NBA Player Rankings: Top 100 Players Before 2017-18 Season Tips Off
Pop the champagne. Fire up the noisemakers. Release the confetti. Make confetti angels once all those multicolored paper shreds have settled onto the ground. The 2017-18 NBA regular season is (basically) upon us.
But before we begin the exhaustive and futile process of pretending the Golden State Warriors won't win their third title in four years, the moral-obligations clause in our human-beings contract mandates we reassess the Association's top 100 players.
These rankings do not rest on an exact subset of data or qualifications. Age, health, play style, offseason relocations, projected court time, role changes, untapped potential, natural regression—everything is on the table.
Last season's body of work matters a great deal, but the final pecking order also takes aim at performances yet to come. The goal is to identify players who will land among the 100 best as the season soldiers on. Rankings are bound to shift by year's end, but this arrangement is assembled based on what has already taken place and what will happen in the early going of 2017-18, before the halfway point. So, yes, rookies are eligible for inclusion.
As a refresher, here's how the position hierarchies already played out:
Placement here will align with those rankings. Kyrie Irving finished ahead of Kemba Walker in the point guard chain of command, so the latter will not leapfrog the former in the top 100. Nicolas Batum is the lone exception. His shoulder injury will keep him sidelined long enough to redress his top-10 ribbon among shooting guards.
And now, we rank.
Note: The text for most players is taken from their positional ranking, some of which has been edited for length and context. Major ups to Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal, who served as judge and jury (but not executioner) throughout this process.
Ryan Anderson, Houston Rockets
A retraction will be written if the Houston Rockets piece together a top-20 defense when Ryan Anderson plays center.
Dewayne Dedmon, Atlanta Hawks
Laugh if you're evil to the core, but Dewayne Dedmon is shooting threes for the Atlanta Hawks. That makes for a nice complement to his understated rim-running and unheralded defense in space.
Evan Fournier, Orlando Magic
Evan Fournier is the perfect 2B option for a really good team. Too bad the Orlando Magic have thus far ticketed him for 1B duty.
Pau Gasol, San Antonio Spurs
Did the San Antonio Spurs give Pau Gasol a non-legacy legacy deal (three years, $48 million) because he's really good or because he opted out to help them land the meeting with Chris Paul that never came? Maybe it was a little of both. At any rate, Gasol is close to six quintillion years old in NBA-speak and probably going to lose minutes to lineups that stick LaMarcus Aldridge at the 5.
Manu Ginobili, San Antonio Spurs
If Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich promised to play 40-year-old Manu Ginobili 30-plus minutes per game until his limbs fell off, the Argentine artist would automatically receive a top-50 bid.
Eric Gordon, Houston Rockets
Leaving off a Sixth Man of the Year winner blows, but Eric Gordon's role next to James Harden, Chris Paul and Houston's wings is hard to decipher.
Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls
Zach LaVine has only been cleared for one-on-zero work as he recovers from a torn ACL. He joins the party if healthy, but including him without a guarantee he'll make 25 appearances reaches too far.
Robin Lopez, Chicago Bulls
Robin Lopez would sneak into the top 100 if he wasn't in danger of losing minutes to Cristiano Felicio, Lauri Markkanen and Bobby Portis as the Chicago Bulls tank their hearts out.
Markieff Morris, Washington Wizards
Check back when Markieff Morris' defensive engagement and interest in rebounding don't fluctuate with his offensive performance.
Kelly Olynyk, Miami Heat
Making sense of the Miami Heat's frontcourt rotation is an unenviable task this early in the game. Kelly Olynyk figures to suffer more than James Johnson and Hassan Whiteside.
Jabari Parker, Milwaukee Bucks
League sources told ESPN.com's Zach Lowe that Jabari Parker will return from his ACL injury in February "at the earliest"—a fancy way of saying "probably March."
Elfrid Payton, Orlando Magic
Post-February Elfrid Payton would definitely make this list.
Norman Powell, Toronto Raptors
Norman Powell is entering his third season, but it feels like we've been waiting on a marquee breakout for five.
D'Angelo Russell, Brooklyn Nets
Playing within the Brooklyn Nets' green-light factory will either unleash D'Angelo Russell or be too much freedom for him to handle.
Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics
Marcus Smart flirts with top-50 status if the Boston Celtics could trust him to run pick-and-rolls and shoot with median efficiency from downtown.
Marvin Williams, Charlotte Hornets
Nicolas Batum's shoulder injury thrusts the Charlotte Hornets into all-hands mode, which invariably means Marvin Williams trades power forward and center minutes for small forward cameos. That gets a hard pass, since he's best suited as a small-ball 5.
Nos. 100 to 96: Gordon, Ball, Noel, Schroder, Gortat
100. Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.5 blocks, 45.4 percent shooting
Spending more time at his natural position (power forward) will look good on Aaron Gordon. He's been rock solid in the preseason, flashing more efficient range and a snowballing commitment to reaching the foul line.
The Magic's inability—or unwillingness—to groom Gordon as anything specific prevents him from landing any higher. He'll have the go-ahead, it seems, to continue launching threes, but will he make them at a league-average clip? Can his accuracy from the charity stripe get closer to 75 percent? Does he have the vision to make meaningful passes off the dribble and out of the pick-and-roll so he's a more serviceable option in the half court?
Gordon should have some semblance of an offensive identity entering his fourth season. He doesn't. He'll have an opportunity to get one as Orlando steps away from a half-baked reset, but the rest of the roster finds itself in relatable limbo. He's lucky to get this nod while remaining in the thick of the Magic's nondescript orbit.
99. Lonzo Ball, Los Angeles Lakers
2016-17 Per-Game Stats (college): 14.6 points, 6.0 rebounds, 7.6 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.8 blocks, 55.1 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics (college): 24.7 PER, N/A RPM, 285.83 TPA
Bestowing top-100 status upon rookies is always arguable. But be warned: Lonzo Ball is the first of three beginners to make an appearance.
Winning NBA Summer League MVP absolutely molds his case. So, too, do his shaky preseason efforts, through which he's often appeared overmatched and ill-adjusted to the warped speed of NBA play. But rookies are entitled to learning curves, 99th place isn't a top-50 finish and, most notably, forecasting a top-100 season from a second overall pick isn't drunken ambition.
Spoonfuls of Ball's game will make an immediate impact. Ask anyone on the Los Angeles Lakers, and they'll tell you they're more likely to run the floor harder with him in the lineup. His head is up, eyes fixated down the court, before he ever establishes possession. Los Angeles will put the ball in his hands, even with other rock-hungry scorers around him. Volume alone will help him plow through his adjustment period.
Infuriating mistakes are part and parcel of every rookie campaign. Ball is not immune. The questions that surround his jump shot and defensive fit are valid. But he plays with a scarce brand of selfless flair—the kind that can lift an offense now and legitimize this placement, perhaps eclipsing it, without ironing out the other parts of his game.
98. Nerlens Noel, Dallas Mavericks
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 8.7 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.0 blocks, 59.5 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 20.4 PER, 2.72 RPM, 68.96 TPA
Playing time is the enemy of Nerlens Noel's standing. The Dallas Mavericks are bringing him off the bench to run Dirk Nowitzki at center, fundamentally capping his contributions. Some nights he'll clear 25 minutes; others will see him log fewer than 20.
Peak Nerlens is a defensive nuisance. He zips around all over the place, both a rim protector and passing-lane insurgent. On most possessions, it looks like he's earned an apparition license.
Pile on his improvement as a rim-runner at the other end, along with his playing through a second consecutive contract year after signing his qualifying offer, and Noel has breakout chops. But his role with the Mavericks, coupled with the space-first direction of the league, may also not allow for one.
97. Dennis Schroder, Atlanta Hawks
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 17.9 points, 3.1 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.2 blocks, 45.1 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 16.1 PER, -2.45 RPM, -35.29 TPA
Dennis Schroder is suddenly The Guy for the Hawks now that they're working through the early stages of a buzzword-averse rebuild. No one should be sure what to make of his accentuated role.
Three or four players might be faster with the ball in their hands. Schroder is neither an exceptional passer nor finisher, and his three-point success rate has only once exceeded 35 percent. But the Hawks scored like an average offense when he played without Paul Millsap in 2016-17, according to NBA Wowy—a major accomplishment since their attack ranked 27th in points scored per 100 possessions for the season.
Atlanta is willing three- and four-out lineups into five-out models (i.e. Dewyane Dedmon is shooting threes now). That extra space works in the speedy Schroder's favor, padding his numbers and safeguarding him against dropping from the top-100 discourse—even if, as expected, the Hawks offense is bottom-five material.
96. Marcin Gortat, Washington Wizards
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 10.8 points, 10.4 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.7 blocks, 57.9 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 15.4 PER, -0.07 RPM, 15.54 TPA
Marcin Gortat shouldn't come this close to falling off the top-100 radar. He will be much higher on other lists.
Seasoned consistency spawns that belief. Gortat will set good screens for every one of the Washington Wizards' ball-handlers, shoot better than 70 percent inside three feet of the hoop and clobber just enough pick-and-roll divers to stave off futility on the defensive end.
This role is not forever. Gortat's offensive value will hold, but it'll become progressively harder to field strong defensive lineups with him in the middle as he gets older.
Out of the 125 players to contest at least 200 looks around the basket last year, he ranked 112th in points allowed per shot. That mark will improve if he's not pulled outside the paint, but stationary defensive roles are almost a thing of the past. A healthy Ian Mahinmi could cannibalize some of his minutes—as might "Death Lineup" knockoffs that place Markieff Morris at the 5 (once he's healthy).
Nos. 95 to 91: Ingram, Vucevic, Barton, Wade, Nowitzki
95. Brandon Ingram, Los Angeles Lakers
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 9.4 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.5 blocks, 40.2 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 8.5 PER, -4.69 RPM, -187.06 TPA
Hooray for stepping out on limbs.
Brandon Ingram doesn't deserve top-100 status now. This presupposes that he will in short order—closer to the start of the season than the halfway point.
Lakers president Magic Johnson has saddled him with what might be an unsupportable burden. "[Ingram's] been practicing so hard all summer long," he said in September, per Bleacher Report's Eric Pincus. "I told him, 'If you don't average 20 points a game, I'm going to be disappointed.'"
Use Ingram's preseason struggles as a baseline, and Johnson is tracking toward disappointment. But exhibition tilts aren't be-all benchmarks, and Ingram showed he's worth this leap of faith as a rookie. He went full bore 100 percent of the time, and his mistakes—turnovers out of the pick-and-roll, rushed shots, bad defensive positioning—stemmed more from effort than ignorance.
Hard work can prop up a 95th-place finish. This spot doesn't portend stardom. It suggests Ingram's length will infuse more chaos on defense; three-point percentage will approach or exceed league average; and reads and shot accuracy as a featured ball-handler will culminate in above-average offensive numbers for the Lakers.
94. Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 14.6 points, 10.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.0 blocks, 46.8 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 19.1 PER, 0.26 RPM, 47.98 TPA
Nikola Vucevic doesn't have to worry about imbalanced dual-big lineups as much compared to 2016-17. Serge Ibaka is gone, and head coach Frank Vogel can stagger minutes by bringing Bismack Biyombo off the bench. But Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac and Marreese Speights all factor into the frontcourt carousel—as does Mario Hezonja, who entered the fray for minutes at power forward last year.
That glut of talent will still dislodge Vucevic from his preferred spots. His post touches plummeted from 2015-16 to last year, while his average shot distance spiked past 10 feet for the first time. His efficiency dipped and then failed to recover after the Ibaka trade.
Tab Vucevic as a No. 1 option, and he'll get buckets while dropping nifty passes. But the Magic aren't in a position to make him their offensive fulcrum when they have to feed Gordon, Evan Fournier and Elfrid Payton. And they don't have the established shooting to prime him for roll-man and cutter duty.
Keeping your head above water as a more traditional big is hard enough without internal left-footedness to hinder your job. But Orlando isn't helping Vucevic. And so, he sits on this weird plane, somewhere between indefensibly untapped and, relative to the space-addicted NBA, circumstantially unfit.
93. Will Barton, Denver Nuggets
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 13.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.5 blocks, 44.3 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 15.5 PER, -1.15 RPM, 10.47 TPA
The Denver Nuggets don't need a Jamal Murray breakout, Emmanuel Mudiay epiphany or Eric Bledsoe trade to weather their sandbar point guard rotation. They have more than their share of playmakers up front, and Gary Harris can captain things end-to-end.
Oh, and they have Will Barton, one of the league's most unheralded secondary playmakers.
He mimes a lot of what Harris does, just with more running baseline jams. He makes off-ball beelines toward the basket and is comfortable slingshotting off the catch, but he's also point guard insurance. Barton ran more pick-and-rolls per game last year than any of his teammates, and his assist rate has climbed every year since arriving in Denver. He doesn't always bring it on defense, but he delivers timely aggression in space and isn't too shabby on the boards.
Barton is averaging 17.7 points, 6.5 rebounds and 3.6 assists per 36 minutes with a 35.5 percent knockdown rate from three through two full seasons on the Nuggets—output matched only by Kevin Durant, Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol and Paul George during that time.
92. Dwyane Wade, Cleveland Cavaliers
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 18.3 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.7 blocks, 43.4 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 18.5 PER, -0.91 RPM, 35.58 TPA
If reuniting with LeBron James helps Dwyane Wade score a zillion points off cuts, shoot with above-average frequency and efficiency from deep and turns him into a lockdown defender before the final two minutes of close games, please destroy this verdict.
In the meantime, let's recognize that Wade is 35, starting for the Cleveland Cavaliers because he's tight with James and finished last season as a net minus at both ends for the pretty-bad Bulls.
Something's gone wrong anyway if the Cavaliers need Wade to be more than a top-95 player. They'll have him absorb point guard minutes until Isaiah Thomas gets right, but priority numero uno must be keeping him fresh for late May into June—a rest-and-relaxation program that shouldn't give him the usage to claw his way up this ladder.
91. Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 14.2 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.7 blocks, 43.7 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 17.0 PER, 0.26 RPM, -35.55 TPA
Special thanks are in order for Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle. Slotting Dirk Nowitzki at center allows for this rank. It still hurts, not unlike undercutting Wade's on-ball work or excluding Manu Ginobili altogether. But he doesn't get the top-100 invite if he's chasing around power forwards who will have the handle and burst to blow by him on defense.
Sweet shooting and point-forward fadeaways aren't yet a prerequisite for all centers. Nowitzki's range and the half-court trinkets he busts out from both stationary and mobile stances remain distinct advantages. Building an above-average offense with him as the central focus isn't outside the scope of plausibility. His willingness to fade out stage left is even more impressive.
Incorporating Harrison Barnes and Dennis Smith Jr. isn't an issue when your franchise lifer doesn't bristle about taking more than 60 percent of his attempts off the catch. If not for the defensive trade-off incumbent of playing him anywhere, Nowitzki would be a good 15 to 25 spots higher.
Nos. 90 to 86: Brogdon, Thompson, Fultz, Kidd-Gilchrist, Dieng
90. Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 10.2 points, 2.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.2 blocks, 45.7 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 14.9 PER, 1.44 RPM, -15.61 TPA
Obtain a shrink ray, aim it at Khris Middleton, push the, um, shrinkinator button and presto change-o: Malcolm Brogdon stands before you.
Mini Middleton—he gives up three inches and about 20 pounds to his spitting image—may not improve by much following his Rookie of the Year nuptials. Quality young'uns tend to get better, but Brogdon will turn 25 in December, and his unassuming game is more reflective of a high-end role player.
This doesn't take anything away from him. The Milwaukee Bucks don't need him to be someone else. He'll have to make strides as a finisher around the rim, and it'd be nice if he could do more than damage control as the primary ball-handler when Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo take breathers. But a player who swishes threes, pilots the occasional pick-and-roll and imparts subtle mayhem on defense is a big-time commodity.
Brogdon is most notably schooled in the latter. His length lets him switch across three positions, from point guard to small forward, and he's stifling against the pick-and-roll. Ball-handlers coughed up possession 26.4 percent of the time when being defended by him—the second-highest mark among 169 players to face at least 100 of these sets.
