From the Courts

Which NBA Superstars Up Their Games Against Good Competition?

“Let me know when he does it against a good team.” “Big deal, it was against the [insert mediocre or bad team name here].”

You’ve probably heard and seen these criticisms when an NBA player has a great game against less-than-stellar competition. People who aren’t a fan of that player, as well as those of us who tend to see the glass half-empty, are quick to devalue the performance.

These big nights aren’t meaningless, but they do carry less weight than performances against playoff contenders. It’s obviously harder to get big numbers against good teams, and a monster game against a bad team also is usually superfluous — the player’s team can often win the game without his huge digits. But against good teams, there’s a better chance every last point, rebound or assist is key in swinging the game’s outcome.

A star can have a poor game against a bad team and there’s a decent chance it won’t matter. If he plays badly against the league’s elite, though, he leaves the rest of his squad with much less margin for error.

This leads us to an intriguing question: Which of the NBA’s best players are good at stepping up their games when they have a marquee matchup ahead of them, and which ones pad their stats against doormats? There would be a little bit more substance to the numbers belonging to the latter type of player.

RealGM has a nifty little feature in their database that gives player statistics against teams with the top 10 records in the league, in addition to numbers against teams with bottom-10 records.

Using this, let’s examine the performances from Basketball-Reference’s top eight 2015-16 MVP candidates.

Stephen Curry

Wow, just wow. In case you were getting any other silly ideas, Steph is still the runaway MVP favorite.

In many statistical categories, Steph becomes even more of an assassin when he plays good teams. His scoring is up, his steals are up, his turnovers are down, and his player efficiency rating goes up a couple of points against top-10 squads.

It’s not that surprising, though. Thanks to his amazing ball-handling abilities and super quick release, Steph can get off his shot at any time. If he plays badly, it usually has more to do with him being off than his man playing good defense.

In the past few weeks alone, Steph has some dynamite performances to look back on against the NBA’s elite; in just 56 combined minutes against the Cavaliers and Spurs, he dropped 75 points on 24-of-38 shooting from the field and 13-of-21 from three-point range.

Russell Westbrook

Westbrook has a pretty solid resume against upper-level competition, improving his scoring, assist and shooting efficiency numbers by a smidge. However, his rebounding takes a huge plunge, and his turnovers go sky-high against that competition, leading to a slightly lower PER. Those turnover issues could rear their ugly head in the playoffs when teams like the Warriors and even the older Spurs can get plenty of quick points off of those miscues.

One thing we can glean from this is that Westbrook struggles (relatively) against the middle-tier teams. His overall numbers in a few of the categories were lower than both the numbers against good and bad teams, which means his production dips pretty significantly against teams with average records.

Kevin Durant

Although Basketball-Reference has Westbrook as the bigger threat for the MVP award, I have to side with Durant in this argument. He’s the calming, efficient offensive force that the Thunder can count on to make smart decisions with the ball when they need a basket.

As it turns out, he also steps his game up in other areas against top-level competition. Durant’s rebounds, assists, steals and blocks all increase against the league’s elite, and a few of those take significant jumps.

That combination of numbers suggests KD’s effort level increases when the lights get brighter. It’s tough for NBA players to bring it 100 percent every night, so at least, he’s trying harder when his team needs his contributions more.

Another statistic of note is Durant’s ability to play clean against great squads — he averages just 1.2 fouls per 36 minutes against top-10 teams, compared to 2.2 against bottom-10 squads and 1.7 overall.

Draymond Green

Especially based on this data, it’s pretty hard to see the argument for Green as a top-four MVP candidate. While he leads Golden State’s fourth-ranked defense and does a bunch of things well offensively, he’s not even close to the Warriors’ most important player. Meanwhile, guys like LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard are the best guys on their respective elite teams.

An interesting stat about Draymond: of his league-leading 10 triple-doubles, nine have come against sub-.500 teams. The only one that happened versus an above-average team came versus the 27-26 Houston Rockets, who happen to be a mess defensively.

He did admit to chasing a triple-double against the Philadelphia 76ers a week or two ago, which almost caused an embarrassing loss for his Warriors. In the future, let’s see if he can use those “gimme” games as an opportunity to let his less-established teammates find their rhythm and confidence. Golden State can always use more depth.

Although Green’s numbers do take a significant dip against quality opponents, he does a nice job controlling his turnovers in those situations. His miscues per 36 minutes are at just 2.5, compared to 3.5 against bad teams and 3.1 overall.

LeBron James

LeBron’s numbers low-key drop pretty significantly against top-10 teams as well. He rebounds better against good teams, but everything else gets worse. This goes against the “LeBron doesn’t try hard in the regular season” narrative, since it looks like James does put forth a lot of effort against bad teams.

However, my theory is that James’ effort picks up defensively against good teams, which makes his stats just look really good instead of great. However, when the Cavs play inferior competition, LeBron is a lot lazier on defense and uses his extra energy to pad his offensive stats.

This isn’t a bad thing, but it does give some credence to the idea that James is declining ever so slightly. He doesn’t quite have the energy to dominate on both ends consistently like he did three or four years ago, so he’s picking his spots more.

Kawhi Leonard

Leonard needs to be more confident against the league’s elite. He’s a quiet, unassuming personality, so he needs to be prodded to get aggressive. His shooting efficiency has been excellent against top-shelf competition (even better than it is against bad teams and overall), but his usage goes down.

Case in point: per 36 minutes, Kawhi takes 14.5 shots against top-10 squads, compared to 16.3 shots against the worst 10 teams in the league. His free-throw attempts do, however, increase from 4.8 to 5.9 per 36 minutes when the competition gets markedly better.

One issue that Leonard needs to continue working on is ball-handling. He’s got a great physique to protect the ball and makes smart decisions, but his handle is still just decent. He can get stripped by good teams, as evidenced by 2.2 turnovers per 36 minutes against good teams (1.4 against bad teams and 1.6 overall).

Chris Paul

Paul is proving this season, once again, that he can’t just be tossed aside when the discussion of elite point guards comes up. His numbers are slightly down in 2015-16, but he’s still the clear No. 3 behind Curry and Westbrook.

His team quality splits are exactly what you want from a superstar. His numbers are good, but not great, against bad teams, but the Clippers can almost always survive those games any. CP3 decreases his scoring and hikes up his assists in those contests to let teammates like J.J. Redick, DeAndre Jordan and Jamal Crawford take some of the scoring load.

Against top competition, CP3 goes supernova. If his numbers against top-10 teams (24.6 points, 10.1 assists and just 2.8 turnovers per 36 minutes on 59.5 percent true shooting and a 29.8 PER) were his season numbers, he’d be the clear-cut No. 2 in the MVP race and would probably get some articles around the internet campaigning for him over Curry.

Paul’s play always gives the Clippers a chance to win, and that’s a special thing.

Kyle Lowry

It’s great to raise your level of play when the competition gets tough, but so is remaining consistent against all opponents. Lowry sees no significant differences in any major categories against the 10 best teams in the league, and his PER takes a slight step up when the lights get brighter.

In general, Toronto’s star point guard is just super consistent. You could probably take any five-game stretch this season, and he would average somewhere between 18 and 24 points and five and seven assists in that stretch (don’t actually check this and call me out on it, but you get the point).

However, his 41-point, seven-assist and one-turnover gem in a three-point loss to the Warriors was emblematic of his ability to shine in big moments. Lowry’s clutch performances are a big reason the Raptors are a surprising 35-16 and breathing down the Cavaliers’ neck for the Eastern Conference’s top seed.

Note: All statistics are from RealGM and updated through February 9.

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