Ranking the Best Scorers in NBA Playoff History

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistAugust 15, 2020

Ranking the Best Scorers in NBA Playoff History

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    BETH A. KEISER/Associated Press

    Legends are made in the playoffs. Looking back through NBA history, some of the greatest players cemented a Hall of Fame legacy with their performance in the postseason.

    And we're highlighting the best of that group.

    While the order is subjective, the list considers playoff games, total points, scoring average and team performance.

    For example, Karl Malone and Elgin Baylor both rank top-20 in career playoff points. But without an NBA title, it's fair to consider them prolific and not necessarily the best.

    Additionally, it's inarguable Allen Iverson is one of the greatest scorers ever to play in the Association. However, his Philadelphia 76ers reached the Eastern Conference Finals (and NBA Finals) only once. Pure individual talent is not a factor, either.

    The best scorers put up massive numbers and propelled their team to the NBA Finals and at least one championship.

10. Stephen Curry

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    Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press

    Perhaps you feel it's too early to include Stephen Curry. That's a fair opinion, especially if you're hoping to see Malone, Baylor, Dirk Nowitzki, John Havlicek, Dwyane Wade, Hakeem Olajuwon or another memorable player.

    Consider, though, that Curry is already 27th in playoff scoring with 2,968 points in just 112 appearances. Among players with at least 50 playoff games, his 26.5 points per game rank eighth. And the Golden State Warriors star point guard boasts three NBA titles.

    Along with his 40.1 three-point percentage, Curry has 47 postseason games with five-plus triples. The next closest are Klay Thompson (25), Ray Allen (21) and James Harden (14).

    His combination of range and efficiency has altered the sport.

9. Larry Bird

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    Lennox McLendon/Associated Press

    When the Indiana State product retired in 1992, only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jerry West had scored more points than Larry Bird.

    The longtime Boston Celtics star netted 23.8 points per game over 164 career playoff appearances. Bird guided the Celtics to five NBA Finals, winning three rings and a pair of Finals MVP awards. He ranks 12th all-time with 3,897 points in the postseason.

    Bird peaked in the 1984 playoffs, averaging 27.4 points (with 14.0 rebounds and 3.6 assists) in a Finals victory over the Los Angeles Lakers.

8. Tim Duncan

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Tim Duncan's reliability is a primary reason the San Antonio Spurs built a two-decade dynasty.

    After winning the NBA Finals in the strike-shortened 1998-99 campaign, the Spurs earned three more titles in the 2000s. Highlighted by three NBA Finals MVP honors, Duncan averaged 22-plus points in each of those four championship runs.

    Overall, the Big Fundamental ended his career with the sixth-most points (5,172) in postseason history.

    He was rarely glamorous. But the Spurs rode Duncan's steadily elite production to five total championships.

7. Kevin Durant

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    Regardless of the uniform he's wearing, Kevin Durant has always been a nightmare to defend against in the postseason.

    As a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder, he averaged 28.8 points in six postseason trips. Then during three playoff runs with the Golden State Warriors, which included two rings and two Finals MVPs, his efficiency soared. Durant improved to 29.6 points per game while shooting 51.4 percent from the floor.

    Still only 31, Durant has already posted the sixth-most games (33) of 35-plus points in NBA playoff history.

6. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    Kareem Abdul-Jabbar seemingly stuck around forever and continued to score at an incredible level for nearly his entire career.

    The six-time NBA champion scored 24.3 points per game in 237 playoff contests. And removing the last three of his postseason trips, which is a reasonable thought exercise since they came at ages 39, 40 and 41, he averaged 27.3 points in 180 appearances.

    His skyhook devastated teams for two decades.

    Kareem retired as the NBA's all-time leading playoff scorer (5,762) and is still third behind LeBron James and Michael Jordan.

5. Shaquille O'Neal

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    MARK J. TERRILL/Associated Press

    The career stats for Shaquille O'Neal are impressive, but his production from 1995-2003, in particular, was remarkable.

    While totaling 133 playoff appearances for the Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Lakers in that stretch, Shaq tallied 28.3 points per game. He lifted the Magic to one NBA Finals and celebrated three championships alongside Kobe Bryant with the Lakers.

    That nine-year stretch alone would be good enough, yet he averaged 18-plus points in four other long postseason runs and won a fourth ring on the Miami Heat.

    O'Neal ranks No. 5 all-time with 5,250 career playoff points.

4. Kobe Bryant

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Throughout his 20-year career, Kobe Bryant suited up in 220 playoffs gamesthe seventh-most in NBA history. And if you include everyone who's appeared in even a single postseason, the Los Angeles Lakers legend ranks 13th in points per game at 25.6.

    Scoring a lot if hard enough. Sustaining that extraordinary level is what made Kobe one of the greatest players ever.

    A winner of five NBA titles and two Finals MVPs, Bryant is fourth all-time with 5,640 playoff points. Only LeBron James (10) and Michael Jordan (eight) have scored 450-plus points in more postseasons than Kobe's seven.

3. Jerry West

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    AEM/Associated Press

    Just two players have averaged 40-plus points in a single postseason. Michael Jordan did so in 1986, but Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics eliminated the Chicago Bulls with a three-game first-round sweep.

    The other is Jerry West, who racked up 40.6 points per game during his 11 appearances in the 1965 playoffs. Incidentally, the Los Angeles Lakers fell to Bill Russell and the Celtics. But the point remains: West had legendary scoring upside.

    The Hall of Fame guard averaged 29.1 points in his 153 appearances, winning a title in 1972 and earning the rare distinction of Finals MVP in the 1969 series the Lakers lost.

    Jordan (38) and LeBron James (27) are the only players with more 40-point playoff games than West and his 20.

2. LeBron James

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    No matter what his future holds with the Los Angeles Lakers, LeBron James has already established himself as a top-two playoff performer.

    He carried the 2006-07 Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals. From 2011-18, he reached four straight NBA Finals with both the Miami Heat and Cavaliers. In 13 career playoff trips, he's averaged at least 23.7 points each year and topped a 30-point average six times.

    Criticize the 3-6 NBA Finals record if you'd like, but there's simply no arguing LeBron's overall and sustained excellence.

1. Michael Jordan

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    John Swart/Associated Press

    Michael Jordan won six titles with the Chicago Bulls. He earned NBA Finals MVP in all six series, and he averaged no fewer than 30.7 points during any of those runs to a championship.

    He was just unstoppable.

    When he retired in 1998, MJ held the NBA record for career playoff points with 5,987. LeBron has since surpassed the total mark, but Jordan, who made 179 appearances, still ranks No. 1 for playoff scoring average at 33.4 points per game.

    And that record may never be touched.


    All stats, unless otherwise indicated, courtesy of Basketball Reference or Stathead


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