89. Tristan Thompson, Cleveland Cavaliers
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 8.1 points, 9.2 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.5 assists, 1.1 blocks, 60.0 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 15.3 PER, 0.00 RPM, 65.54 TPA
Tristan Thompson will never be fully appreciated in his time. People will always be quicker to cite his weaknesses—how defenses can ditch him on the perimeter, his struggles from the foul line, even his lukewarm defense on the low block.
What Thompson does well, however, carries more weight. Sturdy screens, strong rolls to the basket, hustle on the glass, low-key defensive rotations—this dirty work remains integral to competing at the highest level.
Many would tire of such a specific role. They'd come to view it as an insult or obstacle. Not Thompson. He didn't even whine when the Cavaliers ousted him from this year's starting lineup—a demotion that will cost him playing time and, by extension, more than a few spots on this list.
88. Markelle Fultz, Philadelphia 76ers
2016-17 Per-Game Stats (college): 23.2 points, 5.7 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.2 blocks, 47.6 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics (college): 27.9 PER, N/A RPM, 147.73 TPA
Markelle Fultz finished a wee bit higher in one of the initial arrangements. And then his free-throw form went haywire—by design. As one NBA executive told Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman:
"Honestly, I don't know where to start. This is mind-boggling. Who in the world told him to do anything like that? In college, he just shot 65 percent [on free throws]. It needed minor adjustments. This new thing is crazy, and a few weeks ago, he had an entirely different technique. Why change every time for the worse?"
Fultz's 29.2 percent showing from the floor in preseason (7-of-24) and 40 percent clip at the freebie ribbon (2-of-5) won't do anything to quell panic. Likewise, rookies cannot do anything at the NBA level to earn benefit of the doubt before they ever appear in a regular-season contest.
Top picks are different. They have to be. And Fultz looks the part. When he's in good form (no pun intended), he looks like someone crossed the makeup of James Harden and Jason Kidd. He also shot 41.3 percent from three in his lone season at Washington. A preseason experiment gone wrong (for now) does not nullify the cachet he deservedly carries as the No. 1 pick.
87. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Charlotte Hornets
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 9.2 points, 7.0 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.0 blocks, 47.7 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 14.3 PER, 0.50 RPM, 9.36 TPA
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist cannot shoot. We get it. He has never attempted 10 threes in a single season. If preseason is any indication, the Hornets aren't reinventing his shot selection. These limitations have to hold him back. We get it.
But Kidd-Gilchrist is too feisty on the defensive end to wrench any lower. He smothers opposing ball-handlers and is the rare 6'7" grinder that fares better switching onto point guards and scampering attackers rather than heftier power forwards.
And not that it matters, except it totally does, but Kidd-Gilchrist dropped in 46.2 percent of his shots between eight and 16 feet last season—identical to Kawhi Leonard's clip, albeit on approximately one-third of the volume.
86. Gorgui Dieng, Minnesota Timberwolves
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 10.0 points, 7.9 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.2 blocks, 50.2 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 14.2 PER, 2.72 RPM, 88.89 TPA
Could we maybe, possibly, pretty please, talk about Gorgui Dieng more? He's set to begin the first season of a four-year, $64 million extension, yet his reputation beyond the Minnesota Timberwolves locker room is punctuated by deafening silence.
Skeptics are quick to poke holes in the Timberwolves' frontcourt floor balance, as they should be. But Dieng has shot 43.4 percent between 16 feet and the three-point line each of the last two seasons.
Minnesota's capacity to up the ante on defense is doubted to no end—again, as it should be. The frontcourt lacks switchy components. But Dieng has some wing-stopper in him. He knows how to utilize his length, and his lateral gait helps him subsist in space.
Ejecting him from the top 75 hurts the soul. Timberwolves head coach Tom Thibodeau unfortunately doesn't inspire much confidence in more flattering alternatives. He's a good bet to play favorites and let Taj Gibson devour minutes that should go to Dieng.
Nos. 85 to 81: Zeller, Green, Favors, Nurkic, Chandler
85. Cody Zeller, Charlotte Hornets
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 10.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.9 blocks, 57.1 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 16.7 PER, 3.35 RPM, 72.22 TPA
The Hornets' roster logistics are not kind to Cody Zeller.
First, they trade for Dwight Howard, uprooting his place in the starting five. Then, Nicolas Batum suffers a left shoulder injury that will keep him out six to eight weeks—or, according to The Vertical's Shams Charania, as many as 12 weeks. This affects how head coach Steve Clifford uses Michael Carter-Williams, Malik Monk and Jeremy Lamb before anyone else, but it likewise means Marvin Williams will see spot-minutes at the 3, per the Charlotte Observer's Rick Bonnell.
Zeller will get pushed to the 4 in these situations. His screen-setting and deft cutting aren't a rarity at power forward, if they're even available. Playing beside Howard would restrict the space with which Zeller has to maneuver off the ball, and his light-footed switching won't be so effective when he could be chasing wings for primary assignments.
On the glass-half-full side, dropping outside the top 75 says more about the Hornets' makeup and its influence on Zeller's role than the seven-footer himself. Whether that comes as a comfort or throws salt on an open wound is in the eye of beholder.
84. JaMychal Green, Memphis Grizzlies
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 8.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.4 blocks, 50.0 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 13.5 PER, -0.02 RPM, 24.24 TPA
Top-100 players don't usually waste away in a stone-cold free-agent market until the 11th hour of September, with the preseason bearing down upon them. But this past summer was a wake-up call for everyone—players, agents, salary-cap enthusiasts, casual fans, etc.
With the market correcting itself following an unhinged spending spree in 2016, Green remained on the unemployment line far longer than he should have. Power forwards who can switch everything, keep the ball moving, hit standstill threes, work the defensive glass and stick to their workplace cubbyhole without sulking don't go untouched.
Green has the tools to do more. He has the handle to run some pick-and-roll and fritter through more off-the-dribble attacks, but he'll never expand his horizons with the Memphis Grizzlies next to both Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. And that's OK. The plug-and-play Draymond Green-superlight he's turned into earns him top-100 credentials.
83. Derrick Favors, Utah Jazz
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 9.5 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.8 blocks, 48.7 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 15.8 PER, -0.70 RPM, -2.26 TPA
The search for the Utah Jazz's new No. 1 option has led most to Rodney Hood. Whimsical thinkers will suggest rookie Donovan Mitchell.
Have we completely forgotten about Derrick Favors?
What little status he didn't squander amid Rudy Gobert's transition from late first-round flyer to franchise face dissipated with right and left knee injuries. But Favors is one season removed from a two-year string of dominance, when he joined Anthony Davis as the only players to average at least 16 points, eight rebounds and 1.5 blocks on 50 percent shooting through 2014-15 and 2015-16.
Favors can still be that player with a clean bill of health. He shot 62.8 percent on post touches in 2017-18. The Jazz need that self-sufficient scoring to complement Gobert and Ricky Rubio pick-and-rolls. Smart money is on Hood to assume a bulk of the usage Gordon Hayward left behind, but Favors looms as a capable alternative.
82. Jusuf Nurkic, Portland Trail Blazers
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 10.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.1 blocks, 50.7 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 17.5 PER, 0.62 RPM, -8.50 TPA
If Jusuf Nurkic picks up where he left off with the Portland Trail Blazers, this checkered flag becomes a little stingy. He was sensational after relocating from Denver, averaging 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists on 50.8 percent shooting. He gave a damn on defense, and Portland outscored opponents by 9.6 points per 100 possessions with him in the lineup.
Twenty appearances isn't enough to sell this as a permanent turnaround. Nurkic is entering a contract year, but he's also working off a fractured fibula in his right leg, and the Blazers surrendered crucial spacing by sending Allen Crabbe to Brooklyn—room the seven-foot Bosnian could use to explode off screens and work out of the post.
From health and a career performance to lasting chemistry with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum and a flawless fit inside Portland's overstocked frontcourt shuffle, putting him any higher makes too many assumptions.
81. Wilson Chandler, Denver Nuggets
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 15.7 points points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.4 blocks, 46.1 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 14.9 PER, -1.24 RPM, -35.99 TPA
Player stocks don't usually rise much on the heels of a 30th birthday, but Wilson Chandler lands in a unique situation with the Nuggets. They're short on real wings, which will prompt more than a few funky solutions: Gary Harris playing up a position; should-be 4 Juan Hernangomez being groomed as a 3; and Paul Millsap switching onto more small forwards.
Chandler, along with Will Barton, will be crucial to mitigating the Nuggets' dependence on the unconventional and impractical. His game melds nicely will whomever they throw around him. He gets buckets off the dribble, hits enough of his standalone threes to justify shooting them (34 percent) and ran about as many pick-and-rolls per game last season (1.6) as Harris and Danilo Gallinari.
Denver would do well to conjure some minutes for Chandler at power forward, but his value isn't predicated on simplification. He maintains the lateral gait to stalk opposing 3s and the north-to-south acceleration conducive to whirlwind offense.
Nos. 80 to 76: Batum, Miles, Redick, Roberson, Harris
80. Nicolas Batum, Charlotte Hornets
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 15.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.4 blocks, 40.3 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 15.8 PER, 0.95 RPM, 67.83 TPA
Nicolas Batum's stock should be so much higher. Playing a majority share of his minutes at the 2 spot hurts him, he's shooting 33.6 percent from long range over the past three seasons, and his latest shoulder injury eats substantially into his availability.
Wing slots can be interchangeable in the right situations—look at the Celtics—but the Hornets aren't built to let him dabble at the 4, where his handles and first step remain a distinct advantage. Kemba Walker has capped the damage by transforming into one of the league's premier off-ball weapons, yet Batum has a hollow impact without that crutch. The Hornets offense takes a nosedive when he plays while Walker is on the bench, and leveraging his playmaking under any circumstances has become a chore.
Among the 76 players to run at least 200 pick-and-roll possessions last season, Batum posted the second-highest turnover rate (23.7) and third-lowest effective field-goal percentage (37.3). Throw it back to 2015-16, and the results aren't too encouraging. He shot much better (50.9 percent effective field-goal clip) but finished dead last in turnover rate (29.2) among the 69 players to use 200 or more of these sets.
79. C.J. Miles, Toronto Raptors
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 10.7 points, 3.0 rebounds, 0.6 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.3 steals, 43.4 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 13.8 PER, 0.35 RPM, -21.29 TPA
C.J. Miles doesn't receive enough credit for his positional plasticity. He defends up to power forwards, and while he's often outmuscled or outfoxed off the bounce, the option of having a 6'6" protective patch in the frontcourt is on its own a luxury.
For the Toronto Raptors, much like the Indiana Pacers before them, it could prove to be a necessity. Patrick Patterson is gone, and Serge Ibaka doesn't have the sidelong spring to rotate as often as most 4s. Pascal Siakam can replace much of that fast-twitch zip, but he isn't as easy to integrate into the offense.
Miles, by comparison, is a catch-and-shoot crackerjack. Out of the 240 players to work through at least 75 spot-up touches, he finished first in points scored per possession. Shifty defense and reliable shooting are hallmarks of the most coveted three-and-D specialists—a niche group to which Miles doesn't just belong, but helps headline.
78. J.J. Redick, Philadelphia 76ers
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 15.0 points, 2.2 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.2 blocks, 44.5 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 14.8 PER, -0.38 RPM, 0.00 TPA
J.J. Redick is free to print this out and use it for toilet paper. Rival his production with the Los Angeles Clippers, and he puts it to shame. But that isn't a given. Remember: His time with the Philadelphia 76ers is in its infancy, so his fit remains fuzzy.
Close to 60 percent of Redick's field-goal attempts came when a defender was four or more feet away from him. Maybe the Sixers have the playmakers to stake his shot quality, maybe they don't.
Ben Simmons is a sublime passer, but an erratic jumper invites defenses to drop back when he has the ball or leave him unattended without it. Markelle Fultz is busy futzing around with his shooting form (possibly the result of shoulder pain). Robert Covington is a career 35.4 percent three-point marksman, but he shot just 33.3 percent in 2016-17. Joel Embiid cleared a 36 percent conversion rate from distance, but will that hold? Will he be on the floor long enough for it to matter?
Handing the keys of the offense to two rookies, Fultz and Simmons, is also a pledge to flood the box score with turnovers. They won't make the same passes or reads Chris Paul did, which directly impacts Redick's shot total.
77. Andre Roberson, Oklahoma City Thunder
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 6.6 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.0 blocks, 46.4 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 9.6 PER, 1.24 RPM, 0.00 TPA
Andre Roberson shot 25.3 percent on wide-open threes last season. He doesn't do much off the dribble. He forces the Oklahoma City Thunder to play a man down on offense. Blah, blah, blah.
Roberson's defense is legit. He can harass everyone from point guards to certain power forwards and shows little wear when swarming pick-and-rolls without end. He earned a second-team All-Defensive nod in 2016-17, and him snagging some Defensive Player of the Year love isn't out of the question. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist were the only wings to save more points on the less glamorous side, according to NBA Math.
Expecting anything more out of Roberson on offense is wishful thinking. His three-point looks could mushroom in difficulty since defenses will be away from the basket chasing Oklahoma City's perimeter firepower rather than packing the paint against Westbrook drives.
76. Tobias Harris, Detroit Pistons
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 16.1 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.5 blocks, 48.1 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 16.9 PER, 0.94 RPM, 60.97 TPA
Tobias Harris' 2017-18 season is in the hands of Detroit Pistons head coach and president Stan Van Gundy. If Stanley Johnson and Luke Kennard cannot play themselves into essential roles, or if Van Gundy is hell-bent on getting minutes for Jon Leuer and Anthony Tolliver, he will be relocated to small forward.
Harris can score as a 3, but he's a nightmarish matchup at the 4. He has the first-step edge to get around even the pseudo-wings, and bigger forwards don't have the side-to-side amble to hang with him off screens. Harris paced the Pistons in points scored per possession as the pick-and-roll ball-handler—miss you, 2015-16 Reggie Jackson—and will continue smoking opponents off the dribble if slotted in the right spot.
Putting him this low is a hedge against too many minutes at small forward, where he's an above-average to replacement-level player.
Nos. 75 to 71: Oladipo, Patterson, Howard, Green, Hood
75. Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 15.9 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.3 blocks, 44.2 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 13.6 PER, 1.66 RPM, -58.86 TPA
Why yes, you should be signing up for an unleashed Victor Oladipo.
This endorsement won't mean much for the Indiana Pacers. Perhaps they contend for a low-end playoff berth in the Eastern Conference, or maybe they plunge to the bottom of the standings. Their roster doesn't allot for much certainty beyond that.
Whatever happens, Oladipo should enjoy something of a bounce-back campaign. Both the Thunder (Westbrook) and Magic (Elfrid Payton) displaced him from the ball by the end of his tenure. The Pacers have a wealth of other ball-handlers in Darren Collison, Cory Joseph and Lance Stephenson, but Oladipo is their guy—the crown jewel of the impressively bad George trade.
Given the opportunity to reverse-engineer his declining usage rate, run some more pick-and-rolls and capitalize on a cornerstone's green light, Oladipo should look back at 2017-18 as a career year—even if that doesn't ferry Indiana past the 33-win mark.
74. Patrick Patterson, Oklahoma City Thunder
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 6.8 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.4 blocks, 40.1 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 10.8 PER, 2.31 RPM, 28.39 TPA
Patrick Patterson's offseason arthroscopic procedure doesn't remove him from consideration. He's too good for reachy caveats.
Oklahoma City can, and should, use him as a lineup supercharger. Combinations that feature him as a small-ball 5 will do some serious damage, but he switches smoothly enough on defense and swishes spot-up triplets at a high enough clip to remain effective as a full-time 4.
Don't stop me if you heard this one before, because you probably have. But it bears repeating: His plus-minus placed second on the Toronto Raptors for 2016-17 (plus-348) and first in 2015-16 (plus-403). That doesn't happen by chance.
73. Dwight Howard, Charlotte Hornets
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 13.5 points, 12.7 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.2 steals, 63.3 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 20.8 PER, 0.90 RPM, 102.63 TPA
Dwight Howard can still set a mean screen. He is still a detonative pick-and-roll finisher. He can still get up and down the floor. He is still unplayable versus certain small-ball units, but he's also still a pain in the neck to score on at the rim.
