NBA

NBA Analysis: Who Played vs. Toughest Defenses in Playoffs?

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It’s a common question in basketball debates: what individuals have faced the hardest defenses in the postseason?

To begin with, I’m not particularly interested in what a superstar did during his geriatric years or before he was a viable MVP-level player, so let’s only focus on prime seasons. But defining a player’s “prime” can be a bit fuzzy, so for the sake of consistency, we’ll use any year in which he had a top-10 finish in MVP voting.

Let’s define defensive quality by using the best overall metric we have, Defensive Rating (DRtg), which is simply the number points allowed per 100 possessions. (A better method might be to isolate how defenses perform against certain positions, or to look at their eFG% against and fouling rates compared with a player’s offensive tendencies, but DRtg is certainly sufficient here.)

Now we can compare the 15-best players of the generation from our MVP list and see who has faced the most difficult defenses in the playoffs during prime years (click on heading to sort by column):

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PS Prime
Avg. Opp Drtg
Weighted Lg Avg.
Diff
% Change

Kobe Bryant
102.6
105.8
-3.2
97.0%

Dwyane Wade
103.7
106.8
-3.1
97.1%

Shaquille O’Neal
101.9
104.9
-3.0
97.1%

LeBron James
104.4
107.2
-2.8
97.4%

Steve Nash
103.9
106.7
-2.8
97.4%

Karl Malone
103.9
106.5
-2.5
97.6%

Michael Jordan
105.0
107.4
-2.5
97.7%

Dirk Nowitzki
103.9
106.0
-2.1
98.0%

Charles Barkley
105.8
107.7
-1.9
98.2%

Larry Bird
105.5
107.3
-1.8
98.4%

Hakeem Olajuwon
105.8
107.4
-1.7
98.4%

Kevin Garnett
103.5
104.9
-1.4
98.6%

Tim Duncan
103.7
104.9
-1.1
98.9%

David Robinson
106.5
107.5
-0.9
99.1%

Magic Johnson
106.7
107.5
-0.8
99.2%

Every single superstar faced tougher defenses in the playoffs. Kobe Bryant had the largest increase in playoff defensive quality by raw change, facing defenses 3.2 points stingier than what he saw in the regular season. Only Shaquille O’Neal faced teams that allowed fewer points per 100 (101.9) in the playoffs.

Coincidentally, another Laker had it the easiest. Magic Johnson might not have noticed when the playoffs began, because his typical postseason opponent during his 10-year run was right around league average. In 27 playoff series against the West, Magic faced 16 below average defenses. 15 of his 22 conference opponents (68%) in the 1980s were below average in DRtg. Conversely, Larry Bird, fighting through the Eastern Conference, played six below average defenses in his prime (29 series from 1980 to 1990).

In the next post, we’ll examine changes from regular season performances to playoff performances in the context of playoff defensive quality.

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