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Suns players rising up the charts of respect

Seth Partnow of The Athletic recently ranked the Top 125 players in the NBA — guess where the Suns ranked?

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2021 NBA Finals - Game Five Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Every offseason, basketball analysts help us predict the upcoming year with various and never disparate! rankings of off-seasons, players, teams and conferences. They help us understand trends, true values and team building successes and failures. Without basketball analysts, we would have no idea which teams are going to be good next year and which teams are going to be bad.

Or something like that.

Some analysts are really good, some are not. Some assumptions and predictions are based on good information, some are not. Some predictions are unduly influenced by confirmation bias, some are not.

But hey, it’s fun to consume these lists anyway.

Seth Partnow is one of the better basketball analysts. He currently contributes to after previously spending a number of years in an NBA front office.

Seth recently posted a series of articles ($$) on ranking what he believes is the top 125 players into five groups, from LeBron James to Ivica Zubac.

What I like about Seth’s list is that he declines to literally rank every player. Instead, he groups them into tiers of ‘like production and value’. Meaning the lower the tier, the larger number of players that fit into the tier.

As you might expect, he puts the Phoenix Suns players right about where they should be... for the most part. According to Partnow, Chris Paul and Devin Booker acquitted themselves nicely and remained in the same high tier they entered the season. Four other players have moved up the list, thanks to the team’s Finals run in 2021.

The Athletic, Top 125

Tier 1 to Tier 2B (players ranked 1-14)

Here are the players Seth believes are better than Chris Paul and Devin Booker: Giannis, KD, Steph, Harden, LBJ, Kawhi, Jokic, AD, Embiid, Luka, Dame, Jimmy Butler, PG and Gobert.

Of course, the ones I see easiest to pick off — from a Devin Booker growth standpoint — are Jimmy Butler, Paul George and Rudy Gobert. PG and Gobert just this year rose up from Paul’s 2C tier.

Tier 2C (15-19)

  • Chris Paul — stayed at 2C year over year

New to this tier in Seth’s rankings are Bam Adebayo, Khris Middleton and Kyrie Irving, who moved up from Devin Booker’s one tier below this one. Staying with CP in this tier is Jayson Tatum.

It’s a harsh reality of the NBA that you can be one of the very top players in the world, yet still not be quite good enough. Tier 2 is where those players live. I find the question, “Can he be the best player on a title team?” reductive, but there is some wisdom behind it. Not in terms of a binary yes/no, but more if the question is rephrased as, “Under what conditions could he be the best player on a title team?” For most players, the response is, “They can’t be.” For players in Tier 2, these are players who could be, but the circumstances need to be just right, or at least fit within a much narrower window.

The last two championship teams that did not have anyone on the roster I would have considered a Tier 1 player at the time were the 2014 Spurs and the 2011 Mavericks. Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki had aged out of that status by the time of those victories, while Kawhi Leonard was still several years from ascending to that level. But while those teams may have lacked an absolutely top-end star, they were stacked with a number of very good players who fit together seamlessly.

Last year’s Suns and the 2019-20 Miami Heat are teams built in a similar mode, and Phoenix’s run to the Finals is illustrative, not just in terms of good fortune with respect to opposing injuries, but with Chris Paul maintaining his high level of play while young players such as Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges improved and even played somewhat above their heads at times during the postseason. In other words, with enough talent around them, you have a chance with the players in this tier, but both assembling the amount of surrounding talent and navigating the postseason will be much tougher than it is for those teams with the very top stars.

How long Chris Paul can continue to hold off the inevitable age-related decline from these heights is an open question. But based on his last two seasons, it hasn’t happened yet. Sure, there has been some diminishment of explosiveness and quickness over the years, but no player aside from perhaps LeBron James plays with the same speed of thought as Paul.

It also helps that he remains one of the truly great jump shooters in NBA history. Over the last six years combined, he has hit 50.2 percent of his non-restricted-area 2-pointers, a figure that has ballooned to 52.6 percent over his OKC and Phoenix renaissance seasons. That accuracy is even more impressive considering these shots tend to be contested pull-ups, often fading or leaning away from his office at the right elbow.

