We know how to rank teams: my team beats your team, therefore my team is better. Just rooting for our teams carries an old-school sense of hometown pride and loyalty, but ranking players is overwhelmingly more interesting and fun — it’s a combination of statistics and intuition, of situational evidence and conjecture. How does one even begin to try to rank basketball players?
One obvious way is to determine which players are most valuable to their own teams. That’s what the Most Valuable Player award tries to do, at least in theory, but does anyone really know what that award means? This metric is fairly quantifiable, since we can look at team performance with a certain player both on and off the court. The problem, however, is that it is unfair to players stuck playing for poorly managed franchises (I see you, John Collins), and gives too much credit to those whose franchises have constructed rosters tailored for their exact needs. The number of wonky MVP winners we’ve had this millenium demonstrates that it objectively doesn’t really work.
Another way is to examine the hypothetical scenario of a re-draft of all players in the NBA. Instead of judging how players are performing in their current situations, judge them in a vacuum. If we imagine a draft with two teams, however, those two teams would end up being stacked, so that particular hypothetical is arbitrarily biased towards players who can more easily play in a supporting role alongside other stars. If we imagine a draft with all 30 teams, though, there would be unusual parity across those teams, so that’s arbitrarily biased towards players who perform better when carrying the load on a team with no other stars. We want to achieve a balance between the two.
We can all agree that the goal of a team in the NBA is to win the championship. So let’s judge a player like this: If you dropped this player onto any NBA team at random, by how much would they improve that team’s odds of winning the title? This is obviously speculative. We don’t actually know the percentage increase in championship odds for every player matched with every team (although Ben Taylor, a contributor for Nylon Calculus, has attempted to create such a statistic). I don’t think it’s too difficult to make estimates, though. For example, I think Kevin Durant would increase the Raptors’ odds of winning the title from around 15% to roughly 50%, he’d increase the Nuggets’ chances from about 2% to about 20%, he’d increase the Kings’ chances from <1% to closer to 5% or 10%, and, ask any New Yorker, he’d increase the Knicks’ chances from 0% to approximately 100%. If you went through all the teams for Stephen Curry, you’d get similar, but slightly different numbers. If you went through all the teams for Dwight Howard, you’d get 0% for all of them.
A few ground rules:
- Age and salary don’t matter. We’re talking about this season, not long-term value, and we’re discussing players, not the decisions of particular general managers.
- Injuries matter… a little. If a guy really has trouble staying on the court, that legitimately affects how much he increases his team’s odds of winning the title. For the most part, however, we’re going to assume players are at full health, because it’s more fun.
- I obviously can’t ignore past performance, so it will factor in, especially past playoff performance, since you win championships in the playoffs, but the primary focus of the exercise is this season, so players who are slumping this season will be demoted accordingly, and guys who have missed most or all of this season due to injury are out entirely.
Note: All stats are as of December 27th. Box score stats are written out as Points-Assists-Rebounds. Percentages are written out as FieldGoal%-3Point%-FreeThrow%. eFG% means effective field goal percentage, which is simply field goal percentage after adjusting for the extra value of making threes. PER stands for Player Efficiency Rating (league average is 15 and usually about 40 players in the league crack 20.0). RPM stands for Real Plus Minus, which is a statistic calculated by ESPN that estimates a player’s impact on his team’s net point differential per 100 possessions.
Before we get into the top 50, here are some honorable mentions, in no particular order: Eric Bledsoe, Josh Richardson, Domantas Sabonis, Gary Harris and Lou Williams (all in the 51-60 range), Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker, Andre Iguodala and Danny Green (role players who have already shown the ability to lift good teams into championship contention), Julius Randle, Buddy Hield, Harrison Barnes, Kyle Kuzma and Derrick Rose (guys you may not have realized are top 40 in the league in scoring), Jusuf Nurkic (the guy you confused with Nikola Jokic for a few years until you realized Jokic was way better), Deandre Jordan (he can’t really do much anymore, but hey, he’s still tall), Zach Lavine (is having himself a Bloated Stats on a Bad Team Hall of Fame season), Aaron Gordon (shouldn’t he be better by now?), J.J. Redick (shouldn’t he have gotten worse by now?), Justise Winslow (46% from three over his last 15 games), Malcolm Brogdon (quietly scoring 15 points a game on 51-45-98%), Rudy Gay (quietly scoring 14 points a game on 53-47-84%, 22nd in the NBA in RPM), Marcus Smart (27th in the NBA in RPM), Robert Covington (20th in the NBA in RPM), Joe Ingles (14th in the NBA in RPM, and you know he’s really f***ing proud of the fact that he’s doing that as a white guy in his 30s), Spencer Dinwiddie (better than D’Angelo Russell), Montrezl Harrell (perhaps the best and-1 celebrator in basketball), Jaren Jackson Jr. (averages 2.5 blocks per 36 minutes and can also do this), John Collins (currently averaging the most low-key double double since Dwight Schrute in the “Basketball” episode of The Office), Bojan and Bogdan Bogdanovic (I do get them confused, but I know they’re both good), Jarrett Allen (fantastic ‘fro), Fred Vanvleet (I feel like he’d be a great partner on a group project), Jonas Valanciunas (man, the Raptors are deep), Marcus Morris (man, the Celtics are deep), and Boban Marjanovic (when you can dunk while standing on the ground, you deserve to be honorably mentioned).
