NBA Metrics 101: Where Will LeBron's 2018 Playoffs Rank in His All-Time Top 5?
At this point, the final result is almost irrelevant.
If LeBron James manages to will a non-elite Cleveland Cavaliers squad to the fourth title of his remarkable career, he'll have pulled off a nearly unprecedented feat. If he works past the Boston Celtics but falls to either the Houston Rockets or Golden State Warriors, it'll be hard to hold that Finals loss against him (some will try, of course). Even if he proves incapable of taking down the young C's in the Eastern Conference Finals, he'll have added to his resume in positive fashion.
James has been that good during the 2018 postseason. Age simply isn't slowing him down.
But how does this run rank when compared to all his other playoff performances? This is his 13th trip beyond the NBA's regular season, but where does it fall in his personal pecking order?
To make an objective decision, we're turning to the numbers.
For each of James' 12 previous playoff trips, we pulled scores in five different metrics: NBA Math's total points added (TPA), player efficiency rating (PER), win shares (WS), win shares per 48 minutes (WS/48) and box plus/minus (BPM). TPA and WS look at volume/efficiency combinations (important when advancing deeper and playing more games is beneficial), while the other metrics focus on per-possession effectiveness. Volume and time on the court matter here, but not at the expense of great play on a more granular level.
To standardize five numbers that operate on drastically different scales, we found the z-scores in each category and summed them to find a playoff run's total score. The cumulative z-scores are what you'll see listed for each postseason, and they alone determine the order of the countdown.
Because the 2018 postseason isn't yet completed, James' marks from the current quest don't count toward the z-score calculations. We will, however, bring them in at the end to see where these in-progress efforts will land among his many attempts at titles.
Not in the Top 5
12. 2006 Playoffs: minus-7.4
Per-Game Stats: 30.8 points, 8.1 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.7 blocks
James' first venture into the playoffs ended with a Game 7 defeat at the hands of the Detroit Pistons, but the 21-year-old still put up 27 points, eight rebounds, two assists and a steal on the road while shooting 11-of-24 from the field. Unfortunately, the rest of the Cleveland Cavaliers could only muster 34 points on a putrid 9-of-41 showing.
The third-year stud wasn't yet capable of single-handedly willing his team into the Eastern Conference Finals (or beyond), but he still produced jaw-dropping numbers. Though his efficiency lagged behind its later-career levels, James threw up a per-game line that, while leading to the worst score in this analysis by a wide margin, has still been matched by just one player throughout the NBA's postseason history: himself.
11. 2008 Playoffs: minus-3.78
Per-Game Stats: 28.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 7.6 assists, 1.8 steals, 1.3 blocks
Series Results: 4-2 victory over Washington Wizards, 3-4 loss to Boston Celtics
Try not to hold a Game 7 loss to the juggernaut Boston Celtics against James. Just as was the case with the closeout game against the Pistons two years earlier, he did all he could despite traveling to enemy territory for an elimination contest: 45 points, five rebounds and six assists while shooting 14-of-29 from the field.
James' teammates were disappointing once again, combining for only 47 points on 16-of-38 shooting. But at least it was a bit more understandable when facing a historically excellent squad, as the '08 C's still have the No. 11 score throughout the NBA annals in Basketball-Reference.com's simple rating system (SRS), which looks solely at margin of victory and strength of schedule.
10. 2011 Playoffs: minus-3.32
Per-Game Stats: 23.7 points, 8.4 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.7 steals, 1.2 blocks
This playoff run will forever be immortalized as the time James forgot he was supposed to dominate the Dallas Mavericks during the NBA Finals, instead standing in the corner and watching passively as Dirk Nowitzki earned his first—and likely only—ring. Just don't forget to give the Mavs credit for forcing him into such an unenviable spot, or else owner Mark Cuban might come calling for you.
But let's not forget about what James did while working through the Eastern Conference with only three dropped contests. Prior to the disappointing Dallas series, he was averaging 26.0 points, 8.9 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.5 blocks while slashing 46.3/36.8/78.7.
