clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Is the New Class of Playoff Stars a Product of the NBA’s High-Scoring Environment?

Young players like Devin Booker and Trae Young have risen to the fore this postseason, but their big numbers may have as much to do with high-octane offense across the league

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Every team that’s won an NBA title since 1983 is already out of the playoffs. In place of the usual postseason faces, a new generation of star players is staking its claim.

Look, for instance, at the list of players with the most points through seven career playoff games: It’s topped by perhaps the three greatest players in NBA history, three more Hall of Famers, and 22-year-old Luka Doncic. Then comes 22-year-old Trae Young in 11th place and 24-year-old Devin Booker in 13th. The Grizzlies lasted only five games against the top-seeded Jazz, but 21-year-old Ja Morant would be in eighth place, right behind Luka, if the Grizzlies’ play-in games through the past two seasons counted in the official playoff column.

Highest Scorers Through Seven Career Playoff Games

Rank Player Year(s) Points Per Game
Rank Player Year(s) Points Per Game
1 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 1970 36.3
2 Michael Jordan 1985/86 35.4
3 LeBron James 2006 33.7
4 (tie) Bob McAdoo 1974/75 32.1
4 (tie) George Mikan 1949 32.1
6 Wilt Chamberlain 1960 31.9
7 Luka Doncic 2020/21 31.0
8 Anthony Davis 2015/18 30.1
9 Rick Barry 1967 30.0
10 Allen Iverson 1999 29.0
11 Trae Young 2021 28.9
12 Oscar Robertson 1962/63 28.7
13 Devin Booker 2021 28.4
14 Terry Cummings 1985 28.1
15 Earl Monroe 1969/70 28.0

They’re not just scoring points, either, but leading their teams in a variety of ways. By game score, a statistic invented by John Hollinger that combines all the box score stats into a single representative number, Doncic, Young, and Morant all rank in the top 10 for best starts to a playoff career, with Booker checking in at 16th.

These playoff upstarts—plus their slightly older peers, like Donovan Mitchell, who debuted in the 2017-18 postseason, and Nikola Jokic, who debuted in 2018-19—are all incredible, dynamic, exhilarating talents. They collectively represent a bright future for the NBA. But their illustrious playoff records thus far come with one notable asterisk: Offense is out of control in these playoffs, inflating numbers not just for these young stars, but across the field.

At this point, the NBA’s current scoring boom is well documented. The past five seasons are also the five most efficient regular seasons in NBA history. The seven most efficient teams ever, per Basketball-Reference, all played in 2020-21, and the entire top 10 is teams from the past three seasons.

But what is new is that level of offense carrying over to the playoffs. A whopping nine teams in this first round—more than half the field—averaged at least 115 points per 100 possessions, and five averaged 120-plus. There is no precedent for this sort of leaguewide offensive output in the playoffs.

Since 2003, the first postseason with a best-of-seven first round, only 12 teams have crossed the 120 threshold in the first round, and 10 of those 12 have come in the past three years. Offenses have improved so much, so quickly, that both the 2020 Jazz and 2021 Trail Blazers averaged better than 120 points per 100 possessions and lost their series. (The Nuggets can win without defense, apparently.)

Most Efficient Offenses in Best-of-Seven First Round (Since 2003)

Team Offensive Rating
Team Offensive Rating
2021 Nets 128
2021 Jazz 123.4
2005 Suns 123.3
2021 Nuggets 122.9
2020 Raptors 122.9
2021 Trail Blazers 122.1
2020 Clippers 121.4
2021 76ers 121.1
2019 Warriors 120.5
2019 Bucks 120.5
2016 Thunder 120.4
2020 Jazz 120.3

Even the moribund Miami offense, with just 95 points per 100 possessions in the first round, can’t drag down leaguewide averages too far. Teams are scoring 113.8 points per 100 possessions this postseason, according to figures derived from NBA Advanced Stats—a great leap ahead of the previous high of 110.8, set last year in the bubble. (This comparison extends back to 1996-97, the first season with granular play-by-play data on NBA.com.)

Better offenses are more likely to advance farther in the playoffs and therefore make up a greater share of the postseason stats. So while the 2020-21 regular season saw the average team score 111.7 points per 100 possessions, weighting by playoff possessions bumps that figure up to 114.3.

So using this weighted figure, the league had a 114.3 offensive rating in the regular season and now has a 113.8 in the playoffs. That’s not an improvement, per se—but just holding serve is a victory for offenses, given that playoff defenses typically clamp down on their high-scoring counterparts. Offensive efficiency doesn’t always decline in the playoffs; in 2017, for instance, led by the scorching Warriors and Cavaliers, the league averaged a 110.7 offensive rating in both the regular season (weighted) and playoffs. But it often does decline. From 1996-97 through 2019-20, offense fell by an average of 2.1 points per 100 possessions by this method.

In part, this sustained success stems from the league’s long trend toward more efficient shots, as teams have traded midrange jumpers (from non-stars) for more 3s. According to Cleaning the Glass’s “location effective field goal percentage,” which measures the quality of shot profiles, the 2019-20 and 2020-21 postseasons have the highest leaguewide marks on record.

Yet the 3s-and-layups shot distributions aren’t doing all the work themselves. Teams are also taking care of the ball better than ever before, with a turnover rate of just 12.4 percent in these playoffs. That’s more than a percentage point better than the next-best postseason rate since 1996-97, and 2.4 points better than the average in that span.

In more concrete terms, that extra ball security is worth two to three more shots per game from each team—and when teams are shooting so accurately, those extra scoring opportunities add up.


The lowest turnover rate in this postseason belonged to the Grizzlies, at 10.4 percent—the Jazz, for all their other defensive strengths, forced the fewest turnovers in the regular season—which takes this story back to Morant and the other playoff neophytes who are scoring all those points.

The next-generation stars deserve ample credit for helping to create so much high-octane offense, but that environment inflates their historical standing. It’s a lot easier for Young and Booker and Morant to score around 30 points per playoff game than for, say, LeBron James, who averaged 34 points per game to start his playoff career in a league that scored as well as the Rockets have since James Harden left.

Of course, it’s no insult to say these new stars are not LeBron. They’re doing plenty fine in their own right. After all, both Booker and Young advanced farther than James in these playoffs.