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NBA Top 100 of 2015: Defending the picks
5:10 | NBA
NBA Top 100 of 2015: Defending the picks
Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney
Monday September 22nd, 2014

Last week, we unveiled our annual list of the Top 100 players in the NBA. We heard your complaints and feedback. And here are our responses to 10 of the biggest beefs:

Faried is way too low. Your argument was dropping him to the 70s because all he did was bring energy on team usa? That's absurd.He was basically the team MVP doing that and that's all coach K asked him to do. Go watch the last 2 months of the nuggets season. Faried averaged 20-10 with a variety of post up moves. You're way off. -- Leon90

Mahoney: That wasn't the argument made at all. Faried was terrific for Team USA and a justifiable choice for its MVP, just as you said. Our case was that Faried was able to play that well because the conditions were essentially perfect. If put on a team led by an elite defensive big who can also stretch the floor, orchestrated by playmaking point guards who can also score for themselves, buoyed by a style that forces turnovers and runs relentlessly and maintains an offense that doesn't require Faried to do much with the ball, Faried can be amazing. The problem is that most NBA teams won't be able to fulfill all of those components. It's under those circumstances that Faried's limitations -- the poor defense, the non-existent range, the lack of ball skills -- come to bear.

Faried can still be an effective player in less than ideal conditions (as with the 2013-14 Nuggets). Eventually, though, his limits impose a teambuilding handicap, which negates some of his value. It wouldn't be hard to construct a pretty good team with Faried, a monster athlete with such terrific zip in his game, as a prominent piece. Building a great team around him, however, would require a coincidence of factors so difficult to engineer under NBA rules as to be concerning.

If Dragic is only at 30whatever, why do like 8 teams wanna give him a max contract next season? And why is he lower on the list than Bledsoe? Have you compared their stats? No one wants to give Bledsoe a max contract. Did you guys know that last year Dragic was one of only a few players to average 20+ points and 5+ assists and have a super high FG% consistently? It was him, Lebron and only a couple others, so he should be in at least the top ten if you go off of those stats. -- John Merrifield

I wonder if Rich Paul paid SI to put Bledsoe over Dragic in their Top 100 NBA players? Not gonna work buddy! -- @KidBuxton

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SI.com's Top 100 NBA players of 2015

Mahoney: Dragic had a hell of a season, well worthy of All-NBA selection. Yet as laid out in our initial explanation of his ranking, it took all kinds of circumstantial factors for him to reach that point. The Suns played a style that allowed Dragic to dominate the ball and run a continuous string of pick-and-rolls within an up-tempo offense. That approach fits Dragic's game perfectly, and through it he was able to post the best season of his career.

As noted above, however, we didn't rank Dragic based on how he'll perform for the Suns. This list was meant to project something closer to general basketball value, which in Dragic's case serves as a slight regression. The stars aligned for Phoenix and Dragic both last season. As such, a very good player leapt to a personally unprecedented level of performance. I'm not quite ready to buy the notion that Dragic would be just that good for an offense that wasn't so reliant on its point guards, so pick-and-roll-oriented and so well spaced. It doesn't take anything away from Dragic to say that he and the Suns are perfect for one another, though for the purposes of our rankings, there was some issue as to how his stardom might translate to another environment.

Bledsoe, on the other hand, gets the edge based on that same criterion. He and Dragic had pretty similar seasons by the numbers. On a per-36-minute basis, the two posted identical assist numbers, similar steal numbers and were separated by just 1.4 points. Where Bledsoe separated himself was on defense. This part of our analysis needn't be complicated: Bledsoe is one of the very best defensive guards in the league and Dragic is merely decent. Provided that the two are even close offensively (which they are), the huge disparity on the other end of the floor swings the comparison in Bledsoe's favor. If that isn't reason enough, Bledsoe also rates as one of the best rebounders in the league for his position and makes for an outstanding cutter if moved off the ball. He showed last season -- in his first as a prominent creator -- that he can generate offense if put in a position to do so. In all of those times when he doesn't have the ball in his hands, though, Bledsoe has more to offer a team than Dragic.

