A poster on the realgm forums named Nonemus recently wondered how everyone’s favorite triumvirate of wings, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, have stacked up against elite teams in the playoffs. Some of the numbers are worth examining here, namely how these three have performed against defenses separated by quality. Are any of them bottom-feeders? Do they equally suffer against the best defensive teams? Has one played a disproportionately large amount of games against amazing defenses?
First, we need to define elite defenses. Since the rule changes in 2005, only 41 teams have posted a defensive rating of 104 or lower. Which means, on average, a 104 DRtg is about the 6th best defense in the league and roughly three points better than average. Certainly a fair cutoff point with which to work. Similarly, let’s call “solid” defensive opponents those with a DRtg between 104 and 107 (roughly better than average), and “bad” defenses having below average Defensive Ratings (lower than 107).
Using that distinction, it turns out Dwyane Wade has played the majority of his playoff games against elite defenses (68% of all games versus such teams). LeBron has played 42% against top defenses and Kobe 38%. Below are their statistics, per 36 minutes, broken down by defensive quality. (GmSc is their Game Score).
Fittingly, Bryant and James show improvement the easier the defensive foe. Wade, however, has some surprising results. His performance versus elite D and non-elite D isn’t too different. (Note, those six games against “solid” defenses are from the 2006 Finals against Dallas.) He quite clearly outperforms the other two against elite defensive teams, even ramping up his three-point % and assists.
LeBron’s history against elite defensive teams is a tale of two players. In his first 15 games against such opponents, James struggled mightily, to put it mildly. He was dreadful, posting a 45.9% TS percentage and averaging over four turnovers per 36 minutes. Hide the women and children.
Below are his splits — the first 15 games are against 2006 Detroit, 2007 San Antonio and the first four games against Boston in 2008:
So James has been a different player against top defenses since game 5 against Boston back in 08, scoring and shooting better than he has even against solid defenses and posting a monstrous Game Score that tops Wade’s or Bryant’s GmSc against even the weakest defenses. The lesson, as always, is that LeBron James has been really good for the last few years.
Here is how each player’s series looks visually, measured using Game Score. The x-axis is a team’s defensive rating and y-axis the players average GmSc for the series:
The coefficient of correlation between Game Score and Opponent Defensive rating is as follows for each player:
- LeBron .582
- Kobe .561
- Wade .409
Which implies that LeBron’s Game Score by series is the most heavily influenced by opposing defense and Wade’s is the least affected. That is, the more positive correlation suggests that as the defense is worse, the performance better. That bottom-feeding trend is the strongest in LeBron’s case, and can be seen above with all his data points in the upper right quadrant.
All of this begs the question: Is it better for performance to vary according to defensive strength, or better to remain consistent regardless of opponent quality? In his only two series against bad defensive teams, Wade shows no appreciable improvement. LeBron and Kobe feed off bad defenses, to a certain degree.
In the playoffs, teams can expect to encounter difficult defenses on the path to a title. Since the inception of the three-point line in 1980, only five teams with an SRS over 6 had a defensive rating over 107. And 58% of those 6+ SRS teams qualified as “elite,” with a DRtg of 104 or lower. Which means in this case, Dwyane Wade may provide a distinct advantage on the game’s biggest stage.
Here is a complete list of each players series against elite defenses in the playoffs since 2005.