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Friday, June 14, 2019

A Historical Perspective on Great Single Season Playoff Performances

Kawhi Leonard's 2019 NBA Finals MVP award capped off a tremendous playoff run. Leonard averaged 28.5 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 4.2 apg and 1.8 spg with shooting splits of .434/.357.906 while leading Toronto to a 4-2 Finals victory over the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors. Leonard was even more dominant overall during the 2019 postseason, averaging 30.5 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 3.9 apg and 1.7 spg with shooting splits of .490/.379/.884.

During the 2019 playoffs, many media outlets noted Leonard's 30-plus ppg average and also the large number of 30 point games that he posted, comparing his output to players such as Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. While it is not unusual to compare players' scoring averages, prior to this year I cannot recall so much emphasis being placed on total number of 30 point games during the playoffs; I remember an emphasis being placed in years past on 40 point games and 50 point games, particularly as Jordan and Bryant accomplished feats that had not been matched since the days of Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, but I do not remember anyone explicitly tracking 30 point games to the extent that it was mentioned with regard to Leonard in 2019. A 30 point playoff game is not particularly rare, and even a non-All-Star caliber player can have one, but it is much less likely for a non-All-Star caliber player to score 40 or more points in a playoff game. However, because Leonard's 30 point games have been mentioned so often it is important to place his numbers in historical context.

We can begin with scoring average. Where does 30.5 ppg rank among single-season playoff performances? The answer is 83rd on the ABA-NBA list. If you insist on denying nine years of important basketball history and only focusing on the NBA, Leonard's 2019 playoff scoring average ranks 73rd. That is very good; the NBA has been around for over 70 years, so on average only about one player per year scores at least 30 ppg during the postseason.

Elite single season playoff scoring begins at the 35 ppg level, a mark that has been reached just 17 times in ABA-NBA playoff history. Michael Jordan leads the way with both the highest single season playoff scoring average (43.7 ppg in 1986) and the most 35 ppg playoff seasons (five). Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain accomplished the feat twice each, while Jerry West, Spencer Haywood, Bob McAdoo, Hakeem Olajuwon, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook each did it once.

This is the first time that Leonard averaged at least 30 ppg during the playoffs. Jordan holds the record with 12 such playoff runs; the only time he did not average 30 ppg in his 13 playoff appearances is when he scored 29.3 ppg as a rookie. The only other players in ABA-NBA history who have averaged at least 30 ppg in the playoffs more than once are Jerry West (seven times), LeBron James (six times), Kobe Bryant (five times), Elgin Baylor (four times), Wilt Chamberlain (four times), Rick Barry (four times), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (four times), Allen Iverson (four times), Tracy McGrady (four times), George Gervin (three times), Shaquille O'Neal (three times), George Mikan (two times), Oscar Robertson (two times), Julius Erving (two times), Bob McAdoo (two times), Hakeem Olajuwon (two times), Reggie Miller (two times), Kevin Durant (two times) and Anthony Davis (two times).

Therefore, it is safe to say that--while Leonard's 2019 playoff scoring is excellent--there are many great players who have matched or exceeded Leonard's numbers on multiple occasions. It is true that some of those 30 ppg performances happened during playoff runs that were much shorter than Leonard's and/or during playoff runs that did not culminate in championships, but of the players listed above Jordan (six times), Mikan (two times), O'Neal (two times), Abdul-Jabbar (one time), Erving (one time), Olajuwon (one time), Bryant (one time) and James (one time) averaged 30 ppg during playoff runs that ended in a championship.

What about total number of 30 point playoff games during one postseason? Leonard scored at least 30 points in 14 of his 24 playoff games in 2019, including two 40 point games (45, 41). Only Jordan (16 out of 22 in 1992, 14 out of 21 in 1998), Olajuwon (16 out of 22 in 1995), Bryant (15 out of 23 in 2009, 14 out of 23 in 2010) and James (14 out of 18 in 2017) have had 14 or more 30 point games in one postseason. Jordan (both times), Bryant (both times) and Olajuwon also won championships and Finals MVPs in those seasons.

The NBA playoffs have expanded over the years both in terms of the number of series and also in terms of the length of series, so players from more recent times tend to play more playoff games per year than players did in earlier times. Is it more impressive to have the stamina to put up 30 points in 14 out of 24 playoff games, or is it more impressive to be dominant enough to put up 30 points in 12 out of 13 playoff games (Elgin Baylor, 1962), or 11 out of 13 playoff games (Julius Erving, 1976 ABA champion and ABA Playoff MVP) or 11 out of 15 playoff games (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 1980 NBA champion)? That is a subjective question but I find those performances of Baylor, Erving and Abdul-Jabbar to be more impressive than Leonard's performance; unless one makes the unlikely assumption that those players would not have had any more 30 point games had the postseason been expanded in those years, it is reasonable to project that had they played 24 playoff games they would have had more than 14 games during which they scored at least 30 points.