One final thought: In projecting for improvement between two similar players, wouldn't it make sense to bet on the 24-year-old building on a breakout season rather than a 28-year-old coming off of a career year?

Kirilenko over Jamal Crawford? Kirilenko didn't do anything significant in 2014, why would he be ahead of Jamal Crawford? -- Glenn10

Mahoney: This conversation really starts with Crawford. Last season's Sixth Man of the Year award winner is an awesome shot creator with the handle to initiate offense. He can shake free of many defenders, after which Crawford has the balance and release to hit jumpers even when closely contested. Unfortunately, he gives up so much on defense as to surrender much of that value. Crawford giveth and Crawford taketh away -- first with an impressive fadeaway, then by conceding a wide open driving lane to his opponent. I wouldn't go as far as to say that Crawford is a zero-sum player, but his defense is so consistently poor that it undercuts his contributions.

A player with such a lopsided game causes real problems. Crawford has to be hidden from difficult matchups and covered on the back line still, or else he'll hemorrhage points. Even relatively unthreatening opponents seem to find ways to get by Crawford. He gives up favorable angles. He lags behind on screens. He's a no-show in help and generally lacks the sense of timing to make coordinated defensive efforts.

Kirilenko, by contrast, is a low-maintenance contributor who magnifies a team's advantages. His wide range of defensive skills help strengthen systems and aid teammates. His passing and cutting fuels a team's ball movement. Nagging injuries kept Kirikenko hamstrung all season, but with better health should come a return to form. Kirilenko seems incapable of playing out a season without catching his share of dings and tweaks, though most aren't as inhibiting as ongoing back spasms. If those same back problems trail Kirilenko into the 2014-15 season, he would likely fall below Crawford and out of the Top 100 entirely. If not, however, Kirilenko makes for an outstanding, no-frills supporting part. Coaches love him for a reason -- Kirilenko's game is so useful and agreeable that it makes life easier for all others involved.

I find J.R. Smith's inclusion to be the biggest head-scratcher here. -- Mark V.1

Golliver: Your concerns about Smith are totally understandable. One of the questions we ask ourselves throughout the ranking process is, “Would we want this player on our team?” The answer with Smith is always “no” – bracketed by a profanity in front and an exclamation point in back. That said, “knuckleheads” can’t be completely excluded on that basis, as we’re trying to rank the best NBA players rather than the top 100 Eagle Scouts.
 
Smith is a polarizing player who really rode the wave during the last two seasons: his stock was pretty high at the end of his Sixth Man of the Year campaign (despite some hijinks in the 2013 playoffs), and then it bottomed out pretty hard amidst all his foolishness last season. We try really hard not to overreact to the waves that might take place during a player’s career, and our ranking of Smith really didn’t change all that much during the two seasons: He can hit threes, he can create a shot, he is fearless, and he can get to the line when motivated. He proved in 2012-13 that he can be a difference-making No. 2 scorer on a team that advances to the conference semifinals. The upcoming season is a make-or-break year for Smith when it comes to the Top 100. If he doesn’t pull his act together, the weight of two consecutive down years immediately after signing a new contract will likely dump him off the list entirely.

Kevin Love's trade to the Cavaliers didn't influence his No. 7 ranking.
Kevin Love's trade to the Cavaliers didn't influence his No. 7 ranking.
Christian Petersen/Getty

so if Kevin love dint team up with bron would u still have him this high? I thought this was about last year perf -- @rohitkatwit

Mahoney: Were Love still in Minnesota, we would have him just as high in our rankings. Our methods for placement involved two key considerations: How much a player projects to improve/decline next season and how viable a player is when separated from a particular team context. In terms of the former, we like the odds of a star entering the prime of his career continuing to strengthen his game. In processing the latter, we separated every player from his specific team context as much as we possibly could. What Love could offer the Cavaliers matters far less for his ranking than what he could offer a generic team in the most general sense.

