ESPN is Wrong About D'Angelo Russell's Ranking

Photo Credit: Jesse Johnson (USA TODAY Sports)

ESPN released their three installments (ESPN+ required) in their annual list of the top 100 players in the NBA, and the results have been, well, mixed.

Before I tear ESPN’s 69th slot placement of the D’Angelo Russell apart, there are two things that I should point out.

  • Considering how subjective the assessment of basketball is on almost all of the many, vaguely congruent, levels of play that basketball encompasses, this list is a fool’s errand to start with. What’s more important, raising the floor of a bad team at the cost of lowering their ceiling, or raising the ceiling of a team at the expense of doing nothing for the floor? I still have yet to see the metric that perfectly balances these often mutually exclusive sources of value (or even address that this dichotomy exists), and ESPN’s Real Plus/Minus certainly isn’t even the most cutting-edge metric available these days. Add into this the incredibly diverse range of skill sets and responsibilities of players, the fact that basketball players are always oscillating between roles as the quarterbacks of the offense and the middle linebackers of the defense as the possession changes, and the effect that social media has amplified in a landscape of overly-invested and self-important fans who crave generic positive feedback for their favorite teams and players, and any rankings listicle is a suicide mission, especially on a national media outlet.
  • 69th. Nice.

Even though the listical is doomed to fail from the onset, comparing other player’s placements to DLo’s ranking really raises questions as to whether there was a directive on how to go through the internal process of weighing the impact of the players the panel was asked to compare, or if that was up to every respondent to go with their guts. The actual process of how the players were ranked is also open to biases: Members of the panel were presented with two players at a time and asked, “Which player will be better in 2020-21?” Respondents were told to consider both the regular season and playoffs.

Again, this is a fool’s errand to begin with, but posing the question like this invites in huge, huge biases. First of, “be better,” is so subjective to begin with, and the way that this question is posed is going to make it impossible for the panel to separate the narrative surrounding a player and their team, and the subjective and unspoken goals surrounding those narratives, and their absolute, on-court impact, which is already hard enough to take stab at to start.

For example, how did somebody like Caris LeVert land at No. 46? I bet it had a lot to do with the fact that most people expect the Brooklyn Nets, led by Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, to compete for an Eastern Conference title, and LeVert figures to have a decently prominent role on that team. If he is able to play the Kyle Kuzma role, adding a high volume of per-minute points scored as a third option, but inconsistent shooting and a negative defensive impact that is more scrutinized than ever before, would pundits consider that a success?

If so, then why did Kuzma fall outside the top 100 after contributing to a championship, while the older, worse-shooting, less durable, and overall markedly less efficient in 2019-20 LeVert found himself inside the top 50? Surely the extra 3 assists and 0.7 steals per 36 minutes that LeVert supplies aren’t enough to move the impact needle far enough to make up for all the things that Kuzma observed does better, never mind far enough to account for a more than 50-slot differential in a top 100 rankings. This comparison only gets more comprehensive when factoring in that Kuzma was ranked No. 77 in 2019-20. Does losing minutes and playing out of position to facilitate two future Hall of Fame teammates on the way to winning a ring really hurt a player this much in the eyes of rankers, or is hype just that dangerous of a drug?

Back to the points at hand: DLo at No. 69, really? My previous writings about the team and the roster decisions I think the Minnesota Timberwolves should be contemplating quickly reveal me as a DLo pessimist. In fact, I think the team shouldn’t have traded for Russell in the first place, and don’t adequately factor in defensive contributions when allocating salaries.

Simply put: I view Russell as a floor-raiser, but someone who lowers the team’s ceiling.

But his effect as a floor-raiser should be undeniable at this point in his career. His half-court efficiency has been about league-average on very high volume these last two seasons, and his pick-and-roll efficiency is, again, adequate on very high volume despite only playing high minutes with one effective rolling threat during that time (Jarrett Allen).

Ironically, Russell is actually a far more efficient player operating out of isolation than he gets credit for, with a 1.08 PPP on the 143 possessions that were tracked by Synergy as originating with a DLo iso. Though he was only able to supply just four of these possessions a game during his 12 games in Minnesota, that number actually was the 16th highest per-game mark in the NBA last season.

DLo also provides marginal contributions in floor spacing, though his reputation as a knockdown shooter is probably at least somewhat unearned, as his efficiency in catch-and-shoot is far lower than you’d expect for a player so capable when shooting off the dribble.

