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LeBron James and the Greatest Scorers in NBA Playoff History

Vin GetzCorrespondent IJanuary 10, 2017

LeBron James and the Greatest Scorers in NBA Playoff History

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    Who are the greatest scorers in NBA playoff history?

    They are all career superstars. They all averaged more than 25 points per game in the postseason. Every one is a Hall of Famer or will be.

    There are some definite surprises, though, before you settle on the answer.

    Bill Russell? Larry Bird? Bob Cousy? Nope. In fact, not one Boston Celtic makes the list, despite the franchise’s league-leading 17 titles.

    Magic Johnson? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? Wilt Chamberlain? Shaquille O’Neal? Guess again.

    Who, then, could these 13 players be?

    This isn’t some blast from the past. You’ve watched history unfold just this year.

    Five of these players are active, and three played in the 2013 playoffs—one is still playing. Tim Duncan? Nah.

    Ten of these guys played in the 1980s or later.

    Surely you can guess some of the highest-scoring postseason ballers.

    There’s the G.O.A.T., of course, but where does he rank? Kobe Bryant and two other Los Angeles Lakers represent, as well.

    You’ll never guess who sits at No. 2.

    Let’s see how you did.


    Statistics courtesy

13. Dominique Wilkins 25.41 PPG, 56 Games

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    Dominique Wilkins, the “Human Highlight Film,” made it to the postseason 10 times with three different teams, not just the Atlanta Hawks.

    That is the team Wilkins is most associated with, though, having played 11.5 of his 15 seasons in Atlanta. He was actually drafted by the Utah Jazzthird in 1982 out of Georgia—but traded that September.

    During his time in Atlanta, Dominique helped the Hawks clinch eight playoff berths, but they never got past the eastern semifinals.

    In the twilight of his career, searching for a ring, Wilkins made it to the postseason two more times, once each with the Boston Celtics and Orlando Magic. Neither made it out of Round 1.

    Wilkins had his best (and longest) postseason in 1987-88 when he averaged 31.2 points in 12 games. The Hawks fell to Larry Bird's top-seeded Boston Celtics in the semis. In the 118-116 Game 7 thriller, Wilkins finished with 47 points, but Bird's 20 in the fourth quarter iced it.

    That wasn't Wilkins top-scoring postseason performance. Two years before, in Round 1 (Game 2) he scored 50 against the Detroit Pistons.

12. Bob Pettit 25.45 PPG, 88 Games

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    Hall of Famer forward-center Bob Pettit is another all-time Hawk. Pettit, known as “Dutch” at LSU, was picked No. 2 in 1954 by the Milwaukee Hawks and played his whole 11-year pro career for the franchise, first in Milwaukee and then in St. Louis (through 1964-65).

    Nine of those years, the Hawks made the postseason—and four of those years, they went to the NBA Finals (1957, 1958, 1960 and 1961).

    The St. Louis Hawks won it all in 1958, avenging their loss to the Boston Celtics the year before. In the Game 6 110-109 clincher, Pettit scored 50 points, his best.

    But Boston would have the last laugh, beating St. Louis again in ’60 and ’61.

    Pettit's best statistical postseason was in 1957, when he led the NBA in scoring (with a then-record 29.8 PPG) and added 16.8 rebounds to that.

    In the 1963 playoffs, Pettit averaged a career-best 31.8 PPG, but the Hawks were ousted by the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.

11. Kobe Bryant 25.64 PPG, 220 Games

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    Of all the members of the 25-plus PPG playoff club, Kobe Bryant, "The Black Mamba," has played the most games by far—220 (versus 179 in second). He deserves additional credit for maintaining such a high average over so many games.

    Since Bryant joined the Los Angeles Lakers in 1996-97—selected 13th, believe it or not, in the 1996 draft (Lower Merion High)—the team has made the postseason all but one year (2004-05). That's 16 of 17 years.

    Then again, in their history, the Lakers have made the playoffs in 60 of their 65 seasons. Incredible.

    Kobe’s Lakers have made it to the NBA Finals seven times and won five titles: the 2000-2002 three-peat and the 2009-2010 repeat.

    Bryant averaged over 30 points in five postseasons, leading the league three times. His best postseason was probably the 2001 championship season when he averaged 29.4 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 6.1 APG and 1.6 SPG.

    In 2006, the Lakers took a first round 3-2 lead against the Phoenix Suns into Game 6. Bryant scored 50—his top playoff performance—but the Suns won (and won Game 7, too).

