I had a lot of fun writing my last two articles, which delved into the results of calculating RAPM on a 25 year (1997-2021) dataset and then for separate five year periods within that timeframe. I initially planned on following up with an article on postseason RAPM from 1997 to 2021, but I decided that it wasn’t worthwhile because of the small sample size of play-by-play data that the NBA playoffs have to offer. However, I did want to stick with the postseason theme, so here we are: using statistics that are available since the 1973 to break down individual playoff scoring.
The winner of a basketball game is the team that scores the most points. Thus, prolific scoring individuals have been a valuable asset for a basketball team since the creation of the sport. Every championship team has had a guy who could be trusted to step up on the scoring end in those clutch postseason scenarios. Keyword: postseason. The greatest scorers are those who can do it in the half court against great playoff defenses with everything on the line.
Evaluating scoring is simpler than other aspects of basketball. The best scorers can put up a lot of points efficiently. That means volume & efficiency. The problem arises when we make comparisons across eras, where both volume and efficiency varied greatly.
Different eras were faster paced than others, meaning a single game from the 1970s may have far more possessions than one from the aughts. In this article, we’ll measure volume with points scored per 100 team possessions (PP100). Unlike points per game (PPG), this metric accounts for pace.
What about efficiency? Well, we can’t just use true shooting percentage (TS%) to compare across eras for two main reasons. The primary reason is that like pace, leaguewide efficiency has varied greatly throughout the history of the NBA. League average TS% has risen from 51.6% in 2004 to 57.2% in 2021. Back in 1995 it was up to 54.3%, but 20 years prior it was at a mere 50.2%. Yeah, we can’t just compare true shooting percentage across eras without accounting for that. Also, different players face different teams, and some teams are more adept defensively than others. Thus, a solution to both of these problems is to calculate a player’s defense-adjusted true shooting percentage (rTS%). We’ll take a player’s TS% in a playoff series and subtract the average TS% allowed by their opponents in the regular season.
Example: Michael Jordan averaged 41.0 PPG on 55.8% TS% against the Phoenix Suns in the 1993 NBA Finals. In the 1993 regular season, the Phoenix Suns allowed a true shooting percentage of 53.2% to their opponents. Thus, we say that Jordan’s rTS% in the series was +2.6%. It’s not a perfect metric, of course. If the Suns’ best defender were injured for much of the regular season, their average TS% allowed might be higher than reality, underrating Jordan. Or the opposite effect if their best defender were injured in the Finals. In general, though, I think it’s a simple and effective solution.
We’ll be looking at data exclusively from 1973 to 2021. The reason for the 1973 cutoff is that per 100 possessions data is not available before then.
I’ll begin with career playoff stats – that’s career PP100 and career rTS% in the playoffs. I won’t be able to get to all of the points on the plot, but you can use this interactive graph to check out any unlabeled dots. The graph is littered with all-time greats, so there’s many interesting tidbits hidden in there!
Note: Only players with at least 50 playoff games played are included in this analysis. The size of each point corresponds to games played during their post-1973 playoff career.
Quick rewind. In my last two articles on RAPM since 1997, there was one common theme: LeBron James was #1. There was no way around it – LeBron James was the most valuable player of the past 25 years. Well, the common theme throughout this article will be centered around the man LeBron is often compared to.
Jordan averaged 43.3 points per 100 possessions throughout his illustrious postseason career, by far the most in NBA history. Next up is Kevin Durant at 37.3. That’s a gap of six points per 100 possessions. It may not seem like a lot, but it is. That’s similar to the gap between Alex English’s scoring and Kevin Durant’s. Or Kobe Bryant and Blake Griffin. Prime Blake was a great player, but he wasn’t scoring like Kobe. That’s a substantial gap. And that’s the gap between Jordan and anyone else in league history when it comes to playoff scoring volume. What’s even more amazing is that Jordan scored those points with absolutely elite efficiency. A career rTS% of +4.4% might be behind modern greats like LeBron and Durant, but it’s most certainly more impressive considering the gargantuan gap in volume.
The tier behind Jordan is stacked with all-time great scorers like LeBron, Shaq, Durant, Curry, and Kobe. So basically all of the names you expected (remember, this is post-1973: no Jerry West or Wilt Chamberlain). The only clear guy missing is Karee , but that’s just due to his shorter scoring peak compared to other guys – he still stacks up nicely with a career 31.0 PP100 and +6.1 rTS%.
Some of the more efficient scorers on lower volume are Kevin McHale, Reggie Miller, and Kawhi Leonard. McHale was one of the greatest post scorers in league history at his peak while Miller was one of the greatest pure shooters of all-time, so neither one is surprising to see at the top of the graph. Kawhi Leonard also happens to be one of the all-time greats in terms of elevating his game in the playoffs – he was putting together another legendary postseason performance in 2021 before unfortunately tearing his ACL in the second round.
