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Bridging the Roster Talent Gap: Part 1

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Having the best player on the court helps your team. But what about the second-best? Or the third...or fourth...?

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Milwaukee Bucks Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Much (and more) has been made about the Milwaukee Bucks’ rapid ascension in the minds of NBA enthusiasts...and how the Bucks have struggled to keep up with expectations on the court. At 4-3, the Bucks are still a successful team (even if they’re not as good as we had hoped right now), and in Giannis hold one of the keys to any sort of NBA success: a superstar player.

And while that key is an important one (as well as the rarest), there are other keys to success. Good coaching is one of them, and Bucks fans are, in a word, concerned about the Bucks’ coaching. Good management is another one, and with rookie GM Jon Horst at the helm, it’s simply too early to tell. Good talent is another key, and one that we think is worth diving into today.

The Bucks, from roster spots 2-15, are not necessarily one of the most talent-rich teams in the league. They have a number of well-fitting role players that surround one of the most unique in the game, but those role players can only take you so far when you take on opponents that have two, three, or more high-level contributors. This has been the rationale for pursuing Eric Bledsoe from the Phoenix Suns; when a talented player becomes available and you can afford the price, some believe that adding talent is the highest priority.

But is that assumption correct? Are the Bucks actually a “weak” team overall, driven solely by the sheer brilliance of Giannis? For all the other things that affect a team (particularly coaching, which is a frequent topic of criticism with Bucks fans), is the problem more simple than that? To answer that question, I was joined by some members of the Brew Hoop staff to take a look at how the Bucks’ roster stacks up against the rest of the league, talent-wise.


Method

(Note: If you’re looking for a scientific approach based on academic methodology, you might want to stop reading. Even if you’re not, take everything here with a grain of salt, because our process was far more subjective than objective.)

Our goal was simple. We wanted to roughly compare talent levels across the NBA, based on the top four contributors on each team. To do so, we set ourselves up to take four easy steps:

  1. Identify the four best players on each NBA roster.
  2. Rank the players in each quartet from “Top Dog,” “Second Option,” “Third Banana,” and “Fourth Wheel.”
  3. Combine the lists of each ranked player and reorder them, from best to worst.
  4. Assign and aggregate total weighted value for the final rankings for each member of the team’s quartet of most important players.

Process

I invited two experts from the Brew Hoop staff (Kyle Carr and Dakota Schmidt, shouts out to both!) to assist with the identification and ranking processes. The three of us got together, reviewed the rosters for each NBA team, put the top four players for each team on a list together, and argued over how to finally rank them. Here is where we agreed to start from:

Notable Absences

Our panel of experts had to make some tough calls, and one of those calls was to exclude prominent players who are currently missing time with injury. That list includes but is not limited to, Kawhi Leonard, Chris Paul, Isaiah Thomas, Gordon Hayward, Zach LaVine, Nicolas Batum, Jeremy Lin, and yes, Jabari Parker. The decision to leave these players out of the exercise was made to put every team on equal footing when it came to which guys were available now.

After finalizing the league-wide list, we then took each player in the Top Dog slot and ranked them, 1-30, from “best” to “least best,” and repeated the process for the Second Options, Third Bananas, and Fourth Wheels. Following that, I assigned each player slot a point value (4 for Top Dog, 3 for Second Option, 2 for Third Banana, 1 for Fourth Wheel) and multiplied it for each player by the inverse of their league ranking.

For example, LeBron James was at the top of the Top Dog list. As a Top Dog, he earned 4 points multiplied by 30 (the inverse of his league ranking of 1st), for a total of 120. Turns out it’s good to be The King. Another example was Justin Holiday, who ranked dead-last in our list of Third Bananas; he got 2 points multiplied by 1 (the inverse of his league ranking of 30th), for a total of 2.

Results

Ranking these lists of 30 was difficult! Determining who the very worst in any given list wasn’t all that hard, but the middle was incredibly hard to parse out, as well as the first half of the Top Dog list. List by list, here’s where we landed for Top Dog, Second Option, Third Banana, and Fourth Wheel:

The point of this exercise is to identify which teams can boast top-end talent for each of the four “roles” we assigned, as well as which teams struggle to keep up...or which teams are buoyed by a superstar carrying a collection of lesser peers. After putting each NBA squad through our rigorous ranking process, here’s what we came up with, as well as a few thoughts on the results:

  • The Golden State Warriors continue to be unfair. Kevin Durant came in second in our Top Dog ranking...and their remaining trio of Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson were the clear winners for each of the other three slots. They were a mere four points (aka a single Kent Bazemore) away from a perfect score.
  • The Oklahoma City Thunder, who walloped the Bucks on Halloween night, also graded out very highly, with their quartet of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, and Steven Adams ranking fourth (or better) in each category.
  • The bottom rung of the NBA is simply outmatched talent-wise; this isn’t a revelation as much as it is a testimony to the power of stars in the league. The Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks, Sacramento Kings, and Brooklyn Nets were all unable to break 50 total points, in no small part because the players filling their respective Top Dog roles are not currently cut out to produce on that level.
  • Other teams presented similar results, but the degree to which the Milwaukee Bucks are carried by their Top Dog (Giannis Antetokounmpo) is somewhat troubling. Ranked 3rd by our experts, Giannis’ point value significantly exceeded the combined value of the other ranked Bucks (Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, and Tony Snell). It’s great to have a super-duper star...but is he getting the help he needs?

While this exercise was fun, it identified another opportunity. As the season progresses and more data becomes available (thus increasing the sample size), we’re going to be able to take a much better look at what teams are doing to pursue wins, and which players are most helpful in doing so. This in turn will show us which teams are maximizing the level of talent they can put on the floor at any given time, which as we’ve seen time and time again, is the key to winning in the NBA.

That’s going to be our focus in Part 2. For now, let us know what you think about Part 1 in the comments. Which teams turned out better than you expected? Which ones were worse? Ask us questions, ask each other questions, and let’s work together to try and learn what we can about this young NBA season.

Update!

Special shouts out to oldresorter, who gave the following suggestion in the comments:

One general observation, if I were to study the article, I would subtract col 1 from the total, or adds col’s 2 thru 4, to arrive at how much the bucks do indeed trail in players 2 thru 4.

The idea here is to take each team’s Top Dog and compare them to the rest of the supporting cast. Teams that maintain high scores have a balanced roster that included high-level talent behind their best player. Teams that have lower or negative scores have a huge talent gap between their best player and the rest of their main cast of characters...which is not necessarily a good thing. After taking that suggestion, here are the results:

* long whistle *

  • Running the results this way makes the Bucks look bad. Very bad. Giannis is a revelation, but his supporting cast doesn’t seem to be up to the task! It’s almost like the Bucks need more talent on the roster to make up for it!
  • Cleveland, the Los Angeles Clippers, the Houston Rockets, and the New York Knicks also fall into this trap; each has an elite Top Dog (or in the case of Kristaps Porzingis, a Top Dog who’s that much better than his teammates) followed by a cadre of role players who, by themselves, don’t stack up to the rest of the league. The Cavaliers at least have Isaiah Thomas on the horizon; ditto for the Rockets and Chris Paul.
  • Look at Toronto! Nobody on their roster is considered “elite” at this stage of the season, but they’ve got a high level of talent across the board. Ditto for the surprising Detroit Pistons and enigmatic Minnesota Timberwolves.

Thanks again for the suggestions, and keep the conversations going!