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Scoring 50 in the NBA – Everything you need to know

We (and yes, I am including you) have been starving for the NBA to come back, willing it to take any form. Straight to the playoffs, group play, 72-game season, whatever, bring it back now. We will take it. The quality of play may be questionable, but let’s not pretend that the NBA’s worst is something people won’t watch. Their worst is 1,000x better than having nothing (and much better than the very best pickup game at your YMCA). Bring on the out of shape stars. I wanna see them struggle. Everyone is on an equal playing field. C’mon DISNEYLAND!

Now, the three point line is one of the most interesting strategies and rule changes to the NBA. Since it’s inception in 1979 it has gone from a seldom used shot to a cornerstone of players games and teams offensive play. I have been wondering how it has affected players scoring the ball and more specifically if it has been more impactful in them “going off”… like going for 50 points or more. I mean, 50 points seems otherworldly. Shoot, 40 is, but you gotta draw a line somewhere.

But then, for me, it became more about just scoring 50 points in game…Does it help your team? Who has done it the most (I will give you one guess and if you say MJ you don’t know about the history of ball)? Has it had a significant impact on the number of players that have scored 50 points or more? How do you get there? What does it take? Who all can do it? I am going to try to answer some of those questions. Or at least some of them.

Wilt Chamberlain

The 50+ mark has been hit 544 times or there has been 544 games where a player hit 50+, and it has been done by only 145 players, 83 of which only did it just one time. Wilt hit 50 or more 122 times (all of the stats include regular and playoff games). About 22% of all the times someone hit 50 or more, it was Wilt. Again, over 57% of those players never got to 50 again. Wilt is simply insane. He is the anomaly. The 80/20 shows that 80% of the players do it 3x’s or less, 20% go 4x’s or more. The next closest to Wilt was MJ with 39 times.

  • Players who hit 50+ 10 or more times
    • Wilt – 122
    • MJ – 39
    • Kobe – 26
    • Elgin Baylor – 18
    • James Harden – 18
    • Rick Barry – 15
    • Allen Iverson – 14
    • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – 10

Wilt’s 1961-1962 season is unbelievable. He averaged over 50 pts a game that season, hit 50+ points 43 times, and scored the century mark in Hersey, PA. The previous season, 1960-1961, was impressive as well, he hit 50 or more 29 times (Kobe hit is 26 times his whole career). What is even more wild is that Wilt wasn’t a great free throw shooter. In these games he was just under 60% from the line. However, in his 100 point game he made 87% and had 28 points from the line.

Wilt just gets buckets

I knew Wilt could score, but when I complied the data it became overwhelming at how many times his name came up. Right player at the right time? I don’t know, but the dude was an absolute unit.

Does it help the team?

Yes, teams win about 70% of the time when a player goes for 50+. Below I provide the Win / Loss for All Time, since 1979 (when the 3-point line was introduced), and since 2000. I also put in Wilt and exclude Wilt.

  • All Time: 397 wins / 147 losses = ~73% win pct.
  • Since 1979: 215/86 = 71%
  • Since 2000 128/55 = 70%
  • Wilt: 85/37 = ~70%
  • All Time, excluding Wilt: 312/110 = ~74%

Changes over time

As stated above, hitting 50+ belongs to a select few players (145). Below is the breakdown of the total number of unique players to hit that mark in each decade. What this does include is if a player hit it in one decade and again in the next – e.g. Kobe. He hit 50+ in the 2000’s and then again in the 2010’s. He is counted once in 00’s and once in 10’s.

What you will see is that as the game matured more and more players were able to reach the 50+ mark. This is likely a result of offenses improving in scoring and rule changes. From the 60’s to the 70’s nine more players hit 50+. That is pretty remarkable. And then again, the jump from the 90’s to the 00’s was 9 players.

This becomes even more evident when you exclude Wilt from the data. The 60’s are disproportionately represented by Wilt. In the below chart you can see the total number of games where a player hit 50+ per decade. Without Wilt’s 122 in the 60’s it shows a gradual growth. Then it absolutely explodes in the 00’s and 10’s accounting for over 40% of all games. (With Wilt plugged into the equation those decades are above 33% and edge out Wilt who accounts for 30% of all games. Insane.) What that means is the 50+ game became more reachable to players. That happened for a variety of reason, some will be covered below.

