The NBA Playoffs begin in under three weeks, and it will be time for another champion to be crowned. The main contenders for this year’s championship include the 76ers, Nets, and Bucks from the East, and the Jazz, Suns, Lakers, Clippers, and Nuggets from the West. One common theme among these contenders is that they have at least one superstar player. Some of these players include LeBron James for the Lakers, Kevin Durant for the Nets, and Kawhi Leonard for the Clippers. However, these stars have to excel even further in order to allow their teams to make a deep playoff run. For example, the 2020 Lakers title was led by LeBron James and the 2019 Raptors title was led by the stellar play of Kawhi Leonard. On the other hand, several players struggle to improve their teams during the playoffs, leading to consistent early exits, even with a high seed. Using the differences in regular season and playoff scoring, shooting, and impact, we can determine which players improve in the playoffs most significantly.
The sample of players in each of the lists below consisted of 70 active players that have played a significant amount of time in the playoffs, a significant amount of time in the regular season, and are playing on a team that has a chance to make the playoffs.
- At least 15 games played this year
- At least 24 minutes per game this year
- At least 20 career playoff games with at least 20 minutes played
- At least a 1% chance of making the playoffs (according to 538)
Only games in which at least 20 minutes were played were included for both the regular season and playoff game logs used to calculate the stats.
The method used to evaluate the difference in regular season and playoff scoring, shooting, and impact was the same. First, I gathered stats from the game logs to summarize each category: for scoring I used points per 36 minutes, for shooting I used True Shooting Percentage, and for impact I used Box Plus Minus. Each of these stats are rate stats, so they are not affected by a possible change in usage during the playoffs.
Next, I each playoff game’s stats for each player to their season averages and took the differences. For example, if Kevin Durant had a playoff game where he had 38 points per 36 minutes, and his season average was 28 points per 36 minutes, the difference would have been 10 points per 36 minutes. Then, using the differences, I conducted a t-test for each player where the null hypothesis was that the regular season and playoff difference for the stat (BPM, Pts/36, or TS%) was equal to 0, and the alternative hypothesis was that the regular season and playoff difference for the stat was greater than 0. The players were finally ranked by their p-value (a lower p-value is better than a higher p-value).
Who Excels in the Playoffs: Scoring
The first category I chose to explore was scoring. The player scoring ability, quantified by points per 36 minutes, was usually better in the regular season than in the playoffs. This result was logical as players play significantly better defenses that have had time to prepare during the playoffs. While scoring ability cannot be completely accounted for by points per 36 minutes, it is still a good measure to estimate the difference in regular season and playoff scoring. The results for the best players according to the t-tests are shown below.
While there were over 30 players that score significantly less in the playoffs at the 10% level, just 4 players score significantly more. There are Draymond Green, Goran Dragic, PJ Tucker, and Jamal Murray. All of these players have stepped up their scoring from the regular season to the playoffs, although to varying degrees. Murray’s increase of 2.36 points per 36 minutes in the playoffs is far greater than any of the other players that had significantly good results, but his sample of just 33 games and high standard deviation of 8.22 made his result less significant. While Green, Dragic, and Tucker had less of an increase during the playoffs, they each were very consistent, with standard deviations around 5.5 and a higher sample of games.
For those that score significantly less in the playoffs, the highest p-values are shown above. These players have consistently scored much less in the playoffs than their counterparts. High usage players in this category include James Harden, Kyle Lowry, Damian Lillard, and Paul George. Several of these players have been on teams with struggles in the playoffs, and their inability to increase their scoring during the playoffs is likely a reason for these struggles.
Who Excels in the Playoffs: Shooting
The next thing to evaluate was the change in shooting during the NBA Playoffs. I measured shooting with True Shooting Percentage, which is a stat that takes into account efficiency on 3 point attempts, 2 point attempts, and free throws. This stat is the best available to measure shooting ability, although it does not account for difficulty of shots.
Just as some players increase their scoring in the playoffs, some players increase their shooting in the playoffs. The three players that have a significant improvement in true shooting percentage from the regular season to the playoffs are Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, and Steven Adams. Davis and Adams had larger increases than Leonard, but Leonard’s consistent improvement in shooting over more than 120 playoff games allowed him to have a significant result.
Meanwhile, 26 of the 70 players in the sample had a significant decrease in true shooting percentage from the regular season to the playoffs. Among these players were Pascal Siakam, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Damian Lillard, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Although most of these players’ true shooting percentage decreased by under 5%, the number of games and low spread contributed to a significant result. If these players continue to shoot worse in the playoffs, they will hinder their teams as opposed to helping them. One solution could be to take less contested shots and develop different ways to score instead of relying on just a few moves.
