NBA Pre-Postseason Player Tiers 1 and 2: Wembanyama quickly rising; Giannis, Jokić steady at top

NBA Pre-Postseason Player Tiers 1 and 2: Wembanyama quickly rising; Giannis, Jokić steady at top

NBA Pre-Postseason Player Tiers 1 and 2: Wembanyama quickly rising; Giannis, Jokić steady at top
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Yesterday, I largely focused on setting the table for the updated NBA Pre-Postseason Players Tiers before revealing Tier 3 (players between the 24th and 42nd spot) and Tier 4 (Nos. 43-80).

Today, I’m going to get a little more into some of the more interesting and/or challenging placements, as well as note a few overall trends.

For starters, a consistent bit of feedback — and one I’ve gotten from multiple sources since the release of Tiers 3 and 4 — is the always difficult evaluation of which player is more valuable between an elite role player and a good-but-not-great primary or secondary creator. A senior analytics staffer within the league went so far as to argue they would prefer essentially the entirety of Tier 4A, largely made up of elite role players or connectors, over Tier 3B, which is made up of borderline All-Star primaries.

I don’t think there is a reliable way to solve this debate and on some level, deciding between, say, Mikal Bridges on one hand and Jaylen Brown on the other is more a function of the rest of the respective rosters than the individual players. In that particular comparison, I think it’s entirely possible, if not likely, that both the Celtics and Nets would be better if the two were exchanged!

NBA Player Tiers: ’20 | ’21 | ’22 | ‘23: T5| T4| T3 | T2 | T1 | ’24: T3&4

In some ways, this is really an extension of the long-simmering question of how to rate the sub-elite, yet still very good, level of on-ball players. At least to my way of thinking, there is nothing more valuable in the league than elite shot creation and nothing more overrated than mediocre shot creation, but finding the importance and desirability of players in between is just hard.

It’s also, in some form, the reason to do this exercise in the first place, as identifying that there is a fairly wide gap between Brown and Jayson Tatum and that the difference between Luka Dončić and Donovan Mitchell is substantial is a vital part of roster evaluation. Avoiding the cheapening of the term “franchise player,” in other words.

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Another set of teammates who illustrate this dichotomy is Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner. I didn’t think Banchero was an especially worthy All-Star this year. Through games of April 10, there are only eight players who have scored at least 100 fewer points than they would have a similar number of scoring attempts at league average efficiency according to Basketball Reference, with Banchero being seventh on that list. However, on some level, this is a result of Orlando’s lack of other creators. On my Simple Shot Quality model, his 50.2 percent expected eFG% is 24th lowest among the 162 players with at least 500 tracked shots attempted this season.

But to swing back around, the players with the 21st, 22nd and 23rd hardest shot diets are Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Anthony Edwards and Tatum, all of whom have significantly outperformed their shot expectancies by 209 (SGA, third of 162), 73 (Edwards, 45th) and 151 (Tatum, 13th) points scored, while Banchero has shot essentially at the level of his shot quality (-3 points, 124th of 162). Should he get credit for helping keep Orlando’s offense afloat at all by at least being able to soak up possessions? How would he perform with more creative guard play around him? I’m not entirely sure, which is why Banchero is a hard player to rate.

Meanwhile, Wagner does not have the same self-creation ability as Banchero, but he is superior in most other areas — more efficient scoring, better and more versatile defense, off ball play — in a way which would make him a very plug-and-play addition to any team that already had their primary creative roles filled.

Moving on, there are a few notable players who might have been much higher had I done a tiers update around midseason. Tyrese Haliburton is one. He’s been great this year, a worthy All-Star and the driving force behind Indiana’s powerful offense. But the second half of the year hasn’t measured up to the first, whether as result of nagging injuries slowing him down or defenses starting to figure him out or most likely a combination of both. This, combined with my uncertainty over how well his style translates to the playoffs has him down in Tier 3 when for much of the season I had him penciled into the bottom end of Tier 2.

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Damian Lillard is another player who has dropped down a tier over the course of the season. Early in the year, it was easy to give somewhat of a pass based on both the adjustment to a new team and role as well as the coaching turmoil which beset the Bucks for the first stage of the season. But even though he has shown some of the old dominance in fits and starts, such as the 29 points (on 19 shot attempts) and nine assists he tallied on Wednesday to drive the Bucks past the Magic despite Giannis Antetokounmpo’s absence, those performances have been the exception rather than the rule. Over his final four seasons in Portland, Lillard combined for 62.1 True Shooting on 31.4 Usage. In Milwaukee, his efficiency has dipped to 59.3 TS on 28.4 Usage, his least efficient full season relative to league average since his rookie year. For a player who has always been a huge question mark defensively, it’s a worrisome decline at age 33.

Of course, he could shoot the hell out of the ball in the playoffs and help drag the Bucks to the Eastern Conference finals or even NBA Finals and prove he still belongs in the Top 20 discussion.

Speaking of playoffs, I mentioned yesterday that there were a few players who couldn’t readily improve their tiering until the playoffs, with Tatum, Dončić and Joel Embiid as the prime examples. All three have great opportunities entering the postseason this year, with Dončić in particular seeming well-poised to go on a run; the midseason addition of Daniel Gafford and the Mavericks’ new ability to always be able to match Dončić’s creative mastery with a strong dive-and-dunk pick-and-roll partner surrounded with shooting appears to have unlocked something special.

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Meanwhile, there are a few players for whom I have already more or less assumed playoff greatness based on past experience. Jimmy Butler and Jamal Murray haven’t exactly had banner regular seasons, but both have track records of playoff dominance.

Bouncing around a little bit, I’m not sure what to do with Ja Morant and so I am essentially treating this as a gap year while acknowledging he has secured himself extra scrutiny next year.

Finally, let’s talk about the large Frenchman in the room. Victor Wembanyama in Tier 2B, among the Top 14 players in the league. I don’t think he has been All-NBA-level over the entire season, but he has been plenty good as a rookie and has shown development over the course of the year to suggest to me that he will start next season with a strong chance at all-league honors.

This growth is especially evident if you compare before and after either his move to starting at center instead of power forward in early December or the insertion of Tre Jones as a starter in early January to pair Wembanyama with a competent point guard.

On the former, he has been a top-five rim protector in the league since then, with a profile similar to that of Brook Lopez over that period. Meanwhile, prior to Jones joining the starters, Wembanyama only managed 53.3 True Shooting Percentage (on 29.9 usage), but since, that mark has jumped to 58.5 TS% on 33.7 Usage while he has raised his assist rate by nearly 50 percent. And all this with his 3-point shooting still very much a work in progress.

Of course, the numbers don’t even tell close to the full Wemby story as demonstrated by the near nightly parade of “Wait, he did what?!” highlights. While he won’t get a chance to prove himself in this year’s playoffs, it seems almost inevitable that, if he can avoid injury, he’ll be knocking on the door of Tier 1 soon as he has delivered on everything he was hyped to be, and more.

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