There’s more to life in the NBA than rings. Ricky Bobby’s motto in Talladega Nights (“if you ain’t first, you’re last”) was supposed to be a joke. As his dad tells him, “I was high when I said that. That doesn’t make sense at all. You could be second, third, or fourth. Hell, you could even be fifth.”
Losing in the NBA Finals is a much greater accomplishment than losing in the first round. Even winning one playoff series is difficult. Just ask Tracy McGrady. A team that wins in the first round either has to be good enough in the regular season to be one of the top four seeds in its conference, or good enough to beat one of those teams. Focusing purely on rings unfairly devalues all the things teams have to do to compete for one, while also obscuring some fascinating patterns about what happens in the playoffs.
Below is a look at the career playoff series records for the top players in the NBA. There are a couple of important qualifications. I didn’t count a series positively or negatively for a player if they had had a minor role coming off the bench, like Kyle Lowry as a 22-year-old in Houston in 2009. Nor did I count losses for a player if he was injured, like Kawhi Leonard in the 2017 Western Conference finals. But the win still counts for the players—Steph Curry and Kevin Durant—on the other side. It would get too complicated otherwise. The list could be expanded to include players like Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, but that wouldn’t add any new information since they have almost the exact same records as Steph.
Career Playoff Series Records
The first thing that stands out is something we already knew: LeBron James is in his own universe. It shouldn’t be possible for one player to amass 36 playoff series wins, especially when they were the best player on all those teams. Even winning a title gets you only four series wins. Winning that many series means being consistently dominant for almost two decades.
LeBron doesn’t lose to bad teams and he doesn’t get hurt. Seven of his 10 losses came against teams that went on to win the title. Two others (2010 Celtics and 2009 Magic) made the NBA Finals. The worst loss of his career was to the 2006 Pistons, a team coming off two consecutive Finals appearances.
His durability separates him from his peers. LeBron has missed one postseason due to injury (last season with the Lakers) in 17 seasons in the NBA. Kevin Durant has missed three in 12 seasons. Kawhi Leonard has missed two in nine seasons. Those two could eventually surpass LeBron in rings, but catching him in series wins might be impossible, especially given how much those players have already been injured in their 20s.
The list also shows how valuable big wings have become. Big wings are the new big men, largely because they would have been big men a generation ago. LeBron (6-foot-9 and 270 pounds) and Durant (7-foot and 245 pounds) are the same size as many of the greatest centers in NBA history, while Leonard is just as strong. All three can score at will on offense and take over games on defense. It’s hard to knock off a team in a best-of-seven series with a player who can do that.
Kawhi’s career is a perfect example. The Spurs went 1-3 in playoff series in the three seasons before drafting him. They were an aging team that didn’t have enough size or athleticism on the wing to be a legitimate contender. Leonard instantly changed the franchise’s outlook and developed faster than people could have imagined. Kawhi was defending Durant in the Western Conference finals as a rookie, LeBron in the NBA Finals in Year 2, and winning Finals MVP in Year 3.
Those three stars have dominated the league in the past decade. LeBron, Durant, and Kawhi have lost only four times to anyone but each other since 2012—the Grizzlies over the Thunder in 2013, the Clippers over the Spurs in 2015, the Warriors over the Cavs in 2015, and the Warriors over the Thunder in 2016.
Golden State is the exception that proves the rule. Steph has an incredible playoff record in comparison to the other elite guards of the last generation in part because he was surrounded by waves of long and athletic wings even before Durant. There is no Warriors dynasty without players like Draymond, Klay, and Andre Iguodala to cover for Steph on defense and set him up on offense.
Curry stopped dominating the ball once Steve Kerr took over for the Warriors. Kerr went against the grain of the rest of the league, installing an equal-opportunity motion offense that used his star’s ability to threaten the defense off the ball to free up his teammates, rather than running a million high pick-and-rolls for Curry. There is a difference between Curry’s playoff record under Mark Jackson and Kerr; he went from averaging 8.2 assists per game in his first two postseason appearances under Jackson to 5.9 in five with Kerr.
That’s the contrast between Steph and Damian Lillard. It’s easy for an elite defense like the Lakers’ this season to take the ball out of Lillard’s hands. That doesn’t work against Steph because the Warriors were designed to function with him off the ball. Despite having CJ McCollum in the backcourt, the Blazers have never had a Plan B. Lillard has spent his entire career dragging an overmatched team beyond its limits before it ultimately falls on its face. All seven of his playoff series losses have been either sweeps or gentleman’s sweeps, in which the team preserves some dignity by losing 4-1.
History tells us there are limits to what a team built around a ball-dominant guard can do. Playing with a big wing is crucial for those guards. Five of Harden’s 11 wins came in three seasons with Durant, as did all nine of Westbrook’s. Four of Lowry’s nine wins came in one season with Kawhi.
Lillard and Chris Paul never got to play with a player like that. Paul’s career has been defined by his Sisyphean quest to win a title as a 6-foot-1 guard. Lob City won only three playoff series despite all the hype. They needed Blake Griffin to have developed the refined perimeter skill set he displayed last season in Detroit while he still possessed his all-world athleticism. The timetables never quite aligned.
Even bad luck becomes less important over a large enough time frame. The ball has bounced the wrong way for Paul several times in his career, but getting through some combination of Kawhi, KD, and LeBron would have been near impossible even in a best-case scenario. Take 2018, when Paul went down in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals. There’s no guarantee the Rockets would have beaten prime LeBron even if they had gotten past the Warriors.
Two players caught between the guards and the big wings on this list are Paul George and Jimmy Butler. Neither has been able to consistently carry teams deep into the playoffs despite theoretically having the skills to do so. What separates them from the elite players at their position is 2-point percentage. Look at their career marks in the playoffs:
Career 2-Point Percentage
George and Butler have had some incredible postseason moments. But they have not been able to string enough of them together to have winning postseason records. George’s inconsistency flared up once again in the Clippers’ first-round series with the Mavs, when he swung between dominant performances and disappearing completely.
The second-round series between the Heat and Bucks is a huge moment for Butler. He finally has a team built in his image in Miami. Now he needs to outduel Giannis Antetokounmpo. He has never done that before. Forget Kawhi’s miraculous shot to knock off the 76ers last season. Kawhi averaged 34.7 points on 53 percent shooting in the series, compared to 22 points on 44.3 percent shooting for Butler. Miami’s win in Game 1 on Monday was a great start, with Butler scoring 40 points compared to only 18 for Giannis.
This series is just as important for Giannis, who also lost a duel with Kawhi in last season’s playoffs. He was a project who needed time to develop into the player he is today, but that means he doesn’t have the long record of playoff success you would expect for a player with his accolades. Being outplayed by Butler in a season in which he won the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year would sour his reputation around the league. No one wants to be the star who always comes up short in the playoffs.
It’s too early to come to any conclusions about the younger players on the bottom of this list. But there are clear patterns when you break down the history of the playoffs in the 2010s. It will be fascinating to see if those patterns repeat in the 2020s.