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Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Rising to the Occasion: Pro Basketball's Greatest Playoff Scorers

This article was originally published in the May 2002 issue of Basketball Digest. Readers who are interested in this subject should also check out my December 5, 2006 NBCSports.com article titled Stepping Up in the Playoffs.

Evaluating individual playoff scoring statistics differs from comparing individual regular season scoring statistics. The regular season is the same length for all players, so comparisons of two players' scoring averages over five, seven and ten year periods (a subject that I examined in a January 2002 Basketball Digest article) reflect their production over a similar and significant amount of games. In a given season a player may participate in up to 20 playoff games; this means that comparing five playoff seasons of two players could mean looking at one player's production over 80-100 games versus another player's in only a handful of games.

Comparisons of a player's career playoff scoring average to his career regular season scoring average do not take into account which stage of his career a player participates in the bulk of his playoff games (see below for why Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson are perfect illustrations of this). A more precise method is to see how many seasons a player's playoff scoring average surpasses his regular season scoring average, while also considering the player's per minute point production (since most stars play more minutes in the postseason) and how well he maintains his shooting percentage in the postseason.

Entering the 2001-2002 season, Michael Jordan's 33.4 ppg career playoff scoring average ranked first in pro basketball history, nearly two ppg better than his 31.5 ppg regular season scoring average (also first in pro basketball history). His playoff scoring average exceeded his regular season scoring average 11 times in 13 seasons (including his 18 game regular season in 1985-86 and his 17 game comeback season in 1994-95). The only two seasons that Jordan did not achieve this distinction were 1986-87 (career high 37.1 ppg in the regular season, 35.7 ppg in the playoffs) and the Chicago Bulls' first championship season in 1990-91 (31.5 ppg versus 31.1 ppg).

His 38.4 points per 48 minutes in the postseason almost matches his amazing 39.2 points per 48 minutes in the regular season. Like most players, Jordan's field goal percentage declines in the playoffs but his 50.5% regular season percentage and 48.7% playoff percentage are both excellent, particularly for a guard. Jordan's 5987 postseason points easily rank first in pro basketball history and he won a record six NBA Finals MVPs.

Jerry West is the only player other than Jordan to rank in the top six in career playoff points (4457, fourth all-time) and scoring average (29.1, third all-time). His playoff scoring average is 2.1 ppg better than his regular season scoring average and his 33.8 points per 48 minutes in the playoffs slightly exceeds his 33.1 points per 48 minutes in the regular season. West's playoff scoring topped his regular season scoring nine times. He had one season in which his regular season scoring average was higher and one season in which his averages were equal. West also missed one playoff season due to injury and had two other postseasons in which he played a total of 15 minutes due to injuries.

West holds the single-series scoring average record (46.3 ppg in 1965 versus the Baltimore Bullets). He scored 40-plus points in all six games of that series, also a record. He averaged at least 30.8 ppg in the playoffs each year from 1964 until 1970 (except for 1967, when he played only one minute in one game). West won the first NBA Finals MVP in 1969 and is still the only player from the losing team to capture that honor. He shot 47.4% from the field in the regular season and 46.9% in the playoffs, exceptional accuracy for the player deservedly known as "Mr. Clutch."

Allen Iverson owns the second highest career playoff scoring average (30.3 ppg). He averages 4.1 ppg more in the playoffs than in the regular season. Iverson logs heavy minutes in the regular season (40.6 minutes per game) and almost goes the distance in the postseason (45.5 minutes per game), which is truly remarkable for a player who is listed (generously) at 6-0, 165 pounds.

Iverson scores slightly more points per minute in the postseason (32.0) than in the regular season (30.9). His playoff scoring has exceeded his regular season scoring two of the three seasons that he has participated in the playoffs (the Sixers did not qualify for the playoffs in his first two seasons). The only knock against Iverson is his shooting percentage, 42.6% in the regular season and 39.2% in the playoffs.

