The impulse of comparison is encouraged by the very nature of sports. One team beats its opponent. One player dominates a matchup. One teammate overtakes another on the depth chart. Games and leagues are built on that engine of relativity, and the NBA is no exception.
It's in that spirit that we offer our list of the Top 100 NBA players of 2017—an endeavor to identify and order the best of the best for the 2016-17 season. The scope of our ranking is relatively simple (no weight is given to long-term development, and as little emphasis as possible is placed on team context), but there is nonetheless a daunting complication built into the exercise itself. Put simply: While we make a considered effort to somehow compare an incredible assortment and variety of talent, there's little grounds to suggest that basketball players can be assigned any kind of absolute value.
On the one hand, the decision to divorce players from their real-life team settings is essential in a project of this nature. No player ought be penalized for landing on the wrong team, just as no lesser contributor should be promoted merely for filling an ideal role. Players need to be evaluated individually to whatever extent such a thing is possible, and to that end the disregard of team factors helps us inch closer to some measure of objective quality.
At the same time, basketball players are almost unavoidably subject to context. There are certain luminaries for whom fit is a non-issue—an elite class of flexible superstars who would work in most every system and would mesh with most any roster. They are the extreme minority and run maybe three deep. The overwhelming majority, meanwhile, need specific factors in place to maximize their on-court value: a particular kind of usage, a certain magnitude of role, a customized set of responsibilities. Some players are inevitably more pliable than others when it comes to compromising on those needs, but that in itself creates problems for defining player value across the board. How does one accurately measure player worth when every individual's contribution is so deeply conditional?
Making that determination inevitably becomes a matter of taste, as we don't otherwise have the means to make sense of such disparate items. It's hard enough comparing vastly different players at different positions—say, Isaiah Thomas and Rudy Gobert—but another matter entirely given that both players have unique prerequisites to their effectiveness. If Gobert is positioned for a low-usage role where his chief priority is defense, his strengths can be accentuated while his weaknesses are disguised. If put on a team that doesn’t have enough firepower to compensate, Gobert’s limited offensive game and range can severely cramp his team’s scoring operations.
A different set of concerns are in play with Thomas, who needs helpful defenders, spot shooters and supporting playmakers to get the most out of his own game. When all of that is in place, Thomas can be a tremendous weapon. Without them, the driving lanes Thomas relies upon dry up and more challenging defensive responsibilities tilt his game unfavorably.
Such factors define the range between a player's ceiling and floor, though without necessarily addressing the probability that either is actually met. How does one place DeAndre Jordan without knowing if he'll have a solid point guard to make use of his game-changing offensive potential? Or rank Ricky Rubio without understanding how likely he is to have the supporting scorers he so desperately needs? And in contrast, where does this line of thinking leave players like Gordon Hayward, who are not only skilled and productive but also malleable to a wide variety of roles?
Certain players are indisputably more challenging to build around than others, and in some way that distinction should be taken into account in a ranking like this one. There's just no clean, satisfying way to do so, and thus no perfect fashion to consider each player on his own merits. That doesn't diminish the value of these results or the process behind them. It's simply important to note that a player's worth shifts dramatically with his actual surroundings, and with that comes distortion to any and every comparative ranking of this kind.