Short and sweet version: Howard is still a force. But his engagement has always been conditional upon uniform involvement. He needs his crack at scoring in the post. He has to get a certain number of shot attempts. He cannot be yanked from the lineup down the stretch of tight games. Everything with him seems to have a trickle-down effect, for better or worse.
Rejoining Steve Clifford, who was an assistant during Howard's days in Orlando and Los Angeles, should wipe out some of that immaturity. He'll force-feed the aging tower post touches, but the Hornets haven't pandered to interior sets during the post-Al Jefferson era.
That all matters. Howard isn't joining the Hornets under the illusion they're his team. And if that's inexplicably the case, Clifford is just the guy to stamp the entitlement out of him—the coach who can finally emphasize Howard's strengths without being ransomed into the trade-off that typically follows.
72. Danny Green, San Antonio Spurs
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 7.3 points, 3.3 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.8 blocks, 39.2 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 10.1 PER, 1.26 RPM, 85.11 TPA
Picture Roberson, but with a three-point stroke, better vision and a birthday before 1990.
Hello, Danny Green.
The Spurs have a way of turning nothings into somethings, but Green is a genuinely good NBA player. He splits a hyperactive defensive workload with Leonard, going toe-to-toe with springy wings and point guards. He is one of the league's best shot-blocking wings and is shrewd in forcing turnovers.
Green shoots gaps when coming around screens on pick-and-rolls, ambushing ball-handlers before release. He'll front players, deliberately tangling bodies, when dropping back off switches to deny the ball and force turnovers.
Last year marked the fifth time Green cleared two steals and 1.5 blocks per 100 possessions. Just two other guards have ever matched or exceeded that total: Jerry Reynolds and Dwyane Wade.
71. Rodney Hood, Utah Jazz
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 12.7 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.2 blocks, 40.8 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 12.4 PER, -0.77 RPM, -36.48 TPA
Rodney Hood doesn't land this high if the Jazz don't lose Gordon Hayward. They need a featured scorer, and he fits the bill better than anyone else if he reworks his shot selection. As ESPN.com's Zach Lowe wrote:
"About 30 percent of Hood's shots came in the floater zone between 3 and 16 feet from the rim, a share that ranked in the 90th percentile among wing players, according to research from Ben Falk of Cleaning the Glass. Trade a few of those for drives and 3s, and Utah will have something. Hood could average 20 per game this season, but will they be the kind of points that lead to winning?
"Hood earned only two free throws per game last season; Utah will ache for cheap points, and Hood can supply some if he drives more. He'll have to dodge heavy traffic when both Favors and Gobert are on the floor."
Getting Hood to abandon bad habits will be closer to a cinch when he's guaranteed touches. Bet on a higher-usage role, along with a healthier right knee, doing wonders for his attention to detail—from the decisions he makes on drives to the time he spends as a secondary pick-and-roll initiator and a greater willingness to let it fly off the catch.
Nos. 70 to 66: Simmons, Mills, Ariza, Capela, Johnson
70. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
2015-16 Per-Game Stats (college): 19.2 points, 11.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.8 blocks, 56.0 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics (college): 29.0 PER, N/A RPM, 251.44 TPA
Inserting rookies into these shindigs is maddeningly difficult. Ben Simmons is particularly tough to place when he has yet to prove he can function in any kind of off-ball role. But even after accounting for his constrictive range—he shot 32.9 percent on two-point jumpers at LSU, per Hoop-Math.com—he has the goods everywhere else to render the Philadelphia 76ers an offensive dream.
As The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor wrote:
"The mismatches also extend to the half court. With Simmons on the floor, the Sixers will use on-ball and off-ball screens to find the most desirable matchup. Though Simmons is the "point guard," 2017 no. 1 pick Markelle Fultz will have the ball in his hands plenty. Fultz is a dynamic pick-and-roll playmaker who can pull up over the top of defenses or snake his way to the rim. Joel Embiid should prove to be a massive screening threat for Fultz, but Simmons’s off-ball impact shouldn’t be overlooked.
"If Simmons screens for Fultz, or vice versa, defenses will look to switch, which would place a smaller player on Simmons and a larger player on Fultz—the starting point for most mismatches in the NBA. If Simmons has a big size advantage, the Sixers could benefit from using him on the post."
69. Patty Mills, San Antonio Spurs
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 9.5 points, 1.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.0 blocks, 44.0 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 15.2 PER, 1.27 RPM, 44.75 TPA
Patty Mills is the best possible kind of known commodity. He doesn't try to stray beyond his comfort zone. The Spurs put him in the game to score, so he scores, without wolfing through a predetermined number of touches.
Nearly 37 percent of his looks last season came as catch-and-shoot threes, of which he buried 40.6 percent. But he also put in 41.2 percent of his pull-up triples—the second-best mark, behind CJ McCollum, among players to let off 100 or more rise-and-fire treys.
San Antonio will ask Mills to do more pure point guarding with Tony Parker on the shelf and Dejounte Murray but a baby. Extra responsibilities could dampen or elevate Mills' status. His line of sight, at 6'0", works against him when running pick-and-rolls, but the Spurs tallied 113 points per 100 possessions in the 256 minutes he played without Parker, Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard, per NBA Wowy—top-two efficiency.
Hence this very deliberate hedge.
68. Trevor Ariza, Houston Rockets
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 11.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.3 blocks, 40.9 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 12.4 PER, 1.93 RPM, 92.43 TPA
Trevor Ariza would have found himself dribbling down the NBA's food chain if the Rockets' offseason didn't save him. His 34.4 percent clip from downtown will explode while catching passes from both James Harden and Chris Paul, and he won't need to tackle the quickest wings on defense with Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker in the rotation.
This doesn't imply he'll be doing less. The Rockets should be mixing and matching him more than last year. And that suits him. Ariza works much better when he's not pigeonholed to an inflexible job description. Some nights he'll have it in him to switch pick-and-rolls. Other times he'll be better off scrapping with low-post bangers. There will be games in which he should get stashed on more stationary assignments.
Houston has set itself up to play matchmaker with his defensive duties, paving the way for him to do more without straining himself on offense by year's end.
67. Clint Capela, Houston Rockets
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 12.6 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.5 steals, 1.2 blocks, 64.3 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 21.4 PER, -0.35 RPM, 32.31 TPA
Clint Capela is the Gary Harris of bigs: in full command of his role yet underappreciated at every turn. He is a good screener and roller, with length and touch ready-made for catching lobs and finishing on the run, sometimes in tight spaces.
Last season, he shot 72.5 percent inside three feet, from where more than three-quarters of his attempts came. He's in the rare position to build upon both quality and quantity from his sweet spots, with Harden and Paul co-steering the offense.
Capela's accuracy from the free-throw line is Andre Drummond-esque; he's put in 43.3 percent of his freebies since entering the league. But he fattened that mark to 53.1 percent in 2016-17, and his errancy is tolerable since he's not as high-maintenance as Drummond or Dwight Howard.
The Rockets don't need to draw up post plays to keep Capela engaged on the defensive side. He nudges and needles his way to rebounds amid thickets of brawn and has his rotations down pat. He's scrawny enough to get pushed around the block, but he compensates with improving switchiness beyond the paint.
66. James Johnson, Miami Heat
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 12.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, 3.6 steals, 1.0 steals, 1.1 blocks, 47.9 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 17.0 PER, 2.36 RPM, 111.66 TPA
Behold, every player to walk out of the 2016-17 crusade exceeding 20 points, nine rebounds, six assists and two blocks per 100 possessions: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Marc Gasol and...James Johnson.
Also behold, every Eastern Conference player (from last year) to match Johnson's values added on both sides of the floor, as determined by NBA Math's TPA: Antetokounmpo, Paul Millsap and...that's it.
Are we done here? I think we're done here (unless the egg he's laid in the preseason follows him into mid-October and beyond).
Nos. 65 to 61: Booker, Ingles, Covington, Drummond, Jackson
65. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 22.1 points, 3.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.3 blocks, 42.3 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 14.6 PER, -1.30 RPM, -131.20 TPA
Two players in NBA history have totaled more than 1,500 points and 250 assists during a single season before their 21st birthday: James and Devin Booker.
This shouldn't completely alter your view of Booker. Defensive metrics still hate him. He finished 451st out of 468 players in ESPN's Defensive Real Plus-Minus. His reads as the primary ball-handler aren't great. He shot under 40 percent when running pick-and-rolls, and inflated usage barely riled his assist rate.
Here's the thing: Booker is so darn young. He won't turn 21 until after the season begins. Drastically increasing his volume as a sophomore without incurring a demonstrative dip in shooting slashes is a fairly large victory.
Added efficiency will come with time. Booker's free-throw rate will climb as he improves decision-making off the bounce, and his work out of the pick-and-roll should get a boost as Marquese Chriss works on his slashing and the Phoenix Suns, presumably, strive to place more bodies beyond the arc.
Quarter-season samples can be misleading, but after the All-Star break, the Suns nearly scored like an average offense with Booker in the lineup—which, unfortunately for them, is something. And while his splits without Bledsoe ruined those feel-good vibes, Booker has the raw offensive pizzazz to make the leap from novelty volume scorer to essential centerpiece.
64. Joe Ingles, Utah Jazz
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 7.1 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.1 blocks, 45.2 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 12.4 PER, 2.55 RPM, 97.84 TPA
Inviting Joe Ingles to the party isn't blasphemous just because Gordon Hayward and George Hill are gone. The Jazz offense is a giant question mark without its two most important shot-creators and -makers, but his breakout 2016-17 wasn't borne entirely from privilege.
Ingles switched from point guards through power forwards, using his anticipation and keen sense of space, and his surrounding personnel, to offset his slow-motion movements. Utah similarly didn't experiment with him as a pick-and-roll instigator because it looked fun. Repeated absences from Hill and a largely suboptimal backup point guard rotation dictated he broaden that part of his game.
Three other players cleared four assists and 1.5 steals per 36 minutes last season while putting down 40 percent or more of their threebies: Malcolm Brogdon, Stephen Curry and Chris Paul. Anyone who makes nice with that club deserves recognition—not to mention the benefit of the doubt that he won't completely fall off next time around.
63. Robert Covington, Philadelphia 76ers
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 12.9 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.9 steals, 1.0 blocks, 39.9 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 13.2 PER, 3.55 RPM, 60.88 TPA
Ever wonder how Michael Kidd-Gilchrist would fare with a jump shot? Look no further than Robert Covington. Ben Golliver expanded on this for SI.com:
"The undrafted forward firmed up his reputation as one of the best multi-positional defenders in the NBA last season, ranking fourth overall in Defensive Real Plus-Minus and finishing (a very distant) fourth in Defensive Player of the Year voting despite playing for the 28-win Sixers. One of just 10 players to average at least one assist and one block per game, Covington's length, mobility and strength make him a nuisance for point guards and power forwards alike."
Covington drained an uninspiring 33.3 percent of his treys in 2016-17, but his efficiency should explore career-best terrain now that the Sixers have multiple A-lister playmakers around him. And with his combo-forward defense approaching All-NBA levels, he needn't do more than pump-and-drive or spot-up on offense to rationalize this induction.
62. Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 13.6 points, 13.8 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.1 blocks, 53.0 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 20.9 PER, -0.25 RPM, 38.15 TPA
Placing Drummond this low is not a metaphor for abandoning his bandwagon. But last season must count as a red flag.
Detroit's defense improved by more than nine points per 100 possessions when he left court. His reads around the rim were plain bad, and he's inconsistent in how he attempts to break up pick-and-rolls. The Pistons placated his ego by feeding him, on average, 4.1 post-ups per game—10th most in the league. He shot under 42 percent on these possessions while vomiting up ill-advised hook shots.
Drummond doesn't need to do away with the post touches altogether. Bigs should be rewarded for running the floor and working tirelessly on defense. Whether Drummond does the latter is up for debate; either way, he needs to establish deeper position before or after entry passes.
Dishing the ball back outside is also a must. It helps keep defenses in check and renders the half-court offense a little less scripted. Drummond passed 8.6 percent of the time in the post—the lowest rate among 61 players to receive three or more of those touches.
61. Reggie Jackson, Detroit Pistons
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 14.5 points, 2.2 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.1 blocks, 41.9 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 14.9 PER, -3.53 RPM, -42.28 TPA
Reggie Jackson makes the top-100 cut despite a 2016-17 season that begs to differ. Left knee problems limited him to 52 unimpressive appearances, and Detroit fared 10.6 points per 100 possessions worse with him in the lineup.
Stashing Jackson much lower still doesn't sit right. It ignores what he did in 2015-16 and insinuates his decline is about more than injuries, as if 20-something point guards working off career years have a tendency to disappear.
Give Jackson the mobility to scurry around screens and sprint into the heart of defenses, and he'll be back to normal. The Pistons scored like a top-eight offense with him in 2015-16, but posted bottom-three marks without him. That doesn't just go away. And should Jackson's first step actually melt into nothingness, he's shot well enough from three (35.5 percent) and on a limited number of cuts (14-of-18) over the past two seasons to accept an off-action role.
Nos. 60 to 56: Adams, Hill, Wiggins, Beverley, Iguodala
60. Steven Adams, Oklahoma City Thunder
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 11.3 points, 7.7 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.0 blocks, 57.1 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 16.5 PER, 1.38 RPM, 24.34 TPA
Steven Adams can be the middle-most mainstay for an elite defense. He's also incredibly interesting to place. He's not overly exceptional in any one area, and the Thunder's schedule-long love letter to Russell Westbrook minimized a lot of what he does best.
Opponents packed the paint free from consequence, knowing the offense didn't have the shooters to make them pay. Adams was used to wide-open passageways, so this translated to rougher sledding within the pick-and-roll. And like everyone else on the team, he eschewed rebounding opportunities in search of more triple-doubles for Westbrook.
Everything changed with the acquisitions of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Adams will never be asked to widen his offensive scope, but he will finish as one of the NBA's most efficient pick-and-roll divers.
This should be a career assist year for him as well. He's always been a willing passer, but only now does Oklahoma City have the snipers for him to hit in the corners while barreling toward the rim.
59. George Hill, Sacramento Kings
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 16.9 points, 3.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.2 blocks, 47.7 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 19.3 PER, 3.75 RPM, 106.08 TPA
Injuries have very little to do with George Hill tumbling outside the top 50. Last year's onrush of setbacks is of course a concern. Missing nearly half the season due to a variety of run-ins with injury when you're on the wrong end of 30 never begets confidence. But this is more about the Sacramento Kings.
Never mind that Hill won't enjoy the same high-quality looks and tunnel-wide lanes. He should be losing time and touches to more Bogdan Bogdanovic, De'Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield by late winter.
The Kings have a one-year window in which to tank before sending an unprotected first-rounder to Boston or Philadelphia. They will monitor the minutes of their veterans and could eventually follow the Suns' lead by shutting them down altogether.
58. Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 23.6 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.4 blocks, 45.2 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 16.5 PER, -1.60 RPM, -162.20 TPA
This spot banks on Andrew Wiggins overturning far-flung perception—not unlike the Minnesota Timberwolves' decision to offer him a five-year, $148 million extension. And some of the most popular knocks against him aren't entirely fair.
Wiggins absolutely profiles as a No. 1 option. His passive demeanor should not be used to infer otherwise. He led the Timberwolves in total crunch-time shot attempts and posted the best drawn-foul rate on drives among 64 players to average five or more downhill attacks per game. He's also just the ninth player in NBA history to average 20 points per game more than once before his 22nd birthday. His company: Carmelo Anthony, Elton Brand, Adrian Dantley, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, LeBron James and Shaquille O'Neal.
Ugly flashes are peppered throughout Wiggins' offensive armory. He sometimes dribbles too much; jacks way too many long twos; has yet to shoot a league-average rate from downtown; and isn't a premier playmaker. But his efficiency should go up beside Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague and Karl-Anthony Towns, while the departure of Ricky Rubio mixed with a dearth of backup playmaking opens the door for him to gain more work as the pick-and-roll slinger.
