5 Biggest Playoff Underachievers In NBA History

One common trend in NBA history is that most of the best players will step up or at least be equally great come playoff time. Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Bill Russell set the standard for future eras for players of the highest caliber to play great basketball with the brightest spotlight of the postseason on them.

Today’s superstars to spend enough time in the league, like LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and Nikola Jokic, show that postseason excellence and legacy-defining moments add to their legacies. Unfortunately, a short list of big names couldn’t follow that trend. 

Various reasons caused the names in question to have a negative reputation with greater pressure to win or go home placed on them. The following names are among the rare all-time icons to get the reputation of being the biggest playoff underachievers in NBA history.  

5 Biggest Playoff Underachievers In NBA History

DeMar DeRozan

The Toronto Raptors chapter of DeMar DeRozan’s career featured him developing a reputation as a playoff underachiever. DeRozan was the best player on the Raptors for many years, and the franchise hoped to contend with Kyle Lowry and solid role players behind him. 

2017 and 2018 saw the Raptors getting swept in the conference finals by LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers in back-to-back postseasons. DeRozan averaged 6 to 7 points lower than his regular season average in those series. The negative playoff reputation for DeRozan grew worse when he was traded for Kawhi Leonard, and Toronto won the NBA Championship that season without him.

Playoff Lowlights:

  • Getting swept in final two Toronto seasons by LeBron
  • Toronto winning NBA Championship after trading him
  • 21% career postseason three-point shooting

Joel Embiid

One regular season MVP Award is currently the greatest accomplishment of Joel Embiid’s career since he has not accomplished much in the postseason. Embiid has never advanced past the second round despite being one of the best players in the league for over seven seasons now.

Philadelphia had three great chances to make the Eastern Conference Finals against the Toronto Raptors, Atlanta Hawks, and Boston Celtics. All three semi-finals series ended with Embiid disappointing and the 76ers going home early. Embiid was not 100% this season during the first-round exit against the New York Knicks, but it was another disappointing mark on his reputation.

Playoff lowlights:

  • Has yet to make Conference Finals in his career
  • 0-3 record all-time in NBA Playoff Game 7s
  • Shot below 50% career field goal average in 9 of 12 playoff series

Wilt Chamberlain

The dominance of Wilt Chamberlain’s career made his two NBA Championships feel like a disappointment. Chamberlain is the only player on this list to have any NBA Championships, but his playoff performances paled in comparison to his regular season greatness.

An incredible career average of 30.1 points per game saw his postseason career average diminishing to 22.5 points per game. Chamberlain’s biggest failure came in the 1969 NBA Finals against rival Bill Russell. The Celtics defeated the Lakers to have Russell end his career with a ring, but Wilt’s woeful average of 11.7 points per game was the biggest takeaway.

Playoff lowlights:

  • Averaged 8 fewer points in postseason career vs regular season
  • Lost two NBA Finals series to his top rival center Bill Russell
  • Averaged 11.7 points in 1969 NBA Finals in Russell’s final series

Karl Malone

Two-time MVP Karl Malone played well enough to make the NBA Finals three times, but he always fell just short. Both NBA Finals between the Utah Jazz and Chicago Bulls saw Malone averaging fewer points than in the regular season, but it was the individual moments that developed his negative postseason reputation.

Scottie Pippen’s trash talk psyched Malone out in Game 1 of the 1997 NBA Finals to miss two free throws with the game on the line. Malone also had the costly turnover before Jordan’s iconic game-winner in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals.

The last season of Malone’s career saw him “ring chasing” for the Lakers and averaging just 5 points in the 2004 NBA Finals before another elimination. Malone’s career average of 52% shooting from the field regressed to 46% in the playoffs.

Playoff lowlights:

  • Missing two free throws in tied game of NBA Finals
  • One of two multi-time MVPs to never win NBA Championship
  • Shot 6% worse from field in playoffs vs regular season

James Harden

No player of James Harden’s caliber or better has as many negative marks against them in the postseason as he does. Harden became a top-five player in the league for many years, but the Houston Rockets never made an NBA Finals with him as the leader. Chris Paul joining the roster was the only time they felt like a true contender until he got injured.

Harden has shot below his 44% career field goal average in 19 of 30 career playoff series. The 30 series have seen Harden winning just 50% of them, despite constantly playing for great regular season teams. The individual memories of Harden’s disaster games stand out most for having an astonishing 13 different postseason games shooting below 20% from the field on 10+ shots.

Playoff lowlights:

  • Shot 38% from the field in only NBA Finals appearance with Thunder
  • Just a 50% winning record in 30 total career postseason series
  • Never making an NBA Finals appearance once a superstar

Main Image:  Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

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