NBA Power Rankings: Where Every Team Sits If We Only Look at Their Best Player
As the NBA playoffs roll on, it becomes increasingly clear that singular stars define their teams. And it's no coincidence that the squads left standing have a top-flight talent to lead the way.
We like the idea of basketball as a team sport, but this time of year reinforces the value of individual talent.
Where, though, would each team rank if we only judged them by their best players? Glad you asked.
We took each player's 2018-19 leaguewide ranking in three catchall metrics—ESPN's real plus-minus, Basketball Reference's box plus-minus* and Jacob Goldstein's player impact plus-minus—and then averaged them. From there, we picked out the player from each team with the lowest average figure (which, in this case, means the best) and ranked the final list according to that number.
The full list with each player's finish in all three metrics is here. If we mention anyone besides the team leader, they're on the list, too.
Several players here are headed for free agency, but they're technically members of their current teams until July 1. So we're going with it.
This is just one way to parse a lot of data, and all three metrics we are combining are imperfect. You can read up on the differences, inputs and shortcomings for each stat here.
Oh, and there will be some surprises.
*We had to filter this one to include only players who logged enough time to qualify for the minutes-per-game leaderboard. Otherwise, the top seven would have included players—Gary Payton II, Trevon Duval, Zhou Qi and Troy Caupain—who had only tiny stints in the league this year. That filter cost us Kevin Love, Otto Porter Jr. and a few other important players, so we simply took their box plus-minus figures and assigned them the rank they would have had among minutes-qualified players.
30-26: The Best of Bad Options
30. Phoenix Suns: Devin Booker, 178.7
It's hard to argue Booker is the 178th-best player in the NBA, but these catchall metrics are unkind to a couple of types: suspect defenders and those who play for losing teams. Booker resides in both categories, and though he's an offensive star, this ranking provides plenty of ammo for those who believe the Suns guard is little more than a stat-hoarder on a bad team.
If we could ignore all the numbers, Booker would rank at least a half-dozen spots higher. But we've got to respect the rules of this exercise.
29. Atlanta Hawks: John Collins, 104.0
There'll be plenty of calls for Trae Young here, and it's difficult to argue Collins means more to Atlanta's future than its dynamic point guard. But even though Young turned a corner offensively late in the year, he graded out terribly in the catchall department. ESPN's RPM was especially brutal, ranking Young 429th. There's no recovering from that.
Don't worry. Young's playmaking and floor-stretching are real. He may never be anything but a horrendous defensive player, but it's a lot easier to see him making an All-Star team someday than Collins.
28. Chicago Bulls: Otto Porter Jr., 78.3
This one's tough, as Porter only played 15 of his 56 games for the Bulls last year.
Zach LaVine (187.3) and Lauri Markkanen (147.3) are probably the Bulls' best long-term prospects, and you could throw Wendell Carter Jr. into that mix as well. But Porter is comfortably the team's most complete player, and he lit it up in his post-deadline stint in Chicago, averaging 17.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game on a scorching 48.8 percent hit rate from long range.
27. New York Knicks: Mitchell Robinson, 66.7
All those blocks really juiced Robinson's box plus-minus, which ranked 10th in the league. BPM includes very limited inputs for defensive stats, so it's easy to see why Robinson's block rate of 10.0 percent bumped his ranking here. Manute Bol is the only player in NBA history to top the figure Robinson produced last season.
26. Miami Heat: Hassan Whiteside, 66.3
Whiteside edged out several teammates by a narrow margin. Bam Adebayo (68.3), Justise Winslow (79.3) and Josh Richardson (80.3) were all within close range.
For my money, Richardson is the Heat's best player. But he regressed significantly as a shooter this past season, and Whiteside topped the team in block and rebound percentage, two stats that weigh heavily in these metrics.
25-21: Let's Get Weird
25. Cleveland Cavaliers: Larry Nance Jr. 66.0
Technically, Nance was Cleveland's top performer last year, averaging a 66.0 that easily bested Kevin Love's 101.0. Toiling mostly in obscurity for a wretched Cavs team, Nance quietly put up per-36-minute averages of 12.6 points, 11.1 rebounds and 4.3 assists while setting career highs in attempts (98) and accuracy (33.7 percent) from deep.
