Modern society is somewhat obsessed with lists. Best dressed, worst dressed, best movie, sexiest, Top 25 this, Top 100 that, Top 10 whatever -- there are games shows (Family Feud) and board games (Scattergories) dedicated to lists. And on the internet, where everyone always has an opinion, lists are ominpresent. I can spend entire days on Sporcle.
A couple of years ago ESPN decided to take listmania to its extreme at least in NBA terms, and to rank every player (even a few hundred not on any roster) in the league, and a hashtag (#NBARank) was born. The process is straightforward enough -- every employee, associate and friend of the "World Wide Leader" that has a passing knowledge of the NBA gives a numerical value to every player in the NBA, those values are averaged, and the results are counted down in advance of the new season. So much suspense! So many opinions! So many tweets!
In the first version of NBA rank in 2011, Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clippers, having just completed his rookie season in the league, was ranked the 10th best player in the NBA. That was during the Griffin honeymoon, before the anti-Griffin backlash, a phenomenon I've discussed many times, had gained much steam.
Last year Griffin dropped to 14 -- despite a sophomore NBA campaign that was clearly superior to his rookie year. In the run up to this NBA season, ESPN reached the 15 through 11 spots in the countdown this week, and Griffin once again came in at 14 -- so at least they (and he) are consistent. As we've covered here at Clips Nation, Griffin's third season was both good and bad in terms of his development -- so honestly, if he was 14 before, being 14 now is fine.
But the raw number isn't really the question. In listland, what matters is who is above you and who is below you. The three directly ahead of Griffin are Paul George of the Pacers (13), Tony Parker of the Spurs (12) and Kevin Love of the Timberwolves (11). The top 10 have yet to be revealed, but by process of elimination we know who comprises that elite group, in an order yet to be determined:
LeBron James, Miami Heat; Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder; Chris Paul, Clippers; Derrick Rose, Chicago Bulls; James Harden and Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets; Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers; Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors; Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies.
So according to the "experts" at ESPN, Griffin is the 14th best player in the NBA, behind 13 terrific players, and ahead of guys like Carmelo Anthony and LaMarcus Aldridge and Tim Duncan and myriad others. How should we feel about that?
Let's establish up front that comparing a power forward to a point guard is essentially impossible -- there's no valid way between Blake Griffin and, for instance, Derrick Rose, to determine which one is better since they do incredibly different things on a basketball court. And given that the NBA is in what seems to be a golden age of point guards, a whole lot of players ahead of Griffin in #NBARank are just such apples to Blake's orange. Fully half of the top 10, and a sixth at number 12 in Parker, are points. As pointless as this ranking exercise is in general, it's completely futile to try to decide who's better Blake Griffin and Stephen Curry.
The same is somewhat true for the other perimeter players on the list -- with one exception. I wouldn't want to argue about whether Griffin was better than James Harden, again because they are such different players. But Paul George? Come on.
Of course, George is simply getting his honeymoon boost -- the same one that saw Griffin in the top 10 after just one season in the league -- after a nice playoff performance. But ESPN themselves put a spotlight on the absurdity of George's overly lofty position by including PER as the only unifying statistic in the rankings. PER, as I've said any times, has many flaws, but it is nonetheless useful for examining total contribution as we are attempting to do here. Among qualified players last season, George was 70th in the NBA in PER at 16.8 -- ranked among players like Jamal Crawford, Gordon Hayward and Jeff Teague. Every other player in the top 15 in #NBARank was in the top 30 in the league in PER (except Kevin Love, who didn't play enough minutes and was limited because of injury). Nine of them, including Griffin, were in the top 15 in PER. So yes, PER is limited -- and even so, George sticks out like a sore thumb on this list.
So let the Paul George backlash begin. Why is it that players must seemingly be either underrated or overrated and pundits can't simply see them for what they are? So many people were so insistent on calling George underrated that he immediately became overrated. The same thing happened, by the way, with Chandler Parsons of the Rockets (#NBARank 58) and Jimmy Butler of the Bulls (#NBARank 66). Nice players, both. Steals where they were drafted, without question. Top 70 players in the NBA? No way. They both went from being underrated to being overrated overnight. Parsons jumped from 152 to 58 in NBARank -- after a sophomore NBA season that saw his PER rise from 13.3 (a little below average) to 15.3 (a little above average). Butler, whose PER this year was 15.2, went from 371 to 66. There are 30 teams in the NBA -- if all the talent were distributed evenly across every team, would Jimmy Butler be the third best player on his team? Um, no.
But let's look a little more closely at those players who we really can compare to Griffin -- the other bigs on the list. Given the perimeter focus of the league (and consequently of the top of the list) there aren't a lot of true bigs ranked ahead of Griffin, just three: Marc Gasol, Kevin Love and Dwight Howard.
To which I say, whatevs. As it happens, both LeBron James and Kevin Durant are big dudes who play plenty of power forward. They are not traditional bigs, but it doesn't much matter what you call them -- neither I nor anyone else anywhere is going to argue that they aren't better than Griffin. They are the two best players in the league, and it's a pretty big gap back to number three (a certain Clipper point guard in most books).
As for the true bigs, Gasol, Love and Howard are all great players. I could make a good case that Griffin is better, but who cares? I do find it interesting that Griffin's critics would point to his defense as a reason that the far less physically gifted Gasol should be ahead of Blake on the list -- while completely ignoring the same argument where Love is concerned. As Zach Lowe pointed out in Grantland's NBA Watchability guide this week, "Griffin's flaws are wildly overstated by critics who just don't like him for some reason." So it's OK to ding Griffin on defense, but Love gets a pass. And the same folks who rave about Gasol's passing ignore the fact that Griffin averaged more assists per 36 minutes. ESPN went so far as to publish a tweet calling Griffin a "two-trick pony (PTS, REBS)", perpetuating a popular though completely false narrative while ignoring the fact that he was the top per minute assist man 6'10 or taller in the league last season (yes I know that Marc Gasol's name appears first on that list, but that's just a rounding thing -- trust me, I've done the math, and Griffin's per 36 average was slightly higher than Gasol's, 4.14 to 4.09).
In the end, 14 is a perfectly respectable position on this meaningless list. Moreover, if Marc Gasol, Kevin Love and Dwight Howard are his competition for best big man in the NBA according to ESPN, then Griffin is in a great position. Obviously there are other players that should be in that discussion -- Aldridge and the ageless Duncan come immediately to mind -- but Blake is right there with all of the bigs in the league in terms of productivity, he's younger than all but Love, and he hasn't even come close to his ceiling yet.