9. 2007 Playoffs: minus-2.92
Per-Game Stats: 25.1 points, 8.1 rebounds, 8.0 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.5 blocks
Series Results: 4-0 victory over Washington Wizards, 4-2 victory over New Jersey Nets, 4-2 victory over Detroit Pistons, 0-4 loss to San Antonio Spurs
James' efficiency marks suffered throughout his sophomore playoff campaign, though that's easily explained away by the supporting cast. Of course he was going to shoot lower percentages (41.6/28.0/75.5) when subjected to a ridiculous amount of defensive attention by foes who refused to respect his running mates.
And why would they? Daniel Gibson (3.2), Anderson Varejao (1.9) and Zydrunas Ilgauskas (0.6) were the only Cavaliers to join James with positive BPMs during the '07 playoffs. Perhaps more importantly, Gibson and Ilgauskas were the lone teammates to post above-average marks in the offensive component of that overarching metric.
8. 2010 Playoffs: minus-2.21
Per-Game Stats: 29.1 points, 9.3 rebounds, 7.6 assists, 1.7 steals, 1.8 blocks
Series Results: 4-1 victory over Chicago Bulls, 2-4 loss to Boston Celtics
As James walked off the floor of the Garden following a Game 6 loss to the Boston Celtics and entered the tunnel, he pulled the Cleveland uniform over his head and set the stage for an offseason of scrutiny. It would be the last game he'd play for the Cavs during the first phase of his Hall of Fame career, but he was rather obviously operating at a high level.
Had Cleveland been able to extend this playoff run, it would've fared much better in our analysis. James thrived in all the rate stats, but making quick work of the Chicago Bulls and only going to Game 6 against the C's didn't allow for the requisite volume, even if his squad was 23.2 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor.
7. 2015 Playoffs: minus-1.66
Per-Game Stats: 30.1 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.5 assists, 1.7 steals, 1.1 blocks
Series Results: 4-0 victory over Boston Celtics, 4-2 victory over Chicago Bulls, 4-0 victory over Atlanta Hawks, 2-4 loss to Golden State Warriors
Dismantling the Boston Celtics? Doing away with the Chicago Bulls? Quickly ending the No. 1 Atlanta Hawks' historic season? All that success got negated by the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, though it's tough to pin too much of the blame on James' shoulders, when he averaged 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists against the Dubs.
That makes this a good time for a quick reminder: This is the last negative score for James, but it's important to remember we're comparing to his average rather than that of a typical NBA player. Even this sub-par set of playoff performances was historically excellent, earning the No. 10 postseason TPA in the NBA Math database.
6. 2014 Playoffs: 1.13
Per-Game Stats: 27.4 points, 7.1 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.6 blocks
No, that's not a typo. James only averaged 4.8 assists per game during the 2014 playoffs, taking advantage of the distribution abilities possessed by Mario Chalmers and Dwyane Wade so he could shoulder slightly fewer responsibilities for the Miami Heat.
For most players, that per-contest tally would still be excellent. Not so for this future Hall of Famer, who hasn't averaged fewer than five dimes during any other postseason run or any singular regular season. At least he took advantage of his shifting role by rarely turning the ball over (3.1 turnovers per game are the third-fewest of his playoff career) and slashing 56.5/40.7/80.6 en route to a Finals battle with the disciplined San Antonio Spurs.
5. 2013 Playoffs: 1.77
Per-Game Stats: 25.9 points, 8.4 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.8 blocks
Series Results: 4-0 victory over Milwaukee Bucks, 4-1 victory over Chicago Bulls, 4-3 victory over Indiana Pacers, 4-3 victory over San Antonio Spurs
If anything characterized James' tenure with the Miami Heat, it was his willingness to defer to the best set of teammates he's ever had. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were both capable of assuming a substantial portion of the offensive load, which allowed the team's best player to pick and choose his spots.
The extreme volume might not have been quite there (his 29.2 usage rate in 2013 was higher than only his first season with Miami), but he made up for the lesser counting stats by playing with extreme efficiency. During this run, which culminated in a Game 7 victory over the San Antonio Spurs for back-to-back titles, James shot 49.1 percent from the field, 37.5 percent from downtown and 77.7 percent from the stripe—good for a 58.5 true shooting percentage.
And speaking of Game 7, the regular-season MVP was predictably phenomenal when the stakes swelled.
During that seven-point victory to earn the Larry O'Brien Trophy, which was tight from the opening tip until deep into the fourth quarter, James went for 37 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and two steals. He coughed the ball up just twice, shot 12-of-23 from the field, went 5-of-10 from downtown and drilled all eight of his free-throw attempts. He was immaculate.
