Rankings are among the most popular exercises for most NBA fans, and also among the least efficient ways to evaluate data. The enduring appeal of rankings and lists owes to their relationship, however tangential, with the big questions: Who is the best? Which player is better? How much better or worse would a team be if they replaced this player with that one? Every fan, analyst, scout, coach, and executive needs to be able to answer these questions.
The problem with rankings is not the questions they address, but the biases implicit in ordinal numbering. Our brains are trained to think that the difference between 12 and 17 is the same as the difference between 18 and 23, and that all these values are on a different order of magnitude from single digit numbers. When we transfer these assumptions to rankings of the “Top 50 Players in the NBA” or something similar, we start with false presuppositions. There is not an identical difference in value between each pair of contiguous players on any player ranking. Even a hypothetically perfect, pie-in-the-sky ranking that ranked players in the exactly correct order would still need something besides the ranking to indicate the players’ true value relative to their peers. Our habit of using ordinal numbers to rank players blinds us to the shape of the data.
As a result, both league insiders and outsiders spend an inordinate amount of time debating questions such as “Is Kevin Durant the second-best player in the league or the eighth-best?” “Is Paul George a top 5 player, a top 10 player, or a top 15 player?” What really matters is how much a player contributes to wins by helping put points on the board (on offense) and keep points off the board (on defense). If the 6th ranked player in the league and the 16th ranked player are nearly identical in terms of their contribution to team success, it makes little sense to lay so much weight on their difference in the rankings.
What a valuable ranking system can tell us is how much value a player generates, relative to the rest of the population. In answering the question posed in the title of this article, I will attempt to provide enough context for the reader to be able to comprehend the shape of the data. As such, let’s start with refining the question itself:
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