Love's defense has long been underwhelming, and a toe injury limited him to 22 games in 2018-19. He averaged 17.0 points, 10.9 rebounds and shot 36.1 percent from deep for a Cavs team that offered him no help whatsoever. Like Young in Atlanta, Love projects as the Cavs' best player going forward. But the numbers don't dig his minimal contributions this past season.
24. Brooklyn Nets: Ed Davis, 60.7
D'Angelo Russell's representation might want to keep this one quiet during free-agent negotiations this summer.
Russell (75.3) was close to Davis, but his relative scoring inefficiency cost him. Davis' true shooting percentage of 63.2 percent crushed Russell's 53.3, and these metrics tend to prefer efficiency to volume. Russell played over 1,000 more minutes than Davis this past season, more than tripled the big man's total points and, conspicuously, ran the offense of a playoff team. Davis chipped in off the bench with good defense and rebounding.
That's what makes these exercises interesting, though. Russell was an All-Star, but according to three overarching metrics, he wasn't as good as a reserve on his own team. The market will sort this out, though. Russell should easily command eight figures per year on his next deal, while Davis will be lucky to get the mid-level exception.
23. Dallas Mavericks: Luka Doncic, 59.0
All Doncic did as a rookie was average 21.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game—three-category figures matched by one rookie in league history: Oscar Robertson.
We've had some controversial team representatives to this point, so it's nice to see the stats finally reward the obvious candidate.
22. Sacramento Kings: Willie Cauley-Stein, 54.3
If you watched the Kings last season, you're well aware De'Aaron Fox (65.0) made them go. The second-year point guard took a leap, averaging 17.3 points and 7.3 assists per game while hitting 37.1 percent of his threes. He was the engine that drove an exciting uptempo attack that got the Kings to 39 wins, their best total since 2005-06.
Cauley-Stein's efficiency got him this nod, but it's important to note that it's pretty easy to shoot 55.6 percent from the field when 86.4 percent of your shots come from inside 10 feet and 78.6 percent of all your two-point field goals were assisted.
Cauley-Stein will be a restricted free agent this summer, and the Kings might well let him walk. If Fox were in that position, Sacramento would be in full "match any offer" mode. So while these numbers like Cauley-Stein, they clearly aren't dispositive.
21. Washington Wizards: Bradley Beal, 52.3
There was no other realistic option for the Wizards. Beal led them in total assists and steals, ranked second in blocks and scored more than twice as many points as his closest teammate. Imagine how much higher he'd rank if he'd had anyone around to take the pressure off him on offense.
20-16: A Return to Sense...Except for Davis Bertans
20. San Antonio Spurs: Davis Bertans, 50.3
We've got another instance of efficiency bias in the numbers here, as Bertans tops the Spurs largely on the strength of his three-point shooting. He took an incredible 74.6 percent of his shots from beyond the arc and connected on 42.9 percent of them. LaMarcus Aldridge (69.7) also trailed Derrick White (61.0) on his own team.
If you're picking one Spur to help you win a game tomorrow, you're taking Aldridge, who averaged 21.3 points and 9.2 rebounds on 51.9 percent shooting this past season. But these numbers argue Bertans offered more bang for the buck.
The anti-analytics crowd could rightly have a field day with this one.
19. Indiana Pacers: Victor Oladipo, 45.3
This one's a tough sell, but only because Oladipo played just 36 games. He was an All-NBA performer in 2017-18, though, which makes it easier to justify slotting him ahead of a couple of very good (but not All-NBA-caliber) teammates.
Domantas Sabonis (54.7) and Myles Turner (55.0) would be neck and neck (and ahead of Oladipo) if the input metrics cared more about volume, but you'd have a hard time arguing either is an objectively better player than a healthy Oladipo. Our methodology has produced some weird results, but this one passes the smell test.
