Ranking the NBA’s top-5 cupcake kings

You can only play who is in front of you, but these five players made the most of their opportunities against the cupcakes of the league.
2017 NBA Finals - Game Three
2017 NBA Finals - Game Three / Gregory Shamus/GettyImages

To be the best, you have to beat the best, but throughout an 82-game NBA regular season, you still have to play who is in front of you. These are the five players who made the most of their contests against the bottom-10 defenses or the cupcakes of the league. 

What makes a cupcake king?

To be as objective as possible, I tried to establish statistically who had benefitted the most from playing against bottom-10 defenses. To do this, I took every player in the top 76 of points per game, which was my sample cutoff, and calculated how much their season averages were boosted by their performances against the worst defenses in the league. I called this metric the bottom-10 boost. Two important notes, the data is from after game 80 of the regular season, as the final two games can be glorified exhibitions, and scheduling undoubtedly plays a part. Not every player will play the same number of games against the worst defenses and more games against bad teams by definition makes it a larger part of your season totals. 

From there, I calculated the sample’s average boost and the standard deviation from the mean for each statistical category. I then found each player’s Z-score per statistic and added the seven most relevant Z-scores (points, effective field goal percentage, field goal attempts, free throw attempt rate, offensive rebounds, assists, and turnovers per game) to determine the five players who had boosted their regular season offensive numbers the most against the worst defenses. 

Cupcake King No. 5: Paul George (Z-Score total: 4.9)

Paul George had an excellent overall season, averaging 22.8 points per game on 56.5 percent effective field goal percentage, but his work against bottom-10 defenses helped his overall line tremendously. In 23 games against the cupcakes of the league, he averaged 25.3 points per game on a 64.2 effective field goal percentage. If it wasn’t for his excellence against the not-so-excellent, he would have only averaged 21.7 points per game with an effective field goal percentage of 52.9. 

George hardly ramped up his shooting volume against the lower competition, but he was simply scorching as a shooter. This could be an example of shooting variance, or it could be an indication that George has lost a step and can’t as consistently get buckets against better defenses. 

The Clippers need George clicking on all cylinders to make a deep playoff run, but his relative struggles against the best defenses could prove pivotal. There’s a reason the playoffs are so meaningful in the NBA, and it’s because most of the cupcakes have already been devoured. 

Cupcake King No. 4: Tobias Harris (Z-Score total: 5.3)

The Philadelphia 76ers absolutely destroyed the dregs of the league, and one of the reasons is Tobias Harris went from an inefficient contributor to an excellent one. For the season, he averaged 17.2 points per game on a 53.3 effective field goal percentage, but in 28 games against cupcakes, or crumble cookies, he clocked in at 18.8 points per game on a 57.4 effective field goal percentage. 

Without those easy pickings, Harris averaged 16.1 points per game on an effective field goal percentage of 50.5 percent over 40 games. The league average effective field goal percentage was 54.7 percent, which means Harris was frankly dreadful against top-20 defenses, and his excellent play against cupcakes dragged his efficiency close to the league average. 

Interestingly, Harris didn’t improve from beyond the arc, but his 2-point conversion exploded. His 2-point field goal percentage against bottom-10 defenses was 59.4 percent, but it was 49.3 percent against everyone else. The Sixers, now with a healthy Joel Embiid, still have deep playoff aspirations, but if Harris can’t step up against real competition, they might bow out with a whimper. 

Cupcake King No. 3: Jimmy Butler (Z-Score total: 5.9)

Considering playoff Jimmy is a thing, seeing Jimmy Butler third in the Cupcake Kings rankings is a shock. But what’s an even larger shock is how he ranks so high. For the season, Butler averaged 21 points per game on a 53 effective field goal percentage but against bottom-third defenses, he averaged 22 points per game on a 53 effective field goal percentage So how does Butler rank so highly if he doesn’t score much more and has the same efficiency? 

No player saw their free throw attempt rate (FTAr) improve more than Butler’s 0.09. Already an elite free throw generator, Butler’s FTAr of .504 against non-bottom-10 defenses explodes to .672 against the worst defenses. He also experienced the second-largest bump in assists with a slight drop in turnovers. 

The bread and butter of Butler’s excellence have long been his elite free throw generation and sterling assist-to-turnover ratio. Against the worst defenses, he’s able to ramp those up to new heights, even if his scoring remains relatively stable. Overall, this was a bit of a down season for Butler, and a lot of that has to do with his inability to play peak Jimmy-ball against the league’s better defenses. 

Cupcake King No. 2: Julius Randle (Z-Score total: 6.6)

The Knicks, like the Sixers, were incredible against the worst defenses in the league. While Jalen Brunson didn’t make the top five, he was sixth in the Cupcake Kings Z-score rankings, and Donte DiVincenzo was also significantly better against bottom feeders. However, before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury, Julius Randle had done enough to lay claim to the Cupcake King of New York City. 

In 46 games, Randle averaged 24 points and 5.0 assists per game on an effective field goal percentage of 51.9. While those are strong numbers, he was downright unfair against the bottom-10 defenses. In 17 games against cupcakes, he averaged 25.5 points and 6.6 assists on an effective field goal percentage of 56.8. Against everyone else, aka top-20 defenses, he averaged 23.1 points and 4.0 assists per game on an effective field goal percentage of 49. 

Where Randle took the biggest hit was in his efficiency and playmaking. His effective field goal percentage boost was the fourth highest, and he experienced the largest increase in assists per game. His long-documented struggles in the playoffs could be directly tied to this phenomenon, but he won’t have the chance to change the narrative this season. Randle remains a good player, but his struggles against good defenses prevent him from becoming great. 

Cupcake King No. 1: Joel Embiid (Z-Score total: 15!)

The NBA’s Cupcake King is its reigning MVP — Joel Embiid. The single biggest reason Embiid ranks so high has to do with volume. Over 50 percent of his games played this season have come against bottom-10 defenses, and like the massive human he is, he has feasted. 

For the season, Embiid averaged 34.8 points per game on an effective field goal percentage of 56.2 percent, but against bottom-10 defenses, he averaged 38 points per game on an effective field goal percentage of 58.1 percent. No player increased their scoring, field goal attempts, and offensive rebounds per game more than Embiid, and with how downright devastating he was against bad defenses, it raises the question of whether he was hunting for stats. 

Against non-bottom-10 defenses, he averaged a still excellent, but not world-breaking, 30.9 points per game on an effective field goal percentage of 53.4. It needs to be repeated, but Embiid playing 21 of his 38 games, against bottom-10 defenses colors his rankings tremendously. However, his early season statistical domination was aided by an incredibly easy slate of opponents. 

With the play in and the playoffs about to begin, Embiid will get the chance to rewrite his postseason narrative, but the degradation in his statistical profile as opponent quality increases does raise questions as it aligns with his playoff struggles. One great playoff run can rewrite a career, but Embiid will have to break the trend he’s shown this season. 

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