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Sunday, September 23, 2007

Stepping Up in the Playoffs

This article was originally published at NBCSports.com on 12/5/06; it has been updated to include statistics from the 2006-07 season

One of my statistical pet peeves is when a writer or broadcaster compares a player’s career regular season scoring average with his career playoff scoring average to determine whether or not the player “steps up” in the postseason. This approach is flawed because in most cases each regular season in a player’s career has a roughly equal effect on his career scoring average, while the number of games in his playoff seasons may vary greatly. Also, his playoff seasons may be concentrated in portions of his career when he did not score as much.

Wilt Chamberlain’s career is an excellent example of why straight up comparisons of career regular season and playoff scoring statistics can be misleading. Chamberlain averaged 30.1 ppg in his regular season career, mere percentage points behind Michael Jordan for the top spot in NBA history in that category—but in his first five years Chamberlain scored 41.7 ppg and after seven years his average still stood at 39.6 ppg, which is more than any other player in NBA history has averaged in a single season. However, most of Chamberlain’s playoff games took place in the second half of his career, when he accepted a lesser scoring role and distributed the ball to Hal Greer, Gail Goodrich, Jerry West and others. As a result, Chamberlain’s playoff career scoring average is 22.5 ppg. On the surface, it looks like he was a subpar playoff performer--but he won two championships on two of the most dominant teams in NBA history during the part of his career when he sacrificed his scoring; his playoff scoring in those years was roughly in line with his regular season scoring at that time.

One way to account for this discrepancy is to calculate an "adjusted" playoff scoring average by adding up each of a player’s single season playoff scoring averages and dividing them by the total number of playoff seasons played. This has the effect of weighting each playoff season equally; barring injury or vastly reduced playing time, each of a player’s regular seasons has a roughly equal impact on his career scoring average, so this "adjustment" is a quick and easy way to replicate that. Chamberlain’s adjusted playoff scoring average is 24.8 ppg. Isn’t that still a big decline from 30.1 ppg? Yes, but there are two more factors to consider. One, scoring tends to decrease in the playoffs for a variety of reasons--tougher competition and more time to prepare for a specific opponent, for example. Two, Chamberlain’s early regular season scoring averages were so out of this world that even he could not duplicate them in the playoffs. His first three season averages were (regular season first, playoffs second): 37.6/33.2, 38.4/37.0, 50.4/35.0. In his fourth season he averaged 44.8 ppg but his team did not qualify for the playoffs; if he had accumulated any playoff games that year that would have increased his career playoff scoring average even if he "only" scored 33 or 35 ppg. It is also worth mentioning that Chamberlain not only shot an excellent 54.0% from the field in the regular season but that he also shot 52.2% from the field in the playoffs (shooting numbers, like scoring averages, tend to go down in the playoffs).

OK, Chamberlain’s regular season scoring averages were outlandish and the split nature of his career negatively affected his playoff scoring averages, but how do other players rate in adjusted playoff scoring average? Not surprisingly, Michael Jordan has the most amazing playoff scoring career by any measure; he has the highest career playoff scoring average, 33.4 ppg, and his adjusted average is even better (34.1 ppg), largely because he did not play in any playoff games in his last two years as a Washington Wizard.

Most of the top ten playoff scorers in NBA/ABA history are not affected too much by adjusted playoff scoring averages because their roles did not change as disproportionately as Chamberlain’s did, both in terms of his reduction in scoring and in terms of how that impacted his playoff career to a greater degree than it did his regular season career. Larry Bird’s adjusted playoff scoring average is lower than his actual playoff scoring average for two reasons--one, his playoff scoring in his last two seasons was much worse than it was during the corresponding regular seasons and two, even during his prime he tended to score worse in the playoffs than the regular season to a larger degree than some other great players did. Hakeem Olajuwon’s adjusted playoff scoring average is worse than his career playoff scoring average in part because his 33.0 ppg average in 22 games during the 1995 playoffs counts for more than 1/7th of his playoff scoring average but only 1/15th of his adjusted average (one season out of 15 versus 22 games out of 145). Olajuwon is one of the few players who scored and shot better in the postseason than in the regular season--but David Robinson, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing and some of the other great players who he defeated in the playoffs probably already suspected that.

