NBA’s Unbreakable Records?

As the NBA off-season kicks into low gear, this is usually a time we like to take a look at some old-timey stats/stories.  To that end, I happened to have revisited Bill Simmons’ old “The Book of Basketball,” just to kill a little time at the beach this summer.   The book was written in 2009 and is still entertaining, even though I can never wholly support a book that listed Robert Horry in the top 96 players of all-time.

Still, the book is definitely worth reading even now.  It is packed with stories that I had forgotten and there is enough content to skip to a bunch of the fun content.  One particular fun part that I had totally forgotten was Simmons’ prediction as to the ten most “unbreakable” NBA records.

Relevant to this inquiry is something Bill James wrote recently when asked about unbreakable records in the context of baseball.  I can’t find the exact quote from his website (because he is constantly saving over his previous e-mail questions) but James noted that all sports records will eventually be broken unless a rule change is implemented that makes the change impossible.  This observation makes sense and is the lens through which we should consider the Simmons list.  Simmons’ list is made in the order of likelihood he felt the records were to be broken.  It’s been almost eight years, let’s see how he did.  We’ll look at the list in reverse order (i.e. the most likely to be broken is tenth, etc.)

10.  Jose Calderon’s 98.1% free throw percentage: In 2008-09, Calderon shot an impressive 151 for 154 from the line.  This seems pretty breakable.  According to the NBA, 125 free throws attempted is the minimum to make the list.  To break the Calderon record, someone will have to shoot really well and not that often.   Simmons recognized as much in noting that when the minimum attempts to qualify is raised, the accuracy inches down (ie the best shooter with 300 attempts or 400 attempts).  Since 2008-09, though, no one has come really close to Calderon.  The closest run since then has been Brian Roberts for the Pelicans in 2013-14, when he shot 125 for 133 from the line (.940%).  Calderon shooting in 2008-09 also seem a little flukey too.  He followed up that awesome shooting with some regression relatively speaking to a more modest 83-104 (.798%).  Steve Nash and Steph Curry have also made runs at this record but they got to the line too frequently to not miss a few more.

Given the confluence of circumstances needed to shoot so well and so rarely from the line, we would rate the Calderon record as unlikely to be broken any time soon (it took 28 years for Calderon to take the crown from Calvin Murphy).

9.  Rasheed Wallace’s 41 technicals: In 2000-01, Rasheed Wallace was at the height of his screaming and the officials could not stand him.  Rasheed’s continual complaining was so bad that it caused the rule change that requires suspensions once a player hits 16 techs in a season, and more suspensions for every two technicals thereafter.  This is exactly what Bill James was talking about with unbreakable records.  Had Sheed racked up 41 technicals under the current rule, he would have been suspended for 13 games.   While it possible a player could hit that high summit, no one would be quite so crazy as to forfeit so many game checks.  Wallace was actually more careful about this later in his career when his paycheck was at stake.  He still was among leaders every year but he stayed under 20 a season.  As such, I think Simmons underrated how unbreakable this record really is.

In case you’re curious, here is the list of players who exceeded 30 techs in a regular season since 1992-93, according to

Rasheed Wallace, 2000-01: 40 (I know Simmons said he had 41)

Rasheed Wallace, 1999-00: 38

Dennis Rodman, 1993-94: 33

Charles Barkley, 1992-93: 32

Charles Barkley, 1994-95: 32

8.  Scott Skiles’ 30-assist game: Skiles great game comes with an asterisk because he did it against the old run n’ gun Nuggets in 1990-91, when they were intentionally running at a pace that isn’t normally seen.  John Stockton nearly broke the record two weeks later in a regular game against the Spurs.  In more recent times, Rajon Rondo has hit 20 assists a bunch of times and maxed out at 24 assists (a mark that Ramon Sessions, of all people, tied).  So this is a tough record to break but it is also is quite flukey.  As good as Stockton was, some huge assist games were racked up by the likes of Sessions, Will Bynum (20 in 2010), Chris Duhon (22 in 2008), Brevin Knight (20 in 2005), Jamaal Tinsley (23 in 2001), and even George McCloud (22 in 2001).   A fluke will happen again someday.  It’s hard to know when but somehow, Skiles’ record will fall by someone you won’t expect.

