LeBron James, Stephen Curry and other NBA stars on pace to make statistical history, but can they keep it up?

We’re at just about the point in the NBA season when the sample size is getting large enough to make some real evaluations of both teams and players. As it stands, there are several players on pace to make NBA history in various categories, which has been the case in most recent years due to the proliferation of 3-pointers and offensive efficiency.

We decided to take a look at several players and teams whose impressive, occasionally bizarre accomplishments to this point in the season would put them in rare, sometimes uncharted territory, and projected into the future to see if they’ll be able to sustain it for the rest of the season. It’s obviously a guessing game for the most part, but there are a few key factors for each player or team that can make our guesses slightly more educated. Whether they can keep them up or not, it’s been a wild first 25 or so games into 2020-21 season.

Stat: Averaging 25 points, eight rebounds, eight assists on 40 percent 3-point shooting

Last season LeBron led the league in assists for the first time in his career, and this season he’s on pace to shoot 40 percent (or very close to it) for the first time since his 2012-13 MVP season with the Miami Heat. When you combine that with his other stats, James could become the first player to ever average at least 25 points, eight rebounds and eight assists per game on 40 percent 3-point shooting. Not bad for a 36-year-old.

Is this sustainable? Unlikely.

It’s hard to doubt LeBron in any capacity, so this could look silly at the end of the season. The points, rebounds and assists shouldn’t be a problem, but he has a couple of factors working against him in terms of 3-point percentage. One is his 3-point volume. The last time he shot 40 percent from deep, he averaged 3.3 attempts per game — this season he’s at nearly seven. Another is fatigue. James has been phenomenal despite a shortened offseason and compacted schedule, but things could certainly begin to catch up to him as the season progresses.

The Lakers recently played three straight overtime games for the first time since the early 90s, during which James averaged 43.4 minutes. Even he joked that it’s hard for him to take that kind of strain.

“My heart is not sustainable for two overtimes at this point in my career,” James said after a double-overtime win over the Pistons. “I’ve got a bottle of wine at home ready to be opened, and I delayed it for two overtime periods.”  

Most of LeBron’s 3-pointers are off the dribble, which requires more effort than the catch-and-shoot variety, so it’s quite conceivable that his legs could start to get heavy in the dog days of the regular season, which would cause his percentage to dip. But then again when James puts his mind to something he rarely fails, so if he decides he wants to shoot 40 percent from the 3-point line, he could certainly find a way to make it happen.

Stat: Averaging 25 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists on 50 percent shooting

Jokic is actually a candidate to make the same historical leap as LeBron, but a career 34 percent 3-point shooter staying above 40 percent seems almost impossible. Instead we’ll focus on another set of stats, as Jokic could become the first player in NBA history to average at least 26 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists on 50 percent field goal shooting. Oscar Robertson averaged 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists in 1961-62, but shot 48 percent from the field.

Is this sustainable? Absolutely.

The one slight nitpick in Jokic’s diverse offensive arsenal has always been his aggressiveness in terms of looking for his own shot, and that has clearly changed this season. He’s shooting over 18 times per game, up from 15 the last two seasons, and making a drastically higher percentage. Even if his scoring average drops a bit, he should be able to stay above 25 points per game, while his career-high assist and rebounding numbers seem reasonable with the level at which he’s performing this season. At his current pace of 26.9 points, 11.6 rebounds and 8.6 assists on 57 percent shooting, he has some significant margin of error to stay above the threshold, even if his numbers slip as the season goes along.

Stat: Averaging 30 points per game on 50-40-90 shooting

Curry’s 2015-16 season, for which he was awarded the league’s first unanimous MVP, is widely considered to be the greatest offensive season in NBA history. He became the first player to average at least 30 points on at least 50 percent field goals, 40 percent 3-pointers and 90 percent free throw shooting. Well hey, guess what? He might do it again. Curry’s currently averaging exactly 30 points on 49-44-93 splits.

Is this sustainable? Of course, it’s Steph Curry.

Curry’s currently shooting 49 percent from the field, and that will probably be his biggest challenge to get into the 50-40-90 club again this season. During that 2015-16 season, Curry shot 65.9 percent on 5.1 attempts per game in the restricted area. He’s been slightly less effective this season, making 62.5 percent, but more relevant for this discussion is that he’s down to 3.7 restricted area attempts per game — partly due to a steady diet of trapping defenses which limit penetration. That drop, plus the potential fatigue from the offensive load he carries every night, may be significant enough to keep him from hitting 50 percent from the field this season.

