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Monday, October 01, 2007

Acing the Finals Test

This article was originally published at NBCSports.com on 4/19/07; it has been updated to include statistics from the 2007 NBA Finals

Winning an NBA championship is the ultimate validation of a great player’s career. Unless he passes that test there is an empty space on his resume. It takes a great team effort to win a title but there is no denying that it helps to have that one great player who can score in almost any situation and who must be double-teamed, opening up opportunities for role players to shine (hello, John Paxson, Steve Kerr and Robert Horry).

Nine of the ten players who have the highest career NBA Finals scoring averages captured at least one NBA championship. The only exception is Elgin Baylor, who lost in each of his seven Finals appearances and who retired after playing just nine games in 1971-72, when his Lakers finally broke through and won their first title since the George Mikan era. Only three of the nine had winning records in the Finals, which shows how difficult it is for even the greatest of the great to win at the sport’s highest level: Michael Jordan went 6-0 in the Finals, Shaquille O’Neal has gone 4-2 and Hakeem Olajuwon went 2-1.

The top career Finals scoring average of all-time belongs to Rick Barry, who scored 36.3 ppg in two NBA Finals. That record is probably one of the safest ones in NBA history. The NBA stipulates a 10 game minimum requirement for being ranked on this list, so a player would have to make it to at least two Finals and perform at a very high level to challenge Barry’s mark. Barry won the Finals MVP in 1975 when he led the Golden State Warriors to a sweep of the Washington Bullets, one of the most improbable upsets in sports history.

The second spot is held by Michael Jordan, who is probably the first name that many fans think of in this category. He averaged 33.6 ppg, which is quite impressive, but his 6-0 record in the Finals will be even tougher to match. Jordan’s name is all over the Finals record book: highest average in one Finals series (41.0 ppg in 1993, beating Barry’s 1967 effort by .2 ppg), most consecutive games with at least 20 points (35--every game that Jordan played) and most consecutive games with at least 40 points (four, 1993). He also holds the record for points in a half with 35 on June 3, 1992 versus Portland; that was when he made six three pointers in the first half, famously shrugging in disbelief after one of them.

Jerry West scored more Finals points than anyone else (1679) and he ranks third with a 30.5 ppg average. He had the misfortune of playing at the same time that Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics dominated the league; West’s Lakers lost to the Celtics six times, but he could hardly be blamed. In 1969 he averaged 37.9 ppg in a seven game loss to Boston, winning the first ever Finals MVP. West remains the only player from the losing team to receive that honor. He scored at least 20 points in 25 straight Finals games, which was the record in that category for over 20 years before Jordan surpassed him. West scored at least 20 points in every game of a seven game Finals on three separate occasions; no one else has done that more than once.

Shaquille O’Neal is the only active player in the top ten. His average took a hit during the 2006 Finals but for now he is still holding on to fourth place at 28.8 ppg. He owns the best field goal percentage in Finals history (.601) and is in the top ten in total points, rebounds and blocked shots. O’Neal’s string of 21 straight games with at least 20 points (snapped during the 2004 Finals) ranks third all-time.

Bob Pettit (28.4 ppg) went 1-3 in the Finals but his 1958 St. Louis Hawks are one of only two teams to beat Russell’s Celtics in a playoff series (the other one, the 1967 Philadelphia 76ers, had the same coach: Alex Hannum). He scored a then-record 50 points in the decisive game six of the 1958 Finals; that still ranks as the fifth best scoring effort in a Finals game.

Hakeem Olajuwon never scored 40 points in a Finals game but his 27.5 ppg average ranks fifth and his 32.8 ppg in Houston’s 1995 win over Orlando is the second best performance in a Finals sweep (O’Neal scored 36.3 ppg in the Lakers’ win over New Jersey in 2002).

Elgin Baylor lost seven times in the NBA Finals, six of them playing alongside Jerry West; Russell’s Celtics were simply too deep and too good. He still holds the record for most points in a seven game Finals series (40.6 ppg, which ranks third overall behind the Barry and Jordan efforts mentioned earlier). He also holds the record for most points in a Finals game, 61, which was the playoff record as well until Michael Jordan scored 63 in double overtime in a first round loss to the Boston Celtics in 1986. Baylor scored at least 30 points in 13 straight Finals games, a record that both Jordan (nine) and O’Neal (seven) could not come close to matching.

