Metrics 101: NBA Stars Whose Performances Declined Most in the Postseason
Postseason basketball is hard in the NBA.
Everyone has their sights set on the Larry O'Brien Trophy, and they're willing to deplete their energy reserves to get their hands on that coveted prize. That means more intense defense. Whistles don't reward those who fight through light contact, but that doesn't dissuade players from attacking the hoop with reckless abandon. Nerves can depress shooting percentages.
Some players overcome the challenges, but others have suffered. Even stars—defined here as players with at least two All-Star appearances during the modern era, which dates back to 1973-74 and the advent of expanded box scores—aren't immune.
For all 1,698 players in the NBA who have recorded at least 150 regular-season appearances with a career that started in 1973-74 or later, we pulled scores in three different overarching metrics: player efficiency rating, box plus-minus and win shares per 48 minutes. All three focus on per-possession effectiveness, so volume didn't matter as much as it might in other evaluations.
To standardize between three numbers that operate on drastically different scales, we found the Z-scores in each category and summed them to find a player's career score for the regular season.
The process was repeated for all 921 players who suited up in at least 20 playoff games, then the scores were subtracted from one another such that a positive mark indicated improvement from the regular season to the postseason. Of course, the negatives are the ones we're interested in here, and we focused on the 188 players who qualified for both portions of the calendar.
10. Dominique Wilkins: Minus-3.88
Regular Season Per-Game Stats: 24.8 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.6 blocks
Postseason Per-Game Stats: 25.4 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.6 blocks
Regular Season Career Score: 5.43 (No. 53)
Postseason Career Score: 1.55 (No. 123)
What a beautiful first example.
Dominique Wilkins' per-game numbers appear just about identical, with the postseason line carrying a slight advantage by virtue of the additional scoring and assists. But those mask the inherent inefficiencies in his later performances since the high-flying dunk machine also turned the ball over 0.2 additional times per contest and drew iron on far more of his shooting attempts—perhaps because his legs were giving out from the extra energy he expended to remain a salvageable defensive presence.
During the regular season, Wilkins overpowered defenders with his constant assaults on the basket, shooting 46.1 percent from the field, 31.9 percent from downtown (on 2.1 attempts per game) and 81.1 percent from the stripe. But once the playoffs began, that slash line trended down to 42.9/28.1/82.4. He just wasn't as effective against the more intense stopping efforts put on display by motivated teams in the league's second season.
Of course, Wilkins did have some big performances.
His duel against Larry Bird in Game 7 of the 1988 Eastern Conference Semifinals stands out, as the two stars went back and forth before the Boston Celtics emerged with a 118-116 victory. The Human Highlight Reel logged 47 points, but it wasn't enough. That ended the run that took him closest to even a single appearance in a conference finals, though he did his darnedest by averaging 31.2 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.3 steals and 0.5 blocks while slashing 45.7/22.2/76.8.
And therein lies the problem. Wilkins' reputation is boosted by his heroic efforts during that singular postseason to the point we forget how inefficient and focused on volume scoring he'd become during other ventures. Remove 1988 from the equation, and he averaged 23.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.3 steals and 0.7 blocks per playoff game with a 42.0 field-goal percentage.
Then the decline is more obvious, even on the surface.
9. Sidney Moncrief: Minus-3.96
Regular Season Per-Game Stats: 15.6 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.3 blocks
Postseason Per-Game Stats: 16.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.4 blocks
Regular Season Career Score: 6.15 (No. 38)
Postseason Career Score: 2.19 (No. 104)
Many players have trouble maintaining their shooting percentages against the stiffer competition offered by the playoff field, and Sidney Moncrief was no exception. His career field-goal percentage dipped from 50.2 to 47.5 during the most important part of the year.
But Moncrief's biggest issue was a relative lack of involvement since those per-game numbers above came while he played an additional 4.5 minutes per contest. He began deferring to his talented teammates a bit more frequently, and he was unable to pass the ball quite as efficiently as he did during the first 82 games of the year for the Milwaukee Bucks (and Atlanta Hawks for one go-round at the end of his should-be Hall of Fame career).
In the first stage of the NBA calendar, this ace defender served as an efficient distributor. He finished his career with a 17.0 assist percentage and 13.3 turnover percentage—figures matched or bettered throughout league history by only 96 players with 100-plus games to their credit.
Then the playoffs came around, and Moncrief apparently forgot he was supposed to rack up dimes without letting the opposition intercept his passes. In the tilts that mattered most, his turnover percentage (14.7) was higher than his assist percentage (14.5). This time, 172 players with at least 20 postseason contests on their resumes have matched or bettered those figures.
Perhaps if Moncrief had been more careful with the rock, he would've enjoyed a few more deep runs and had a better shot at ending his ringless streak.
