Is the NBA scoring title a one-horse race?
By HUNTER KOSSODO
College Contributor Network
At just barely 26 years old, Kevin Durant has already established himself as the best scorer in the NBA. Four of the last five scoring titles belong to him, and his league-leading 32 points per game average was nearly five points ahead of the runner-up last season.
As Durant enters the height of his prime years, never has the race for the scoring title seemed so uncontested. Does any player have a chance of beating "KD," or will Durant become just the third player in NBA history to capture five scoring titles?
He definitely has competition, the NBA is not short on scorers. The four that will most closely challenge Durant will be Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, James Harden, and Kobe Bryant.
Anthony was the runner-up last season at 27.4 points per game and there are two key factors in play for "Melo" this year that could make him a legitimate threat to top Durant.
The first is the not-so-secret weapon that team president Phil Jackson and coach Derek Fisher brought with them to New York: the triangle offense. This could go either way for Anthony in terms of his scoring numbers. The triangle will stress that Melo pass the ball more than he has during his time with the Knicks, but this system also has a knack of producing high scorers.
Michael Jordan won the scoring title seven times when the Bulls ran the triangle offense under Jackson from 1989 to 1998. When Jackson installed the same offense with the Lakers, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant won three scoring titles between them.
The second factor that could have a huge bearing on Melo this season is his weight, or lack thereof. As Anthony moves from power forward back to small forward, losing that weight will get him back to his prime athletic shape.
Another interesting caveat here is that Melo played 38.7 minutes per game last season, tied for the most in the league. Getting in better shape could allow Melo to keep that pace this season, or even break it, and remain fresh for every minute.
Jose Calderon should also help in getting Anthony more involved, as Calderon looks to pass first as opposed to whatever on God's green earth it was that Raymond Felton did.
James and Kevin Love were third and fourth respectively on the scoring list last season. Both of them would be plenty capable of winning the scoring title this year if they were on separate teams, but, fortunately for the people of Cleveland, that's not the case.
Love will no longer be the number one option on every offensive play as he was in Minnesota, and he will soon learn that no one on a team with a still-in-his-prime James is its leading scorer, unless it's James himself.
James, who also noticeably lost weight this offseason, has shown that he can compete for the scoring crown despite being one of a big three. James was the runner-up in his first season with the Heat, despite teaming up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, who were both top-10 scorers in the season before.
This year's Cavaliers are different from James' Heat teams in that this big three features a point guard. If Irving, who is known as more of a scoring point guard, looks to facilitate the offense and gives up some shots so that Love and James can get theirs, James will have a very real chance to win his second scoring title.
Harden is arguably the second-best pure scorer in the NBA behind Durant. The "Bearded Wonder" is an excellent shooter, finisher, and gets to the free throw line at an uncanny rate. His 9.1 free throws attempted last season was second only to Durant, and Harden's mark of 10.2 led the league the year before.
With Chandler Parsons gone to Dallas and replaced by Trevor Ariza, who won't be a focal point on offense outside of taking open threes, that means even more shots for Harden.
Harden is also coming off winning a gold medal in the FIBA Basketball World Cup and was the leading scorer on the team, so he'll enter the season fully confident in his game.
Bryant is the dark horse in this race, even though he really shouldn't be. What's going against Bryant is that no player has ever won a scoring title at 36-years-old, and he's suffered devastating knee and leg injuries over the past two seasons.
If Bryant can come back strong, and early signs show that he will, his ability to score should not be in question. Bryant, along with Durant and Anthony, will be the heaviest volume shooters in the NBA next season. KD and Melo were the only two players last season to attempt over 1,500 shots, a mark Bryant has broken 10 times in his career, and most recently just two seasons ago.
Like Melo, there are a couple of factors that point to Bryant shooting like crazy this year. First off, this Lakers team isn't very good. Nick Young is the second-best scorer on the team, and with him expected to miss the start of the season, Carlos Boozer now fills that role.
What that means to Bryant is that he's going to have to shoot the ball a hell of a lot to win games. It's no secret that Bryant decides to be the entire offense when he doesn't have good players around him. Take the 2005-2006 Smush Parker/Kwame Brown Lakers season as an example; Bryant attempted an outrageous 2,173 shots that year. Second on the team was Lamar Odom with 925.
Maybe the most important factor going for Bryant is that he is just 593 points away from topping Jordan on the all-time scoring list. If that doesn't motivate Bryant to score, nothing will. Of all the individual accolades that Bryant has won over the years, this one matters. And once he passes Jordan, he will be roughly 6,000 points behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the number one spot, a benchmark he can surpass if he plays three to four more healthy seasons.
Durant is still the heavy favorite to win the scoring title this year, but don't expect it to be as lopsided as it was last season. Explosive offensive players around the league are primed for career years, including some not mentioned in this article such as Stephen Curry and Blake Griffin.
The Thunder could even pull a 1983 Denver Nuggets and have teammates be the top two high scorers in the league. You know Russell Westbrook is brazen enough to try.
Hunter Kossodo is a junior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. He is a rabid supporter of Boston sports having lived there for most of his life. Follow him on Twitter: @HKossodo