With the NBA season coming to a close, it’s time to ask every fan’s favorite question: who are the best players in the NBA? If you haven’t, I suggest checking out Premium Hoops’ very own top 100 list (and if that hasn’t come out yet, well, keep your eye out for it). However, before we all start irresponsibly and loudly tweeting at each other, we should first establish how to pick the best NBA players. While I’m certainly not claiming to be the most qualified person to talk about this, I do think that my writing about the subject here, here, here, here, here, here, and here uniquely qualifies me.
I thought I struck gold when I boiled down the question of the best player into a series of questions:
- If the league entered a full fantasy draft, who would be selected first overall to give his team the best chance to win a championship?
- Who would be selected second?
- Which player would be selected third?
- And this line of questioning would continue until a full roster of twelve players was created.
After some time, I’ve come to realize that this “Fantasy Draft” heuristic is only one component of answering the question. Let’s establish the rules of how to pick the best NBA players.
How to Pick the Best NBA Players: Four Methods
What I like about the “Fantasy Draft” method is that it helps to ensure parity throughout the hypothetical league, and it makes sure that each team has a wide array of skill levels. The first couple of picks are crucial because the talent precipitously drops off after 100 players or so have been picked.
Unfortunately, the NBA isn’t structured so that all 30 teams are essentially equal in talent. For instance, the NBA Finals showcased a battle between a Miami Heat team with a much stronger core of role players while the Lakers had the two highest peaking players. Teams like the Celtics and Raptors were structured like the Heat while the current Warriors are more like the Lakers. Because of this, we have to introduce a couple of other methods to try and hone in on how much value a player gives on a certain team construction.
The “League Average” Method
The “League Average” method requires you to place each player on a team made up of “league average” players. You can calculate “league average” however you want, but the main point is that every player on the roster is in the middle on all skills. If you use Basketball References’ Box Plus/Minus stat, they define it as a player who scores a 0.0 in that metric. Six players scored exactly a 0.0 in BPM this last regular season: Robert Covington, Aaron Gordon, Doug McDermott, Patty Mills, Elfrid Payton, and Dennis Schroder.
(Two quick notes for anyone who cares: 1) Aaron Gordon is the closes player to true “league average” because he scored a -0.1 in OBPM and a +0.1 in DBPM meaning that his offense and defense are both closest to league average, and 2) 102 players scored above a 0.0 BPM last season).
The “League Average” Method in Practice
Therefore, the “League Average” method asks “which player would be most valuable on a team of ‘league average’ players?” If we use Myles Turner whose 0.1 BPM is the closes to 0 as a center, imagine placing a player on a team of these players. Would you rather run a lineup of Mills, McDermott, Covington, and Turner with LeBron, or would you rather have Mills, McDermott, Covington, and Turner with Zach LaVine? Clearly, you’d rather have LeBron. Therefore, LeBron wins out in that matchup.
In his LeBron profile, Ben Taylor describes LeBron as the following:
James is the greatest floor-raiser in NBA history, able to do more with spare parts than anyone ever by simultaneously bolstering an offense while upgrading the defense.Backpicks GOAT: #3 LeBron James, 2018
While I wouldn’t call a team of “league average” players “spare parts,” the sentiment is still the same. Which players in the league would do best to make an average team good or great?
The “Spare Parts” Method
Similar to the “League Average” method, the “Spare Parts” method asks “which player would add the most value to a team of ‘sub-par’ players?” “Spare Parts” may come off as a bit harsh, so maybe think of it as “Replacement Level” which Basketball reference defines as a player with a BPM of -2.0 or worse. Like before, you can envision this however you want, but I’m going to use that value for the sake of simplicity here. Last season, 26 out of 187 qualifying players scored as “replacement level” ranging from Cory Joseph (-2.0) to Jordan Poole (-6.6).
So, if I randomly pick a lineup of those players, which player would make the most out of that team? Would you rather have Joel Embiid or Bam Adebayo join Kendrick Nunn, Austin Rivers, Taurean Prince, and Kyle Kuzma? Because of his ability to anchor a defense and be the main scoring and creating hub on offense, Embiid wins out here.
Again, like the “League Average” method, this method is kinder to players who can buoy a solid offense or defense by himself. This can be through mega scoring and creation (Harden, LeBron, Jokic), defensive dominance (Gobert), or all around impact (Giannis).
The “Superteam” Method
Finally, we have the part of the equation that I probably value the most: the “Superteam” method. Weirdly enough, “Superteams in the National Basketball Association” has its own Wikipedia page. They define a “superteam” as a “roster [who] typically has three or more Hall of Fame caliber players that are in or near their prime.” If we look to Basketball Reference again, a solid numerical heuristic would be looking at MVP caliber player (+8.0 or higher) or All-Time players (+10.0 or higher).
This season, only six players qualified as an “MVP caliber player“: Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Luka Doncic, Kawhi Leonard, James Harden, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Giannis was the only player to qualify as an “All-Time” player.
I’ve tried building teams like this in the past, and the question always becomes figuring out when to value fit over talent. Obviously, a player like Robert Covington would disrupt the Rockets’ offensive ecosystem less than LeBron. Nevertheless, you would still rather have LeBron on that team 10 times out of 10.
The term “Ceiling Raiser” is what most NBA analysts would use to describe this skillset which Benjamin Morris clearly illustrates in his Steph Curry for MVP article back in 2017. Taking a great team and improving them to an all-time team is, to me, the most valuable skill a player can have.
How to Pick the Best NBA Player: Merging the Four Methods
I don’t have a handy little equation in which you can plug players to receive the “best player” output. However, I do know that the answer lies in how players rank in each of the above four methods: Fantasy Draft, League Average, Spare Parts, and Superteam. If I were to rank the importance of these methods, I would probably go Superteam, Fantasy Draft, League Average, and Spare Parts. I want my best players to be able to coexist smoothly on a possible all-time team instead of dragging spare parts to moderate success.
This is why for my top 100 list, I ranked Anthony Davis as the second best player in the league over LeBron James (who is 3rd). If this were any other season, LeBron would be higher, but from what we saw in these playoffs, the Lakers aren’t nearly as successful without Davis’ ridiculous defensive potency. Furthermore, his skills help unlock LeBron’s value as a quarterback by filling in the gaps.
I’m sure that there are more methods that could be included in this equation. For now, these four methods are my base for determining how to pick the best NBA players.