Throughout the month of August, my colleagues Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney spent many hours on the phone. They pored over Basketball Reference. They exchanged spreadsheets with co-workers and sought our feedback. They tried to incorporate advanced stats, the eye test, and projections for the year to come. They were probably the only two visitors to Synergy Sports in the entire month of August. This is how they sort through every player in the NBA and attempt to rank them. It’s an annual ritual that is equal parts meticulous and masochistic, and the finished product is here, Sports Illustrated's annual list of the 100 best basketball players in the world.
The list is a comprehensive look at where the league stands as of September 2018 and a great way to waste 20 minutes of your day. Also, the layout looks fantastic this year. Go read it.
Now, in the interest of balance, I've been asked by our editors to explain what they got wrong. I am the Top 100 Ombudsman. This is a complicated job, because I love Ben and Rob dearly and I genuinely respect how much time and thought they put into this project. They are dead serious about the integrity of the ranking process and unapologetic about its amazing dorkiness. It's the best. Nevertheless, I take my responsibilities seriously, so here are 25 petty criticisms of the SI Top 100.
25. Lonzo Ball at 100. Ben and Rob will never admit it, but it’s pretty clear they make a concerted effort to choose click-worthy names for the 100th spot on this list. Last year they had D'Angelo Russell here, and the year before it was Devin Booker. That strategy is fine; if they're going to spend 96 hours on the phone every August, they may as well sell the finished product.
But trusting Lonzo to outplay some of the other candidates for this spot requires a pretty big leap of faith. He hasn't played two months of injury-free basketball in the NBA. He can't shoot. He can't finish at the rim. Last year's Lakers were generally better when Josh Hart and Brandon Ingram were initiating the offense. Lonzo isn't bad and he's by no means hopeless, but it may take a few years before his skills actually translate to winning. If we're strictly talking about value for next year's season, I'd rather have Malcolm Brogdon (unranked) than Lonzo Ball. And yes, someone like Brogdon is a significantly less exciting name at 100, but hold on.
24. Dirk at 96, Carmelo Anthony unranked. The bottom of these rankings is a mess. Here's what Ben and Rob had: 100. Lonzo Ball, 99. Brook Lopez, 98. Pau Gasol, 97. Reggie Jackson, 96. Dirk Nowitzki, 95. DeMarre Carrol. Here's how we fix this:
100. Carmelo Anthony
99. Dirk Nowitzki
98. Brook Lopez
97. Reggie Jackson
96. DeMarre Carrol
95. Malcolm Brogdon
Carmelo's game has slipped a ton, but he shouldn't be off the list entirely, and he's more effective in a vacuum than Pau Gasol. This revision solves the Lonzo problem (Brogdon in above him). It also solves the ensuing Brogdon clickbait problem (nobody cares about Brogdon at 100, but Carmelo would be perfect). And finally, even though there's no real difference between Dirk and Melo at this point, this revision also allows Ben and Rob to elevate Dirk over Carmelo and quietly grandstand about their basketball principles (an unstated goal of this entire ranking project).
23. No Rajon Rondo, no Marcus Smart. The top 100 brain trust would probably explain this by saying that Rondo and Smart need the right situation to be effective, their skills won't always translate, and therefore they're not quite as valuable in a vacuum as they sometimes appear. That’s a disappointing explanation. At least there are documented scenarios where Rondo and Smart contribute to high-level winning. Kent Bazemore (91) is Kent Bazemore regardless of his teammates. Same with Evan Fournier (92). Same with Derrick Favors (51!). Rondo and Smart should be on this list somewhere. If nothing else, both would've been better choices than Lonzo at 100 (and just polarizing).
22. Derrick Favors at 51. We're skipping ahead here, but this is such a Ben and Rob take it's almost unbelievable.
21. Lauri Markkanen (84) behind Domantas Sabonis (79)? Bold and probably ill-advised. Nevertheless, you have to respect the commitment to overvaluing decent players who are also kinda boring.
20. PJ Tucker (85) and James Johnson (86) vs. Trevor Ariza (77) and Serge Ibaka (78). I'm upset at Ben and Rob for making me think about this or care about this, but if accuracy is the goal: we should flip these two pairs as a hedge against a) further decline for an aging Ibaka in Toronto and b) what an aging Ariza will look like outside the Rockets system.
19. Brandon Ingram (75) is 20 spots too low. I'm convinced Ben did this specifically to screw with me. It's working. Ingram is behind poor man's DeRozan (Andrew Wiggins at 74) and a player who is permanently 3-9 from the floor for nine points (Nic Batum at 73), but that's only the beginning of the injustice.
