Remember Jerome James? We last saw James sitting around the Chicago Bulls' locker room late in the 2009-10 season, waiting out the end of a five-year, $29 million contract he signed with Isiah Thomas and the New York Knicks after the 2004-05 season. James averaged 2.5 points per game during his four-plus years in New York and didn't log a single playoff minute.
James' free-agent contract became a cautionary tale: Don't confuse a small sample aberration with a true breakout. He ended up with that massive deal thanks to an out-of-the-blue performance for Seattle in the 2005 postseason, when he averaged 17 points and nine boards per game during the Sonics' first-round win over Sacramento.
Big-time playoff performances are particularly eye-catching because not only are the stakes higher, but the more difficult competition ought to mean a drop in player efficiency. And it usually does, which is why we take notice when a player like James steps up at the most important time of the year.
Every year, there are players who emerge with surprising contributions in the playoffs. Often, these players aren't stars, but role players whose skill sets were needed to exploit a particular matchup. Among players with at least 100 minutes in a postseason, the largest uptick in PER was an amazing 15.6 by Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon in a four-game loss to Dallas in the 1988 first round. Olajuwon averaged 38 points and 17 boards in that series, including a 41-point, 26-rebound monster in Game 2. Kevin McHale had the second-largest jump in 1993, but after that is a role player: Denver center Blair Rasmussen in 1986. Other non-stars like Chris Mills, Matt Geiger and Nazr Mohammed rank high in our single-season rankings. You don't know where a surprising performance will come from.
That's even more evident by a look at career differences between regular-season and playoff PER. During the 3-point era, Michael Jordan's 27.9 career PER leads all players, followed by LeBron James, Shaquille O'Neal, David Robinson, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and Charles Barkley. Jordan's playoff PER was 28.6. That small increase is more impressive than you think. Yes, the competition is stiffer, but keep in mind that PER is calibrated against league standards -- regular-season players versus regular-season players, playoff players versus playoff players. When you remove playing time filters, the average PER is the same no matter what time of the year you're looking at: 15.0.
Now that we're well-armed with some context, let's look at the players who have stepped up their play during this year's playoffs. We'll limit our look to players with at least 200 minutes played. Also, to account for the typical dip by players, we'll add the 1.32 standard to this year's PER.
1. Dwight Howard (Uptick: 7.4)
Reg. PER: 21.3
Adj. PO PER: 28.7
Since the Rockets lost in six games to Portland and the Blazers scored so prolifically on the Houston defense, it's easy to overlook Howard's offensive contributions in that series. He averaged 26 points per game and leads all players in the playoffs with his rebound (13.7) and block (2.8) averages. Among players with a career PER of 22.0 or better, only Olajuwon's average 3.4 increase in adjusted PER has been higher than Howard's 3.0.