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Playoff chokers. It is a term fans tend to use anytime a highly rated player fails to advance far into the playoffs. Great players are supposed to Nearly every player in NBA history has had a moment that fans call a ‘choke’.

However, not all these players have choked. Even some of the ‘biggest playoff chokers’ are overblown. In this article, we will break down what a ‘playoff choker’ really means. We will also pinpoint 10 All-Time Greats (particularly from ESPN’s recent “Top 74 Players” list).

First, let’s start by breaking down what a choker truly is…

What is a Playoff Choker?

Underperform: The main ingredient to consider a player a choker is if said player underperforms in a loss. Simply losing a series to an ‘inferior’ team doesn’t always mean a player choked. He can have a great series but not get enough support from his teammates to help his team win; that is not a choke. That player’s regular-season numbers and playoff series numbers must look vastly different for it to truly be considered an underperformance.

The difference in numbers must be significantly worse (worse counting stats or worse efficiency) to be even considered a choke. With that said, underperforming is only 1 key criterion. Just because a player underperforms, does not mean they choked.

For instance, the 2007 NBA Finals matchup between the San Antonio Spurs and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Comparing LeBron James’ numbers from this series to his numbers in the regular season, without any other context, you could call that a choke from LeBron. His numbers from the regular season: 27.3 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 6.0 APG, 3.2 TOPG, 47.6 FG%, 31.9 3P%, and 69.8 FT%. His numbers in the NBA Finals that season: 22.0 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 6.8 APG, 5.75 TOPG, 35.6 FG%, 20.0 3P%, and 69.0%. Did LeBron grossly underperform? Yes. Did he choke? No.

The Cavaliers were heavily outmatched against the Spurs. Not only did the Spurs have 8 more wins than the Cavs (in a tougher conference, mind you) but they also entered the series as -450 favorites. Their roster also had more championship experience, and NBA experience in general, on both the court and on the coaching staff. It was 10th year Head Coach Greg Popovich versus 2nd year Head Coach Mike Brown; 3 rings as a Head Coach versus 0.

Furthermore, the Spurs 7-man rotation had an average age of 31.1-years old with a combined 15 rings amongst those 7 players. The Cavs’ rotation (9-man rotation due to an injury to Larry Hughes) had an average age of 26.2 with 0 rings between them. This simply rules out this underperformance from being considered a choke for LeBron James.

Along with a player underperforming, they must also meet at least one of the following criteria…

Higher Seed/Better Record: This one is simple but not set in stone. The majority of the time, if a team is a higher seed, they are normally expected to win a series. There are exceptions, however. Such as a major injury/suspension heading into the series. Other variants could negate ‘being the higher seed’ as a deciding factor. Is the lower-seeded team now at full strength after dealing with injuries during the season? Is the lower-seeded team vastly more experienced in the playoffs? Is it the NBA Finals, which leaves seeding irrelevant (‘actual records’ would matter)?

Favorites: Another criterion that would qualify a player as a choker would be their team being the ‘favorites’ to win the series. This normally supersedes higher seeding. Entering as the favorites to win, then losing, is a much bigger indictment on a player/team than simply being the higher seed.

1 Win Away: This is something we have seen often in the past few seasons. A team, whether they were favorites to win or not, had a series lead of 3-1 or 3-2 and lost the remaining games… choking away the win. A recent, infamous example came in the 2016 Playoffs when in both the Western Conference Finals and the NBA Finals we witnessed teams choke away 3-1 leads.

Game 7 Flop: This is the final criterion a player can meet to fall under the ‘choke’ label. Underperforming in a Game 7 will quickly get a player labeled as a choker. Even if a player had a phenomenal series, flopping in Game 7 would negate their previous heroics.

 

All-Time Great Chokes

Now let’s get to why you’ve come here… All-Time greats and times that they choked. We will cover the Top 10 players (according to ESPN’s Top 74) and list all the times that they choked (underperformed + 1 or more criteria met). There are a few players who never met any of the criteria discussed above. Did they underperform in the playoffs once? Yes. But they did not choke since they did not meet any of the other criteria.

 

Bill Russell

(1) 1958 NBA Finals

Matchup: #1 Boston Celtics (49-23) vs #1 St. Louis Hawks (41-31)

Choke Criteria: Better Record, Lost in 6

Season Stats: 16.6 PPG, 22.7 RPG, 44.2 FG%, 51.9 FT%

Series Stats: 14.5 PPG, 19.3 RPG, 34.7 FG%, 63.2 FT%

 

Wilt Chamberlain

(1) 1962 Eastern Division Finals

Matchup: #2 Philadelphia Warriors (49-31) vs #1 Boston Celtics (60-20)

Choke Criteria: Game 7 Flop

Games 1-6 Stats: 35.5 PPG, 27.7 RPG, 46.8 FG%, 62.2 FT%

Game 7 Stats: 22 Points, 22 Rebounds, 46.7 FG%, 88.9 FT%

 