18. Charlotte Hornets: Kemba Walker, 39.7
Walker marks an important transition point in our rankings, as he's the first entrant to rank in the top 50 in all three of our inputs (36th in RPM, 35th in BPM and 48th in PIPM).
Good news, everybody! We're leaving the "Willie Cauley-Stein? Really?" portion of our list with nothing but high-end starters and stars ahead. Walker, an All-Star for the third time last season, played all 82 games and averaged 25.6 points per contest. He was the Hornets' lone bright spot, and you'd have a hard time arguing anyone ranked below him had a better season.
Charlotte had better do whatever it can to keep him in free agency.
17. Los Angeles Clippers: Danilo Gallinari, 38.0
The 2018-19 Clippers were cast as a starless motley crew, a collection of role players and high-energy overachievers. That characterization undersells Gallinari's contributions.
He was one of four players to average at least 19 points per game while posting a true shooting percentage over 63 percent. The other three: Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Granted, those guys shot the ball a whole lot more often than Gallo. Nobody's arguing he's on the same stratospheric level as they are, but framing his production that way helps justify a spot this high.
16. Detroit Pistons: Blake Griffin, 33.3
Griffin did everything for the Pistons this past season, leading them in total points, assists and made threes. He'd rank significantly higher if PIPM weren't so cruel to him. He ranked 51st by that stat, which negated his No. 16 finish in BPM.
Based on the names ahead of him, this spot feels about right. It's interesting, too, that the Pistons were probably right around the 16th-best team in the league, which is exactly where Griffin falls here. That makes the "as he goes, so goes the team" cliche seem pretty convincing.
15-11: Here Come the Stars
15. Memphis Grizzlies: Mike Conley, 30.0
Though the Grizzlies' leap into the second spot in the draft means a rebuild (and, therefore, a Conley trade) is more likely than ever, it's worth appreciating how well the 31-year-old vet played last season. Memphis went 33-49 with a minus-2.4 net rating overall, but Conley's presence on the floor coincided with a plus-0.6 net rating.
He made a rotten team respectable.
Still missing an All-Star berth, Conley remains one of the most underrated players in the league. Here's hoping an offseason trade lands him with a winner.
14. Toronto Raptors: Kawhi Leonard, 21.7
It's pretty clear the playoff version of Leonard is significantly better than this, but we're only considering the regular season for these rankings.
The real story here is Toronto's depth. In addition to Leonard, the Raptors had three other players—Danny Green (23.0), Kyle Lowry (23.3) and Pascal Siakam (25.7)—with excellent three-metric averages.
13. Boston Celtics: Kyrie Irving, 18.7
Irving met or exceeded his career-best averages in rebounds, assists, steals and blocks this past season, all while shooting over 40 percent from deep for the third straight year. Despite all that, he only narrowly bested teammate Al Horford, who finished with a three-metric average ranking of 20.0.
Horford and Irving are both due to hit free agency via opt-out clauses in their contracts, and the Celtics could lose both of them. Irving shot Boston out of a second-round series and poisoned the chemistry well with his flighty leadership, but none of that shows up in the numbers we're using.
12. Minnesota Timberwolves: Karl-Anthony Towns, 18.3
The most complete offensive big man in the league, Towns' decreased minutes give the false impression that he was less statistically dominant last season than he'd been in the past. Wrong there, friend! He actually posted career bests of 26.6 points, 13.5 rebounds and 3.7 assists per 36 minutes. Towns also upped his three-point attempt rate to a personal high while losing very little in accuracy. He shot an even 40 percent on the year.
With numbers as good as Towns', it's hard to rationalize feeling like there's still a breakout ahead for the 23-year-old. Because what would that even look like? Per-game averages of 30 points, 15 rebounds and five assists?
Actually, come to think of it, that doesn't seem totally unrealistic. Expect KAT to rank higher when we do this again next year.
11. Portland Trail Blazers: Damian Lillard, 10.3
Good luck finding a more consistent superstar than Lillard, whose production over the last four years has been Swiss watch reliable.