That’s the crux of the value that DLo brings: It takes a lot to make your offense absolutely suck if he’s on the floor. And, if your offense does absolutely suck when he’s on the floor, as it did last year in San Francisco, then you’ve got far bigger problems to worry about — as the Golden State Warriors did last year. And if the knock on him is that he lowers his team’s ceiling, then how does ESPN’s panel justify answering the survey in such a way that they ranked…

Eric Bledsoe at No. 67

In every single one of the Milwaukee Bucks’ three season-ending playoff series losses, Bledsoe looked downright unplayable for large stretches of that series. The Boston Celtics in 2018, the Toronto Raptors in 2019, and then the Miami in 2020, Bledsoe murdered the spacing with Giannis on the floor, and his hero ball shot selection at times single-handedly swung games when the Bucks were actually clicking offensively and didn’t need Bledsoe to chuck.

When people talk about players lowing a team’s ceiling, often they’re so far from those heights that the comment is more optimistic extrapolation than a glaring concern. In those three series, however, the basketball world watched as Milwaukee bounced off the ceiling that Bledsoe had brought crashing down. Instead of the nickname Mini-Lebron, maybe Bledsoe is Mini-Westbrook.

Kevin Love at No. 64

At this point in his career Love is like the power forward equivalent of DLo, although he is, per-possession, more efficient. Compared to DLo, Love is currently even harder to hide defensively, less durable, older, and also less able to facilitate an offense being run through him. Love isn’t exactly post-Knicks Patrick Ewing, but he’s probably closer to Oklahoma City Thunder Carmelo Anthony than people would like to admit. While Love will always have his 6th place MVP finish in 2011-12, his championship ring, and one of the most legendary defensive switch stands in NBA history, the game is currently moving in a direction that is pulling against Love. Both Bobby Marks and John Hollinger have reported within the past year that there is no trade market for Love, and that’s, just simply, not surprising.

Victor Oladipo at No. 47

This one is just baffling. Oladipo is currently a story that would bum any true basketball fan out, as injuries have disrupted his once MVP-level trajectory. But what we saw of him in the 19 games he played last year was just bad. He shot 39% from the field, struggling to make open jumpers and finish through an at-rim presence. He looked like a shell of himself, both physically and in confidence.

Hopefully, Oladipo was just going through a re-acclimation period after going 371 straight days without playing in an NBA game and he can return to his former self, but it’s indisputable that Oladipo was a significantly below-average player during the 2019-20 season, and he didn’t show much improvement during bubble play, either.

Russell Westbrook at No. 36

Do you get more points in this survey for derailing an entire NBA franchise? Westbrook and his triple-double stat-padding are the siren’s call of professional basketball, but the good news is that they also come with the added bonus of remarkable per-possession inefficiency. There’s shooting yourself in the foot, then there’s shooting yourself through your nether region, both knees, and both feet while also publishing a self-help book with the cringe-inducing title of, Shut Up and Listen! Watching Oklahoma City this past season was like watching those YouTube videos of wild animals around Pripyat.

Look, nature is healing…

As you can see, there is just no rhyme or reason to these rankings. Guys get bumps for their previous accolades, guys get bumps because they’ve got appealing basic stats now and there’s optimism that accolades might be on the way. Either way, the vague idea of prominence is clearly an influencing bias in all of this rankings madness.

And if you’re looking for the inverse to DLo, look no further than old friend Robert Covington, who shot up to No. 60 in this year’s rankings, a huge rise from No. 97 last year despite a noticeably worse shooting profile.

Is this a result of a prominence bias, or a recency bias (RoCo shot 50% from three in his 12 postseason games last season)? Who knows, and, seriously, what does it matter?

Because, what does any of this matter? This listicle does not have any effect on the actual games of the 2020-21 season, or their outcomes. It exists for one purpose and one purpose only: To get clicks for ESPN and provide cannon fodder for their daytime ramblers. They’re fun to poke at, but really not worth in-depth examination. Take it from me, it’ll just make you upset and feels, in retrospect, like a waste of time.

So, is DLo better than being ranked the 69th best player in the NBA?

Yeah, probably. Personally, I would say he’s probably somewhere in the 50s, maybe the high 40s.

But, honestly, why should we care? If DLo is better than his ranking, he’ll be showing it on the court in less than a month, and nothing that anybody at ESPN writes would be able to change that fact. And if DLo cares about his rankings, the easiest way to improve them would be to put more effort into becoming the best defender he can be.

The same goes for the 23rd-ranked Karl-Anthony Towns.

If those two would committee to defensive improvement, it would also start inching the Timberwolves ceiling upwards, something this all-offense, sparse-defense squad desperately needs.

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