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The NBA’s Best, at Their Worst

Even the biggest stars have off nights sometimes. What can we learn from their subpar performances?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Thanks to pace and space, more efficient offenses, and many single-star teams embracing heliocentric strategies, the NBA is stocked with spectacular superstar performances this season. But while the most bombastic box scores rightfully generate the most highlights and attention, consistency and adequate performance on off nights matters just as much for the league’s brightest stars.

That’s especially true when looking at a player’s season-long statline or considering his All-Star candidacy. Sure, Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in one game during the season in which averaged 50 points—but he was so dominant across that entire season that he still would have averaged 50 even if that game were removed (after rounding, at least; his average across his other games was 49.7 points). His floor was just as important as his ceiling; in 1961-62, Chamberlain scored at least 30 points in 78 out of 80 regular-season games, and he never dipped below 26.

Most players, conversely, suffer sharp declines from their best games to their worst. This season, Portland’s Anfernee Simons—just to pick a guard from the middle of our Top 100 rankings at random—averages 28 points per game on 51 percent shooting in his top half of games, versus just 16 points on 37 percent shooting in his bottom half. Phoenix’s Mikal Bridges (a randomly selected wing) falls from 21 points per game on 54 percent shooting in good games to 12 points per game on 36 percent shooting in his bad games. Suns center Deandre Ayton (a randomly selected big) loses nearly half his points and 40 percent of his rebounds in his dropoff from best games to worst.

But the league’s best players—the true superstars, the most compelling MVP candidates—largely manage to retain their production night in, night out. They’re special not only because they can score 60 points in a triple-double; they’re also special because, say, a pair of 30-plus-point triple-doubles can qualify as two of their worst statistical games, as is the case for Luka Doncic this season.

On Thursday, the NBA celebrates its top performers with its announcement of the All-Star starters for next month’s game. So let’s take the opportunity to run back an old exercise that uses game score—a stat developed by John Hollinger that sums up a player’s entire box score line into one all-encompassing number—to sort a player’s game log from best game to worst, then divide at the midway point to create two equally-sized samples. We’ll go through the realistic contenders for MVP this season, according to current FanDuel odds, and examine what the worst games from the best players in the league can reveal.

Nikola Jokic

Averages from worst games: 18.7 points, 9.6 rebounds, 9.4 assists, 60-37-79 shooting splits, 67 percent true shooting

You read that statline right—Jokic is averaging a near-triple-double while shooting 60 percent in his worst games. “Bad” Jokic would still rank third in the NBA in assists per game and in the top 10 in true shooting percentage.

That second bit is especially remarkable, because the easiest way to have a bad night, at least by game score, is to miss a lot of shots. No other player on this list comes close to Jokic’s shooting numbers in their worst games. But Jokic has made fewer than half of his shot attempts in just one game all season (a 3-for-10 effort against the Jazz, when Jokic sat the entire fourth quarter in an easy win).

The main difference between Jokic performances is how much he shoots, not—as is the case with most other players—how well he shoots. In his best games, he takes advantage of about a dozen extra scoring opportunities, between extra field goals and free throws; otherwise, his numbers are almost the same.

Nikola Jokic Splits by Game Score

Statistic Best Games Worst Games
Statistic Best Games Worst Games
PTS 31.6 18.7
REB 12.3 9.6
AST 10.3 9.4
TS% 72.1% 66.6%
FGA 18.0 12.4
FG% 64.7% 60.2%
3PA 2.3 2.3
3P% 38.8% 36.7%
FTA 9.0 3.6
FT% 83.0% 78.9%
STL 1.3 1.5
BLK 0.7 0.4
TOV 3.7 3.2

Luka Doncic

Averages from worst games: 28.0 points, 7.8 rebounds, 8.1 assists, 43-32-73 shooting splits, 55 percent true shooting

Only eight players in NBA history (including Luka himself, twice before) have averaged 28 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists per game over a season—and Luka’s doing that in his worst half of games this season. Even in a season of statistical inflation, that performance stands out: “Bad” Luka would still rank ninth in points per game and fourth in assists per game this season.

Although his jump shot is far less accurate in his worst games than his best (when he’s at 55 percent from the field and 39 percent from 3), Doncic is able to compensate with 10.1 free throw attempts per contest on his off nights—a step down from his 12.5 attempts in his best games, but still an excellent hedge against erratic shooting from the field.

But one stat from Doncic’s worst games jumps out as an extreme negative. Dallas’s win percentage drops from 77 percent in his best games (17-5) to just 36 percent in his worst (8-14). That’s by far the largest gap for any player on this list, adding yet more evidence that the Jalen Brunson–less Mavericks don’t have sufficient support around their star.

Joel Embiid

Averages from worst games: 26.8 points, 9.3 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 49-33-83 shooting splits, 60 percent true shooting

Speaking of a player who generates bushels of free points even when his shot isn’t falling: Embiid is averaging 10.2 free throw attempts across his worst games. There’s a reason I write about free throw rates so much—because they help players like Embiid maintain their production no matter what else is happening in a given game.

Although Jokic is the MVP favorite at this point, as he attempts to become the first player since Larry Bird to win three in a row, Doncic and Embiid are worthy challengers—and they should offer an entertaining race for the scoring title over the second half as well. At the moment, Doncic leads by a slim 0.2 points per game; Embiid leads in scoring in the two players’ best games (40.4 to 39.5 points per game), but Doncic has the slight edge in their worst (28.0 to 26.8).

