Analyzing NBARank data -- is a big three enough?

USA TODAY Sports

According to ESPN's Forecast Panel, the Thunder have three of the best players in the league, and not much else. But the same panel thinks that's enough to have the best record in the West.

I reflected a bit when ESPN's #NBARank process reached the top 15, placing Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clippers at number 14, exactly where he had been a year ago. I haven't returned to the rankings since they revealed their top 10, primarily because we already knew the 10 names that would be there by process of elimination, and we knew a lot about the order as well (the top three of LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul was kind of a given).

So sure, I was mildly surprised at James Harden being considered the fourth best player in the league and even more surprised at Russell Westbrook coming in at five. But then again, whereas that's not where those guys would be on my list (certainly not Westbrook anyway) it's not really news that they are highly regarded.

The #NBARank process, fraught as it is, remains useful in a few ways. The process behind it, while not based on statistical analysis per se, is still a valid one. There is undeniable value in the wisdom of crowds, and the cumulative opinion of 215 or so people who pay close attention to basketball has some value. Might the panelists have a tendency to be swayed by flash, to overvalue scoring and undervalue defense? Sure -- that's the nature of basketball in many ways. But while these sorts of issues may skew the results some, they don't invalidate them.

At the end of the process, we're left with a set of data -- a full ranking of every player in the league. It's not perfect, it's not infallible, and it certainly doesn't affect the outcome of games, which is still the only thing that matters. But it's something.

Rather than looking at individuals, I tend to prefer taking the rankings holistically. What does the final set of data for #NBARank say about the teams in the league as a whole?

The table below takes the teams that are generally considered to be the 10 most talented teams in the league -- Miami, Indiana, Chicago and Brooklyn from the East and San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Houston, Golden State, Memphis and the Clippers from the West. I've also included New Orleans and Denver in the table for reasons which will become apparent.

Top

MIA

IND

CHI

BRK

SAS

OKC

LAC

HOU

GSW

MEM

NOP

DEN

5

1

0

0

0

0

2

1

1

0

0

0

0

10

1

0

1

0

0

2

1

2

1

1

0

0

15

1

1

1

0

1

2

2

2

1

1

0

0

20

2

1

1

1

2

2

2

2

1

1

0

0

30

3

2

2

2

2

2

2

2

1

1

0

0

50

3

3

3

4

3

3

2

2

2

3

2

2

60

3

3

3

5

3

3

2

3

4

3

3

2

90

3

5

5

5

4

3

3

4

6

4

5

3

100

4

5

5

5

4

3

5

4

6

4

5

4

150

6

7

7

7

6

3

7

5

6

5

5

7

The table lists the number of players each team has on the final #NBARank at various points in the list -- number of players in the top 10, the top 50, the top 100, etc. The rows in the column are somewhat arbitrary -- I went by fives up to 20, and included round numbers like 50 and 100. I also included lots of multiples of 30 -- 30, 60, 90, ending the table with 150. With 30 teams in the NBA, looking at the data in 30s allows one to put it in the context of a league average. If all NBA talent were distributed evenly, each team would have one player in the top 30, two in the top 60, etc. Teams that exceed those numbers have more than their share of good players, and should be better teams.

What does this table tell us? A lot.

The most striking thing to me about the results of this process is how incredibly important it is to have players at the highest level, at least in the minds of the experts. The same ESPN basketball types who did the #NBARank also ranked teams. According to them, the Oklahoma City Thunder are the only team in the league with two players in the top five and they also have one of the best big threes in the league, with Serge Ibaka coming in at 39. Three players in the top 39 is almost three times more than you would expect, and there are only three other teams with that many -- Miami, San Antonio and Memphis being the others. It's no accident that those are all good teams.