Julius Erving’s NBA Finals career-high was 40 points but he scored at least 20 points in 21 of his 22 Finals games, including a streak of 19 straight. His Philadelphia 76ers lost three times to teams anchored by dominant centers--once to Bill Walton’s Portland Trailblazers and twice to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s L.A. Lakers--before acquiring Moses Malone and storming to the title in 1982-83. In addition to Erving’s 25.5 ppg in the NBA Finals it is worth noting that as a New York Net he averaged 33.4 ppg in two ABA Finals, winning the championship on both occasions and scoring at least 20 points in 10 of 11 games; in three of those games he tallied at least 40 and in eight of them he had at least 30, including all six games of the 1976 Finals, when he scored 37.7 ppg versus the Denver Nuggets and led both teams in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocked shots.

Joe Fulks (24.7 ppg) played in the first two NBA Finals, leading the Philadelphia Warriors--then a member of the Basketball Association of America, one of the forerunners to the NBA and a league whose records are counted by the NBA--to the 1947 championship. Fulks, a 6-5 forward, was the league’s first big star (Mikan was playing in the National Basketball League at that time). His 26.2 ppg in the 1947 Finals set a rookie record that still stands today and his 37 point effort in game one was the best by a rookie until Magic Johnson scored 42 in game six in 1980.

Clyde Drexler (24.5 ppg) rounds out the top ten. He reunited in Houston with his college teammate Olajuwon to win his only ring in 1995. Prior to that, Drexler performed very well in two Finals losses with the Portland Trailblazers.

Each of the players in the top ten has either already been inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame or is a mortal lock to receive that honor as soon as he becomes eligible. The player just behind Drexler, though, has been largely forgotten because he played in the shadow of two of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players (Erving and Malone) and because his career was shortened by foot injuries. Andrew Toney averaged 24.4 ppg in two NBA Finals, literally missing the top ten by one field goal--kind of symbolic of how he was able to compete against the very best and yet just fall short of achieving ultimate recognition. Known as the "Boston Strangler" because of his exploits versus the Celtics, Toney did his Finals damage against the Lakers in 1982 and 1983. He also had his regular season career-high, 46 points, against the Lakers.

The only active players other than O’Neal who have averaged 20 ppg in their NBA Finals careers while playing in at least 10 games are Tim Duncan (22.7 ppg), Kobe Bryant (22.2 ppg), Chauncey Billups (20.7 ppg) and Jason Kidd (20.1 ppg). LeBron James shot just .356 from the field in his Finals debut this year but he still managed to average 22.5 ppg as his Cleveland Cavaliers were swept by Duncan's San Antonio Spurs; James needs to play in six more NBA Finals games to meet the minimum qualifying standard to be ranked among the career Finals leaders. Duncan has won four titles and three Finals MVPs. Bryant won three titles playing alongside O’Neal with the Lakers and is not in the top ten because of his injury-hampered performance in 2000, when a sprained ankle knocked him out of game two (he had two points in nine minutes), caused him to miss game three and affected him the rest of the way, although he came up big in game four after O’Neal fouled out; Bryant averaged 24.5 ppg in his other three Finals appearances, including 26.8 ppg in 2002 when the Lakers swept the Nets. Billups may yet provide more reasons to call him "Mr. Big Shot," while Kidd scored at a higher clip than his usual production during the Nets’ back to back Finals losses in 2002 and 2003.

Acing The Finals Test

Top 10 Career Finals Scoring Averages

Player..PPG..Points..Games..Series W-L

Rick Barry..36.3..363..10..1-1
Michael Jordan..33.6..1176..35..6-0
Jerry West..30.5..1679..55..1-8
Shaquille O'Neal..28.8..865..30..4-2
Bob Pettit..28.4..709..25..1-3
Hakeem Olajuwon..27.5..467..17..2-1
Elgin Baylor..26.4..1161..44..0-7
Julius Erving..25.5..561..22..1-3
Joe Fulks..24.7..272..11..1-1
Clyde Drexler..24.5..367..15..1-2

Top Active Players

Shaquille O'Neal..28.8..865..30..4-2
Tim Duncan..22.7..499..22..4-0
Kobe Bryant..22.2..421..19..3-1
Chauncey Billups..20.7..248..12..1-1
Jason Kidd..20.1..201..10..0-2

Minimum of 10 Finals games

posted by David Friedman @ 7:26 PM

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