For four years now, one of the preeminent advanced stats guys in the NBA, Seth Partnow, has placed the NBA’s best players into tiers for TheAthletic.com. Partnow, a senior writer for TheAthletic, is the Director of North American Sports for sports data leader StatsBomb, was previously the Director of Basketball Analytics with the Milwaukee Bucks, wrote the bestseller “The Midrange Theory”, and once appeared on the Solar Panel podcast.
He uses tiers for the purposes of grouping the top players by their impact to a playoff team. The less the impact on playoff outcomes, the wider the tier. For example, Tier 1 doesn’t go much deeper than seven players while Tier 5 can include as many as 50 players.
These are not intended as rankings for a “franchise redraft” exercise, nor are they meant to represent trade value. Rather, the specific question being asked is: Assuming the player is healthy and paired with competitive teammates, which players provide the most value toward winning a title?
All five tiers fit among the top 25% of players in the league. Per Partnow, the rest of the league, or any team’s roster, has very little not impact their championship hopes. In fact, you have to get to Tier 4 (i.e. the top 75 or so players in the league) to see real value in playoff outcomes.
Since 2020, seven different Suns have made his Top 125 players, but none of them ever made it higher than the ‘2C’ group until this year.
Let’s see where he puts the new Phoenix Suns, as well as some of the old Phoenix Suns. A year ago, the Suns began the 2022-23 season with six players listed among the Top 125 players in the league — tied for the second-most of any NBA team behind the Boston Celtics.
For reference, the breakdown looks something like:
- Tier 1 — The top 6 players, any of whom can carry a team to a championship
- Tier 2 — 7-18th best players, any of whom can get you to the Finals, but probably not over the top
- Tier 3 — 19-39th best players, any of whom can be an All-Star in the right year, but are generally not a top option on a deep playoff team
- Tier 4 — 40-80th best players, all of whom are elite role players
- Tier 5 — 81-125th best players, who are really good role players
Let’s take a look at the results. Here how Seth ranked the recently-traded Phoenix Suns over the years, by tier.
Chris Paul is clearly on the decline after a stellar career in which he made All-NBA as one of the league’ 6 best guards at the ripe old age of 36. But the day he turned 37 was the day those heights abandoned him. Mikal Bridges is on the rise could become an All-Star as early as this season.
Now let’s look at this year’s Phoenix Suns.
Let’s work bottom up.
Deandre Ayton - 4C (Group 67-80)
Ayton is now in the Numbers over Impact group somewhere in the 67-80 range of NBA players.
Numbers over impact
In general, I’m less enamored with guys who profile as moderately efficient scorers without offering much else. If there is another commonality here, it’s questionable defense, though neither Grant nor Ayton is awful on that end.
I mentioned in the Tier 5/Intro installment that, while the tiers are meant to be as contract agnostic as possible, this is the group for which it becomes most difficult to completely ignore cap implications, as “Yay, Points!” players tend to get paid too much to be easily fit into roles where they might most help a title team.
Hey at least Ayton’s still in the group of the Top 80-ish of players who can make a real difference in a playoff series.
Near the higher end of the talent spectrum, small increases in player ability tend to lead to large changes in impact toward playoff success and ultimately championship viability. While “Tier 5” level production provides some incremental help in that regard, my past research suggests Tier 4 is where the real value starts to kick in.
Tier 5 players are nice and can be just the type of guys who push a team over the top in a close playoff series, but a team has to have enough Top 75-ish talent for those small bonuses to even matter.
Bradley Beal — 3C (Group 34-39)
Brad has been in the 3s for all four years of Seth’s analysis, though he’s dropped down the sub-tiers from 3A to 3C.
Beal’s post-contract-extension purgatory means he hasn’t played a meaningful game in several years. He’ll certainly have every chance to prove he can play winning basketball in Phoenix, especially on the defensive end, where the hope is his poor impact according to most metrics was more because of indifference than inability.
Meanwhile, for us fans of Mikal Bridges, he’s elevated himself in the eyes of the talent evaluators enough to put him into the next higher tier of players, right alongside the Beals.
Speaking of players I’ve long been in the tank for, for many years, Mikal Bridges was the avatar of the difference between elite role players (i.e. Tier 4) and Tier 3-plus stars until he got traded to Brooklyn and showed plenty of potential as a higher usage on-ball scorer than he ever got to show as an uber-qualified 3-and-D player in Phoenix. I’ll admit I’m possibly getting ahead of myself projecting that he can maintain that level, but in 27 games in Brooklyn, he had a 60.7 true shooting percentage on 30.3 percent usage. Only 25 players have managed that feat over a full season playing 1,500-plus minutes since the introduction of the 3-pointer, though it is a bit easier these days with league average efficiency at a high-water mark. Given his All-Defensive-level ability to guard, Bridges even has a decent amount of room to fall off offensively and still perform at this level.