The Top 50
50. Jamal Murray – First, he seems like he’d be incredibly annoying to play against, and I like that. Secondly, if the Thunder called the Nuggets right now offering Russell Westbrook for Murray straight up I think the Nuggets would have to hang up and hold a meeting before calling the Thunder back. Thirdly, this play.
17-5-4, 42% FG, 28% 3PT, leads the league in hockey assists (as of December 20th)
49. Nikola Mirotic – Unfortunately, he’s only the third best player in the league named Nikola. On the other hand, he’s probably the third best player of all time named Nikola. (Is Nikola Pekovic even still alive? Did he find his true calling and start taking acting classes so he can play a villain in John Wick 4?)
17-1-9, 2.5 threes, 55% eFG, 59% eFG in 2018 Postseason
48. Andre Drummond – The starting center on the “He’s putting up good stats, but is he actually… good?” team.
18-1-15 (leads the league in rebounding), 1.5 steals, 1.9 blocks, 50% FG, 52% FT, 21.69 PER
47. Steven Adams – This is what he looked like as a rookie. Now you can’t tell him apart from Aquaman (it’s getting close to an Alec Baldwin – Millard Fillmore level of similarity).
16-2-10, 60% FG, 20.88 PER
46. Clint Capela – I feel similarly about Clint Capela as I do about some modern art. I’ll be at a museum standing in front of a canvas that is literally painted half-black and half-white, and I’ll say something like, “I could have made this,” to which my cousin will respond, “Yeah, but you didn’t, and this guy did.” Maybe there are 15 centers in the league who could put up Capela’s numbers if they were playing with James Harden, but they aren’t, and Capela is.
17-2-12, 2.0 blocks, 63% FG, 24.54 PER
45. Danilo Gallinari
20-2-6, 2.5 threes, 47% 3PT (4th in the league), 5.3 FT makes (10th in the league), 92% FT (4th in the league), 56% eFG, 16th in RPM, 20.70 PER
44. Serge Ibaka – He finished 46th, 33rd, and 37th in the league in PER in 2012, 2013, and 2014, respectively, and then he turned 24 (you know… right around the age when good players are supposed to make a leap and really blossom). Then he tried turning himself into an outside shooter (after attempting 54% of his shots from within 10 feet during his first five seasons, that number dropped to 33% between 2015 and 2018) and couldn’t crack the top 90 in PER for four straight seasons. This year, with Toronto using him as a center, he’s finally back to dominating near the hoop, taking 50% of his shots from within 10 feet and making absolute bonkers 81% of his attempts from 0-3 feet.
16-1-7, 1.3 blocks, 57% eFG, 20.27 PER, 8.7 points per game in 2018 Postseason
43. De’Aaron Fox
18-8-3, 1.6 steals, 48-40-72%
42. Mike Conley – It’s mildly upsetting that he’s never made an All Star game. Conley and Fox would be 10 spots higher if the point guard position weren’t as deep as it is.
20-7-3, 2.3 threes, 42-36-84%, 12th in RPM, 20.71 PER
41. LaMarcus Aldridge
19-2-9, 49% eFG, 20.23 PER, carried the Spurs to 45 wins last season
40. Pascal Siakam – He should be higher according to almost all advanced metrics, and it’s not like he doesn’t pass the eye test either. Aside from his defensive switchability, he’s a remarkably smart offensive player considering he didn’t start playing until he was 16. He naturally pushes the ball in transition, always makes the simple, but correct, pass in the halfcourt, is crafty inside, and has this funky drive that turns into a post-up for a hot second. I wish more NBA players were named after mathematicians. Mike Conley definitely would’ve been voted into an All Star game by now if his name were Pythagoras Conley.
15-3-6, 62% eFG, 19th in RPM
39. Jayson Tatum
17-2-7, 46-39-85%, 18.5 points per game on 51.5% eFG in 2018 Postseason
38. Donovan Mitchell – He became the youngest guard ever to make it past the first round while putting up 24-4-4 over a single postseason, but he needs to become a more efficient, mistake-free, and team-oriented offensive player.
20-3-4, 1.7 steals, 2.7 turnovers, 41% FG, 29% 3PT
37. DeMar DeRozan
23-6-6, 5.4 FT makes (9th in the league), 49% eFG, 21.72 PER
36. John Wall
21-9-4, 49% eFG
You probably didn’t expect to see either of these two this early, but both exemplify a type of player of which I’m really not a huge fan: players who, due to their playing style, need to be the guy on offense, but if they’re the guy on your offense, where is your team really going?