The repeated emphasis on Leonard's total number of 30 point games without any mention of previous players other than Jordan, Bryant and James strongly suggests that media members are unaware of basketball history and/or choose to ignore anything that happened much before Jordan entered the NBA in 1984.

After I posted my Pantheon series and then supplemented it with an article discussing the Greatest Player of All-Time credentials of each Pantheon member, some people reacted with surprise and skepticism at the notion that players such as Elgin Baylor or Oscar Robertson have legitimate Greatest Player of All-Time resumes (I have never selected one player as the greatest, but I have consistently said that those two players are in a select group of players whose names should be mentioned whenever such a discussion is held). It is apparent that many people who are under the age of 50 and/or have not thoroughly researched basketball history have no idea about the numbers these players put up and, even more significantly, the diverse skill sets they possessed and the impact they had when they took the court.

Playoff impact consists of much more than just stringing together a lot of 30 point games, but looking at the history of the players who have done so most frequently is a good proxy for the larger conversation that should be had about the lack of appreciation for players whose careers ended before 1990 or so. What follows below is not a comprehensive list of every player who had a large number of 30 point playoff games and it does not reference every 30 point playoff game that a particular player had.

The pre-shot clock era was so different even from the era that immediately followed that I am just not sure how to compare George Mikan and the best players from the 1940s and early 1950s to great basketball players from subsequent eras; those pioneer players deserve recognition and respect but I am just not sure how to quantify their greatness. So, although it is noted above that Mikan had a couple dominant playoff runs during which he averaged more than 30 ppg (1949, 1950), our focus in terms of playoff campaigns that featured a large number of 30 point performances begins with Bob Pettit, who was the NBA's career regular season scoring leader for a couple years after he passed Dolph Schayes and before he was passed by Wilt Chamberlain.

Pettit's most famous and significant 30 point playoff game is his 50 point outburst versus Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics in game seven of the 1958 NBA Finals. Pettit and his St. Louis Hawks won the NBA title that year, the only time a team other than the Celtics won a championship between 1957 and 1966. Pettit "only" had four 30 point games out of 11 playoff games in 1958 but he had his two highest scoring performances of that postseason (33, then 50) in St. Louis' game six and game seven Finals wins. He scored at least 30 points in seven out of 10 playoff games in 1957, six of 12 in 1961 (including two games with at least 40 points) and nine out of 11 in 1963 (including his first five playoff games that year).

Elgin Baylor is on the short list of most dominant playoff scorers in pro basketball history. He was the first player who made 30 point playoff games seem routine and automatic. He scored at least 30 points in seven out of 13 playoff games in 1959, six out of nine in 1960 (including three games with at least 40 points), 10 out of 12 in 1961 (including five games with at least 40 points), 12 out of 13 in 1962 (including three games with at least 40 points, topped off by the single game playoff record 61 points that stood until Jordan scored 63 points in a 1986 playoff game), 10 out of 13 in 1963 (including one game with at least 40 points) and five out of 14 in 1966 (including two games with at least 40 points). Baylor started having knee problems in the early to mid 1960s, he suffered a serious knee injury in 1965 and he played the second part of his career at a fraction of his previous physical capabilities, but he still earned three of his 10 All-NBA First Team selections after wrecking his knee. No playoff performer has had a sustained five year run of consistent 30 point performances like the one that Baylor had from 1959-63. Baylor's Lakers made it to eight NBA Finals during his career (he only played in seven Finals, missing the 1965 Finals due to his knee injury) but he never led the Lakers to a championship; he retired after nine games in the 1971-72 season due to his knee problems and that turned out to be the year that the Lakers won their first title as an L.A. based team.

Wilt Chamberlain was not as dominant a scorer in the playoffs as he was in the regular season, but he put up impressive playoff numbers as well. As a rookie in 1960, he scored at least 30 points in four out of nine playoff games (including three games with at least 40 points and one game with at least 50 points). He scored at least 30 points in all three of his 1961 playoff games, nine out of 12 in 1962 (including four games with at least 40 points and one game with at least 50 points), nine out of 12 in 1964 (including two games with at least 40 points and one game with at least 50 points), eight out of 11 in 1965 and four out of 15 in 1967, when he won the first of his two NBA championships.

Jerry West's name is all over the regular season and playoff record books. He scored at least 30 points in seven out of 13 playoff games in 1962 (including three games with at least 40 points), five out of 13 in 1963 (including one game with at least 40 points), 12 out of 14 in 1966 (including three games with at least 40 points), nine out of 15 in 1968 (including one game with at least 40 points), eight out of 18 in 1969 (including three games with at least 40 points and one game with at least 50 points) and 12 out of 18 in 1970. West's Lakers went 1-8 in the NBA Finals and he did not average 30 ppg during the 1972 playoff run that culminated in his first and only title.

