LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers fell six wins short of their ultimate goal but that should not obscure the fact that James put together one of the greatest individual performances in playoff history. He became the only player to ever average at least 35 ppg, 7 apg and 7 rpg for an entire playoff season; James’ final numbers in 14 playoff games were 35.3 ppg, 9.1 rpg and 7.3 apg while shooting .510 from the field, .333 from three point range and .749 from the free throw line. There have only been four other 30-7-7 playoff seasons in NBA/ABA playoff history:
Oscar Robertson, 1963 Cincinnati Royals: 31.8 ppg, 13.0 rpg, 9.0 apg, .470 field goal percentage, .864 free throw percentage in 12 games (lost in Eastern Division Finals to the eventual NBA champion Boston Celtics).
Oscar Robertson, 1966 Cincinnati Royals: 31.8 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 7.8 apg, .408 field goal percentage, .897 free throw percentage in five games (lost in Eastern Division semifinals to the eventual NBA champion Boston Celtics).
George McGinnis, 1975 Indiana Pacers (ABA): 32.3 ppg, 15.9 rpg, 8.2 apg, .468 field goal percentage, .315 three point shooting percentage, .688 free throw percentage in 18 games (lost in ABA Finals to the Kentucky Colonels).
Michael Jordan, 1989 Chicago Bulls: 34.8 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 7.6 apg, .510 field goal percentage, .286 three point shooting percentage, .799 free throw percentage in 17 games (lost in Eastern Conference Finals to the eventual NBA champion Detroit Pistons).
During the Robertson seasons cited above, the NBA did not have a three point shot rule and the playoffs consisted of two Divisional rounds followed by the NBA Finals.
Robertson played in fewer playoff games than the other players in this elite club but he also faced the greatest dynasty in NBA history, the Bill Russell-led Boston Celtics, a franchise that won 11 championships in 13 seasons.
It is unfortunate that people tend to overlook the ABA, because that league featured some marvelous players and teams; in 1975, McGinnis carried the Pacers to victories over a San Antonio Spurs team led by Hall of Famer George Gervin and a talented 65-19 Denver Nuggets team coached by Hall of Famer Larry Brown before falling in the ABA Finals to the Kentucky Colonels, who were coached by Hall of Famer Hubie Brown and had a strong frontcourt anchored by Hall of Famer Dan Issel and 7-2 Artis Gilmore, who should be in the Hall of Fame.
It is interesting to note that in each case prior to James this year it took nothing less than the future league champion to stop a team featuring a 35-7-7 playoff performer. Robertson eventually won an NBA championship in 1971 with the Milwaukee Bucks, McGinnis had already won a pair of ABA titles with the Pacers in 1972 and 1973 and Jordan later captured six championships with the Chicago Bulls; while this is a small sample size, Cleveland fans can take some solace in the fact that 35-7-7 playoff performers do have a championship pedigree, though it is also worth noting that among these players only Jordan came close to averaging 35-7-7 in the playoffs during a championship season, which underscores the fact that winning a title requires a team effort.
While the “7-7” part is impressive, what really stands out is that James averaged over 35 ppg to go along with his all-around floor game. If you lower the standard to 20 ppg then there are 27 playoff seasons by 16 players that make the cut, including three by James, three by Larry Bird, three by Magic Johnson and four by Oscar Robertson, the all-time leader in 20-7-7 playoff seasons; if you remove any minimum scoring qualification then you find a total of 49 different “7-7” playoff seasons, including five by Jason Kidd and eight by Magic Johnson, the all-time leader (Kidd averaged between 12.0 and 20.1 ppg in those seasons, while Johnson averaged between 17.0 and 21.8 ppg).
Jordan had three 35-6-6 playoff seasons (1987, 1990, 1993—the year that the Bulls won their third straight title) and four 33-6-6 playoff seasons. The 33-6-6 list includes Julius Erving’s rookie season in the ABA (33.3 ppg, 20.4 rpg, 6.5 apg in 1972); four years later, Erving had a series that simply must be mentioned in any discussion of the greatest playoff performances ever: Erving averaged 37.7 ppg, 14.2 rpg, 6.0 apg, 3.0 spg and 2.2 bpg in the 1976 ABA Finals (leading both teams in each of those categories) while carrying the New York Nets to a six game victory over a Denver Nuggets team that had a Hall of Fame Coach (Larry Brown), two Hall of Fame players (Dan Issel, David Thompson) and the best defensive forward in either league (Bobby Jones).
It is often said that James’ best skill set attribute is his ability to pass. James is without question a great passer who possesses otherworldly court vision plus a unique combination of strength and finesse that enables him to deliver catchable bullet passes in tight quarters and crosscourt feeds that find their targets as if guided by laser beams—but in an effort to praise James’ passing and promote that aspect of the game over pure scoring many people diminish the undeniable fact that James is one of the great scorers in NBA history.
In his six season NBA career James has already won one scoring title and ranked in the top four in scoring four other times. He owns the highest career regular season scoring average (27.5 ppg) among active players and trails only Michael Jordan (30.12 ppg) and Wilt Chamberlain (30.07 ppg) on the all-time list. James’ 29.4 ppg career playoff scoring average ranks behind only Allen Iverson’s 29.7 ppg among active players and is third on the all-time list (Jordan ranks first with an astounding 33.5 ppg average).
James’ 35.3 ppg playoff scoring average this season is the sixth best single season playoff scoring average (minimum 10 games) in NBA playoff history (James ranks seventh if you include Spencer Haywood’s 36.7 ppg in the ABA in 1970).
James’ most famous playoff moments primarily involve scoring: his 48 point outburst in game five of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals versus Detroit, his 47 point explosion in game three versus Atlanta this season, his 37 points—including 17 in the fourth quarter—in the game five win versus Orlando and even his playoff career-high 49 points in Cleveland’s game one loss to Orlando. While James also displayed an excellent floor game during those high scoring efforts, what ultimately carried the day for the Cavs in the three wins (and what kept them close in the game one loss to Orlando) was James’ scoring.
James took his scoring to new heights in the Eastern Conference Finals loss to Orlando, averaging 38.5 ppg while shooting .487 from the field, 297 from three point range and .745 from the free throw line. He also averaged 8.3 rpg and 8.0 apg.
James set the NBA record for most points in the first four games of a Conference Finals series (169), breaking a mark that had just been set this year by Kobe Bryant (147). Only Jerry West (46.3 ppg in 1965 for the Lakers) and Wilt Chamberlain (38.6 ppg in 1964 for the Warriors) have ever averaged more ppg in a Conference Finals or Division Finals series than James did this year; Michael Jordan is not even on the top ten list in that category (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar holds down the 10th spot with a 34.2 ppg performance for the Bucks in 1970, just edging out Bryant’s 34.0 ppg for the Lakers this year and West’s 33.8 ppg for the Lakers in 1970).
LeBron James’ floor game is admirable and his ability and willingness to pass the ball are rightly held in high regard but he has already established himself in the record book as a tremendous scorer—and with 1761 playoff points scored at the age of 24 James ranks 70th on the NBA’s playoff career scoring list and certainly has a shot to challenge Jordan’s all-time record of 5987 playoff points: Jordan had only scored 355 playoff points at a similar age, while Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (second all-time with 5762 playoff points) had scored 724 playoff points as a 24 year old.