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NBA's top scorers: Who is most consistent?

Posted on: January 13, 2011 2:00 pm
Edited on: January 13, 2011 5:15 pm
An analysis of the NBA's top 20 scorers, with a look at which players are the most consistent. Posted by Ben Golliver. kevin-durant-score

Scoring in volume has long been appreciated in the NBA. Wilt Chamberlain's 100 points; Kobe Bryant's 81; Michael Jordan's 63 points in the playoffs against the Celtics. Each of these scoring outbursts and countless others are front and center in NBA lore.

In recent years, scoring efficiently has been all the rage, with emphasis placed on players that shoot well from the field, get to the free throw line and don't require tons of shots to get their points. Players like Carmelo Anthony and Monta Ellis have drawn some criticism for their (relatively) inefficient chucking, while Chris Paul, LeBron James and Dwight Howard have received praise for their overall offensive efficiency.

But one critical aspect of scoring has been generally overlooked: consistency. Basketball coaches at every level are endlessly frustrated by players that don't bring it every night, and the NBA is no exception. Even among the NBA's elite scorers there can be a vast inconsistency in their output from night to night. 

Case in point: Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade, currently the NBA's No. 6 scorer at 25.1 points per game, scored 17 points, 11 points and 3 points in a three-game stretch in November. A little more than a month later, Wade exploded for 40 points, 45 points and 25 points in a different three-game stretch. In all six games, Wade played at least 36 minutes and took at least 13 shots. Imagine how difficult those inconsistent results are for Miami Heat coach Eric Spoelstra to plan around.

Keep in mind: Wade is one of the league's most consistent and voluminous scorers, and he would never be able to average 25 points per game if he wasn't. The inconsistency headaches for coaches only increase as you move down the depth chart or into a team's bench. Of course, there are plenty of reasons to explain scoring inconsistency: specific defensive match-ups, an opponent's defensive gameplan, nagging injuries, streaky shooting, foul trouble, the list goes on and on. 

With that said, some players are going to be more consistent than others. And that consistency would seem to be valued by coaches. So let's ask and answer an interesting question: Of the league's top scorers, who truly represents the cream of the crop? Who brings it the most consistently on a night-in, night-out basis?
Let's take a look.

Scoring Consistency

Perhaps the cleanest way to calculate a player's scoring consistency is to use his game log to calculate his average scoring variance. This reflects how far from his scoring average he is on any give night. This sounds complicated, but it's really not. 

For example, let's say I average 30 points. My two scoring totals were 20 points and 40 points. The average difference from each of those points to the average (40 minus 30 and 30 minus 20) is 10. Now, let's say I average 30 points but I scored 31 points one night and 29 points the next. The average difference between those points and the average (31-30 and 30-29) is 1. Obviously, I would be scoring more consistently in the second example, when my average variance is 1, rather than the first example, when my average variance is 10.

To further emphasize consistency, simply divide that average variance by the player's points per game. This gives a percentage between 0% and 100%. 0% is perfectly consistent, while 100% is completely inconsistent. In the first example, my percentage would be 33% (10/30). In the second example, my percentage would be 3.3% (1/30). We'll refer to that percentage as a player's Shake. The lower the Shake, the more consistent the player's scoring.

When you analyze the league's top scorers or No. 1 scoring options, almost all of them fall between 20% and 30% on this Shake scale. In other words, they won't always produce totally consistently, but they will produce within a fairly narrow range.  If you move to reserve players, that number usually falls to 40% to 50%, a reflection of changing minutes and a generally lower talent level. If you move to the deep, deep bench players, a 60%+ isn't totally uncommon. 

The League's Best Scorers, By Consistency

In this analysis, Shake was calculated for each of the NBA's top 20 scorers in games played through Tuesday, Jan. 12. 

When we look at a scatterplot of the league's elite scorers in terms of their consistency, a few interesting pieces jump out. (Click here for the full-size version .) On this chart, the X-axis refers to points per game. The further to the right you go, the more a player scorers. The Y-axis represents scoring consistency: the lower you go, the more consistent a player is, the higher you go, the more inconsistent a player is. The best place to be on this chart is the lower right hand corner and its vicinity. Conversely, the worst place to be on this chart is the upper left hand corner and its vicinity.


First, Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant is absolutely in a class by himself. He's the league's best scorer, in terms of both volume and consistency, by leaps and bounds. Last year, Durant made headlines for his insane streak of 25+ points in a game and his consistency is off the charts again this year. His rating (13.68%) blows away the next closest player, the Los Angeles Clippers' Eric Gordon (20.4%).

Gordon is probably the biggest surprise in the top 20, as he's the league's No. 10 scorer but it's No. 2 most consistent scorer. Both Gordon and Durant succeed at an often-overlooked aspect of the game: getting to and converting from the free throw line. Whether Gordon will be able to maintain this scoring consistency through the rest of the season is an open question, but Durant is a shoo-in to retain his crown as the league's most consistent scorer.

Also interesting: compare LeBron James and Dwyane Wade of the Miami Heat. Both players score virtually the same number of points (James averages 25.4 points while Wade averages 25.1 points) but they do so with a meaningfully different amount of consistency (James is at 21.9% while Wade is at 28.3%). James' consistency is super-elite while Wade's is merely very, very, very good. If you're looking to make the case that James is now the alpha dog in Miami, these numbers help support that. Regardless of whether Wade is hot or cold, James is getting his numbers. It's worth noting that Wade did start the season slowly and his consistency may improve as the season continues. 

Next, you'll see that players who have drawn the "inefficient volume shooter" label, guys like Carmelo Anthony and Monta Ellis, don't fare so well when it comes to consistency. This shouldn't come as a surprise, as the 3-17 nights that draw their fans' ire will obviously increase their inconsistency rating. But, Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, who is often criticized for calling his own number and breaking out of his team's offense, rates as the league's No. 3 most consistent scorer. It's an especially impressive achievement at 32 years old, as Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki is the only other player in the top 10 for consistency that's over 30 years of age. 

Finally, as if you needed another reason to drool over Los Angeles Clippers rookie forward Blake Griffin, here you go. As the only rookie in the league's top 20 in scoring, Griffin also finds himself as the 13th most consistent player in the group (26.3%). In other words, he's coming by all those points honestly, and he's doing it on a night-in, night-out basis like few rookies in the recent past. It's possible that in a few years, should his 60% free throw shooting improve dramatically, Griffin could move into the league's top five most consistent scorers.

Full Rankings

In case you're interested, here are the full rankings for the top 20 NBA scorers in terms of their consistency.



Since: Apr 4, 2011
Posted on: April 4, 2011 1:05 pm

NBA's top scorers: Who is most consistent?

If I remember correctly I think that Kobe was guarding him the last time they played and Lebron was guarding him the last time they played the heat???

Since: Feb 26, 2008
Posted on: January 19, 2011 6:40 pm

NBA's top scorers: Who is most consistent?

Portland Blazies shudder to think they shouldve drafted him #1

Since: Jan 17, 2011
Posted on: January 17, 2011 1:29 pm

NBA's top scorers: Who is most consistent?

Not that I especially like this article in particular. But to be fair, the writer is talking mainly about consistency. For this season, KD has two 16 point game and one 18, every other games range from 23 points to 44 points at a 48% FG and 88% FT. That's pretty darn consistent.

Since: Sep 11, 2006
Posted on: January 16, 2011 3:54 pm

Plenty of Reasons

Of course, there are plenty of reasons to explain scoring inconsistency: specific defensive match-ups, an opponent's defensive gameplan, nagging injuries, streaky shooting, foul trouble, the list goes on and on.
Another reason is quality of opponent.  This measurement system penalizes players who, shark-like, go for blood when they see a weakness in the opposition.

And it rewards Kevin Durant for maintaining his PPG, even if he is guarded by a one-armed guy in a wheel chair.

Since: Oct 14, 2010
Posted on: January 14, 2011 8:25 pm

NBA's top scorers: Who is most consistent?

