By Chris Le
Call him dumb. Call him hilarious. Call him loud-mouthed and nonsensical. But there’s no denying Charles Barkley is provocative — perhaps the most clamorous figure in basketball today. And Sir Charles didn’t disappoint last week when he dropped, almost on schedule, another eye-opening line when he called Carmelo Anthony the best pure scorer in the league.
Initially, there was some head-shaking on my part, thinking Barkley was merely caught up in the moment of Melo’s magnificent series against the Dallas Mavericks, in which he averaged 27.0 easy points per game, hitting one clutch shot after another. But following a period of digestion, and the eventual pondering of the phrase
“Best Pure Scorer” itself, the whole thing confused me, even more so than when I first contemplated the topic. Amid all my bewilderment, only one conclusion was deduced: I cannot say whether or not Melo is the purest because I don’t know what purity consists of.
The idea of the “Best Pure Scorer” is an interesting one. It’s a title we fans imprudently toss around in arguments amongst friends to boast our favorite players without knowing what it really means. Its understanding is and always has been implied, but the phrase has gone unspecified for as long as I can remember, with no universally agreed-upon definition. And it seemed strange that during all my years as a basketball fan, I have yet to hear an acceptable explanation of it.
The same goes for the label of “Best Pure Shooter.” I’ve come across experts who say Ray Allen is as unadulterated a shooter there is, while Steve Nash, though statistically just as deadly from behind the arc, is merely a player with perfect mechanics; he does not qualify as being pure — for reasons that are beyond my understanding. I thought to myself, aren’t purity and technique one in the same? What truly separates the Ray Allens from the Steve Nashs?
This same confusion extends to the ambiguity of Pure Scorers. Though they amass a similar number of points per game, what truly sets apart Kobe Bryant from LeBron James? Or how about Brandon Roy from Chris Paul? Is there even a difference between them? These are the questions I set out to answer.
As I contemplated the concept this past week, wasting a lot of productive work time at my day job in the process, I came up with five defining characteristics, without which a designated scorer cannot be considered pure:
Sounds simple and obvious enough, right? But this is where mechanics — or, for a player with an unconventional release (e.g. Kevin Martin), a consistent, repetitive stroke — come into play. It’s the ability to adjust a shot under myriad situations: mid-air, double clutching, fading away or floating towards the hoop. A true scorer knows when, where and most importantly how to tweak his release given the circumstances. And this is why someone like Shaq cannot be considered a genuine scorer, despite having averaged nearly 30 points a game in his prime. His m.o. is overwhelming power and physicality, rather than polished technique. That’s not to say Shaq is some unrefined brute who is all brawn and no brain. It’s just that his game is more synonymous with strength. I don’t know if it’s the fact that I’m a short, frail Asian guy, but I’m more keen on viewing the act of scoring as a skill developed through years of disciplined study and practice. Scoring by way of sheer force seems cheap by comparison.
A pure scorer should be a Swiss Army Knife of offensive weapons, fully equipped with a sweet jumper, nice slashing ability and serviceable post skills. A one-dimensional player cannot and should not be seriously considered. That’s why a prolific point maker like Tony Parker does not qualify. There may not be a better threat in the paint, nor a craftier mid-air contortionist, but his jump shot — while improved — barely qualifies as reliable. He can be schemed, and he can be defended.
This brings up something I’ve been thinking about for a while now: Scoring seems to be synonymous with shooting more than, say, a player’s ability to drive and finish at the hoop or post skill or any other mode of point accretion for that matter. Pure scorers need to possess a deadly jumper before any other tool. That’s why Melo — whose penetrating capability and back to the basket scoring is solid, but far behind his J in development — is considered pure, and Parker — whose offensive skills are inversely proportional to Melo’s — isn’t so much.
