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The Athletic's NBA Tiers and Players Rankings for the top 125 players in the NBA heading into 2022?

Discussion in 'NBA Dish' started by HardenVolumeOne, Aug 13, 2021.

  1. HardenVolumeOne

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    [​IMG]
     
    #1 HardenVolumeOne, Aug 13, 2021
    Last edited: Aug 13, 2021
  2. Jugdish

    Jugdish Member

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    Looks like your searches for how to take a screenshot didn't get down into the gory details of cropping an image.
     
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  3. HardenVolumeOne

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    Tier 1. The cream of the crop. While having a player of this stature isn’t an absolute necessity in the quest for an NBA title, history suggests it is pretty damn important. Of the last 10 NBA champions, only the 2014 Spurs didn’t have a Tier 1 player at the time, and several (the 2012 and 2013 Heat and 2017 and 2018 Warriors, in my opinion) had two. The degree of difficulty for teams that don’t have a Tier 1 guy is just much higher.

    From a cap economics standpoint, even if a Tier 2 player outperforms a 30 percent max contract, the squad with the Tier 1 player is still starting with a $10-15 million head start at modern salary levels. Moreover, as I discussed in the intro/Tier 5 on Monday, the differential in playoff impact between a (roughly speaking) top-five and a top-10 player is substantial. To overly simplify the equation, if the team with the best individual player is more likely than not to win any playoff series, Tier 1 players, especially Tier 1A players, will have that edge almost every time. Squads led by a Tier 2 star might make it a round or two before their biggest advantage is not only negated but perhaps even reversed.

    Another feature of Tier 1 is that it tends to be pretty sticky. All six players from last year’s rankings return, with only one new addition. To paraphrase “The Wire,” the kings stay the kings. A wide range of players can have great, even All-NBA level, individual seasons, but Tier 1 performers are among the league’s best every season in which they are healthy. It’s not an accident that the seven players in this tier have combined for 11 of the last 13 MVP awards, with all save for Kawhi Leonard (who would have gotten my vote over Russell Westbrook in 2017 if I had one) receiving that honor at least once.

    Still, even in this exalted category, there is a slight distinction to draw, so we’ll start with those who are just a few steps from the top of the mountain.

    For the purpose of the tiers, I assume players are healthy; otherwise, those like Kawhi Leonard or Jamal Murray might drop off the list for a year entirely. As they recover from their respective ACL surgeries, neither player is likely to be especially helpful in next season’s title chase. So I don’t hold their injured status against them. However, with an injury as serious and perhaps as deleterious to playing ability as an ACL tear, the possibility of a diminution of ability results in slight downgrades.

    Without that worry, Leonard would easily slot into Tier 1A. Heading into the 2020 bubble, I argued he was the best player in the world. That line of thinking took a little bit of a hit when Leonard underperformed and actually looked a little fatigued during Denver’s comeback from a 3-1 series deficit to eliminate Kawhi’s Clippers.

    Prior to his knee injury against Utah, Leonard demonstrated himself to still be at the very top level. He’s turned himself into one of the great isolation scorers in the game, with his patience, strength and shooting ability allowing him to pick the opposition apart. He might not have the game-to-game defensive impact in the regular season as he did earlier in his career, though ranking 56th in dRAPM over the last three seasons is nothing to sneeze at. But in a playoff setting, he retains the ability to be a Mariano Rivera-like shutdown closer late in a series. This year’s first round against Dallas was a perfect case in point:

    After spending the early part of the series removing the Mavs’ stretch bigs from the equation, Leonard took on the task of slowing Luka Doncic. Luka is good enough that he still was able to score somewhat effectively, but he was not able to single-handedly win either of the final two games as he had done earlier in the series.

    One of Leonard’s greatest attributes is his strength. It’s hard to get a complete sense of how powerful he is without seeing it up-close in person. Much like Jrue Holiday and James Harden, Leonard doesn’t have bodybuilder, beach-muscle strength; he has effective strength. While other strong players can tend to shove opponents out of the way and risk being called for fouls, Leonard (like Holiday and Harden) simply shrugs players out of his path. This allows for exactly the kind of advantage creation that is so crucial to grinding out tough possessions in close playoff games and is a major reason I expect Leonard to retain his top-echelon status when he returns from injury.
     
