Anthony Edwards is really good, but can ‘really good’ be good enough?



GettyImages 2154536448

We know how to talk about greatness.

Goodness, though? That’s more of a struggle, requiring a bit of nuance rather than superlatives, especially when the subject is really good. It’s been a particularly thorny issue in this NBA postseason, when four of the league’s unquestioned five best players were out before the conference finals.

Yes, we still had Luka Dončić’s majestic trash-talking conference finals, but we were otherwise left with the slightly more TBD legacies of the three best young American players: Jayson Tatum, Tyrese Haliburton and Anthony Edwards. Tatum’s story arc will play out for another two weeks in the NBA Finals, while Haliburton gets a partial mulligan with his hamstring woes.

Edwards’ postseason, however, fascinates me. And before we go full bore on the finals, I want to dive in further.

Entering the conference finals, believe it or not, only one of the top 10 players in playoff PER (player efficiency rating) was still playing. No, it wasn’t Luka, as his numbers were dragged by an injury-laden first round. It was Edwards.

This postseason has been a little weird. Comb through the stats and you’ll see Nikola Jokić, Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, LeBron James, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Damian Lillard, Donovan Mitchell, Devin Booker and Jalen Brunson all with brilliant numbers in the first two rounds of the playoffs. None of them made it to the third round, even though each had a better playoff PER through two rounds than every single player on the Indiana Pacers, Dallas Mavericks and Boston Celtics. Welcome to the Parity Bowl!

Dončić’s conference finals — and, in particular, his ridiculous Game 5 clincher — have since vaulted him closer to the top of the playoff leaderboard.  Nonetheless, it’s amazing to see that of the players who made the conference finals, only Dončić out-rated Edwards in postseason PER … and even then, only barely.

That 16-game arc through the postseason is an appropriate launch point for answering a larger question: What we do think of Edwards now that his playoff run is done? How do we define a player who is only 22 years old and capable of epic athletic feats (such as his dunk on Daniel Gafford in Game 3) that few 6-foot-4 guards in history could pull off, but doesn’t quite have the production résumé of other leaders on contending teams?

It’s easy to say people got out over their skis after the Wolves knocked out the defending-champion Denver Nuggets. This wasn’t Michael Jordan coming for the throne, as much as some people might have wanted it to be. Edwards was great in Game 7 against the Nuggets; he also was 11th in scoring, 29th in win shares, 32nd in BPM (box plus/minus) and 36th in PER in the regular season.

But there’s still something here, and in particular, there’s something notable about what he’s been able to do in his three postseasons in Minnesota.

That’s because Edwards is one of the rare players whose stats are dramatically better in the postseason than they are in the regular season. (Most players fare worse because of the heightened quality of competition.)

Check out the chart below: Edwards’ advanced stats have been dramatically better in each postseason, as have his shooting percentages. In 2023-24, he ranks eighth in playoff PER and 10th in playoff BPM. Half the guys who outranked him had puny four-to-six-game samples because they were gone in the first round.

Anthony Edwards PER: Season vs. Playoffs

Season Playoffs

2021-22

16.5

17.8

2022-23

17.4

27.5

2023-24

19.7

22.4

Anthony Edwards BPM: Season vs. Playoffs

Season Playoffs

2021-22

1.2

3.5

2022-23

1.0

10.4

2023-24

3.3

6.7

Is there such a thing as “Playoff Ant?” Or is something else at play here?

If it happened in any one postseason, you might shrug your shoulders, especially since his first two postseasons ended after one round. But Edwards has now played 27 career playoff games, and the results — a 22.3 PER on 60-percent true shooting — are substantially better than his regular-season output. It’s not driven by shot volume, either, as his usage rate from regular season to postseason is virtually unchanged.

Dig into the numbers, and one thing stands out: Edwards has shot the ball better in the playoffs. A 35.3-percent career 3-point shooter has knocked down 39.1 percent in his playoff games. A 79.3-percent career foul shooter improved to 82.3 percent from the stripe in the postseason.