Coaxing more from him on defense is the bigger concern. He should be switching between 2s, 3s and 4s, but he's an inattentive train wreck prone to off-ball whiffs and lackadaisical closeouts.
57. Patrick Beverley, Los Angeles Clippers
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 9.5 points, 5.9 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.4 blocks, 42.0 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 13.0 PER, 2.48 RPM, 98.61 TPA
You're an NBA general manager. You have the opportunity to sign a point guard who doesn't play on the ball. His pick-and-roll execution is fickle to straight lousy, but he averages as many points per spot-up possession as Damian Lillard and blankets All-NBA scorers with indiscriminate bloodlust.
How much would you pay him?
Double to triple what Patrick Beverley, our mystery subject, is taking home this year ($5.5 million).
56. Andre Iguodala, Golden State Warriors
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 7.6 points, 4.0 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.5 blocks, 52.8 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 14.3 PER, 3.53 RPM, 124.62 TPA
Thirteen years into his career, Andre Iguodala still tackles the toughest defensive assignments. Golden State throws him on LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard, without hesitation or regret, an approach grounded more in his ability to keep pace with bulldozing ball-handlers than the team's compilation of safety valves around him.
If you're going to beat Iguodala, you'll do it with low-quality step-back jumpers or because the other four Warriors have vacated the paint behind him to jacket knockdown shooters. They seldom send help unless he's defending deep inside the free-throw line. He has carte blanche to crowd ball-handlers or drop back to guard against drives. The Warriors let him work on his own either way.
Surrendering a featured option's workload has not spayed Iguodala's selfless disposition. He revels in creating for others and does so at breakneck speed. He placed fourth on the team in potential assists despite finishing sixth in touches, owning possessions for about as long as Klay Thompson.
Cold spurts tend to cap his offensive contributions, but that happens when deferring to younger, flashier running mates. Iguodala drills enough of his catch-and-shoot threes to lure defenders out of the lane (36.6 percent) and shot a brain-bending 78.6 percent on a steady stream of cuts.
Nos. 55 to 51: Rubio, Caldwell-Pope, Ibaka, Lopez, Barnes
55. Ricky Rubio, Utah Jazz
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 11.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, 9.1 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.1 blocks, 40.2 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 16.8 PER, 2.49 RPM, 34.06 TPA
Ball-dominant guards who cannot shoot threes or consistently finish around the rim aren't supposed to be assets. Look at what's happened with Rajon Rondo, the All-Star-turned-mercenary. Or Monta Ellis, the tolerable-scorer-turned-unemployed-afterthought.
Ricky Rubio has staved off an identical career curve because his craftiness still outweighs his shortcomings. Defenses know he isn't trying to shoot, which puts him in a hole when orchestrating predictable pick-and-roll sets. But they don't know where the ball will be flung next. He is opportunistic in transition, dribbles in and out of the paint with ease and maintains his handle long enough for plays to develop.
More recently, Rubio has become better at pump-faking closeouts or showing extra hesitation as he nears the rim. This puts extra pressure on defenses to keep him off the line—where he's a career 83 percent shooter—while affording friendlies another beat to gather position for a last-second dish.
Sending a third player to cut toward the basket within pick-and-rolls, as the actual screener pops out, helps manufacture additional space and scoring opportunities around him. And when his offensive game isn't working, Rubio has his defense. He'll take too many gambles, but he is deceptively big (6'4") and party-crashes enough one-on-one sets to cajole rival backcourts out of their elements.
54. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Los Angeles Lakers
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 13.8 points, 3.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.2 blocks, 39.9 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 12.8 PER, -0.60 RPM, 45.05 TPA
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope could easily be excluded from this list altogether...if you're in the business of writing off 20-somethings who verged on primo-breakout status for half the 2016-17 campaign.
Before suffering a strained rotator cuff in his left shoulder on Jan. 12, Caldwell-Pope averaged 14.9 points, 3.0 assists and 1.3 steals per game while putting down 40.4 percent of his three-pointers—including 44 percent of his catch-and-shoot treys. No Pistons starter registered a better net rating, he emerged as a viable pick-and-roll trigger man and his defensive assignments varied more than anyone.
Caldwell-Pope will enjoy more complementary helping hands with the Lakers. Lonzo Ball is immediately—[LaVar Ball voice]—the most unselfish point guard he's ever played alongside. Unlike Andre Drummond, Brook Lopez has range that extends beyond the restricted area, out to the three-point line. Caldwell-Pope will have the room and surrounding shooters to wage more meaningful drives.
Touches could become an issue. Caldwell-Pope will be the third pick-and-roll option behind Ball and Brandon Ingram, so his passing and scoring numbers won't wow. But he doesn't need to be a volume anything. He'll see more backdoor opportunities—a la Avery Bradley and Gary Harris—and have a greater opportunity to clarify what has become a blurry, if simultaneously overrated and underrated, defensive reputation.
53. Serge Ibaka, Toronto Raptors
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 14.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.5 steals, 1.6 blocks, 48.0 percent shooting
Consider this a gift. Serge Ibaka could check in even lower.
This isn't to insinuate he's not a worthwhile contributor. He is. He owns his role. He'll block shots and hit threes.
The problem: That's about all he does at a high level, and the Raptors will hamstring his ability to keep sending back attempts at the rim by consigning him to power forward.
Ibaka is a 5 in today's NBA. He doesn't switch as well on defense like contemporary 4s, and the total absence of an off-the-dribble game curtails his offensive potential.
Build upon his maxed-out skill set, and Ibaka will climb. But again: Toronto doesn't have the roster malleability to guarantee him swathes of minutes at center, where his best shot at evolving into something more than a rather-ordinary stretch big lies.
52. Brook Lopez, Los Angeles Lakers
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 20.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 0.5 steals, 1.7 blocks, 47.4 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 20.4 PER, 1.95 RPM, 70.34 TPA
Lopez is the entire shebang on offense. The Nets gave him the go-ahead from three, and he unleashed almost 400 attempts, of which he drilled a respectable 34.6 percent. Head coach Kenny Atkinson's motion offense also tunneled into his untapped vision. Lopez never encountered so many off-ball options before and proved both willing and capable of making better reads.
Cake in two blocks per 36 minutes, and he became the billboard for everything teams seek in a 7-footer who cannot whip from body to body on defense like a wing. And if he were in Brooklyn, he would be ranked higher. But he's promised nothing in Hollyood.
The Lakers have every incentive to chase wins with their first-rounder headed to Boston or Philadelphia, but Larry Nance Jr. and Ivica Zubac figure more prominently into their future. The addition of Andrew Bogut—not to mention the prospect of rolling small with Julius Randle or maybe even Kyle Kuzma at the 5—could portend a musical-chairs rotation up front that gnaws into Lopez's court time.
51. Harrison Barnes, Dallas Mavericks
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 19.2 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.2 blocks, 46.8 percent shooting
Harrison Barnes began his tenure with the Mavericks by successfully making the changeover from offensive subordinate to featured scorer. His usage rate soared by more than nine percentage points, yet his shooting slashes scarcely dimpled under the extra weight.
Isolation possessions accounted for fewer than nine percent of Barnes' total offensive plays during his final season with the Warriors. That share almost tripled with the Mavericks. Jamal Crawford was the only player to budget more of his touches for one-on-one sets.
Barely half of Barnes' made baskets came off assists, and a whopping 17.8 percent of all his attempts came late in the shot clock, with anywhere between four and seven seconds left on the ticker—tops among 365 players to make at least 10 appearances.
That he shot 48.2 percent on those looks is a minor miracle. Ditto for his efficiency in isolation. Of the 23 players to chew through 175 or more one-on-one possessions, Barnes' 45.7 percent clip trailed only DeMar DeRozan and Kyrie Irving.
50. Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 14.5 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.3 steals, 0.9 steals, 2.1 blocks, 51.1 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 18.5 PER, 2.66 RPM, 111.69 TPA
Sleep on Myles Turner at your own peril.
From ESPN Stats & Info:
"There's massive potential for a star turn from Turner, who is entering his third season and will be Indiana's focal point following the trade of Paul George. Though he might not scream 'superstar' upon first glance, Turner is one of just five players in history to average 14 points, seven rebounds and two blocks per game by the age of 20. The others: Anthony Davis, Kevin Garnett, Chris Webber and Shaquille O'Neal."
The Pacers compiled a swarm of competent scorers, so their offense will often parrot an all-hands model. But Turner is a good bet to earn more touches, and he shot 53 percent last season while averaging an unfairly high 1.17 points per possession whenever George stepped off the court, according to NBA Wowy.
Worst-case scenario: Turner gets lost in the Pacers' mess of mediocre ball-handlers and resumes his post as a low-key rim protector and sneaky superswitcher.
49. Carmelo Anthony, Oklahoma City Thunder
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 22.4 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.5 blocks, 43.3 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 17.9 PER, 0.12 RPM, -35.53 TPA
Finally, at long last, Carmelo Anthony is where he belongs—at the 4.
"He's going to start the power forward spot for us," Thunder head coach Billy Donovan said, per ESPN.com's Royce Young. "That's what he's going to do.”
This pivot is long overdue...by about four years. Close to 80 percent of Anthony's minutes came at power forward in 2012-13, but the New York Knicks moved away from that setup immediately thereafter, because they apparently despise 50-win seasons and constructive logic.
His sliding over to the 4 doesn't change much now. Anthony's best years are behind him, and wings are no longer strangers to manning power forward. He won't hold as much of an advantage.
A heavier spot-up role in tandem with this switch will recapture most of his Anthony's mismatch appeal. He is unstoppable when coming around screens or just circling drives and launching off the catch.
Eighty-one players finished 200 or more spot-up plays last season. Anthony's 1.23 points per possessions ranked sixth. And that was while he played for a sorry Knicks team devoid of a first-rate playmaker. Both his volume and efficiency should—and must—climb next to Paul George's and Russell Westbrook's.
Buying into this third-wheel role is imperative to maximizing his stock. He cannot get in a vanity contest down the stretch of close games or look to seize control of the offense when Oklahoma City's other two stars are in the game.
Donovan can indulge Anthony's ego by playing him in bench-heavy units without Westbrook. The rest of Anthony's time should be spent looking to nuke nylon within the offense's flow, off as few dribbles as possible.
And even then, in the best-case scenario, his ceiling stretches only so high. The Thunder can account for his defensive disinterest whenever George and Andre Roberson are on the court, but Anthony has never once ranked as a plus stopper, according to NBA Math's Defensive Points Saved. He's not about reinvent himself now.
48. Jeff Teague, Minnesota Timberwolves
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 15.3 points, 4.0 rebounds, 7.8 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.4 blocks, 44.2 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 19.2 PER, 1.64 RPM, 100.86 TPA
Jeff Teague's case is weird.
Just four other players are averaging as many points (15.8) and assists (6.9) over the past four seasons while hitting at least 36 percent of their outside missiles. And this foursome ranges from megastars to MVP candidates: Stephen Curry, James Harden, Kyle Lowry and Chris Paul.
Teague has shown he'll find his equilibrium pretty much anywhere, shimmying between on- and off-ball missions, often on a possession-by-possession basis. He isn't an exceptional defender, and his pick-and-roll reads weren't good with the Pacers, but he's a recurring recipient of "Not The Worst Defender on the Floor for My Team" award.
Joining the Timberwolves threatens to throw off his buttoned-up balance. His defensive evenness won't change unless the rim protectors behind him extend their inattentive comas, but he's never played beside this many ball-first scorers.
Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins all need their touches. Teague will be tasked with both overseeing and adjusting to this world order. Head coach Tom Thibodeau can run him out with bench-heavy units to give him some me-time, but even then he'll have to manage the egos and faculties of Jamal Crawford and Shabazz Muhammad.
Using him in this largely supervisory role threatens to yank Teague's production below the role-player line it has comfortably evaded for the past half-decade.
47. Avery Bradley, Detroit Pistons
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 16.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.2 blocks, 46.3 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 14.4 PER, -2.16 RPM, -18.50 TPA
Defensive regression has nothing to do with sticking Bradley this "low"—in large part because it's an overexaggerated spin.
Plenty of metrics show slippage. The Celtics allowed more points per 100 possessions with Bradley on the floor last season. That held true even after the All-Star break, when they performed exponentially better as a collective. And his value as a closeout and one-on-one defender noticeably dipped compared to 2015-16, according to NBA Math's Play-Type Profiles.
But more than two-thirds of Bradley's minutes came next to Isaiah Thomas, one of the NBA's foremost defensive liabilities. Boston used him to mask a lot of the mismatches, while also throwing him on bigger wings at times to spare Jae Crowder or Marcus Smart.
Bradley won't have to worry about that as much with Detroit if Reggie Jackson's knee is right. He remains a smothering on-ball presence and stormy pick-and-roll pest.
Sustaining his offensive contributions figures to be the issue. More than 65 percent of Bradley's looks came with one dribble or less. The Pistons aren't set up to float that role. They don't have the other established assassins to manufacture high-quality catch-and-shoot looks, and plugging Andre Drummond in the middle bogs down off-ball slashing. They found some success using cutters last year, but most of those scenarios were earmarked for the bigs, and only the Clippers and Raptors turned to these plays less frequently.
Matching his scoring output over the past two seasons (15.6 points per game) will demand Bradley run more pick-and-rolls and generally create for himself—a shaky transition that could be made even harder depending on Jackson's performance. Bradley deserves favorable projections, but the potential disparity between offensive functions must give way to this hedge.
46. Jrue Holiday, New Orleans Pelicans
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 15.4 points, 3.9 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.7 blocks, 45.4 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 17.1 PER, 1.82 RPM, 76.02 TPA
Where Jrue Holiday lands depends largely on where he'll actually play.
The backcourt partnership with Rajon Rondo was always going to curb his time at point guard, but staggering their minutes should make it so Holiday's positional designation doesn't change.
Or maybe not.
"The Paul Georges and Kevin Durants—we're going to ask Jrue to guard those guys," New Orleans Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry said, per ESPN.com's Zach Lowe.
Perhaps this changes in light of Rajon Rondo's hernia surgery, because spending significant time at small forward won't just impact the 6'4" Holiday on defense. He'll face taller and longer players on offense, demanding his off-ball work be on point.
That shouldn't be a problem. Holiday's sub-31-percent clip on spot-up threes from last season is an aberration, and he's always been an elusive and timely cutter. He'll standout no matter what becomes of his offensive role.
45. Danilo Gallinari, Los Angeles Clippers
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 18.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.2 blocks, 44.7 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 17.4 PER, 2.88 RPM, 34.96 TPA
Danilo Gallinari would rank more favorably among his peers if the Clippers didn't need him to spend most of his minutes at the 3. He can play small forward without skipping a beat on offense, but he's a bigger mismatch and less of a defensive liability when manning the 4.
Lining up next to Blake Griffin could expose him in ways the Nuggets' cruddy defense did not. He'll have a harder time fending off pick-and-rolls and find himself running through more screens and adjusting for additional hand-off sets.
Indeed, the variance in skill sets between the 3 and 4 is infinitesimal, but it exists. Extra looks against bursty wings will garble his value, demanding he lean more on his offensive resume.
Good thing that won't be a problem.
Gallinari toes the line of unguardable. He doesn't have a predictable tendency. He falls in love with low-percentage fadeaways and icky pull-ups, but he's calculated in his chaos.
Routinely hoisting shots most won't traps defenders in an unending cycle of guesswork. Will he stop on a dime and fire from mid-range? Launch off the catch? Use a screen to run some pick-and-roll? Attack before the screener reaches him? What happens when he's around the basket? One head fake? Two? Three? Four million?
Dancing between on- and off-ball work is a difficult balancing act. Gallinari has virtually mastered it.
More than 67 percent of his made baskets came off assists, but he posted a free-throw rate within breaths of Jimmy Butler and James Harden. Only five players, meanwhile, burned through as many isolation (128) and spot-up (263) possessions: Wilson Chandler, Tobias Harris, Dario Saric, Isaiah Thomas and Kawhi Leonard—a blend of stars and high-ceiling glue guys befitting Gallinari's all-purpose arsenal.
