NBA Pre-Postseason Player Tiers 2023: Joel Embiid’s next step is playoff success
Apr 7, 2023
My guess is two of the players about whom I’m going to get the most pushback in terms of what slot they’re in are Jayson Tatum (Tier 2A, or seventh to ninth top player in the league) and Joel Embiid (1B, fifth or sixth), especially given both having seasons that will place them in the top five, and in Embiid’s case, possibly at the top of the MVP voting.
And I’m here to tell you there is literally (well, almost literally, but nobody is going ’61 Wilt or anything) nothing they could have done this regular season to move any higher. Because the questions they have to answer, and the tests they have to pass, happen in May and June, not January and February.
I’m not even saying either player has shirked or shrunk in playoffs past. But they haven’t quite overcome either.
Somehow, a narrative has developed that last season’s NBA Finals weren’t actually that close, but with a chance to go up 3-1 at home, Boston had a five-point lead with 6:30 left in Game 4. And the Celtics couldn’t close it out and didn’t win another game from there. A big reason was the degree to which the Warriors had seemingly (and finally) figured out Tatum, turning him into much more of an isolation scorer than the playmaking offensive engine who helps the Celtics purr. Over the final two games, he made only 16 of 38 shots, with nine turnovers against only 11 assists.
To put a point on it, the title was there to be won, but Boston’s offense bogged down. With Tatum the primary driver of that offense, he takes a good chunk of the blame. Maybe if the late-game offensive foibles hadn’t plagued the Celtics earlier in the postseason — they made harder work of the series against the Bucks and Heat as a result of similar breakdowns — or across the regular season wherein the Celtics were one of the worst-performing teams in the clutch of the last few decades, the disappointment would stick to him less.
Meanwhile for Embiid, there is nothing particular he hasn’t done. Other than win.
The second-round loss in 2019 to Toronto (and all the bounces of Kawhi Leonard’s jumper that it required) was a credible defeat in a hard-fought series in which there had to be a loser. The bubble sweep at the hands of the Celtics was more the result of the support on his team collapsing once Ben Simmons went down with an injury just before the playoffs. Embiid was a little banged up against the Hawks in 2021, while missing the first two games against the Heat last year.
Over the past few years, I’ve come to see reliability as a more and more important trait the higher up the Tiers we travel. And while there are explanations and extenuating circumstances for all of those losses (including series the Sixers should have won on paper in the last two playoff runs), it’s always something with Embiid and Philadelphia.
For me, the Hawks series sticks in my craw as the one a 1A player doesn’t drop. This isn’t to say that’s a permanent status, but reaching the conference finals (at least) last year would have helped!
If the above sounds nitpicky about either Embiid or Tatum, it is intended to be. The Tiers are explicitly about drawing fine distinctions between top players because, as we see every year, those little differences matter a great deal at this level. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if either Tatum or Embiid showed that those small edges are actually in their favor over the next few months. But unlike players above them, they haven’t quite proved it. Yet.
I supposed I can’t close without addressing the inevitable “But what about Nikola Jokić?” retort to the critique of Embiid. To which I would respond: Show me the series Denver (and Jokić) has lost in which they were favored? Show me where he hasn’t performed at an exemplary level across his entire playoff career, aside from a few ugly moments of poor discipline resulting in ejections.
Getting the to conference finals in the bubble, winning a series without Jamal Murray in 2021 and performing well at least on an individual level despite being the sole focus of Golden State’s game planning last year has been “proving it” relative to circumstances.
But heading into the playoffs as the top seed does put Jokić at risk. An early exit where his defensive limitations play a key part will mean at this point next year, Jokić will be the subject of this demand for proof either alongside or instead of Embiid.
NBA Pre-Postseason Player Tiers 2023: LeBron still shows flashes of greatness, Donovan Mitchell levels up
Apr 6, 2023
I first wrote about the possibility of LeBron James entering the decline phase of his career more than seven years ago. That season’s championship later, I’ve been a little squeamish about making that call again. But I think it’s time. This isn’t said out of malice or denigration of James’ career. It’s just a fact that every player eventually gets old. While some age more gracefully than others, they all eventually age out of Top Tier status.
