Predicting the Top 10 Scorers of the 2020 NBA PlayoffsAugust 17, 2020
Predicting the Top 10 Scorers of the 2020 NBA Playoffs
The NBA playoffs tend to feel more complicated than the regular season. There's an increased premium on scouting and team tendencies in series that pit the same two teams against one another for several games in a row. You can get lost in the details of how one squad pre-switches screens to create certain matchups or how another loads the floor in a particular way to make the pass to the weak-side corner tougher.
Things get complex this time of year. But points? Points are simple, and they matter just as much in the playoffs as they do during the regular season. So we need to figure out who's going to produce them.
The guys on this list are all great, and there's some element of "well, duh" to each of their inclusions here. Any one of them could wind up first in postseason scoring average.
We're looking a little closer at first-round matchups and potential opponent tactics to create this list, but there's a less reasoned element that basically amounts to trusting the hot hand too.
Finally, we had to focus on points per game here. Total points would have ended up creating a list too heavy on players on teams poised to make deep runs. This way, we can highlight guys who could erupt in a one- or two-round postseason stay before bowing out.
10. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
Donovan Mitchell's Utah Jazz will see the Denver Nuggets in the first round, which should give the All-Star guard ample chances to score.
Mitchell managed just four and 18 points, respectively, in his first two meetings with Denver this year, which is cause for pause. And that 35-point effort he turned in Aug. 8 isn't as impressive as it seems because it came in over 47 minutes of a double-overtime loss. Mitchell hit just 12 of his 33 field-goal attempts in that one.
Still, the Nuggets defense was mostly MIA in the bubble, and the downward trend in performance on that end isn't new. Denver ranks 29th in defensive efficiency since the All-Star break.
Gary Harris' sore hip prevented him from playing in the seeding round, and if the Nuggets don't have their best perimeter defender fully healthy (or at least available) against Utah, Mitchell should find his points easier to come by.
Finally, Mitchell was dreadful during the 2019 postseason, averaging 21.4 points with a 37.1 effective field-goal percentage in five games against the Houston Rockets. He should be motivated to better those figures in his third career playoff appearance. If Utah advances past the first round, the Los Angeles Clippers will likely await. All the shutdown wings on that roster will make the sledding much tougher for Mitchell.
9. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Rudy Gobert's defense impacts the entire game, deterring guards from attempting shots in the lane and limiting opponents on the offensive boards. It hasn't, however, done much to bother Nikola Jokic in three matchups this season.
Jokic posted 29.0 points per game against Gobert and the Jazz, his third-highest average against any opponent. Denver's big man may be a pass-first operator, but he's made a habit of upping his scoring in playoff series. For his career, Jokic averages 25.1 postseason points per game, a significant uptick over the 17.0 he's produced during the regular season.
If the Nuggets advance, they're likely to see the Clippers, against whom Jokic averaged 19.3 points in only 28.3 minutes per game this season. On the off chance the Dallas Mavericks upset the Clips and face Denver in the second round, Jokic could really get his own offense going. He shot 60.0 percent from the field and 44.4 percent from deep in three games against the Mavs and their No. 18 defense.
There's always the chance that Jokic simply back-burners his own offense and decides to focus on facilitating. That might actually be wise with Michael Porter Jr. running so hot lately. Still, Jokic is a three-level threat who never lets defenders speed him up or deny him access to his preferred spots on the floor. He's basically immune to defense, which gives him a great shot to be a consistent source of points for as long as Denver's run lasts.
8. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Ben Simmons' absence is a net negative for the Philadelphia 76ers, but it could have positive effects on Joel Embiid's scoring potential.
Without Simmons cramping Philly's spacing, Embiid will get the chance to post up with fewer bodies around him. The Boston Celtics, Philadelphia's first-round opponent, have had success in slowing Embiid down by sending quick double-teams, goading him to either force it against multiple defenders or move the ball to a teammate. Now, with more shooters stationed farther from the bucket, maybe Embiid will get a steadier diet of one-on-one coverage down low.
If he does, watch out.
