Do the Best NBA Players Rise to the Occasion in the Playoffs?

nba Apr 12, 2022

"Many sports journalists and commentators display excitement during the postseason, where it is believed that players elevate their game and showcase their very best talents.  Some players, too, claim that their performance is better during the postseason."

Question: Is this really true?  

"This analysis has failed to uncover any empirical evidence of the most elite players in the game elevating their performance during the postseason. If anything, player performance decreases slightly when compared to regular season performance."

Answer:  The data suggests otherwise.

Note:  I found this academic research paper online and am sharing it here with readers. The study was published nearly 10 years ago. However, the findings remain consistent today. This is reprinted here in part with the author's permission. Key excerpts are reprinted here with emphasis in bold. See the full study here:  CLICK HERE

Does Player Performance Increase During the Postseason?  A Look at Professional Basketball

Jordan Weiss – University of Southern California

Abstract

This study examines the game logs of professional basketball players to determine whether they exhibit elevated performance during the postseason.

In a survey of 10 players who were awarded the Most Valuable Player Award during the NBA Finals for the seasons 2001-02 thru 2010- 11, performance was found to be stable throughout the entire season.

Implications for why player performance remains stable and why it believed that player performance increases during the postseason are discussed.

Discussion

This analysis has failed to uncover any empirical evidence of the most elite players in the game elevating their performance during the postseason.

If anything, player performance decreases slightly when compared to regular season performance. Perhaps the decreased performance is a result of choking under pressure, a term Baumeister (1984) used to describe “the occurrence of inferior performance despite individual striving and situational demands for superior performance,” where pressure is defined as “any factor or combination of performing well on a particular occasion.”

Certainly, a postseason game meets these criteria, as a game won is a step toward becoming World Champions and a game lost is a step closer to the end of the season. This idea may offer support as to why player performance falls during the postseason, and further insight from psychological research may help explain the misconstrued notion that players perform better in games when the stakes are higher.

Psychologists use the term availability heuristic to describe a situation in which a person makes a judgment based on what they can remember rather than the complete data. For example, Kahneman and Tversky (1974) asked subjects whether there exist more 4-letter words that begin with the letter ‘r’ in the first place or the third place (e.g. ramp vs cars). A majority of participants believed there are more 4-letter words with ‘r’ in the first place, although this is not the case. The reason for this error is that the mind recalls words by the first letter, making words beginning with the letter ‘r’ more easily available. This same idea can be applied to the perception of increased performance during the postseason.

Consider the following two events: A buzzer-beating game winning shot during the regular season, and a buzzer-beating game winning shot in the postseason, which may be followed by streams of confetti and lauded celebration. Which of these two events would a person be more likely to remember? The second situation seems much more memorable, and because of this, people may make the assertion that this type of performance is more common during the playoffs. They are more likely to recall this thrilling event, which occured during the playoffs rather than the regular season. This may lead them to believe that player performance during the postseason exceeds regular season performance.

Conclusion

It is all too common to hear sportscasters describe their anticipation as they wait to see elite players competing at their highest levels during the weeks leading up to the NBA postseason.

This analysis has shown, empirically, that performance remains stable throughout the entire season. Some issues, however, are present in this study. In addition to problems that arise with small sample sizes, the fact that the quality of the opposing team is higher has not been accounted for. The effects of both teams playing at an elevated level may cancel each other out. However, if that is the case, the fact that player performance increases steadily throughout the postseason, as the quality of the opposing team increases, remains a mystery.

Further work in this area may rely on other measures of performance in addition to a larger data set. In the end, the myth of increased player performance may simply be a result of the availability heuristic.