Playing devil’s advocate role with SI.com's Top 100 NBA players ranking
SI.com released a list ranking the Top 100 NBA players of 2015–16 this week. Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney took on the arduous task of pitting players against one another across positions, from Giannis Antetokounmpo at No. 100 all the way down to four-time MVP LeBron James at No. 1.
But did they get it right?
Playing the role of devil’s advocate, I’ll provide some dissenting opinions and pick players who could have either moved up or down in the final rankings. With help from a few PointAfter visualizations, we’ll make a case for (or against) six standouts.
SI.com 100 Ranking: N/A
Should Move: Up
Tony Allen was actually mentioned as one of the list’s top snubs, but he’s deserving of a spot in the top 100. Sure, his offense is an eyesore and hasn’t developed into anything more than tolerable over the course of 11 seasons, but the “Grindfather” makes up for it by being truly elite on the less glamorous end of the court.
When Allen was out on the hardwood for the "Grit & Grind" Grizzlies, the offensive rating of opponents was 97.5 per 100 possessions. When his All-Defense First Team chops went to the bench, that figure jumped to 105.8 points per 100 possessions. Additionally, Memphis was actually better in a variety of offensive categories with Allen on the court.
Take that with a grain of salt, because Allen was primarily playing in the starting unit that includes Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. But to break things down to a micro level, let’s compare Allen to a similar defensive-minded wing: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
MKG edges Allen in points, rebounds and ever-so-slightly in PER, but Allen is a more efficient scorer who can actually knock down threes at times, a skill Kidd-Gilchrist doesn’t possess. Allen also finished miles ahead of the 21-year-old in steals per game and beat him out last year in advanced stats like Win Shares, Box Plus-Minus and VORP, per Basketball Reference.
MKG wound up at No. 85 in SI.com’s ranking, while Allen didn’t even crack the top 100. And in case you needed a reminder: “First Team All-Defense!”
• MORE NBA TOP 100: Allen, Ginobili among snubs
SI.com 100 Ranking: No. 88
Should Move: Up
Let’s just say that Boston Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas was less than pleased with his placement in SI.com’s NBA 100:
Sports illustrated Rankings are a JOKE lol. Feels like back in HS when those POLITICAL rankings would come out & we would just laugh it off — Isaiah Thomas (@Isaiah_Thomas) August 31, 2015
The former “Mr. Irrelevant” in the 2011 draft should be used to being overlooked at this point, but he’s still carrying that chip on his shoulder. Frankly, Thomas does have a good case. Ranked as the No. 88 player by SI.com, he’s slotted behind fellow point guards Ricky Rubio (No. 87) and Deron Williams (No. 83).
• MORE NBA TOP 100: Process behind SI.com's rankings
Compared directly to the 24-year-old Spaniard and 31-year-old former All-Star, Thomas is clearly the superior scorer. He averaged more points per game, and shot a more efficient percentage from the field and three-point territory. He fell short comparatively in rebounds and assists, but his PER was markedly better than Rubio and D-Will.
Based purely on reputation, you may be thinking the difference is made up for on the defensive end—where Thomas doesn’t make a positive impression. However, his defensive rating of 109 last season was identical to Williams and one point per 100 possessions better than Rubio (110), according to Basketball Reference. Since Rubio and Williams weren’t nearly as impactful on offense, the nod seems to go in I.T.’s favor.
A final note for Thomas is his playoff performance in 2015. Yes, his efficiency was ghastly—33.3% from the field and 16.7% from long range—but he did average 17.5 points and 7 assists per game against the eventual Eastern Conference champion Cavaliers. According to Basketball Reference, Boston was outscored by 3.3 points per 100 possessions when Thomas was playing. When he sat, the Celtics were pummeled by a 24.7-point margin per 100 possessions. He wasn’t efficient, but he kept his team far more competitive, and that should count for something.
SI.com 100 Ranking: No. 73
Should Move: Down
As Mahoney wrote of Gallinari in the ranking, “Denver rested him on the tail end of back-to-backs, though in the 19 games in March and April that Gallo did play he averaged 19.3 points (on 45.6% shooting from the field, 40% from three), 5.1 rebounds, and just 1.1 turnovers in almost 32 minutes.”
Those stats are tremendous, but the sample size is still really small. Are we sure that those figures are sustainable or the new norm for a guy who has averaged 14.2 points (41.6% shooting from the field, 36.7% from three), 4.5 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game for his career?
