The NBA has changed its style of play in the past decade, which is for the better. Now, NBA teams are relying more on ball movement and ball screens that result in shots for the ball-handler and roller.
That does not mean isolation plays are totally obsolete because that is far from the case. And there are still several players who thrive in isos.
Last year, five players averaged more than five isolation plays per game which is up from just two players who averaged five iso plays in 2015-16.
Houston Rockets guard James Harden led the NBA with an average of 6.8 isolations plays per game. Harden is one of the several players who are most effective when they have the ball in their hands. However, Harden was only involved in isolation plays 23.7% of the time. In comparison, he was involved in pick-n-rolls 11.7 times a game or 40% of his possessions.
Minnesota Timberwolves reserve guard Jamal Crawford, who was with the Clippers last season, had the highest isolation percentage last year at 25.3%. Dallas Maverick forward Harrison Barnes had the second highest percentage of isolation plays at 24.3% followed by Harden.
The rest of the article will look at the top-10 isolation players in the NBA. And the list may surprise you somewhat.
Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers
Lillard probably is the biggest snub when looking back on the list. He has superb handles, is very shifty and is an excellent finisher. He gets to the line a lot though he is not overly efficient in isolation situations. Lillard ranked eighth in isolation points per game this past season and fourth the previous year.
Others (no particular order): Jamal Crawford, Harrison Barnes, Paul George and Seth Curry.
10. James Harden, Rockets
Harden has led the NBA in isolation points per game in each of the last two years and is the only player to tally over 6.0 points those seasons. The problem is that Harden is highly inefficient in these situations. He has averaged less than a point per possession in isolation plays both seasons though he did increase his production to 0.97 ppp in 2016-17.
Harden converted just 41.1% of his isolation plays into points while shooting 37.3% from the field in those situations this past season, both of which rank last among players listed in the top-10 of the list. He does do a good job at drawing fouls, but only had 1.4% of his isolations resulting in and one’s — ahead of just Chris Paul of the players on this list. Harden also turns the ball over a substantial amount in isos.
9. Russell Westbrook, Thunder
Westbrook really came into his own last year. Part of the reason that Westbrook thrived was that coach Billy Donovan put him in more isolations than the year before. The reason that Westbrook is so good in isolation is due to his speed, explosiveness and ability to finish around the rim.
Westbrook finished second last season with 6.0 isolation points per game in though he produced just 0.94 points per possession. He converted 41.5% of his isolation plays into points as he shot 38.8% from the floor in those situations, which is why he is not rated higher on the list.
8. Isaiah Thomas, Celtics
Thomas is not involved in a lot of isolations in Brad Stevens’ team-oriented offensive system. But the diminutive guard is highly effective when giving the opportunity to go one-on-one. Thomas possesses great handles, which allows him to operate in tight spaces, and is extremely quick to go along with an unprecedented fearlessness.
Thomas averaged 1.12 points per isolation per possession last year, tying Kyrie Irving a top of the NBA leaderboard (among players who average 1.0 isolation play per game). While he only tallied 2.6 points a game in isolation situations, Thomas scored 51.7% of the possessions he was in isolation plays as his effective field goal percentage was 50.7%. He attempted a free throw on 20.8% of his isolation plays.
7. Steph Curry, Warriors
Given the Warriors style of up-tempo play that centers around motion and ball-movement, Curry doesn’t get a lot of isolation chances. Although if he was given more of an opportunity to go man-on-man, Curry has the tight handles, precision shooting and ability to finish at the rim that it takes to be very good in isolation situations.
Curry, who averaged 1.7 isos a game in 2016-17, produced 1.09 points per possession as he scored 47.4% of the time. He turned the ball over 3.7% percent of the time in isolation while shooting 45.5% from the floor and totaling an effective field goal percentage of 52.1%.
6. LeBron James, Cavs
James’ physicality as well as his amazing skill makes him a fantastic isolation player. James often bullies his way to the rim, being hit a number of times along the way. His athleticism has dwindled a little, which has been seen at increasingly failure to finish at the rim, due to the wear and tear on his body.
LeBron finished fifth in the league in isolation points per game with 5.0 last year, which was an increase of 1.0 points per game from the 2015-16 campaign. James increased his scoring frequency in isolation plays from just over 40 percent in 2015-16 to 44.6% last year. He also increased his effective field percentage by 8.4 points last season compared to the year before.
5. Carmelo Anthony, Knicks
Throughout this century, Anthony is probably the first name (not named Kobe) that comes to mind when thinking about isolation. That is because Anthony has always wanted to take the big shot and is the type of player who needs the ball in his hand. The problem is, Anthony has a habit of pounding the ball too much.
Still, Anthony has averaged 5.2 points a game in isolation plays in each of the past two seasons. He put the ball in the hoop 47.3% in isolations last season and produced 0.99 points per possession. He also shot 44.2% from the field in those situations and posted an effective field goal percentage of 46.8% in 2016-17.
4. DeMar DeRozan, Raptors
DeRozan is an ideal isolation player as he is athletic, can score on all three levels and protects the basketball. DeRozan averaged 1.02 points on 4.6 isolation opportunities as he scored on 50.7% of those plays last season. He recorded the third highest percentage of shooting fouls of players on this list at 14.7% and posted an effective field goal percentage of 47.8.
3. Kevin Durant, Warriors
Durant is the most likely Warrior to have an isolation play drawn up due to his skillset. The 6-9 forward can lull the defense away with his magicastical handles and then all of a sudden explode to the hoop due to his athleticism. He can shoot with pinpoint accuracy and is one of the best finishers at the rim, especially through contact.
Durant produced 1.05 points per possession in 2.5 isolation situations per game. He scored on 48.0% of his isos as he drew a shooting foul in 17.9% on those occasions, converting 5.9% of those two and ones.
2. Chris Paul, Rockets
Expect Paul to be unleashed this year in Mike D’Antoni’s free wheeling system. Paul is not extremely explosive but is very crafty and knows how to use his body to his advantage. Plus, he has a variety of finishing moves.
Paul averaged 1.09 points per isolation as he scored on 47.3% of those possessions in 2016-17. He shot an above average 45.4% from the field in isos situation, but in reality ended up of the effective players in those situations — finishing with a 52.7 effective field goal percentage. The thing with Paul is that he won’t draw a lot of fouls but he doesn’t turn the ball over, either. In 2016-17, the 6-0 point guard committed a turnover 3.3% of the time he was involved in one-on-one situations — topping the league.
1. Kyrie Irving, Cavs
Irving is one of the best creators and shot-makers in the NBA, which makes him nearly unstoppable in iso situations. He also has an explosive first step along with a deadly crossover that aids him in getting by defenders. And when he can’t get to the hole, he creates space with a great step back.
Irving tallied 5.7 points of his career-high 25.2 points a game in isolation situations last year. The 6-3 guard averaged a league-high 1.12 points per isolation play (out of players who averaged 1.5 isolations per game). He shot 47.0% from the floor in isolation situations and led the league with a 53.2% effective field goal percentage as he got to the line 11.7% of the time. Irving scored 49.6% of his isolation plays, which included finishing with and one 2.7% of the time.