This is the dividing line between a lucid scorer and the proverbial streaky shooter. No one questions the eruptive capabilities of Ben Gordon. You’d be an idiot to do so, and all anyone has do to prove you wrong is replay the first round series between the Bulls and Celtics. When Ben Gordon is “on,” like he was in Game 2, he can make the net swish like water and drop 40 points as if it were a day at the spa. But for every game in which he makes the hoop look like the singularity of a black hole, he registers a dud. He’s unreliable. Or to be more specific, as I heard one analyst describe Gordon: He hits the shots he has no business making, and he misses the ones he should. This is why Gordon is not pure…that is, unless he’s on fire.
Consistency is also what distinguishes skill from luck. It explains how we consider a double clutch shot or a reverse layup through traffic done by Kobe to be the result of prowess and a credit to his basketball genius, and the same move performed by, say, Roger Mason is seen as blind luck. A player of Kobe’s status has earned the right with sustained brilliance to have his every shot be considered skill.
Anyone can jack up 35 shots and score 25 points — just ask the Warriors. But a true scorer makes the most of his possessions; he is a thinker on the court, observing all five defenders, performing calculations in his head and planning the highest percentage shot.
Perhaps the key ingredient in this whole equation. Ease of scoring is what comes to mind first when I think of purity. The ability to put the ball in the hoop must seem natural, innate. It can’t be ugly and plodding like a Ron Artest drive to the hoop or as hideous as Shawn Marion’s release. Purity, by definition, is crystalline, and with that a certain degree of beauty is implied. Aesthetics is heavily weighed. A pure scorer must look like a ballet dancer on the court: graceful, light, but at the same time not without a sense of strength. There is an artistry involved here. George Gervin immediately comes to mind. From his sweet pull-up mid-range jumper to his gorgeous finger rolls, there probably wasn’t a smoother player to enter the league. Ever. The man should’ve had his jersey made out of silk. He’s what I consider pure.
After deriving these five traits, it was time to make a list. I easily whittled it down to six, because in all seriousness, while a lot of players have high averages, there aren’t many pure scorers in the league. First, let’s see who missed the cut.
Tony Parker — TP is prolific no doubt, and some of the moves he does in the lane on men twice his size is flat out amazing. But his offensive arsenal is anemic compared to the others on the list. The fact that he lacks a legitimate jump shot holds him back from achieving purity.
Dirk Nowitzki — Dirk meets all of my requirements except consistency. There are times when I see him play and think, There’s no way to guard this man. He’s such a great shooter with such a high-arching shot — and to top it off, he’s 7-feet tall — there’s nothing to stop him from scoring 30 points a night. But then there are games where he’s not even the second-best player on his own team. Dirk has developed a nasty tendency to disappear so there was no way I could put him on the list.
LeBron James — Okay, before you start spitting at your computer screen, hear me out. The title of “Purest Scorer” suggests an inborn proclivity to score. The desire to make it rain on an opponent has to be coursing through the veins. But LeBron, by nature, is a passer, and he’s such a physical freak he is able to score 30 points while still being unselfish. In any given situation, his first instinct is to make the best play, even if it means passing the ball. But a scorer needs to lack a certain consciousness, a mental “flaw” that urges him to shoot despite being double-covered and seeing a wide open teammate in the corner. LeBron, for better or worse, will always make the play to pass. This alone almost disqualifies The King. But then you also see that his scoring is mainly predicated on strength, overpowering opponents on his way to the basket. His jumper is still inconsistent, due to minor mechanical issues. I just don’t see him as a pure scorer. To me, LeBron is more of an unstoppable force of nature that cannot be denied in the lane.
Now the list:
6. Brandon Roy — They don’t call him the Natural for nothing. There’s a smoothness to Roy’s game that is oh so pretty. I’d say it’s akin to watching Morgan Freeman act: simultaneously methodical and languid in delivery, making everything seemingly effortless. You watch Roy play and you honestly think you can do the same — until you actually attempt to replicate him on the court and fall flat on your face. Have you ever tried driving towards the hoop at full speed, only to stop on a dime, and square up for a pull-up jumper? It’s one of the toughest maneuvers to execute in basketball, and Roy makes it seem like he was doing it since exiting the womb.