The potential for Embiid to dominate against Boston and whoever else the Sixers face might make this ranking seem low. Would anyone really be surprised if Embiid racked up something like 30 points per game with more room to operate?
Of course, as always, we have to price in the health and conditioning concerns that accompany Embiid wherever he goes. Because while we know he can feast on the block when his body is cooperating, his ankle and wrist injuries in the bubble can't be ignored.
7. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
We've already hit the point where any of the players listed from here on out could easily finish as the postseason's No. 1 scorer.
As evidence of that, here's Anthony Davis, the active player with the highest career postseason scoring average, ranked seventh.
The bet here is that AD has to expend most of his energy on defense in the Los Angeles Lakers' first-round matchup with the Portland Trail Blazers. It will likely fall to him to chip in on Damian Lillard if L.A. traps Portland's point guard, and he'll have plenty more work to do underneath with Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins hunting offensive rebounds. Add to that Collins' threat as a floor-stretcher, and Davis will have a full plate.
Still, the Blazers' sieve of a defense should afford Davis opportunities to score, even as a fatigued second option. And once the Lakers advance, scoring chances should increase against either the Oklahoma City Thunder or the Houston Rockets. It's not like anyone has the ideal personnel to slow down Davis, but if OKC awaits, Danilo Gallinari lacks heft, and Steven Adams is short on mobility.
Meanwhile, Houston would go to battle against AD with nothing but a bunch of wing-sized defenders to throw at one of the most skilled bigs in the game.
6. Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers
Kawhi Leonard set new career highs with 27.1 points and 4.9 assists per game this season, and we all remember how he spent most of last spring in a postseason fugue state, putting up 30.1 points a night while hauling the Toronto Raptors to a title.
Last year's Finals MVP is going to get his buckets, but he fails to crack the top five here for a couple of key reasons.
First, Leonard won't have to go supernova to get the Clippers to the promised land. The 2019 Raptors were deep and talented, but most of that was on the defensive end. L.A., in contrast, has more players with offense-first bents.
Paul George is a higher-volume scorer than anyone Leonard shared the floor with last season, and both Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell make their money by putting the ball in hole. Rest assured the Clips will turn to Leonard when they most desperately need a clutch basket, but other options can share the load for the rest of the game.
It shouldn't register as a disappointment if Leonard only puts up 25.0 points per game this postseason. It'll just be the natural result of a Clippers squad teeming with other scorers.
5. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
LeBron James has averaged over 30.0 points per game in six different postseasons, including each of the last two in which he participated. In 2017-18, he led all playoff entrants with 34.0 points per game. During that run, he logged a league-high 41.9 minutes a night.
We know James always plays more minutes and takes more shots in the postseason than he does during the year, which is why his career playoff average of 28.9 points per contest is comfortably higher than the 27.1 he's posted over 17 regular seasons.
The opposition is going to help too. The Trail Blazers put up the third-worst defensive rating during the seeding round and are short on the big wings necessary to slow James down. Seriously, who's guarding him? Gary Trent Jr.? Carmelo Anthony? Zach Collins?
LeBron is going to get whatever he wants for as long as that series lasts. Even through the second round, which could pit L.A. against Houston or OKC, it won't really be so much about how much James can score. Instead, his matchups are so favorable that it will come down to how much he wants to score. He could just as easily rack up a dozen assists per game and get his teammates going as explode for 40 every night.
4. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
A first-round matchup that'll surely include plenty of close-quarters coverage from Kawhi Leonard and Paul George is...not ideal. But if you're of the mind that Luka Doncic is a basketball genius—which is a fair opinion to hold in light of an age-20 season that included averages of 28.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists—then you should be bullish on his odds of figuring out how to produce in difficult circumstances.
Doncic only shot 31.7 percent on pull-up threes this season, so we should expect the Clippers and Dallas' potential second-round opponent to invite deep shots, which could suppress Doncic's point totals.
But here's a theory unsupported by statistical evidence: Doncic (again, a genius) is aware that the book on him now is to invite the step-back three and will willingly shoot plenty of them as defenders sag off to keep him out of the lane, where he draws heaps of fouls, finishes brilliantly and sets up clean looks for his teammates.
