Is LeBron James Really That Much Better in the Playoffs?
We keep hearing it everywhere. In the playoffs, LeBron James is an entirely different animal.
This is the response several analysts have given when posed the question as to whether or not they still believe that the Cleveland Cavaliers are the favorites in the Eastern Conference. And they're right -- James does seem to reach another gear (both mentally and physically) come playoff time. It's visible to almost anyone.
Although it was only game number 78 of the regular season, last night against the Boston Celtics, LeBron appeared to be in playoff mode. Sure, in the buildup to the game, he basically said that it was just another game, but we all knew that was blasphemy.
And if we didn't, last night proved it.
The Cavaliers entered the game tied with the Celtics for the best record in the East, but they came out a game ahead in commanding fashion. James tallied 36 points (on 14 of 22 shooting), 10 rebounds, and 6 assists in more than 38 minutes of play as the Cavs downed the Celtics by the count of 114-91 on Boston's home floor.
LeBron and company made a statement and showed what they're capable of when clicking on all cylinders. We were also once again reminded of James' ability to flip the switch when it's all on the line.
But, with all this talk of James' playoff game being far superior to that of his regular season game, what do the numbers say? How much better is Playoff LeBron?
Regular Season versus Playoffs
For starters, let's take a look at how his career numbers stack up against one another on a per-game basis.
|LeBron James Per Game Stats||Minutes||Points||Rebounds||Assists||Turnovers|
We know that LeBron, like most starters and star players, plays more minutes in the playoffs than in the regular season.
For that reason, he has increased his production in all categories but assists. Most notably, he ramps up his rebounds to 8.8 per game. Only twice (in the 2009-10 and 2016-17 seasons) has James averaged 8.5 or more rebounds per game in a regular season.
If we were to prorate these numbers to 36 minutes of play, how do they measure up then?
|LeBron James Per 36 Minute Stats||Points||Rebounds||Assists||Turnovers|
In the same allotment of minutes, nearly all of LeBron's numbers have seen a decline in the postseason. Rebounding, again, appears to be an area where he's increased his efforts. However, while he's seen nearly a 5% drop off and more than a 10% decrease in assists, he's also limited himself to exactly three turnovers per 36 minutes.
How has that, along with many other factors, played out in the form of James' advanced numbers?
|LeBron James Advanced Stats||Win Shares/
Generally, what we can takeaway from this is that LeBron has performed identically in terms of efficiency and offensive production (win shares per 48, player efficiency rating, box plus/minus and offensive box plus/minus) during both seasons. Meanwhile, he has increased his production, particularly on the defensive end.
That is where we see more than a 75% increase in defensive box plus/minus. And this can be attributed to more steals and blocks. Per 100 possessions, James has contributed 2.3 steals and 1.2 blocks in the playoffs. That's in comparison to averages of 2.2 and 1.0 per 100 possessions in his regular season career.
According to offensive box plus/minus, LeBron's point production has also been very similar. Also, in doing so, he's managed indistinguishable win share and player efficiency rating levels throughout his career.
On average, James has taken an ever-so-slightly different approach in the playoffs.
Small increases in usage percentage, three-point attempt rate and free throw rate can all be traced back to his heightened aggression come time for his annual run at the Larry O'Brien.
Other than that, James has been the same player he has been in the regular season -- just with more minutes and more focus on defense.
Postseason versus Postseason
How have things been different from playoff run to playoff run, though?
|Team||Year||Box Plus/Minus||PER||Win Shares/|
As you can see, James has had some awesome playoff years. Of course, at the top of that list are the three that led to his three rings (as seen in bold).
In each of them, he has produced at least .260 win shares per 48 along with a PER of 28.1 or better and a box plus/minus of 10.2 or higher. He's only accomplished that feat in two postseasons -- 2009 and 2014 -- where he hasn't captured the championship trophy.
Since he completed his first year with the Heat, James reached a certain level of consistency in both his playoff efficiency and production. In all five playoff runs since 2012, he's been at or above a box plus/minus of 10.2 and has had no less than a PER of 25.3 and .173 win shares per 48 minutes.
Subsequent to his return to Cleveland, LeBron has been really productive and really good. In 2015, without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, he was less efficient but resembled a monster with his offensive production. He averaged 25.6 points, 9.6 rebounds, and 7.2 assists per 36 minutes while attempting to bring a championship to the Land in his first season back. But it just wasn't enough against the high-powered Golden State Warriors.
As we know, James bounced back thanks to the support of a healthy Irving and Love. While tallying 24.2 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 7.0 assists per 36 minutes, James posted the second-best box plus/minus of his career as well as the second-highest playoff PER and win shares per 48 average in his time donning the wine and gold.
In both circumstances -- extenuating or not -- James outperformed his regular season in one way or another (production, efficiency, or both).
To this extent, James has stepped up his level of play in the playoffs, but the results have been to a much smaller degree than we may think. Mainly, we've been fooled by his intensity and the volume of his production.
In reality, most of the numbers point to a mirror image of a great regular season player. It just so happens that this regular season player is a 12-time All-NBA performer and 4-time MVP not to mention one of the best players ever to play the game.