NBA

The Top 25 NBA Players of 2020 – A Remastered List (Part 1 #16-25)

I’ve had more discussions on how to properly evaluate basketball players more times than I can count. More often than not, I’ve been met with disagreement in those conversations. After a very recent one that argued the very principles and measurements that govern and quantify certain skills, I was inspired to “remaster” my player rankings list from 2020. The recent acquisition of some proprietary data from BBall Index was the perfect opportunity to use new and refreshing information to increase the accuracy of my evaluations, and I’d like to share the results here.

Criteria

It’s very easy to skip a “criteria” section in a player ranking and go directly to the list, but such segments are the perfect indicators for why certain players appear in the spots they occupy. Therefore, if I receive any comments along the lines of: “Why is [insert player name] ranked so low? He averaged this many points, rebounds, and assists with this field-goal percentage, and his team record was this!” I will probably not respond. After all, this is not a list of which players have the sexiest box scores or which players’ teams were the best. The former merely quantifies tendencies and the latter is unrelated to individual performance as a whole, so they aren’t devices I’m particularly comfortable using.

I’ve repeated my evaluation process in almost every post that pertains to the subject, and this one will be no exception. I follow a simple train of logic that, while not necessarily being an axiom of the process, is the “most likely” truth I’ve come across: 1) basketball is a team sport, and players are chosen to help improve the success of the team, 2) over the course of a whole season (the length of a “seasonal” evaluation), the ultimate team goal is to win the Finals, 3) therefore, the best players increase the likelihood of a championship the most. That chain of thought is often confused with prioritizing players whose teams performed the best or were the closest to winning a title in a given year. This is not the case. Players are seen as independent from their teams in these evaluations.

Namely, “situational” value is not the target of this ranking due to significant levels of confoundment for certain players (i.e. certain team constructions can dilute the “true” value of a player). Rather, these evaluations consider how a player would affect all types of teams, ranging from the worst to the best ever and everything in between. To measure the championship likelihood a player provides, I estimate a player’s per-game impact alongside average teammates in a theoretically “average” system (metrics like Adjusted Plus/Minus capture the “most likely” value of this). However, this “true” APM value changes as a player enters a new environment. As the team quality falls below an SRS of 0, the player becomes more important (thus, his “true” APM rises) and, inversely, as the team’s SRS exceeds 0, the player becomes less and less important. The deceleration of the latter is measured through “portability,” which uses five scaling curves to estimate the degree to which these diminishing returns occur.

To recap:

  • I translate all my thoughts on a player to a numerical scale that estimates a player’s “true” Adjusted Plus/Minus, or per-game impact alongside average teammates and against average opponents.
  • Portability ratings then measure the changes in “true” APM (which I call “Plus/Minus Rating,” or “PMR”) to estimate how a player impacts the more extreme team qualities.
  • The team SRS with versus without the player and how it translates to championship equity is determined using a function, based on historical data, that estimates title odds.
  • The weighted (for how likely a player would be on a given team) average of championship odds with and without a player is his Championship Probability Added (“CPA”) value.

Note: The distribution of team SRS is based on the last fifty seasons of team data / Portability is more of a spectrum than anything else, so if two or more players have the same CPA value, I opt for which one is more scalable, even if the two happen to be assigned to the same scaling curve.

With the criteria portion out of the way, let’s get into the juicier content: the rankings themselves. Today, I’ll kick off the series with the #16 to #25 players, which will be followed with a separate post for the #6 to #15 players and will conclude with the top-five. Let’s dive in!

The “just missed the cut” bunch, or players within half of a percent of making the list, includes but is not limited to De’Aaron Fox (2.1%) and Donovan Mitchell (2.1%).

25. Bradley Beal, Wizards (SG)

Although most saw his season highlighted by an outstanding 30.5 points per game, Beal’s real talent was his increasing scalability. The impact he provided off the ball, in screen action on the perimeter, and improved passing efficiency were the true upgrades to his offensive skill set. He lagged behind on this list due to a troubled defensive game, but its offensive counterpart mitigated any extreme effects.

Championship Probability Added: 2.5%

24. Pascal Siakam, Raptors (PF)

“Spicy P” was edging into a lot of people’s top-ten rankings approaching the end of the season due to leading the number-two seed in the East in scoring. However, similar to Beal, the traits Siakam exhibited that I valued more were his “portable” ones: extremely versatile defense (he guarded each one of the five positions during at least 13.9% of his possessions) and stronger movement off the ball. I attribute the changes in his postseason box score to an extreme matchup more than most.