Basically, we're taking it on faith that Doncic can exploit whatever limited opportunities the defense presents, and that he'll drill enough off-the-bounce treys to juice his scoring average.
Doncic averaged 29.0 points per game against L.A. this season, all while hitting only 27.3 percent of a healthy 11.0 triple attempts per game. It seems reasonable to assume an uptick from the 34.9 minutes he logged in those contests against Los Angeles during the year, and with even moderately improved long-range shooting, we're looking at an easy path to scoring, say, 32 points per game.
That would have been enough to get him into the top three in postseason scoring average last year. So even if the opposition looks tough, it's hardly a stretch to say Doncic belongs this high.
3. James Harden, Houston Rockets
The league's scoring leader in the regular season only checks in at No. 3 here because of a well-chronicled history of underwhelming postseason play and the potential absence of Russell Westbrook, who's fighting a quad strain.
Russ' downhill attacking is the factor that most dissuades defenses from sending two bodies at Harden and forcing the ball out of his hands, as a Westbrook-led four-on-three scenario is often even more dangerous than a single-covered Harden.
If Westbrook misses significant time or isn't quite the same relentless attacker upon his return, it'll make opposing defenses' goals very simple: force Harden to surrender the rock, and trust that PJ Tucker and pals can't create an advantage before everyone scrambles back into position.
Harden hasn't ranked first in playoff scoring average in any of the past five postseasons, though he's consistently been in the top five. With opponents showing an increasing willingness to trap him and Houston's possible lack of support making that an even better strategy, it's just not realistic to assume a bunch of 45-point Harden explosions are imminent. If anything, the smart money might be on Harden leading the playoffs in assists.
That said, it's almost impossible to imagine such a prolific source of individual offense being held much below 30.0 points per game. We should view that figure as Harden's floor.
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Not to get too profound, but if you think about it, time was technically the best defender against Giannis Antetokounmpo this season. He logged only 30.4 minutes per game in 2019-20, a result of careful load management and frequently meaningless fourth quarters.
Giannis still put up 29.5 points per game during the year, but he led the league with 34.9 points per 36 minutes. Assuming the Bucks will find themselves in close contests more often (which may not happen until the second round; sorry, Orlando Magic), Antetokounmpo's minutes will increase. With time constraints out of the way, massive scoring totals will follow.
Yes, the entire league knows the key to stopping Giannis and the Bucks is keeping him out of transition, building a wall in the half court and selling out to protect the lane. But the entire league has known that for years, and Antetokounmpo still scored an NBA-high 1,102 points in the paint this season.
Knowing how to stop Giannis and actually stopping him are two very different things, and nobody's really done the second one.
1. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
No, you're a prisoner of the moment.
OK, sure, it's easy to get caught up in Damian Lillard's bubble run, during which he averaged a league-high 37.6 points per game on a 49.7/43.6/88.8 shooting split. You might assume it's impossible for a player to sustain that kind of production under any circumstances, let alone against the West's top-seeded Lakers, who happen to boast the league's third-best defensive rating.
A couple of things: First, your lack of faith is disturbing, and you've now been excommunicated from the Church of Dame. Second, don't be so sure the Lakers have the answers for the current holder of the NBA's "Baddest Man" belt.
Lillard averaged 36.0 points per game in three tilts with the Lakers this year, hitting 50.8 percent from the field and downing 39.4 percent of a healthy 11.0 three-point tries per game. Whatever overall defensive success the Lakers have had, it hasn't included slowing down Dame.
It's hard to be too critical of Los Angeles. No team has a scheme drawn up to prevent half-court shots.
As dominant as Lillard has been (and will be), Portland can't really expect to extend its first-round series beyond five or six games. Its defense is too shoddy for that. But that's actually another point in Dame's favor. The games against the Lakers should be up-and-down, high-scoring affairs; L.A. probably knows it can get what it wants against the Blazers D and won't feel the urgency to really put the clamps on and slow the pace.
An incendiary scorer on an all-time heater in a series that should feature plenty of totals in the 120s and 130s? That's an easy recipe to create the playoffs' scoring leader.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through games played Aug. 14.