Over the years, our understanding of what factors influence NBA success has grown significantly. Stats like true shooting % and box plus/minus are increasingly being used as evaluation tools, despite the fact that points, rebounds, and assists per game continue to dominate statistical discussions.
When we focus on efficiency and on-off statistics, we’re able to gather more and better data, allowing us to build a full picture of how players influence their teams’ bottom line.
But we’re concentrating on the essentials here. It’s all about who’s going to get baskets in this game. NBA fans will be looking at the best NBA picks with a lot of caution this time, but first things first.
We’ll use complex analytics to justify our leading-scorer choices at all five positions, but at the end of the day, all we care about is who will score the most points in 2021-22.
Point Guard: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Stephen Curry was the league’s leading scorer last season, so we don’t need to make any bold predictions about why he’ll be the best point guard in 2021-22.
Curry’s 32.0 points and 21.7 field-goal attempts were both career highs, and he was the major factor in whether the Golden State Warriors scored at respectable rates in 2020-21. The additions of Otto Porter Jr. and Nemanja Bjelica this offseason provided much-needed backup shooting, and Jordan Poole’s development into a rotation-worthy, shot-creating lead guard could also help Curry lessen the overall difficulty of his shots. Curry should have even more opportunities after Klay Thompson returns.
Curry appears to be the safest choice here, averaging approximately 30.0 points each game. And we know he can turn it up much higher if necessary.
Shooting Guard: Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
The influence of new teammate Spencer Dinwiddie on Bradley Beal’s scoring is uncertain. But it’s safe to presume he’ll be more useful to Beal this season than Russell Westbrook was.
Beal made fewer threes per 100 possessions and hit them at a lesser rate when he shared the court with Russ. It’s possible that the difference between 39.2 percent without Westbrook and 32.3 percent with him is a fluke. It might possibly have been due to the space crunch produced by Westbrook’s presence. The fact that Beal went to the foul line more when he wasn’t playing alongside Russ implies that crowded defenses played a role. Finally, when playing alone, Beal averaged 46.5 points per 100 possessions, compared to 35.7 when playing alongside Westbrook.
Beal broke the 30-point-per-game mark for the second consecutive season in 2020-21, despite a subpar backcourt partner.
Why can’t he do it again, especially now that Dinwiddie has added greater space and plenty of other young wings who should continue to grow as defensive threats?
Center: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Last season, Joel Embiid was unstoppable, averaging 28.5 points per game despite Ben Simmons’ shooting limitations. So what will he do when Philly no longer has an off-ball danger that defenders completely ignore?
Embiid’s health, like Zion Williamson’s at power forward, is the only thing standing in his way of winning the scoring battle at center. Simmons’ immense physical strength, balletic feet, and knack for tricking defenders into shooting fouls made him a nearly insurmountable offensive problem…and that was all true while he was cluttering things up.
This year, with more space to work with, Embiid is going to have a field day.
Power Forward: Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets
Kevin Durant has never finished lower than the 94th percentile in points per shot attempt among forwards in the previous nine years. In eight of those seasons, he finished in the top 96th percentile or higher, demonstrating that KD is the league’s most consistent scorer year after year.
Since 2013-14, KD hasn’t led the league in scoring, although it might be due to his moderation. Since he was 25, he hasn’t averaged more than 20 shots a game, and last season, he ranked 33rd in field-goal attempts per 36 minutes. Durant could score 35 points a night if he wanted to. He just selects his targets with greater care than other high-frequency scorers.
With Kyrie Irving’s season fate uncertain, perhaps KD will decide it’s time to “load it up” and give us an aggressive, bucket-hungry season like he used to do in his younger days.
Last season, Durant averaged 26.9 points per game in his first season back from an Achilles injury, and that number feels like his floor in 2021-22.
Small Forward: Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
Over the last three years, Jayson Tatum’s usage rate and points per shot attempt have both risen, and there’s no reason to predict a trend-line reversal in his age-23 season.
Last season, the Boston Celtics forward improved his scoring near the rim significantly. Tatum still uses an off-arm shove to create distance, but he’s honed his trade and learned to use his growing power to finish at close range more successfully. In 2020-21, he had a career-high 68 percent hit percentage at the rim.
Tatum’s scoring isn’t the only thing that’s coming together. He’s also improving as a passer, rebounder, and defender. But we just worry about the buckets, and Tatum’s rise from last year’s 26.4 points per game makes him the obvious choice here.