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Bridging the Roster Talent Gap: Part 2

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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: All Star Game-Eastern at Western Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

When we last conducted this exercise, the 2017-18 NBA season was less than 10 games old, the Milwaukee Bucks had not yet traded for Eric Bledsoe, fired Jason Kidd, or welcomed back Jabari Parker, and about a dozen other huge basketball stories have run their course. With the NBA trade deadline looming on Thursday, February 8, what better time than now to take a quick look around the league and compare the relative talent levels of all 30 teams?

Goal

From November, this is the goal of our roster ranking “study:”

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.

This time, the process for identifying each team’s top four players was much more straightforward. Instead of a subjective exercise, I sorted each team’s roster by Win Shares and Minutes Played, took the top five (with some notable exceptions) from that list, and ordered them from most to least important to that team. Once I had the top four players from each squad, I then sorted each category individually by WS/48 to determine their value (as of February 6), with minor manual changes made only for players whose sample size significantly affected their numbers.

Like last time, significantly injured players were left off the list. Guys like DeMarcus Cousins, Kawhi Leonard, Reggie Jackson, Mike Conley, and our very own Malcolm Brogdon were removed from consideration. Additionally, we made exceptions to include important players who had returned to their teams despite not yet reaching the defined statistical benchmarks, like Blake Griffin, Isaiah Thomas, Zach LaVine, and yes, Jabari Parker. Here is where the initial ranking started from:

There were some significant changes for a number of teams, most significantly were the updates to players included as “Third Bananas” and “Fourth Wheels,” partially because of players returning from injury, but also the simple fact that some players have over-performed and taken a higher rank in their team’s pecking order from those who under-performed.

Method

Our ranking method was relatively similar to last time, except we used an actual stat (WS/48) instead of our own preferences and biases. After finalizing the updated league-wide list (see above), we took each player in the Top Dog slot and ranked them, 1-30, from “best” to “least best,” based on WS/48, and repeated the process for the Second Options, Third Bananas, and Fourth Wheels, respectively. 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, James Harden ended up 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. Another example was Andrew Wiggins, who surprisingly 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 grand total of 2.

Results

Looking at each individual category, there were surprises galore:

  • LeBron James fell significantly from his perch at the top of the top category, with James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, and Jimmy Butler all ahead of him as Top Dogs. It is fitting, though, how each of those players has a place in the MVP conversation, while LeBron is once again surrounded by drama as Cleveland continues to disappoint.
  • Kristaps Porzingis, Joel Embiid, and Kemba Walker are all lower on the Top Dog list than I would like, but their placement is reflective of the consequence of applying WS/48 instead of a personal ranking.
  • Giannis sticking around towards the top of the list is yet another reminder of how lucky Bucks fans are to have him around. He’s 23 years old!
  • Chris Paul usurps Steph Curry as the best of the “second best” category, but both players are only here because of their MVP-caliber teammates, and are head-and-shoulders above the remainder of the list.
  • Paul George is lower than I would have expected, but as Oklahoma City has struggled somewhat and he adjusts to a role with Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony, the surprise isn’t that big.
  • 8 of the top 10 “third banana” players are PFs or Cs, which is intriguing.
  • Isaiah Thomas technically ranks dead-last in the third-best category, but I moved him up due to sample size concerns and am giving him the benefit of the doubt in his return from offseason hip surgery.
  • Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe do not inspire confidence with their own rankings on the #2 and #3 lists, with both Bucks falling in the bottom-third of the league. Perhaps their ratings will improve as the team moves further away from the disappointment of the pre-Prunty era.
  • I had no idea what to do with Jabari Parker; technically, his WS/48 is far above the rest of the “fourth wheel” list, but with only two games’ worth of data, I decided to move him into the middle based on the presence of other, more established (this season) players.

By taking each player and grouping them (and their scores) with their teammates, we can also see how teams’ top-end roster talent stacks up against the rest of the league. In a development that surprises no one, the top five teams are Houston, Golden State, Boston, Toronto, and San Antonio (maybe the Spurs are the only “surprise”). Likewise, the bottom of the league features struggling squads like Orlando, Phoenix, Dallas, the Los Angeles Lakers, and Sacramento.

For Milwaukee, they appear much lower on the team-based sort than originally expected, despite having improved the talent level by swapping Greg Monroe for Bledsoe earlier in the season. They’re obviously carried by Giannis, but his supporting cast isn’t quite up to his level. Again, this is a consequence of using a statistic that incorporates wins, and the Bucks have simply not won as many games as they should have, particularly in the final months of Kidd’s tenure.

Lastly, we wanted to repeat the suggestion given by oldresorter last time, and see just how top-heavy some rosters were, and which teams had a better balance between their best player and the trio behind him. From November:

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.

Pretty easy: take the score of the Top Dog, and deduct it from the sum of the Second Option, Third Banana, and Fourth Wheel, and see what’s left. The results:

  • At the top of the order are the Detroit Pistons, who are buoyed by the impressive Andre Drummond and surprising Anthony Tolliver, who prop up Blake Griffin’s somewhat lackluster score (primarily due to the Clippers’ pre-trade struggles and time missed).
  • Not far behind them are the New York Knicks, who are in a similar position: Kristaps Porzingis has somewhat under-performed relative to other Top Dogs, while Enes Kanter has wildly exceeded expectations as a Second Option.
  • Elite teams like the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, and Boston Celtics are actually penalized using this method, largely because their Top Dog players (top-5 in the NBA) are also flanked by teammates who score highly in their own categories. For example, James Harden (tops in the #1 category) has nearly all of his points negated by Chris Paul (tops in the #2 category), and only the positive impact of Eric Gordon and Clint Capela keeps the Rockets above 0. Take this tidbit as evidence that this unscientific study should be taken with as much salt as you can stand.

Speaking of salt, Bucks fans might be salty about how low Milwaukee ranks (29th in the NBA), with a “talent score deficit” of -58. Only the New Orleans Pelicans are “worse off” by this measurement. This tells us what we already know: Giannis carries the Bucks, while Middleton, Bledsoe, and Parker have to work to keep up with him.

The hope is, both inside the Bucks organization and outside, that Jabari improves enough in the short-term to hurdle both of his teammates and become a clear-cut #2 option. This would be an incredible boon for the team, despite the positional overlap of Jabari and Giannis. Not only because Parker compares quite favorably to many team’s second-best player, but also both Middleton and Bledsoe could see their respective rankings increase substantially.

For fun, I ran the hypothetical using the existing numbers. I found that if Parker’s performance were to vault him into the Second Banana category (estimated rank: 11th), thus pushing Middleton to Third Option (estimated rank: 14th, up from 23rd) and Bledsoe to Fourth Wheel (estimated rank: 21st, up from 22nd), the Bucks’ talent score calculation goes from this:

[Middleton (24 pt) + Bledsoe (18 pt) + Parker (16 pt)] – Giannis (116 pt) = -58

...to this:

[Parker (60 pt) + Middleton (36 pt) + Bledsoe (10 pt)] – Giannis (116 pt) = -10

A 48-point increase still leaves the Bucks in the red on overall talent (at least amongst their top-4 players) behind Giannis, but Jabari’s elevation to a higher category closes the gap in a significant way, precisely because it puts a lesser burden on both Middleton and Bledsoe, who have historically struggled to carry too heavy of a load. This would also put the Bucks in a position to simply win more games, which would significantly improve the ranking for everyone. It turns out that winning does cure all ails!


Now, it’s your turn! Which teams or players turned out better than you expected? Which ones were worse? Ask us questions, ask each other questions, and let’s work together to learn what we can about the current NBA landscape...before it changes too much by Thursday.