(2) 1968 Eastern Division Finals

Matchup: #1 Philadelphia 76ers (62-20) vs #2 Boston Celtics (54-28)

Choke Criteria: Higher Seed/Up 3-1, Lost in 7

Season Stats: 24.3 PPG, 23.8 RPG, 8.6 APG, 59.5 FG%, 38.0 FT%

Series Stats: 22.1 PPG, 25.1 RPG, 6.7 APG, 48.7 FG%, 42.4 FT%

 

(3) 1969 NBA Finals

Matchup: #1 Los Angeles Lakers (55-27) vs #4 Boston Celtics (48-34)

Choke Criteria: Better Record/Up 3-2, Lost in 7

Season Stats: 20.5 PPG, 21.1 RPG, 4.5 APG, 58.3 FG%, 44.6 FT%

Series Stats: 11.7 PPG, 25.0 RPG, 3.0 APG, 50.0 FG%, 36.4 FT%

 

Oscar Robertson

(1) 1965 Eastern Division Semifinals

Matchup: #2 Cincinnati Royals (48-32) vs #3 Philadelphia 76ers (40-40)

Choke Criteria: Higher Seed, Lost in 4

Season Stats: 30.4 PPG, 9.0 RPG, 11.5 APG, 48.0 FG%, 83.9 FT%

Series Stats: 28.0 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 12.0 APG, 42.7 FG%, 92.3 FT%

 

(2) 1974 NBA Finals

Matchup: #1 Milwaukee Bucks (59-23) vs #1 Boston Celtics (56-26)

Choke Criteria: Game 7 Flop

Games 1-6 Stats: 13.2 PPG, 7.8 APG, 48.5 FG%, 86.7 FT%

Game 7 Stats: 6 Points, 11 Assists, 15.4 FG%, 100.0 FT%

 

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

(1) 1973 Western Conference Semifinals

Matchup: #1 Milwaukee Bucks (60-22) vs #4 Golden State Warriors (47-35)

Choke Criteria: Higher Seed, Lost in 6

Season Stats: 30.2 PPG, 16.1 RPG, 5.0 APG, 55.4 FG%, 71.3 FT%

Series Stats: 22.8 PPG, 16.2 RPG, 2.8 APG, 42.8 FG%, 54.3 FT%

 

Magic Johnson

(1) 1981 Western Conference 1st Round

Matchup: #3 Los Angeles Lakers (54-28) vs #6 Houston Rockets (40-42)

Choke Criteria: Higher Seed, Lost in 3

Season Stats: 21.6 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 8.6 APG, 53.2 FG%, 76.0 FT%

Series Stats: 17.0 PPG, 13.7 RPG, 7.0 APG, 38.8 FG%, 65.0 FT%

 

(2) 1984 NBA Finals

Matchup: #1 Los Angeles Lakers (54-28) vs #1 Boston Celtics (62-20)

Choke Criteria: Game 7 Flop

Games 1-6 Stats: 21.2 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 13.3 APG, 1.7 SPG, 4.0 TOPG, 60.0 FG%, 72.2 FT%

Game 7 Stats: 16 Points, 5 Rebounds, 15 Assists, 4 Steals, 7 Turnovers, 35.7 FG%, 85.7 FT%

 

Larry Bird

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

(1) 1988 Eastern Conference Finals

Matchup: #1 Boston Celtics (57-25) vs #2 Detroit Pistons (54-28)

Choke Criteria: Favorites/Higher Seed, Lost in 6

Season Stats: 29.9 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 6.1 APG, 1.6 SPG, 2.8 TOPG, 52.7 FG%, 41.4 3P%, 91.6 FT%

Series Stats: 19.8 PPG, 12.2 RPG, 6.2 APG, 2.7 SPG, 1.8 TOPG, 35.1 FG%, 28.6 3P%, 86.0 FT%

 

(2) 1991 Eastern Conference Semifinals

Matchup: #2 Boston Celtics (56-26) vs #3 Detroit Pistons (50-32)

Choke Criteria: Favorites/Higher Seed, Lost in 6

Season Stats: 19.4 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 7.2 APG, 1.8 SPG, 1.0 BPG, 3.1 TOPG, 45.4 FG%, 38.9 3P%, 89.1 FT%

Series Stats: 13.4 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 4.4 APG, 1.4 SPG, 0.2 BPG, 0.8 TOPG, 38.2 FG%, 28.6 3P%, 81.3 FT%

 

Shaquille O’Neal

(1) 1994 Eastern Conference 1st Round

Matchup: #4 Orlando Magic (50-32) vs #5 Indiana Pacers (47-35)

Choke Criteria: Favorites/Higher Seed, Swept in 3

Season Stats: 29.3 PPG, 13.2 RPG, 2.9 BPG, 2.7 TOPG, 59.9 FG%, 55.4 FT%

Series Stats: 20.7 PPG, 13.3 RPG, 3.0 BPG, 3.3 TOPG, 51.1 FG%, 47.1 FT%

 