Ben and Rob are thinking in two dimensions here. Ingram just averaged 16.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 3.9 assists per game on 47% shooting and 39% from three. He can get to the rim at will. He’s a good secondary creator. He’s improving from the perimeter. He gets to the line frequently. He's six months older than Jayson Tatum, who averaged fewer points, rebounds, and assists last season (and is ranked 40 spots ahead of Ingram on this list). Assuming even moderate progress this year, Ingram should turn into a solid third option or an overqualified fourth option, putting his value right around where Harrison Barnes (59) and Dario Saric (54) find themselves on the list. This ranking is appalling.
18. Dwight Howard at 69, DeMarcus Cousins at 68. One thing I love about Ben and Rob is that I can almost guarantee that neither one of them thinks the "nice" jokes are funny. SI has gotten lots of feedback about this particular ranking, but I promise you, this happened completely by accident. As for Cousins, his ranking makes some sense because missing half the season and eventually playing his way back into shape would complicate his value to most of the league.
Conversely, though, I have a take: the entire NBA community is overdoing it on the post-Achilles correction on Cousins. It's not just this list. Everyone around the NBA is so determined to remind each other that an Achilles rupture is the worst injury in basketball that we are all over-correcting here. It's fine to think that he won't be one of the 20 best players in the league, but suddenly we're talking about Boogie like he's Jonas Valanciunas (63) or Jusuf Nurkic (64), and his transition into late-stages Elton Brand is a foregone conclusion. Prediction: he's back by December 1st and he's better than 30 players in front of him on this list.
17. Aaron Gordon (66) and the vacuum. Every year is the year that Aaron Gordon is going to put it all together, but it never quite happens. I'm not here to argue he's an All-Star hiding in plain sight. But 66—behind Jusuf Nurkic (64) and Ricky Rubio (57) and Harrison Barnes (59)—feels a little low. If Ben and Rob are evaluating players in a vacuum, Gordon is the best example of a player who might look a lot more valuable on a less dysfunctional team. Throw Gordon somewhere in the late 40s or early 50s (somewhere between Otto Porter and Dario Saric) and we're much closer to the truth.
16. "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." Every September, Ben and Rob explain the Top 100 criteria like they're adding an appendix to the constitution. This is not a complaint. This is why they're the best.
15. The late 40s and early 50s are slightly off.Here's what appeared on this week's list: 55. Jamal Murray, 54. Dario Saric, 53. Eric Bledsoe, 52. Kristaps Porzingis, 51. Derrick Favors, 50. Devin Booker, 49. Eric Gordon, and Robert Covington, who was too low last year (82) and is now a tad too high at 48 this year. I can't explain why, but like a picture frame slightly ajar on the other side of the room, it's driving me crazy.
Here's an alternate version of that stretch:
55. Dario Saric
54. Robert Covington
53. Eric Bledsoe
52. Kristaps Porzingis
51. Derrick Favors
50. Eric Gordon
49. Jamal Murray
48. Devin Booker
There. Much better.
14. They also should have moved Eric Bledsoe down 10 spots.After last year's Bucks-Celtics series, it feels wrong to have Bledsoe 30 spots ahead of Terry Rozier (82). Now, 20 spots is OK, but 30 is too much to handle.
13. Derrick Favors at 51. You might be wondering why Favors remains in the revision above. In reality, 51 would have been a perfect spot for Aaron Gordon. But Favors remains in the revised version of the 50s because his ranking at 51 is the quiet masterpiece of this year's top 100.
Favors is very solid, and by all accounts he’s a great teammate, but this is too much. Utah has been fighting a valiant battle to continue starting him next to Rudy Gobert, but returns on that lineup began diminishing two years ago. The entire league has gotten smaller and made Favors’s skills less valuable, and that shift has come at the same time as injuries and age have robbed Favors of explosion he had earlier in his career. While he’s over-qualified as a backup big man, he’s underwhelming if he’s the starter. And here he is at 51, above at least a dozen players who will have a bigger impact on the league next year.
That's OK. This ranking wasn’t for you or me. Favors at 51 was for Ben and Rob. This is their version of ignoring the haters and playing hero ball at the end of a quarter.
This ranking was a dog whistle for all the Hoop Aesthetes out there who who believe that pick-and-roll defense is every bit as important as points per game. Age and injuries have handicapped other top 100 cult heroes of years past, so Ben and Rob can't recklessly shoehorn Paul Millsap and Marc Gasol into the top 20 this year to grandstand about defensive rotations and intangibles. But Favors at 51 is a reminder that neither one of them have betrayed their basketball elitist roots. It's so incredibly wrong and beautiful.
12. Jaylen Brown at 47.Jaylen Brown would be 20-30% less effective if he played anywhere but Boston. Move him down 15 spots.