8. David Lee: Minus-4.13
Regular Season Per-Game Stats: 13.5 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.4 blocks
Postseason Per-Game Stats: 5.6 points, 4.4 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.3 steals, 0.2 blocks
Regular Season Career Score: 4.38 (No. 84)
Postseason Career Score: 0.25 (No. 160)
David Lee was just unlucky.
His first All-Star campaign came for the New York Knicks in 2009-10, but their 29-53 record wasn't nearly enough to qualify for the playoffs—yes, even in the Eastern Conference. Three years later, he represented the Golden State Warriors in the midseason festivities before suffering a supposedly season-ending hip injury in Game 1 of the postseason. He made a miraculous return after missing just four contests, but his role was limited and set the stage for Draymond Green's takeover at power forward.
Lee consistently struggled on offense during postseason play, but his score was driven down by the simple fact that none of his runs toward a title came during his prime years. That hip injury occurred during his inaugural playoff appearance at the conclusion of his age-29 season, and his title run with the Dubs featured just 8.2 minutes per game as a 31-year-old.
Perhaps he would've fared better if he'd logged minutes for more competitive organizations and gotten a chance to make noise during his younger days. But as it stands, his role in the playoffs was just a fraction of the one he filled during his best days.
Lee was never better in the postseason than in 2014, when he made seven appearances and averaged 13.9 points, 9.1 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 0.6 steals per game with 53.2 percent shooting. But even that paled in comparison to his regular-season numbers from that campaign: 18.2 points, 9.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.7 steals and 0.4 blocks per game with 52.3 percent shooting from the field in 2.2 more minutes per game on the floor. His style just never translated against the increased defensive focus that hinders so many title tries.
7. David Robinson: Minus-4.26
Regular Season Per-Game Stats: 21.1 points, 10.6 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.4 steals, 3.0 blocks
Postseason Per-Game Stats: 18.1 points, 10.6 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.2 steals, 2.5 blocks
Regular Season Career Score: 11.72 (No. 3)
Postseason Career Score: 7.46 (No. 11)
Blame David Robinson for being so damn good during the regular season that even looking the part of a convincing All-Star in the playoffs has to be considered a significant decline. To show that, let's home in on the players he trailed in career score during each part of the campaign.
During the regular season, his mark of 11.72 ranks behind only Michael Jordan's 12.57 and LeBron James' 12.69. He falls to 11th during the postseason, and the list of names populating the top 10 is a rather impressive one:
There's no shame in lagging behind any of those legends, and Robinson only does because he didn't quite maintain his sterling offensive numbers.
Throughout his first seven regular seasons, all of which resulted in All-Star appearances for the San Antonio Spur, this center averaged a scorching 25.6 points, 11.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.7 steals and 3.6 blocks per game while shooting 52.6 percent from the field and 74.7 percent at the stripe. During the corresponding six playoff runs (the Spurs didn't qualify in 1992), his per-game marks were 24.0 points, 11.8 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.3 steals and 3.1 blocks with 48.8 percent shooting from the field and 72.8 percent shooting at the line.
Those might seem like small differences, but they add up when working in this celestial realm. Plus, we can't just overlook the twilight of his career, when he began deferring to a young Tim Duncan more than he ever needed to in the regular season.
6. Artis Gilmore: Minus-4.32
Regular Season Per-Game Stats: 17.1 points, 10.1 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.5 steals, 1.9 blocks
Postseason Per-Game Stats: 11.7 points, 8.0 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.7 blocks
Regular Season Career Score: 6.08 (No. 39)
Postseason Career Score: 1.76 (No. 115)
At his best, Artis Gilmore was a fearsome two-way center capable of easily making 60 percent of his field-goal attempts while shutting down the paint on the other end. But that's not the role he filled during his final playoff appearance, which came in 1988 for the Boston Celtics.
Backing up Robert Parish during the C's run to the Eastern Conference Finals, Gilmore played just 6.1 minutes per game, preventing him from posting the sheer volume necessary to maintain better per-contest figures. And that's especially problematic because his 14 appearances in 1988 comprised one-third of his overall NBA postseason showings—we didn't include his incredible performances in the ABA during the early stages of his career.
But even if we throw out that outlier with Boston, Gilmore averaged just 17.0 points, 11.3 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.0 steal and 2.4 blocks per game during his NBA postseasons—figures that were boosted by his spending significantly more time on the floor and often pushing toward minutes tallies beginning with a four. He also couldn't push his field-goal percentage past 56.8 and failed to make much of an overall impact on the offensive end.
Gilmore, just as is the case with so many of the stars who joined him in this countdown, was still a quality presence during his postseason exploits. But he didn't come close to matching the two-way effectiveness for which he was known in the first 82 outings of each year.