5. Paul Pierce — He can’t really jump out of the gym nor does he regularly blow by defenders with his average first step. Not to mention he’s tied with Rasheed Wallace as the scruffiest looking player in the league: with an unimpressive, undefined physique and random patches of hair all over his face, he looks like a homeless bum plucked directly from a freeway underpass. But I digress. Bluntly stated, Pierce is physically the least gifted of the six listed. But I’m hard pressed to find a scorer who does more with what he has. Pierce is smooth in his motion and possesses a pretty (albeit slow) release, but above all else he’s exceedingly cerebral on the court — and he’s an absolute scholar at the top of the key in a one-on-one situation. He’ll outthink anyone, setting up opponents for his next move as if it were a game of chess and he a grandmaster. No one will mistake him for LeBron, but he’s almost as hard to stop.
4. Dwyane Wade — This year’s league leading scorer comes in at number four? Like LeBron, Wade is as productive a scorer as anyone on earth, but he earns every point he gets. He can score any which way, but he’s predominantly a slasher who does the majority of his damage at and above the rim, and he pays the price taking hard fall after hard fall. The next three on this list seemingly get their points rolling out of bed. I see the skill and concentration with Wade, but I don’t quite see the effortlessness. I’ll give him this though: there’s no better maker of circus shots in the NBA.
3. Kevin Durant — Entering the league, Durant was 6’10” and 215 pounds of straight-up bone. He couldn’t bench 185 pounds once during his pre-draft workouts. Pound-for-pound, I’m probably stronger than this dude. But Durant makes up for his lack of physical strength with an uncanny offensive awareness that the league only sees once in a generation. And talk about easy. With one of the quickest triggers in the game, a nonchalant flick of the wrist, the ball swiftly leaves his fingertips and travels 25 feet towards the bottom of the net. It’s one of the sweetest shots I’ve ever seen. And his lankiness and athleticism combine to produce an oddly graceful style of play that conjures up memories of George Gervin, the Iceman himself, but with infinitely more range. The league better watch out because Durant is upping his basketball IQ at a rapid pace, as evidenced by his improved efficiency after just one year (from .430 to .476, and .288 to .422). I wouldn’t be surprised if he tops this list in a season or two.
2. Carmelo Anthony — His rebounding and defense may leave some wanting more, but the dude can score the rock with the best of them. Whether on the block, beyond the arc, or in no-man’s land of the mid-range — and you can have Shane Battier or Kobe bodying him up, it doesn’t matter — Carmelo is getting his. He possesses at his disposal the most natural feel for the offensive game, and he’s so efficient with his movement that if you didn’t know better, you’d call him lazy. It’s innate with Carmelo. He knows the quickest and easiest path to gathering points seemingly without cognition. Even in high school, his scoring was already developed to a professional level. Melo was born to shoot a basketball, and there really isn’t much else to say.
1. Kobe Bryant — I hate to say it because I despise nothing more than complimenting the Black Mamba, but Kobe Bryant is the most complete offensive player I’ve ever seen. That’s not to say he’s the most dangerous or most prolific point maker of all-time, but more so that his offensive repertoire has no holes. He’s technically flawless — a living textbook of basketball execution with fluidity and ever perfect mechanics, no matter the position. And I don’t think he gets enough credit for his creativity. It’s particularly awe-inspiring when he’s “stuck” after picking up his dribble following an unsuccessful pump-fake. He’ll spin on his pivot foot at a dizzying pace, exploring every conceivable out before making what usually is the correct scoring option. All you can do as a spectator — and as a defender — is shake your head in disbelief, and give credit where it’s due. If you saw Kobe: Doin’ Work this past weekend, you begin to realize that on top of his overflowing natural ability, he is a true student of the game. Kobe is the highest confluence of basketball’s mental and physical aspects, and I’m sure I’ll get little resistance when I say there’s no better pure scorer in the league today.