  4. HardenVolumeOne

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    Last year, I expressed some skepticism that Nikola Jokic had sufficient athletic gifts to ascend to this level. I think my concerns about Jokic’s defensive versatility remain well-founded, but with somewhat improved conditioning and much more consistent night-to-night aggression looking for his own offense, Jokic produced one of the great offensive seasons from a center in the modern (post-2004 or so) era. He was an extremely worthy MVP, and for the third straight season, carried his excellence into the postseason.

    Without their starting backcourt available, the Nuggets probably shouldn’t have been able to beat Portland in the first round, but Jokic outdueled Damian Lillard to lead Denver to the second round, where Phoenix’s talent edge was simply too much. During and after that series, the defensive questions about Jokic returned with full force, but much as was seen in other series (notably Clippers-Jazz), non-existent point-of-attack defense was a much bigger problem for the Nuggets than Jokic, who was also required to carry a gargantuan offensive usage and try to defend without fouling.

    That series illustrated an oddity in NBA discourse where it at times seems like worse outcomes would be better for individual legacies. Had Jokic not been able to steer Denver to the second round and had instead lost a competitive series to Portland, the focus would have been on the disappointment of injuries derailing the Nuggets’ title hopes. Instead, by winning the first series and getting smacked in the second, the last act was a flagrant foul on Cam Payne. The manner of the second-round loss obscured the achievement that was reaching that point in the first place.

    In terms of Jokic’s talents, I don’t think I need to give chapter and verse after the season just concluded. At this point, he has quite obviously established himself as the best passing big man of all time. He is an exceptional scorer from all levels; an elite post player, deadly midrange shooter and hit 38.8 percent of his 3s a year ago. While there are limitations to his game, he also contributes defensively with his excellent defensive rebounding and quick hands. Only Nerlens Noel at 2.3 percent exceeded Jokic’s 1.9 STL% from the center position.

    The unfortunate thing for Jokic is that with Murray likely out for much of the coming season, it might be two full years before Jokic is back in a position to chase a title in earnest. But after last year and his history of strong playoff performance, he has earned his way into the top tier of superstars.

    Speaking of year-old skepticism, I also wondered whether, after an oft-injured gap year and several years of sharing top billing with KD, Steph Curry could still perform at a top level. Asked and answered. At least from a regular-season standpoint, Curry dragging an extremely undertalented Warriors team to the doorstep of the playoffs was one of the more impressive accomplishments of his career. According to Cleaning the Glass, with Curry on the floor, the Warriors had an offensive rating of 116.1, right around the 74th percentile of all lineup combos around the league. With Curry on the bench and excluding garbage time, that fell to 100.6, in the third percentile.

    With the rise of heliocentric offenses, there was a sense of curiosity about how Curry would look as the sun in his own solar system and a bit of regret that with Kevin Durant on the Warriors, we weren’t likely to see it. Well, we saw it last year, with Curry setting a career high in usage at 34.8, significantly higher than his previous full-season high of 32.6 in his 2015-16 MVP year. Despite that offensive burden, he still managed one of the highest efficiency marks of his career at 65.5 percent. As I mentioned Thursday, Curry is second in the tracking-data era for most total contested 3s made. He is also fifth among all players with at least 250 contested 3-point attempts in terms of accuracy:

    Curry has been an underrated defender over his career. Though he can be attacked with size, his ability to read passing lanes and defensive rebounds allows him to make strong contributions in off-ball situations. As he’s aged and Golden State’s overall defensive context has worsened, his impact has waned somewhat. But he still finished in the top 100 (97th) in dRAPM over the last three years. However, his size is the main factor that keeps him from Tier 1A, both because of his comparative defensive drawbacks but also in terms of the way it can make him a bit more schemable than the very top players. Case in point was the Play-In contest against Memphis, where he scored 39 but also had seven turnovers with Dillon Brooks’ ball denial serving to strangle several other Golden State possessions.

    The final player in Tier 1B is James Harden . I fully expect Brooklyn to be the best team in the NBA by some margin next season, and Harden is a big reason why. Whatever one might think of the manner in which he engineered his exit from Houston, he was reinvigorated after arriving with the Nets. Though he was still extremely effective toward the end of his time with the Rockets, there was a certain roteness to his play given how much of the scheme was “James, do something.”