Oscar Robertson scored at least 30 points in six out of 12 playoff games in 1963 (including two games with at least 40 points) and seven out of 10 in 1964. He won his only title in 1971, by which time he was no longer scoring 30 points on a regular basis--but his passes helped his teammate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (see below) have many 30 point outings.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Rick Barry put up huge scoring numbers in first the NBA, then the ABA, and then the NBA again, despite being forced to sit out one season before he could jump from the NBA to the ABA. Barry scored at least 30 points in 11 out of 15 playoff games in 1967 (including five games with at least 40 points and one game with at least 50 points), seven out of seven in 1970 (including four games with at least 40 points and one game with at least 50 points), five out of six in 1971 (including two games with at least 40 points), nine out of 18 in 1972 (including three games with at least 40 points and one game with at least 50 points), eight out of 17 while leading Golden State to the 1975 NBA title and four out of 10 in 1977 (including two games with at least 40 points).

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scored at least 30 points in nine out of 10 playoff games in 1970 (including each of the first nine games of that playoff run). He scored at least 30 points in five out of 14 playoff games during Milwaukee's 1971 championship drive, five out of 11 in 1972, 11 out of 16 in 1974, eight out of 11 in 1977 (including five games with at least 40 points), 11 out of 15 in 1980 and six out of 15 in 1983. Abdul-Jabbar was cruising toward the 1980 Finals MVP before he sprained his ankle in the Lakers' game five win. He stayed in L.A. while the team traveled to Philadelphia for what seemed to be a likely game six loss; Abdul-Jabbar hoped to be ready to play in game seven at home--but rookie Magic Johnson had 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists in a game six win, and so--according to some reports--since he was present and Abdul-Jabbar was not, Johnson received the Finals MVP even though Abdul-Jabbar arguably had the more dominant series overall. Abdul-Jabbar played on championship teams in 1971, 1980, 1982, 1985, 1987 and 1988, winning Finals MVPs in 1971 and 1985.

Julius Erving scored at least 30 points in seven out of his 11 playoff games as a rookie in 1972, including one game with at least 50 points (an ABA single-game playoff record 53 points on 21-28 field goal shooting, tying the mark set by Roger Brown). He led the New York Nets to the 1974 ABA championship and won the Playoff MVP while scoring at least 30 points in four out of his 14 playoff games (including one game with at least 40 points) and then in 1976 he had one of the most dominant playoff runs ever: Erving averaged 34.7 ppg in the playoffs while scoring at least 30 points in 11 out of his 13 playoff games (including three games with at least 40 points). In the NBA, Erving's scoring exploits were more subdued, but he did score at least 30 points in seven out of his 19 playoff games in 1977 (including one game with at least 40 points) and he was a key contributor to Philadelphia's record-setting 12-1 playoff run in 1983 that resulted in his third championship/first NBA title.

Michael Jordan is in a category by himself in terms of consistently scoring 30 points in playoff competition; Baylor had the most dominant five year run, but Jordan started racking up 30 point playoff games as a rookie in 1985 and he was still regularly scoring 30 points in playoff competition in 1998, his last year with the Chicago Bulls. Here are the highlights of Jordan's 30 point playoff games:

1985: At least 30 points in two out of four playoff games

1986: 2/3 (two games with at least 40, one with a playoff single game record 63)

1987: 3/3 (one with at least 40)

1988: 6/10 (three with at least 40, two with at least 50)

1989: 13/17 (seven with at least 40, one with at least 50)

1990: 12/16 (six with at least 40)

1991: 8/17 (one with at least 40)

1992: 16/22 (four with at least 40, one with at least 50)

1993: 13/19 (six with at least 40, two with at least 50)

1995: 5/10 (two with at least 40)

1996: 7/18 (three with at least 40)

1997: 8/19 (one with at least 50)

1998: 14/21 (two with at least 40)

Jordan won six championships and six Finals MVPs. His combination of high level individual scoring with team success may never be matched.

Hakeem Olajuwon scored at least 30 points in nine out of 23 playoff games in 1994 and 16 out of 22 in 1995. He led the Houston Rockets to the championship in both years, winning Finals MVP each time.

Shaquille O'Neal did not have as many playoff runs with a significant number of 30 point games as one might think. He scored at least 30 points in nine out of 13 playoff games in 1998, 13 out of 23 in 2000 (including five games with at least 40 points), seven out of 16 in 2001 (including three games with at least 40 points), eight out of 19 in 2002 (including two games with at least 40 points) and three out of 12 in 2003. He had exactly one 30 point playoff game after leaving the Lakers in 2004. O'Neal won three championships and three Finals MVPs from 2000-02 and he won a fourth title in 2006.

