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Best Playoff Players, 2003-2011 (*according to statistical +/-)

Posted by Neil Paine on June 12, 2011

As a follow-up to Thursday's post about the best Finals performances according to Statistical Plus/Minus, here's a playoff ranking since 2003 with a few tweaks:

  • I finally re-ran the Offensive SPM formula without steals and blocks. Steals in particular were causing certain players to be extremely overvalued offensively, and there's little reason to include those defensive stats in an offensive regression. (DSPM is the same as before -- and yes, it still includes several offensive stats, but DSPM wouldn't explain more than 25% of defense without them, while OSPM's explanatory power was barely affected by dropping steals & blocks out.)
  • At the request of readers, instead of per-minute SPM players are ranked by per-game "Impact", which is SPM times the % of team minutes played.
  • All of a player's games are weighted by Championship Leverage, which takes into account how much the game will potentially swing the odds of a team winning the NBA title. Leverage is relative to the average playoff game in a given season (which always has a leverage index of 1.00). For instance, Game 1 of the Magic-Hawks 1st-round series had a leverage of 0.44, while Game 5 of the Finals had a leverage of 5.28. This means that, in terms of influence on championship probability, Thursday's game was 12 times as important as Game 1 of a 1st-round series, and the rankings will reflect this.

Finally, why 2003? Because that was the year the NBA adopted best-of-7 first-round series, allowing me to use the series win probabilities found here.

Anyway, here were the top playoff performers since 2003 according to per-game SPM impact, weighted by the importance of the game (minimum 10 games):

Rank Player Games Impact Avg Lev
1 LeBron James 91 7.14 1.26
2 Dwyane Wade 86 6.38 1.24
3 Kobe Bryant 123 5.71 1.41
4 Tim Duncan 128 5.63 1.28
5 David Robinson 23 5.08 1.96
6 Manu Ginobili 122 4.98 1.32
7 Dirk Nowitzki 105 4.88 1.13
8 Dwight Howard 57 4.50 1.07
9 Chris Paul 23 4.47 0.68
Rank Player Games Impact Avg Lev
10 Kevin Garnett 82 4.14 1.45
11 Kevin Durant 23 4.11 0.97
12 Chauncey Billups 134 3.90 1.37
13 James Harden 23 3.36 0.97
14 Baron Davis 23 3.35 0.60
15 Steve Kerr 10 3.30 2.71
16 Pau Gasol 89 3.07 1.42
17 Deron Williams 44 2.89 0.77
18 Jason Kidd 99 2.85 1.10
Rank Player Games Impact Avg Lev
19 Ben Wallace 120 2.81 1.33
20 Paul Pierce 94 2.80 1.27
21 Elton Brand 17 2.35 0.66
22 Kerry Kittles 31 2.27 1.50
23 Rasheed Wallace 134 2.27 1.51
24 Tracy McGrady 27 2.10 0.58
25 Shaquille O'Neal 92 2.03 1.23
26 Rajon Rondo 73 1.89 1.49
27 James Posey 65 1.83 1.36
Rank Player Games Impact Avg Lev
28 Steve Nash 92 1.81 0.93
29 Trevor Ariza 41 1.63 1.55
30 Derrick Coleman 12 1.61 0.69
31 Amare Stoudemire 56 1.53 0.74
32 Speedy Claxton 25 1.52 1.83
33 Robert Horry 91 1.47 1.24
34 Marc Gasol 13 1.40 0.95
35 Alonzo Mourning 40 1.38 1.44
36 Allen Iverson 26 1.38 0.53

LeBron James? That choker is #1?

Well, take a look at LeBron's performances in his highest-leverage playoff games (leverage >= 1.5):