You may have realized that the list of the best shooting improvements in the playoffs consists of players that have less shooting ability than those on the worst shooting improvements list. There is a reason for this phenomenon. Players who traditionally have a high regular season True Shooting Percentage see the largest regular season to postseason drop-offs.
The regular season true shooting percentage average and the playoff true shooting percentage change have a moderate negative correlation. Therefore, players who shoot better in the regular season are more likely to shoot worse in the playoffs. The reason is likely that good shooters benefit from many open shots and worse defenses during the regular season, but have to shoot more difficult shots against better defenses in the playoffs.
Who Excels in the Playoffs: Impact
In order to quantify the impact of a player on a specific game, I used Box Plus Minus, abbreviated BPM. A full explanation of BPM can be found on Basketball Reference, but the summary is that it estimates the total per 100 possessions impact of each player using traditional box score stats, position, and team performance.
Although scoring and shooting are very important, the ultimate goal in the playoffs is to win. The best way to win is to impact the game at a high level. When it comes to impact, there are 9 players that significantly improve during the playoffs. This includes lead players like Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, and Bradley Beal as well as role players, like PJ Tucker and Terry Rozier. One common theme among these players is that have have traditionally had postseason success: All the players that had a significant improvement in BPM during the playoffs have made a conference finals except Jrue Holiday and Bradley Beal. The ability to get better in the playoffs is the reason that LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard are heralded as some of the best players in the NBA. (The top 3 players in playoff BPM average are LeBron James, Nikola Jokic, and Kawhi Leonard)
While there are several that improve significantly in the playoffs, others have a significant decrease in BPM during the playoffs. These include stars like Damian Lillard, Kevin Durant, and Stephen Curry. Lillard, has a decrease from 5.27 BPM (10th) in the regular season to 3.20 (24th) in the playoffs. Curry falls from a regular season BPM of 8.24 (2nd) to a playoff BPM of 7.29 (6th). Similarly, Durant has a regular season BPM of 8.04 (4th) and a playoff BPM of 6.87 (8th). The importance of these findings are that Steph Curry is unlikely to be able to propel the Warriors, a current 9th seed to a competitive series against a 1 or 2 seed, and Damian Lillard is unlikely to be able to win a first round series as a low seed.
Similar to true shooting percentage, BPM also has a correlation between regular season averages and playoff changes. As players get increasingly better, they are more likely to get worse in the playoffs, according to BPM. However, there are several exceptions, like LeBron James, Nikola Jokic, and Kawhi Leonard, each of whom had a better BPM in the playoffs despite impressive regular season averages.
Although the graphs above show the improvements from the regular season to the playoffs of BPM for several players, it does not show all the best players. The graph below shows the best players in the NBA according to the regular season averages of BPM in the sample of games used.
Of these players, some improve their impact in the playoffs, while others have a worse impact. The graph below shows the average BPM increase during the playoffs for the 17 best players in the sample, ranked by regular season BPM. The only players with a higher BPM in the playoffs than in the regular season were James, Jokic, Leonard, Jimmy Butler, and Joel Embiid. Each of these players have made deep playoff runs except for Embiid. On the other hand, Damian Lillard, Kyle Lowry, Ben Simmons, and Kevin Durant have a worse BPM in the playoffs. While both Lowry and Durant have won championships, Lowry had Kawhi Leonard as help and Durant was surrounded by 3 other all stars, including 2 time MVP Steph Curry.
The playoffs are a time where the best players have to get even better. However, many cannot live up to this. The only way a team can win a championship is if they have several superstars or if their single superstar can improve significantly in the playoffs. Take the past few years for example: The Lakers in 2020 (James), Raptors in 2019 (Leonard), Cavaliers (James) in 2016, and Spurs in 2014 (Leonard) all had a lead player that improved significantly in the playoffs, while the Warriors in 2015, 2017, and 2018, and the Heat of 2012 and 2013 had several superstars to help win the championship. Therefore, this year there are only a few contenders for the championship. Teams with superstars that can improve their play in the playoffs include the Lakers, Nuggets, and Clippers, while teams with several superstars include the Nets, Lakers, and Clippers. This means that teams like the Bucks, 76ers, Jazz, and Suns will struggle in the playoffs despite their gaudy regular season records as none have several superstars or superstars that improve significantly in the playoffs. Players that excel in the NBA Playoffs are the backbone of NBA Championship teams.