    The sample size was small, but in games featuring all three of Brooklyn’s stars, Harden’s approach appeared to be to distribute the ball and get everyone else involved for much of the first three quarters before looking to take over in the fourth. Much like Doncic, Harden has had a history of fading late in playoff games, having hit only 25.2 percent of his 3s in his last five Rockets’ postseasons, and this different approach is likely to help alleviate that sort of fatigue-related underperformance.

    Though Kyrie Irving has been termed a “point guard” and Harden slotted in at the two for much of his career, it was only natural for Harden to assume the lead ballhandling and offense initiation slot. He has become one of, and possibly the best playmaker in the game today. His talent for turning even the most limited of teammates, such as P.J. Tucker, into credible threats is a major reason he is able to overcome his occasionally defensive indifference and land in this tier. While Harden might not defend much himself at times, the ability to put defense-first players on the floor around him does serve to mitigate that shortcoming. Much like Curry, however, Harden’s defensive issues are just enough to keep him from the very top tier.
     
  5. HardenVolumeOne

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    If the difference between Tier 2 and Tier 1 is the margin for error in team building, the distinction between 1B and 1A is the required specificity of the fit of players around those stars. While they do it in their own unique ways, each of the three players in Tier 1A allows for a wide latitude in terms of how talent can be arranged around them and still fit.

    In the case of LeBron James, his control over the flow of the game is so strong that he creates a specific “LeBron Team” context into which others must inexorably fit. By contrast, Durant is one of the most malleable superstars in NBA history, able to morph into just about any shape or role and perform at an elite level.

    Meanwhile, Giannis Antetokounmpo has supplanted James as the most unstoppable and inexorable physical force in the game today. He might be slightly less versatile offensively than the other two, but he makes up for that in the chaos created by his rim attacks and Defensive Player of the Year-level contributions on the other end.

    This coming season will represent one of the bigger challenges of LeBron James’ career. I’ve learned the hard way that predicting decline for James is a fool’s errand. I’ve been spectacularly wrong in doing so at least once. But at some point, it will happen. If the defining feature of a Tier 1A player is maximizing margin for error, this season will go a long way toward demonstrating whether LeBron still provides that for a team.

    Not since he left Cleveland the first time has the team around him been as oddly constructed as this coming year’s Laker squad. I’m not talking about talent level, as Los Angeles has plenty. Rather, the established approach to winning big with LeBron is to surround him (and an offensive partner like Anthony Davis) with plenty of shooting while playing stifling defense. Adding Russell Westbrook certainly doesn’t provide the shooting, and the defensive impact of all of the Lakers’ moves is more likely to be negative than positive.

    I haven’t ranked players within the Tiers, but if someone forced me to make a selection of one player as the best in the world heading into next season, it would be Kevin Durant. The worries about what a torn Achilles would mean for him pushed him down to Tier 1B last year. Frankly, for as many people who questioned how I could have KD anywhere other than Tier 1A, an equal number thought I was crazy for thinking he could recover to that level, at least in his first season back.

    That argument was won decisively by the optimists, as Durant had the most efficient scoring season of his career while also carrying one of his largest usage rates, at least while he was healthy. Heading into the postseason, there were still some lingering questions about whether he could contribute defensively to the degree he did in his pre-injury heyday. Once again, his play decisively resolved all such issues, with his epic performance almost leading the suddenly short-handed Nets past the eventual champion Bucks, coming literally within the length of his big toe from doing so.

    For all that has been said about Durant’s offensive efficiency and defensive versatility, the one trait of his that gets overlooked is his competitiveness. In that series against the Bucks, he spent almost as much time guarding Brook Lopez as he did Tucker:

    Durant probably gives up 80 pounds in that matchup. But not only did the Nets superstar hold his own on the boards, with a 25.8 percent DREB% for the series, instead of being worn down by those exertions, he also still managed 35.4 points per game on 59.4 percent true shooting in 42.7 minutes per game. That’s despite being just about the only shot creator Brooklyn had left after Irving was injured in Game 3.