Date Tm Opp MP OSPM DSPM SPM Lev %Min Impact
6/9/2011 MIA DAL 45.6 -0.46 -4.55 -5.01 5.282 95.1% -4.76
6/5/2011 MIA DAL 45.3 0.80 0.46 1.27 4.246 94.3% 1.19
6/10/2007 CLE SAS 38.0 1.50 -4.04 -2.54 4.010 79.2% -2.01
6/7/2011 MIA DAL 45.7 -5.93 2.15 -3.79 3.874 95.2% -3.61
6/7/2007 CLE SAS 44.0 -7.32 -0.43 -7.75 3.864 91.7% -7.10
6/2/2011 MIA DAL 39.6 0.03 5.03 5.06 3.654 82.5% 4.17
6/2/2007 CLE DET 46.2 3.85 6.81 10.66 3.622 96.3% 10.26
5/31/2011 MIA DAL 45.3 8.49 4.26 12.75 3.521 94.3% 12.02
5/30/2009 CLE ORL 44.9 3.73 -3.30 0.44 3.179 93.5% 0.41
5/31/2007 CLE DET 50.3 21.89 -3.39 18.49 3.139 86.7% 16.04
6/12/2007 CLE SAS 42.0 0.44 5.19 5.62 3.009 87.5% 4.92
5/18/2008 CLE BOS 46.8 20.63 -2.05 18.58 2.667 97.5% 18.12
Date Tm Opp MP OSPM DSPM SPM Lev %Min Impact
5/21/2006 CLE DET 46.8 2.93 -1.86 1.08 2.335 97.4% 1.05
5/24/2011 MIA CHI 49.4 5.01 0.59 5.61 2.244 93.2% 5.23
5/26/2009 CLE ORL 49.4 7.73 -1.27 6.47 2.161 93.2% 6.03
5/29/2007 CLE DET 44.3 7.49 3.18 10.67 2.126 92.3% 9.84
5/22/2011 MIA CHI 43.9 12.36 3.46 15.82 2.123 91.5% 14.47
5/24/2009 CLE ORL 42.0 15.82 -0.61 15.21 2.044 87.4% 13.29
5/24/2007 CLE DET 44.7 -5.40 3.75 -1.64 2.005 93.1% -1.53
5/21/2007 CLE DET 45.4 -3.06 8.50 5.44 1.932 94.5% 5.14
5/18/2011 MIA CHI 45.7 6.05 4.27 10.32 1.827 95.1% 9.82
5/15/2011 MIA CHI 41.2 -1.71 -0.51 -2.22 1.761 85.8% -1.90
5/20/2009 CLE ORL 41.2 26.49 -4.56 21.92 1.696 85.9% 18.83
5/22/2009 CLE ORL 42.5 7.33 -4.16 3.18 1.609 88.6% 2.81
5/27/2007 CLE DET 46.1 12.35 2.33 14.68 1.504 96.1% 14.11

I will concede that he has had negative performances in 4 of his 5 most important games, but right below those we also see double-digit impact ratings in extremely high-leverage games.

Besides, if you look at someone like Kobe Bryant, you'll also see a Top 10 littered with negative impact ratings in huge games:

Date Tm Opp MP OSPM DSPM SPM Lev %Min Impact
6/17/2010 LAL BOS 44.9 -3.29 3.58 0.28 9.238 93.4% 0.27
6/13/2010 LAL BOS 43.9 13.71 -2.07 11.64 4.434 91.4% 10.64
6/17/2008 LAL BOS 42.8 -3.11 -8.72 -11.83 4.267 89.1% -10.54
6/13/2004 LAL DET 45.0 -5.29 -3.76 -9.06 3.924 93.8% -8.49
6/12/2008 LAL BOS 43.4 -0.81 4.86 4.05 3.756 90.3% 3.66
6/11/2009 LAL ORL 48.9 4.60 0.50 5.10 3.731 92.2% 4.70
6/10/2004 LAL DET 45.0 -5.94 -1.81 -7.76 3.712 93.8% -7.27
Date Tm Opp MP OSPM DSPM SPM Lev %Min Impact
6/8/2010 LAL BOS 43.9 6.43 2.98 9.40 3.564 91.4% 8.59
6/8/2008 LAL BOS 40.5 8.42 -1.75 6.67 3.543 84.3% 5.62
6/7/2009 LAL ORL 48.5 -0.16 -0.92 -1.08 3.519 91.5% -0.99
6/15/2004 LAL DET 45.0 1.62 -7.79 -6.18 3.463 93.8% -5.79
6/5/2008 LAL BOS 41.9 -3.25 -3.25 -6.50 3.414 87.2% -5.67
6/4/2009 LAL ORL 38.0 20.29 4.64 24.94 3.391 79.1% 19.73
6/10/2010 LAL BOS 43.1 4.55 1.11 5.66 3.253 89.7% 5.08
6/15/2010 LAL BOS 39.6 7.27 9.17 16.45 3.233 82.5% 13.57

Not even the great Dwyane Wade, perhaps the best Finals performer of his era, is immune to poor games in big spots. While his overall record (like James' and Bryant's) is outstanding, in the 3rd-most-important game of his playoff career to date, he threw up a 7-for-20, 5 turnover, 113 DRtg performance vs. Detroit.