11. Jayson Tatum at 39. This might be too low. Tatum would fit and thrive on basically every playoff team in the NBA, and where Jaylen may not fare as well if he were asked to shoulder more creation responsibilities, Tatum seems like he’ll be up to the task. Related: The Celtics are going to be so good this season. They are already making me miserable.
10. Blake Griffin at 41 vs. Kevin Love at 31.If Blake Griffin (41) is healthy, isn't he slightly better than Love? And hasn't Love been nearly as injury-prone as Blake the past few years? If you remove the one season where Blake broke his hand off the court, they've both played about 60 games per year lately. Both of them should be in the mid 30s, and Blake should be one or two spots above Love.
9. Khris Middleton at 28. If there's one thing the Top 100 brain trust has proven over the years, it's that they desperately want us to believe that Middleton is more like Bradley Beal (27) and less like Otto Porter (42). The propaganda campaign is admirable but ultimately doomed. Despite a scorching hot series against the Celtics in last year's playoffs, Middleton's shooting and defense both slipped last season. When Giannis struggled to generate scoring at the end of games, the Bucks had no solutions. That’s partly a reflection of Middleton’s ceiling and everything he can’t quite offer as a second star. He remains very good, but year after year, the overzealous Top 100 brain trust forces a nation of reasonable people to become Middleton cynics. It’s upsetting. Move Middleton down 10 spots.
8. Swap Gordon Hayward (25) and LaMarcus Aldridge (21).Hayward is going to be great this year, and again, we should all batten down the hatches and prepare for nine months of Celtics hype. Aldridge will be good again, but it's hard to imagine he'd be perceived as an All-NBA candidate if he played anywhere other than San Antonio. Flipping these two feels right.
7. Kyle Lowry at 23, Ben Simmons at 26, John Wall at 24.This needs some work, so let's try the 20s one more time:
26. Kyle Lowry
25. LaMarcus Aldridge
24. Ben Simmons
23. John Wall
22. Klay Thompson
21. Gordon Hayward
6. KAT (19) vs. Jokic (18) vs. Horford (16).It's a good debate: Is Jokic's passing worth to a team more than KAT's scoring? In reality, it should probably be a tie until one of them learns how to play defense or take over on offense at the end of games. Nevertheless, I appreciate Ben and Rob for leaning into the take here and choosing Jokic outright. As for Horford ... You might say that both Towns and Jokic belong above Horford on this list, but after watching him simultaneously punk both Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid in last year's playoffs, I’m not doubting Horford again.
5. Kyrie Irving (17) vs. Damian Lillard (15).Questions like this are why rankings are fun. Technically speaking, there's not really a wrong answer to Kyrie vs. Lillard. Who you choose depends on whether you value a higher regular season baseline or a higher playoff ceiling. Lillard has been more consistent with more responsibility against tougher competition in the regular season, and he's more durable. Still, Kyrie has a higher ceiling in the playoffs, and there's intangible value to the upside he provides that this ranking doesn't really account for, including a game that cultivates league-wide respect from superstar peers (which then allows his teams to chase other stars). Ultimately, even with the real durability concerns, I'd swap Kyrie with Lillard and put him at 15 a spot ahead of Horford. Given all the value of his playoff upside, you could talk me into swapping him with Paul George at 11.
4. Kawhi Leonard at 12. A lot of people were upset about this one, but this feels like the right spot. Kawhi either missed the past 18 months with a serious injury, or he just spent the past season quitting on his team in one of the shadier NBA power plays since Dwight Howard, all while refusing to explain himself to either his team or the media. Either version of the story is pretty concerning.
If any of his Hall of Fame-caliber peers—LeBron, KD, Harden—handled their careers similarly, it would be a massive story. Were Ben and Rob supposed to pretend the past 18 months never happened? Healthy Kawhi was an MVP candidate in that Spurs system, but carrying the Raptors offense will be a tougher job, and we have no idea whether he's healthy or whether he's committed. Kawhi at 12 feels like a good hedge.
3. Swap Paul George (11) and Draymond Green (13).George just had a fairly uneven year in OKC. His shooting and defense slipped, and he disappeared in a number of those playoff games against the Jazz. Draymond isn't perfect and is on extreme cruise control at various points throughout the regular season, but he arrived in last year's playoffs and dominated every team he played (with one working shoulder). If both of these players are ultimately best as complementary stars, take the one who has proven he can embrace that role and dominate.
2. The top 10 works.All of this makes sense, and I can only nitpick so much.
10. Jimmy Butler
9. Joel Embiid
8. Chris Paul
7. Russell Westbrook
6. Giannis Antetokounmpo
5. Anthony Davis
4. James Harden
3. Steph Curry
2. Kevin Durant
1. LeBron James
1. Good work from Golliver and Mahoney. Go watch Derrick Favors put up 20 and 16 in Game 2 of last year's Thunder series, and remember that the Top 100 never lies.