10. Carmelo Anthony 25.65 PPG, 66 Games

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    Carmelo Anthony, one of the best pure shooters in the game and the 2012-13 scoring champion, is also one of the greatest scorers in playoff history, averaging closer to 26 points in 10 postseason appearances.

    Anthony has made the postseason every year of his career.

    He’s not the greatest playoff winner, though.

    After the Denver Nuggets selected the Syracuse champ third in the LeBron James 2003 draft, "Melo" helped the team to 40-win seasons four times and 50-win seasons three times, but also six first-round exits.

    Add another two first-round exits with the New York Knicks. That’s eight.

    Still, Anthony breathed new life into both organizations. Denver hadn’t made the postseason for eight years before he was drafted.

    In 2009, with the help of J.R. Smith and Kenyon Martin, Anthony took the Nuggets to the Western Conference Finals where they lost to the eventual NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers.

    That was his best postseason and quite balanced: 27.2 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 4.1 APG and 1.8 SPG over 16 games.

    In 2013, again with the help of Smith and Martin, Anthony took the Knicks to the semifinals, the team’s deepest run in 12 seasons.

    Carmelo's highest point total in the playoffs is 42, which he achieved once apiece for the Nuggets (2010) and Knicks (2011).

9. Hakeem Olajuwon 25.90 PPG, 145 Games

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    In between Chicago Bulls three-peats, Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets won back-to-back titles (1994, 1995).

    Olajuwon led playoff scoring both times, including a 33 PPG mark through 22 games in 1995.

    "The Dream" played for the Rockets 17 years and took them to the postseason 14 times after they took him first in the 1984 draft out of nearby University of Houston.

    The Rockets' first (and only other) NBA Finals appearance was back in 1986 when they ran into that Larry Bird again and his Boston Celtics, losing 4-2.

    In the final season of his career (2001-02), Hakeem made the playoffs once more, this time with Vince Carter and the Toronto Raptors.

    Olajuwon averaged a double-double in the postseason 12 times. His top scoring performance was a 49-point series-losing effort to the Seattle SuperSonics in 1987.

    In the Game 6 semifinals matchup, he also had 25 rebounds, 11 offensive rebounds, six blocks and two steals: The heart of a future champion.

8. Dirk Nowitzki 25.95 PPG, 128 Games

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    Dirk Nowitzki joined a pitiful Dallas Mavericks team in 1998-99 after playing in Germany for DJK Wurzburg (who he joined straight out of Rontgen High School). He was picked by the Milwaukee Bucks ninth in 1998 before being traded to Dallas on draft day.

    Before Dirk, the Mavs hadn’t made the playoffs in eight years—and still wouldn’t for another two.

    Finally, in 2000-01, Dallas began a postseason run that would last until this year: 12 appearances in a row, including two NBA Finals appearances (both against the Miami Heat) and a title (2011).

    Nowitzki—known variously as “The German Wunderkind,” “The Dunking Deutschman” and several other monikers—averaged a double-double in eight of those playoff years (in a row).

    He averaged 28.4 points and 13.1 rebounds over eight games in 2002, but Nowitzki’s best playoff performances were arguably the finals seasons (2006: 27.0 PPG, 11.7 RPG over 23 games and 2011: 27.7 PPG, 8.1 RPG over 21 games).

    In the 2006 Game 5 Western Conference Finals win against the Phoenix Suns, Dirk scored 50, his postseason best.

7. George Gervin 26.98 PPG, 59 Games

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    Who is the greatest scorer in San Antonio Spurs playoff history?

    Before Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Sean Elliot, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and 16-year head coach and four-time champion Gregg Popovich, there was “The Iceman,” George Gervin.

    Gervin was drafted fourth out of Eastern Michigan by the Phoenix Suns in 1974, but went to play for the ABA’s Virginia Squires, instead, and later the San Antonio Spurs.

    He continued on in San Antonio after the 1976-77 merger. In his nine years playing for the NBA’s Spurs, Gervin went to the postseason eight times, including three conference finals appearances—as far as he would get.

    In his final season, he made it to the playoffs a ninth time, with the Chicago Bulls.

    There were fewer rounds and games (best-of-three and best-of-five series) during Gervin's time, so he played in just 59 playoff games, which puts him a ways behind those great players mentioned above.

    You can’t take anything away from Gervin, though. It is likely if he played 100-plus playoff games, his scoring average would still be amongst the best.

    If you include his ABA years, for example, he’s up to 84 playoff games played, and his PPG is about the same (26.5)—still up there with the greatest. Duncan is the closest Spur at 21.9.

