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Responding to the SI Top 100 Rankings and Finding a Balance

New contributor Thomas Wood looks at Sports Illustrated's Top 100 players rankings, and has a few questions.

Stephen Dunn

It's late September, which means baseball pennant races, early season football, early season futból, and pre-preseason basketball. If you're reading this, I presume you are interested in hypothetical basketball and all the DEBATE! we distract ourselves with while waiting for the sweet sound of swishes and sneakers. Little by little, lists and rankings will sprout from the Internet like pumpkins after a summerlong slumber, and I will be here to fearlessly guide you through some of these patches.

A good starting point is the recently revealed Sports Illustrated Top 100 NBA Players of 2015. In the interests of fairness and providing context on behalf of the SI authors, I should explain that their rankings are projections for this upcoming season. They are not determinations of value for last season, or the last 10 seasons, or the most recent postseason. Next season.

This is Clips Nation, so it should come as little surprise that both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin were included in the top 10. Specifically, Paul was ranked 3rd, as he was before last season. Blake was promoted from 19th to 10th.

One can imagine that the difficulty in creating these lists lies in finding a balance between potential and proven production, or in weighing the importance of the regular season against the postseason. Chris Paul's nearly decade-long record of excellence and status as point guard belle of the advanced statistical ball (see his PER, 6th in the league and 1st among PGs, and his Real Plus-Minus, 2nd in the league and 1st among PGs) were the primary factors in his placement just ahead of #4, Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook. If you're picking players for the next 82 games, then Paul is a clear choice as the league's #3. He's the top regular season point guard in the world and among the best in the world's history. (Although, I heard Abraham Lincoln was an assist machine).

Alas, incorporating playoff success, especially that of the most recent tournament, is a sticky wicket indeed. Nine years into a slam dunk Hall of Fame career and Paul has yet to win a second-round series. In May, Paul was mostly outplayed by his 25-year-old pogo stick of a counterpart. His series included a (hold on, I'm still recovering...sigh......) Game 5 meltdown of Chris Webber proportions. Even considering the likely horrendous weight Paul carried out of the Donald Sterling scandal, Thunder fans (that's fans of the team, not the sound) could reasonably argue that if these two played one another tomorrow, Westbrook might be the better player.

So how does one measure the value of a player: by his potential for dominance in a single game, or by the probability of his production for the length of an entire season? The SI authors had an easy out with Chris Paul. They picked the man who has been the consensus 3rd best player in these years following Kobe Bryant's demise. (I just poured a little Dasani out for the Lakers fans — I won't waste good liquor for you). Blake presented a tougher challenge.

Chris Paul may indeed be considered the 3rd best player, but last year, it was his fair-haired running mate who was voted to have had the 3rd best year. Blake Griffin received the 3rd most points in league MVP voting. And so, the disconnect. Blake was ruled to be the 3rd most valuable player in 2014, yet, as a 25-year-old with a résumé replete with steady annual improvement, SI calculated that there are 9 players set to have a better 2015.

This points to the nature of Blake's game and again to the theoretical game of balancing single-game and full-season value. (It also points to the value of narratives in the MVP voting, but let us be benevolent and ignore that for now). Blake is a steam locomotive capable of producing a high volume of quality play. His greatest attribute may be his consistency, which is born from his tenacity. Blake rarely has bad games. Heck, Blake rarely has bad halves. For 82 games, or something close to it, Blake gets his numbers by giving a goshdarn on every play. Unfortunately for the Clippers, opponents who may have said meh to that Tuesday-night matchup in December start to give a goshdarn in the playoffs, and Blake's production suffers for it. Hence, the #10 ranking. Build your team for a long slog, and Blake's night-to-night reliability is virtually nonpareil. Build a team for one high-intensity contest tomorrow, and Blake's still-evolving skill set pales a bit in comparison to the other NBA elite. So, we can quibble and pick nits with the players ranked above him, like #9 Dwight Howard's offensive stubbornness, #8 Stephen Curry's shortcomings on defense (ditto for Kevin Love at #7), or #6 Anthony Davis' age (ditto for #5 Tim Duncan, only in the other direction), but when considering that all-important balance, Blake at #10 is goshdarn fair.

At rankings #37 and #38, the SI authors grappled with finding the other kind of balance: between upside and certainty. DeAndre Jordan was ranked 38th and Andre Drummond 37th. Drummond, with 5 fewer years in his legs and 2 fewer letters in his name, has true/real/legit superstar potential. Only 21, Drummond has the physical tools to grow into the league's best center in time and now plays for a coach who helped groom the (arguably) current best center. DeAndre, 26, certainly has growth left, especially at the defensive end where we can only hope that an additional year with Doc Rivers will further his awareness and sharpen his decisions. But, DeAndre seems unlikely to add any substantial offensive weaponry, and uniform number aside, probably won't be reminding too many honest fans of the great Bill Russell. It also seems reasonable that the SI authors hedged against the possibility that last year was more career year than leap year for DeAndre, although given Doc's presence, I would bet heavily on the latter.

SI struck a reasonable balance in predicting that Drummond's potential breakout would outpace DeAndre's realized breakout. While the authors seemed to weigh potential against production a bit inconsistently (see: Paul over Westbrook but Drummond over DeAndre), they had a tough job, either by assignment or by choice, in balancing the many factors that coalesce into a basketball player. But, it's September, so what the heck else are we going to talk about? Bring on the next rankings.