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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Pro Basketball's Almost Scoring Champions

A slightly different version of this article was originally published in the January 2003 issue of Basketball Digest under the title "These Seconds Aren't Leftovers."

Karl Malone is to scoring titles what the Buffalo Bills are to Super Bowl victories. In fact, Malone has done the Bills one better. While Jim Kelly's squad lost four times in the NFL's showcase game, Malone has finished second in the NBA scoring race a record five times, trailing Michael Jordan each year.

Malone also holds the mark for most consecutive years as the runner-up (four, 1988-89--1991-92). His other turn as the bridesmaid came in 1996-97. He came closest to winning in 1991-92, losing by 2.1 ppg (28.0 ppg to Jordan's 30.1 ppg). His other losing margins range from 2.2 ppg to 3.4 ppg.

Shaquille O'Neal has lost three of the four closest scoring races since 1969-70, when the NBA began crowning scoring champions based on ppg average instead of total points. Of course, he does have two scoring titles (1994-95 and 1999-00) as consolation. He is also not above using at least one of the near-misses as a motivational tool; Shaq is still peeved about the 1993-94 scoring title, when the L.A. Clippers "held" David Robinson to 71 points in the last game of the season and the Admiral claimed his only scoring championship by .442 ppg. In 1997-98 O'Neal lost to Michael Jordan by an even smaller margin--.427 ppg--but Jordan did not perform any last day heroics to win that title. O'Neal finished second to Allen Iverson by .444 ppg in 1998-99 and 4.2 ppg in 2001-02.

The ultimate final day scoring race shootout occurred on April 9, 1978. David Thompson fired first, posting an astounding 73 points (tied for third highest scoring game ever and the best non-Wilt Chamberlain total) as his Denver Nuggets lost 139-137 to the Detroit Pistons in an afternoon game. Thompson scored a record 32 points in the first quarter and had 53 by halftime. Overall, he scorched the nets with 28-38 field goal shooting and sank 17 of his 20 free throws in 43 minutes. George Gervin's Spurs played the New Orleans Jazz at the Superdome that night and after Thompson's pyrotechnics the Iceman needed 59 points to win the scoring title. Gervin promptly broke Thompson's brand new record by scoring 33 points in the second quarter en route to matching his 53 first half points. Gervin only played 33 minutes in the entire game as the Jazz routed the Spurs 153-132, but he finished with 63 points, edging Thompson by .07 ppg in the closest scoring duel ever. Gervin hit 23 of 49 shots and he also made 17 of 20 free throws. Gervin won three more scoring titles, while Thompson's best finish after that season was fifth in 1980-81.

Rick Barry is the only player to win scoring championships in the NCAA, NBA and ABA and he and Billy Knight are the only players to finish second in scoring in both the ABA and the NBA. Barry won the NBA scoring crown in 1966-67 as a San Francisco Warrior, sat out his option year so that he could jump to the ABA and then won that league's scoring title in 1968-69 while playing for the Oakland Oaks. He followed that with three straight runners-up finishes in the ABA (1969-70--1971-72). After jumping back to the NBA's Golden State Warriors, Barry finished second to Bob McAdoo of the Buffalo Braves in the 1974-75 scoring race. In 1970-71 Barry, then playing for the New York Nets, lost out to the Kentucky Colonels' Dan Issel by .49 ppg, the tightest ABA scoring race ever and the fifth closest in pro basketball history. Barry’s other losing margins ranged from 2.3 ppg to 3.9 ppg.

Billy Knight of the Indiana Pacers lost the final ABA scoring race (1975-76) by 1.2 ppg to Julius Erving of the New York Nets, who averaged 29.3 ppg to capture his third scoring title. After the 1976-77 NBA-ABA merger Knight again finished second in scoring, this time trailing Pete Maravich of the New Orleans Jazz (31.1 ppg) by 4.5 ppg. Another notable ABA runner-up is George McGinnis, who finished second to Erving in 1972-73 and 1973-74 before winning his only scoring title the next season. McGinnis joined the Philadelphia 76ers in 1975-76 and, although he shared the scoring load with current Wizards head coach Doug Collins (20.8 ppg) and current ESPN NBA analyst Fred "Mad Dog" Carter (18.9 ppg), his 23.0 ppg ranked sixth in the NBA.

During its nine year run (1967-68--1975-76) the ABA always ranked its scoring leaders based on ppg average. However, from 1947-48 until 1968-69 the NBA determined its scoring champion based on total points scored. During that time seven scoring races were decided by less than 150 points. The closest of these saw Max Zaslofsky of the Chicago Stags edge Joe Fulks of the Philadelphia Warriors by 58 points in 1947-48. Technically, this actually occurred in the Basketball Association of America, one of the two forerunners of the NBA, but NBA records consider the final three BAA seasons (1946-47--1948-49) to be the NBA's first three years. The 1947-48 season lasted 48 games, so Zaslofsky's winning margin is equivalent to a little more than 1 ppg.

