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LeBron Doesn’t Get Better In The Playoffs. He’s Always This Good.

LeBron James’s postseason legend continues to grow with each passing year. In recent campaigns, the Cleveland Cavaliers star has even appeared to flip a switch in the playoffs and instantly perform at a higher level. Certainly he did last season, elevating his production markedly from the regular season,1 and he has shown signs of a boost so far this postseason as well.

Playoff LeBron — the destiny-fueled superhero sent to the postseason to capture the Larry O’Brien Trophy — is mostly an optical illusion to basketball fans. Over the course of James’s career, he’s pretty much played the same in the playoffs as we’d expect from his regular-season stats. But because James is so good, just maintaining his remarkable regular-season numbers is by itself a feat — and something that many other stars (past and present) have been incapable of doing.

To compare a player’s regular season and playoff production, I gathered advanced stats — including Player Efficiency Rating (PER), Win Shares per 48 minutes (WS/48) and a composite “statistical plus/minus” (SPM) that blends the other two metrics together2 — for all NBA and ABA players since 1963.3 Then I tracked how much each player improved or declined when he reached the playoffs.4

The vast majority of NBA players play worse in the postseason, which makes sense given that the playoffs contain the league’s most difficult opponents. The typical player tends to see his PER drop by 1.1 points, his WS/48 by 0.028 points and his SPM by 1.1 points during the playoffs. James is not immune to this dynamic, but he’s managed to resist the drag of the playoffs more than most. Here are the best regular-season players in my sample, along with how their stats changed in the playoffs (through Sunday’s games):

REGULAR SEASON CHANGE IN PLAYOFFS
PLAYER PLAYOFF YRS PER WS/48 SPM* PER WS/48 SPM*
Michael Jordan 1985-98 28.8 .275 +7.5 -0.2 -.019 -0.6
LeBron James 2006-17 28.6 .258 +6.9 -0.9 -.021 -0.8
Chris Paul 2008-17 26.7 .272 +6.8 -0.5 -.054 -2.0
Stephen Curry 2013-17 26.7 .259 +6.5 -4.1 -.074 -2.9
Kevin Durant 2010-17 27.1 .253 +6.4 -3.6 -.077 -3.0
David Robinson 1990-03 25.5 .245 +6.4 -2.4 -.047 -1.8
Shaquille O’Neal 1994-11 27.4 .219 +5.8 -1.3 -.035 -1.4
Wilt Chamberlain 1964-73 23.9 .239 +5.8 -1.9 -.044 -1.5
Tim Duncan 1998-16 24.4 .210 +5.3 -0.1 -.018 -0.8
Karl Malone 1986-04 24.4 .214 +5.1 -3.2 -.075 -2.8
Larry Bird 1980-92 24.1 .212 +5.1 -2.8 -.040 -1.7
Dirk Nowitzki 2001-16 24.4 .224 +5.1 -0.7 -.037 -1.4
Magic Johnson 1980-96 23.9 .222 +5.1 -1.0 -.014 -0.6
Charles Barkley 1985-99 24.3 .216 +5.1 -0.1 -.024 -1.0
Jerry West 1963-74 23.5 .226 +5.0 -0.3 -.025 -0.8
Average qualifier 17.3 .144 +1.8 -1.1 -.028 -1.1
Who maintains their skills in the postseason? (1963-2017)

* SPM, or Statistical Plus/Minus, is a mixture of PER and WS/48 that weights each according to how well it correlates with ESPN’s Real/Plus Minus. It is scaled to represent a player’s net points above average per 100 possessions. Data is through
Sunday’s games.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

Michael Jordan is always a popular comparison point for King James when it comes to playoff heroics. Jordan did retain more of his output in the playoffs than LeBron has over his career, but MJ is also the exception here — like he is in most basketball-related things. Contemporary stars Chris Paul, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant have all experienced far bigger drop-offs in the playoffs than James, as did legends of yesteryear such as Karl Malone and (gasp!) Larry Bird.5 All told, James’s regular-season-to-playoffs dip is roughly the same as Tim Duncan’s — pretty good company.

James’s ability to maintain his output in the playoffs is even more impressive when you consider that his regular-season numbers are really, really good. It’s easier to display postseason improvement when you are starting with a lower bar. The players who raised their production the most during the playoffs — think Pistons legend Isiah Thomas or ex-Warrior Baron Davis6 — tend to be moderately good, but not great, regular-season performers. Among players who retained as much of their regular-season selves in the playoffs as James, only Jordan played at a higher level during the regular season:

REGULAR SEASON CHANGE IN PLAYOFFS
PLAYER PLAYOFF YRS PER WS/48 SPM* PER WS/48 SPM*
Michael Jordan 1985-98 28.8 .275 +7.5 -0.2 -.019 -0.6
LeBron James 2006-17 28.6 .258 +6.9 -0.9 -.021 -0.8
Magic Johnson 1980-96 23.9 .222 +5.1 -1.0 -.014 -0.6
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 1970-89 23.4 .216 +5.0 -0.3 -.022 -0.7
Hakeem Olajuwon 1985-02 24.4 .184 +4.5 +1.2 +.003 +0.1
Kawhi Leonard 2012-17 20.2 .203 +4.3 +1.4 +.012 +0.5
Walt Frazier 1968-75 20.0 .203 +3.9 -0.1 -.010 -0.3
Bob Lanier 1974-84 20.1 .179 +3.3 +0.8 -.002 -0.1
Bill Russell 1963-69 17.6 .179 +3.3 +0.6 -.021 -0.4
Rick Barry 1967-80 21.6 .167 +3.0 +0.1 -.013 -0.5
Best regular-season statistics, among players who declined as little in the playoffs as LeBron James

* SPM, or Statistical Plus/Minus, is a mixture of PER and WS/48 that weights each according to how well it correlates with ESPN’s Real/Plus Minus. It is scaled to represent a player’s net points above average per 100 possessions. Data is through
Sunday’s games.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

So, no, James isn’t Hakeem Olajuwon, who somehow managed to play better in the postseason than he did in the regular season. (Kawhi Leonard of the Spurs is adding to his own legend in that department as we speak.) But James’s regular-season numbers are also better than Hakeem’s, or Magic Johnson’s, or basically everyone else in NBA history. Whether it’s the regular season or the playoffs, you can pretty much expect the same LeBron. He’s great all the time.

Check out our NBA playoff predictions.

Footnotes

  1. His Player Efficiency Rating (PER) jumped from 27.5 during the regular season to 30.0 in the playoffs, and his Win Shares per 48 minutes (WS/48) from 0.241 to 0.274.
  2. The resulting metric is adjusted for team and weighted so as to best align with ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, and is also scaled to represent points above/below per 100 possessions. You can read about it more in this story I wrote about Chris Paul’s incredible career stats.
  3. For accounting purposes, that was the first season for which we know exactly how many minutes a player split between teams if he switched teams mid-season.
  4. Specifically, I took a career average for each player, weighted in accordance with how many regular-season and playoff minutes he logged each season.
  5. I was shocked to see how much Bird’s production dropped during the playoffs over his career, given that he won three championships.
  6. Amazingly, Davis had the biggest leap in SPM between the regular season and playoffs of any player since 1963!

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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