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December 11, 2012
Ghosts of 30,000 Past
Players Who Fell Short

by Kevin Pelton

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After last week's look at the chances of current players reaching the 30,000-point milestone, my brother raised a good question. We know about the five stars who are part of the 30,000-point club, most recently joined by Kobe Bryant. What about everyone else? Specifically, he wanted to know which players had the best chances of reaching 30,000 points but came up short?

Using the same "favorite toy" method pioneered by Bill James, I calculated the odds of every player reaching 30,000 points after every season in NBA history, which ranged from inevitable (the five guys who did) to are you kidding me? Besides the five players who have scored 30,000 and the two currently above the mark (LeBron James and Kevin Durant), five other players have rated with a 50-50 shot or better of reaching 30,000. Let's take a look at them and the rest of the top 10 to see what we can learn from their example.

Oscar Robertson '67 (66.2%)
The Big O looked like a good choice to score 30,000 points after the 1966-67 season, when he averaged 30.5 points per game and moved past 16,000 career points at age 28. A couple of factors worked against him. First, the league's pace slowed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, meaning that Robertson's prodigious pace could not continue. His scoring output also dropped quickly when he was dealt from the Cincinnati Royals to the Milwaukee Bucks, where he partnered with featured scorer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Ultimately, Robertson would have needed at least another three and maybe four seasons to get to 30,000. The bigger-picture takeaway here is that no one anywhere near as likely as James (rated at 90.5 percent chances of 30,000 per the favorite toy method) has ever failed to get there.

Allen Iverson '08 (65.5%)
The end of the 2007-08 season represented far and away the peak of Iverson's likelihood for reaching 30,000 points; he was barely better than 50-50 after 2005-06 and 2006-07. At age 32, he got to the precipice of 23,000 points by averaging 26.4 points per game for the Denver Nuggets. Little did we know that would be Iverson's last season as a star. After the Nuggets traded him to the Detroit Pistons, Iverson scored just 1,324 points the rest of his NBA career. In retrospect, Iverson's short post-prime career seems obvious. Once he stopped scoring at an elite clip, Iverson did not offer enough value to justify dealing with the other baggage he brings.

Bob McAdoo '76 (57.6%)
In all of NBA history, just two players--James and Wilt Chamberlain--rated as more likely to score 30,000 career points after their fourth season than McAdoo. McAdoo got there by piling up nearly 9,000 points in four years, averaging better than 30 points per game each of the last three. In December 1976, McAdoo was traded to the New York Knicks, and while he still enjoyed a long career, McAdoo's days as an elite player were already past him. Amazingly, McAdoo barely scored more points (9,827) over his last nine seasons than he did in his first four.

Bob Pettit '64 (56.7%)
Pettit represents the difficulty applying a modern method to the early NBA. He played just one final season after 1963-64, averaging 22.5 points per game before calling it quits at age 32 after suffering a knee injury. Nowadays, Pettit would still have many productive years ahead of him. Then, meager salaries provided little incentive to keep going at a reduced rate. Pettit probably never considered getting to 30,000 points; he retired as the leading scorer in league history at the time and the charter member of the 20,000-point club.

Adrian Dantley '82 (50.0%)
Six seasons into his NBA career, Dantley had reached 11,000 career points at the age of 26 and scored 30-plus two years running. As a result, his favorite toy projection was nearly dead on the mark: 30,003 career points. The following season, Dantley missed 60 games due to torn ligaments in his wrist. His scoring pace dropped off quickly after the Utah Jazz traded him to Detroit (where 30,000-point dreams go to die, apparently). Dantley went from 20-point scorer to out of the league within two seasons at the end of his career and finished nearly 7,000 points of 30,000.

Shaquille O'Neal '02 (49.1%)
Of non-30,000 players, O'Neal got the closest, finishing 1,404 points away from the milestone. His chances peaked at nearly even odds after the last of the Lakers' three championships with him on the roster. Injuries were the biggest factor holding down O'Neal's career totals. He missed at least 15 games in seven of his final nine seasons, which proved costly.

Rick Barry '67 (47.3%)
Barry looked like a good bet for 30,000 after his second season, when he averaged 35.6 points per game for a Warriors team that advanced to the NBA Finals. That summer, Barry decided to jump to the ABA, forfeiting any chance of making NBA history as a scorer. Barry still is nearly 5,000 points shy of 30,000 when his ABA totals are added, so he probably would have come up short even had he not jumped leagues. While the season he was forced to sit out because of a lawsuit was a factor, Barry's scoring production was due to go down as the league's pace slowed.

Dominique Wilkins '94 (47.1%)
A very different sort of league change doomed Wilkins' chances of reaching 30,000. After 1993-94, Wilkins was less than 6,000 points away from joining the elite club, but a midseason trade to the L.A. Clippers made him something of a journeyman. After one middling season in Boston, he headed overseas to Greece for the 1995-96 campaign. Wilkins also played in Italy in 1997-98; had he stayed in the NBA both seasons, he might have gotten close enough to hang on in the league to chase history into his 40s.

Tracy McGrady '03 (45.6%)
McGrady actually inspired this list. My brother was curious how good his chances of scoring 30,000 looked back when McGrady or Kobe Bryant was a legitimate question (and most statistical analysts came down in favor of McGrady). Because he was still so far from the milestone, McGrady's odds never got too high even after he scored 32.1 points per game, though he ended up falling more than 10,000 points shy of what favorite toy projected for his career. Back and knee injuries caused McGrady to age in dog years, and he currently has fewer points than anyone else in the top 10. Barry surpasses him on NBA points alone. Of course, McGrady might not be finished as an NBA player, though few former stars of his ilk have made it back from China.

Jerry West '72 (45.0%)
It wasn't until age 34, with nearly 23,000 career points to his credit, that West's chances of reaching 30,000 peaked. Like many players from his era, he ended up fading quickly. West played two final seasons before retiring prior to his 36th birthday in part due to a contract dispute with then-owner Jack Kent Cooke. West, who never played for numbers, surely put little value on the possibility of 30,000, which would have taken another three or four healthy seasons.

Besides these players, three others surpassed 40 percent chances of 30,000: Gilbert Arenas, Walt Bellamy and Hakeem Olajuwon. Taking together, the group suggests that the favorite toy method isn't quite conservative enough. If we added up the percentages, for example, we'd figure that about half the players on this list should have gotten to 30,000. That none did--and just five have in league history--shows just how difficult it is to combine longevity, health and production.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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