Paul Arizin of the Warriors won the next closest race of the "total points" era, beating Bob Pettit of the St. Louis Hawks by 62 points in 1956-57. The season had been lengthened to 72 games by this time, so Arizin actually won by less than 1 ppg. Interestingly, in the previous two years Arizin lost the third and fourth closest scoring battles of this period. In 1955-56 Pettit beat him by 108 points and in 1954-55 Arizin's teammate Neil Johnston won by 119 points, claiming the last of his three consecutive scoring titles. Both of those margins are roughly equal to 1.5 ppg. In 1952-53, Johnston claimed his first scoring championship by 122 points over George Mikan of the Minneapolis Lakers, who won three scoring titles in addition to leading the Lakers to five league championships.

The other two scoring races decided by less than 150 points were Mikan over Fulks by 138 points in 1948-49 and the Detroit Pistons' Dave Bing besting Elgin Baylor of the Los Angeles Lakers by 140 points in 1967-68. That was Baylor's third runner-up finish, the most in the "total points" era. Seven players managed two second-place finishes during this period (Fulks, Alex Groza of the Indianapolis Olympians, Mikan, Arizin, Jack Twyman of the Cincinnati Royals, Oscar Robertson of the Royals and Jerry West of the Lakers).

While the NBA's early years featured several close races for the scoring championship, the emergence of Wilt Chamberlain left everyone else vying for second place until he voluntarily reduced his scoring. Chamberlain captured the scoring title in each of his first seven years (1959-60--1965-66), usually by a substantial amount. In 1961-62 he won the most lopsided scoring race ever, totaling a record 4029 points (50.4 ppg) to beat rookie Walt Bellamy of the Chicago Packers (now the Washington Wizards) by a "mere" 1534 points. This differential is more than twice the size of Jordan's largest victory margin (8.1 ppg in 1986-87).

In the nine ABA and 33 NBA seasons in which scoring leaders have been ranked by ppg average there have been only seven scoring races decided by less than 1 ppg. Five of these have already been mentioned. The other two are Dominique Wilkins of the Atlanta Hawks over Alex English of the Nuggets by .53 ppg in 1985-86 (the year that Jordan was sidelined for 64 games by a broken foot), and Gervin over the San Diego Clippers' World B. Free by .79 ppg in 1978-79.

Only six players in pro basketball history have finished second in scoring at least three times. They are Karl Malone (5), Rick Barry (4), Shaquille O'Neal (4), Elgin Baylor (3), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (3) and Dominique Wilkins (3). World B. Free (2), Moses Malone (2) and Hakeem Olajuwon (2) round out the list of players with multiple second-place finishes, bringing the NBA/ABA total to 18. Nine of the 18 captured at least one scoring title (Barry, O’Neal, Jabbar, Wilkins, Fulks, Mikan, Arizin, West and McGinnis); Karl Malone, Baylor, Groza, Twyman, Robertson, Knight, Free, Moses Malone and Olajuwon failed to do so.

An old cliché states that close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. For the NBA scoring championship, close can also depend on how you count. Jerry West won his only scoring title in 1969-70, averaging 31.2 ppg in the first season that the NBA awarded the crown to the player with the best average, not the most points. That year he beat out Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor), who outscored West 2361-2309, but played in eight more games for an average of 28.8 ppg. Jabbar was not pleased to be the first player in league history to score the most points and not win the scoring title. However, he avenged this "slight" by scoring the most points and having the highest ppg average in each of the next two seasons.

Pro Basketball's Almost Scoring Champions

Most NBA/ABA 2nd Place Finishes

Player Total

Karl Malone 5
Rick Barry 4
Shaquille O'Neal 4
Elgin Baylor 3
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 3
Dominique Wilkins 3

Closest NBA Races, 1947-1969

Player/Season Margin Winner/Total Points

Joe Fulks/1948 -58 Max Zaslofsky/1007
Bob Pettit/1957 -62 Paul Arizin/1817
Paul Arizin/1956 -108 Bob Pettit/1849
Paul Arizin/1955 -119 Neil Johnston/1631
George Mikan/1953 -122 Neil Johnston/1564
Joe Fulks/1949 -138 George Mikan/1698
Elgin Baylor/1968 -140 Dave Bing/2142

Closest PPG Races--ABA, 1968-1976; NBA, 1970-2002

Player/Season Margin Winner/PPG

David Thompson/1978 .07 PPG George Gervin/27.22
S. O'Neal/1998 .427 PPG Michael Jordan/28.74
S. O'Neal/1994 .442 PPG David Robinson/29.79
S. O'Neal/1999 .444 PPG Allen Iverson/26.75
Rick Barry/1971 ABA .49 PPG Dan Issel/29.88
Alex English/1986 .53 PPG Dominique Wilkins/30.33
World B. Free/1979 .79 PPG George Gervin/29.56

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:54 AM



At Wednesday, November 11, 2009 9:29:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

its amazing that malone averaged over 20 for 17 years straight. hes a testament to what hard work does in the nba. coming into the league he was not a good mid range shooter from the line or the field. he improved tremendously.

did you purchase or read any of these basketball books that have been released the past few months?
the dr j you commented on already and the bird and magic. any interest in ballards book, or simmons, or the john wooden book?

At Wednesday, November 11, 2009 3:23:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I have not purchased any of those books and I do not plan to purchase any of them. I read the Bird/Magic book, I glanced at Simmons' book and I have not yet seen the Ballard or Wooden books.

At Thursday, November 12, 2009 1:52:00 PM, Blogger madnice said...

o ok. i will get the bird book and i glanced at simmons book. a lot of garbage.


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