With any luck, this past playoff run has put to bed the silly questions about his ability to win in the postseason. Between his four-game evisceration of Denver and the dominant way in which he led the Suns’ closeout of the Clippers, Paul was an enormous factor in Phoenix’s nearly unprecedented run for a team so callow in overall playoff experience.

He also continues to be the master of helping his team win the possession game. Paul’s playing time has combined decreased offensive turnovers and a sharp uptick in opposing miscues:

Even as his speed has lessened, Paul has a steal percentage that has remained above 2.0 every season. Until his physical capabilities reach the point where his basketball mind is no longer enough, Paul retains his spot amongst the game’s elite.

Tier 3A (20-23)

  • Devin Booker — stayed at 3A year over year

Zach only names four players in the 3A group, along with Jrue Holiday, Trae Young and Zion Williamson.

Devin Booker faces similar questions to Young defensively, as he ranked 743rd in dRAPM. The sample sizes are so small that individual defensive metrics are almost inherently unreliable for the playoffs, but observationally, he was more locked in during the postseason. For example, he had several good sequences of weakside help during the Finals when Phoenix changed its assignments to have Booker, rather than Chris Paul, be the player patrolling the baseline while (not) guarding P.J. Tucker.

Many, including me, were critical of his offensive approach in the Finals, where the Bucks’ scheme of guarding him one-on-one for the most part resulted in a lot of midrange jumpers. While Booker is an elite midrange scorer, one of only a handful of players to hit more than 50 percent of their self-created 2-point jumpers last season, pushing him toward those shots and away from rim attacks (and attendant free throws drawn) and drive-and-kicks to teammates helped transform a great scorer into a just a pretty good one for that series:

In what was overall a spectacularly successful first playoff run, Booker can be forgiven for what amounts to a slight decision-making miscalibration in one series. It’s hard to prove statistically, but the ability to solve that kind of playoff puzzle based on past trials and errors is one of the reasons playoff experience tends to correlate with deeper postseason runs. One needs only to look to Booker’s Finals opponent, Antetokounmpo, to see an example of a player figuring out some of the defensive tactics that stymied him in earlier series in previous years.

As with Young, Booker has to make a number of small improvements to reach Tier 2. The first is finding offensive balance between shot creation and playmaking discussed above. It would also help if he became a little more reliable as a 3-point shooter, where despite his reputation in that area, Booker’s accuracy has been just OK, even controlling for the difficulty of his shot attempts (his 39.8 percent career mark on uncontested 3s is slightly above average but doesn’t really approach the elite status of the Currys, Robinsons and Porter Jr.’s of the world who are in the mid-40s or higher). The third is his clearest weakness: defense, where being a little more consistently competitive would go a long way. Those are the areas that separate Booker from the perimeter players in Tiers 2 and 1.

Tier 4 (37-79)

  • Deandre Ayton — moved up from 5A to 4B
  • Jae Crowder — moved up from 5A to 4B
  • Mikal Bridges — moved up from 5A to 4B

Thanks to an incredible season in the Valley, all three starters around Booker and Paul were awarded a bump in the tier rankings. That gives the Suns five players among the top 79 players in the league.

Players in Tier 4 will typically produce six to eight wins per season, worth contracts in the low $20s in annual millions. They tend to fall into three groups: stars of the recent past who have aged out of All-Star-level play but are still extremely productive, those on the way up who haven’t quite reached those exalted heights and the very best role players who bring all the little complimentary skills top stars sometimes overlook.

Tier 5 (80-125)

  • Cameron Payne — from OUT OF LEAGUE to 5A
  • Just barely missed the top 125: Cameron Johnson

Tim Hardaway Jr., Devonte’ Graham, and Cameron Payne nip in ahead of Cameron Johnson and Will Barton based on their combination of shot creation and 3-point accuracy, while the latter pair are limited to either accuracy (Johnson) or aggression (Barton).

Drop-outs include Ricky Rubio and Aron Baynes, a pair of Phoenix Suns who made the Top 125 thanks to great seasons in the Valley. Both had bad years for their new teams, and given their age they don’t appear ready to pop back up into the Top 125 any time soon.

All tolled, the Suns have 6 of the Top 125 players in the league (almost 7!), according to Partnow. Using basic math, in an evenly distributed 30-team league, any one team should have 4 of the top 125 players.

What say you, Suns fans?

Which rankings do you dispute the most?

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