44. Gary Harris, Denver Nuggets
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 14.9 points, 3.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.1 blocks, 50.2 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 16.5 PER, 0.51 RPM, 58.39 TPA
Gary Harris is nothing if not adaptive. He has seamlessly segued from a higher-usage role at Michigan State into a low-to-modest one with the Nuggets. That progression mustn't be taken for granted, even if Harris has never been billed as a volume chucker. Selling scorers in their early 20s on a complementary role isn't a mindless pitch.
Ceding touches and status to Nikola Jokic might fog developmental lines if you're not making the correct off-ball reads and committing to cuts and consistent movement. Emmanuel Mudiay's future is at least partially up in the air if he doesn't blend accessory duty with his preferred position on-ball.
Leaning into the Klay Thompson stereotype has looked good on Harris, though. He feasts off an intuitive connection with Jokic and a willingness to remain in near-constant motion. As FanRag Sports' Shane Young wrote:
"The only guards to record at least 120 'cut' possessions last season were Tony Allen (169) and Klay Thompson (138). Thompson, a top 20 NBA player, had a scoring frequency (either a made field goal or free throws) on 69.6 percent of those possessions. Harris was on the same level despite lower volume, scoring at a 68.1 percent frequency.
"Out of all players with at least 90 cut possessions, Harris ranked 12th in points per possession (1.39). He was the highest guard, edging out Thompson's 1.37 mark. For him to be in the conversation with someone of Thompson's caliber is the only evidence you need of him being underrated. Although it's just scoring off cuts, that's a crucial and valuable component of a team's offense—it opens the door for teammates to get clearer looks, and helps a unit become more cohesive and unpredictable through passing."
Operating around both Jokic and Paul Millsap will open up more of the same for Harris. His 46.6 percent success rate on spot-up threes and basic pick-and-roll instincts will help diversify the Nuggets' offense, but his off-ball motion will be instrumental in jimmying up space amid a frontcourt pileup.
43. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.9 steals, 2.5 blocks, 46.6 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 24.1 PER, 1.70 RPM, 51.61 TPA
That's $146.5 million Skyscraper Joel Embiid to you.
Depending on how you feel about his health, this slot is either much too low or stupidly high—which, in turn, means it's just right.
A fully healthy Embiid would make this too easy. That dude puts the "dent" in "transcendent." Philadelphia outscored opponents by 67 total points with him on the court, one more than the plus-66 the Heat tallied during Goran Dragic's minutes. That is...something.
Embiid flashed almost the entire package right out of the gate. He has three-point range; an ocean-deep well of post moves; the handles to face up and score in one-on-one situations; near flawless placement on screens; a nice touch around the basket; high-IQ decision-making as the roll man; strong rim-protecting instincts; some traces of defensive switchability; and so much more.
In hindsight, Embiid is the unicorn the Association didn't know it had. The uprisings of Nikola Jokic, Kristaps Porzingis, Karl-Anthony Towns and even Giannis Antetokounmpo took place, at first, without mention of Embiid. He's since shown he belongs in that same building-block sphere.
Crappy luck on the health front makes all of this conditional. Embiid missed the first two seasons of his career and then made it through 31 appearances in 2016-17 before a torn meniscus ended his year. He has never logged 30 minutes in a single game.
Pretty much anyone else in his situation would be purged from consideration, and the inevitable minutes cap he'll adhere to limits how high he can actually go. But he's already shown too much, done too much and meant too much to the Sixers to veto his inclusion. Placing him on the outskirts of the top 25 is a nod to his sample size and nothing more.
42. LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 17.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.2 blocks, 47.7 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 18.6 PER, 0.96 RPM, 50.40 TPA
Closed-door chit-chats with head coaches never, ever, ever engender ranking upgrades—unless you play for the Spurs.
LaMarcus Aldridge recently admitted to ESPN.com's Michael C. Wright that he wasn't totally happy two years into his Black and Silver tenure. But he also divulged that he and head honcho/2020 presidential candidate Gregg Popovich hashed out his thoughtz and feelz:
"It was me kind of being blunt about it, and being kind of forward. He was open to it. I kind of just spilled my heart about how I felt about how things were, and how things had been going.
"I think he was kind of caught off guard. I don't think he really had noticed [that I was unhappy]. But once I said it, he was great about listening, and it was good from there. I felt like I wasn't really fitting into the system as best I could. I wasn't really helping like I felt I could."
Go ahead and pencil in Aldridge for a quasi-resurgence this season. He wasn't inept by any means last year. His scoring dipped, and he finished the schedule searching for post-up pizzazz, but he remained an operable pick-and-pop option and retained his touch from close range.
Addressing his concerns with Popovich will only help matters. Aldridge has already hinted that he'll be heaving more threes after largely moving away from the long ball since arriving in San Antonio. Increasing outside volume worked out for Pau Gasol last year and should have a similar effect on Aldridge—especially during stretches in which he's cast as a center.
Having shown his value as a half-court rim protector will hold, Aldridge and his new dawn are roped almost exclusively to his re-emergence as an offensive life jacket. The Spurs' point guard situation will remain in flux even after Tony Parker returns from his calf injury, and they need someone to carry the torch when Kawhi Leonard is watching from the sidelines.
41. Hassan Whiteside, Miami Heat
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 17.0 points, 14.1 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 0.7 steals, 2.1 blocks, 55.7 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 22.6 PER, 2.03 RPM, -24.92 TPA
Hassan Whiteside is better than you think—unless you think he's better than this.
Bigs who don't shoot threes or attack off the dribble must brandish a specific set of skills to thrive in the pace-and-space NBA. Whiteside has cornered the market on most of them.
Protect the rim? Done deal. He inhales point-blank bunnies, in volume, for mid-game snacks. Only Rudy Gobert, Draymond Green and Kristaps Porzingis prevented more points around the iron last season.
Devastate off the pick-and-roll? Duh. Whiteside finished in the 84th percentile of points per possession as the roll man.
Survive long enough in space off switches for the team's defense to regather itself? He does this, too—and doesn't get enough credit for it. Whiteside guarded more isos than anyone else on the Heat. He doesn't have the lateral teleportation device attached to Nerlens Noel's feet, but he uses his wingspan to cage ball-handlers before they reach the paint and, should they get by, swat their shot from behind.
Deepening his offensive penchants will be paramount to climbing higher on this list. The most ideal non-ideal bigs still have an artificial ceiling.
Chucking threes and more long twos isn't necessarily the answer if it's not married to a fully developed handle—though Whiteside is surveying the basket a tick longer when catching possession on the outside. Becoming less predictable on the block will work just as well. If he's going to receive nearly eight post touches per game, he should be looking to find cutters and shooters on more than 10.5 percent of them.
40. Goran Dragic, Miami Heat
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 20.3 points, 3.8 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.2 blocks, 47.5 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 19.8 PER, 0.92 RPM, 131.68 TPA
Goran Dragic has quietly played himself into the underrated ranks.
The Heat flipped a switch last season at the midway mark, and his efforts were part of their revival. But he wasn't exactly lost before their about-face.
He put up 19.3 points and 6.5 assists while shooting 45.5 percent overall and 40.5 percent from beyond the arc through the first half of the year. He was more efficient and aggressive during that 31-10 parade, but his end-to-end showcase bore more resemblance to his All-NBA display in 2013-14 than any other season of his career.
Miami did figure out how to survive offensively without him by year's end. No one knows if that will hold. Head coach Erik Spoelstra doesn't have the same cadre of shooters in his arsenal, while James Johnson and Dion Waiters, two of the team's most important secondary ball-handlers, are trying to provide adequate encores to career campaigns.
Having Dragic to blitz through defenses or leverage his jumper off the ball is a pivotal part of the Heat's offensive structure. Their ceiling rests on a few wild cards—including Justise Winslow—but their floor can fall only so low with Mr. Reliable directing the scene for 30-plus minutes per night.
39. Isaiah Thomas, Cleveland Cavaliers
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 28.9 points, 2.7 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.2 blocks, 46.3 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 26.5 PER, 1.83 RPM, 274.58 TPA
Putting Isaiah Thomas any higher is hard when his availability entering 2017-18 remains up for question.
"There's never been an indication that I wouldn't be back, and there's never been an indication that this is something messing up my career," he told ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski after being traded to the Cavaliers. "Maybe I am not going to be back as soon this season as everyone wants me to be, but I'm going to be back, and I'm going to be the same player again. No doctor has told me anything different than that."
A healthy Thomas would be positioned to leave this 39th-place finish in the dust. He is still playing for his next contract and now has the added chip that comes with being abandoned by a Celtics team he carried on the offensive end for two years. He didn't finish fifth on the 2016-17 MVP ballot for nothing.
But these past two years have contained dream performances, during which he's held more individual value than Kyrie Irving, the point guard Boston flipped him to acquire. Regression would be in the cards anyway. Thomas' standing on the totem pole was too high to stave off a collection of other All-Stars.
Factoring in his hip injury only facilitates that inevitable dip. He led the league in drives per game last season, but his ability to get by defenders and finish in traffic, at unfathomable angles, will suffer if he's not 100 percent. And though the Cavaliers can get production out of him as a spot-up shooter, the concessions are on defensive end aren't quite worth it when he's not distorting defenses with his zigzag quickness.
All bets are off if Thomas returns shortly after opening night. Hell, they're off anyway. He's earned two All-Star cameos on the back of annihilated expectations. This hedge is necessary, but his response to it, and his situation in general, remains an unknown.
38. Jae Crowder, Cleveland Cavaliers
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 13.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.3 blocks, 46.3 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 14.9 PER, 3.89 RPM, 70.63 TPA
Almost all of Jae Crowder's action will come at the 4 now that he's expected to start for the Cavaliers, per The Athletic's Jason Lloyd. Head coach Tyronn Lue is smart to take this measure regardless of the defensive implications attached to using Kevin Love as the full-tilt center.
Crowder has plenty of experience defending up a position. He jumped from point guards to power forwards and everything in between with the Boston Celtics. He'll save LeBron James from overexertion on the less glamorous side. Even when lumbering bigs are strong-arming him on the block, he's still closer to a coin-toss defender than sieve.
Cleveland will feel as many, if not more, benefits on the offensive end. Crowder is a comprehensive supplement—a near-sweeping fit for any caste system.
More than 43 percent of his three-point attempts last season came as a spot-up triggerman, on which he shot 40.7 percent. He doesn't need the ball; he's not even sort of used to having it. He also put down 47.8 percent of his looks from the corners. Plunking him down beside James and Love is cruel and unusual punishment for defenses.
Sidekicks needn't do much off the dribble in Cleveland, but Crowder's provisional attack mode is about to reach another level. He shot 59.5 percent on a modest number of drives in 2016-17 (1.3). His volume could rise ever so slightly thanks to the cogent magnetic pull from the Cavaliers' army of shooters—assuming he's not leashed to lineups that run out both Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade.
Many will say the deep-cut metrics overrate Crowder. Others would rather have Carmelo Anthony and his superior shot-creation. But Crowder didn't lead the Celtics—and place 20th overall—in RPM wins by accident. He plies the functional camouflage of the optimal role player, with the consistency and proficiency of an underestimated star.
37. Otto Porter, Washington Wizards
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 13.4 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.5 blocks, 51.6 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 17.3 PER, 3.56 RPM, 205.94 TPA
Otto Porter Jr. is being paid like a star (four years, $107 million) because he typifies the perfect role player.
Nine-figure contracts infer a certain level of offensive freedom Porter will never get with the Wizards. He won't direct more than a handful of pick-and-rolls (0.8 per game in 2016-17) or stage a ton of drives (1.1) so long as Bradley Beal and John Wall are his teammates. That comes with the territory of being a spare tire.
Where some players in their 20s might grapple with this dynamic—think Rodney Hood—Porter has owned it. Embraced it.
Almost 250 players churned through 75 or more spot-up touches last season. Stephen Curry and C.J. Miles were the only ones to average more points per possession. And this catch-and-shoot glory isn't to be confused with a stationary role. Porter ranked second on the Wizards in distance traveled per game at the offensive end, right behind Beal. He works to reach his spots and is a selective cutter—particularly when Marcin Gortat or Markieff Morris is on the bench.
Branching out into more pick-and-rolls, drives, isolations and post-ups would carry Porter closer to an All-Star's rap sheet, but that strategic mutation is hardly necessary. The Eastern Conference will need to take out a "Help Wanted" ad for high-profile wings ahead of February's playground exhibition in Los Angeles, and he's within striking distance of All-Defense consideration.
Washington often prefers to slot Morris on opposing heavyweights, and Kelly Oubre Jr. sometimes shoulders more responsibility as a switcher. But Porter is already the team's best all-around stopper. No non-guard matched up with more pick-and-roll ball-handlers, he'll be the Wizards' go-to isolation gnat before this season's end, and his effort on the defensive glass isn't tied to his offensive involvement.
36. DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 27.3 points, 5.2 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.2 blocks, 46.7 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 24.0 PER, 0.17 RPM, 46.52 TPA
Take stock of all DeRozan's weaknesses, and he's still an asset. He cannot make threes (yet), but he sends defenses into dysfunctional tizzies using the threat of his anywhere-range inside the three-point line. He keeps rivals guessing with a mix of hesitations and pull-ups out of the pick-and-roll, while his (sparse) work as a cutter and lights-out swishing on runners force opponents to acknowledge his existence before he journeys inside the arc.
DeRozan's foul-line accuracy is an organic floor-spacer as well. He's shot under 80 percent from the charity stripe just once for his career, as a rookie.
Sag off him to prevent gimmes at the free-throw line, and he'll blitz into the middle; he averaged more attempts per game in the paint than anyone else last season. Crowd him, and you're susceptible to giving up an easy two points—or more. His and-1 frequency out of the pick-and-roll (2.7) is in lockstep with those from Giannis Antetokounmpo (2.9) and LeBron James (3.0)
None of which entirely erases his faults. DeRozan is borderline hopeless on defense. He veers too far away from stationary shooters when guarding off the ball, inviting them to make a beeline for the basket or the other side of the court, and offenses attack him in space, from the top of the key, whenever the Raptors don't have time to stash him on more idle threats.
On of top of that, DeRozan hasn't yet established himself as a strong solo performer. The Raptors scored like a bottom-10 offense whenever he took the floor without Cory Joseph and Kyle Lowry last season. They were even worse in 2015-16, piling on points with the efficiency of a bottom-two machine, according to NBA Wowy.
This development is more puzzling than damning since DeRozan is so crafty out of the pick-and-roll that it shouldn't be a concern. He can defer to microscopic sample sizes for now, but Joseph's exit will result in more time alone as the de facto point guard.
Barring a breakout safety net—such as Fred VanVleet or Delon Wright—this will be the season DeRozan's offensive value gets put to the defining test.
35. Eric Bledsoe, Phoenix Suns
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 21.1 points, 4.8 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.5 blocks, 43.4 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 20.5 PER, 1.69 RPM, 150.05 TPA
Player placement can go all Goldilocks and the Three Bears in certain instances: Player X could zoom up the standings, plunge down them with alarming quickness or be ranked juuust right.
Eric Bledsoe is one of those cases. He has among the widest window of finishes in this pecking order.
Harden, Thomas, Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Damian Lillard and Kyle Lowry are the only other players clearing 20 points and six assists per 36 minutes with a true shooting percentage north of 56 since 2015-16. Bledsoe's three-point accuracy is up and down, but the Suns don't chuck a bunch of triples, and the offense wouldn't know how to pronounce "floor spacing" without his drives into opposing defenses.
Maybe four or five point guards are better defenders when locked in—both a knock and compliment. Bledsoe can be impassable when working in open space and suffocating on closeouts and pick-and-rolls. But he suffers from John Wall-itis—separate periods of disinterest or over-aggression.
Inexperienced running mates and special circumstances could be the largest symptoms of Bledsoe's glass ceiling. Knee issues cost him most of 2015-16, and the Suns shut him down at the end of last year to tank for Josh Jackson. Bledsoe's own defense would have more room to grow if he wasn't surrounded by a bundle of foul-happy kiddos, and even the best floor generals need competent shooters around them.
34. Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 14.7 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.2 blocks, 45 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 15.0 PER, 1.40 RPM, -10.50 TPA
Khris Middleton is the most underrated player in the NBA.
Lanky wings are nearly impossible to overrate these days as teams cannonball into positionless lineups. But Middleton doesn't get enough shine as a fringe star.
From-scratch creation is all that separates him from the league's glitziest crowd-pleasers. He doesn't wield the speed or explosion of Paul George; brute force of LeBron James; rise-and-fire quickness of Carmelo Anthony; or general inhibition of one-on-one artists such as James Harden and DeMar DeRozan.
But Middleton isn't incapable as a focal point. His game is absent of flash, not substance. Milwaukee scored like a top-10 offense last season when he played without Giannis Antetokounmpo. He isn't the guy you count on for efficient crunch-time scoring, but he's a selfless playmaker wired to deliver more goodies than Santa Claus.
Middleton partners his pinpoint passing with a deadeye outside stroke. He leverages both into clean looks on drives with the occasional pump fake and hesitation dribble. He completes his game with disruptive switching on defense. Downtempo footwork betrays him when defending isos, but his length and anticipation are an offense's worst nightmare when trying to initiate pick-and-rolls.
In a league where team fit can be everything, Middleton plays like a universal complement. His mix of playmaking, off-ball awareness and defensive peskiness would translate just about anywhere. And though he'll more often than not get looped into role-player tiers, his production bears more resemblance to full-fledged stardom—and has for some time.
To wit: Since 2014-15, two players are averaging more than 17.0 points, 3.0 assists and 1.5 steals per 36 minutes while canning at least 40 percent of their triples. Middleton is one. Stephn Curry is the other.
33. Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 19.0 points, 11.1 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.4 blocks, 42.7 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 21.1 PER, 5.03 RPM, 26.44 TPA
Kevin Love is a center now?
Kevin Love is a center now.
Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue plans to start his All-Star power forward at the 5, per The Athletic's Jason Lloyd, a switch that, barring disaster, should prove permanent. He will sponge up some minutes at the 4, but the available options behind Tristan Thompson, now a second-stringer, suggest most of Love's time will come as the de facto center.
Sorting him relative to more established 5s was a mysterious process. Lineups featuring him in the middle last year scored with league-leading efficiency and then some, according to NBA Wowy. On top of that, Lue sounds like someone who wants to funnel Love more possessions, per ESPN.com's Zach Lowe:
"Kevin is going to have the best year that he's had here. I thought he was great anyway. You keep bringing up [Chris] Bosh. What did Bosh average in Miami? Kevin averaged almost 20 [points] and 10 [rebounds] with two other All-Stars. If you are on a championship-caliber team, you have to sacrifice. But this year is going to be a big opportunity for him. We're going to play through him more. He's going to get those elbow touches again."
Believe this when you see it. Elbow touches aren't a fixture in LeBron James-led drive-and-kick offenses. More than that, Love's livelihood at center isn't the least bit tied to his offense. He's going to score. His 37.3 percent clip from three-point range is significantly more valuable at a position that continues to house slowpokes.
Defensive returns will define this experiment. Love has the size and box-out knowhow to feast on the glass no matter what; his defensive rebounding rate spikes when he plays without Thompson. But offenses will attack him in the pick-and-roll, and he remains vulnerable on switches.
Unless he approaches every possession like it's inside one minute to play in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, Love's place among the stars faces something of a glass ceiling.
32. Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 18.1 points, 7.2 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.7 steals, 2.0 blocks, 45.0 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 17.4 PER, 1.59 RPM, 8.66 TPA
Welp, congratulations are in order for the Knicks. They've successfully brainwashed Kristaps Porzingis into thinking he's best served playing power forward.
"I think it's better for us," he said, per the New York Daily News' Stefan Bondy. "Me at the 4, especially if I'm playing against a non-shooting 4, I can do a lot. When I'm playing against the 5, I'm fighting with the big a lot of times and I'm wasting a lot of energy."
Did anyone present during these comments make sure Porzingis wasn't blinking "I'm a center. Please send help." in morse code? Asking for a friend.
Nothing Porzingis says is false. He can play power forward without issue on offense. He's a 7'3" wing with improving handles, a natural-looking stroke and the burgeoning confidence needed for defender-shedding pull-ups.
Pinning him to the 5, like he said, doesn't help his spindly frame. He isn't a good enough rebounder to box-out beefy bigs, and his stances against post scorers verge on nightmarish.
None of us should be pretending, though, he isn't better off at center. He talks like the NBA is populated by "non-shooting 4s." It's not. Power forward has become an honorary wing. He shouldn't be chasing around players who switch, and often run, pick-and-rolls in their sleep.
Porzingis is being stereotyped as a power forward out of convenience, not sincere preference. The Knicks don't have room to use him at the 5 with Willy Hernangomez, Enes Kanter, Joakim Noah and Kyle O'Quinn on the roster.
Luckily for New York, Porzingis is talented enough for this not to matter. He is a better defender in space than advertised and hasn't let this identity crisis detract from his rim protection. Only Draymond Green and Rudy Gobert saved more points around the basket last season.
Up Porzingis' usage, which inexplicably declined as a sophomore, and everything will be fine. He'll finish 2017-18 as a fringe top-30 player—one who'd rank even higher if the Knicks had the wherewithal or resources to properly use him.
31. DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 12.7 points, 13.8 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.7 blocks, 71.4 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 21.8 PER, 4.55 RPM, 205.81 TPA
DeAndre Jordan is one of two picture-perfect role models for big men who don't intend to stretch their offensive utility beyond pick-and-roll dives, put-backs and cuts.
Step 1: Take ownership of this role. Bear hug it. Recognize that you're not trapped in some stereotypical coffin. Jordan's dalliance with the Mavericks in 2015 proved he's not immune to being seduced by the promise of more, but he stayed put.
Step 2: Be more than a rim protector on defense. Jordan is an imposing presence in the middle but not an idle one. His block totals would be higher if he exclusively patrolled the paint. He doesn't. He covers up for blown assignments and incurable liabilities.
Just four players guarded more isolation possessions than Jordan last season. He contested fewer shots per game than Alex Len but challenged more spot-up shooters than Harrison Barnes and doesn't let loose misses within his vicinity get away. Among 228 players to average six or more rebound chances per game, he notched the second-highest success rate—without the Clippers dedicating substantive time to padding his totals (shout-out to Russell Westbrook).
Step 3: Tinker and fiddle until your value exists outside a vacuum. This part is intentionally vague. It's also one of the biggest misconceptions about Jordan.
Paul flung passes and lobs his way for six years, a span that just so happened to coincide with his rise to stardom. But Jordan is past being totally dependent on Paul—and even Blake Griffin—for his offense.
Someone needs to set him up, because duh. Off-ball finishers need that helping hand. But Jordan has improved his timing, touch and routes so that he's the same hyperefficient threat alongside anyone. His field-goal percentage hovered above 70 percent when he played without Paul or without Griffin—or without Paul and Griffin.
30. Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 23.1 points, 3.1 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.3 blocks, 48.2 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 20.1 PER, 2.25 RPM, 114.25 TPA
Disclaimer: Bradley Beal can be re-ordered with DeMar DeRozan and he-who-cannot-yet-be-named at No. 29 however you like. The results will be anything but terribly wrong.
Beal jumps past DeRozan by virtue of the building-block tiebreak. Start a franchise from square one, and you'd rather have him—a simple, yet decisive, fact that only fractionally relates to a youthful edge.
Defense doesn't sway the argument one way or another. Beal is less of a liability—which, cool. He has more switch-friendly defenders around him than DeRozan. He's also more opportunistic. He'll swipe at the rock while playing off it without completely abandoning his cover, and his ball denial is pretty good when he's not being run through the ringer.
Both Beal and DeRozan even share in their me-time struggles. The Wizards barely scored like a top-15 offense last year when Beal played without John Wall. And they put up bottom-five marks during 2015-16 in the 465 minutes he logged alone, according to NBA Wowy.
Still, Beal represents the area in which DeRozan and Gary Harris collide to form one player. He has traded in crummy long twos for three-pointers and drives while improving his efficiency and upping his free-throw-attempt rate. He can get you a bucket from scratch but works to get open off the ball on cuts and runarounds.
Teams can assemble top-level offenses around that player. The Wizards may never lengthen his lone-wolf leash with Wall monopolizing point guard duties, and he doesn't initiate nearly as many pick-and-rolls as other off-guards. But he has the shot selection and on-the-bounce ingenuity to assume more responsibility should the situation call for it.
29. CJ McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 23.0 points, 3.6 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.5 blocks, 48.0 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 19.9 PER, 1.14 RPM, 61.96 TPA
CJ McCollum earns the go-ahead over a clump of others behind him because of his experience playing away from Damian Lillard. The Blazers know they have an offensive blueprint with him as the focal point because they're already using it.
In the nearly 400 minutes McCollum logged as the primary playmaker (as in, without Lillard and Evan Turner), the Blazers rattled off 106.4 points per 100 possessions—identical to a 14th-place standing. Bradley Beal, the player right behind him, fared slightly better on his own but doesn't get to run unchaperoned as often.
Case in point: Through the 1,000-plus ticks McCollum spent piloting the show in 2015-16, Portland put up 106.8 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA Wowy—the mark of a top-seven offense.
Gaining complete control of the reins is harder than ever, with both Lillard and Turner in the rotation, but McCollum still wields a cornerstone's punch. Portland put him in more pick-and-rolls than Washington did Beal, and he guzzles through more pull-up jumpers than almost anyone.
Only DeMar DeRozan, James Harden, Kemba Walker and Russell Westbrook jacked more stop-and-poppers, and not one came close to matching McCollum's effective field-goal percentage of 51.5. His knack for putting down these shots is part of why the offense may not feel the absence of the sharpshooting Allen Crabbe: He doesn't need space to generate offense—or even to manufacture more space.
McCollum protects possession like he isn't a high-usage ball-handler, even though he burns more dribbles per touch than DeRozan, another low-turnover freelancer. He doesn't pass with incredible deference, which should make him predictable. It doesn't. He averaged more than five assists per 100 possessions and converted a higher percentage of his contested looks than the masterful Kyrie Irving, without submitting much volume.
How do you stop someone who moonlights or outright thrives in every offensive area? You can't, and defenses don't. McCollum literally finished as a net plus in every offensive play type, per NBA Math. His defense remains a mess across the board, but his offense is transcendent.
28. Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 19.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.3 blocks, 45.9 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 20.3 PER, 2.58 RPM, 204.41 TPA
David Fizdale-era Marc Gasol is by far the best Marc Gasol. The Grizzlies head coach gave him the green light to jack threes and pushed him to be more aggressive in the aggregate. Gasol responded by trading in long twos for treys and recording the highest usage rate of his career.
Exerting this extra effort on offense cost Gasol some of his defensive stamina. He's still a plus rim protector but not as stout versus pick-and-rolls or, based on last season alone, back-to-the-basket scorers.
Evolving shot distributions aren't doing him any favors. Playing center is no longer a safe haven for trudging bigs. Gasol spent more time contesting shots outside his wheelhouse than in 2015-16, and rival offenses are sticklers for targeting traditional towers.
"In the pace-and-space era, building a championship team around a bulkier 7-footer like Gasol is always going to be difficult," The Ringer's Jonathan Tjarks wrote. "Gasol is a great defender, but he will always be at a disadvantage against a five-out team like the Warriors that can put him in pick-and-rolls with Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green."
Credit Gasol for modernizing his shot selection. Shooting 38.8 percent on 268 three-point attempts is no small feat. And, once more, he hasn't disappeared on defense. He'll be in the All-Star mix, even if he chills on the peripherals of it.
But he'll also turn 33 in January. Age has to be a factor. The Grizzlies are looking to play faster, making it that much harder for Gasol to solidify himself as an average rebounder, and his defensive assignments won't get any easier.
JaMychal Green's return will help diminish the ill effects, and Gasol is shrewd enough to counter opposing speed with deliberate gaps between him and the ball. But putting him any higher when Memphis might inch away from his optimal playing style would be shortsighted.
27. Al Horford, Boston Celtics
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 14.0 points, 6.8 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.3 blocks, 47.3 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 17.7 PER, 1.82 RPM, 137.10 TPA
Points-per-game fusspots are going to be so mad.
Al Horford doesn't consistently dominate one aspect of the game. On any given night, he can take over in a variety of areas, but his schtick is sweeping ubiquity—getting his hands dirty in every facet, even the ones in which he's deemed insufficient.
Averaging under 15 points per game won't get you flattering headlines, but Horford generates so much offense on an indirect basis. Lanes open up for ball-handlers because defenders have to respect his range. He's constantly popping out of screens to exaggerate those seams but also to create initial separation for teammates.
Friendlies are either instructed or compelled to cut all over place when he's working with the ball. Horford revels in dropping dimes, and everyone around him knows he'll find them.
Those maneuvers don't allow for a score-first identity. He racked up more screen assists per game than anyone else on the Celtics, and not one center in the league generated more points off their passes. He's scooting toward the three-point line off screens so much, he'd have to jailbreak Boston's offensive setup to register on the featured-option radar.
Horford only ranked in the top 50 of post touches per game last season, despite shooting better than 62 percent when finishing them. And he still passed 36 percent of the time in these situations—tops among the 61 players who averaged three or more post grabs.
Similar misconceptions cloud his defensive value. He isn't a glass-crashing enforcer or impervious rim protector, but that's partially by design. He contested more three-point attempts than any fellow center, and 41.4 percent of all shots he challenged originated more than 15 feet from the hoop.
Compare that to Marc Gasol (32.1 percent), Rudy Gobert (26.7), DeAndre Jordan (38.5), Hassan Whiteside (27.1) and basically every other big, and Horford has more in common with Draymond Green (44.6 percent).
Add to this that he guarded the second-most spot-ups and fifth-most isos among centers, and his run-of-the-mill block and rebound rates don't look so bad. He's not around the basket enough to try being the player so many say he's not. Nor does he have to be. He's a helpful defender largely because he leaves an imprint while working outside conventional constructs.
26. Paul Millsap, Denver Nuggets
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 18.1 points, 7.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.9 blocks, 44.2 percent shooting
Meet Draymond Green, in score-first form.
Paul Millsap would own more prominent real estate if he wasn't co-existing in the Nuggets' frontcourt with Nikola Jokic. His field-goal attempts should dwindle; there will be nights when he doesn't get off 10 shots. Flirting with last season's scoring average will be tough unless he turns himself into a lights-out spot-up splasher from deep.
The Nuggets' wacky wing rotation also figures into his somewhat lower ceiling. Failing a breakout from Malik Beasley, they'll run out of workable defenders at the 3 after Will Barton and Wilson Chandler.
Gary Harris and, to a lesser extent, Jamal Murray will feel the ramifications of this squeeze. And so will Millsap. Juan Hernangomez cannot survive protracted stretches defending bouncy 3s. Millsap will need to switch a ton. Head coach Mike Malone may even borrow a page from Mike Budenholzer's 2015-16 book and try getting away with Millsap at small forward for abbreviated periods.
Knifing into his usage only to augment his defensive scutwork is borderline disrespectful. But if anyone's going to respond well, it'll be Millsap. He'll get gravy-train looks from three and on cuts when Jokic directs the offense, and Malone is imaginative enough to stagger minutes so Millsap sees run alongside second-stringers.
Convincing him to play defense on a swivel is likewise a non-issue. Millsap isn't foreign to habitual switching. No one in the league last year tussled with as many pick-and-roll ball-handlers (60) and divers (99).
Beyond all this, his track record speaks for itself. He averaged over 17 points, three assists, one steal and one block per game through four seasons with the Hawks—benchmarks matched only by DeMarcus Cousins and Kevin Durant.
25. Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 21.6 points, 8.1 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.4 blocks, 49.3 percent shooting
Blake Griffin is another ranked-a-tad-too-low candidate. But his murky health bills leave no other choice.
Recurring injuries aren't the problem, per se. Freak accidents are the main concern. He's suffered everything from knee, back and elbow injuries, to toe and hand issues since 2015. He's totaled 83 regular-season absences over the past three years—more than an entire schedule's worth.