7.  Chicago’s 72-win season: Simmons said that it was too improbable to have a team finish with less than 10 wins but the Warriors took proved him wrong last season.   What’s more, there have been quite a few other teams close to the 72-win mark recently (four other teams have won 66 or more games since 2008-09).  It’ll be hard for a team to break the Warriors’ mark from this season but the argument can be made that GS has improved from last season.  This will be hard to break again but certainly not impossible.

6.  Wilt’s 100-point game: While not quite impossible, this is up there.   The game has changed too much.  The players are bigger and stronger and the pace isn’t as fast as it was in the early 1960s.  First start with the pace…Wilt scored 100 points and his team scored 169 (beating the Knicks 169-147).  This type of score just doesn’t happen anymore.  The changes to the game were so swift that Wilt felt those limitations too.  He never scored more than 68 points after 1963.  Then the defense…Wilt was supposed to be guarded by the 6’10, 220-pound, Darrall Imhoff the night he scored 100 (Imhoff fouled out very quickly).  That wasn’t going to work against someone as large as Wilt and the bodies are a bit bigger today, which prevents that kind of physical dominance by a large offensive player.

There is also an argument that Wilt’s game wasn’t quite as impressive.  Wilt scored 59% of his team’s points that day.  Pretty damn impressive but Kobe scored 66% of the Lakers’ points in his 81-point game, which was, in a sense, more dominating than Wilt’s big game.  Wilt’s raw numbers can’t be reached in a modern NBA game but his scoring prowess that day was a tad overstated by the context.  If the 100-point mark were to fall (and it won’t) it would have to come by someone like Steph Curry hitting a ton of threes.

5.  George McGinnis’ 422 turnovers: As Simmons’ notes, McGinnis’ huge TO years happened in the ABA and technically do not count in the official NBA books.   The record for TOs in the NBA  was actually just set by James Harden last season with 374.  Not quite 422 but TOs are climbing and it only takes one player who ball dominates on a team with few offensive options to creep up to McGinnis’ territory (Russell Westbrook anyone?).   The McGinnis record is less safe than most of the records above it on this list.

4.  L.A.’s 33-game winning streak: The 1971-72 Lakers’ streak is still safe but it just survived its strongest challenge ever (Warriors 28-game streak between the end of 2014-15 and start of 2015-16).  In 2012-13, the Heat also came pretty close (27 games).   A tough record to break but we have seen surges in that direction that suggest there is an outside chance of a breakage.

3.  Russell’s eleven rings: The league is much too big for one team to make the Finals as often as Bill Russell did in the 1960s.  The only way to possibly break the record is for a journeyman/role player to have the perfect timing and bounce from winner to winner (a la Robert Horry, Derek Fisher, or Ron Harper).  This seems very unlikely.

2.  Wilt’s 55-rebound game: This really mirrors the 100-point game issue.  There aren’t enough possessions in the modern NBA and the players are too big to let anyone come close to breaking this mark.   Only 28 players have had 40 or more rebounds in a game and 26 of them were Wilt and Russell.  In more modern times, the most boards in a game comes from Moses Malone in 1978-79 with 37, followed by Charles Oakley’s 35 board game in 1987-88.  Individual rebounding has really slowed down since even the 1980s.  Only two players have grabbed 30 boards since 2000.   So this record is untouchable.

The Oakley mark comes with an interesting anecdote.  Oakley and Michael Cage were neck-and-neck for the rebounding crown that season an Oak grabbed 35 in the final game of the season to give himself a cushion against Cage, who would play his final game afterwards.  Cage needed 29 boards to beat Oakley and, of course, Cage grabbed 30 to take the title with 13.027 rpg versus 13.0 for Oak.

  1.  Wilt’s 50 points per game: Yup…this one is totally unbreakable today.

So, let’s recap how Simmons did on this list.  Rather than rank them in order, let’s group them by categories:

Records that were broken

-Chicago’s 72-win season

Records that are somewhat likely to be broken

-Scott Skiles’ 30-assist game

-George McGinnis’ 422 turnovers

-L.A.’s 33-game winning streak

Records that are unlikely to broken any time soon

-Jose Calderon’s 98.1% free throw percentage

-Russell’s eleven rings

Records that appear pretty much unbreakable in the current NBA environment

-Rasheed Wallace’s 41 techni cals

-Wilt’s 100-point game

-Wilt’s 55-rebound game

-Wilt’s 50 points per game

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