Properly recognizing this slippage in real time is an enormously tricky part of the Tiers exercise, and is one of the areas where focusing on current championship equity over future career-and-contract projected value makes things more – rather than less – complicated.
If were I judging on the latter, the inevitability of the decline combined with the enormous contract and reality that a player of James’ stature will inevitably enjoy a larger role than their current skills might warrant make it easier to discount and downrate.
But if we’re focused more on the here and now it’s fraught. There have certainly been stretches this year where James has rolled back the years and looked just as dominant as ever. But those have been just that: stretches.
Even in those periods, it wasn’t quite the same. While he can be forgiven for not being a hustle-demon on defense as he nears 65,000 career combined regular season and playoff minutes, that can’t obscure that in his prime years he was just that. That hypothetical “What would the best and most tireless defender in the league do?” ghosts used by the Toronto Raptors to illustrate the early promise of tracking data, that was simulating LeBron.
And he hasn’t been that guy on a game-to-game basis for several years.
Defense isn’t the only evidence of slippage. Consider that his ratio of free throw to field goal attempts was .411 over his two strings in Cleveland while reaching .426 in his Miami years. Over his now five years in Los Angeles, it has dropped all the way to .288 (as of the time of this writing with a week to go in the regular season). This sort of trend is often an injury of a reduction in explosiveness or other impingements on athleticism. That James has managed to get to the basket as often as always is a credit to his skill and strength, but he isn’t creating the sorts of advantages that saw him live at the line until he was deep into his 30s.
On some level, it’s a measure of James’ greatness (for my money, he is one of three plausible candidates for GOAT status alongside Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but this isn’t the place for that debate) that I have to spend this much time explaining why I think a 38-year old is nearer the bottom than the top of the Top 10 in the league in terms of current championship-level impact.
Of course, based on my track record here, LeBron is going to reel back the years and have the Lakers storm deep into the Western Conference playoffs. While that would be a great story, it would also be contrary to expectations, at least to mine.
NBA Pre-Postseason Player Tiers 2023: Jaylen Brown’s, Anthony Edwards’ stock rises
Apr 5, 2023
The whole “82-game or 16-game player?” thing has been done to death. And yet there is still truth contained in the cliché. Especially in this era of pinball-like accumulation of gaudy stat lines, it’s difficult to compare and contextualize the performances of very good-to-great players against one another when most of what we’re seeing is matchups against lesser opposition.
In the playoffs, we not only get several head-to-head duels between players who might only see each other three times a season, but these contests arise in an environment of heightened preparation and attentiveness.
Evaluating head-to-head matchups doesn’t just mean series wins. A player can win the matchup but still be eliminated with a salient recent example being Kevin Durant outplaying Giannis Antetokounmpo over the seven games of the 2021 Eastern Conference semifinals, but the rest of the Bucks just barely overcoming that gap. Nor is one series dispositive, especially if it is closely fought.
But there are times when two standout players enter a series and it’s clear to everyone watching that one player is just flat out better than the other.
Meanwhile, the playoff environment helps differentiate between the quirky and the unstoppable. Even if a player’s left-handedness catches an opponent off guard early in a playoff series, by about the third quarter of Game 1, that edge is gone. On the other hand, players where you know exactly what is coming and can’t do a damn thing to stop them even with that information? Those are the stars.
Even within Tier 3 having that success is a separator. Why is Khris Middleton a sub-tier or two ahead of Bradley Beal? Only partially due to Beal’s failings, he hasn’t taken a playoff series and stamped his authority on it the way Middleton has with his ability to take and make tough shots at critical times.
I believe the ability to excel in the later rounds of the playoffs is, to a degree, learnable. Part of the reason teams often have to “fail before they succeed” is the need for players to experience having some of their pet moves rendered ineffective, requiring new wrinkles and counters. Without facing the adversity of poor playoff performance, the impetus to develop those wrinkles is, if not eliminated completely, at least blunted.
Of course, it isn’t a given that a player will struggle in the first exposure to the postseason. It is a function of where they rate among the league’s elite, but Stephen Curry and Nikola Jokić could operate at a high level from the first time they hit the postseason floor. Not to say they didn’t improve from there as well, but contrary to Billy Beane’s “Moneyball” lament, their s— did work in the playoffs.