    The ability to perform at peak levels in these conditions simply doesn’t happen without tremendous mental toughness, and it is probably the same reason Durant was able to return so effectively from what has typically been a career-altering injury. Though not explicitly part of the evaluation for the Tiers, Durant’s passion for the game was further demonstrated in leading the U.S. to Olympic gold, at a tournament he would have been well within his rights to skip following his injury rehab and grueling playoff run.

    There is no other place to end than with the recently crowned NBA Finals MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo. When he injured his knee during the Eastern Conference finals, his most likely landing spot was going to be Tier 1B. Particularly against the Nets, there were times where Antetokounmpo appeared to be befuddled by the same “wall” strategy that had been so effective in Milwaukee’s previous two playoff exits, to Toronto in 2019 and Miami in the 2020 bubble. And then the Finals happened.

    Three 40-plus point games in the series, including an epic 50 piece in the Game 6 clincher. If that isn’t sufficient to bump a player to the very top group in terms of bringing championship equity, it’s hard to imagine what would be. As mentioned in Thursday’s writeup of Tier 2, Antetokounmpo has a slightly unusual skill set for a player at this level in the modern game. The importance of jump shooting has never been greater, whether from 3-point range or the kind of off-the-bounce tough 2s that often decide playoff series. His strengths are multitude, but shooting is not among them. He’s so good at attacking the rim and being an all-court terror on the other end, though, that his overall impact is undeniable.

    Having just sung the praises of Durant’s competitiveness, I have to echo those sentiments for Antetokounmpo. That edge has always been a part of his game; what was new for this year’s playoff run was the Ted Lasso-like ability to “be a goldfish” with a short memory. This was perfectly exemplified in that Game 6 closeout when, after shooting 55.6 percent from the free-throw line over his first 20 and Milwaukee’s first 22 playoff games, tossing up several airballs in the process, he made 17 of 19 in a game where the Bucks needed every one.
     
  6. steddinotayto

    steddinotayto Contributing Member

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    Also, Saints fan? Really???? jk @HardenVolumeOne
     
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  7. HardenVolumeOne

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    i like how the author used RAPM, EPM, PIPM, BPM and pretty much any relative advanced stat to rank these players
     
  8. steddinotayto

    steddinotayto Contributing Member

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    It's an acceptable list. If I had to nitpick I would question Leonard's status as a Tier 1A/1B but I'm not going to debate/argue about it.
     
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  9. jordnnnn

    jordnnnn Member

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    Informed takes with logical reasoning and statistical backup are refreshing to read.
     
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  10. ThatBoyNick

    ThatBoyNick Member

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    Wow Harden is ranked #4, Jalen wears #4

    Thats 2 4's, kobe's ghost did this
     
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  11. Invisible Fan

    Invisible Fan Insider Newsletter™ 2X Diamond Member

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    No carpet stain shots == PRO GRESS
     
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  12. durvasa

    durvasa Contributing Member
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    OP, please also post the link to the article. Thanks!
     
  13. HardenVolumeOne

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    durvasa likes this.
  14. Juxtaposed Jolt

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    I don't know how Harden isn't 1A. That Nets team stayed in the hunt for the playoffs solely because Harden was available. And not only did they make it, despite Durant and Kyrie being out for many games, they also clinched the 2 seed.
     
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  15. HardenVolumeOne

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    looks like we got another curry apologist aka "ben taylor clone" on youtube

    looking to rank curry number 1 in the league because of lack of supporting cast. If thats the case, harden should have been considered the best player in the league those years from 2017-2020. But they wont admit that, Curry is so great he got outplayed on his homecourt by a 2nd year guard, and compared to his 2016 season his advanced metrics outside of rpm are average at best. These new nba analysts are just trying to thrust currys name up there with the elite players in the league even though its going on 2 straight years not making the playoffs smh.

     
  16. HardenVolumeOne

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    Whats funny is for years ben taylor had wade and kobe ranked above harden because he determined that those players were more SCABALABLE AND PORTABLE. Funny how ben taylor never made a video on harden this year when he was healthy. Bottomline is Harden is the modern day Jerry West and Oscar Robertson.

     
  17. Easy

    Easy Very Calm
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    No-skill Giannis #1?
     

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