The Blazers point guard's scoring average has been between 25.1 and 27.0 points in that span. His assists range from 5.9 to 6.9, his rebounds from 4.0 to 4.9 and his effective field-goal percentage from 49.7 to 52.2 percent.
If you're going to hamstring your franchise for the next half-decade or so with a supermax contract, you could do worse than lavishing it on the guy with the steadiest track record around—particularly one who has a habit of icing playoff series with buzzer-beaters.
10-6: Bigs and Bron
10. Orlando Magic: Nikola Vucevic, 10.0
If you're not convinced Vucevic belongs in the top 10, you're probably a year behind in your NBA fandom. The version of Vooch that existed in the first seven seasons of his career was a useful offensive center with limitations on D and little spacing impact.
The guy who showed up last year was different.
That guy set career highs with 20.8 points, 12.0 rebounds and 3.8 assists while hitting 36.4 percent of his 2.9 three-point attempts per game. With Orlando's backup bigs mostly disappointing (except for a nice late-season run from Khem Birch), Vucevic's on-off numbers were also stellar. The Magic outscored opponents by 4.1 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor and posted a minus-5.5 net rating whenever Vucevic sat.
It's worth wondering whether an age-28 breakout is a blip or a new normal, and the Magic had better come to a consensus before they spend big to retain Vucevic in free agency. But based on last year's work, which earned him top-14 rankings in all three metrics, this is where he belongs.
9. Philadelphia 76res: Joel Embiid, 10.0
Embiid technically tied with Vucevic's three-metric average of 10.0, but it wasn't all that hard to break the deadlock. The Sixers center is younger, more physically dominant and far more imposing on the defensive end.
The only way you'd take Vucevic over Embiid is if you were a durability purist.
Plus, while Vucevic hit a new (likely unsustainable) height in the middle of his career, Embiid still has the capability to reach another level. If the two are even by these numbers now, it's easy to see which one has the greater potential to improve. Note, too, that Embiid's BPM rank (22) killed his chances to finish in the top five overall. He was fifth in RPM and third in PIPM.
Oh, and for those curious: Ben Simmons (54.7) was nowhere close to Embiid for the Sixers' lead in three-metric average.
8. Utah Jazz: Rudy Gobert, 9.3
Turns out defense doesn't get lost in the catch-all numbers.
In addition to unsurpassed interior intimidation, which contributed to a plus-5.8 net rating swing when he was on the floor, Gobert's eighth-place ranking is also a product of his league-leading 66.9 field-goal percentage. It didn't hurt that he averaged career highs in points (15.9), rebounds (12.9) and assists (2.0).
Gobert is as impactful as a traditional paint-bound center can be. If he makes good on his intention to expand his game this summer, there's no telling how high he might rank next time around.
7. Los Angeles Lakers: LeBron James, 8.7
A career-low 55 games, nonstop Lakers dysfunction and some meme-worthy defensive check-outs obscured the fact that James was still ridiculously good in his age-34 season.
The only player to average at least 27 points, eight rebounds and eight assists last season, James' down year doubled as an unreachable statistical apex for 90 percent of the league. And it's not like he was out there hunting numbers at the expense of efficiency. James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Paul George, Stephen Curry and Joel Embiid were the only other players to average at least 27 points per game on 58 percent true shooting.
If only he had a second star to make things easier on him...
6. Denver Nuggets: Nikola Jokic, 6.7
A deep playoff run got the casual fan better acquainted with one of the most effective offensive forces around. Nuggets loyalists and NBA diehards already knew Jokic was a superstar, but everyone is up to speed after Jokic averaged 25.1 points, 13.0 rebounds and 8.4 assists with a 50.6/39.3/84.6 shooting split in the postseason.
Those playoff figures don't factor into the numbers that earned Jokic our No. 6 ranking, but they're indicative of his transformative effect on a team. If you're a guard who likes to shoot off the catch, run off screens or cut, Jokic can turn you into a scoring machine.
And you'll barely have to dribble.
Denver has a young core locked into place around Jokic. But if its personnel ever changes, the scoring won't stop. The 24-year-old center is efficient offense incarnate.