And maybe that will happen for Zion Williamson or Tyrese Haliburton, as well, if and when they face this test. But that will have to wait as neither seems likely to get the opportunity to do so this season. Even should the Pelicans reach the playoffs proper, Williamson figures to have a limited role to play as he returns from a long-term hamstring injury.
While not yet having the chance to succeed in this sport isn’t the same as failure, it’s much closer to that than succeeding. As with all things in the Tiers process, advancement isn’t given; it’s taken.
NBA Pre-Postseason Player Tiers 2023: De’Aaron Fox, Aaron Gordon climb the ranks
Apr 4, 2023
There is no official definition or bright line separating “stars” and “role players” in the NBA. But the terms are useful shorthand for a real distinction between those who can provide value by finishing plays and those who can not only finish themselves but also create those opportunities.
Over past editions of the Tiers, as well as the reveals of the top three “pre-postseason” Tiers to come over the rest of this week, I’ve made clear that I believe the latter skill, when performed at a high level, is the most valuable, least replaceable trait in today’s league. Almost to a man, Tiers 1, 2 and 3 have been populated by above-average creators, with the only exceptions being Defensive Player of the Year-level interior players.
The league seems to agree with me, as the ability to create with the ball in hand is extremely well-compensated, even for players who have the ability to get buckets at more modest efficiencies than the true elite. In fact, for many of those players, this trait is, to my mind, overly well-compensated.
While more creation is rarely useless to a team, below a certain level of efficiency and skill, adding more on-ball juice might not help and could even hinder teams pursuing genuine playoff success. In terms of the cost in both cap dollars and the more complementary and additive skills which are being eschewed in service of more shot creation, the trade-off for “just OK” self-creation isn’t likely worth it.
This concept is often described as the difference between floor raising and ceiling raising. For a rebuilding team, anybody with reasonable creation skills helps. When starting from the ground up, there are plenty of gains to be made just in reducing or eliminating “going nowhere” type possessions. However, to run in the same circle as the league’s elite, a team needs more than mere competence. A good chunk of those chances has to become exceptional, which is where the stars come in.
The list of players who have taken a run at being able to carry star-level usage only to come up just short is long and varied. Some even manage modest levels of success — Jerami Grant in Detroit and now Portland is a recent example — but most see their shooting percentages drop nearly as fast as their teams in the standings. And I think most would agree that even a relative success like Grant, not to mention his team, would be better served in a more Aaron Gordon-like situation than as a secondary offensive option. Similarly, Andrew Wiggins’ time in Golden State has shown just how important it can be to not overtax a talented, if creatively flawed, player if an org wants to get the best out of him.
Still, it’s important for younger players to be given the chance to try and fail. The jump in value from “top role player” to “borderline All-Star” is considerable, and for any team on the rise likely worth risking an ugly shooting season on the possibility a player can thrive when given more to do. I certainly would not have expected Lauri Markkanen would not only just survive but also thrive after being given the keys to Utah’s offense, to the point where his All-Star selection wasn’t much of a surprise at all, while Jalen Brunson was one of the bigger snubs from this year’s squad after spending most of the year proving that he has much more in his bag than the “Luka’s sidekick and occasional stand in” character he played in Dallas would suggest.
The next player up to try his hand at breaking through the role-player ceiling will likely be Mikal Bridges. His scoring has been superb since being dealt to Brooklyn at the deadline, and while I expect plenty of regression — I will go ahead and guarantee he will not shoot over 50 percent on uncontested 3s over a full season — he’s shown pretty much every thing he could ahead of next season.
Brooklyn’s postseason is likely to be short and rough, the roster too callow and imbalanced to offer real threat to the teams above them in a series. So we’ll have to wait until next season to see if Bridges can reliably fill a primary or secondary scoring slot. Should he be able to do so, those skills combined with his All-League level defense will allow him to jump up into the Top 3 tiers which are typically off limits to perimeter role players.