    Gervin led the NBA playoffs in scoring five seasons in a row, over a varying number of games (from three to 14).

    In those three conference finals years, Gervin averaged 28.6 (1979), 29.4 (1982) and 25.2 (1983) points per game.

    He tops out in the postseason at 46 points, a mark achieved in a loss to the Washington Bullets—Game 2 of the 1978 eastern semifinals.

6. Elgin Baylor 27.04 PPG, 134 Games

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    The first pick in the 1958 Draft out of Seattle, Elgin Baylor started and finished his career with the Lakers—playing his first two years in Minneapolis, moving with the team to Los Angeles in 1960-61, and wrapping it up with L.A. during the 1971-72 season.

    The Lakers made the postseason all 13 of his years and the NBA Finals a remarkable nine times. Titles? One. And barely for Baylor.

    It was the era of Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics, who beat Elgin’s Lakers in seven of those Finals (the New York Knicks were the other loss).

    After 11 fruitless seasons, Baylor hung on for two more. He played just nine regular-season games in1971-72 and none in the playoffs, but the Lakers won it all (avenging their 1970 loss to the Knicks) and got him his ring.

    After averaging 27.04 points per game all those years, Baylor deserved it.

    He led postseason scoring four years in a row—all over 30 PPG—including a ridiculous 38.1 PPG and 15.3 RBG in 1961 and an even better 38.6 PPG and 17.7 RPG in 1962.

    “Mr. Inside” averaged a double-double in nine of his postseason appearances.

    Baylor’s highest scoring postseason game is also the most points scored in the NBA Finals. Baylor netted 61 points—one of only two players with a 60-point playoff game—in a Game 5 win over the eventual 1962 champs-in-seven, the Boston Celtics.

    That other player is yet to come on this list. So is “Mr. Outside.”

5. LeBron James 28.0 PPG, 137 Games

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    In the 15 seasons between 1998-99 and 2012-13, the Cleveland Cavaliers made the playoffs five times, only during LeBron James’ seven-year tenure there.

    The Cavs drafted him straight out of Saint Vincent-Saint Mary High School of Ohio first in 2003. James won Rookie of the Year, but it still took him two years to carry Cleveland into the postseason.

    Once “The King” left in the summer of 2010, the Cavs plunged from first (61-21) to worst (19-63) in the Eastern Conference and haven’t made the postseason since.

    LeBron took the Cavaliers to the franchise's sole finals appearance in 2007, only to get swept away by the San Antonio Spurs.

    In 2009, James averaged 35.3 PPG (51 percent) in 14 playoff games, his best, and paired that with 9.1 RPG, 7.3 APG, 1.6 SPG. He had his highest-scoring playoff game that year—49 points against the Orlando Magic in a Game 1 Eastern Conference Finals loss.

    He’s such a phenomenal, all-around, two-way player; perhaps the best the game has ever seen.

    James has continued his now eight-year playoff run in Miami with three NBA Finals in a row: losing to the Dallas Mavericks in 2011, winning his first title in 2012 against the Oklahoma City Thunder and now heading into a shot-at-revenge Game 7 against the Spurs.

4. Kevin Durant 28.63 PPG, 54 Games

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    The Seattle SuperSonics drafted Kevin Durant second in 2007 after one year at Texas (and after the Portland Trailblazers selected Greg Oden—ouch).

    Durant took home the Rookie of the Year award, but the Sonics finished 20-62 under coach P.J. Carlesimo and under the pressure of a potential move out of Seattle.

    He started his sophomore campaign in Oklahoma City. Durant averaged 25.3 PPG and upped his rebounds and assists, too, but again, no dice. The franchise missed their fourth postseason in a row.

    Finally in 2009-10, with Russell Westbrook (3rd, 2008 draft) and James Harden (4th, 2009 draft), the franchise made the playoffs.

    “Durantula” has two postseason scoring titles to go along with his three regular-season ones. In the 2013 playoffs, he averaged 30.8 PPG, 9.0 RPG and 6.3 APG. During 2011, he averaged 28.6 PPG.

    But his best postseason came last year, when the Thunder won the West. Durant had an all-around line of 28.5 PPG, 7.4 RPG and 1.5 SPG over 20 games.

    His highest scoring playoff game just 41 pointscame this year, in the Round 1, Game 3 win against the Houston Rockets.

3. Jerry West 29.13 PPG, 153 Games

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    Los Angeles Lakers Hall of Famer Jerry West was the “Mr. Outside” to Elgin Baylor’s “Mr. Inside” and had a similar career path to his teammate.

