The NBA’s 50-point plateau used to be rarified air, a career milestone for all who achieved it and an important measuring stick for players when judging their legacies. But, as recent evidence would suggest, the 50-burger isn’t the coveted benchmark it once was. Fifty-point performances have become a near-nightly occurrence in today’s NBA, watering down an accomplishment once reserved for prolific scorers like Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain.
This month alone we’ve witnessed six different players pour in 50 or more points including LeBron James (twice), Kyrie Irving (twice), Kevin Durant, Jayson Tatum, Karl-Anthony Towns and, most recently, Pistons up-and-comer Saddiq Bey. While purists—the curmudgeonly Bob Ryans and Chris “Mad Dog” Russos of the world—will lament the lack of defense being played, others would view this as a positive, a sign the game is in strong, capable hands with prodigious talents like Tatum and Towns carrying the torch for future generations. Beauty is, after all, in the eye of the beholder. Whether you’re a fan of this growing trend, indifferent toward it, or see the NBA’s recent influx of 50-point scorers as a black eye on the sport, promoting “hero ball” at the expense of fundamentals, that doesn’t get us any closer to understanding why this is happening.
The measurements across sports are always changing. For instance, Tatum now has as many 50-point games in his career (four) as Celtics icon Larry Bird. Some may interpret that to mean Tatum is on pace to be the better player, though it really says more about the eras they played in. The “Big Three” Heat opened the floodgates, forever changing the way rosters are constructed with front-office decision-makers now content to build around high-volume, low-efficiency superstars, putting the scoring burden on two or three players instead of a whole team.
The NBA’s increased reliance on perimeter scoring—Bey sank 10 threes in his 51-point outburst Thursday night—is another factor to consider. Teams are attempting a record 35.2 three-pointers per game this season, an exponential leap from even a decade ago when the league average was still just 18.4. The impact of this phenomenon is two-fold. Not only has the three-point evolution increased scoring, but it’s also sped up the game with long rebounds leading to extra possessions (98.3 per game, up from 91.3 in 2012).
At the same time, free throw totals are down across the sport (fewest attempts since 2018), a result of the NBA no longer rewarding foul-seeking players like James Harden and Steph Curry for initiating contact on “non-basketball moves.” Whatever the reason for the league’s scoring renaissance of late, it’s clear that 50-point games—though still worth celebrating—don’t carry the same weight they did in earlier incarnations of the NBA, especially if a player most casual fans had never heard of until Thursday night can reach that threshold.