5. George McGinnis: Minus-4.33
Regular Season Per-Game Stats: 17.2 points, 9.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.4 blocks
Postseason Per-Game Stats: 14.6 points, 9.6 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.3 blocks
Regular Season Career Score: 3.67 (No. 106)
Postseason Career Score: Minus-0.66 (No. 173)
After winning a pair of titles with the ABA's Indiana Pacers and emerging as a consistent force on the secondary league's biggest stage, George McGinnis transitioned to the NBA with the Philadelphia 76ers. In that spot, the postseason was a bit tougher.
McGinnis made four trips to the playoffs in the Association, a group of years bookended by "runs" with the Sixers and NBA-era Pacers that lasted a grand total of five games. In between, he lost in the 1977 NBA Finals to the Portland Trail Blazers and advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals in 1978. It's those championship chases on which we'll focus, since they took place during his age-26 and age-27 seasons—ostensibly his prime years, assuming a normal career arc.
The Hall of Famer could only muster 14.3 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.3 steals and 0.2 blocks per game for the Sixers. Worse still, he shot 38.9 percent from the field and 65.0 percent from the charity stripe—a far cry from his respective marks of 46.0 and 69.9 during those regular seasons. His shots just wouldn't fall, especially during the '77 Finals, in which he connected on only 38.8 percent of his field-goal attempts and 51.6 percent of his alleged freebies.
This isn't merely retroactive criticism, either. Take a gander at this passage from a Sports Illustrated profile written by Bruce Newman in 1982:
"We had vintage George McGinnis at that point," [Philadelphia general manager Pat] Williams says. "Our fans were crazy about him from Day 1, and they never left him. If Pete Rose or Mike Schmidt go bad for a while, the fans get on them right away. But never George. Even through all the faltering during the playoffs there was never a boo.
"Of all the things that went wrong in Philadelphia, nothing has haunted McGinnis more than his collapse in the playoffs. Indeed, his postseason woes seemed to presage his later failures. In his first postseason in Philadelphia, McGinnis was inconsistent, scoring 34 points in one game, then fouling out of the next after scoring just 15 points as Buffalo beat Philly in a mini-series. "All those years in Indiana he had carried the Pacers," Williams says. "We envisioned him doing that in the playoffs for us, but it didn't happen." His performance against Buffalo seemed so out of character that no one—least of all McGinnis—knew his self-confidence was about to unravel. "And the next year it got worse and worse," says Williams.
When that confidence goes, regaining it can be a perilous process.
4. Karl Malone: Minus-4.35
- 4.2 OBPM in 10 games in 2000
- 4.0 OBPM in 16 games in 1994
- 3.8 OBPM in 20 games in 1998
- 3.6 OBPM in 16 games in 1992
- 3.3 OBPM in 18 games in 1996
- 6.2 OBPM in 82 games in 1996-97
- 5.7 OBPM in 81 games in 1997-98
- 5.6 OBPM in 82 games in 1989-90
- 5.4 OBPM in 82 games in 1992-93
- 5.2 OBPM in 82 games in 1999-2000
Regular Season Per-Game Stats: 25.0 points, 10.1 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.8 blocks
Postseason Per-Game Stats: 24.7 points, 10.7 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.7 blocks
Regular Season Career Score: 8.96 (No. 15)
Postseason Career Score: 4.61 (No. 45)
By now you should know postseason per-game lines aren't always telling.
Such was the case for Karl Malone, who shot only 46.3 percent in his postseasons (career 51.6 percent shooter in the regular season) and failed to make nearly as large an impact on the offensive end. He was still an All-Star-caliber power forward who played physical defense for the Utah Jazz, but here's a peek at the best playoff offensive box plus-minuses of his career:
Now, let's play the same game with his regular-season numbers:
For further perspective, Malone's career OBPM with the Jazz was 3.7, which would beat all but three runs from his playoff resume. His No. 11 showing in a regular season would tie the best he ever offered in the playoffs. Meanwhile, his career postseason average in Salt Lake City (we're not including a minus-1.8 OBPM with the Los Angeles Lakers) was 1.6.
For those of you without calculators or abacuses: Yes, that's less than half his average from the regular season.
3. Kyle Lowry: Minus-4.41
Regular Season Per-Game Stats: 14.4 points, 4.2 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.3 blocks
Postseason Per-Game Stats: 14.8 points, 4.1 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.2 blocks
Regular Season Career Score: 5.39 (No. 54)
Postseason Career Score: 0.98 (No. 138)
As Micah Adams of ESPN Stats & Info documented during the 2016 playoffs, Kyle Lowry became the first player in the shot-clock era to record nine consecutive performances in which he shot under 40 percent from the field but took double-digit attempts.
