Thursday marks the 55th anniversary of Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game, the single most unbreakable record in sports. So here’s a simple question that is actually complicated: Which NBA player today could hit that mark? Let’s answer that, but let’s work in reverse order. Rather than just walk through some potentials, let’s start with a group of players, add in some prerequisites that’d be needed to score 100 points, then remove any players from the group who don’t meet said prerequisites. We do that until there’s only one player left, and bang: That’s how you figure out the answer.
First, an aside: Part of the reason why Chamberlain was (and is) so fascinating is because he seemed to exist between realms, the center point of a Venn diagram for Unbelievable Stats That Are Actually True and Unbelievable Stories That Definitely (Probably) Aren’t True. And his unbelievable stats that are actually true are so unbelievable that they make the stories about him that are definitely not true feel like, whoa, wait a second, they might actually be true.
For example, consider this: There have been 30 games in Warriors franchise history when a Dubs player has scored 60 or more points. Joe Fulks did it once (in 1949, when the Philadelphia Warriors were in the BAA). Rick Barry has one (1974). Klay Thompson has one (2016). And Wilt Chamberlain has the other 27. This is an unbelievable stat that’s actually true.
Now consider this: In a documentary about Chamberlain, former player Cal Ramsey told a story about asking Wilt about some mysterious scars on his arms. Chamberlain told him he had been traveling across the country and stopped for a break. During the break, he said he was not only attacked by a mountain lion, but that he killed that mountain lion with his bare hands. This, of course, was definitely untrue, except here’s the thing about Wilt: Maybe it wasn’t untrue, because if Wilt could score 60 points in a game 27 times (32, if you count his time with other teams), who’s to say he couldn’t kill a mountain lion with his hands once? How many 60-point games do mountain lions have? Zero, is my guess.
Wilt was incredible, is my point. To get back to my original point, though, or my original question, anyway:
Of all of the players in the NBA, these are the 20 who, at least at a glance, have an outside-to-decent chance of hitting 100 points in a game:
- Kevin Durant
- Steph Curry
- DeMar DeRozan (Get ready for 50 18-foot jumpers.)
- DeMarcus Cousins
- Isaiah Thomas
- Anthony Davis
- Russell Westbrook
- Kristaps Porzingis (He’s only 41st in the league in scoring right now, but he’s got some magic in him, so I want to at least get him mentioned in this initial list.)
- LeBron James
- James Harden
- Karl-Anthony Towns
- Klay Thompson
- Kawhi Leonard
- Carmelo Anthony
- Damian Lillard
- Andrew Wiggins
- Giannis Antetokounmpo
- Dion Waiters (How excellent would this be?)
- Jimmy Butler
- Kyrie Irving
Let’s go through all the pieces.
Prerequisite 1: If an NBA player is going to score 100 points in a game, he’s going to have to be a specific kind of selfish.
You know who we lose here? We lose LeBron, which is crazy because when’s the last time LeBron was ever cut first from anything? But think on it like this: LeBron absolutely has the skill set needed to put up 100. He’s big, he’s strong, he’s durable, he can get devastatingly hot, he can play long minutes and then do incredible things at the end of those long minutes. He’s all those things. Definitely. But he’s also profoundly aware of the history of the game, and of the way that it will eventually remember him. Which is why I think he’d care more about not breaking this record than breaking it.
What I mean is: Let’s say LeBron just really has it going one game. Everything is falling for him. He puts up something like 26 in the first quarter, 25 in the second, then, just to see what the universe is offering him that night, he really lets it go in the third and puts up 29. That’d put him at 80 through three quarters. And he’d for sure go out in the fourth and get a quick bucket to put him past Kobe, because him and Kobe have always been linked together and LeBron would definitely want to beat him.
But if he got to 85, then 92, then 99, and let’s say he had that 99 and it was still a semi-close game and he had the ball in the final minute and was driving into the lane, I think he would absolutely and on purpose pass the ball out to a shooter for an open jumper, if only because he’d fucking love the idea of saying something like, “To me, making the right basketball play is always the most important thing,” after the game. LeBron would definitely do some shit like that. That’s just who LeBron is, and how LeBron is.
So he’s out.
Players remaining: Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, DeMar DeRozan, DeMarcus Cousins, Isaiah Thomas, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, Kristaps Porzingis, James Harden, Karl-Anthony Towns, Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, Carmelo Anthony, Damian Lillard, Andrew Wiggins, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Dion Waiters, Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving
Prerequisite 2: If an NBA player is going to score 100 points in a game, he needs to have scored at least 48 points once in an NBA game.
We need a history of flame-throwing as proof of concept. It just seems extra unlikely that someone who’s never gone nuts in a game before is going to suddenly become unstoppable, you know what I’m saying? So with this benchmark in place, we lose DeRozan (43 is his career high), Porzingis (35), Towns (47), Kawhi (41), Wiggins (47), Giannis (41) and Dion (33).
Players remaining: Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, DeMarcus Cousins, Isaiah Thomas, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Klay Thompson, Carmelo Anthony, Damian Lillard, Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving
Prerequisite 3: If an NBA player is going to score 100 points in a game, he needs to either (a) be on a team where he isn’t the only offensive threat, or (b) be an astounding facilitator, so as to make it too dangerous to just send double-team after double-team at him.
