Back in January – before the Rockets won 22 consecutive games – people were questioning the value of Tracy McGrady. People at that time were harping on that fact that with McGrady the Rockets seemed unable to get out of the first round of the playoffs. And looking back over his entire career, critics noted that McGrady’s teams never got out of the first round.
Looking at the data, though, it appears the playoff troubles of McGrady’s teams were not really about T-Mac. Basically, McGrady has often had less than stellar teammates. When you separate McGrady from his teammates — and that is what the statistics are supposed to do – McGrady appears to be a very productive player. In fact, the numbers suggested that McGrady – across his career – was a more productive player than Kobe Bryant (the player some – not many, but some — believe is the greatest to ever play basketball).
A few weeks after I posted my comment the Rockets embarked on that 22 game winning streak. Although T-Mac had little to do with this streak (noted here), people’s evaluation of his skills suddenly changed.
Like all good things, the Rockets streak eventually ended. We are now a few weeks past the streak, and the Rockets are once again (despite Thursday night’s win) looking at a first round failure. And again, people are questioning McGrady. In defending himself, T-Mac n0ted that he raises his game in the playoffs. Yes, according to T-Mac, he is a better player in the playoffs. When I heard this I thought, “hmmm… not sure I buy that story.”
T-Mac and Kobe in the Playoffs
As we often do here, let’s go to the numbers.
If all that matters is scoring, T-Mac is right. For his career he has scored more in the playoffs than he has in the corresponding regular season. Wins, though, are about more than scoring. Shooting efficiency, rebounds, steals, and turnovers all matter. And with respect to all these factors, McGrady offers less (or in the case of turnovers, more) in the playoffs. Consequently his post-season Win Score, relative to what we see in the regular season, consistently declines.
What if we look at Kobe?
Unlike T-Mac, Kobe scores less in the post-season. Like McGrady, though,Kobe also offers less shooting efficiency, rebounds, and steals. And that means – again, like T-Mac – Kobe’s post-season Win Score is not as good as what he offers in the regular season.
From The Wages of Wins
Readers of The Wages of Wins – specifically Chapter Eight – will remember that Kobe and T-Mac are not unique. Players like Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Shaquille O’Neal all tended to offer less in the post-season.
As we note in the book
Of course one might expect performance to decline in the playoffs. Teams play better defense and at a slower pace in the post-season. So naturally players accumulate fewer points, rebounds, etc. To see how big a decline we can expect, we collected data for every player in every post-season from 1995 to 2005. On average, Win Score declines by .03.
Checking the data (it has been a few years since we did this analysis so I am not positive I am looking at the right spreadsheet), the decline appears to be 0.025, or 1.20 over 48 minutes.
When we look at both T-Mac and Kobe, we see larger declines. In other words, they play worse than expected. Again, though, this is the same story we see for other major stars. For example, with Chicago (in other words, ignoring the Washington years), Jordan posted an average Win Score per 48 minutes of 14.39. In the playoffs his mark was 12.26. Now both marks are better than anything Kobe has done in the regular season or playoffs (prior to this year). In other words, average MJ beats Kobe at his best. That being said, post-season MJ – which is still phenomenal – is not as good as regular season MJ. And that difference is bigger than the average decline we tend to see between regular and post-season performance.
The Playoff Story
So here is The Wages of Wins playoff story.
1. T-Mac claims he plays better in the playoffs. When we look at all the numbers, we see that is not true.
2. What we see with T-Mac is not surprising. Because the competition is better in the playoffs, players tend to offer less.
3. Star players tend to offer even less than the average player. I suspect this is because star players tend to focus even more on scoring (and less on other stuff). Because scoring is more difficult in the playoffs, shooting efficiencies decline. Hence overall productivity goes down.
4. All that being said, it is still the case that the best players in the regular season tend to be the best players in the playoffs. In fact, as noted in The Wages of Wins, the consistency between regular season and playoff performance is about the same as we see between successive regular seasons. So although Jordan offered less in the playoffs, he was still generally the best player on the court.
Back to T-Mac and Kobe
Let me close by re-iterating what I said earlier in the year. When we compare the careers of McGrady and Bryant, T-Mac appears to be the slightly more productive player. That point was made in the column — T-Mac and Kobe – and corresponding tables.
If we update the story for 2007-08 – noted back in March– Kobe is the more productive player today. Kobe’s Win Score per 48 minutes was 12.03 in the 07-08 regular season. T-Mac only offered 6.90.
So far in the playoffs, both players are contradicting the story of this column. Kobe has a Win Score per 48 minutes of 15.19 while McGrady has a mark of 7.13. Of course, Kobe has only played two games and T-Mac has only appeared in three.
In these very small samples, each player has managed to raise their level of play from the regular season. Of course, each player’s past performance – and what we see from most NBA players – suggests that what we have seen so far will not continue as the playoffs progress.
Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.
Wins Produced, Win Score, and PAWSmin are also discussed in the following posts:
Finally, A Guide to Evaluating Models contains useful hints on how to interpret and evaluate statistical models.