The NBA’s Most Valuable Isolation Scorers

It’s one of the NBA’s most exciting plays.

A deadly ball-handler directs everyone out of the painted area, clearing the court so he can take his defender in a one-on-one battle. With some flashy handles, a few eye-fakes and terrifyingly quick changes of direction, he creates just enough open space to loft up a shot.

But most of the time, these isolation attempts don’t go in.

Heading into games on Jan. 14, the NBA as a whole had attempted 8,822 isolation possessions, per NBA.com. Those resulted in a meager 7,645 points—good for an 86.66 offensive rating that, according to our databases, is higher than only 45 season-long scores produced by any team in league history.

Of course, some players are better than others.

Kemba Walker (0.59 points per possession) has struggled immensely in isolation throughout 2016-17. Nick Young (1.13) and Devin Booker (1.11) have not. But they’re still not the cream of the crop, and the same can be said about many of the players who have already used at least 65 isolation possessions:

It stands to reason that isolation plays are only used advantageously if they’re resulting in more points per possession than other types of action. There are rare exceptions, but an efficient offense should be structured around the plays that result in the most success.

Theoretically, a player is adding zero value in isolation if his points per possession is identical to his team’s offensive rating. If his number rises higher, he’s adding value each time he attempts a one-on-one breakdown of the man guarding him. Conversely, a lower level of scoring efficiency would be detrimental to his organization’s efforts.

For this analysis, we’re calculating value added in isolation by finding the average differential between the two relevant numbers, then multiplying that difference by the number of possessions used. A hypothetical player who scores 0.1 more points per possession in isolation than his team’s offensive rating and uses 100 isolation possessions would add 10 points.

Below, you can see the results for all 350 players who have used at least one such possession. Feel free to use the filters below the table to isolate high-usage players or contributors on a certain team:

As a whole, the NBA’s players have subtracted 1,663.65 points by running isolation sets. The biggest culprits tend to be those who use the most possessions, even if they’re also rising to the forefront of the MVP conversation through their contributions in other areas: James Harden (minus-51.768 points added in isolation), Russell Westbrook (minus-43.628), John Wall (minus-34.552) and LeBron James (minus-34.393).

In fact, only 73 (a mere 20.9 percent) have added positive value, just 22 of whom have used at least 20 possessions.

For the sake of positivity, let’s focus not on the overall inefficiency of this play, but rather those who have excelled at implementing it. Beginning with the player who’s added the fifth most value in isolation, we’ll move toward the league’s best:

5. D’Angelo Russell, Los Angeles Lakers: 6.596 points added

Even though he’s shown signs of improvement during his sophomore season, D’Angelo Russell has endured plenty of offensive struggles. He’s still shooting just 39.9 percent from the field, and his inconsistent three-point stroke has allowed defenders to sag off him.

But when they don’t and instead allow him to showcase his handles or body control, he reminds everyone of his lofty potential. Few guards are this comfortable using head fakes to open up space for turnaround jumpers at such a young age:

Russell hasn’t had too many chances to display this particular skill (36 possessions). However, that hasn’t stopped him from emerging as one of the league’s most dangerous in isolation; his 1.22 points per possession leave him in the 96th percentile.

Perhaps it’s time to reallocate some of the isolation plays used by Jordan Clarkson (58 possessions, 70.7 percentile), Lou Williams (72 possessions, 55.1 percentile), Julius Randle (91 possessions, 47.5 percentile) and Brandon Ingram (62 possessions, 24.2 percentile).

4. James Johnson, Miami Heat: 7.682 points added

Most great isolation scorers are point guards with yo-yo handles or superstars who line up on the wings. James Johnson, for all the success he’s had with the Miami Heat, doesn’t fall into either category.

But that hasn’t stopped him from using his combination of size and athleticism to torture overmatched defenders:

Johnson has spent plenty of time thriving as a spot-up shooter for the Heat, but 14.1 percent of his possessions have been classified as isolations. He’s used them so well that he sits in the 91.9 percentile, joining Goran Dragic (66.2 percentile) as one of only two South Beach players above 50.

3. Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers: 9.435 points added

Chris Paul does everything well, and isolation scoring is no exception.

The Los Angeles Clippers point guard might not have the league’s flashiest handles, but he’s a master at getting to the spot of his choosing. If you leave a defender on an island against him, he won’t be able to keep Paul from his desired zone. And once he’s in that spot, he’s able to drain nearly any look.

Paul won’t often earn blow-by layups, and he can sometimes settle for mid-range looks. But he almost always gets the shot he wants, creating just enough space before releasing:

If a big switches after defending a pick-and-roll between the floor general and DeAndre Jordan, he’s in big trouble. That’s when Paul feasts, and it’s one of the main reasons he’s scoring 1.2 points per possession in isolation, which places him in the 94.4 percentile.

2. Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers: 10.293 points added

No one else has handles like this.

The NBA has plenty of brilliant ball-handlers, but not even Paul, Stephen Curry or Jamal Crawford can do more with possession of the rock. They can occasionally be flashier, but they lack this level of substance.

No matter who’s guarding Kyrie Irving, he can work his way past with a series of complicated moves. Just look at how he embarrasses Jae Crowder, who’s no slouch on the preventing end:

That part is unfair enough.

But when you add in the ability to shoot 59.9 percent from within three feet…

1. Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics: 15.39 points added

There’s not even an argument here.

Scoring a staggering 1.32 points per possession in isolation, Isaiah Thomas is one of just 34 players to clear 1.3. Of the other 33, no one has used more possessions than Will Barton (18).

Thomas, meanwhile, has used 66.

It’s rare for isolation offense to be this reliable, especially when it comes in a package that’s generously listed at 5’9″. But Thomas’ relentless efforts have paid off, and he’s brutalized defenders with a combination of ball-handling prowess, quick first steps and blazing speed toward the rim:

Given his vertical limitations, Thomas has to get tricky.

And he’s consistently done that for the Boston Celtics, both by varying his speed through the lane to keep the opposition off balance and by becoming an incredible finisher around the hoop. You can see both skills paying off against the New Orleans Pelicans:

Last year, only three players added at least 10 points in isolation: Gary Neal (12.33), Karl-Anthony Towns (13.872) and Lou Williams (18.274).

Thomas has already surpassed everyone but Williams, and we’ve only reached the midpoint of the 2016-17 campaign.

He’s the NBA’s most valuable isolation scorer right now. Frankly, it’s not even close.

 

Adam Fromal is the founder of NBA Math. Follow him on Twitter @fromal09

Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from NBA.com, Basketball-Reference.com or NBA Math and are accurate heading into games on Jan. 14. Videos come from 3ball.io.