DeRozan, a mid-range specialist and a career 28% three point shooter, made efforts last season to improve as a cutter and at least started attempting some threes to keep the defense honest. But this season, despite being fourth among all non-point-guards in assists, he’s back to some of his old habits. He refuses to stretch the floor (he’s taking his fewest threes since 2011, and more than half of his shots have been twos from at least 10 feet, a zone from which he only shoots 42%), and he dominates the ball unlike any Spur in the Gregg Popovich era (more than three quarters of his field goals this season have been unassisted). With San Antonio winning about the same percentage of its games as last season, when Kawhi Leonard played only nine games, you have to wonder how much value DeRozan actually brings to a team. If Toronto were offered DeRozan back in exchange for Danny Green, I bet the Raptors would stick with Green’s defense and shooting rather than going through the headache of figuring out how to make up for DeRozan’s lack of spacing. While the Raptors did win at least 48 games with DeRozan as the leading scorer in each of the last five regular seasons, in none of those years was he one of the top ten shooting guards in the NBA in RPM — concerning for a player known for his drop-off from regular season to playoffs. Indeed, Toronto sputtered after the first round in each of the past three postseasons, as DeRozan has just a 42% effective shooting percentage in the playoffs during that span.
Wall, on the other hand, has consistently maintained, or improved, his level of play in the postseason, particularly in 2017 when he took the Wizards to within a game of the conference finals by averaging 27 points and 10 assists over 13 games. Peak Wall can go toe-to-toe with any other point guard in basketball. But we don’t always get peak Wall. The Wizards have been awful almost to the point of being unwatchable this season, and they’ve fared significantly worse with Wall on the court, in large part because the man basically does not move when he doesn’t have the ball… on offense or on defense or in transition. Wall’s ceiling is high, but I grouped him with DeRozan because they’re both non-factors off the ball, and it’s difficult to imagine either being a supporting player on a title team.
35. Draymond Green
7-7-8, 1.9 steals, 3.1 turnovers, 41-22-74%, 11-8-10 in 2018 Postseason
Reasons he should be lower:
— He can’t score anymore
— He looks like he’s wearing an invisible heavy backpack while he shoots threes
— Would any playoff team in the league other than Charlotte trade one of its two best players for Green straight up right now?
— Did I mention that he literally cannot put a round object inside of an orange metal circle anymore?
Reasons he should be higher:
— He’s been a regular All Star for the greatest dynasty of the century
— He’s still one of the league’s five best defenders and maybe the best at guarding all five positions
— He’s less than three years removed from almost single-handedly taking down LeBron James in Game 7 of the Finals by tossing up a 32-9-15 when nobody else on his team showed up to play
34. Paul Millsap
14-2-7, 1.4 steals, 1.1 blocks, 54% eFG, 29th in RPM, 19.89 PER
33. Khris Middleton – Let me list some things that I know about Khris Middleton. He plays for the Bucks. He’s their second best player. He shoots threes. And we’re done.
17-4-6, 2.6 threes, 50% eFG, 18.7 points per game on 55% eFG in postseason career
32. Luka Doncic – It’s not his historically good rookie stats or his advanced understanding of passing angles or his smile. It’s his mythical qualities and how fast they’ve developed: he already owns the number 77, he’s already being referred to by his first name only, he already has a signature move, he’s already practically must-see buffstreamz, and he’s 19!
19-5-7, 2.1 threes, 3.3 turnovers, 50% eFG
31. Devin Booker – Get back to me when he’s on a team that wins more than 24 games in a season.
25-7-4 (10th in the league in scoring, 12th in assists), 2.4 threes, 51% eFG
30. C.J. McCollum
21-3-4, 51% eFG, 20.9 points per game on 51% eFG over last four postseasons
29. Karl-Anthony Towns – He’s frustratingly a non-factor on defense despite his length, seems like he can never quite get good enough post position on offense, often looks disengaged, and basically got Thanos’d out of the playoffs last year by Clint Capela… but he’s occasionally dominant.
21-3-12, 1.8 threes, 1.7 blocks, 3.1 turnovers, 49-39-85%, 21.73 PER, 15.2 points per game in 2018 Postseason
28. Nikola Vucevic – There’s probably a compelling argument for him to be in the Top 20, and if I had watched a Magic game in the last two
months years I might be able to make it.
20-4-12, 52-39-82%, 9th in RPM, 25.39 PER (9th in the league)
27. Rudy Gobert
15-2-12, 2.1 blocks (5th in the league), 65% FG (leads the league), 23rd in RPM, 23.79 PER
To be continued… if you have a question about any of the rankings, specifically, feel free to email me at email@example.com and I’ll try to answer it in Part 2.
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