• MORE NBA TOP 100: The battle for No. 2
The Italian forward has plenty of untapped potential, but it might still be too early to peg him as the No. 73 player in the entire league (especially given his lackluster defensive chops). DeMarre Carroll (No. 81) could justifiably leapfrog Gallinari for his two-way play and breakout 2015 playoff performances. A much younger Brandon Knight (No. 79) could also be argued above Gallo based on his successful stint in Milwaukee.
SI 100 Ranking: No. 44
Should Move: Down
Andre Iguodala is still a great defensive player suiting up for the league’s best defensive team, but is he deserving of recognition as the highest-rated non-starter on SI.com’s Top 100 (by a pretty comfortable margin, mind you)? Whether he’s truly the best super-sub in the NBA is up for debate, but what can’t be argued is his PER, which hit a career-low last season.
Iggy isn’t anywhere close to the offensive player he once was. He’s also totally psyched himself out at the charity stripe. He shot 82% on free throws in his third year as a pro, but has since finished below 70% over the past five seasons (including a detrimental 59.6% last season—making him a bit of a liability in crunch time).
Khris Middleton (No. 45), Kyle Korver (No. 46) and Danny Green (No. 50)—three guys below Iguodala in the ranking—are all clearly superior in terms of spreading the floor with great outside shooting. Middleton and Green are also rock-solid defensively, so they fit the valuable “three-and-D” archetype better than Iguodala does at this stage.
• MORE NBA TOP 100: Bryant, Rose slip out of Top 50
In a direct comparison, Middleton has the edge in terms of the value he brings to the Bucks. He boasted a higher PER last season, Milwaukee held opponents to a lower offensive rating compared to Iguodala’s figure with the Warriors, and the Bucks were far worse without Middleton defensively than Golden State was without their veteran swingman.
With young guys trending up and Iguodala trending down, a case can be made for bumping the Arizona product down a few spots.
SI.com 100 Ranking: No. 39
Should Move: Up
Following last season’s All-Star break, the Utah Jazz went 19-10 and sported the league’s best defensive rating by a significant margin, per NBA.com. By allowing just 94.8 points per 100 possessions after All-Star weekend, Utah finished well ahead of No. 2 Memphis in the statistic (99.4).
That dramatic turnaround can be tied closely to “The French Rejection,” “The Stifle Tower,” the one and only, Rudy Gobert.
As far as protecting the rim goes, few (if any) were better than Quin Snyder’s up-and-coming center. Opponents converted a paltry 40.4% of their field goals at the rim against Gobert a season ago, according to NBA.com. That mark was better than a myriad of great defensive big men like Andrew Bogut, Roy Hibbert, DeAndre Jordan and Nerlens Noel.
• MORE NBA TOP 100: The most polarizing decisions
Ultimately, Gobert finished fourth in the league in blocks per game. His defensive prowess is only going to improve as he gains experience in the league, which should make him a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
At No. 39 in SI.com’s ranking, Gobert finished one spot behind Nets center Brook Lopez. In terms of advanced stats, Gobert bested the veteran in rebound percentage, assists percentage, steals percentage, blocks percentage, Win Shares, Box Plus-Minus (by a hefty 5.8 to 0.2 differential) and VORP. Lopez is certainly a far more accomplished offensive talent, but there’s no chance any organization in the league would rather have him over Gobert moving forward.
SI.com 100 Ranking: No. 17
Should Move: Down
There’s simply no way to undermine Kevin Love’s standing as an elite offensive talent. His uncanny passing ability for a big man, coupled with his competent three-point shooting, makes him a truly dynamic talent.
The Cavaliers were, without question, a superior offensive team with K-Love out on the court. Defense is a different story, but Cleveland outscored opponents by 7.4 points per 100 possessions when the rebound machine logged minutes.
His overall fit in Cleveland had its rough patches and will be a work in progress—a la Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh when LeBron James joined Miami. Perhaps he’ll see his numbers bounce back this season.
The biggest reason Love should move down in the rankings, though, is the guy ranked directly behind him.
Jimmy Butler broke out in a huge way last season for the Bulls. He won Most Improved Player and made it to his first All-Star team, all while dominating on both ends of the court. He finished sixth in the league in Win Shares, 14th in Box Plus-Minus and 12th in VORP. All of those placements put him ahead of Love.
If we’re talking about the entire body of work for each guy’s career, Love is the guy. But following a breakout year in which Butler was asked to defend the opposing team’s best wing player on a nightly basis, he should vault over K-Love.
More from Ben Leibowitz:
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