Andre Miller’s outburst in Dallas on January 30, 2010 represents perhaps the most inexplicable performance in any game this decade. Heading into that game, the second of a back-to-back for Miller’s Trail Blazers, nobody, Miller included, could have predicted the extent of his career night.
He was 33 years old, in his 11th season, and had never scored 40 points in a game. He was averaging 12.6 points per game that season, hadn’t reached double figures in Portland’s three previous games, and rarely shot 3s.
Yet for one magical night, Miller couldn’t miss: Midrange jumpers found the bottom of the net; Nowitzkian turnarounds from the post splashed smoother than Dirk’s; acrobatic finishes in traffic bounced softly off the rim and through. Miller scored 52 points in an overtime victory. He didn’t just set a career high—he became the only NBA player in the entire 2010 calendar year to score 50 in a game.
Once upon a time, at the start of the decade, 50-point outings were an extreme rarity. Miller had the only one in 2010. Only two players—LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony—reached 50 in 2011. Only three—Kevin Durant, Deron Williams, and Kevin Love—passed the half-century mark in 2012. In three years, in other words, the entire NBA managed only six 50-point games.
In March 2019, the NBA managed seven. This season already has four in less than a month of play, from four different players: Damian Lillard, James Harden, D’Angelo Russell, and Kyrie Irving. What was once a special occasion is now a once-a-week occurrence—an individual byproduct of the league’s sweeping offensive changes.
In the half-decade from 2015 through 2019 (unless stated otherwise, we’ll be using calendar years rather than seasons in this piece to ease calculations), NBA players combined for 72 50-point games. That represents by far the highest total in any half-decade in league history—with one caveat, as this graph illustrates.
More precisely, 2015-19 saw many more 50-point games than any previous stretch in NBA history provided Wilt Chamberlain’s totals are excepted for their absurd outlier status. Chamberlain once averaged north of 50 points per game in a full season, which means he collected plenty of such games. He has the most 50-point nights (118) in league history, with as many as the players ranked second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh on that list combined.
So, removing Chamberlain from the equation, we find 2015-19 alone in first place. And the recent rise of 50-point nights is a result of three league trends. The first is a faster rate of play: This half-decade has seen the fastest leaguewide paces since the mid-1980s, which means more possessions to accumulate points.
The second factor is structural: The league has never played this fast with this many teams. Expansion from 23 to 30 teams since the mid-1980s means more games, which means more opportunities for players to reach statistical benchmarks.
The third factor is of course the rise of 3-pointers, which have helped offensive efficiency reach all-time highs—and more crucially for these purposes, allowed pinpoint shooters to amass more points quicker. It’s important to note that the vast majority of 50-plus-point games barely sneak over the 50-point threshold. In NBA history, more than half of these games had 50, 51, or 52 points; more than three-fourths had between 50 and 56.
If the 3-point line didn’t exist—if all 3s counted as only two points—this half-decade wouldn’t look remarkable, with about as many 50-point games as in the ’70s and ’80s. A whopping 63 percent of 50-point efforts this century wouldn’t have reached 50 if not for the 3-point line, as the average 50-point scorer has made 4.9 3s in the game in question.
That gap is even more striking for loftier points thresholds. Of the 19 60-point performances since 2000, only three—Devin Booker’s 70-point game, Kobe Bryant’s 81-point game, and Shaquille O’Neal’s 61-point game—would have eclipsed 60 without the aid of 3-pointers.
The centrality of 3-pointers to producing modern 50-point games also helps democratize the process, given the freedom so many stars have to launch from long range. Last season, 13 different players scored 50 in a game at least once, setting a new record, which had itself been set recently, at 10 apiece in both 2016-17 and 2017-18. The mid-2000s spike in 50-point games seemed to rely heavily on Kobe Bryant’s peak as a scorer, but this new rise is not due just to Harden’s siege of the record books, but to a whole league full of potential half-century-mark performers.
If it seems like every notable player has entertained his fans with 50 in a game recently, that presumption isn’t far off. Looking at the past five seasons of All-NBA honorees, the majority of guards and forwards have done so, and the few who haven’t tend toward the pass-first extreme, like Chris Paul (highest-scoring game of the last five seasons: 41 points), Kyle Lowry (43), and Draymond Green (31).
High-Scoring Output From All-NBA Players in the Last Five Seasons
|With a 50-Point Game
|With a 50-Point Game
One line glares on that chart, of course, as big men generally struggle to get in on the high-scoring action. It makes sense that, say, DeAndre Jordan, a 9.5-points-per-game career scorer, wouldn’t have scored 50, but it’s more of a surprise that luminaries such as Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic haven’t, nor have other notable bigs who haven’t made an All-NBA team, like Kristaps Porzingis.
In fact, only four active bigs have ever scored 50 in a game: Anthony Davis (three times), DeMarcus Cousins (two), LaMarcus Aldridge, and Karl-Anthony Towns. That’s a small list of big men. It also includes only All-NBA players; whereas the odd, nonstar guard like Jamal Crawford or Mo Williams can score 50, the modern nonstar center is fully unable to reach that benchmark.
Extend the threshold to 60, and the result is even more astounding. Here, in fact, is the entire list of 60-point centers since Chamberlain:
- David Robinson against the Clippers on April 24, 1994: 71 points
- Shaquille O’Neal against the Clippers on March 6, 2000: 61 points
That’s it—two instances in a half-century. And Robinson’s game was a bit of a sham, as it came on the last day of the season as he battled a young O’Neal for the scoring title. Robinson’s San Antonio teammates force-fed him the ball and even intentionally fouled the Clippers down the stretch, despite leading, to create more scoring opportunities for their center.
This positional disparity reflects the sport’s broader transition to one oriented around guards. This season, 13 of 14 scoring performances above 40 points have gone to ball handlers (the 14th came from Pascal Siakam), who have a penchant for 3s and the ability to control the ball, making it nigh impossible for defenses to prevent shooting attempts.
One wonders whether the increase in 3s from “unicorns” might lead to more high-scoring games from big men. Towns, for instance, ranks fifth in 3-point makes per game this season and ninth in attempts, and he’s already scored 37, 36, and 36 points in games. The jump from mid-30s to 50 or 60 is sizable, but it’s not difficult to imagine Towns harnessing all his prodigious talents to record several large point totals this season.
As pace and 3-pointers continue to rise, more players than ever are candidates to break the 50-point barrier. Harden might generate a dozen games by himself. (The top non-Wilt totals in a single season are 10, from Bryant in 2006-07, and then nine from Harden last season.) Lillard, Irving, and Russell have already climbed that high. The likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Devin Booker did so last season and may well again; potential first-timers like Kawhi Leonard and Paul George could easily join them; and young upstarts like Luka Doncic and Trae Young could crash the party soon.
On any given NBA evening, the odds of watching a high-output outburst from a single player, the kind that rallies fans to a League Pass screen and sets NBA Twitter alight, is higher than ever before. We’ve come a long way from Andre Miller’s out-of-nowhere night representing the only chance for a player to reach 50 for a full year. Now we scarcely last a week without observing individual fireworks.