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Who’s the Real Playoff Rondo?

Rajon Rondo may have dibs on the nickname, but he didn’t make our list of the biggest over- and underachievers of the 2018 NBA playoffs

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s a fitting time for Paul Simon to head on tour, because a new song belongs in his rotation: “You Can Call Me Playoff Al” should be a contemporary update to his 32-year-old classic. Or so sing the Celtics, anyway, as the veteran big man has fueled their unlikely run to the Eastern Conference finals. Against the upstart 76ers in Round 2, Al Horford made a game-winning shot, captained the defensive crusade against Ben Simmons, and led the Celtics in rebounds, blocks, and field goal percentage.

Horford’s experience in these playoffs runs counter to that of Paul George, who dubbed himself “Playoff P” before Oklahoma City’s first-round series against Utah. George played up to that billing for all of one game. The Thunder swingman made eight of 11 3-point attempts and scored 36 points in a Game 1 win against the Jazz, but his efficiency waned during the rest of OKC’s first-round series. From games 2 through 6, George shot just 36 percent from the field and 26.8 percent from 3, and he capped his season—and, perhaps, his Thunder career—with a putrid showing in Utah’s series-clinching win: five points on 2-for-16 shooting, including 0-for-6 from 3. By game score, it was the second-worst performance of his 598-game career.

Horford and George are among the handful of players who have been described as having “Playoff” alter egos, but they don’t quite register as the most extreme over- or underachievers of this postseason. We can figure out who does, though, by using player efficiency rating, which isn’t a perfect way to compare players who occupy different roles, but works well to compare players to themselves.

Exactly 150 players this season have played at least 10 minutes per game in both the regular season and playoffs, which makes such ordering easy: The 15 players with the greatest positive differential between their regular and postseason PER represent the top 10 percent of overachievers, while the 15 players with the greatest negative differential represent the top 10 percent of underachievers. First, the positive group:

2018 Playoff Overachievers

Player Regular-Season PER Postseason PER Change
Player Regular-Season PER Postseason PER Change
Al-Farouq Aminu 12.0 21.3 9.3
Alec Burks 13.1 22.2 9.1
LeBron James 28.6 35.4 6.8
Mike Scott 13.7 19.1 5.4
T.J. McConnell 12.5 17.7 5.2
Derrick Rose 11.5 16.5 5.0
John Wall 19.1 24.1 5.0
Khris Middleton 17.4 22.4 5.0
Tristan Thompson 13.6 18.2 4.6
Terry Rozier 15.1 19.5 4.4
Zach Collins 7.5 11.7 4.2
Aron Baynes 12.1 16.2 4.1
Jusuf Nurkic 19.2 23.0 3.8
Al Horford 17.6 21.4 3.8
P.J. Tucker 8.3 12.0 3.7

This is an eclectic group whose members generally cohere with what we’ve observed thus far. Some players were the bright spots amid otherwise teamwide dysfunction (Aminu, Collins, Nurkic); some were veterans who stepped up in the playoffs after lackluster regular seasons (Rose, Wall); others were breakout guards turned cult heroes for their respective fan bases (McConnell, Rozier).

Horford makes an appearance, of course, but his opponents in the Eastern Conference finals are the most interesting names here. James’s jump toward the top of the leaderboard may be the most impressive, as he theoretically had the littlest room to grow. In the regular season, James trailed only James Harden and Anthony Davis in PER; Nurkic, who ranked second among these 15 players in regular-season PER, placed 39th.

James’s playoff PER at the moment is the third-best in a single season in postseason history, behind only Hakeem Olajuwon in 1988 and James himself in 2009. And while that mark will probably regress with a matchup against the Celtics’ league-best defense looming—and, potentially, the Warriors or the Rockets, who have the two best defenses of this postseason—what James has already accomplished in the first two rounds is extraordinary. He’s the first player since 2009 (when he and Kobe Bryant both did so) to record four 40-point games in the same postseason; he’s beat the buzzer for two game-winners; he’s leading the league in playoff scoring while also averaging nine rebounds and nine assists per game.

Joining him on this list is Thompson, who entered the playoffs in firmer position in the tabloid rotation than in Cleveland’s, as he played just nine minutes total across the first five games in the first round. But as Cavs coach Tyronn Lue fiddled with his lineup to emphasize continuity and veterans—hold that thought—Thompson became a playoff force once again. He posted a double-double in Game 7 against Indiana, then again in Game 1 against Toronto, and he’s poised to have a more prominent role against Boston than anyone would have expected just a month ago.