These criteria make our rankings somewhat abstract. How Love might perform as a Cavalier matters. What matters more is what his skill set would mean to a franchise with a blank roster. What kinds of players can Love succeed alongside? How might he produce without the aid of a pass-first point guard? What compensatory skills would Love need in a frontcourt partner to best stabilize his team? These were the kinds of questions we asked. Overall, we were so taken with Love's mass rebounding, passing ability, shooting range and burgeoning skill as a scorer to slot him in at No. 7. A power forward who can catch and shoot so quickly from three while contributing so many points and rebounds offers far greater flexibility in the lineups that can be built around him. A team with Love can be more forgiving of the shortcomings of a defensive specialist center, a range-less cutter, a light-scoring distributor or a rebounding-averse wing, among others. Some require particular conditions to guarantee success. Love's game, on the other hand, expands the range of possibility.

Why would Kobe or DRose be on that list??? Lol they didn't play no more then 10 gms. In the words of Cris Carter, #ComeOnMan -- @SwHTown20

Golliver: The list is clearly titled “The Top 100 Players of 2015” rather than the “Top 100 Players of the 2013-14 season.” The mission statement is to gauge who will be the best players heading into next season. Injuries are clearly the trickiest aspect of such an evaluation; we have no special insight into any player’s health other than what’s readily available online.
 
In the case of Derrick Rose, we were able to evaluate his play during the FIBA World Cup, and we were thoroughly unimpressed. His inability to impact games consistently cost him some spots on our ranking.
 

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As for Kobe Bryant, he is an incredibly tricky guy to place, as mentioned in his blurb. It’s not just that he’s missed almost 18 months with injuries, it’s that the time he has missed generally coincides with the time that most guys – even stars – fall off the map. The list of impact wings at 36 years old throughout NBA history is quite short.
 
One thing we do believe in is showing the utmost respect to veterans and to players who have reached MVP or All-NBA First Team heights, especially if they have enjoyed sustained postseason success. We are going to give those guys every benefit of the doubt. Generally speaking, we would rather be too late in throwing dirt on a legend than be too early. Part of the reason for that approach is that we believe the general public overreacts to players on the downside of their careers. There’s a big difference between "Dwyane Wade isn’t as good as he was in 2010" and "Dwyane Wade isn’t good at all." Often those two ideas get muddled in a negative way.

Please explain what Kyrie has done to deserve a higher ranking? -- @OBtoojuveforyou

Golliver: Kyrie Irving’s third season didn’t go as planned, and he has admitted as much. How much of the blame falls to him versus coach Mike Brown versus Dion Waiters versus 10 others factors? That’s a question that only the Cavaliers can answer internally, but they certainly showed that they didn’t hold anything against Irving when they gave him a full max extension on day one of free agency.
 

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Although he’s not quite on the Anthony Davis prodigy level, Irving remains one of the very best young players in the NBA. His second season was fairly historic: The only other under-21 players to average 22 points, five assists, three rebounds and a steal per game were Isiah Thomas, Allen Iverson, Michael Jordan and LeBron James. You’ve probably heard of those guys before.
 
One major reason we are high on Irving is that he holds his own when he’s faced with star competition. It’s silly to use his All-Star Game MVP award as a meaningful barometer, but his comfort factor in that environment at such a young age counts for something. Similarly, his play at the FIBA World Cup was excellent, exactly what coach Mike Krzyzewzki needed and what the Cavaliers wanted to see from him when he was surrounded by stars. Irving did well to pick his spots without being overly deferential or too ball hoggy. His combination of off-the-dribble ability and jumper is unique among NBA point guards. Someone like Damian Lillard can shoot the hell out of the ball but he’s not the threat in transition or going to the rim that Irving is, while John Wall can really get out in the open court and pick your defense apart with his speed but he’s still working on his range.
 
In many ways, we think Irving is a better player than he showed last year, when he simply was asked to do more than he could handle efficiently. We expect a LeBron James “halo effect” too: Irving’s shooting numbers should improve, his profile will increase and he will get more credit nationally for the things he does well. He’s still so young relative to the rest of the league’s All-Star point guards that it’s scary to think about how good he can be once he has a true breakout season alongside James.