    Baylor was a Laker 14 years (1958-59 through 1971-72), was an 11-time All-Star and was on 13 postseason squads. West was a Laker an overlapping 14 years (1960-61 through 1973-1974), an All-Star every one of those seasons and made the playoffs 13 years as well.

    Together they won only one championship (1972), after hitting the Boston Celtics wall six times in the finals.

    West, one of the best clutch shooters of all time, was also known as “Mr. Clutch” and “Zeke from Cabin Creek.” The Lakers drafted him second in 1960 out of West Virginia, behind Oscar Robertson.

    West averaged over 30 points per playoff game seven times and was the postseason’s leading scorer four times, including a 40.6 average in 1965.

    He scored 40 points or more 16 times in his playoff career, including a high of 53 in Game 1 of the 1969 NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics. The Celtics won the series, but West won the Finals MVP—the only player from a losing team to ever do so.

    You do know that Jerry West is the silhouette in the NBA logo, don’t you?

2. Allen Iverson 29.73, 71 Games

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    “The Answer” to the second-leading scorer in postseason history is Allen Iverson. He is the only top postseason scorer who’s on the Hall of Fame bubble. Does this help his case?

    The 1996 No. 1 pick out of Georgetown, 1997 Rookie of the Year, 2001 MVP, 11-time All-Star and four-time scoring champion deserves to get in. What more does a player have to do, short of winning a title?

    How about going off in the playoffs? Iverson averaged just a hair under 30 PPG over eight postseasons—six with the Philadelphia 76ers and two with Carmelo Anthony’s Denver Nuggets.

    Iverson took the Sixers to the NBA Finals in 2001 on a statline of 32.9 PPG, 6.1 APG, nearly five RPG and a big-time defensive 2.4 steals a game.

    He averaged over 30 points four times in the playoffs and was its leading scorer twice.

    Iverson's top performance was a 55-point explosion against the New Orleans Hornets in Game 1 of 2003’s First Round.

1. Michael Jordan 33.45, 179 Games

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    The greatest of all time is also the greatest postseason scorer of all time. He has the most total playoff points (5,987) and the highest average (33.45).

    Luckily for the Chicago Bulls, the Tar Heel fell to third in the 1984 draft after the Houston Rockets selected Hakeem Olajuwon first and the Portland Trailblazers (at it again) selected Sam Bowie second.

    In his typical dominating manner, Michael Jordan is the only NBA player to average at least 30 PPG in the playoffsand by nearly three-and-a-half points no less.

    The difference between Jordan’s and Allen Iverson’s postseason scoring averages comes in at 3.72. The difference between No. 3 and No. 13 on this list is 3.72.

    “Air Jordan” led all postseason scorers an unreal 10 times (out of 13 appearances), including all six championship years.

    It’s challenging to strip down his playoff career to a single outstanding run. His best championship season (1993) saw him average 35.1 points a game. But in 1990, just before the first three-peat, Jordan averaged 36.7 points (and a league-leading 2.8 steals a game, too).

    He scored 40 points or more in a playoff game an astounding 38 times and appears six times in the top 10 highest-scoring playoff games of all time.

    In Game 2 of the 1986 Eastern Conference Finals, Jordan scored 63 points against the Boston Celticsthe most by a player in the postseason ever. Incredibly, the Bulls lost 135-131.

Bonus Slide

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    As a bonus, and to be fair, let's throw a caveat into the mix. Here are the top 20 postseason scorers who played in a minimum 100 playoff games.

    1. Michael Jordan 33.4  179 
    2. Jerry West 29.1  153 
    3. LeBron James  28.0  137 
    4. Elgin Baylor 27.0  134 
    5. Dirk Nowitzki  25.9  128 
    5. Hakeem Olajuwon 25.9  145 
    7. Kobe Bryant  25.6  220 
    8. Karl Malone 24.7  193 
    9. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 24.3  237 
    9. Shaquille O'Neal  24.3  216 
    11. Larry Bird 23.8  164 
    12. Dwyane Wade  23.7  131 
    13. Charles Barkley 23.0  123 
    14. Wilt Chamberlain 22.5  160 
    15. John Havlicek 22.0  172 
    16. Tim Duncan  21.9  210 
    16. Julius Erving 21.9  141 
    18. James Worthy 21.1  143 
    19. Paul Pierce  20.9  136 
    20. Reggie Miller 20.6  144 

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