie’s 17.1 ppg, Christian Wood’s 16.6 ppg and Tim Hardaway Jr.’s 11.5 ppg). Doncic has elevated his teammates well enough to rank fourth in the NBA in assists (8.1) through Monday’s games. With Jalen Brunson leaving for New York last summer, however, Doncic has increased his scoring load out of necessity. That reality will both ensure that Dallas makes the playoffs and that Doncic becomes the NBA’s scoring champ.
If team dynamics did not apply, Warriors guard Stephen Curry could easily collect his third NBA scoring title. But Klay Thompson and Jordan Poole will take some of Curry’s attempts away once they make shots consistently. Warriors coach Steve Kerr will also reduce Curry’s workload, including sitting him for Monday’s game against New Orleans. Doncic also rested recently against Houston. But the Mavs don’t have the luxury to manage Doncic that way on a long-term basis.
SHAUN POWELL: Allow me to first explain who won’t be the scoring champ: Not Giannis Antetokounmpo (Shaquille O’Neal-like free throw shooter so far), or Donovan Mitchell (Darius Garland is starting to cut into his attempts), or Jayson Tatum (ditto, Jaylen Brown), or Kevin Durant (Kyrie Irving’s back in the lineup — have you heard the news?), or Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (has a chance, admittedly), or Joel Embiid (James Harden will require some shots when he gets healthy).
That leaves 2-time scoring champ Steph Curry and Luka Doncic. That’s who’ll decide this race. And it’ll come down to this fundamental question: Which one carries the heavier scoring burden for his team? While Curry is once again blistering from deep (44.7%) for the Warriors, common sense says he’ll get fewer attempts once (and assuming) Klay Thompson gets his groove back. Meanwhile, Doncic gets to the free-throw line much more, has high usage and is the core of the Mavericks’ offense. Also, I suspect Doncic has the Kia MVP award in mind (it’s his turn!) and a scoring title will increase his chances (though don’t tell that to Embiid, who finished first in scoring, second in MVP votes last year).
JOHN SCHUHMANN: First, I’ll note that, at this time last year, eventual scoring champ Joel Embiid (who had played just in just nine of his team’s 18 games) had averaged just 21.4 ppg, which ranked 22nd among players who had that many appearances. So maybe this season’s eventual leader is Anthony Edwards, De’Aaron Fox or Trae Young, and not one of these eight guys.
But if I have to choose among the eight, I’d favor Giannis Antetokounmpo, who’s averaged 30.1 ppg even though his shooting (effective field goal percentage of 53.6%) is way down from the last four seasons (59.2%). Khris Middleton will eventually make his season debut and reduce Antetokounmpo’s usage, but he’ll also help Antetokounmpo’s efficiency. (Middleton is the teammate who’s assisted Antetokounmpo most, both in regard to total assists and per minute on the floor together, over the last two seasons.) Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant also have shot a little less effectively (from the field) than they have over the past few seasons, so they should remain at or near the top of the list.
MICHAEL C. WRIGHT: Out of the eight players we’re discussing, six of them (Luka Doncic, Stephen Curry, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, and Giannis Antetokounmpo) rank among the top 10 in the NBA in field goal attempts per game with Curry sitting at 10th (20.6). Now, when you look over at usage rate, just four of them (Doncic, Embiid, Durant, and Antetokounmpo) rank in the top 10.
So, for me, the player most needed on offense for overall team success should end the season with the scoring title. In this case, that player from this vantage point is Doncic, who is currently playing a career-high in minutes (36.9) to go with the highest usage percentage (38.3) of his career. Doncic is also taking a staggering 11.4 free throws per game (another career-high), which ranks third behind Antetokounmpo and Embiid. Understandably, Dallas has become a little over-reliant on its 23-year-old superstar, a fact not lost upon Mavericks coach Jason Kidd.
Kidd has expressed concerns about Doncic’s high usage rate, as well as the fact this team lacks a third reliable ballhandler behind the point guard and veteran Spencer Dinwiddie. So, as long as Doncic can hold up physically to the rigors of this long NBA season, the scoring title is his for the taking. Shoot, Dallas needs Doncic to win it just to stay in contention if the rest of the team doesn’t eventually step up and become heavier contributors.
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