Chris Kaman's Improbable Streak

When Chris Kaman scored 20 points in the Clippers first game of 2010 against the Trailblazers, he was making history.  Unbeknownst to us at the time, on that date Kaman surpassed Avery Johnson's record of 53 career 20+ point games without a single 30+ point game.  Since that time, he's posted 13 more 20 point games to run his record to 66.

Kaman's career high in scoring has inched up a couple of times in this the best scoring year of his career.  The 27 he scored against Dallas in the fourth game of the season was his career high for about 7 weeks, until he scored 29 against Houston in December.  It was always an interesting aside that he'd never actually had a 30 point game - they're not that uncommon in the NBA, after all, and Kaman was turning into a primary offensive option.  But it slowly began to dawn on me that this was more than just a curiousity - that it was probably unique.

I couldn't be bothered to do the heavy lifting, but citizen John R got on the case when I whined in the comments of Wednesday's game recap about the challenges to prove my theory.  I'm not completely certain how he went about it, but I assume he queried lists of 20 point scorers and the number of times they'd done it, and compared it to lists of 30 point scorers.  Lo and behold, Kaman's current total of 66 20's without a 30 (the new stat 20wo30 from now on) was second only to Charles Oakley's 70.  How exciting - surely Kaman would pass Oak in the near future.  A massive hat tip to John R for tracking this down of course.

But wait a minute, you're saying to yourself.  Didn't Steve start by saying that Kaman already has the record?

Here's what you need to know.  Basketball-reference.com doesn't have individual game data from before the 1986-87 season, and if that data is available somewhere, I certainly don't know about it.  Charles Oakley was a rookie in 1985-86, and then played 18 more seasons after that.  In the 18 years worth of data available online about him, he scored 20 or more 70 times, with a high of 28.  But what if he scored 30 in his rookie year? 

I went to the Bulls media guide from last season.  In all media guides, there is always a section about the history of the franchise.  I found the pages for the 1985 season, and although they didn't have 82 box scores for me, they did list the Bulls high scorers for all 82 games.  Lo and behold, Oak was a bit more offensive minded as a young-un.  He had a 35 point effort March 15 1986 in an OT game vs. the Bucks, and scored 31 on February 25 1986 versus the Sixers.  So he was out of the race before it even began.

That left Avery Johnson, the little General, as the 20wo30 champion entering the season. 

Unless we eliminate him also.  Turned out that AJ scored 30 in a playoff game in 1998.  At any rate, Kaman certainly broke AJ's regular season record.  If you want to include playoff games, then Derek Fisher was the prior record holder with 50 regular season and 9 playoff 20wo30s.  In case you're wondering, Kaman's career playoff high is 15.

Phew.  The record is safe.

The Oakley issue points out something that everyone needs to bear in mind of course.  We don't really know if this is an all time NBA record, since we don't have data going back far enough.  We know that since 1986, Kaman leads the league in career 20wo30s.  And that's impressive enough, when you consider that we're talking about two dozen years of NBA history.

How unusual is this?  Well, it's not just mildly surprising.  Consider this - Kaman is the Clippers leading scorer this season at 19.6 points per game, but four other Clippers have scored 30 this season alone (Al Thornton, Rasual Butler, Eric Gordon and Baron Davis).  Heck, Mike Taylor scored 30 last season.  Of the 36 NBA players averaging 18 or better points per game this season, Kaman is the only one without a 30 point game this year, let alone during his career.  You have to go down to Kevin Love, 66th in the league in points per game at 15.1 to find another player without a 30 point game in his career, and Love is only in his second season of course. 

As I mentioned before, it's just not that unusual to score 30 points in an NBA game.  Here is a partial list of Clippers who have done it since 1986:

Lorenzen Wright, Rory White, the aforementioned Mike Taylor, Olden Polynice (!), Ty Nesby

The late Malik Sealy, never much of a scorer, had two 30 point games in a Clippers uniform.

The list of NBA players with 30 point games in the last 24 years includes some guys I've literally never heard of.  Not many, but a few:

Derrick Alston?  Sasha Danilovic?  Derrick Gervin?  Sam Mack?  Doug Smith?

It also includes names that are so out of place on a list of NBA high scorers that they are jarring:

Chucky Brown, Kwame Brown, Brian Cardinal, Quincy Douby, Acie Earl, Richie Frahm, Brevin Knight, Luke Jackson, Adam Keefe, Brad Lohaus, Rick Mahorn, Tony Massenburg, Doug Overton, Brent Price (that's Brent Price, not Mark Price), Khalid Reeves, Sharone Wright...

And of course, Robin Lopez.  (In fact, more than one name is on the list solely because of recent Clippers largesse, including Lopez and Beno Udrih.)

All of those guys have 30 point games in their careers, but Chris Kaman does not.  It's pretty astounding really.

What does it all mean?  Hell if I know. 

You have to give Chris credit for being consistent I guess.  He's still in the top 20 in the league in scoring this year, and he has to maintain that average without the benefit of any major outbursts.  Which means that he has managed to avoid too many no-shows in points as well.

One does worry a bit though.  There have been numerous games this season where it seemed obvious he was well on his way to 30.  This subject surfaced because he had 18 at halftime against the Suns on Wednesday - he finished with 24.  He had 21 at halftime against the Rockets on Dec. 22 and finished with 29. 

Why does he seemingly not finish games as strong as he starts them?  There are a few factors, no doubt.  In general, it's harder for post players to continue to score when defenses ratchet up the intensity in the fourth quarter.  The NBA is currently a perimeter oriented game, and the guys with the ball in their hands tend to get the shots in crunch time.  Even so, one wonders if perhaps his stamina isn't quite where it needs to be and he's wearing down over the course of a game.  There was the discussion of drinking more milk earlier in the season.  Or is it something more fundamental?  Is he not equipped to deal with the pressure of late game situations?

Regardless of the reason, it's a fascinating stat, the 20wo30.  A lot of 20 point games indicates a pretty good NBA scorer.  And eventually, pretty good NBA scorers hit a big night and put up 30.  Heck, as we know from the lists above, terrible NBA scorers like Brevin Knight are capable of having big nights.

Kaman will get his 30 eventually, and the record will go back to Avery Johnson (regular season) and Derek Fisher (regular season and playoffs) at that point.  But until he does, we've got something to keep us interested down the stretch.

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