Since then, he hasn't done much to flip the script.
Last year's playoffs began with a 2-of-11 performance against the Milwaukee Bucks then ended with him watching from the sideline as the Cleveland Cavaliers swept his Toronto Raptors. He'd begun to discover his shooting stroke, but that wasn't enough to overcome the Eastern Conference boogeyman named LeBron James and begin a redemption narrative.
Even after going 4-of-9 to open this postseason in a victory over the Washington Wizards (an up-and-down performance filled with high-quality defensive plays nearly negated by costly turnovers), Lowry is slashing 39.5/31.3/78.7 during his playoff career. His 56.4 true shooting percentage in the regular season plummets to a miserable 51.5 in the postseason, making it tough for him to provide value to the squads he's supposed to be leading.
Maybe this is all just a massive fluke, one aided by injuries and bad matchups. Even the greatest scorers have the occasional slump, and Lowry's off nights could all happen to come at the worst possible times through no fault of his own. On the flip side, he could be a 6'0" point guard who struggles to generate as much separation in the playoffs and has played in a system that relies on him to create looks in one-on-one situations.
At least he now has a chance to pull his numbers out of the basement while helping Toronto defend its No. 1 seed. And given the new egalitarian offense head coach Dwane Casey has employed throughout 2017-18, he's never been more set up for postseason success.
Everyone, go knock on some wood.
2. John Drew: Minus-5.94
- 1977-78: 26.0 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 1.5 APG, 0.5 SPG, 0.5 BPG, 42.9 FG%
- 1978-79: 16.1 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 0.8 APG, 1.0 SPG, 0.4 BPG, 42.0 FG%
- 1979-80: 14.6 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 0.8 APG, 1.4 SPG, 0.0 BPG, 38.1 FG%
- 1981-82: 11.5 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 0.5 APG, 0.0 SPG, 0.0 BPG, 36.4 FG%
- 1983-84: 10.2 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 0.8 APG, 0.4 SPG, 0.0 BPG, 50.6 FG%
Regular Season Per-Game Stats: 20.7 points, 6.9 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.3 blocks
Postseason Per-Game Stats: 14.0 points, 4.8 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.2 blocks
Regular Season Career Score: 4.76 (No. 76)
Postseason Career Score: Minus-1.18 (No. 182)
In his age-23 season in 1977-78, John Drew made his playoff debut on a high note for the Atlanta Hawks, though his team nonetheless experienced early elimination at the hands of the Washington Bullets.
But after dropping 25- and 27-spots in that first series, he did nothing but decline toward mediocrity:
Rarely do you find such a consistent downward trend that extends to virtually every box-score category.
And don't be fooled by Drew's shooting percentage in his final playoff go-round (maybe he'd have gotten another shot if he wasn't banned for life for violating the league's substance abuse policy). The Utah Jazz granted him just about half the run he typically received with the Hawks.
For whatever reason, this forward forgot how to shoot whenever the regular season was over. Time and time again. And when you're already an unquestioned defensive liability, that's a troubling development that diminishes an overall legacy.
1. Stephon Marbury: Minus-7.25
Regular Season Per-Game Stats: 19.3 points, 3.0 rebounds, 7.6 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.1 blocks
Postseason Per-Game Stats: 12.6 points, 2.6 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.0 blocks
Regular Season Career Score: 3.24 (No. 125)
Postseason Career Score: Minus-4.01 (No. 187)
Most of these players were still good in their declined states. Stephon Marbury was not. Whether suiting up for the Minnesota Timberwolves, Phoenix Suns, New York Knicks or Boston Celtics, he was flat-out bad during postseason action, regardless of the lofty nature of his raw scoring totals.
During his first venture into the playoffs, Marbury connected on 40 percent of his field-goal attempts and 30 percent of his triples before the 'Wolves were eliminated in three games. Those remained career highs, and he slashed 34.7/26.6/76.7 during his subsequent appearances. Not only did he fail to offer much on the defensive end, but his high-scoring habits were detrimental because it always took him so many shots to get his point tallies.
But let's put this remarkable drop-off in perspective.
Of the 188 players eligible for these rankings, only Kevin Duckworth (minus-4.37) had a lower career score in the playoffs. But he wasn't starting from the same level as Marbury, as his regular-season career score was minus-2.33.
It gets worse.
Led by Mike Smrek's dismal minus-9.75 playoff career score, only 57 of the 921 modern-era players with at least 20 postseason appearances fared worse in the category. And if we expand our criteria to no longer include the two necessary All-Star berths, Bo Outlaw (minus-7.76) and Gary Trent (minus-8.97) are the only players with greater declines.
Marbury isn't just the star who fell off the largest cliff in the postseason; he's pretty darn close to owning the biggest decline overall.