Each year Sports Illustrated releases rankings of the top 100 players for the upcoming NBA season. The rankings aren’t established by a solid set of metrics, rather the list is compiled based on “a fluid combination of subjective assessment and objective data”.
Players are viewed separate from the jerseys they don and considered largely on the value they can bring to the 2018-19 season. A large majority of NBA players are molded by their environment — coaches and teammates can elevate or decrease a player’s productivity. What SI aims to do is remove those variables and rank players in a vacuum, but of course, there are limitations.
This season Dirk Nowtizki, Harrison Barnes and newcomer DeAndre Jordan land on Rob Mahoney and Ben Golliver’s list of the top 100 players for the 2018-19 season.
Last year Nowitzki checked in at 71, but has fallen to 96 in the 2018 rankings. While the homer in me wants to call out the disrespect to Dallas’ beloved GOAT, it seems to be a pretty fair draw for the oldest player on the list. Dirk is ahead of his contemporary, Pau Gasol, but behind big men like Nikola Vucevic and Lauri Markkanen. Mahoney acknowledges Dirk’s shortcomings. He’s 40 and a complete defensive liability at this stage. But Dirk can still shoot with the best of them, forcing defenses to remain honest. Even after two decades in the league, Dirk’s gravity still shifts the floor.
To understand how Nowitzki clings to this list past his 40th birthday, one need only watch how defenses regard him. Every screen he sets has an adhesive effect; those defenders involved know that their first priority is to slow the progress of the ball handler, but to do so requires that they reluctantly peel away from Nowitzki (12.0 PPG, 5.7 RPG). There is more than reputation at work. Just last season, Nowitzki rated as one of the better spot-up shooters in the league, per Synergy Sports—more efficient, shot for shot, than even Klay Thompson and J.J. Redick. Opponents won’t dare leave Dirk because they know just how punishing his open looks can be.
Barnes ranked 49 for the 2017-18 season but dropped ten spots to 59 for the upcoming campaign. The 26-year-old bests names like Tobias Harris and Aaron Gordon but falls in line behind forwards like Joe Ingles and Jaylen Brown. Last year, SI praised Barnes for his scoring prowess and development after one year in Dallas, but the sentiment seems to have changed. SI notes Barnes versatility on both ends of the floor: He can score in a variety of ways while being able to defend both forwards and bigs. But an offense featuring Barnes as the No. 1 will surely underachieve.
The strength of Barnes’s game comes through its variety. Not many spot-up shooters would look just as comfortable working in isolation, or curling around a screen, or posting up a mismatch. And while he’s not exceptional enough in any one category to actually give a team some direction, he’s flexible enough to bend in support of those around him.
While Jordan plugged in at 28 last year, the former Los Angeles Clipper settles in at 43 for the new season. The prized free agent ranks higher than household names like Andre Drummond and Derrick Favors, but takes his position behind stalwarts like Marc Gasol and Steven Adams. SI’s assessment of Jordan is relatively fair. He’s still an elite rebounder and rim roller, but his defensive impact showed signs of decline throughout the course of last season.
While Jordan remains an above-average center with standout leaping ability and a deep commitment to hitting the boards, he’s lost some of the pop that made him so devastating. Last season, Jordan’s block rate fell by more than half from his 2016 All-NBA First Team campaign. What’s more, he defended just 346 shots from within six feet (down more than a quarter from two years ago) and allowed 60.4% shooting on those shots (up 8.5% from two years ago).
Overall, it’s hard to argue with SI’s logic. Nowitzki, Barnes and Jordan are certainly top-100 players in the NBA this season but finding a universally agreed upon ranking is impossible since this isn’t an exact science.
Dennis Smith Jr. is the obvious Maverick missing from this list, but it’s hard to gauge where he could appropriately slide in. With Reggie Jackson ranking 97, it’s not absurd to think Smith and Jackson could swap places especially considering Smith Jr.’s development from year one to year two. However, the 2017 draft class was well represented with Donovan Mitchell (34), Jayson Tatum (39), Lauri Markkanen (84) and Lonzo Ball (100).
The outlook this season is shining a bit brighter as we draw closer to training camp with the additions of Jordan and Luka Doncic. It’s possible this time next year the Mavs will have four representatives on SI’s Top 100.