He might not be the only one. This postseason won’t be the proving ground, but there are a few players around the league that I would like to see given the chance to do more, just to see if it works. There are reasons John Collins has been a near perennial center of trade rumors in part because of the sense that he might blossom once he is no longer a member of Trae Young’s rhythm section and can play the occasional solo himself.
But either player succeeding in breaking into the Top 3 tiers would be much more the exception rather than the rule.
Meanwhile, one of the hardest questions to answer among the players who can’t break through is when to prefer the top-level role player over more of a floor raiser who may not be quite as effective if placed in a more complimentary role.
The latter represent the players for whom I have most frequently been accused of “hating.” Which is a far cop, insofar as we are talking about the player archetype of the good-but-not-great scorer who has deficits as a defender or playmaker or both. I think that group of players more often holds a team back than helps on the way when trying to get from solid, middle-seeded playoff participant to conference-finals-or-bust contender level.
Which in a roundabout way explains why players like Domantas Sabonis or Julius Randle can make All-Star teams and end up in the same grouping as top role players like Bridges or Aaron Gordon. I’d be crazy to suggest that the second group is “better at basketball” than the first. But in terms of how players fit into the very specific competitive environment that is the NBA, sometimes you can do more by trying to do less.
NBA Pre-Postseason Player Tiers 2023: Klay Thompson, Karl-Anthony Towns among top 75
Apr 3, 2023
Evaluation, much like ball, never sleeps. Life in the NBA means constantly reassessing where you are and where you are going.
This holds across all aspects of a franchise. Can this coach take us to the next level? Do we trust this front office to formulate and execute a plan to push the team forward?
But most important is the talent on hand. How good are our players now, both as individuals and as a collective? Is there a hard ceiling on this group, or is there open sky above? If the team is still growing, is our best player good enough to be the best player on a top team?
These are difficult questions, made harder by the fact that it’s a zero-sum game with moving targets. Players themselves are not fixed entities. They get better, get older, go through slumps, find better situations, figure it out and/or lose confidence. At the same time, the landscape of the league is changing. In addition to the ever-higher bar set by the league’s overall skill level, different skill sets and player types gain or lose value as the collective style of play changes. Plus, at a certain point, it doesn’t matter how good your talent is on any sort of absolute scale. Rather, are they better than the five opposite of you?
2022-23 NBA Player Tiers: Russell Westbrook, RJ Barrett among those in Tier 5
Player Tiers are the best way I know to take a snapshot in time of not just how players order relative to one another, but also to note where there are real distinctions between groups. In some ways, the entire effort is based on frustration at the tendency to want to elide crucial differences. A team might have a “Top 10 Player” leading them, but there is a real distinction between that player being on the shortlist for “best guy in the league,” like a Giannis Antetokounmpo, and one who arguably takes one of the last couple of spots in that “Top 10,” such as Damian Lillard or Anthony Davis.
Might not seem like much, but when it comes to winning a championship, that s— matters.
As I’ve written in the introduction in each of the three offseasons in which The Athletic has produced Player Tiers, I’m intentionally considering Playoff performance and viability, as the relevant definition of “Top X Player” carries an implied “towards winning an NBA championship.” There are other ways to define greatness — remember that MVP is a regular season award, for example — but that’s the rubric I’m using.
So it might seem strange to release an updated Tiers list on the eve of the playoffs. If it can all change over the next few months, what’s the point of doing it now?
In a word: anchoring.
We can get so intimately familiar with players’ games over playoff runs that it can be tempting to focus too much on particular strengths or weaknesses that may be highlighted by the matchups they end up running into. Further, most of these guys will lose their last game, and it’s useful to have that pre-playoff evaluation to buttress against overreacting. It was tempting to downrate Jayson Tatum after some of his struggles toward the end of last season’s Finals. But, it was an important counterweight to have already considered where he rated, and also remember that I shouldn’t penalize him for reaching the Finals but failing to defeat the Final Boss more than I would have if Jimmy Butler’s last second pull-up dropped in Game 7 on the Eastern Conference Finals.
Read more: NBA Power Rankings for the week of April 3
Speaking of Tatum, another benefit of updating the tiers now is identifying which players have the most to gain or lose with their playoff performance. There simply isn’t a lot more certain guys can do in the regular season to ascend higher than they have been, while those without a lot of exposure in the postseason need the level of stress-testing to which a series or run will subject them. We might have suspicions about how Evan Mobley or De’Aaron Fox will fare in that crucible, but we won’t know until we see it.