At the bottom of the graph, we see Russell Westbrook and Allen Iverson. Two legends of the game, but two players who were never able to be efficient scorers at high volume. Both guards have a career playoff rTS% of less than -2.0%. That’s pretty bad, but they were at least able to contribute over 33 points per 100 possessions for their teams.
While career playoff stats are certainly worth looking at, we can’t disregard peak performances. Retired players may have experienced late career drop-offs that drag down the rest of their stats compared to modern players who haven’t yet reached that stage in their career. Plus, some players just had short-lived peaks that are worth recognizing. Here are the top five year playoff scoring peaks since 1973. The size of each point corresponds to games played during the five year run.
The graph is already cluttered so I didn’t have space to throw in the seasons for which each player’s peak covered, but you can see that on the interactive graph here.
Once again, Jordan’s greatness is baffling. His efficiency actually decreased during the second threepeat as he lost athleticism and transitioned to more of a midrange oriented game. The version of Michael Jordan prior to his first retirement has a strong argument as being the greatest basketball player of all-time. From 1987 to 1992, Jordan played 82 playoff games and averaged 43.8 PP100 on +6.5% rTS%. He also casually won three MVPs and two Finals series during this span, of course.
We see an even more cluttered second tier with five year peaks from Durant, Shaq, LeBron, Kawhi, Dirk, and even Kobe, Harden, and Curry not too far off. LeBron’s peak was from 2015-2021, but his five postseasons before that also would’ve ranked quite highly. LeBron doesn’t really have a clear peak which just speaks to his ridiculous longevity. His efficiency in recent years has been higher than it was earlier in his career which made it my pick. Kawhi’s peak since 2015 has been similarly extraordinary, once you knock off the Spurs years where he was a low volume player.
Kareem’s efficiency in his peak from 1973 to 1980 (missed the playoffs once so it’s five postseason peak, not five calendar year peak) was staggering, although his volume was not quite as high as other players – perhaps because his first few seasons were cutoff by the 1973 year limit.
Terry Porter probably wasn’t a name you expected to see here, as he’s just a 2x All-Star surrounded by Hall of Famers, but he was a huge part of two Blazers Finals runs. +10.2% rTS% is no joke. Magic Johnson is also in both lists as a super efficient scorer albeit on quite low volume compared to other legends.
Another lesser known name is George Gervin, who’s right there alongside Steph Curry. Of course on far fewer games played, but it’s still pretty impressive. Gervin never won a title but he led the playoffs in PPG for five straight postseasons starting from 1978. He dropped 42 points in Game 7 of the 1979 Eastern Conference Finals, but his Spurs lost by two points and missed out on a Finals appearance.
You may have noticed that there’s two points that almost perfectly overlap at around 35 PP100 and +4.0% rTS% – that’s Hakeem Olajuwon and Karl Malone. Considering Hakeem’s greatest attribute was his defense while Karl Malone’s was his scoring, I think these numbers speak to the gap between the two players.
It’s a pretty common question in NBA circles, and I think these numbers help make the answer more clear. In my opinion, Michael Jordan is clearly the greatest scorer in NBA history and it’s not all that close. He led the league with 37.1 PPG in 1987 as a 23-year-old and proceeded to snag the regular season scoring title in every following full season he played until his retirement in 1998. That’s 10 scoring titles. Oh, and he was also clearly the greatest playoff scorer ever (see: this article). It’s a subjective topic, but there’s no discussion in my eyes as to who the G.O.A.T. scorer is. Obviously NBA history did not begin in 1973, but we do know that the pace of the game was super high in the 1960s so Wilt Chamberlain’s famous 50 PPG season wasn’t quite as impressive as it sounds. Both Wilt and West are all-time great scorers, but they’re not Jordan.
What about the rest of the rankings? It’s tough to say, largely because of how you balance different factors like volume, efficiency, peak, and longevity. Jordan’s an easy pick because he had the whole package, but how do you compare someone like Stephen Curry to LeBron James? Or James Harden to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? Or Kobe Bryant to Shaquille O’Neal? If you asked me, I’d say it’s between Durant and LeBron for the #2 spot. I don’t think you can go wrong with either one and I think they’re a step ahead of the rest of the competition (although there’s certainly a strong argument for Kareem – it just depends how much you weigh different factors). I’d likely round out the top five with Shaquille O’Neal after Kareem at #4, but there’s just so many contenders. I’ve listed the usual names, but there’s other underrated candidates like Dirk and Wade. It’s certainly a tiresome (but fun) discussion. At the end of the day, I think the only thing that’s set in stone is Michael Jordan’s spot as the greatest scorer in league history.