That being said, we’re talking about the greatest shooter of all time, who’s having another all-time season. Curry looks much more comfortable with Draymond Green back near full strength, and his new teammates are starting to figure out how to play alongside him. It will be interesting to see how the narrative around Curry changes if he’s able to duplicate his otherworldly production from that 2015-16 season.

Stat: Shooting 56.6 percent on midrange jumpers

Embiid’s MVP-caliber season has been fueled by increased offensive efficiency, and nowhere is that improvement more glaring than in his midrange shooting. Our Jack Maloney broke down Embiid’s growth in the area, and he’s currently on pace to have the best midrange shooting percentage with at least four attempts per game since Steph Curry in 2012.

Is it sustainable? History says no.

Here are Embiid’s midrange field goal percentages for the past three seasons: 40.2, 36.1 and 44. With all due respect to Embiid’s focus and dedication to improving, it’s hard to imagine going from those percentages to 56.6 in a single season. It’s more likely that the hot shooting will slowly cool off as the season progresses until it gets closer to his average. Even if it falls to the 50 percent mark or so, that’s still incredible for a player of Embiid’s size and power.

Stat: 119.5 offensive rating

Last season the Dallas Mavericks had the best offensive efficiency in NBA history, averaging 116.1 points per 100 possessions. The Bucks are currently making them look like the 2012 Charlotte Bobcats. Milwaukee has an offensive rating of 119.5, which would absolutely shatter the Mavs’ record. For what it’s worth, the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Clippers are also on pace to best Dallas’ efficiency from last season, but both significantly trail the Bucks.

Is it sustainable? Not at this level.

The Bucks have been in the top-five in 3-point attempts for the last three seasons, but they haven’t traditionally made them at a high clip. The past two seasons, when the Bucks put up league-best win totals, they shot about 35 percent from 3-point range. This season, that’s ballooned to 40.2 percent. That’s led to making almost two extra 3s per game, which partly accounts for the jump in offensive efficiency. Milwaukee had slight upgrades in personnel this offseason, namely replacing Eric Bledsoe with Jrue Holiday, but players like Holiday, Donte DiVincenzo and Pat Connaughton are all shooting well above their career marks from 3-point range. Overall this spells regression, but the good news for the Bucks is that even if their offensive rating drops significantly, it could still set the record for the best in NBA history.

Stat: Averaging fewer than 5.3 points and more than seven assists per game

Green’s value to the Warriors has never been measured by his scoring, but he’s taking things to a new level this season by averaging just 5.1 points per game. If he keeps up his current pace, he will become the first player in NBA history to average fewer than 5.3 points per game while dishing out at least seven assists per game (Nate McMillan averaged 5.3 points and 8.2 assists per game for the Seattle SuperSonics in 1986-87). Green’s scoring average is his lowest since his rookie season, when he played just over 13 minutes per game.

Is this sustainable? Sure.

With the way Green is playing, dishing out at least 10 assists in each of his last five games, staying at seven per game shouldn’t be a problem. The only question is whether he’ll be able to remain under 5.3 points, and if you’ve watched Draymond Green play at all this season, you know that’s well within reach. He’s scored in double-figures just three times this season, with a high of 11 points, and has scored five or fewer points in 12 games, including seven games with three points or fewer.

He’s shooting a robust 19 percent from the 3-point line, and is in the 28th percentile with 1.024 points per possession around the rim, according to Synergy Sports Technology. Overall, he’s second to last in the entire NBA as a halfcourt scorer, but when you factor in assists he jumps to the 96th percentile, which tells you everything you need to know about his impact on the Warriors. Since Green seems to be more effective when he’s not trying to score, it’s not unrealistic for him to average fewer than 5.3 points per game this season.

Stat: Leading the league in scoring while playing for a sub-.500 team

With a comfortable lead in the NBA scoring race at 32.8 points per game, Beal could put himself in rare company if the Wizards continue their futility. Only six players since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976 have led the league in scoring for a team that finished below .500. Washington’s current winning percentage of .273 would be the lowest for a team with a scoring champ since Tracy McGrady on the 2003-04 Orlando Magic — he led the league with 28 points per game while the Magic finished with an NBA-worst 21-61 record, a .256 winning percentage.

Is this sustainable? Unfortunately, yes.

There are two questions here: Will Beal lead the league in scoring, and will the Wizards continue to be this bad? Absolutely and probably. Beal has proven that he’s more than capable of putting up huge offensive numbers even with all the defensive attention he garners on the Wizards, who are currently 27th in the league in net rating. The team getting to .500 seems like a pipe dream, and at this point they’re more likely to challenge McGrady’s Magic as the worst team to claim a scoring champion. To be honest, Beal’s best chance to lead the league in scoring for a .500 team is if he gets traded before the deadline.

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