So would any NBA team honestly prefer Josh Smith to Klay Thompson? -- @RealJRAnderson

Mahoney: That very much depends on what the team needs. Keep in mind that one of the crux of Smith's burden and Thompson's value doesn't apply here. As stated in the introduction, salary is not a factor in these rankings. Smith doesn't come with his bloated contract attached, and Thompson isn't considered as a rookie-scale bargain. Both are merely basketball players who offer entirely different things.

Between them, we felt that Smith had more value. A season spent out-of-position for a shaky team under a since-fired coach doesn't accurately reflect all that Smith can do. Just a season prior, Smith was stuffing the box score for Atlanta with averages of 17.5 points (on more respectable 46.5-percent shooting), 8.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.8 blocks per game. He's still that player. Yet if you throw Smith out to the perimeter (where he has even more opportunity to take ill-advised jumpers) on a team with a worrisome point guard and claustrophobic spacing, he'll fulfill all that many feared he might be. Control is not Smith's strong suit. Put him on a roster with its own sense of order, though, and his talent pops.

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He's a genuine rim protector, which is distinct (and categorically greater) in value from merely being a good defender. Smith has impressive ball skills for a player his size. He's no Blake Griffin in terms of his handle and decision making, but he can be trusted to dribble into the teeth of the defense while averting disaster. His passing borders on the spectacular, as he transcends the usual array of "passing big man" dishes with tough, accurate, cross-court feeds. Smith is known primarily for his athleticism and punch-line shot selection. On the court, however, his contributions range wide and his impact fairly deep so long as he's put in a position to succeed.

Thompson doesn't need the same kind of hand-holding, but he also doesn't register the same level of influence at his current peak. While commendable, Thompson's defensive contributions are incredibly specific. He does solid lockdown work against guards at either spot, while Smith's ability to swoop in for blocks at the rim demands that the entire opposing team be mindful of his presence. That -- coupled with versatile on-ball defense at one of the most loaded positions in the league -- gives Smith an decisive edge in functionality. What Thompson offers as a dependent shooter (considering that he doesn't yet have a knack for efficient shot creation) doesn't close that gap.

Are you serious with Demar at 61? You realize he was an All-Star last year right? -- @JasimMalik7

Golliver: DeMar DeRozan’s fans should be very pleased with his development last season. For the first time in his five-year career, he posted a PER that was above league average, and he made strides as a scoring threat. That said, I think we’ve moved past the days when simply averaging 22 points per game or getting an All-Star nod at the league’s weakest spot (East backcourt) is enough to solidify a guy as one of the league’s very best players.
 
There are still too many major flaws here to justify a top-30 or top-40 ranking this year. DeRozan was one of the least-efficient high-volume  shooters in the game, his on/off impact stats show little positive impact (comparing unfavorably to Kyle Lowry’s) and he still has significant work to do as a perimeter shooter and a wing defender. He’s in Josh Smith territory shooting 42.9 percent on 17.8 shots per game, really. He also struggled through an ugly playoffs where his shooting numbers went even more into the tank once the defensive intensity ramped up and the game-to-game scouting kicked in.
 
DeRozan made a big climb in our eyes last year, but he’s still just in “prove it” mode. He’s very competitive, he’s proven that he can develop his game, and he did well to take on a huge burden for the surprising Raptors last season. We would just like to see some level of postseason success and a tightening up of his offensive role.

How long before a Sixers player makes SI's Top 100 players list? 2015? Think I'd honestly go with 2016. -- @Interstate76ers

Golliver: What a fun and thoughtful question. My prediction: Nerlens Noel in the “Top 100 of 2016” (next year’s list). Although he was ineligible for this year’s list because he never took the court last season, we did spend some time kicking around his name as a hypothetical. His flashes of above-the-rim defense at the Orlando Summer League were titillating. If Noel is able to stay on the court for big minutes, stack up some blocks and make a positive impact on the glass, I think he will sneak into next year’s list. Young bigs with his length and coordination are such rare and valuable commodities that it would be a little disappointing if he’s not in this discussion 12 months from now.

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