A thing that rarely gets mentioned when people talk about Wilt’s 100-point game is that he had five big things leaning in his favor: (1) The team he was playing against (the Knicks) was terrible (they ended the season at 29–51, tied for second worst in the league, which makes them comparable to that year’s version of this year’s Lakers). (2) The Knicks were missing Phil Jordon, their starting center (he was out with flulike symptoms, though according to this Los Angeles Times story, he was actually out with a hangover). (3) Their backup center, Darrall Imhoff, played only 20 minutes because of foul trouble, which meant Wilt was being guarded by Cleveland Buckner for most of the night, and Buckner was a 6-foot-9 rookie whose most notable achievement was that he was named after a city. (4) There was no scoreboard or JumboTron like we have now, so it wasn’t until someone mentioned to the game announcer in the second half what Wilt was doing that anybody had any idea what his point total was. That means he got to score about 70 or so points before any real pressure started to come into play. (5) And perhaps most improbably, Wilt caught fire from the free throw line. He ended his career a 51 percent free throw shooter, but that night he shot a miraculous 87.5 percent from the line (28-for-32).
Anyway, I mention all that because Wilt wasn’t either of the things mentioned in the prerequisite: He wasn’t on a team that had another powerful offensive threat (he averaged over 50 points per game that season; next up was Paul Arizin, who averaged just under 22), and he wasn’t an astounding facilitator (he had only two assists the night he scored 100, on his super Kanye West shit). It seems not that likely that everything could line up exactly perfect like that again for someone, so that’s why the prerequisite exists. And it’s why we lose Thomas, Anthony, and, with respect to Dwyane Wade, Butler.
Players remaining: Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Klay Thompson, Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving
Prerequisite 4: If an NBA player is going to score 100 points in a game, his team’s other offensive threat can’t be C.J. McCollum.
Lillard is out.
Players remaining: Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving
Prerequisite 5: If an NBA player is going to score 100 points in a game, he’s going to have never had a commercial where he dresses up as an old man and plays basketball against strangers in a park.
Sorry, Kyrie. Love you, though.
Players remaining: Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Klay Thompson
Prerequisite 6: If an NBA player is going to score 100 points in a game, he’s going to have to be a perimeter player.
It’s just the way the game is played now. I mean, let’s say DeMarcus went into Hulk mode and just started dunking and destroying everything. Even if he dunked it something like 28 times and shot 25-for-33 from the free throw line, both of which would be exceptional, that’d still put him at only 81 points. Imagine that. Imagine a guy dunking it 28 times in a game and you being like, “Dang. All you had to do was dunk it 10 more times.”
I’m proud that Davis and Cousins made it this far into the eliminations, to be honest.
Players remaining: Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Klay Thompson
Prerequisite 7: If an NBA player is going to score 100 points in a game, he’s going to have to average a true shooting percentage that’s within 10 percentage points of what Wilt Chamberlain had during his 100-point game.
The way you calculate true shooting percentage is not a fun thing to look at or talk about, but just know that it places consideration on the number of 2-pointers attempted (and made), 3-pointers attempted (and made) and free throws attempted (and made). Wilt was 36-of-63 on field goal attempts and also 28-of-32 on free throw attempts, giving him a true shooting percentage of 64.9, according to Basketball-Reference.com. If, as a baseline here, we’re making it so that a player has to be averaging within 10 percentage points of that for this season, that means Durant is safe (65.2), Steph is safe (62.6), Harden is safe (61.3), and Klay is safe (59.7). The one guy we’re losing — and this is the most devastating loss so far — we’re losing my beloved Russell Westbrook (54.4), which is super sucky because Russ was our best shot at seeing someone score 100 points on 112 shots.
Players remaining: Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, James Harden, Klay Thompson
Prerequisite 8: If an NBA player is going to score 100 points in a game, he’s probably going to have get hotter than just about anyone ever has in the history of the league.
Durant, when he gets to flinging that ball around from all over the court, dropping asteroids onto the heads of his opponents, it’s just such a beautiful and damning and undefendable thing. And Steph, when he has one of those all-caps STEPH games, insta-shooting rainbow 3s over 7-footers and performing dribbling tricks like he’s in an Avengers movie, it’s undeniable. And Harden, when he decides he’s going to lord over a game, like two months ago when he posted the league’s first ever triple-double to feature more than 50 points, more than 15 rebounds, and more than 15 assists, there’s just no beating him. And yet all three of those players, for all their brilliance and captivating ability, have never gotten as Inner-Core-of-the-Sun hot as Klay Thompson has proved he’s capable of getting.
Make no mistake, if you’re examining the totality of their talents, KD and Steph and Harden are all better basketball players than Klay. But, man, Hot Klay Thompson is absolutely unfuckwithable. I think the thing people fall back to first when talking about the Terminator-type deadliness level that Klay can reach is when he threw up 37 points in a single quarter, and that’s of course a great thing to bring up when you’re trying to prove that point. But a better example — at least for this argument — is the 60-point game he had in December 2016.
It wasn’t just that he scored 60 points (which, LOL at that not being enough proof), it’s that he managed to do so in just 29 minutes. That means he was averaging 2.07 points per minute that game. Guess what Wilt’s points-per-minute average was during his 100-point game: 2.08.
Here’s another thing that’s equally crazy: Thompson had the ball in his hands that game for a total of 90 seconds (for comparison, LeBron held it for 390 seconds when he scored 60, and Kobe held it for 400 seconds when he scored 60). And here’s yet another thing that’s equally crazy: Klay dribbled the ball only 11 times the whole game. And here’s one final thing, that, same as the previous ones, is equally crazy, but also super important: Of the 21 field goals he made that night, only one of them was unassisted, meaning he didn’t even have to hunt down his own shots. The Warriors — because they have Steph and KD and Draymond Green — can just keeping moving all their pieces around until Klay gets open, which is exactly what they did that night because they realized he was possessed (his usage rate for that game was nearly double his regular usage rate).
If you’re looking for who has the best chance at scoring 100 points in a game, Klay is the exact right player on the exact right team.
The only player remaining: Klay Thompson
There’s your winner. Klay Thompson is your winner.