The same thing happens inside the arc. Edwards gets to the rim less often and converts less often in the postseason, something you might expect given the uptick in opponent quality. He’s made up for it by shooting vastly better on midrange jumpers. For his playoff career, he’s at a phenomenal 48 percent on 2s outside of 10 feet, compared to 36 percent for his career in the regular season — and he’s pulling up from this distance 30 percent more often in the playoffs.

Here he is at the end of Game 4 in Dallas, waiting for Rudy Gobert to flip a screen and then pulling up for a game-clinching 2:

It’s not like this is something he builds up to. Edwards’ in-season splits are metronomically consistent between months and season halves; if anything, he’s been slightly worse in regular-season Aprils.

Instead, it feels more like a switch being flipped. Just ask the Phoenix Suns: Edwards made 3 of 7 and had five turnovers against them in the final game of the regular season, a dispiriting home loss. He then torched them for 31 points a game on 51.2-percent shooting in a four-game first-round sweep.

Edwards did cool off in the conference finals, shooting only 43 percent for the series, and we didn’t feel him on defense as strongly when he checked Denver’s Jamal Murray in the second round. More broadly, the Mavs crowding him showcased some of his weaknesses as a leading man. The reads were half a beat late at times. The passes were not always delivered with the right zip or accuracy. A crosscourt pass to the left corner was a serious threat to the fans in Row 9.

But again, this is another place where Edwards’ playoff output dwarfs that of his regular-season play. Edwards averaged 5.1 assists in the regular season, 6.5 in the playoffs and 7.6 in the Dallas series. Even as the Wolves’ offense devolved into “Go get ’em, Ant” in Game 5, he had six assists against one turnover. And of course, he had a couple of very key assists to Karl-Anthony Towns in Minnesota’s only conference finals win in Game 4.

For that matter, the overarching story of the Wolves’ defeat by Dallas was not an offensive failure. This is the most encouraging part of Edwards’ story because it makes it easier to buy the notion that he can be the leading man for a championship offense if it is paired with elite defending.

Minnesota’s offensive rating in the Dallas series actually was better than it was against Denver in the second round (115.0 against Dallas, 114.6 versus the Nuggets) and not all that different from what it did against Phoenix (118.3). The Wolves just couldn’t put the clamps on Luka and Kyrie Irving the way they did against the Suns and Nuggets.

This underscores the fact that Edwards isn’t Luka — and probably won’t ever be. But Edwards also is only 22, and his postseason exploits point the way to how he could vault himself past really good and into the league’s true upper crust in the coming years: by upping his efficiency as a shooter and passer.

Even if you think his postseason shooting exploits are smallish-sample outliers, there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit for the first 82 games. Edwards’ career 55.8 true shooting mark is extremely meh for a contender’s leading man (Dončić and Tatum, for instance, are both better than 58 for their careers and were better than 60 this season), and while his passing made a notable leap this season, he’s still not in their class as a distributor.

Despite those warts, Edwards made All-NBA Second Team this year, suggesting he is one of the top 10 players in the league. While that deduction might be a slight stretch based on his regular season alone, his playoff résumé makes it easier to buy into him being that level of player — and possibly more.

Pulling the camera back out for a minute, basketball is a team sport, yet much of the narrative about the sports suffers from an overwhelming need to attribute success to “That One Guy.” That’s not how it works, though, as the 2024 postseason has shown, even if one elite player can certainly tilt the odds.

But in particular, if we’re truly in a new era of NBA parity, it’s worth considering how much that narrative might shift going forward.

Ensemble casts of really good players, such as those of the Wolves, Pacers or Celtics, have a much better chance if they aren’t facing the 2017 Golden State Warriors. Tatum, for instance, has been the go-to guy for four conference finalists and two NBA finalists without ever receiving a first-place MVP vote.

In other words, Edwards might not ever be “That Guy,” but he may very well reach the point just half a notch below: the best of the really good. And on this Minnesota team, in this era, that might be good enough to make them a champion some day.

(Top photo: Stephen Maturen / Getty Images )



Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top