Oh, and perhaps the best factoid of all? He saved his highest-scoring performance for the final game of the entire postseason.
4. 2017 Playoffs: 2.08
Per-Game Stats: 32.8 points, 9.1 rebounds, 7.8 assists, 1.9 steals, 1.3 blocks
Series Results: 4-0 victory over Indiana Pacers, 4-0 victory over Toronto Raptors, 4-1 victory over Boston Celtics, 1-4 loss to Golden State Warriors
Yes, James lost in the Finals. No, it really shouldn't be held against him.
Any failure to earn a title after making the ultimate round will inevitably be viewed as a black mark on his resume, particularly because the ghost he's chasing was a perfect 6-of-6 during his Finals appearances. But James did everything he could to excel on the biggest stage while squaring off against a historically excellent version of the Golden State Warriors.
Though he could only will the Cavaliers to a single victory in five attempts, he averaged a staggering 33.6 points, 12.0 rebounds, 10.0 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks while slashing 56.4/38.7/64.9 against a defense that ranked No. 2 throughout the regular season. What more was he supposed to do?
James cruised past the Indiana Pacers. He got out the broom again in a second-round matchup with the Toronto Raptors. The Boston Celtics ended the run of perfection in the Eastern Conference Finals, winning Game 3 on the road by a three-point margin before falling in five outings. All of that gets washed away by the alleged failure against the Dubs.
But it shouldn't. And here, it won't.
3. 2016 Playoffs: 3.68
Per-Game Stats: 26.3 points, 9.5 rebounds, 7.6 assists, 2.3 steals, 1.3 blocks
Series Results: 4-0 victory over Detroit Pistons, 4-0 victory over Atlanta Hawks, 4-2 victory over Toronto Raptors, 4-3 victory over Golden State Warriors
Allow us to put some of those numbers in perspective. First, only the following players have posted PERs in the 30s while registering at least 500 minutes in a single postseason:
- Wilt Chamberlain
- LeBron James
- Michael Jordan
- Shaquille O'Neal
Using the same restrictions, just the following men have logged a BPM north of 13 during a single set of playoff contests:
- LeBron James
- Michael Jordan
And just for fun, has anyone else accumulated 4.7 or more WS during a lone go-round? Only these contributors, all of whom are either in the Hall of Fame are will be as soon as they're eligible:
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
- Larry Bird
- Kobe Bryant
- Tim Duncan
- LeBron James
- Michael Jordan
- Shaquille O'Neal
- Dirk Nowitzki
- Dwyane Wade
We're brushing shoulders with legends no matter where we turn.
Don't be fooled by James' more pedestrian per-game numbers this year, because they came while he executed with remarkable efficiency for the Cleveland Cavaliers and played arguably the best defense of his postseason career. In fact, he's never posted a higher DBPM than 2016's 5.8.
Without that two-way prowess, the infamous erasure of the Golden State Warriors' 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals never would've been possible.
2. 2012 Playoffs: 3.84
Per-Game Stats: 30.3 points, 9.7 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.7 blocks
Somehow, the 23 games it took James to win the first title of his illustrious career are tied with the following season for the most times he's ever suited up in a single postseason. And considering he's been a mainstay in the Finals for the last seven years, that's pretty shocking. On average, he only needed 5.8 games per round during his lengthiest run.
But that extra volume paid dividends here.
James only played slightly above his average level throughout the 2012 playoffs—more a testament to the lofty nature of that average level than anything else. His 30.3 PER and 11 BPM are just barely superior to his lifetime postseason marks of 28.2 and 10.9, respectively. However, we can't forget about the typical tradeoff between volume and efficiency; as one rises, the other is supposed to fall.
That just wasn't the case in 2012, as James throttled the New York Knicks, Indiana Pacers and Oklahoma City Thunder while fighting his way past the Boston Celtics with an inspired performance in the Eastern Conference Finals. During Game 6 in the Garden, already down 2-3 in the series, he had one of his career marquee showings with 45 points, 15 rebounds and five assists on 19-of-26 shooting, looking as locked in as he ever has.
