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Playoff Kawhi Leonard Is The New Playoff LeBron James

This year’s NBA postseason has been a striking reminder of the difference between regular season and playoff basketball, particularly with respect to individual performance. The three finalists for the MVP award — James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Paul George — all failed to match their production from the regular season in this year’s playoffs. On the other end of the spectrum is Kawhi Leonard, who after “load-managing” his way through the regular season, is now considered one of, if not the, best basketball players alive and has the Toronto Raptors one win away from their first NBA championship. (That win could come Thursday night in Game 6 in Oakland.)

Before this year, LeBron James was the often-cited case of the rare player who took his already outstanding game to an even higher level in the playoffs. But during this year’s postseason, it’s Leonard, the two-way force of nature, who has become the go-to example of a player who seemingly flips a switch and magically turns into a better version of himself once the playoffs start.

During the regular season, Leonard posted a +5.0 box plus/minus (BPM), a catch-all stat designed to capture a player’s all-around impact. Leonard’s regular season BPM was 15th best in the league. But in the playoffs, Leonard’s BPM has risen to +9.0, tied for second-best among all postseason players.

It’s rare to see a player of Leonard’s stature lift his BPM at all in the playoffs. Of the 15 players that had a regular season BPM of +5.0 or better,1 only Leonard and Nikola Jokic increased their output in the playoffs. It’s even rarer to see someone as productive as Leonard lift his BPM by as much as he did.

Leonard’s BPM playoff bump — +4 — is tied for the 16th largest increase since the NBA-ABA merger among players that logged at least 2,000 regular season minutes and 500 playoff minutes in a single year. Some other players to increase their BPM by at least 4.0 points include Hakeem Olajuwon during the 1997 playoffs, Tim Duncan during his 2003 title run and LeBron James during his 2016 title run, to name a few.

And this isn’t anything new for Leonard: He’s been upping his game in the postseason ever since he came into the league as a role player with the San Antonio Spurs.

Below is a similar chart to the first, but this time we’re looking at career performance — comparing a player’s career average BPM in the regular season to their career average BPM in the playoffs since the merger in 1977. (In order to make sure our sample consists of players who played often in both the regular season and deep into the playoffs, each player’s career average BPM has been weighted by both their minutes played in the regular season and playoffs.2 This gives us a better representative sample of players to compare Leonard’s career against.)

Most of the players that have a similar career BPM in the regular season to Leonard are right at or just below the dotted line, meaning they either get worse during the playoffs or at best they don’t improve. The few players who buck that trend include Michael Jordan, LeBron, Olajuwon and Leonard himself. Each of these players consistently dominated the league in the regular season and even more so in the playoffs.

The players with the biggest difference between their regular season and playoff career BPM tend to be toward the middle of the pack in regular season BPM for the simple reason that the lower a player’s regular season number, the more room they have to improve their playoff production. Still, despite having one of the higher career BPMs in the regular season, Leonard ranks sixth on the list. The players in front of him are Isiah Thomas (the Pistons legend, not the other more recent one), Draymond Green, Rajon “Playoff” Rondo, Derek Fisher and Robert “Big Shot Bob” Horry. Those are the type of guys Green was referring to when he talked about the difference between 82-game players and 16-game players.

Kawhi steps up his numbers in the postseason

Biggest average change in Box Plus/Minus (BPM) between the playoffs and regular season, among NBA players with at least 10,000 regular season and 2,500 playoff minutes since 1977

Reg. Season Playoffs
Player Minutes BPM Minutes BPM Diff.
Isiah Thomas 35,516 +2.8 4,216 +6.4 +3.6
Draymond Green 14,979 +3.8 4,332 +6.5 +2.7
Rajon Rondo 26,119 +2.4 3,944 +4.6 +2.2
Robert Horry 27,069 +2.8 6,823 +4.8 +2.0
Derek Fisher 32,719 -0.8 6,856 +1.1 +1.9
Kawhi Leonard 14,404 +5.7 3,806 +7.4 +1.8
Boris Diaw 28,768 +1.1 3,144 +2.8 +1.7
Ron Harper 31,199 +2.2 3,000 +3.8 +1.6
Hakeem Olajuwon 44,222 +5.4 5,749 +7.1 +1.6
Michael Cooper 23,635 +1.1 4,744 +2.7 +1.6
Vinnie Johnson 24,308 +0.0 2,671 +1.6 +1.5
Michael Jordan 41,011 +8.7 7,474 +10.2 +1.5
Bryon Russell 19,805 +2.4 3,081 +3.8 +1.4
LeBron James 46,235 +9.7 10,049 +11.1 +1.4
Tayshaun Prince 31,576 +1.1 4,977 +2.4 +1.3

Career regular season and playoff BPM averages are weighted so as to give more importance to seasons where a player logged many minutes in both the regular season and playoffs

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

Regardless of whether the Raptors ultimately finish off the Golden State Warriors and win the NBA title, Leonard’s performance this postseason will instill dread in opposing fan bases of “Playoff Kawhi” for years to come. Leonard wasn’t kidding when he referred to the 82 games during the regular season as “practice” and that the “playoffs is when it’s time to lace them up.”

Neil Paine contributed to this article.

Footnotes

  1. That does not include LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Karl Anthony-Towns and Jusuf Nurkic, who all had a +5.0 BPM or better in the regular season but did not play in the playoffs.

  2. Specifically, we weighted the averages using the harmonic mean of the player’s regular season and playoff minutes in a given season.

Owen Phillips is a data analyst and writer living in Brooklyn. His work can be found on NPR, The Outline and The Awl.

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