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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Playoff Scoring Champions

Most NBA fans know that Michael Jordan won a record 10 regular season scoring titles and that Wilt Chamberlain holds the all-time single season scoring record (50.4 ppg in 1961-62). The playoffs are where a great player’s legacy is truly established, yet you rarely if ever hear discussion about who won the most playoff scoring titles or who has the highest single season playoff scoring average. Jordan holds both marks: he won a record 10 playoff scoring titles (based on a minimum of 100 points scored in a single playoff season) and he averaged a record 43.7 ppg in the 1986 playoffs. Chamberlain—who for many years held the record with seven regular season scoring titles—only led the NBA in playoff scoring one time during his career, though he did post three of the top 20 single season playoff scoring averages.

The reason that Chamberlain did not win more playoff scoring titles is that he played at the same time as Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, who won four playoff scoring titles apiece with some truly eye-popping numbers: Baylor led the NBA in playoff scoring from 1960-63, tying the second longest streak in NBA/ABA history, averaging 33.4 ppg, 38.1 ppg, 38.6 ppg and 32.6 ppg in those seasons. The Lakers made it to the NBA Finals in 1962 and 1963, losing to the Boston Celtics both times. Baylor won the most playoff scoring titles among players who never won a regular season scoring title. Chamberlain averaged 37.0 ppg in the 1961 playoffs (eighth best all-time) and 35.0 ppg in the 1962 playoffs (15th all-time), but finished behind Baylor both times; he won his only playoff scoring title in 1964 with a 34.7 ppg average (20th all-time).

West won his first playoff scoring title in 1965 with the second best average in playoff history (40.6 ppg); his teammate Baylor missed all but one game of the playoffs that year due to injury but West carried the Lakers to the Finals, where they again lost to Boston. West also won playoff scoring titles in 1966 (34.2 ppg), 1968 (30.8 ppg) and 1969 (30.9 ppg), leading the Lakers to the Finals each time only to be defeated by the powerful Celtics.

George Mikan was the first player to win four consecutive playoff scoring titles (1949-52), leading the Minneapolis Lakers to championships in three of those seasons (1949-50, 52). Despite playing in the pre-shot clock era, he still topped 30 ppg twice (30.3 ppg in 1949, 31.3 ppg in 1950) and on March 29, 1952 he set a playoff single game record by dropping 47 points on the Rochester Royals. That mark only stood for one season, though, and it was broken by a player who is not primarily known as a scorer but who led the NBA in playoff scoring from 1953-55: Bob Cousy, whose 50 points in Boston’s March 21, 1953 quadruple overtime 111-104 win over Syracuse stood as the single game playoff record for seven years until rookie Wilt Chamberlain had a 53 point outburst. After Cousy’s run and before Baylor and West dominated the playoff scoring charts, Hall of Famers Paul Arizin and Bob Pettit each won a playoff scoring title (in 1956 and 1957 respectively) and Pettit’s Hall of Fame teammate Cliff Hagan won a pair of playoff scoring titles.

Rick Barry is the only player to win scoring titles in NCAA Division I, the NBA and the ABA and he also won playoff scoring titles in both pro leagues. Barry averaged 34.7 ppg in 1967 as his San Francisco Warriors made it to the NBA Finals and then he won ABA playoff scoring crowns in 1970 (40.1 ppg) and 1971 (33.7 ppg). Barry is one of only three players to average at least 40 ppg in a playoff season (West and Jordan are the other two).

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won five playoff scoring titles (1970, 72, 74, 77, 83) but none of those seasons coincided with his six NBA championships. Abdul-Jabbar holds the record for longest time span between his first and last playoff scoring title. For many years he was the all-time leader in career playoff points (5782); he currently ranks second to Jordan (5987). Abdul-Jabbar was the third rookie to win a playoff scoring title, following in the footsteps of Joe Fulks (1947 BAA, one of the forerunners of the NBA) and Connie Hawkins (1968 ABA, the league’s inaugural season).

The fourth and most recent rookie to win a playoff scoring title was Julius Erving, who averaged 33.3 ppg in 1972 for the ABA’s Virginia Squires. Erving won three more playoff scoring titles in the next four seasons, two of them while leading the New York Nets to championships, including a 34.7 ppg average in 1976 that ranks 19th on the all-time list. Erving never won a playoff scoring title in the NBA.

George Gervin is the only player other than Barry to win playoff scoring titles in both leagues. He interrupted Erving’s ABA run by taking the 1975 crown with a 34.0 ppg average that ranks 24th all-time and he later won five straight NBA playoff scoring titles from 1978-82. Only Jordan won more playoff scoring titles than Gervin and only Jordan matched Gervin’s mark with five consecutive playoff scoring titles.

Jordan won his first playoff scoring title in grand fashion, setting the all-time single season playoff record with a 43.7 ppg average in 1986. That of course included his famous 63 point game against Boston, which is still a playoff single game record. Jordan won the 1987 playoff scoring title (35.7 ppg) but then Hakeem Olajuwon captured the 1988 playoff scoring title by averaging 37.5 ppg, which ranks sixth on the all-time list. Jordan won the next five playoff scoring titles, leading the Chicago Bulls to championships in the last three of those seasons. Jordan’s streak was snapped when he went to play minor league baseball and Olajuwon won two straight playoff scoring titles--and two NBA championships—in 1994-95. Jordan closed out the Chicago portion of his career with three more championships and three more playoff scoring titles in 1996-98.

After Jordan, no one has won more than two playoff scoring titles, though Kobe Bryant is currently on pace to capture his third. Bryant (2003, 2007), Allen Iverson (1999, 2005) and Tracy McGrady (2001-02) are the only multiple winners since Jordan, while Shaquille O’Neal (2000), Dirk Nowitzki (2004) and Gilbert Arenas (2006) account for the other playoff scoring titles thus far in the 2000s. Jordan’s record of 10 playoff scoring titles is probably even safer than his record of 10 regular season scoring titles.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:53 PM



At Saturday, May 24, 2008 4:18:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

David, I don't think playoff scoring titles say very much at all. For one thing, they ignore how far the team went (Jordan racking up all those points in 1986 while getting swept, for instance, as opposed to Jerry West putting up 40+ while advancing to the finals). Also, based upon matchups with certain teams, it is often advantageous for certain players to shoot more or less than they normally did in the regular season. A recent example was Kobe in 2006 vs. the Suns, where it was clear that the Lakers' best chance was in trying to outmuscle the Suns and they seemed to struggle when Kobe had big scoring nights against them. From what I have read, the same applies to Wilt in 1962. Lots of people like to talk about him underperforming against the Celtics since he averaged only 35 ppg that post season (much less than his 50 ppg in the regular season). However, the Warriors were very successful and pushed the Celtics to the brink of elimination, and Wilt played very well. It was a conscious decision on the part of Coach McGuire to bring Wilt up to the high post, and to assume less of the scoring load.

At Saturday, May 24, 2008 11:22:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


It is important to consider context with this statistic, just like with any other statistic--but I still think that it is interesting to look at the list. This is a subject that is not widely discussed at all, with or without context.

I provided some context for Wilt by noting that even though he "only" won one playoff scoring title he posted several of the highest playoff scoring averages ever. I think that a lot of fans, particularly younger ones, have no idea how many playoff points guys like Baylor, West, Cousy and Mikan scored, so giving them some shine is important, too.

Averaging 40-plus ppg in one playoff season is impressive, even if it happened in a first round loss. I think that MJ guy turned out to be OK :)


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