Not everyone has been so fortunate in the playoffs, though. Here are the 15 greatest underachievers relative to their regular-season performance:

2018 Playoff Underachievers

Player Regular-Season PER Postseason PER Change
Player Regular-Season PER Postseason PER Change
Hassan Whiteside 24.1 6.9 -17.2
Tomas Satoransky 15.4 -0.8 -16.2
Damian Lillard 25.2 9.4 -15.8
Jordan Clarkson 16.4 3.0 -13.4
Rodney Hood 14.3 4.2 -10.1
Davis Bertans 14.1 4.1 -10.0
Shabazz Napier 14.2 4.3 -9.9
Bam Adebayo 15.7 6.1 -9.6
Ed Davis 15.5 6.1 -9.4
Danny Green 11.4 2.6 -8.8
Dante Exum 16.7 8.0 -8.7
Kevin Love 22.4 14.0 -8.4
Jose Calderon 11.3 3.0 -8.3
Tyus Jones 14.1 6.0 -8.1
Karl-Anthony Towns 24.9 16.8 -8.1

Again, this list largely confirms the eye test: Whiteside was a disaster against Philadelphia, making more than one field goal just once in five games and posting a minus-15.3 net rating in Miami’s first-round loss. Lillard, too, collapsed in the face of Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis’s throttling pick-and-roll defense: The Blazers guard’s PER went from an All-Star level in the regular season to Ron Baker’s level in the playoffs. (Fellow All-Star Paul George suffered a drop that wasn’t as severe, as his PER fell by 4.2 points to belie his “Playoff P” moniker.)

Most of the other names on this list belong to role players, not stars—though Towns, too, struggled to gain a foothold in his first playoff series against Houston’s Clint Capela—and the most interesting narrative element is that four Cavaliers make an appearance. There’s a reason Lue had to revamp his rotation midway through the Pacers series: James’s supporting cast was almost uniformly playing below its expected level.

Both Clarkson and Hood came to Cleveland as midseason reinforcements in a much-celebrated trade-deadline shopping spree, and both played 20 or more minutes four times in the first six games against Indiana. They experienced little success against the staunch Pacers backcourt, though, and Lue slashed their minutes for Game 7. The Cavs coach then maintained that limitation against Toronto, as the two players didn’t crack 20 minutes in any game in that sweep. Calderon, meanwhile, started three times against the Pacers, but didn’t play at all in Game 7 or against the Raptors until garbage time of the series-clinching Game 4.

Love is the last Cavalier here and the most alarming, given his purported standing as Cleveland’s second option. The stretch center has perked up of late, at least: After scoring no more than 19 points in any of his first eight games of the playoffs, Love has eclipsed 20 in each of his past three games while shooting 54 percent from the field in that span (compared with 32 percent before). Whether he sustains those gains in a likely matchup with Playoff Al Horford himself could prove pivotal in the Eastern Conference finals.

While the Cavaliers populate both the over- and underachievers leaderboards and the Celtics place multiple players on the former, the Western Conference finals combatants are largely absent. No Warriors appear on either list with one of the 15 largest PER differentials, and the only Rocket present is P.J. Tucker, who barely sneaks on. (Ryan Anderson and Gerald Green are among the 15 greatest underachievers in how their points per game have changed from the regular season to the playoffs, but that drop is mainly a function of Mike D’Antoni shortening his playoff rotation. Eric Gordon, who’s gone through a shooting slump as of late, is also on that list.) The West’s two behemoths have eased through the first two rounds, losing a combined four games en route to their preordained clash. Nobody on either team has played particularly poorly, and the teams are so talented that they don’t need to exceed their typical levels to coast to wins against high-quality competition.

One final wrinkle in this analysis is to look at career over- or underperformance in the postseason, and here, another player who purports to activate a playoff version of himself leaps to the top of the leaderboard: Rajon Rondo. Among the 79 active players who have appeared in at least 50 career playoff games, Rondo is the greatest PER improver in the playoffs. Draymond Green ranks second and Dirk Nowitzki third; those are the only three players whose playoff PER improved by at least one point relative to the regular season, though the likes of Lance Stephenson (plus-0.9), Kyrie Irving (plus-0.6), and James (plus-0.5) are close. Interestingly, Chris Paul, despite a few memorable postseason flameouts, has seen his PER nudge slightly upward in the playoffs (plus-0.1), and he’s one of just 15 players who can claim even the smallest sliver of improvement.

As a group, the 79-person sample has seen its PER drop by an average of 1.1 points, likely because facing stingier defenses on a nightly basis has limited efficiency. To that end, the negative end of the career playoff spectrum is mostly filled with role players who saw their output diminish against the league’s toughest defenses, though Kyle Lowry (minus-2.7), DeMar DeRozan (minus-1.9), and James Harden (minus-1.8) stand out because of their history of playoff shortcomings.

Because they stretch out over full careers rather than just one or two series, the PER differentials are flattened here, but like with the leaderboard tables up top, it’s useful when the numbers both confirm intuitive conclusions and provide new narrative points. We have hard evidence, now, that Playoff Rondo is real. So is Playoff Al, at least this year. Playoff LeBron? He’s real this year and beyond. Playoff LeBron is eternal.