Examining the 50-Point Explosions

March 2022 has featured eight 50-point games so far.  According to NBA.com, this month has had the most 50-point games since there were nine in December 1962 (six by Wilt Chamberlain and three by Elgin Baylor).  In the early 1960s, with the fast pace and the existence of Wilt, 50-point games were quite commonplace.  But now we have seen 50-point games emerge more often and, sometimes, from more random players like Saddiq Bey, a good player but quite surprising 50-point guy.  I wanted to take a look and see about the frequency of 50-point games over time and what, if anything, we can learn from this.

With the help of Basketball-Reference we have gleaned the following fun facts:

-Since 1946-47, there have been 605 50-point games (including playoffs but excluding ABA)

-A reminder of how great Wilt was…he has 122 of all NBA 50-point games, or roughly 20% of the total.  46 of Wilt’s games came during his legendary 1961-62 season when he averaged 50.4 ppg.  As he slowed down with age, and the NBA slowed down, Wilt scored much less. From 1965-66 to the end of his career in 1972-73, Wilt had 12 50-point games.  His last 50-point game came on February 9, 1969, when he dropped 66 points on Phoenix.

-Michael Jordan is second with 39 50-point games.  He had six 50-point games after his return in 1994-95.  He had none in 1997-98, his final year with the Bulls, but pulled one more with the Wiz on December 29, 2001.

-The recently retired Jamal Crawford has four 50-point games, which is the most by a player never to be an All-Star. 

-Purvis Short has the most points in a game by a player who never made an All-Star game when he dropped 59 on the Nets on November 17, 1984.  Incidentally, the Warriors lost that game by 17.

-Box scores are incomplete until the mid-1980s but the lowest Game Score for a 50-point scorer was Dale Ellis on November 19, 1989, when he put up 27.4 (he shot 18-39 from the field in 69 minutes (!) and had one assist and eight turnovers).  Kobe Bryant was next lowest at 27.6 on March 30, 2007 (19-44 shooting, and only two assists).  The best Game Score goes to MJ’s 69-point game against Cleveland in 1990, which just edged out Kobe’s 81-point game.

-The ugliest shooting 50-point game goes to James Harden on December 3, 2019.  He shot 11-37 from the field and 4-20 from three but was an impressive 24-24 from the line.  Wilt had a bad 50-point game on October 28, 1962 when he shot 23-60 with two assists against the Royals.  Both of their teams lost.  Wilt and Russell Westbrook had quite a few poor 50-point games where they shot under .412%.

-GOAT alert! Jordan has the most playoff 50-point games with eight.  He had a bunch of those during the scoring scarce 1990s.  Wilt is second with four 50-point playoffs games.  Allen Iverson is third with three (two happened in the same week against the Raptors in 2001). 

-In all, there have been 45 50-point playoff games but many have come recently.  12 of the 45 games have come since 2017 and four came in the 2020 bubble (two each by Jamal Murray and Donovan Mitchell).  The overall breakdown of 50-point playoff games by decade:

1950s: 2

1960s: 9 (4 by Wilt, 2 by Jerry West)

1970s: 3 (note there is a gap of 11 years between the last 50-point game of the 1970s, Bob McAdoo in 1975, to Dominique Wilkins in 1986)

1980s: 6 (4 by MJ)

1990s: 5 (4 by MJ)

2000s: 8 (3 by Iverson)

2010s: 5 (there was a gap of 8 years between Ray Allen in 2009 to the next 50-pointer by Russell Westbrook in 2017)

2020s: 7

So, the flood gates have really opened up in 50-point playoff games.  The three-point shot has helped. Murray hit 9 threes in each of his two big games. Giannis Antetokounmpo did it the hard way in the 2021 Finals with only one three-pointer.  Jordan was the last player to score 50-points in a playoff game without making a three back in Game 4 of the 1993 Finals versus Phoenix.

Turning to the regular season, here’s the decade-by-decade breakdown of 50-point games (we define a decade based on the year the season ended in.  For example, the 1950s range from 1949-50 thru 1958-59, etc.):

1950s: 11

1960s: 162

1970s: 51

1980s: 60

1990s: 49

2000s: 85

2010s: 85

2020s: 54

There you have it.  In not quite three seasons, the decade of the 2020s is poised to exceed the 1960s as the decade of the most 50-point games (if the 2020s keep the same pace, there should be about 180 50-point games).  Obviously, the rules could change in such a way that could stifle offense but it’s clear that the modern rules have us in an inflationary offensive atmosphere.  We should also take this opportunity to marvel, again, about how Jordan was able to score in the era where the rules so favored defense.