1-5: The Best of the Best
5. New Orleans Pelicans: Anthony Davis, 5.3
This ranking stands as proof that the metrics we used don't dock points for trade requests.
Davis is the first player in these rankings to finish among the top 10 in each of the three catch-alls. He was seventh in RPM, fourth in BPM and fifth in PIPM. But it's not like we needed those figures to validate his worth. Big men who can score from anywhere on the floor, clean the glass and deter action in the lane on defense have a way of passing the eye test, which Davis does whenever he's on the floor.
Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin is confident he can make a good case to Davis that sticking around is his best move. That's at least debatable now that Zion Williamson appears ticketed for New Orleans with the No. 1 pick of the 2019 draft. What's beyond question is that AD is worth trying to persuade.
4. Oklahoma City Thunder: Paul George, 5.3
Before shoulder injuries (which eventually required offseason surgery) sent his outside shooting into a deep freeze, George was a deserved presence on the MVP short list.
Though not quite the singular offensive engine you'd want in a top option, George's ability to run the pick-and-roll, shoot over smaller defenders and shut down opponents on the perimeter makes him one of the most complete players in the league.
Geroge led the league with 170 total steals and met or beat his career highs in points (28.0), rebounds (8.2) and assists (4.1) per game—all while hitting 38.6 percent of his threes and getting to the line seven times per night.
He's the first player on our list with a No. 1 rank in any of the three input stats, as he finished above everyone else in RPM.
3. Golden State Warriors: Stephen Curry, 4.7
Curry's unanimous MVP season spoiled everything, immunizing us to his ongoing greatness. His 2018-19 average of 27.3 points came with a 64.1 true shooting percentage, and both those figures topped what he did when he won his first (non-unanimous) MVP in 2014-15. In fact, his true shooting percentage of 67.5 percent in 2017-18 was higher than the one he managed in that breathtaking 2015-16 blitz (66.9).
RPM slotted Curry third, while PIPM had him at No. 2. Only a ninth-place finish in BPM kept him from climbing into the top two overall.
If anything, Curry's postseason performance with Kevin Durant (11.7) out proves he's capable of more production than he put up during the regular season. It's fair to ask whether Curry, now 31, could sustain his playoff level over a full campaign. But there's little doubt he's been sacrificing his own numbers in the interest of team harmony.
When you can finish third in these rankings while holding back, it's a good sign you can play a little bit.
2. Houston Rockets: James Harden, 3.3
At the risk of spoiling the overall winner, let's just agree it's reassuring to see the top two MVP candidates occupying the first and second positions in our rankings.
Harden, who led the league in scoring for the second consecutive year and posted a per-game average of 36.1 points not seen since Michael Jordan put up 37.1 in 1986-87, realigned our understanding of just how much offense one player could generate in the modern game.
He and Russell Westbrook are the only qualified players ever to post usage percentages above 40 percent, and Harden shouldered that ridiculous load without sacrificing efficiency. While Russ' 2016-17 season included a 55.4 true shooting percentage, Harden was all the way up at 61.6 percent this year.
And yet, all that historic excellence and paradigm-shifting offensive potency wasn't enough to earn Harden the top spot.
1. Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo, 2.3
Fourth in RPM, second in BPM and first in PIPM, Antetokounmpo is our overall winner for the 2018-19 season.
He earned the distinction with unstoppable downhill drives, relentless transition attacks and the alarming ability to blow past guards before physically overpowering big men at the rim. An unparalleled combination of speed, agility, length and strength produced the first season with averages of at least 27 points, 12 rebounds and five assists since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar hit those marks in 1975-76.
If you filter for efficiency, Antetokounmpo's 64.4 true shooting percentage is easily the best of any 27/12/5 season on record.
Add to that a level of defensive versatility matched by few players we've ever seen, which rightly earned Antetokoumpo a spot as a finalist for Defensive Player of the Year and a berth on the All-Defensive first team, and it's hard to argue the numbers that produced this ranking missed anything.