(2) 2005 Eastern Conference Finals

Matchup: #1 Miami Heat (59-23) vs #2 Detroit Pistons (54-28)

Choke Criteria: Favorites/Higher Seed/Up 3-2, Lost in 7

Season Stats: 22.9 PPG, 10.4 RPG, 2.3 BPG, 2.8 TOPG, 60.1 FG%, 46.1 FT%

Series Stats: 20.6 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 2.0 BPG, 3.3 TOPG, 59.2 FG%, 44.9 FT%

 

Kobe Bryant

(1) 2004 NBA Finals

Matchup: #2 Los Angeles Lakers (56-26) vs #3 Detroit Pistons (54-28)

Choke Criteria: Favorites, Lost in 5

Season Stats: 24.0 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 5.1 APG, 1.7 SPG, 2.6 TOPG, 43.8 FG%, 32.7 3P%, 85.2 FT%

Series Stats: 22.6 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 4.4 APG, 1.8 SPG, 3.6 TOPG, 38.1 FG%, 17.4 3P%, 92.0 FT%

 

(2) 2006 Western Conference 1st Round

Matchup: #7 Los Angeles Lakers (45-37) vs #2 Phoenix Suns (54-28)

Choke Criteria: Up 3-1, Lost in 7

Season Stats: 35.4 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 4.5 APG, 1.8 SPG, 3.1 TOPG, 45.0 FG%, 34.7 3P%, 85.0 FT%

Series Stats: 27.9 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 5.1 APG, 1.1 SPG, 4.7 TOPG, 49.7 FG%, 40.0 3P%, 77.1 FT%

 

(3) 2008 NBA Finals

Matchup: #1 Los Angeles Lakers (57-25) vs #1 Boston Celtics (66-16)

Choke Criteria: Favorites, Lost in 6

Season Stats: 28.3 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 5.4 APG, 1.8 SPG, 3.1 TOPG, 45.9 FG%, 36.1 3P%, 84.0 FT%

Series Stats: 25.7 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 5.0 APG, 2.7 SPG, 3.8 TOPG, 40.5 FG%, 32.1 3P%, 79.6 FT%

 

(4) 2011 Western Conference Semifinals

Matchup: #2 Los Angeles Lakers (57-25) vs #3 Dallas Mavericks (57-25)

Choke Criteria: Favorites, Swept in 4

Season Stats: 25.3 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 4.7 APG, 1.2 SPG, 3.0 TOPG, 45.1 FG%, 32.3 3P%, 82.8 FT%

Series Stats: 23.3 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 2.5 APG, 1.8 SPG, 2.8 TOPG, 45.8 FG%, 22.7 3P%, 80.0 FT%

 

LeBron James

(1) 2006 Eastern Conference Semifinals

Matchup: #4 Cleveland Cavaliers (50-32) vs #1 Detroit Pistons (64-18)

Choke Criteria: Up 3-2, Lost in 7

Season Stats: 31.4 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 6.6 APG, 1.6 SPG, 3.3 TOPG, 48.0 FG%, 33.5 3P%, 73.8 FT%

Series Stats: 26.6 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 6.0 APG, 1.4 SPG, 4.4 TOPG, 44.2 FG%, 27.6 3P%, 72.7 FT%

 

(2) 2011 NBA Finals

Matchup: #2 Miami Heat (58-24) vs #3 Dallas Mavericks (57-25)

Choke Criteria: Favorites, Lost in 6

Season Stats: 26.7 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 7.0 APG, 1.6 SPG, 3.6 TOPG, 51.0 FG%, 33.0 3P%, 75.9 FT%

Series Stats: 17.8 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 6.8 APG, 1.7 SPG, 4.0 TOPG, 47.8 FG%, 32.1 3P%, 60.0 FT%

 

Stephen Curry

Credit: Getty Images

(1) 2016 NBA Finals

Matchup: #1 Golden State Warriors (73-9) vs #1 Cleveland Cavaliers (57-25)

Choke Criteria: Favorites/Better Record/Up 3-1, Lost in 7

Season Stats: 30.1 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 6.7 APG, 2.1 SPG, 3.3 TOPG, 50.4 FG%, 45.4 3P%, 90.8 FT%

Series Stats: 22.6 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 3.7 APG, 0.9 SPG, 4.3 TOPG, 40.3 FG%, 40.0 3P%, 92.9 FT%

 

List Breakdown

I used ESPN’s All-Time Top 74 Players list to find 10 greats that have choked at least once in the playoffs. I had to go 13 players deep into the list to find those 10.

That means 3 players can be viewed as ‘non-chokers’. That doesn’t mean these players have never underperformed (put up worse numbers in a playoff series loss than their numbers regular season numbers that season), it just means those performances came in a series they weren’t expected to win; the odds were against them and they just didn’t elevate in the playoffs, doesn’t mean they choked.

Also, a few players were simply just old and past their primes when they underperformed, is that still a choke? Only if they performed well through the season only to underwhelm in the playoffs.