Move past this misfortune, and Griffin is all aces.
He has fallen out of top-10 debates in recent years and probably won't return. But he's a potent enough offensive force to reappear on the top-15 fringes—now more so than ever, with Chris Paul buddying up beside James Harden in Houston.
Individual numbers will come. Griffin averaged 23.2 points and 6.4 assists on 50 percent shooting per 36 minutes of court time without Paul last year. The Clippers put up 111 points per 100 possessions during these solo acts—akin to a top-three offensive rating.
Losing J.J. Redick's sweet shooting hampers Griffin's lone-wolf stock, but he's fenced in by enough secondary playwrights. Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams afford him nice kick-out options, and the two-man game between him and Milos Teodosic has the makings of a more improvisational Lob City.
Los Angeles' offense, and Griffin's output, will be fine. And if he parlays his hourslong hang time on jumpers into median three-point accuracy, he'll immediately be the second-most terrifying offensive 4 alive.
Improving as a pick-and-roll disruptor and interior deterrent is Griffin's ticket back into the top-15-player discussion. His positioning is erratic at best in the former, and he has held opponents to sub-54-shooting around the basket just once in the past four years (2014-15). With defensive question marks on the wings—and a 4-5 partnership with Danilo Gallinari on the table—he'll need to nail down his rotations.
24. Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 22.3 points, 3.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.5 steals, 46.8 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 17.4 PER, 2.33, RPM, 16.53 TPA
Thompson is not underrated.
He is, however, most definitely underappreciated.
Other All-Stars in the heart of their prime wouldn't accept, let alone embrace, the concessions he has, by all appearances, welcomed with bemused facial expressions and tireless off-ball work.
Just under 54 percent of Thompson's shot attempts originated off the catch last season. Over 80 percent came without taking more than one dribble. He ranked second on the Warriors in attempts per 36 minutes, but he isn't granted the same license for deviation awarded to Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant or, as a ball-handler, Draymond Green.
Backing down the occasional smaller wing is fine, and Golden State permits him to jump-start the infrequent pick-and-roll. But even those diversions are fewer and farther between following Durant's arrival.
Run off screens, cut, fire. Rinse, lather, repeat.
Special circumstances have helped make Thompson. Around half his looks are open and wide-open bunnies because he's enveloped by a dynasty's worth of superstars. But that role isn't for everyone.
Kyrie Irving couldn't play sidekick to LeBron James in Cleveland. Thompson is forfeiting status to a trio of teammates, and it doesn't compromise his diligence. He switches onto point guards, jostles with bigger wings and cuts like he means it. He flies around, every which way, like a human pinball.
No one on the Warriors covered more defensive ground this past year, and only Curry exceeded his travel on the offensive end. Thompson is a workaholic whether he's dropping 40 or 14—a top-25 player masquerading as Golden State's fourth wheel.
23. Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 23.2 points, 3.9 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.3 blocks, 44.4 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 21.3 PER, 2.68 RPM, 196.60 TPA
Wake the heck up if Kemba Walker checking in at No. 23 grinds your gears. You've been sleeping on him for too long. (If you're more rattled because you think he's too low, then you have my #respek.)
Walker has blossomed into one of the NBA's most dangerous offensive weapons. He's ditched low-percentage isolations for higher-quality drives, and his jumper is now a strength on which the Hornets lean.
Among the 194 players to cycle through 125 or more spot-up touches last season, Walker finished fourth in points per possession, trailing only Stephen Curry, CJ Miles and Otto Porter Jr.
One-hit-wonder conspiracy theorists can waste their energy on someone else. Walker's shooting isn't a flash in the pan. He averaged more points per spot-up possession in 2015-16 (1.14) than Kevin Durant (1.13).
Other guards are better playmakers. He just barely finished in the top 20 of potential assists last year, earning a three-way tie with Curry and Isaiah Thomas. And that's the point. The Hornets want to run Walker off the ball to score first, create for others second. That adaptability—strikingly similar to Kyrie Irving's role in Cleveland—is a boon by itself.
Charlotte went from notching points at the rate of a top-seven offense with Walker to scoring like the league's worst attack when he sat on the bench. The same held true in 2015-16, albeit to a slightly lesser degree (top seven to bottom five).
Any case Walker has to surpass the next few names should begin with his defense. He's more situational asset than liability. He is a reliable pick-and-roll defender and closes out like he means it. Bigger guards and wings target him, but they don't obliterate him as much as they should. If Walker ever bends defenses with his on-ball offense like Irving or Damian Lillard, he'll have an airtight case to climb this list.
22. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 25.2 assists, 3.2 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.3 blocks, 47.3 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 23.0 PER, 2.05 RPM, 126.52 TPA
Truth-telling time: Maybe people are too hard on Kyrie Irving.
Much of the criticism that follows him is founded upon fact. He gets tunnel vision. He is a disaster on defense—except on those rare occasions when he locks down, free from rival screeners, on an island. He has yet to prove he can be the fulcrum of a team that doesn't have a LeBron James-sized safety net.
But Irving's role with the Cavaliers these past three years didn't dictate—or allow for—him to reinvent his game. They needed someone who could play off James and strike in one-on-one situations as needed.
Citing his solo performances is uncomfortable on so many levels. Opponents outscored the Cavaliers by eight points per 100 possessions in the 570 minutes Irving played without James—a net rating that would have placed dead last.
Taking that mark at face value is fair. But no Irving-led lineup without James totaled more than 46 minutes. (It was a net wash). That's not even an entire game.
Ditto for 2015-16. The combination Irving played in most frequently without James logged 47 minutes. It included Kevin Love and outscored opponents by more than four points per 100 possessions.
Maximizing independence is hard when you're not entrusted with it. Trying to exist on your own when the other personnel around keeps changing is even more difficult. Irving deserves the flak he gets for his defense and playmaking; his 6.6 assists per 36 minutes without James are whatever. But completely writing him off as a viable option is inane when he hasn't enjoyed that freedom since he was 21.
Playing for the Celtics may not simplify his situation. Gordon Hayward and Al Horford are both studs; Irving could be the third-best distributor on his team. But head coach Brad Stevens is a magician with the clipboard, while Hayward and Horford are as low-key as stars come.
Irving's stock should spike, even if he ends up being a superhuman Kemba Walker rather than a Kyle Lowry-Chris Paul petri dish.
21. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 16.7 points, 9.8 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.8 blocks, 57.8 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 26.3 PER, 6.73 RPM, 342.24 TPA
Feel free to complain that Jokic is ranked too high. Your gripes will be duly noted before they go in one ear and out the other.
If push comes to shove, Jokic should be moved up before he slides down. He averaged 19.2 points, 10.9 rebounds and 5.8 assists on 58.7 percent shooting (34.2 percent on threes) after he earned a permanent starting job, during which time the Nuggets rattled off a league-best offensive rating and top-three net rating whenever he took the court.
Pore over the catch-all metrics for 2016-17, and Jokic grades out as a top-10 player, bar none:
Rudimentary defense precludes Jokic from an MVP-level outlook. He has no trouble grabbing defensive rebounds; he couldn't go coast-to-coast or toss transition touchdowns if he did. His strengths beyond that are unknown—or, perhaps, don't exist.
Going to battle beside Paul Millsap, a slick switcher, should help Jokic find his footing in the long run. For now, he remains an incomplete project until he can be part of an average—or even close to average—defensive squad.
20. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 27.0 points, 4.9 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.3 blocks, 44.4 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 24.1 PER, 3.14 RPM, 238.80 TPA
Few players can chisel out an esteemed reputation while failing to grow at one end of the floor. Lillard is among the exceptions.
He still doesn't pack a defensive punch. He hasn't met a screen that can't kill him, and the Blazers' pick-and-roll schemes both reflect and crumble under it.
Still, his offensive game could propel him into the top 15, maybe 10, for any given season. He is equal parts devastating and warping with the ball in his hands, charting last-second changes in course that allow him through the most airtight blockades. As Rob Mahoney wrote for SI.com:
"The cat-and-mouse game has been good to Lillard, who finished 58.6% of his shots in the restricted area last season, up from 51.9% the season prior. More of his heavily contested layups are ending in fouls, too, as Lillard feels his way through the nuances of creating contact. Making space comes naturally. Lillard has spent his entire basketball life trying to put enough separation between himself and his defender to hoist up a jumper. It’s knowing when to bump and how to fall that demanded some on-the-job training, the result of which has Lillard up to 7.3 free throw attempts per game."
Playmaking separates Lillard from point guards who lie in the top 15 more than his defense. Some of that comes with the territory. He truckles to another crafty on-ball scorer, in CJ McCollum, not to mention touches for Evan Turner and, now, Jusuf Nurkic.
Boundless range also makes for a more uninhibited shot selection. He can hit contested floaters and off-balance pull-up jumpers, so he takes them.
Lillard ranked sixth in stop-and-pop attempts last season and posted a lower pass percentage on drives (23.6) than the singular-minded Derrick Rose (24.1). Only six players jacked more contested shots. McCollum, fittingly, was one of them, perfectly encapsulating the complexity of Lillard's balancing act.
19. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 25.1 points, 12.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.3 blocks, 54.2 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 25.9 PER, 2.13 RPM, 304.55 TPA
Towns' 2016-17 was a paralyzing demonstration by any measure. Few bigs were as comfortable on the offensive end, and he never once seemed as if he couldn't roughhouse down low with the grown-ups. He flaunted a smoother handle—he shot 48.3 percent after using two dribbles—and more than tripled his three-point volume while improving his efficiency.
Kevin Love is the only other player in NBA history to match Towns' scoring and rebounding averages while downing one three per game—an unreal accolade even by today's pace-and-space and bigs-are-wings standards.
Looking up Towns' birthdate, as a refresher, solicits more awe. He won't turn 22 until November. Someone this young shouldn't be so polished—so ostensibly ready to stake his claim in the race for MVP deliberation.
Sloppy defense is all that's stopping him, and most of his issues are fixable. He knows where to be, even on last-second rotations, but he's haunted by indecision and negligence.
Spot-up shooters appear to intimidate him. He'll hesitate before closing out, giving opponents more time to gather themselves and release, or lunge haphazardly, inviting unimpeded pump-and-drives. His reflexes around the rim are generally noncommittal. He sees cutters and drivers but often fails to react.
Reasonable excuses are available in huge supply: He's afraid to leave his man. He doesn't want to foul. He shouldn't have to shoot gaps against wings and playmaking 4s. He's tired. Last year's Timberwolves could make any half-competent defender look completely and utterly lost.
Whatever the root cause, Towns' issues must remain a concern. He's no lock to make defensive strides just because Jimmy Butler is around or because another year with head coach Tom Thibodeau should work wonders.
Minnesota still doesn't have the personnel to exempt Towns from chasing smaller, quicker players. The combination of Cole Aldrich, Nemanja Bjelica and Taj Gibson provides zero cover beyond the paint, and Gorgui Dieng shouldn't be tracking down guys much farther out. Andrew Wiggins bathes in the same inattentiveness Towns occasionally exudes, which can and does and will continue to throw half-court sets off the rails.
18. Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 20.5 points, 3.3 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.3 blocks, 46 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 23.2 PER, 4.47 RPM, 255.63 TPA
Mike Conley is a warrior.
Well, actually, he's a member of the Grizzlies. He's a warrior Grizzly. His name doesn't pop up among the toughest-player conversations nearly enough—similar to how he's not mentioned enough in the same breath as other All-Star peers.
Harken back to the Grizzlies' Nov. 28 loss to the Hornets, during which Conley left with a back injury. He was diagnosed with "transverse fractures in the vertebrae located in his lower back" the next day that would keep him out for at least six weeks.
He returned to the lineup in less than three, because extraterrestrials have special healing powers.
Playing for Grizzlies head coach David Fizdale looks good on the perennial All-Star snub. Conley has long been the NBA's Alex Smith—a high-end, low-mistake game manager. Fizdale unleashed the Aaron Rodgers in him.
Conley posted the highest usage rate of his career without incurring a damning uptick in turnovers. His attack mode is reserved; he is patient more than explosive and restrained, to some extent, within the Grizzlies' half-court setup. But it works. The offense doesn't function the same way without him.
It doesn't function, period. Memphis pumped in 108.6 points per 100 possessions with him running the show, compared to 99.4 when he watched from the bench—the difference between a top-eight and last-place finish. Marc Gasol erases some of the deficit during his solo stints, but not enough for the Grizzlies to feel good about Conley's absence.
Plucking out the best player on the Grizzlies used to be a gutting task. Not anymore. Conley is the clear answer, even if he and Gasol operate with equal stature. And as he's surged through Memphis' food chain, his point guard standing has improved too—minus the recognition. His 4.47 RPM placed fifth at the position.
17. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 14.0 points, 12.8 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.6 steals, 2.6 blocks, 66.1 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 23.3 PER, 6.37 RPM, 308.95 TPA
Here, with Gobert, we have the second and final picture-perfect gem for non-shooting skyscrapers to imitate.
Other bigs have more perimeter responsibilities. They play within faster systems, their team schemes call for more switches, and some share more common ground with wings. But Gobert is a monster all his own.
The Jazz actively siphon ball-handlers of all kinds in his direction when he's around the rim. That doesn't happen for anyone else—not to this degree. No one in the league contested more shots inside 10 feet, and even with that volume, he held opponents to clips 10.3 percentage points below their season average.
Much like DeAndre Jordan, Gobert doesn't stop in front of the basket. He hounded more isolation possessions per game than any Jazz teammate and hassled more spot-up shooters on average than Gordon Hayward, an actual wing. He also ranked third among centers in defensive distance traveled despite playing for a squad that curbed possession totals for both sides by dictating a painfully slow pace.
Quin Snyder, Utah's head coach, has not indicated Gobert will absorb a more glittery offensive role following exits by Gordon Hayward and George Hill. He will set picks, slip screens, roll to the basket and clean up misses. The Jazz will toss him the sporadic post touch, but he'll never fender-bend the usage of the typical All-Star.
Lucrative offensive talents are inherently more impactful than lockdown defenders. That Gobert gorges on what's perceived as offensive fluff hurts him. He works for his points, and to wrench out breathing room for Utah's playmakers, but he'll never strain himself the way Al Horford, Nikola Jokic, Karl-Anthony Towns and many others do. He's more reliant on his supporting cast, which is potentially problematic in a post-Hayward system; the Jazz need to replace 37.9 percent of their total assists with Hayward, Hill and Boris Diaw all gone.
Obsessing over this still won't strip Gobert of the star's honor he deserves. He is a lifeline in his own right, and the Jazz didn't need Hayward's departure to see it. They posted a positive differential per 100 possessions no matter which one of their players left the court, with the exception of one: Rudy Gobert.
16. DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans Pelicans
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 27.0 points, 11.0 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.3 blocks, 45.2 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 25.8 PER, 4.20 RPM, 319.12 TPA
Disputing DeMarcus Cousins' rank should come pretty naturally. He's a megastar talent, but he's never shuttled a team to the playoffs, and the Kings flipped him to the Pelicans for what amounted to Buddy Hield, Harry Giles, Justin Jackson and Frank Mason III, knowing full well the designated player extension could have locked him up long term.
Failing to spark a postseason push after swapping locales doesn't boost his credibility, either. The Pelicans went 11-14 following the trade as the Cousins-Anthony Davis coupling navigated a steep learning curve.
Solo time didn't even do the trick. Opponents pounded New Orleans by 12.5 points per 100 possessions in the 179 minutes Cousins played without Davis. But this quarter-season sample proves nothing.
Relevant still, it doesn't disprove anything. Cousins remains a timeline-shifting force and has toted volume his contemporaries never carried. His usage rate last season outstripped every other center by an enormous margin. None of them came close to shouldering his offensive contributions when accounting for scoring and points generated off assists. Not even Jokic's post-Dec. 15 tear did Cousins in.
Sure, his splits without Davis are an immediate concern. But the most used lineup in those situations tied him to Jordan Crawford, Dante Cunningham, Tim Frazier and E'Twaun Moore (and produced plus-6.4 points per 100 possessions). Neither the Pelicans' depth nor the size of these samples warrant definitive conclusions let alone stark write-offs.
