In what has now become an annual tradition, we’re back again to talk about Seth Partnow’s NBA Player Tiers. To jog your memory, we covered the 2020 and 2021 editions previously, and there were once again only two Spurs that made it this time around.
Once again, Partnow mostly relied on Estimated Plus-Minus (EPM) and one-year Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus (RAPM) for analysis, which is largely considered two of the best advanced stats available today.
Before diving into notable players, it’s important to understand why using tiers is often more useful than a generic ranking. In my opinion, the biggest advantage to tiers is that they can account for different roles that players occupy. For instance, Player A might have skills that make him extremely valuable as a role player on contenders, but he might not shine as much on a more middling team.
On the other hand, Player B might be more suitable as a floor raiser who can lead a mediocre roster to the playoffs, but his ball-dominant nature might not be as useful on a contender with better players.
Is one player more valuable than the other? Well, it’s hard to quantify in a vacuum, which is why placing them in the same tier makes more sense than strictly labelling one as the 47th best player in the league and the other as the 55th best.
It’s also worth noting that some tiers also have tiers within themselves (Inception, anyone?). I’ve laid them out below along with some players to give you an idea of the differences between each tier.
Tier 1 (MVP-level cornerstones): includes 1A (Giannis Antetokounmpo), 1B (Luka Doncic), and 1C (LeBron James)
Tier 2 (All-NBA franchise players): includes 2A (Jayson Tatum), 2B (Anthony Davis), and 2C (Paul George)
Tier 3 (solid All-Stars): includes 3A (Jrue Holiday), 3B (Bradley Beal), and 3C (Anthony Edwards)
Tier 4 (fringe All-Stars / above-average starters): includes 4A (Fred VanVleet), and 4B (John Collins)
Tier 5 (above average rotation pieces): includes only 5A (P.J. Tucker)
Notable Spurs and ex-Spurs
Keldon Johnson and Jakob Poeltl were the only current spurs to make the list (both were in tier 5A), while Dejounte Murray (4A), DeMar DeRozan (3B), and Derrick White (4B) were the other notable former Spurs included.
Out of those five, I found Derrick and Dejounte’s placements slightly questionable. I’d have expected the latter to be in tier 3C, but I assume the counterargument is that he’s only a one-time All-Star who made it as an injury replacement and doesn’t have a long track record of being a “star.” Meanwhile, Derrick has long been underrated and can definitely be a starting guard on most teams, but I personally think he’s closer to being a 5A level player.
For reference, those in 3A and 3B are likely good enough to be the second option on a legitimate contender, while 3C and 4A players are probably better suited as a third banana. Given the seasons that DeMar and Dejounte just had, it’s reasonable to think that they can be the #2 and #3 best players on a championship-level roster, but placing Derrick in tier 4 too seems like a bit of a reach — especially since he struggled for large stretches of the playoffs.
As I mentioned before, fit really is one of the most important elements of how players are analyzed. Point of reference: Draymond Green is in the same tier as DeMar in tier 3B. Before some of you start smashing your laptops, I should say that there’s some logic to those placements, even if I ultimately don’t agree with them.
Fit, fit, and more fit
For the sake of argument, let’s say DeMar and Draymond swapped places. Would the Warriors and Bulls have been as successful as they were last season? The answer, in my eyes, is a definitive no.
On a team filled with scorers and elite shooters, Draymond’s playmaking, defense, and chemistry with Steph Curry makes him more valuable than another lead guard like DeMar who provides next to no use when the ball’s out of his hands.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Draymond has been Golden State’s second most important player during their dynasty in terms of their playstyle. Now, this doesn’t mean he has been their second best player (in before Kevin Durant furiously starts tweeting), only that his unique playstyle has made the largest contribution to the Warriors’ motion offense outside of Steph.
However, swapping him for DeMar on a Chicago team that doesn’t have a pure scorer outside of Lavine definitely wouldn’t end well. Draymond’s lack of individual offensive creation would be exploited even more and result in his value being neutralized, which is why his pairing with Steph is a match made in heaven.
With all that said, I actually think that Draymond should probably be in tier 3C rather than 3B since efficient shot-creation is the most valuable skill in the league, and that’s basically the antithesis of Draymond’s game. The point I’m trying to make, though, is that the difference between him and players such as DeMar isn’t as big as one might think.
It’s easier to rank bucket getters like DeMar a lot higher because he ticks off the boxes of what a traditional basketball player “should” do: score effortlessly, put guys on posters,
eat worms, shoot pretty fadeaways, etc...
But when you evaluate them in specific text contexts, their values become much murkier and arguments can be made on both sides.
What does this mean for the Spurs?
The Spurs have some nice pieces in place such as Keldon, Jakob, Devin Vassell, and Joshua Primo. However, none of them are likely to become much more than an above-average starter (roughly tier 4 level) who can be good role players on contenders.
This is exactly why PATFO traded Dejounte and got in on the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes. In order for the Spurs to become true contenders again, they’ll need at least one player who’s good enough to compete for All-NBA selections (tier 2) and another solid All-Star (tier 3).
Being in a small market such as San Antonio means that the most realistic path to acquiring such talents is through the draft, and they’ll need to pick at the very top to maximize their chances of getting that next franchise cornerstone.
The patience of fans will be tested, and the basketball might be tough to watch, but it will all be worth it if the Spurs do land another superstar. And now that the team’s finally settled on a direction, I like their chances of accomplishing exactly that.