Jayson Tatum

Averages from worst games: 25.3 points, 8.4 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 42-32-82 shooting splits, 55 percent true shooting

Oh look, another star who’s made a habit of drawing lots of free throws! While Tatum’s scoring numbers naturally fall in his worst games, they still reflect just how far he’s come as a scorer in a short amount of time—because unlike Doncic and Embiid, who have always found their way to the line a lot, Tatum’s developed this skill during his NBA career. Just last season, Tatum generated 6.2 free throw attempts per game overall; this season, he’s at 6.9 attempts in just his worst games, and 10.5 per game in his best. Moreover, just two seasons ago, Tatum shot 50 percent on 2-pointers across all his games; now he’s at 50 percent on 2s in just his worst games.

Beyond his scoring, Tatum’s rebound, assist, block, and steal figures are almost identical from his best games to his worst games—a great sign that any off nights impact only his shooting efficiency, not his creativity for teammates or defensive effort.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

Averages from worst games: 23.6 points, 11.4 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 43-23-59 shooting splits, 50 percent true shooting

Giannis has previously ranked as one of the NBA’s most consistent stars on a game-to-game basis, but his dropoff in his worst games is much more noticeable this season. The surface stats still seem mostly fine—every NBA team would want someone who could average 24-11-5 on any night, let alone at his worst—but they’re not at the two-time MVP’s typical standard. Out of the six players averaging at least 30 points per game this season, Giannis has the largest divide between his best and worst scoring averages.

30 PPG Scorers at Their Best and Worst

Player Best Game PPG Worst Game PPG Dropoff
Player Best Game PPG Worst Game PPG Dropoff
Giannis Antetokounmpo 38.3 23.6 14.7
Joel Embiid 40.4 26.8 13.6
LeBron James 36.2 24.2 12.0
Luka Doncic 39.5 28.0 11.5
Jayson Tatum 36.8 25.3 11.5
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander 35.5 25.8 9.7

Moreover, those are some ugly shooting splits on his off nights. It’s not just that Giannis is missing more 3s and free throws—his 2-point percentage is plummeting too, from 64 percent in his best games to just 47 percent in his worst. For contrast, Jokic only drops from 69 percent to 66 percent on 2s.

Antetokounmpo is still an extraordinary player. But this strangely arrhythmic production helps explain why the Bucks offense is struggling (albeit largely without Khris Middleton), why Giannis’s MVP candidacy is lagging, and why it wouldn’t be a surprise for him to be the odd man out for the East’s starting frontcourt All-Star trio.

Ja Morant

Averages from worst games: 20.9 points, 4.8 rebounds, 8.4 assists, 39-22-72 shooting splits, 47 percent true shooting

Morant’s on-again, off-again jumper—for each of the last two seasons, he’s started off hot from 3 before cooling way down—rears its ugly head here. His 3-point percentage drops nearly in half from his best games (39 percent) to his worst (22 percent), and his 2-point percentage sees a nearly Giannis-sized drop too. For reference, a 47 percent true shooting figure would rank second-worst among all qualified players this season (ahead of only Detroit’s Killian Hayes).

However, Morant’s worst game numbers also show an odd, unique positive: The Grizzlies have a slightly better record in his worst games (14-5) than in his best games (13-6). That’s only a small difference, so I wouldn’t want to suggest Memphis is actually a more competitive team when Morant doesn’t play well. But it implies that he has much more support from a deeper roster than, say, Doncic does in Dallas, and adds another piece of evidence—along with the Grizzlies’ 20-5 record without Morant last season—that Memphis is much more than a one-man team.

Kevin Durant

Averages from worst games: 25.2 points, 5.9 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 51-32-93 shooting splits, 62 percent true shooting

In my research, I’ve tended to find that players who rely on their jump shots are less consistent game-to-game than, say, big men who mainly contribute with rebounds, layups, and free throws. But Durant is an exception—he’s always one of the league’s most consistent players despite his jumper dependency.

Working with perhaps the game’s best jumper helps, of course. Over the last five seasons, according to Second Spectrum, Durant has overperformed the expected value of his jump shots by more than any other player. (Last on that list, among players with at least 1,000 attempts, is Russell Westbrook; Giannis is second to last.) Other MVP candidates find ways to score points even when their shot isn’t falling; for Durant, that’s never really an issue in the first place.

This season is the same as ever for Durant, who was lighting up the scoreboard in just about every game before spraining his MCL. Among MVP candidates, Jokic is the only player who’s a more efficient shooter in his worst games than Durant. For context, Durant’s off-night true shooting mark is about the same as Damian Lillard, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Donovan Mitchell have averaged across all their games.

Stephen Curry

Averages from worst games: 22.8 points, 6.1 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 43-37-89 shooting splits, 58 percent true shooting

Steph’s assists fall and his turnovers rise in his worst games, and he doesn’t find his way to the free throw line as often. In his first six games since returning from injury, he didn’t shine as brightly; five of those qualified as “worst” with just one “best.”

But every time I examine a player’s worst games in this fashion, Steph’s 3-point performance delights. That’s because a 37 percent mark is quite poor for Steph, relative to his norm; he’s at 46 percent in his best games, good for 42 percent overall this season. Yet 37 percent is also what the likes of Lillard and Bradley Beal have averaged over all their career games, and a point better than James Harden and Devin Booker’s career marks. Steph at his worst is still as dangerous as basically every other star shooter in the sport.

Stats are current through Tuesday’s games.