Championship Probability Added: 2.7%

23. Kyle Lowry, Raptors (PG)

Lowry has always been a great option for Toronto on the perimeter, whether it be on the offensive or defensive side of the ball. He paired extremely strong playmaking and offensive screen action with active and attentive perimeter defense that captured the scrappy nature of his play. Lowry has yet to break through on either side of the ball to vault him into strong All-NBA candidacy, but the aggregate effects of his two-way play earn him a well-deserved ranking.

Championship Probability Added: 2.7%

22. Devin Booker, Suns (SG)

Devin Booker may be the most undervalued offensive engine to be drafted in the past six seasons. He’s developing into a master of nearly every offensive skill: scoring, shooting, passing, creation, off-ball movement, and even some post play. His 2020 campaign a more promising signal of his future than most will recognize. If his defense were only more effective, he would enter All-NBA territory right now. For now, he’s a strong All-Star level player.

Championship Probability Added: 2.7%

21. Bam Adebayo, Heat (PF)

He may not have the spicy scoring average or captivating outside shooting to woo fans like a lot of the on-ball engines on this list, Adebayo more than makes up for it with his strong secondary traits and game-changing defense. He was the Robin to Jimmy Butler’s Batman in Miami’s surprisingly good offensive scheme last season, and his finishing and rim rolling capabilities were perfect complementary skills to Butler’s playmaking.

Championship Probability Added: 2.9%

20. Kemba Walker, Celtics (PG)

After a strong offensive season in Charlotte, Walker made the unexpected transition to secondary star behind Jayson Tatum, but my best guess is that he was still the best offensive player on the team: more refined scoring, passing, and he provided a much-needed boost to convert Boston from an up-and-coming band to one of the league’s highest-performing offenses. Walker was not quite a top-ten offensive player in my eyes, but a diverse portfolio of defensive matchups and mild effectiveness earns him a top-twenty nod for me.

Championship Probability Added: 3.3%

19. Jrue Holiday, Pelicans (SG)

Holiday may seem to have been dwarfed under the rookie sensation that was Zion Williamson or the All-Star appearance of Brandon Ingram, but he was the clear driver of the New Orleans squad. He led the team in Box Creation and was a close second in offensive load to Ingram. The more impressive note on Holiday’s game to me is his sneaky good isolationism; he was in the 90th percentile in effective field-goal percentage on such possessions, which paired with exceptional passing and playmaking, enabled Holiday to act as one of the exclusive offensive engines in the NBA.

Championship Probability Added: 3.3%

18. Chris Paul, Thunder (PG)

Previously seen to be approaching the dusk of a luxurious NBA career, Paul sparked some life in his aging game by regaining status as a premier passer and playmaker and some of the most effective outside shooting in the league. His lack of efficacy off the ball and declining defense lead me to believe he was best suited as a number-one option, but this likely means none of his offenses would have ever eclipsed into greatness. Perhaps his stint with James Harden contests that, but I view Paul as a fairly neutral defender with strong offensive quarterbacking abilities.

Championship Probability Added: 3.6%

17. Jayson Tatum, Celtics (PF)

It wasn’t uncommon to see critics view Tatum as on the verge of a breakout season, and he finally materialized the possibility in 2020. A refined selection of shots that placed less emphasis on long twos was a crucial addition to his game; and, although his efficiency was less than league-average last year, an exceptional outside shooting portfolio, a strong one-on-one skill set, and developing finishing abilities signals promise. Tatum’s extreme versatility and perimeter engagement on the defensive end led to an All-NBA level season.

Championship Probability Added: 4.0%

16. Khris Middleton, SF (MIL)

Giannis Antetokounmpo’s partner in crime blossomed into one of the league’s most effective secondary options in 2020. He exhibited one of the best outside shooting campaigns of the year and, alongside his developing passing game and strong gravity, evolved into one of the very best offensive players in the sport. His defense was also a large positive. Middleton wasn’t the most active defender in the world, but he was among the most disruptive in the league and prohibited shots at the rim as well as any wing in the league.

Championship Probability Added: 4.3%

Stay tuned for the next two additions to the series, which will be released in the next few days!

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