Posted by Neil Paine on May 13, 2010
Here at Basketball-Reference, we recently gathered a new database of player positions that goes further than merely listing guards, forwards, and centers. It isn't live on the player pages yet (that's coming soon), but I've worked with it in several posts over the past few weeks, and today I'm going to use it to see which position has traditionally been the strongest for teams that are successful in the postseason.
Here's the study I ran: First, I calculated Win Shares and John Hollinger's Game Score per game (which I used rather than PER because I can easily make it a per-game metric) for both the regular-season and the playoffs. Then I sorted each team by all four categories, and noted the position of the team's best player in each (players had to play more than half of the team's scheduled games to qualify for the team lead in GmSc/G). Finally, I tallied up the total playoff wins, losses, and championships for teams whose best player was at each position -- so for instance, teams whose best regular-season player by WS was a PG have won 7 championships since 1952, etc.
Here are the results for 1952-2009:
As you can see, teams whose best players were centers have dominated the championship count by any metric, although teams whose best playoff Win Shares-earner was a SG also stand out from a championship point of view. Also, it should be noted that centers dominate the raw totals because, in NBA history, more playoff teams have had centers as their focal point than any other position, and by a pretty wide margin. So here's the same table, but with percentages instead of totals:
Now, the picture becomes clearer: in order to be successful in the playoffs, you traditionally need to be built around either a dominant center or a great point guard. That said, the game has not stayed static over the past 57 years -- rules have changed, styles of play have come into and out of vogue, the playoffs have become longer and more drawn out, etc. So I thought I'd also break down these charts using just data since the playoffs expanded to 16 teams in 1984:
And again, the percentages:
Now we start to see the Jordan Effect come into play, as SGs emerge as the dominant position of the modern era. After MJ retired, though, PFs began to assert their dominance for championship teams:
The only constant? Teams built around small forwards don't tend to be as successful as other positions. Here are the only NBA champs whose best player was (or might have been) a SF:
So, of the remaining teams in the playoffs, we have one built around either a C (Amare Stoudemire, regular-season) or a SG (Jason Richardson, playoffs) in the Suns; one built around a SG (Kobe Bryant) or a PF (Pau Gasol) in the Lakers; one built around a center (Dwight Howard) or a PG (Jameer Nelson) in Orlando; one built around a point guard (Rajon Rondo) in Boston; & finally one built around a SF (LeBron James) in Cleveland... And based on these past trends, maybe it shouldn't have been such a surprise that the lone team relying on a SF is on the verge of being eliminated -- since 1952, SFs have been one of the 2 positions (PF being the other) least likely to give you a title, and since 1984 they've been the least likely of all, with no SF having led his team to a title in the last 23 years.