Karl Malone’s regular season, playoff and adjusted playoff scoring averages all hover around 25 ppg but the number that stands out for the Mailman is his field goal percentage, which plummeted from 51.6% in the regular season to 46.3% in the postseason. The two years that he won the regular season MVP (1997, 1999) he shot 43.5% and 41.7% from the field in the playoffs; in fact, Malone shot less than 50% from the field in 15 of his 19 playoff seasons; that is a lot of "failed deliveries" and he only maintained his accustomed scoring average by attempting nearly two more field goals per game in the playoffs than he did during the regular season. Those numbers really stand out considering that he was spoon fed by John Stockton, the all-time assists leader, and he played most of his career in an offense that was built entirely around him.

Few people would probably be surprised to learn that both Reggie Miller’s playoff scoring average and his adjusted playoff scoring average exceed his regular season production. His shooting percentage took a hit in the postseason, but it is important to remember that he shot (and made) a lot of three pointers. Elvin Hayes has often been mentioned as someone who did not step up in big moments but his playoff numbers suggest that this is not a fair or accurate sentiment. His playoff shooting and scoring numbers are better than his regular season figures. Oscar Robertson, Mark Aguirre and Bob McAdoo are three players who accepted lesser roles in the latter parts of their careers in order to win championships. Their playoff scoring averages, like Chamberlain’s, benefit significantly when they are adjusted. All of them were big time scorers who played a disproportionate number of their career playoff games during the lower scoring stages of their careers.

Turning our attention to active players, Allen Iverson has the second highest playoff scoring average of all-time, 30.0 ppg. Prior to 2006-07, adjustment did not change that number too much because Iverson's role had been the same throughout his regular season and playoff careers, but after he was traded to Denver his scoring average has gone down. Iverson has participated in the playoffs seven times in his 11 season career, so his reduced playoff scoring last year reduced his adjusted playoff ppg to 29.0. Iveron's shooting percentage is markedly lower than all of the other top playoff scorers. Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Gary Payton and Dirk Nowitzki are the top five active players in total playoff points. The only player from this group who really benefits from adjustment is Payton, who has accepted a lesser role in recent years while trying to win a championship ring.

NBA/ABA Top 10 Playoff Scorers

Player...Pl. Pts...Pl. PPG...Adj. Pl. PPG*...Reg. PPG...Pl. FG%...Reg. FG%

Michael Jordan...5987...33.4...34.1...30.1...48.7...49.7
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar...5762...24.3...25.4...24.6...53.3...55.9
Shaquille O'Neal...5045...25.5...25.1...25.9...56.6...58.0
Karl Malone...4761...24.7...24.9...25.0...46.3...51.6
Julius Erving...4580...24.2...24.1...24.2...49.6...50.6
Jerry West...4457...29.1...29.8...27.0...46.9...47.4
Larry Bird...3897...23.8...22.1...24.3...47.2...49.6
John Havlicek...3776...22.0...21.5...20.8...43.6...43.9
Hakeem Olajuwon...3755...25.9...23.5...21.8...52.8...51.2
Magic Johnson...3701...19.5...19.3...19.5...50.6...52.0

Selected Others--Retired

Wilt Chamberlain...3607...22.5...24.8...30.1...52.2...54.0
Reggie Miller... 2972...20.6...21.6...18.2...44.9...47.1
Rick Barry...2870...27.3...25.4...24.8...44.4...45.7
Elvin Hayes...2194...22.9...22.2...21.0...46.4...45.2
Oscar Robertson...1910...22.2...24.1...25.7...46.0...48.5
Mark Aguirre...1747...17.1...18.5...20.0...48.5...48.4
Bob McAdoo...1718...18.3...20.5...22.1...49.1...50.3

Selected Others--Active

Tim Duncan...3282...23.8...23.8...21.8...50.7...50.9
Kobe Bryant...3053...23.3...23.1...24.6...43.9...45.3
Gary Payton...2155...14.0...15.5...16.3...44.1...46.6
Dirk Nowitzki...2070...25.2...24.9...22.3...44.5...47.0
Allen Iverson...2013...30.0...29.0...27.9...40.0...42.3

*Adjusted Playoff PPG is derived by adding up each of his seasonal playoff ppg averages and dividing that number by his total number of playoff seasons (seasons with fewer than 3 playoff games are not included).

Statistics for Erving and Barry include ABA seasons.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:43 AM

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