The point? Everyone has bad games in big spots, some far more odious than James' worst offerings (Kobe's 2008 Game 6 vs. Boston was perhaps the worst big-game performance by a great player in the last decade*). But on average, the best SPM playoff performer since 2003 was LeBron -- something to keep in mind as you watch the 6.1-leverage index Game 6 tonight.

(* - Btw, the best big-game performance -- meaning the highest-leverage double-digit impact game since 2003 -- was this closeout by Tim Duncan: 21 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists, 8 blocks, and played all but 2 minutes for a team that allowed 0.835 pts/possession.)

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11 Responses to “Best Playoff Players, 2003-2011 (*according to statistical +/-)”

  1. Purple Monkey Dishwasher Says:

    Very interesting. It's nice to see Baron Davis up there too. I've always felt that he's been one of those players who has legitimately lifted their performance in the big games.

  2. J. Joyce Says:

    Nice post as usual Neil, and I agree with you on the steal issue.
    BTW, what's the avg. SPM and avg. impact for the playoff players who played over 50% of team minutes played?

  3. Neil Paine Says:

    #2 - Thanks. The minute-weighted average SPM for players who played at least 50% of team playoff minutes was 0.81, and the average impact was 0.80.

  4. Ben Says:

    Great stuff as always,

    Am I missing something or are defensive rebounds more valuable for overall SPM than offensive rebounds now?

  5. Jason J Says:

    Indulge my ignorance a second, Neil... Is Kerr's leverage so high because he made the majority of his contributions in the closeout game against NJ in 2003 (believe that was when Scott figured out that the whole Kenyon Martin straight up D thing wasn't hacking it and started doubling down on Timmy, so Pop countered by inserting Steve)?

    No Ray Allen surprises me.

  6. Ben Says:

    If I was a Kobe defender, I might think that multiplying all 3 columns would be the best measure.

  7. Neil Paine Says:

    #4 - Yes, the coefficient for OReb decreased when I removed steals and blocks from the regression. Offensively, steals were seen as hugely positive while blocks were somewhat negative, so it makes sense that a new regression w/o them would compensate by decreasing the value of OReb (players who get a lot of those tend to get more blocks than steals).

    #5 - Basically. By far, his best impact games of the 2003 playoffs were 5/29/2003 vs Dallas (Game 6, 4-4 3fg, 2 reb, 3 ast in 13 minutes) and 6/13/2003 vs New Jersey (Game 5, 6 pts, a rebound and a steal in 9 minutes). Those games happened to carry leverages of 2.13 and 5.11 respectively, and then in his other high-leverage games his average impact was a little better than 0, so he comes out looking good here. If your bad games come with almost no leverage (on 5/7/2003 vs. LA he had an impact of -3.31, but that game only had a leverage of 0.88), and your good games come with a lot of leverage, you'll do well, which is as it should be.

    #6 - That would double-count leverage, since impact already takes into account the leverage of every game the player played. But yeah, an adjustment for total games could be made, since impact is a per-game metric.

  8. DJ Says:

    Thanks for all the analyses, Neil. Cool stuff.

    I'm wondering if you could calculate correlation coefficients for SPM vs. leverage for each player? A statistically significant positive coefficient would suggest better play when the leverage is high; a negative would indicate a choker.

  9. k Says:

    I prefer this list to the broader antecedent, as it takes place over a timeline that more accurately accounts for rule changes that have softened the league.

    Dwyane Wade's infamous Finals of 2006 would be an example -- there's no way I believe he puts up those numbers, has that impact, under 90s rules.

    The same could be said and, I suppose, *is*, in relation to Dirk Nowitzki's Finals and overall playoffs this year. Defenders are helpless, more because of the way the game is now officiated than Dirk's skillsets; at the very least, the rule changes are greatly playing up and complementing those skills.

    Individual performance is often higher, made easier, thanks to the machinations to "open the game up" that have been pushed over the last decade.

  10. David Says:

    Neil, I'm curious how sensitive this list would be if you used WinShares instead of SPM?

  11. huevonkiller Says:

    Nice to see the MONSTER impact James has had in the playoffs though, I knew his 2008 series against Boston was pretty dominant. A shame Erik wasted him but I bet James wins a few rings playing dominantly, and even when he's not in his prime too.