Kobe Bryant scored at least 30 points in six out of 16 playoff games in 2001 (including two games with at least 40 points), seven out of 19 in 2002, nine out of 12 in 2003, 12 out of 21 in 2008 (including one game with at least 40 points), 15 out of 23 in 2009 (including four games with at least 40 points), 14 out of 23 in 2010 (including one game with at least 40 points) and seven out of 12 in 2012 (including two games with at least 40 points). Bryant won three championships alongside O'Neal from 2000-2002 and then won two more titles (plus two Finals MVPs) in 2009 and 2010.

LeBron James is a great passer but he is not a "pass first" player; he is one of the most gifted and prolific scorers in pro basketball history. He scored at least 30 points in eight out of 13 playoff games in 2006 (including two games with at least 40 points), six out of 20 in 2007 (including one game with at least 40 points), seven out of 13 in 2008 (including one game with at least 40 points), nine out of 14 in 2009 (including four games with at least 40 points), five out of 10 in 2010 (including one game with at least 40 points), 13 out of 23 in 2012 (including two games with at least 40 points), 11 out of 20 in 2015 (including three games with at least 40 points), 14 out of 28 in 2017 (including two games with at least 40 points) and 12 out of 22 in 2018 (including eight games with at least 40 points and one game with at least 50 points). James led Miami to championships in 2012 and 2013 and he led Cleveland to a championship in 2016. He won the Finals MVP each time his team captured a title.

Kevin Durant scored at least 30 points in seven out of 17 playoff games in 2011 (including three games with at least 40 points), nine out of 20 in 2012, five out of 11 in 2013 (including one game with at least 40 points), 11 out of 19 in 2014 (including one game with at least 40 points), six out of 18 in 2016 (including two games with at least 40 points), seven out of 21 in 2018 (including one game with at least 40 points) and seven out of 12 in 2019 (including three games with at least 40 points and one game with at least 50 points). Of course, Durant injured his calf midway through Golden State's 2019 playoff run and then he ruptured his Achilles after scoring 11 points in 12 minutes during his comeback game; otherwise, his 2019 numbers would have been even gaudier than they are. Durant has appeared in four Finals (including his 2019 cameo), winning championships and Finals MVPs in 2017 and 2018.

Russell Westbrook scored at least 30 points in five out of 17 playoff games in 2011 (including one game with at least 40 points), six out of 19 in 2014 (including one game with at least 40 points), six out of 18 in 2016, four out of five in 2017 (including two games with at least 40 points and one game with at least 50 points) and two out of six in 2018 (including two 40 point games). He made his only Finals appearance in 2012, alongside Durant.

Stephen Curry scored at least 30 points in nine out of 21 playoff games in 2015 (including two games with at least 40 points), six out of 18 in 2016 (including one game with at least 40 points), seven out of 17 in 2017 (including one game with at least 40 points), three out of 18 in 2018 and 10 out of 22 in 2019 (including one game with at least 40 points). Curry has won two titles (2017, 2018) while appearing in five straight Finals (2015-19).

Where does Kawhi Leonard's 2019 playoff scoring and collection of 30 point performances rank on the all-time list? His scoring average does not enable him to enter that elite group of players who averaged at least 35 ppg during a playoff season. His total number of 30 point games is near the top of the charts, but he benefits in that regard from the opportunity to play in more series and more games. The percentage of his total playoff games in which he scored at least 30 points does not match the best percentages posted by Pettit, Baylor, Chamberlain, West, Robertson, Barry, Abdul-Jabbar, Erving, Jordan, Olajuwon, O'Neal, Bryant, James, Durant, Westbrook or Curry--but many of the players who beat Leonard by percentage did so in seasons during which they did not win a championship and a Finals MVP.

Leonard's combination of sustained high level scoring with excellent two-way play culminating in a team championship and recognition as the Finals MVP puts him in elite company as a single season playoff performer. Leonard, Abdul-Jabbar and James are the only players who have won a Finals MVP with two different teams. Leonard has not sustained a high level of playoff excellence as long as most of the players listed above but if he stays healthy he can match or surpass many of his great predecessors.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:38 PM

1 comments

1 Comments:

At Friday, June 14, 2019 11:32:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

Congrats to the Toronto Raptors for their first title and ending the Almighty GSW dynasty.

For what it's worth. Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard is poised to rule the NBA for the next few years cuz there's a gap between the top guys and the next generation: LBJ and Curry and Durant and Westbrook and Harden will be 30 and older next season. But it likely depends on where Leonard lands next year, because I've a feeling the Toronto Raptors caught lightning in a bottle, and that they can't replicate the same success next season.

 

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