Beal and Bridges are joined in a small group by Rudy Gobert, DeMar DeRozan, LaMelo Ball and Tyrese Haliburton.
Devin Booker — 2A (group 7-11)
These are new heights for Devin Armani Booker, climbing all the way up the subgroups within Tier 2 to the top end and just outside that coveted Tier 1 level.
Booker now finds himself in an elite subgroup with Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Jayson Tatum and LeBron James. Every one of these guys has been the best player on a Finals team, and while Kawhi (2, as recently as 2019) and LeBron (4, as recently as 2020) have won championships they are past their prime and unlikely to carry a team on their shoulders to the promised land again.
The guys on the rise in this group are Tatum and Booker.
Perhaps the most interesting “Who ya got?” argument to be had in the league is between Jayson Tatum and Devin Booker.
Booker’s development from non-impactful scorer to not just a winning player, but also an engaged and locked in two-way player over the past four-to-five seasons has been nothing short of sensational. It’s the kind of trajectory that gives hope to every team with a developing star wing, whether it’s Anthony Edwards in Minnesota (who has made great strides himself) Jalen Green in Houston (who has a long way to go) or even Scoot Henderson in Portland (who has yet to play a real NBA game).
Heading into last season, we knew Booker was a dynamic and multifaceted offensive player. He’s a top-level shot creator and excellent playmaker, and unlike some high volume scorers, he’s willing to play off the ball as well as initiating offense himself. Somewhat unusual for a player at Booker’s level of offensive centrality, he has taken massive steps forward defensively. After spending the first six years of his career as a bottom tier defender — he ranked no higher than 414th in Defensive RAPM and the 26th percentile in Defensive EPM over that span — Booker has graded out as roughly average in regular-season defensive impact over the last two years and, to my eyes, raised his defensive output even further in the 2023 postseason.
Partnow goes on to say that Tatum plays like a Tier 1 player (i.e. better than Booker) 90% of the time, but has enough lapses at the wrong times to make some people just prefer to have the more consistently great Booker as that option.
If I had to pick one of the two with the explicit goal of winning a championship, I would go with Tatum mostly because of the heightened possibility of an extra gear. But if Booker ultimately enjoys more success because he is less prone to Tatum’s streakiness, I would not be the least bit surprised.
While this comp may rile you up, at least Booker is now listed at the top of the shooting guard totem pole, ahead of the likes of Damian Lillard, Ja Morant, Jamal Murray, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Donovan Mitchell.
Championship teams almost certainly need a Tier 1 player — one of the top 5-7 players in the league — playing their best basketball to win a ring. Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid have won 6* of the last 9 championships and the last 5 MVP awards.
*the other three were won by LeBron and Kawhi, who were Tier 1 at the time they won
Kevin Durant is a few years removed from championship parades (2017 and 2018) and MVP awards (2014), but is still considered one of the six best players in the entire league and just put up a crazy 29/9/5 stat line in the 2022 Playoffs.
Can the soon-to-be 35 year old Durant put another Tier 1 performance out there and carry his team to the Championship like 35-year old Stephen Curry did in 2022 and 35-year old LeBron James did in 2020? Or will he cross over to the shadows this season?
I wavered on whether the string of recent injuries and playoff disappointments should push Kevin Durant down into Tier 2. And then I reminded myself he shot nearly 62 percent on 2-pointers last year, over 40 percent from 3 and nearly 92 percent from the line, leading to efficiency 16 percent above league average despite carrying a usage rate north of 30 percent. While time comes at you fast, Durant is just about two years removed from being — for my money at least — the best player in the world, so it’s possible I’m just being stubborn by keeping him this high.
It is entirely possible Devin Booker stamps his claim as the Suns’ best player. Whether that means Booker gets this spot or Durant ends up tumbling down a sub-tier or three (or both!) would depend on exactly how that came to pass. But much like LeBron James this year, the end of his time at the top will come. We’ll see if Durant can push that reckoning off by another year.
The Suns are the only team with a player in each of the top four tiers, one of only three teams with both a Tier 1 and a Tier 2 player (Nuggets, 76ers) and one of just six teams with 4+ players in the top 4 Tiers.
Given Partnow’s argument that you need the top end talent to win championships, having two players among the top 11 players in the game is quite a good thing.