Next season marks a fresh start for Cousins. He slimmed down over the summer, and if we're investing in small samples, New Orleans wrapped 2016-17 outscoring opponents by 12.8 points per 100 possessions during the final seven games Cousins and Davis played together.
Some bigs space the floor while merging volume with efficiency. Others plant their flags as brute forces down low. A few specialize in putting their foot on the gas and attacking like wings. A handful serve as playmaking hubs. Cousins does all this at a high level. He'll even devote himself to snuffing out opposing offenses when the mood strikes.
Baggage and all, he's the closest the NBA gets to a center with the whole package.
15. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 22.4 points, 4.8 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.3 blocks, 46.4 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 22.9 PER, 5.88 RPM, 292.19 TPA
Sound the second, and final, Goldilocks and the Three Bears alarm.
Kyle Lowry could be due for some regression in 2017-18. He turns 32 in March and isn't playing for his next contract, and the Raptors cut ties with key members from their Lowry-plus-bench masterpieces.
Canada's bulldog could also blow this placement to smithereens by playing like the Eastern Conference's best all-around guard.
Giannis Antetokounmpo isn't a guard. He's an everything. Jimmy Butler is in the West. Isaiah Thomas isn't a defensive asset when he's healthy. Kyrie Irving needs to make strides as a defender in Boston before entering the discussion.
John Wall, as of now, is Lowry's only realistic competition. Youthful exuberance will compel most to favor him, which is fine. But Lowry had him beat last season. He is the more consistently engaged defender and has a little of Chris Paul's maniacal edge to him. He ranked fourth among point guards in ESPN's Defensive Real Plus-Minus; Wall landed outside the top 50.
Start a franchise from scratch, and Lowry won't get the nod over as many guards. Someone like Wall is more imposing. But so much of Lowry's value lies in the universality of his skill set.
Great players don't fit in everywhere. Lowry's act would translate just about anywhere. Defensive workaholics have a place on every team, and he doesn't need to consume vats of touches. Thomas, Stephen Curry and Langston Galloway were the only point guards to launch more spot-up threes per game.
DeMar DeRozan wouldn't be as potent of a scorer without Lowry's magnetic pull. He needs to leverage it for breathing room. Put him next to Wall or Eric Bledsoe, and the results wouldn't be the same. Lowry makes his teammates better just by being on the court—which, really, is the highest praise you can offer a point man.
14. Gordon Hayward, Boston Celtics
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 21.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.3 blocks, 47.1 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 22.2 PER, 3.06 RPM, 201.66 TPA
Gordon Hayward's stock could fall a tick or two after joining the Celtics. Adapting to new digs always takes some time, while his newest co-stars, Al Horford and Kyrie Irving, command the ball more than Rudy Gobert and George Hill, his most prominent partners from 2016-17.
On the flip side: Nah.
Hayward's transition from Utah to Boston will be more seamless than problematic. He has a longstanding relationship with head honcho Brad Stevens, dating back to when the latter recruited him in high school, and the Jazz's communal offense under Quin Snyder was nothing if not adequate preparation for life beside other All-Stars.
Horford and Irving will help alleviate the usual wrinkles involved when switching teams. Irving is the most ball-dominant of the bunch, and he posted the second-highest catch-and-fire effective field-goal percentage (68.5) among 200-plus players who launched at least two such shots per game.
Possession allocation could become an issue if Irving really coordinated his departure from the Cavaliers because he wants more touches. But he has extra freedom in Boston by default and might not stress about the chain of command when no one on the Celtics casts a four-time-MVP-sized shadow.
Above all else, Hayward has the skill set to navigate the minefield of possible warts. He boasts a doctorate in assimilation. Over half of his buckets were assisted last year, while more than one-quarter of his total shot attempts came off the catch. No one in the league ran as many pick-and-rolls (419) while finishing more than 100 possessions as a cutter.
Topping 20 points per game for the second time of his career feels like a formality. His assists should even climb with Irving's role as a score-first floor general and an iffy backup point guard rotation.
Bake in his underrated defensive work ethic that stretches across the 2, 3 and 4 spots, and Hayward will spend 2017-18 exactly where he spent 2016-17—next to all the other top-15 stars.
13. Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 23.7 points, 6.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.4 blocks, 46.1 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 20.2 PER, 2.58 RPM, 150.42 TPA
Paul George finds himself in a situation similar to Hayward's with the Celtics: playing alongside two more stars, Carmelo Anthony and Russell Westbrook, who will eat into his share of the offense.
Except, compared to Hayward's undertaking in Boston, George's new dynamic is far more tenuous.
Westbrook and Anthony placed second and third, respectively, in isolations used per game last season. George himself finished 11th.
Things get hairier when parsing crunch-time roles. From a sample of 281 qualifying players, George and Westbrook notched top-eight usage rates. All three wrapped 2016-17 inside the top 20 of total shot attempts during clutch moments.
Something will need to give this year—lots of things, actually. Each player should welcome the opportunity to sync up with fellow stars, and both Anthony and George are spot-up assassins. But forging offensive symmetry between high-volume headliners is a delicate process—especially when one of them, in Westbrook, is working off a campaign during which he reset the NBA's usage-rate record.
George will have the easiest time acclimating to the new status quo. He is a little more accustomed to playing off the ball and should sense the value of destroying defenses from standstill positions. He finished third in catch-and-shoot points per game during his swan song with the Pacers—and that was when he counted Jeff Teague or Myles Turner as his best collaborator.
Getting off more of those looks should sit well with George and his shooting slashes when he's deeding touches over to Anthony and Westbrook. Crunch time may still be a sore subject. Just ask C.J. Miles. But George recruited Anthony, in conjunction with Westbrook, per ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski. Stars are more open to compromise when their situation is, at least partially, of their own design.
Whatever energy George saves on offense leaves him that much fresher on defense. He could emerge as Oklahoma City's clear-cut No. 1 option, and his impact on that side should still balloon.
Andre Roberson can assume the most prolific assignments, and on those nights when Westbrook isn't switched off rival point guards, George will get reps versus third wheels. It'll be a genuine shock if he's not named to his fourth All-Defensive team.
12. John Wall, Washington Wizards
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 23.1 points, 4.2 rebounds, 10.7 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.6 blocks, 45.1 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 23.2 PER, 2.26 RPM, 241.45 TPA
Parts of Kyle Lowry's case needed to come at the expense of John Wall, but don't get it twisted: This proud owner of a four-year, $170 million extension is a monster.
Derailing him in transition and when he's attacking downhill in the half court is an impossibility. He sends defenses into fits of confusion by the time he uses a second dribble—collapses that manufacture quality looks galore.
So many of his Wizards running mates rely on that chaos he incites. Otto Porter Jr. isn't the same knockdown sniper when playing beside other ball-handlers. Marcin Gortat goes from basically infallible to just ridiculously accurate when Wall grabs a breather. The Wizards, as a team, see their three-point efficiency plunge below the league average during his stays on the sideline.
Elite point guards are supposed to have this type of impact. But Wall's pull is unique, and not just because of his burst. He has upped his scoring profile—he's set a new career high in each of the last two seasons—without forcing his supporting cast to adjust.
The skeleton of his approach is still rooted in deference. He passes on a larger share of his drives than Mike Conley, Kyrie Irving, Isaiah Thomas and Kemba Walker, and James Harden is the lone player who generated more points off his passes.
Wall's jumper continues to underwhelm. His swings are unpredictable, and while he's cut down on long twos, they remain a bigger-than-needed chunk of his shot distribution. He has, at least, emerged as a viable outside threat. Defenses don't leave as much room to ward off his drives. They know he's willing to fire away.
Washington does need more from Wall on defense. He secures the more-the-than occasional kudos, but like Bledsoe, his physical tools suggest he should be the stingiest stopper at his position. When he's on, he's great. When he's not, he'll get tripped up by screens and be an onlooker after opponent misses.
The good news: He doesn't need to be in the zone to dissuade enemy point guards from attacking. His size and speed are deterrents unto themselves, and he's unnavigable when offenses aren't proactive in picking him off.
11. Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 10.2 points, 7.9 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 2.0 steals, 1.4 blocks, 41.8 percent shooting
We cannot discuss the Warriors' All-NBA foursome without hat tips and fist bumps for the concessions made by Klay Thompson. And he deserves all the praise he gets for happily accepting his role. He averages approximately minus-2.4 dribbles per game.
But Green warrants equal ado. He saw his already modest number of shot attempts slip by almost 15 percent following Kevin Durant's arrival and has fully immersed himself in the engine-that-passes capacity.
Golden State should get more from Green in 2017-18. His three-point rate fell to 30.8 percent last year, down from 38.8 in 2015-16. If any of his playoff mojo (41 percent from downtown) carries over to the regular season, he'll have the opportunity to rival, if not reset, his career-best scoring performance from the Warriors' 73-win romp (14 points per game).
Of course, Green's standing has virtually nothing to do with an uptick in buckets. As Adam Fromal wrote for NBA Math, he exists to live up to his Defensive Player of the Year billing:
"Draymond Green could sit down on the offensive end and still serve as one of the most valuable players in basketball.
"The reigning Defensive Player of the Year, this former second-round pick thrived with indefatigable passion and energy, bouncing between assignments to become the rare player who’s somehow at his best when he’s guarding no one. Functioning as something of a basketball free safety, he can wander between foes to disrupt schemes, cutting off one passing lane and then bodying up against a bigger player a few seconds later."
Stephen Curry gives the Warriors their identity. His unrepressed range and hocus-pocus handles overwhelm opponents in ways Durant's big-wing game doesn't and Green's every-place defense can't. But the Warriors aren't indomitable without Green. His unflagging interest in wreaking havoc on defense, irrespective of his offensive participation, mythologizes their end-to-end play style.
10. Chris Paul, Houston Rockets
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 18.1 points, 5.0 rebounds, 9.2 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.1 blocks, 47.6 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 26.2 PER, 7.92 RPM, 330.75 TPA
Dragging Chris Paul down a peg or two as he enters his age-32 season and joins the Rockets is tempting. Time isn't kind to six-foot-nothings, and he won't be controlling the ball as much next to Harden.
Counterpoint: He won't be controlling the ball as much next to Harden.
Paul has spent his career as an offensive lifeline. Even with the Clippers, alongside Blake Griffin, everything ran through him. He has assisted on 40-plus percent of his squad's baskets when in the game 11 times through 12 seasons—more than anyone in NBA history not named John Stockton.
Setting up shop beside Harden simplifies things. Paul's assist totals should drop, but his efficiency will skyrocket amid more catch-and-shoot opportunities. Though he's connecting on 43.9 percent of his spot-up threes since 2013-14 (145-of-330), they account for a little more than 8 percent of his total looks. That ratio will jump in Houston as he orbits Harden's drives.
Think about what this hybrid, co-pilot role will do for his defensive stands. He's already unrelenting on the less glamorous end. The thought of his conserving energy on offense to then unleash it at the other side is harrowing.
Paul led all point guards in 2016-17 with a 2.76 DRPM. Patrick Beverley snagged second place with a 1.37.
In other words: The gap between Paul and his closest challenger (1.39) was worth more than the runner-up himself.
A top-10 spot it is, then.
9. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 28.0 points, 11.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.3 steals, 2.2 blocks, 50.5 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 27.5 PER, 4.35 RPM, 204.56 TPA
Teaming up with DeMarcus Cousins does nothing to damage Davis' status. He'll forfeit some touches and collect fewer shots and boards while bird-dogging opposing 4s and roving around extra passing lanes, but his output won't vary that much.
The Pelicans, for starters, don't have the tested depth to do anything other than ride the backs of both their bigs. Davis will get his, because they need him to get his. He averaged 23.1 points, 9.6 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 1.9 blocks per 36 minutes of spin next to Cousins. His defensive counting stats may have peaked within this dynamic, but his offensive production will improve as he acclimates to the new world order.
In fact, they already have.
Davis posted 27.5 points on 51.6 percent shooting per 36 minutes with Cousins over their final seven appearances, during which time the Pelicans torched opponents by 12.8 points every 100 possessions.
Small samples are the enemy of sustainable substance—exponentially so toward season's end. But the Cousins-Davis pairing can work on offense. Playing with Cousins might even be the impetus behind Davis establishing himself as a respectable catch-and-shoot option from three-point land.
Should this marriage fail, Davis remains closer to a top-10 player than not. His offense could crater amid sardine spacing, and he'll still be a 6'11" wing-looking shot-swatter with the tools to switch pretty much everything. And the numbers, in this case, prove it.
According to NBA Math's Play-Type Profiles, Davis had a positive impact in every defensive subset except when taking a stab at pick-and-roll ball-handlers.
8. Jimmy Butler, Minnesota Timberwolves
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 23.9 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.4 blocks, 45.5 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 25.1 PER, 6.62 RPM, 384.82 TPA
Tying Jimmy Butler to a specific position is pretty arbitrary in the grand scheme of things.
Shooting guard, small forward, even power forward—his 6'7" build can stand up to it all. His transformation into a full-blown, All-NBA superstar is of far greater consequence.
As Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver wrote, he has undergone a Kawhi Leonard-esque metamorphosis:
"Although he first made his name in the NBA through tireless and physical defending, Butler has evolved into an all-around scoring threat who bulldozes to the foul line, effectively runs the pick-and roll and creates something out of nothing in isolation. If Butler even comes close to replicating his 2017 All-NBA Third Team campaign this season, the new-and-improved Timberwolves should have no problem snapping a postseason drought that dates back to 2004."
Butler carried a sorry-sack Bulls squad into the Eastern Conference playoffs while leaving a megahuman's dent. James and Leonard were the only wings—shooting guard or small forward—to post a better RPM. Antetokounmpo, Harden and James were the only ones to tally larger TPA scores.
And yet, pinpointing Butler's rank relative to other wings loses some luster because it's now secondary to a larger conversation: his ditching the "specialist" label in favor of MVP undercurrents.
7. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds, 10.4 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.4 blocks, 42.5 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 30.6 PER, 6.27 RPM, 890.62 TPA
Russell Westbrook didn't have sole ownership of a top-seven spot before his first season as the unquestioned leading man with the Thunder. He registered in the debate, but it was, in fact, a debate.
Carrying Oklahoma City to respectability, on his own, changed everything.
The Thunder would not be relevant without Westbrook. Rivals outscored them by 8.9 points per 100 possessions when he was on the bench—a differential that would have by far and away been the Association's worst mark overall.
It gets better—or, depending on how you look at it, much worse.
In the 194 minutes Westbrook logged through their first-round playoff series against the Rockets, the Thunder were a plus-15. During the 46 minutes he sat, they were a minus-58. They lost that best-of-seven set in five games because they were nothing without him.
Paul George and Carmelo Anthony give the Thunder a pair of stars to stagger with their reigning MVP. Life should get better, but it will also be an adjustment. Adapting to George and Anthony will take time, even though these three stars complement one another well.
Westbrook has to rework his approach to be more inclusive. Maybe last season's taste of total independence makes that easier. Or maybe Westbrook struggles, both in approach and production, as he slips ever so slightly down the superstar ladder.
Sticking him in seventh is the only call for now. His efforts last year were too mesmerizing—particularly toward the end of the season, during crunch time—for him to be slotted any lower.
6. James Harden, Houston Rockets
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 29.1 points, 8.1 rebounds, 11.2 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.5 blocks, 44.0 percent shooting
Advanced Metrics: 27.4 PER, 4.81 RPM, 626.23 TPA
After an absurdly productive 2016-17, during which he juggled the roles of point guard and scoring lifeline, Harden is now the type of star who draws in peers already surrounded by other peers. As his new teammate Chris Paul said at the Rockets' media day (via The Dream Shake's Darren Yuvan):
"You got some guys who like and enjoy playing basketball, but then you got some who love it. He is one of the guys who loves it. And he's damn good. I think the thing that gets overlooked with James a lot of the time is how selfless he is, how much he loves people. He loves people to be around him and he wants to see other people succeed and other people do good."
Harden created more points off assists than anyone in the league last year (2,198). Combine that with his own 2,356 points, and he accounted for 48.1 percent of the total offense—a remarkable weight with Houston