As a Kevin Durant fan, fellow alum, and a guy who likes stats, my thanks to Ben Golliver for one of the STUPIDEST posts in the history of CBS Sports.  All you have "proven" is that the OKC offense likely calls for Durant to shoot every night and he is able to dictate much of how he does.  I dislike Kobe, LeBron, with a passion, but in watching their teams they have a different plan than the Thunder.  The Heat like to share the star role.  These teams "rest" their stars by changing their role week to week, game to game. OKC is glad to have Westbrook pour in 30 on occasion, fine.  But the premise of this article makes me think the author would be better off measuring a junior high girl's gossip quotient.

Since: Aug 22, 2006
Posted on: January 14, 2011 4:01 pm

NBA's top scorers: Who is most consistent?

The only thing I would like to see added to this consistancy roster is factoring in shots per game.  And this may actually hurt Kobe Bryant and I am a fan of his.  But on some night he may shoot close to 30 shots and others he may shoot 15 and still end up with the same score.  Therefore his consistancy numbers are skewed and i realize that this was based off points per night, but coaches look more at FG% per night than score.  Because as a guy has to shoot more to get his 25 points it lowers everyone else's opportunities on the team and therefore effecting the rest of the team and the consistancy they bring. 

It is nice to see both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in the top 12 in both categories and that would attest to both of their scoring efficiency.  But Yes I as well see much more that can be built from this.  It is a good base to start with but much more effort needs to be put into this to determine true consistency.  Please work on more indepth and than you can have a chart that shows scoring consistancy, scoring percent consistency and than true consistency.  Even adding in a touches per drive and contributing to scoring percentage could go into it as well.  So someone like Lebron James who touches it on almost every possession and Russell Westbrook who touches it on every possession would get different factors added in as compared to Dwight Howard who may only touch the ball on around 50% of possessions he is on the floor.  Good luck if you plan on going that route and being truely noted for creating something worth evaluating a player.

Since: Aug 27, 2006
Posted on: January 14, 2011 10:37 am

NBA's top scorers: Who is most consistent?


There are so many holes in that criticism I found it, too, to be uninteresting. If a team is up by 20 at halftime, their stars have usually had a pretty good night already. And even if they are up by 20, their stars will play another quarter at least.

BTW, Durant's FG% is 46%, which puts him in the top third of the league - up there with a bunch of low post players (Duncan, I thkn, it at 40%). Higher than Kobe, BTW (45%).

It's not his rookie year when he was closer to 40%. Feel free to check before you post.

Since: Nov 27, 2006
Posted on: January 14, 2011 10:37 am

NBA's top scorers: Who is most consistent?

Everythings a factor,,, naturally inside players,,, No single statistic defines greatness, interesting though.  Power forwards and centers will lead shooting percentage,, they have since the game was invented and always will, some possitions go hand in hand with a set of statistics.  I agree that each team is different right down to the team personell and what offense they run,, however, no one can say KD is the only star on the OKC Thunder.  Westbrook is on that list too, and they have several players that get their 10 to 15 per night.  I think that the Heat and the Thunder were the only 2 teams with 2 players on that list,, could be wrong though.  I like our upside more than a lot of other teams, not to mention our avarage age is a month and a half away from being the youngest team in the league,,, get used to us cause we are going to stay awhile.

Since: Jan 14, 2011
Posted on: January 14, 2011 10:13 am

NBA's top scorers: Who is most consistent?

What about a "good" type of consistency? Or is it just that any consistency makes it hard for a coach to plan?
For example:
Let's take a player who scores 20 points 3/4 of the time but throws up 40 once every 4 games. His ppg would be 25, and his "shake" would be 30%. 
This is a pretty high "shake," but this type of inconsistency doesn't seem altogether bad. It seems like a coach would be more worried about a player (Beasley?) who has a decent scoring average but can have games where he scores in the single digits than a player (Kevin Love?) who has a similar scoring average but can have games where he doubles that scoring total. 

Since: May 9, 2010
Posted on: January 14, 2011 3:23 am

NBA's top scorers: Who is most consistent?

Kobalt could score 40 every game if he wanted to.

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