As part of the rollout of the Tiers, I will lay out some of the questions that face players, as well as identifying and discuss the player archetypes that most often confound the effort to properly rate in this way.
Before diving in, I’d recommend reading the intros I’ve done the last few years— 2020, 2021 and 2022 — to refresh yourself on the methodology. While my research has shown that the Top 125 or so players in the league are considered to have a meaningful impact on teams’ title chances, this list will be limited to the Top 4 Tiers and 75 players. Though there are certainly some guys from outside this group who could make a leap, I’m not overly concerned with deciding those last 50 spots just now.
Rating the rookies
A near universal truth in the NBA is that rookies are bad. While obviously many first- year players go on to become quite good, each year one can count those who show not just promise, but genuinely positive impact, on one hand, with the thumb and a finger or three to spare.
According to Estimated Plus/Minus (the current gold standard for single-number impact metrics) here are the rookies who have been estimated to have had a positive impact of 1+ points/100 possessions in meaningful minutes for playoff teams over the last three seasons: Jose Alvarado of the Pelicans and the Knicks’ Immanuel Quickley. That’s the entire list. Utah’s Walker Kessler is currently rated at +2.1/100, while Memphis’ Brandon Clarke managed +1.0/100 in his 2019-20 rookie season, but their teams were each just on the outside looking in.
The four players mentioned are illustrative of another factor: the few rookies who are impactful are much more likely to project as career role players than provide much star equity. Guys who have enough potential to become NBA bucket-getters tend to receive the keys to an offense right away, where they almost universally learn that scoring efficiently against NBA defense is no joke.
Orlando’s Paolo Banchero will likely win Rookie of the Year in a landslide, and deservedly so, but as of this writing, his scoring efficiency is nearly 10 percent lower than the league average, only propped up that high by his near historical level of foul-drawing for a first- year player. This is entirely normal. Players who become stars take their lumps early as they learn what they can and can’t reliably do against this level of competition, while also honing their advantages to ever sharper points.
Who leads the NBA Rookie of the Year race? Paolo Banchero? Bennedict Mathurin?
So how to account for a player who is not good now, but we suspect will very much be so in the near future? If we’re using the Tiers as a snapshot of the league landscape, simply excluding them feels blinkered. So for rookies, I have always made an exception to my general rule of rating players on a “How much will they help toward a title this year?” scale. They will almost certainly get better, and soon.
Which is why, despite his rampant inefficiency and up-and-down defense — a profile I tend to downrate to an extreme degree relative to general perception — Banchero made my top 4 Tiers based on what I think he will be soon. He joins other players for whom I have given similar treatment in recent years, such as Zion Williamson, Ja Morant and Evan Mobley.
I strongly suspect that when I include Tier 5 in the offseason version, several of Kessler, Oklahoma City’s J. Williamses, Sacramento’s Keegan Murray and Indiana’s Bennedict Mathurin will appear as well. But even that is with the understanding that they are being graded on a slightly different curve than the rest of the league.
This is one time that I think management obviously made a mistake. Stotts may very well have been the reason they did so well and had a chance to advance. How is it Stotts fault that Nurkic and Covington just aren’t as good as they need to be? Or that Melo and McCollum simply don’t give them enough to support Lillard and Powell?
They’ll need to trade McCollum and Covington – it’s just so frickin obvious. Powell and Lillard are awesome, and it looks like Anfernee Simons can step into McCollum’s role. McCollum has trade value and could garner them a defensive wing that’s better than Covington at all aspect of the game. Oubre would be better for instance.
It’s a shame that Jerami Grant has chosen to stay in Detroit. A team like Portland really needs him to help get to the next level. Denver kind of lucked out to have replaced him with Aaron Gordon. Suns need Grant to advance. Mavs. Lakers. Celtics. Hot commodity if he was available. Makes me wonder if some of the 2020 draftees will grow into what Grant is now. Patrick Williams and Bey and Okoro have a chance to be that sort of guy. Who else?