Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1980. Shaquille O’Neal in 2000. Anthony Davis in 2020.
This is the company Davis is currently keeping in Los Angeles Lakers lore midway through the Western Conference finals. He still needs to win a championship to match Abdul-Jabbar and O’Neal, but he is on pace for a playoff run on par with the best statistical postseasons of the all-time great Lakers big men. And any conversation about great Lakers bigs is a conversation about the greatest bigs to ever play the game.
Davis is averaging 28.5 points with a true shooting percentage of 65.2 through 13 playoff games. Few volume scorers have ever been so efficient this deep into the playoffs. Throw in Davis’ 10 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.3 combined blocks and steals per game, and nobody in the history of the game can match that specific stat line. That those numbers are coming in just 35.7 minutes a night is all the more impressive.
We can twist statistics to separate Davis from a pack, but any way you slice them, he is joining a list of all-time greats. Only Abdul-Jabbar, O’Neal, Wilt Chamberlain and Hakeem Olajuwon had ever averaged a 28-10-3 on better than 50 percent shooting in 12 or more playoff games. They are four of the five greatest centers in NBA history, along with Bill Russell. That is a list Davis will join if he maintains his current pace.
Nobody will care, of course, if Davis falls short of a title. For comparison’s sake, with six wins still to secure, here is a status check on how Davis’ 2020 playoff run stacks up statistically to the best runs of the greats.
Bill Russell’s 1962 title campaign
The Boston Celtics legend averaged 22.4 points (51.9 TS%), 26.4 rebounds and five assists in 48 minutes a night in the 1962 playoffs, winning his fourth of eight straight championships. It was the best statistical line of Russell’s playoff career, but we all know his contributions to the game went well beyond basic numbers.
The Celtics won just two series for the title — seven-game sets against Chamberlain’s Philadelphia Warriors and Jerry West’s Los Angeles Lakers — allowing 110.1 points per game. Basketball Reference estimates Boston’s pace in 1962 at 130.8 possessions per games. If that held true in the playoffs, Russell’s Celtics allowed 84.2 points per 100 possessions, a ridiculous figure that obviously does not include 3-pointers.
Davis’ Lakers are allowing 107 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs, an extra 12.5 of which come with the addition of the 3-point line, and they have been significantly better with Davis on the floor. Keep in mind that the average effective field-goal percentage in 1962 was 42.6 percent, well below the current average of 52.9 percent. Shotmaking everywhere on the court is at a whole different level today. While we cannot compare Davis’ defensive effort to Russell’s, we can accept that Davis has been elite on that end as well.
Wilt Chamberlain’s 1967 title campaign
After averaging 28 or more points and four or fewer assists in six previously ringless playoff appearances, Chamberlain averaged 21.7 points (54.6 TS%), 29.1 rebounds and nine assists in 47.9 minutes a game in the 1967 playoffs, leading the Philadelphia 76ers to a championship. The NBA did not yet log blocks and steals. It is impossible to wrap your head around those numbers. They are so comical they force you to consider how Chamberlain would fare today — and, conversely, the damage Davis would have done back in the day.
Regardless, that Davis is scoring at a higher volume and more efficiently than Chamberlain at his playoff peak is a marvel, considering the advancements in defensive schematics and the increase in athleticism league-wide.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 1980 title campaign
Winning his first of five rings with the Lakers, Abdul-Jabbar averaged 31.9 points (61.1 TS%), 12.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists and five combined blocks and steals in 41.2 minutes per game in the 1980 playoffs. As far as offensive efficiency goes, this is the standard for NBA big men, just a master class in scoring.
It would be presumptuous to think Davis will remain so efficient if the Lakers win the Finals, especially considering how talented both teams in the East have been defensively. At the same point in the 1980 Western Conference finals, Abdul-Jabbar was averaging a 31-12-3 on 64.6 percent true shooting, as close as you can get to what Davis has done statistically. Abdul-Jabbar had a rookie Magic Johnson at his side, and Davis has a 35-year-old LeBron James, so the Lakers have to like their championship chances again.
Hakeem Olajuwon’s 1994 title campaign
Either of Olajuwon’s stat lines en route to back-to-back rings in the mid-1990s are eye-popping, but his 1994 run — culminating in a seven-game Finals win over Patrick Ewing’s New York Knicks — is his most well-rounded. He averaged 28.9 points (56.8 TS%), 11 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 5.7 combined blocks and steals in 43 minutes per game. Olajuwon’s four blocks a night in the 1994 playoffs are a dividing line, but, again, Davis has been a significantly more efficient scorer than Hakeem freaking Olajuwon at his best.
Shaquille O’Neal’s 2000 title campaign
O’Neal’s stats in the 2000 and 2001 playoffs are nearly identical, but he was at his apex in 2000, not yet completely sharing the spotlight with Kobe Bryant. O’Neal averaged 30.7 points (55.6 TS%), 15.4 rebounds, 3.1 assists and three combined blocks and steals in 43.5 minutes a game on his way to a ring that season.
O’Neal’s player efficiency rating of 30.5 in 2000 is the highest of the standard-bearing playoff runs for the great big men in history. Davis is second for now, with the highest win score per 48 minutes among them.
1962 Russell: 22.8 PER, .257 WS/48
1967 Chamberlain: 25.3 PER, .253 WS/48
1980 Abdul-Jabbar: 27.9 PER, .253 WS/48
1994 Olajuwon: 27.7 PER, .208 WS/48
2000 O’Neal: 30.5 PER, .224 WS/48
2020 Davis: 30.0 PER, .287 WS/48
Lakers fans may not be ready to put Davis on par with Abdul-Jabbar and O’Neal, given how many championships both delivered to L.A., but as far as singular seasons in franchise history go, Davis is matching them stride for stride in his first season with the team, his two-rebound effort in Tuesday’s Game 3 loss to the Denver Nuggets notwithstanding. All that is left to join them in the pantheon is a championship.
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