The Da Vinci Code: Measuring NBA Playoff Value By Position

When C.J. Watson replaces Derrick Rose, Chicago fans collectively hold their breath. While their star briefly recharges the batteries, they can only hope that he does not shed his offensive leash. In a structured offense, an overconfident backup can singlehandedly ruin the dynamic. Think Jamal Crawford when he’s ice cold. This, in a nutshell, is C.J. Watson. But the emotional rollercoaster that is Watson’s game does not provide a concrete answer to the following question: How much do the Bulls actually miss Rose when Watson is on the floor? More generally, how great a difference is there between a starter and a backup in the playoffs? Let’s find out.

Note: All stats via’s John Hollinger and

After sifting through the PER and plus/minus of the players on the remaining playoff teams, some interesting results surfaced. As most would expect, Rose is the most valuable point guard remaining, with a PER that is 16.96 higher than Watson’s and a plus/minus that is 11.75 higher. Although Russell Westbrook has risen to new heights, culminating in his Game 7 triple-double, Rose still reigns supreme. Part of the blame, however, lies with Eric Maynor‘s improved play. In the playoffs, Rose has sported a 26.10 PER and a plus/minus of +9.75 per game, while Westbrook has posted a respectable 21.12 PER and +1.37 plus/minus. When Maynor enters the game, the falloff is only slight: his 16.08 playoff PER and +2.4 plus/minus provide solid backup support at the point guard position.

At shooting guard, the roles are generally reversed. Keith Bogans, Thabo Sefolosha and DeShawn Stevenson are severely outplayed by their bench counterparts. Jason Terry‘s outstanding play takes the cake with a PER of 23.76, 18.9 higher than Stevenson and good for eighth in the NBA during the playoffs. His 7.83 PER improvement from regular to postseason also ranks him No. 1 of all players remaining.

Small forward is a two-headed race. LeBron James or Kevin Durant? Durant has already answered questions about his ability to close, exploding for 39 points in Game 7 against Memphis. LeBron was no slouch in the conference semis either, reeling off 10 straight points in Game 5 and deciding that enough was enough. But who’s more valuable on the floor relative to their teams? The easy answer, of course, is Durant. With Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh at LeBron’s side, one and a half stars are still on the court when he rests. But Durant’s value is in fact only slightly greater. The -17.11 dip in PER from Durant to Daequan Cook is closely rivaled by the LeBron to James Jones substitution (-14.48).

Power forward value is owned and dominated by Dirk Nowitzki. As well as Peja Stojakovic has played of late, he’s no match for Dirk’s 26.14 PER and +7.3 plus/minus. At center, Joakim Noah is the runaway winner. Although his 18.93 PER and 6.58 plus/minus have remained relatively stable from the regular season to the playoffs, Omer Asik‘ has suffered through a -4.5 PER nosedive.

Random stats of note: Excluding Carlos Boozer, the entire Bulls starting lineup has seen a spike in PER and plus/minus. The bench, on the other hand, has fallen off course. Chicago’s supposed depth has disappeared, applying extra pressure on starters to play exceedingly higher minutes. This can be attributed to a natural, yet difficult to break cycle that often manifests in the NBA Playoffs. With more at stake, greater playing time for starters reduces the action for the bench. When called upon, the bench has less time to produce before the plug is pulled. And if they squander a lead, the leash only shortens. With a shorter leash comes less confidence and the pressure further builds. Yet the coach cannot be completely blamed. The goal, after all, is to win. He cannot worry about the morale of his bench when all the chips are on the table. Those who produce will play and those who don’t will not.

For all the LeBron haters out there, I’ve got the ammunition you’ve been looking for. The best players of each team (Chicago’s Rose, Miami’s LeBron and D-Wade, Dallas’ Dirk and OKC’s Durant) have surpassed their regular season PER in the playoffs with one exception: King James. Just as the saying goes, each of these players has literally risen to the occasion. Although all were already top 10 in regular season PER, they have lifted their individual play and thus their teams as well. Yet Wade, the most improved in PER (and No. 2 overall in the postseason), has more than made up for LeBron’s slight decline. That said, LeBron still ranks No. 3 in postseason PER.

In the end, statistics are an indicator, not an answer. But they have shed light on why certain teams still remain in contention while others do not.

What do you think?

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