Reggie Miller does not score as much as any of the other players under consideration here, but he scores 4.0 ppg more in the postseason than the regular season and also averages 2.3 more points per 48 minutes in the playoffs. Miller shoots 47.6% from the field in the regular season and 45.6% in the playoffs; these numbers are comparable to West's and are good for a guard, especially considering the large number of three pointers that he makes. His legacy is not told in championships won or records set, but an extraordinary amount of clutch shots taken (and made) in the heat of playoff battle.

Rick Barry, the only player to win scoring titles in the NCAA, NBA and ABA, averaged 24.8 ppg in his NBA/ABA regular season career and increased that to 27.3 ppg (fifth all-time) in the playoffs. Interestingly, his playoff scoring average was higher than his regular season scoring average only four times in ten seasons (in three other seasons Barry's teams did not qualify for the playoffs).

Barry almost single-handedly carried the Golden State Warriors to the 1975 NBA Championship, winning Finals MVP honors. He also averaged 40.8 ppg in a losing cause for the Warriors in the 1967 NBA Finals versus the 76ers and won a scoring title for the 1969 ABA Champion Oakland Oaks, although he did play in the playoffs that year due to injury.

Karl Malone ranks fifth in playoff points (4341) and seventh in playoff ppg (26.6). He scores slightly more in the playoffs than the regular season (25.9 ppg). He has scored more points in the playoffs than the regular season 10 times in 16 seasons. However, Malone's field goal percentage declines dramatically in the playoffs--from 52.4% in his regular season career to 46.6%. He has made as many as 50% of his field goals in only four playoff campaigns, while shooting below 45% five times. Several years ago Bill Walton criticized Malone for settling for too many perimeter shots against the Bulls in the Finals and Malone’s low shooting percentages provide evidence of this.

It may surprise some people that Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson averaged 7.6 ppg and 3.5 ppg less respectively in the postseason than in the regular season. Chamberlain averaged a record 50.4 ppg in the 1961-62 regular season, so his 35.0 ppg in that year's playoffs represents a decline, even though there are only a few players in basketball history who have ever averaged that much in a playoff season. Also, while Chamberlain played 14 NBA seasons, exactly half of his playoff games came in his five years with the Lakers, when he concentrated more exclusively on rebounding, passing and defense. Chamberlain averaged 29.3 ppg in his first 80 playoff games (29.4 points per 48 minutes) and 15.8 ppg (16.2 points per 48 minutes) as a Laker (note that he played almost 48 minutes per game his entire career!) He won the 1972 Finals MVP despite playing with a cast on one hand.

Similarly, Robertson averaged 29.7 ppg in his first 39 playoff games with the Cincinnati Royals (30.4 points per 48 minutes). He played the last four years of his career with the Milwaukee Bucks, averaging 16.0 ppg in 47 playoff games (19.5 points per 48 minutes) and winning his only championship in 1971. Both Chamberlain and Robertson showed the ability to produce high scoring totals early in their careers and adjust their games later in their careers to make significant contributions on championship teams.

Bernard King's teams did not qualify for the playoffs in 10 of his seasons--but in his six playoff appearances King posted some awesome numbers. In the 1984 playoffs King averaged 34.8 ppg, including 42.6 ppg versus the Detroit Pistons, the second best series average ever at the time. He scored 40-plus points in the last four games of the five game series (a streak equaled later by Jordan and second only to West's 1965 exploits). King blew out his knee the next spring but still won the 1985 scoring title.

He missed one complete season and most of a second rehabilitating but persevered to become the first player with a reconstructed ACL to appear in an All-Star Game. That may not seem like a big deal in 2002 but at that time such injuries were always career altering and frequently career ending.

King missed the entire 1991-92 season due to another knee injury but returned for his swan song in 1992-93 with the Nets. He averaged 2.7 ppg in three playoff games that year. Why is that significant? It lowered his career playoff scoring average from 27.2 ppg, which would currently rank sixth all-time, to 24.5 ppg, which is not in the top ten.

Chamberlain, Robertson and King are excellent examples to remember the next time someone takes one or two isolated statistics and attempts to use them to define a player's entire career. The true story is often only revealed in the context of all of the numbers.

