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.
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.
- 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. Earlier today, I kicked off the series with the #16 to #25 players, which is followed here with a separate post for the #6 to #15 players and will conclude with the top-five. Let’s dive in!
HMs (include but are not limited to): De’Aaron Fox and Donovan Mitchell
25. Bradley Beal
24. Pascal Siakam
23. Kyle Lowry
22. Devin Booker
21. Bam Adebayo
20. Kemba Walker
19. Jrue Holiday
18. Chris Paul
17. Jayson Tatum
16. Khris Middleton
15. Karl-Anthony Towns (C)
Towns is blossoming into one of the sport’s greatest offensive big men ever right before our eyes. His outstanding outside shooting and scoring gravity have made him one of the most effective weapons at his position, and strong isolationism and finishing bolster the quality of his skill set. Towns is one of the league’s more troubled defenders; he has yet to get a groove on that front. He’s an effective interior defender at times, and he guarded fairly difficult opponents, but a lack of intensive engagement is the defining aspect of his defense.
Championship Probability Added: 4.4%
14. Paul George, Clippers (SF)
It’s entirely fair to say Paul George was one of the least improved players in 2020, but the drop wasn’t quite enough for me to remove him from bordering superstar territory. He is still one of the most efficient and gravitational three-point shooters in the league with effective off-ball movement and surprisingly good playmaking as a secondary star in Los Angeles. He took a step back on defense with less activity in passing lanes compared to 2019, and his paint presence was nothing to marvel about, but I still saw George as a large plus defensively.
Championship Probability Added: 4.6%
13. Rudy Gobert, Jazz (C)
The “Stifle Tower” isn’t the hot topic he was after winning two consecutive Defensive Player of the Year Awards, and rightfully so in a way. Recent data has suggested non-versatile big men who stick in the paint lose value in the Playoffs, and Gobert was no exception. However, the remnants of his defense, and especially his all-time level interior play, led me to believe he remained basketball’s best defender. Gobert would deter shots at the rim, he would prevent the potential points (he was in the 100th percentile in adjusted points saved at the rim per 36 minutes), and he would block shots more effectively than nearly any player in the league.
Championship Probability Added: 4.8%
12. Kyrie Irving, Nets (PG)
Although he only played 20 games in the regular season and none of the Nets’ playoff games, Irving was still one of the top-four point guards in the league at full health. He was as good as he’d ever been offensively, displaying mastery in distance shooting, isolation, finishing, and creation. Irving is one of the rare engines who could quarterback a very good offense, and because he was in the 97th percentile in high-value assists per 75 possessions, I saw more to suggest Irving, despite all of his off-court issues, was one of the most impactful basketball players in the league.
Championship Probability Added: 5.0%
11. Jimmy Butler, Heat (SF)
Jimmy Buckets blew my expectations out of the water in 2020. He’s known for having led Miami to an unexpected Finals berth, but the skill of his that stood out to me was his off-ball capabilities, which were among the very best in the league. Butler was in the 93rd percentile in points generated on cuts and shots off screens relative to league efficiency and covered a lot more ground than a lot of players with similar roles. He was also in the 98th percentile in matchup difficulty and the 99th and 98th percentile in position and role versatility on that end, which measure the diversity of the number of positions and offensive archetypes he guarded, respectively.
Championship Probability Added: 5.3%
10. Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers (PG)
Lillard entered rarified air as an offensive player in the bubble, and a lot of it seemed to be clear, tangible improvement. He captivated fans en route to a “Bubble MVP” with his three-point logo shots (after all, he was in the 93rd percentile in average three-point shot distance). Lillard remained one of the sport’s very best isolation scorers, drivers, and playmakers. His passing was very versatile but not necessarily efficient, although this deficiency was compensated with top-tier creation and scoring gravity. Lillard’s defense was the weakness in his campaign, but it doesn’t drag him down any further than tenth on my list.
Championship Probability Added: 6.7%
9. Joel Embiid, 76ers (C)
Joel Embiid doesn’t exactly fit the developing skills of the pace-and-space league of today, but his post play and interior defense make him one of the most valuable centers in the game. He was in the 99th percentile in both isolation attempts and impact per 75 possessions, the latter of which uses league-average efficiency as a baseline. Embiid also guarded some of the most difficult matchups in the league, ranking in the 95th and 88th percentiles in time spent guarding All-Star and All-NBA players, respectively. Although he didn’t have the outside shooting or perimeter defense to become a well-rounded superstar, the skill set he had ranked among the league’s very best.
Championship Probability Added: 6.9%
8. Luka Dončić, Mavericks (PG)
The Slovenian wunderkind had one of the greatest seasons from a 20-year-old in the history of basketball. Dončić evolved into one of the league’s greatest finishers and passers, the latter of which was the primary reason for his offensive explosion. He was one of the most efficient and versatile passers in basketball, led the league in Box Creation, and received BBall Index‘s highest grade in playmaking not given to a player named LeBron James. The strong point of his offensive portfolio was how it cultivated the most efficient team offense in the history of the NBA. Granted, some of it was due to a recent offensive burst in the past few seasons, but Dončić has one of the brightest futures in the league as an offensive superstar.
Championship Probability Added: 7.8%
7. Nikola Jokić, Nuggets (C)
Similar to his fellow European predecessor on this list, Nikola Jokić is one of the brightest stars in the NBA’s next wave of playmaking superstars. Despite his position, Jokić made a strong case as the very best passer in basketball, rivaling Dončić and the Finals MVP, LeBron James. He was also undervalued as an isolationist, ranking in the 95th percentile in frequency and the 88th in effective field-goal percentage on such possessions. Jokić used his burly frame to his advantage, playing a unique form of bully ball that allowed him to place in the 85th percentile in adjusted (for frequency) field-goal percentage at the rim. I couldn’t help but not view his defense as anything but a slight positive, as he was active in the interior with some of the league’s smoothest hands. Jokić is on the cusp of superstar play.
Championship Probability Added: 8.5%
6. James Harden, Rockets (SG)
I’m not sure the “reasonable” range in which I could see Harden will ever change. He always seems to be in his own territory due to extremely impactful offensive play with a diverse skill set but the limited scalability and unnerving ball dominance to push him up among the league’s megastars. Regardless of which tier he falls under, it’s hard to deny he’s mastered nearly every skill on the offensive end: shooting, finishing, passing, creation, and foul (baiting) drawing. Harden’s skills, admittedly, don’t translate to the playoffs as well as others, but the degree to which it does is far less strenuous than most will suggest. Aside from strength in the post with moderate effectiveness on shot contests on the perimeter, his defense is a very mild negative to me. Because he plays in a time with so much star talent, it’s easy to overlook Harden now, but his performances will be marveled upon in the following decades.
Championship Probability Added: 10.0%
Stay tuned for the final installment on the series, which ranks the top-five players of the 2020 season, coming soon!