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The Evolution of Scorers

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

This morning I published a piece at Bleacher-Report, called “A Brief History of Rajon Rondo’s Jumpshot.” As I was exploring ways to capture the way his scoring has evolved over time I came up with the idea of stringing together his Basketball-Reference heat maps from each season, into a .gif.


I ultimately wasn’t able to use the .gif in my Rondo piece but I was really intrigued by the way it illustrated how his scoring zones had changed over time. In particular I was surprised at how much variation there was in the distribution of his mid-range scoring and how things seemed to bounce back and forth between the elbows and the baseline. It’s important to note that these heat maps show the quantity of a player’s scoring from each area, not necessarily their efficiency. It’s also the quantity of points as compared to their own total, so years with lots of red indicate more evenly distributed scoring. When the red is concentrated in just a few areas it doesn’t mean the player scored less, just that the scoring was focused in less areas.

After looking at Rondo’s I decided to create the same thing for a few other players and see if any other trends were revealed.


LeBron James


The most interesting thing here to me was how their appeared to be two cycles. Over the course of his time in Cleveland his scoring in the mid-range area gradually shrinks and becomes more focused at the basket and on wing three-pointers. But in 2011, his first in Miami, the mid-range suddenly pops up again to a huge degree. From there it gradually shrinks to the fantastically efficient shot selection we see today, where everything is focused at the rim or on three-pointers. This seems like a really obvious illustration of how much things have changed with LeBron’s offensive role in Miami, and how messy things were in that first season with him and Dwyane Wade trying to figure out how to work together.


Kevin Durant


Durant’s rookie season is pretty striking, looking quite a bit like someone kicked over a can of red paint. My favorite spot is the red blip just above the “8″ in 2008. That spot is about four feet behind the three-point line but somehow represents a hot zone for his scoring. Over time Durant has generally reduced his mid-range activity and become more focused on three-pointers and at the rim, but not nearly as severely as LeBron. Durant still scores quite a bit from the elbows and on baseline jumpers. It’s also interesting that as he’s grown as a ball-handler and assumed more and more responsibility for creating his own shot, his activity in the corners has basically fallen away.


Carmelo Anthony


Where Durant and LeBron both shrunk their mid-range activity at the beginning of their careers, Carmelo actually became progressively more active in that area during his first few seasons. This peaked in about 2009, at which point his mid-range activity generally shrunk down to a few key hot spots, obviously his isolation comfort zone. You can also clearly see the emphasis on efficiency during the last two seasons in New York, with probably the two most efficient shot distributions of his career — in terms of the focus on shots at the rim and behind the three-point line. In general, Carmelo’s scoring seems to be much more geographically diverse than Durant or LeBron. For a long time he was regarded as the best pure scorer in the game and the ability to pour it in from anywhere on the floor really bolstered that reputation.

  • fendo

    I find these fascinating. Is it possible to slow down the animation at all? And what’s up with Durant’s 2008? Looks like the entire court is red.

    • Ian Levy

      I’d have to rebuild the GIFs to slow them down, but I can do it. More red just means more diverse scoring, not a great quantity overall. Now his red is contained to smaller pockets.

  • drew

    Lebron gets his stats and efficiency in an era of less physicality, offensive spacing, 3-pt shooting and optimal shot allocation strategy (3-pointers and layups), so Lebron’s stats cannot be compared like apples to apples with those of previous eras that played in eras without offensive spacing or 3-pointers, and where far more physicality and contested 2-pointers were the standard.

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