LeBron James had a really awful 2011 NBA Finals; a popular stat going around the sports radio airwaves claims that no player has seen a points-per-game drop from the regular season to Finals as large as the Miami Heat All-Star did. But for the playoffs on the whole, wasn't LeBron pretty great? He was especially dominant against the Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls; co-star Dwyane Wade struggled against Chicago, notably, and LeBron carried the Heat to a 4-1 that was a lot tighter than "4-1" would make it seem.
Were LeBron's Finals so bad it tanked his playoff performance altogether? In the narrative, yes. In the data? I'm curious. It'd also be interesting to find out which players elevated their production in the playoffs, and which sunk. If LeBron's overall playoff production did suffer, did he have company? What other stars suffered indignities at the hands of the Second Season?
I used John Hollinger's PER -- not a perfect metric, but one that cleanly adjusts your standard box-score statistics for possessions played and (most importantly) efficiency -- to compare regular season performance to playoff production for all players who received at least 100 minutes in the postseason. (That'd be 123 players.)
Here are the results, with the Top 5 Sinkers and Top 5 Risers plus the top 20-or-so playoff performers called out.
You can tell by the linearity of the data that most players performed roughly as well during the playoffs as they did during the regular season. The few major outliers -- nearly all of which are on the Risers and Sinkers lists -- are the exceptions; the standard deviation for change in PER was 3.58, which means about two-thirds of the players had a playoff PER with 3.58 points of their regular season PER. The average change in PER was -1.75.
Some players, of course, saw their PER drop much more precipitously than that. At the head of the list is, unfortunately, the New York Knicks' Amar'e Stoudemire, who was injured for much of his first-round series against the Celtics. Amar'e was a star-level performer during the regular season, with a PER of 22.7. In the playoffs, that dropped to 10.7, which is right around replacement level. Amar'e gutted out 134 playoff minutes, but he didn't help the Knicks too much as they were swept out of the postseason. Only three other stars (regular season PER over 20) saw their playoff PER drop at least five points: Al Horford (-7.4), Tim Duncan (-6.4) and Pau Gasol (-6). Stoudemire's PER dropped 12 points.
The Orlando Magic's Ryan Anderson had a really terrible series against the Atlanta Hawks, and Glen Davis was simply awful for the Celtics. (The only players with worse PERs in the playoffs: defensive roleplayers Jason Collins and Omer Asik, couldn't-buy-a-bucket Wilson Chandler and The Mike Bibby.) Nazr Mohammed and Tony Allen are interesting cases; both are primarily defensive contributors, but had solid PERs in the regular season. Whatever production their teams were used to disappeared in the playoffs, though. Allen certainly struggled on offense despite an otherwise magical run for Memphis.
Those are the major sinkers. But who elevated their game in the postseason? The biggest riser was none other than Greivis Vasquez, a rookie who played a little more than 10 minutes a game for the Grizzlies in both the regular season and playoffs. In the regular season, Vasquez shot poorly and was a turnover machine. In the playoffs, he was an efficient stud, one of the better point guards in the league. Watch out Mike Conley!
Nick Collison, like teammate Mohammed, is primarily a defender, but he shot inordinately well during the playoffs and was a killer on the offensive glass. Kirk Hinrich shot well against Orlando, too, and limited turnovers to a bare minimum. But his placement on the Risers list is more a function of how awful he'd been with the Hawks during the regular season.
Chris Paul is the story of this study. A veritable superstar during the regular season (23.7 PER, sixth in the NBA), he rose his game to another level in the Hornets' first-round series against the Lakers, putting up a PER of 28.9 (No. 1 with a bullet in the postseason; Wade was No. 2 ... with 26.3). He only got in six games, but CP3 was the MVP of the first round, and with any semblance of a supporting cast, it could have been New Orleans in the Finals. Look at it this way: you know how otherworldly Dirk Nowitzki was all playoffs long? He had a PER of 25.2. The difference between Playoffs CP3 and Playoffs Dirk is about the difference between Regular Season Dirk and Regular Season LaMarcus Aldridge. It's huge, considering how wonderful Dirk was.
Jason Terry is another player who played out of his mind in the playoffs, only he did it for 21 games, raising her PER from a solid 15.9 in the regular season to a star-level 20.3 in the playoffs. The Mavericks don't win the championship without J.E.T. raising his game. You want to know why so many of us picked against Dallas again and again? Because Regular Season Dallas doesn't win the title. The team played much better in the Second Season than they did during the regular season.
Ah, but what of LeBron? Where does he fall on the continuum? Well, you probably spotted him the graphic. He's up there with the league's best regular season PER (27.3), and with the No. 6 playoff PER (23.7). Plenty of players fell harder in the playoffs, stars included (the aforementioned Stoudemire, Horford, Duncan and Gasol, plus Russell Westbrook, Lamar Odom, Josh Smith and Carlos Boozer). But LeBron's fade sticks out, especially when you consider the sinking came almost completely in the Finals. James wasn't alone in seeing his playoff production dip, not by a long shot. But the sinking was dramatic and noteworthy, and it's something only different results in the future will erase.