Passing judgment- How do the NBA’s elite fare in their first major postseason?

NBA: Miami Heat at New Orleans Pelicans

Playoffs? You talking about playoffs?

While the rest of the basketball world marvels at Anthony Davis’s unprecedentedly monster season, some anonymous commenters decided to spit hot takes with a tired, unsubstantiated trope: “Let’s see him do it when it counts. He’s never been to the playoffs.” And I thought to myself, “That’s nonsense. When’s the last time someone’s said that and been fully vindicated?”

I first compiled a list of 31 generally accepted elite level players currently active who have been to the postseason (sorry DeMarcus Cousins). I threw Ray Allen and Steve Nash in as well, since they’re not *officially* retired. To clarify, this doesn’t mean the players are currently at world-beating level, but that they were at some point (i.e. Vince Carter). I then looked up the major 5 box score stats (points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks) in their first postseason in which they played 30+ mins/game. Box score numbers are obviously imperfect but with proper context, they can capture a general performance level. The data is displayed below. Warning: the results may not surprise you.

nba elite stats regular vs postseason

Out of a list of 31 players, only 7 come off as even vaguely having had a disappointing first major postseason. Tony Parker played with Tim Duncan and David Robinson. Amar’e played with Stephon Marbury. Harden played with Durant and Westbrook. Those are the only reasons you need for explaining those three. Parker and Harden also weren’t the standard bearers at their position that they are today. No one was saying, “Let’s see Tony Parker do it when it matters.” This also holds true for Paul George, whose star rose only after that post season. This leaves us then with only Steve Nash, Shawn Marion, and Carmelo Anthony who seem to have played below par. Just 3 players out of 31.

Cool, but let’s delve deeper. Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Rating (PER) encapsulates many of those box score stats and is one of the most popular advanced metrics today. Keep in mind that PER is biased towards offense rather than defense. So in continuing the study of “did a player do it when it matters,” I looked at the fluctuation in PER from regular season to post season for each player in his first major post season. A few players showed to have played worse than the box score (boo Derrick Rose), and a few played better than their box score (yay James Harden), but on the whole the results aligned as expected, producing a fairly normalized distribution. Of the players whose PER dropped in the postseason, most of them didn’t experience a drop of greater than 5. And the one who had the worst drop? Kevin Durant- the reigning MVP.

nba elite PER regular vs postseason

More or less, elite players tend to play like elite players when it comes time for the postseason. There’s not really a substantial case in recent history that suggests a major disconnect with a supposedly elite player who was outed when “it counted.” People tend to bash players like Kyrie Irving for putting up empty stats and not being good enough to take their teams to the playoffs. And that might be true; there was a really good piece on Deadspin that suggested that truly elite players would win close to 50 games by their 3rd year. But once they do get to the playoffs, watch out. The NBA’s best usually stay on top.

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