Back in 2012, this column lamented the apparent end of the big-game era of NBA scoring. As Kobe Bryant aged, fewer and fewer players put up 50-point games.
It is my belief that 50-point games are tremendous fun for fans, whether it's Kobe or Gilbert Arenas or Willie Burton putting them up. There's a certain magic that descends upon a 50-point night, somewhat like the cycle in baseball. It's rare enough to really be special (unlike the omnipresent triple-double) but frequent enough to surprise us on a random night in January.
After Stephen Curry's latest outburst, the NBA has seen nine 50-point games by players this season. Even with six weeks left in the regular season, that's the highest total since 2009 and already tied for the fifth-highest total since 1991. Here's a chart that shows annual totals since 1964, with data coming via basketball-reference.com.
According to that chart, it looks like we're on a real upswing that could lead us to a new era of big games. But when you adjust for the size of the league, it's pretty clear that the golden era of 50-point games died long ago when the '60s ended.
The league is experiencing a similar raw number of 50-point games as the NBA did in the late 1960s. But back then, with just nine teams, there were only a total of 360 games played in an entire season. Today, there are 1,230 games in an NBA season. As such, there are currently 3.4 times as many opportunities for a 50-point game as there were from 1964 through 1967. (The NBA season was also just 80 games long until 1967 and 81 games long in the 1967 season. The league moved to the 82-game season in 1968, with lockout-induced breaks in 1999 and 2012.)
That said, the annual count of league-wide 50-point games is heavily player-driven. As we see in the 2007 explosion, it's typical that a single player in certain conditions will cause an outlier for the NBA. In 2007, that was Kobe Bryant, who accounted for 10 of the 18 50-point games that season. In those late '60s seasons, that was Wilt Chamberlain. There were exactly 50 50-point games from 1964 through 1970 and Wilt had 30 of them. Rick Barry added seven, and no other player had more than three.
There's a bit of that effect this season, though to a milder degree. Steph is the only player with multiple 50-point games this season. He has three, and six other players each have one. (One interesting note: every player with a 50-point game this year is an All-Star or is at least All-Star proximate. No Terrence Ross specials so far this season.) Of course, Curry is having one of the greatest scoring seasons of all time, so the fact he has only three 50-point nights speaks to the depressed big-game frequency of the modern era.
The rise of the three-pointer as a dominant offensive weapon would theoretically fuel an increase in 50-point games, and that has been a major factor in most of this season's big nights. Steph is averaging better than nine made threes in his 50-point games, Damian Lillard hit nine in his, and Kemba Walker and James Harden each hit six in their 50-point games. Only Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins largely eschewed the three-point line.
But there's a counterweight here: rest. Wilt averaged upwards of 45 minutes per game. Steph is under 34. In addition to that, teams in the '60s played at a faster pace than even the Warriors do now. So Wilt, an all-time great who was clearly the most dominant scorer of his era and perhaps ever, had much more opportunity to rack up wild point totals. We should also credit Wilt's singular greatness in questioning whether there would have been many more 50-point games had there been 30 teams back in the '60s. After all, Wilt was the only guy scoring 50 regularly. He wouldn't get more games. Who's to say 900 more games featuring non-Wilt players would have added many, if any 50-point games?
So we haven't necessarily come upon a new golden era of 50-point games. But the three-pointer opens up the threat to more players, and allows the best shooters, like Steph, to threaten or exceed the threshold more frequently. If nothing else, those of us who love gaudy scoring numbers have that.
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