Not All Playoffs are Created Equal

I love Hall of Fame debates.  I never get tired of them.

Today, let’s examine the credentials of two popular NBA players:

PLAYER A

18.2 career ppg
20.6 career playoff ppg
3.0 rpg, 3.0 apg, 1.1 apg
5-time NBA All-Star (once as a starter)
3-time NBA All-Third Team
Finished in the MVP voting twice (13th in 2000, 16th in 1998)
Averaged 24 ppg or better game in one season
14th All-Time in scoring (11 HoF players plus Shaq and Kobe ahead of him)7th All-time in games played
Olympic Gold Medal Winner
NBA All-Time leader in 3-pointers made and attempted

PLAYER B

21.5 career ppg
28.5 career playoff ppg
6.0 rpg, 4.7 apg, 1.3 spg
7-time NBA All-Star (six starts)
Two-time All-NBA First Team, Three-time Second Team, Two-Time Third Team
Finished in the MVP voting Top 8 six times (twice finished 4th)
Averaged 24 ppg or better in seven seasons
Two scoring titles
67th All-Time in scoring

I want to thank Derek Schultz for this comparison between Reggie Miller (Player A) and Tracy McGrady (Player B).  In many ways, McGrady’s resume is much more impressive than Miller’s, though Reggie Miller is considered a borderline Hall of Fame player and McGrady wouldn’t be allowed to visit Springfield on a tour bus.

Any discussion about whether or not Reggie Miller should be elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame has to account for his post season performance.  Miller habitually saved his best offensive moves for the postseason.  Often sandbagging for the playoffs, Miller knew that in the NBA what you do after the 82nd game means more than what you do all year long.

If you’ve been reading 18to88 for any length of time, your ears should perk up at that last paragraph.  I routinely say the exact opposite about the NFL.  I personally think that postseason performance is vastly overrated when discussing players.  The answer has everything to do with the nature of the playoffs in each sport.

When I was growing up, I rarely heard any discussion of “rings” as a validation of a player in any sport.  It was often an afterthought.  I remember when the Bulls played the Lakers for the NBA Title, someone casually mentioned that Magic Johnson had five championships.  It was almost a trivia question, but certainly not some kind of argument about his greatness.  That began to change with the career of Michael Jordan.  Jordan’s six NBA titles became his defining statistic.  No one can name almost any number associated with Jordan’s career except his number of titles.

Over time, that spread to other sports.  When Steve Young won his Super Bowl, there was no further discussion of the issue of how many rings he had.  One was enough to gain entrance to the ‘club’.  Not until the Patriots fans felt disrespected by everyone were ‘rings’ used to measure NFL players.  The fascination with the postseason is relatively new phenomenon.

In the NBA, it makes some modicum of sense.  First of all, the NBA playoffs are a series rather than a single elimination tournament.  With only five players on the court at once, the performance of any one star can swing whole games and series quite easily.  A first round NBA series of seven games is the equivalent of about 8.5% of the regular season.  Four such series would total 34% of the total regular season games. Of course four seven game series would be highly unusual, but that’s how much ‘rope’ an NBA star has in order to win a title.  If he NEEDS that many games, he has them at his disposal. Any player can have an off night, and it won’t register or damage their title hopes at all.  A bad call, an unlucky bounce won’t end an NBA season in game one. There are other games where you can make up for it.

The NBA playoffs are fairly representative of the regular season.  There’s less room for randomness.  This is why the NBA is considered the most predictable of all the leagues.  What happens in the regular season is reflected in the postseason. That means that a player like Miller who was at his best in the post season simple revealed his true self come April, May, and June.  It wasn’t a fluke that he got better.  It was by design.

The NFL is a different story.  Each playoff game equals just 6% of the regular season, and for most players that single elimination shot is all they get.  A maximum four game run to the Super Bowl is a fairly representative 25%, but most common is the three game run at 19%.  Additionally, the impact that any one player has on a game is limited.  With 11 players on the field at once, and each side only playing roughly half the snaps, it’s much harder to assign credit and blame for wins and losses to just one player.

Ultimately, one game doesn’t tell us much of anything useful about an NFL player.  While it’s important that at some point a top player be part of a title winning team (ala Steve Young), there’s not much sense in ranking players by rings.  Given the fact that the weather changes so drastically throughout the year, it’s amazing that we even try to compare the NFL post season to anything else.  Winter and fall football aren’t the same for many teams, further adding to the uselessness of the comparison.

Baseball is even more extreme.  Recently, someone commented, “The Cardinals are wasting Albert Pujols’s prime” because they had won “only” one title with the ‘greatest player of a generation’.  That got me thinking:  Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Willie Mays, and Ted Williams have only two World Series rings among them.  It’s asinine to think that any player in baseball ‘deserves’ two championships.

Baseball’s postseason consists of a first round series of five games: just 3% of the regular season.  Sure, it’s a series format (unlike football), but even if you played in the full 19 postseason games, that’s still less than 12% of a full baseball season.  Baseball’s postseason isn’t entirely random, but it’s close.  Bear in mind that for most of baseball’s history there were only two or even one round of playoffs.  Simply speaking, postseason stats in baseball are even more of a blip than in football.  They are all but a total aberration that proves nothing.  They can help a player’s case (Curt Schilling) because what a player actually accomplished matters, but they shouldn’t be used to disqualify a player.  The sample size is just too small.

Michael Jordan changed the way we view sports and the postseason.  Rings are the thing.  The postseason matters more than the regular season.

While that makes sense in basketball and should help elevate Reggie Miller to the Hall of Fame, it simply doesn’t carry over to football and baseball.

In the NFL and MLB, rings are random and not necessarily a good measure of greatness.

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