Another way to see this is the total number of games by a player per era or decade. For example, Damian Lillard scored his first 50+ in 2016 or the 10’s era. His count would start in that era and continue on just for that era. Again, the charts are very similar and illustrative of the increased number of players and total games.

Another interesting phenomenon is the evolution of the position or how each position category has contributed to the 50+ total. Basketball-Reference categorizes each player into seven positions in their database – Center, Center-Froward, Forward-Center, Forward, Forward-Guard, Guard-Forward, and Guard. Recently there have been arguments that the traditional position of 1 thru 5 doesn’t make sense in today’s game – that it is position-less. More and more big men handle the ball (not you Kendrick), but that doesn’t take away from the fact that KD is more of guard than Anthony Davis is. Everyone still plays a role and you can see that play out during games. Regardless, I grouped the positions into two buckets (using my business terms and going for the pun!), Bigs vs Smalls, which makes it easier to see this change in scoring. The groups are as follows: Bigs = Center, Center-Forward, Forward-Center, Forward. Smalls = Guard, Guard-Forward, Forward-Guard.

Below is the summary of how these positions make up the percentage of games. As you can see, smalls have always had the edge on getting these games. These numbers are obviously impacted by Wilt.

  • All Time % of Games – Bigs / Smalls = 34% / 66%
  • Before 1979 % of Games – Bigs / Smalls = 80%/20%
  • Before 1979 % of Games excl. Wilt – Big / Smalls = 59% / 41%
  • From 1979 % of Games – Bigs / Smalls = 25% / 75%
  • From 2000 % of Games – Bigs / Smalls = 13% / 87%

The change is very dramatic from 1979 and on. You saw an even split and then a massive change to smalls getting 50+. Smalls getting more buckets would make sense, regardless of the era. While big men have always been important, they didn’t automatically have the ball in their hands. Guards find themselves bringing up the ball, on fast breaks, and on the wings – which is easier to pass to and harder to double team.

Part of the evolution is the three pointer. When a player hits 50+ the three-pointer has had a noticeable impact on the composition of the box score. But first, no matter the era or the player, about 20-25% of the points come from the charity stripe. It’s foundational to making it to 50 and beyond. Below shows the total percentage of points scored at the free throw line for the 50+ games per year. I excluded the 50’s era as Bob Cousy game in 1953 (the only game where someone hit 50+) screwed this chart up completely; 30 of his 50 points came at the line. However, the free throw line is a staple to making 50+.

In the second chart above, you can see the explosion of the three pointer in the mid 90’s and then again in the mid 10’s. The peak in the 90’s was 1995. Three of the five games, to have a player go 50 or more, was Glen Rice, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, and Dana Barros; they had 6 or made threes of their games. From 2012 and on, the three pointer has been over 34% of the points scored.

Players play baby. I gotta highlight some players that had some nuggets of goodness.

  • Elgin Baylor: Currently 4th on the list all time with most number of games 50+ with 18 games. He’s sure to be pasted by James Harden soon, but the dude leads all players with 5.30 pts per minute. Next closest in the top 10 is Rick Barry with 1.39.
  • Rick Barry: Dude only had about 21% of his points at the charity stripe and had 15 games of 50+ or more. Played before the three point line and won 93% of these games. He was king of the 70’s, beating out Kareem (10 games), Pistol Pete (6), and George Gervin (5).
  • James Harden: Haters gunna hate, but the dude can ball. As suspected, he gets almost 30% of his his points from the free throw line and over 35% of his points from the three point line.
  • Damian Lillard: Has six games of 50+, with 21% of points coming from the free throw line and 43% of his points at the three pointer.
  • Steph Curry: Also has six games of 50+ but relies almost completely on the three. His free throws account for just under 13% of points, while his three makes up almost 59% of his points.
  • 100% winners: Of the players that had five or more games to score 50+, just three players never lost. Bob Pettit (7), Pete Maravich (6), and Karl Malone (5).

2 thoughts on “Scoring 50 in the NBA – Everything you need to know”

  1. Very interesting and well written. Curious if you think the big/small % of 50+ will ever plateau and start to move back towards bigs after nearly 10/90 current splits.

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