A Closer Look at Pro Basketball's Greatest Playoff Scorers

Player Playoff Pts. Rank Play. PPG Rank Reg. PPG Diff.

Michael Jordan 5987 1 33.4 1 31.5 1.9
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 5762 2 24.3 NR 24.6 -.3
Julius Erving 4580 3 24.2 NR 24.2 0
Jerry West 4457 4 29.1 3 27.0 2.1
Karl Malone 4341 5 26.6 7 25.9 0.7
Larry Bird 3897 6 23.8 NR 24.3 -.5
Elgin Baylor 3623 10 27.0 6 27.4 -.4
Shaquille O'Neal 2956 NR 28.2 4 27.7 .5
Rick Barry 2870 NR 27.3 5 24.8 2.5
Allen Iverson 1213 NR 30.3 2 26.2 4.1

Selected Others

Wilt Chamberlain 3607 NR 22.5 NR 30.1 -7.6
Reggie Miller 2445 NR 23.5 NR 19.5 4.0
Oscar Robertson 1910 NR 22.2 NR 25.7 -3.5
Bernard King 687 NR 24.5 NR 22.5 2.0

Pl.> Reg. Pl. P/48 Reg. P/48 Pl. FG% Reg. FG%

Michael Jordan
11 38.4 39.2 48.7 50.5
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 12 31.2 32.1 53.3 55.9
Julius Erving
7 29.9 31.9 49.6 50.6
Jerry West
9 33.8 33.1 46.9 47.4
Karl Malone
10 30.9 33.3 46.6 52.4
Larry Bird
4 27.2 30.4 47.2 49.6
Elgin Baylor
6 31.6 32.8 43.9 43.1
Shaquille O'Neal
5 33.7 35.0 56.6 57.7
Rick Barry
4 33.9 31.8 44.4 45.7
Allen Iverson
2 32.0 30.9 39.2 42.6

Selected Others

Wilt Chamberlain
0 22.9 31.5 52.2 54.0
Reggie Miller
8 29.0 26.7 45.6 47.6
Oscar Robertson
4 25.0 29.2 46.0 48.5
Bernard King
4 35.3 32.1 55.9 51.8


Statistics do not include 2001-02 season.

Players listed in order of career playoff points.

The first 10 players rank in the top ten in career playoff points
and/or career playoff ppg.

Statistics for Erving and Barry include ABA seasons.

"Diff." refers to the differential between playoff ppg and regular
season ppg.

"Pl.>Reg." indicates how many seasons a player's playoff ppg
exceeded his regular season ppg.

"P/48" refers to points per 48 minutes.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:46 AM



At Wednesday, November 04, 2009 12:35:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

If anyone is a Tisdale fan you should check out the Tribute video from Toby Keith about his great friend Wayman Tisdale…it is really touching


At Thursday, November 05, 2009 4:14:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

Great points about Chamberlain and Robertson. A similar point could probably be made about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (even though his playoff average is very close to his regular season average). Kareem played a very high percentage of his playoff games in the 80s when he was past his prime, and this brings down his overall playoff average. On a season-by-season basis, he usually substantially increased his output in the postseason, especially early in his career.

At Thursday, November 05, 2009 6:19:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I think that the approach that I outlined in this article should be applied with all players; I just used Wilt and Oscar as two primary examples.

As the accompanying chart notes, Kareem had a higher scoring average in the playoffs than in the regular season 12 times (out of 18 postseason trips). Kareem also had the highest playoff scoring average in the NBA in five different postseasons. You are correct that his career playoff scoring average is hurt by the fact that he played so many playoff games at an advanced age when he had a reduced role; he played 57 of his 237 career playoff games in his final three seasons (ages 39-41).

At Friday, November 06, 2009 11:04:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

Trailer....the whole Tisdale story is a tough watch.

its amazing how overlooked jabbars play was the older he got when all centers play gets worse. indeed he had magic. but he was still very effective.


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