ESPN’s annual #NBARank has yet again become the most controversial of the mainstream off season rankings.
It began years ago as an exercise in the “wisdom of crowds,” with well over 100 NBA writers and thinkers ranking all NBA players on a scale of 1-10. But the methodology has evolved over the years into something a little more complicated with an emphasis on both the quality and the quantity of a player’s contributions to his team’s success:
It's like this. Random matchups and just keep clicking through as many as you want. Algorithm learns more with more votes. pic.twitter.com/Nex6AAvP6R— Yaya Dubin (@JADubin5) September 12, 2017
The large panel of voters in combination with this particular method results in thousands of votes each year, and the ranking this generates (at least in the 50-100 range) can be borderline nonsensical. Perhaps this is due to the inclusion of rookies. Or perhaps the entire methodology is flawed. Either way, of all the major media outlet player rankings, ESPN’s is by far the most baffling.
Consider the four Mavericks who made the cut:
Dirk Nowitzki ranks at 97th overall. This is preposterous. We all know Dirk has slipped, but considering ESPN ranked Kobe Bryant 93rd in his 20th and final season, it makes no sense. Kobe shot 35 percent from the floor and posted a negative win share that year. He had a garbage season. Dirk, however, continues to play at a high level, hitting shots with a solid percentage (better than 43 percent last season) and opening the floor for his teammates, even if he’s still an issue on defense.
Nerlens Noel ends up at 91 in the rankings, comparable to his Sports Illustrated ranking (no. 86). Noel has a lot of potential, but even more to prove. If he plays 70+ games and averages 30+ minutes, his value could jump enormously. Right now, his ranking reflects that potential.
Dennis Smith Jr. comes in at the puzzling rank of 75. I’m all-in on the Dennis bandwagon, but rookies rarely make an impact and this one will playing for one of the most demanding coaches in the league. His rookie year will be one of highs, lows, and a lot of learning. This is too lofty a ranking, even for a player picked by his peers as most likely to win Rookie of the Year.
Harrison Barnes ranks 58th, which feels fine at first, until you see that such league stalwarts as Robert Covington and Andre Drummond rank ahead of him. Barnes is an important part of a team that could actually win games in a tough conference this year. He should be higher.
I tried to give ESPN’s #NBARank a fair shake. But it’s bad, and they should reconsider their process. Move past our Mavericks for a moment: Carmelo Anthony at 64? Lonzo Ball at 63? Jae Crowder at 38? Joel Embiid at 32?
These feel off in a way that’s hard to properly contextualize, particularly when you remember the guidelines: “the quality and the quantity of each player’s contributions to his team’s ability to win games” (emphasis added). Embiid has played 31 games in his entire career!
Ranking players is always kind of stupid; it’s a team game after all. But if you’re going to do it, it’s worth considering both the process and the results. Ranking players can be a lot of fun and prompt fan discussion, but the outcome should be at least somewhat reflective of reality.
ESPN’s rankings do not reflect the NBA as most people see the league.