But after Ibaka, the cupboard is very, very bare in Oklahoma -- something I've been saying for awhile, but it turns out that #NBARank agrees with me. The fourth best player on the Thunder, according to #NBARank, is number 154 Nick Collison. The Thunder have three players in the top 39 -- and they also have three players in the top 150! That 150 number is not an accident -- 30 teams, five starters per team, 150 players. All things being equal, talent being distributed evenly among teams and among positions, 150 is the number of starters in the league. The Thunder have far more than their share of top 40 players -- but they actually have less than their share of top 150 players, i.e. starting quality players. Looking at our table, they are the only team among the league's top 10 with fewer than five players ranked in the top 150 -- and they only have three!

Given that the same people who believe that OKC's fourth best player is not among the league's best 150 also believe that OKC will finish with the best record in the Western Conference the conclusion is that these people believe far more in quality than in quantity. There's certainly something to be said for that. Only one player can have the ball at a time, after all. Then again, there are five players on the court all the time. We can certainly all agree that the 11th man on a team isn't going to matter a lot barring injuries -- but the fourth man? Two or three starters who aren't up to par? Doesn't quality count (a lot) at least through that level?

The Clippers are hoping so. They are among just five teams in the league -- and one of only two in the Western Conference -- with seven players ranked in the top 150. Remember that is like saying they have seven starter quality players on the roster. In the case of the Clippers, I think you could make the case that Darren Collison was ranked a bit low at 190, and that they almost have eight starter quality players, but that's not the point of this exercise. The Clippers have seven players in the top 136 (Matt Barnes, 136) of #NBARank -- in the entire league, only Indiana has a more highly ranked seventh man (Luis Scola, 129).

So #NBARank recognizes some quality depth on the Clippers, for what that is worth. And I think we can all agree that seven players is the absolute minimum that a modern NBA coach is going to play. (Mike D'Antoni may have shortened his bench essentially down to six with his old Suns teams, but it didn't work out well for him.) Of course, the Clippers also have quality at the top of the lineup as well, as one of only three NBA teams with two players in the top 15.

What the Clippers don't really have is a big three, despite what Doc Rivers would have you believe about DeAndre Jordan. Of course Jordan can prove Rivers right and everyone else wrong this season, but in the eyes of #NBARank, Jordan (77) doesn't give the Clippers one of the better big threes in the league. In fact, there are at least 13 NBA teams -- including the likes of Detroit, New Orleans and Portland -- with three players ranked better than DJ. Golden State has four (Steph Curry, Andre Iguodala, David Lee and Klay Thompson).

A few more oddities from my analysis of #NBARank.

How 'bout them Pelicans? According to #NBARank, New Orleans has one of the most talented five man groups in the NBA. Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans give them five players in the top 79 -- only Brooklyn, Golden State and Chicago have a more highly rated fifth player. Unfortunately for the Big Birds, it remains to be seen if those five can player together (it's not out of the question) -- and it's a big drop off to Al-Farouq Aminu at 170.

The best five. According to #NBARank, the Brooklyn Nets, with their five All Stars, have the best fifth starter in the league, with Joe Johnson coming in at 59. For what it's worth, the Nets also have the best fourth rated player with Paul Pierce at 48, making them the only team in the league with four players in the top 50. This all stands to reason -- the Nets window is very, very narrow given the age of the roster, but they undeniably have assembled a lot of very good players.

The best six. Surprisingly, it is the Golden State Warriors with the highest rated sixth player in #NBARank. Harrison Barnes at 76 joins Curry, Iguodala, Lee, Thompson and Andrew Bogut ahead of him. Barnes and Thompson (60) may be a little inflated in their value, but still, that is a good six. There's a drop off from there to Draymond Green at 206, so given the versatility of their top guys, it would be tempting to give all of them a LOT of minutes.

The starless Nuggets. The Denver Nuggets have been the poster child for starless NBA teams for awhile now -- and they've been losing in the playoffs at the same time. The Nuggets lost Andre Iguodala this summer, and #NBARank now has Ty Lawson at 38 as their best player. But the Nuggets are the only team in the Western Conference other than the Clippers with seven in the top 150, and with Andre Miller coming in at number 151, they actually are the first NBA team to eight on the list. So the starless experiment continues in Denver, where they have eight guys at or near starter quality, and no stars. That worked for George Karl -- will it work for Brian Shaw?

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