Doing away with that aforementioned tradeoff allowed James to earn a career-best 5.8 WS—a total that leaves him trailing only 2003 Tim Duncan (5.9) on the all-time single-postseason leaderboard.
1. 2009 Playoffs: 8.8
Per-Game Stats: 35.3 points, 9.1 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.9 blocks
Series Results: 4-0 victory over Detroit Pistons, 4-0 victory over Atlanta Hawks, 2-4 loss to Orlando Magic
This is the second-best PER a qualified player has ever posted in the playoffs, trailing only 1988 Hakeem Olajuwon (39.0). No one has submitted a superior BPM, and the gap between 2009 James and No. 2 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (14.8 in 1977) is nearly as large as the yawning chasm between Abdul-Jabbar and No. 18 Kawhi Leonard (11.3 in 2017). Even though he didn't get a chance to suit up in the NBA Finals, he still earned the No. 5 score in NBA Math's TPA database, which rewards players for added volume.
The world has played witness to so many different versions of this all-time great.
It's seen him win titles alongside strong supporting casts and drag inferior teammates to a title. It's watched as he put together a Herculean performance against a historically great Western Conference opponent, almost winning Finals MVP in a loss. It's seen him reinvent himself as a dominant post-up threat, a strong perimeter marksman and an all-around defensive menace.
But he's never been better than in 2009, despite what the loss to Dwight Howard's Orlando Magic might seem to indicate on the surface. Lest we forget, James was playing alongside a crew that featured Anderson Varejao (3.0), Ben Wallace (1.6), Delonte West (1.3) and Mo Williams (0.8) as the only other Cavaliers to earn positive BPMs in the playoffs.
Maybe you still want to hold that Eastern Conference Finals defeat against him. Does that change when you realize he single-handedly averaged 38.5 points, 8.3 rebounds, 8.0 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.2 blocks while shooting 48.7 percent from the field during that penultimate series? What about the undeniable fact that Cleveland's net rating improved by 8.4 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor for his 41.4 minutes per game during the playoffs?
James has always been great in the postseason, Finals record be damned. But this year does more than earn the No. 1 spot; it sits at least a tier above all the other completed runs.
Where Will 2018 LeBron James Finish?
Per-Game Stats: 32.7 points, 9.2 rebounds, 9.0 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.1 blocks
Series Results: 4-3 victory over Indiana Pacers, 4-0 victory over Toronto Raptors, down 0-1 to Boston Celtics in Eastern Conference Finals
James might be at the tail end of his age-33 campaign, but he's proving Father Time is no match for his superior skills. Not yet, at least.
Dragged down by a lackluster supporting cast filled with struggling role players and inconsistent veterans on the decline, he's often served as a one-man show for Cleveland during the current postseason run. He provided plenty of heroics in a tough first-round series against the Indiana Pacers, turned Toronto into LeBronto during a second-round sweep and now has to engage in more heroics to have a chance against the upstart Boston Celtics.
We've seen plays that will live on forever, including a pair of buzzer-beaters to win games. We've watched as he took over contests as an unstoppable scorer, forcing foes to devote plenty of extra attention to slowing him down. We've even witnessed his steel trap of a memory.
The numbers, as you might expect, are similarly impressive.
Among James' 13 playoff runs, the current one ranks No. 2 in PER, No. 2 in WS/48 and No. 2 in BPM. Prominent placement in the volume-oriented categories is tougher while the Eastern Conference Finals are still in progress, but he's already at No. 9 in WS and No. 9 in TPA. Those scores will only continue to swell, even if the Cavs are unexpectedly swept out of the postseason by the Celtics.
Ultimately, his final number depends on how far he goes.
If he continues playing at the exact same level and is eliminated in Game 6 of the current round, his score of 4.59 would leave him safely in second place, toppling 2012 for sole possession of the silver medal. If Cleveland advances past the penultimate series in six contests and then goes six, win or lose, against the Western Conference representatives, his score of 7.42 would come closer to 2009 than 2012 but still leave him with a silver medal. Even if he plays in the maximum number of potential remaining games and wins a title, his score of 8.36 would leave him just shy of 2009's 8.8.
Go ahead and Sharpie it in: This is the second-best postseason performance we've witnessed throughout James' Hall of Fame career. Not too shabby for a 33-year-old with this much mileage already recorded.