NBA Season Preview 2017-18: Top 50 Players, Toughest Cuts

2017 was supposed to be the year that I allowed myself to take a break before I started grinding from October through June. 2017 was supposed to be the first year since 2011 without my annual Top 50 NBA Players Countdown.

Then I saw various outlets like ESPN, Sports Illustrated and SB Nation release their NBA player rankings and I started getting itchy. I had the shakes. I found myself obsessively combing over the lists and wondering things like Are these guys really watching basketball games or just reading box scores? Are they trying too hard to masquerade as “smart basketball fans”? What the hell criteria are they using, and why isn’t it as explicitly laid out as mine used to be? Why do I genuinely feel like I was better at this than everyone else? Oh, that’s right, because I am better at this! 

2017 was supposed to be the year I stayed out of the player ranking game. But do you know what happened?

Hold on, that’s not the right clip.

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in! With all due respect to Silvio Dante, embedding a video of him delivering this line instead of Michael Corleone would be like if you trusted ESPN or Sports Illustrated’s NBA Player Rankings over mine.

So here we are, just two weeks away from the tip-off of the 2017-18 NBA Season, and I’m ready to treat you to a jam-packed five-part Top 50 Player Countdown because I feel it’s my duty to make sure you are properly informed about the National Basketball Association at all times. It’s the most entertaining and well ran professional sports league in the United States (don’t you dare try to argue against me on this point because I will mercilessly slay you) and we’re heading into one of the most puzzling and promising NBA regular seasons in the league’s history.

I’m sure any self-described “casual fans” reading this will scoff at the notion that the regular season means anything at all, and even I’ll admit that the overall weight of the regular season is debatable to some degree. But if we’re only arguing for night to night entertainment value and anticipatory intrigue (which it seems like anyone who is inclined to say that the regular season doesn’t matter would value these two things if they were actually a fan of professional basketball), then it’s close to undeniable that the 2017-18 regular season brings a ton to the table.

Now of course, when I say “a ton,” I don’t mean 2,000 pounds worth of excitement and intrigue. That doesn’t make even a little bit of sense; even in a scenario where we could assign actual amounts of weight to stand for levels of excitement for a given upcoming event, a ton simply isn’t enough for the 2017-18 NBA season. A baby Blue Whale weighs somewhere between 3 and 4 tons, and the NBA season will be far more exciting than a baby Blue Whale.

The NBA is now nearly a year-long sport for fans to follow, and this development works out quite well since the league is more talent rich now than it has been in my entire quarter-of-a-century lifetime. Could I really drop my Top 50 Players Countdown shtick as we’re heading where it feels like more players than ever are worthy of being considered a top fifty talent? No way.

As I said before, this will be a five-part expedition that is spread out over five days this week. Today I’ll explain to you a slimmed down version of my criteria and also point out the twelve toughest cuts I had to make from the Top 50. Then on Monday we’ll pick back up with players 36-50. You on board with that? (Nod your head ‘Yes’) Good, let’s get after it!

This is the criteria I’ve used ever since this idea originated back in 2012. I’ve tinkered with it a bit over the years, but it’s remained mostly the same. Five years ago when I was developing the idea of ranking the best players in the NBA, I asked my friend Collin for help with developing the criteria I should use. He came up with a statistical formula that was weighted heavily in favor of any players that A) Put up huge numbers and B) Won an event on All-Star Saturday Night at some point in their career.

I didn’t use Collin’s criteria.

The Criteria

1: Last Year and This Year

-The first thing to remember is that these rankings are based both on how good the player was last season and how productive I expect him to be this coming season. Every player is judged based on both. I’m not looking back at how good a player was in 2012 or how good he will be in 2022. It’s a two season sample size that I’m looking at, and because one of those seasons is yet to be played, I have to do some projections when I’m putting together the list.

2: Individual Statistics/Accolades

-What were his averages in the major statistical categories? Do the advanced stats favor him? Did he win any individual awards? Did he make an All-NBA team, All-Defensive Team, or any teams that I made up on my own but seemed relevant?

3: Talent

-Simply put, how good is he at basketball? This seems rather important, right?

4: Status

-What is the players’ role on the team? How significant is that role? How well does he fit their role? A good non-NBA example: Lost and ER were both great ensemble Dramas that utilized a number of interesting characters. As much as I’d love to rank all of the characters from both of these shows, I’ll avoid doing so now, but if I were to rank the top three, keeping in mind their overall importance to each respective show as well as things like degree of difficulty, performance by the actor, cultural impact, etc., I would argue that they would be Mark Greene (ER), John Carter (ER) and Jack Shephard (Lost) in that order. Even though Jack was the most important character on Lost, he wasn’t a better character than Carter was on ER. My point is this: A great second option or role player could very easily be ranked ahead of a good player who shoulders a larger burden on a nightly basis.

5: Team Success

-How much of an impact does that player have on the win/loss record of his team? Did he make significant contributions to the team that led to more wins? Is he an empty stats guy?

6: Late Game Chops

-How good is he when the game is on the line? Does he play better in big games or tend to disappear? Does he have the eye of the tiger or look more like a deer in the headlights?

7: Reputation

-How good of a teammate is this player? Do guys enjoy playing with him or is he despised? Does he do little things that make the team better or is he out for himself? Is he known as a hard worker, a solid locker room presence and a leader, or is he someone who doesn’t give a crap?

8: How Does He Stand Out

-Does he have any memorable games? Is there something unique about his game? Do you absolutely have to watch him play on NBA League Pass? Would you pay money to see him play in person?

The 12 Toughest Cuts

Nicolas Batum (66 on ESPN, 48 on SI, 63 on SB Nation) 

-Or, as the French would say, “Les douze coupures les plus difficiles.” How do you say, “Ouch, my elbow hurts,” in French?

A 2017 Rookie 

-As a matter of principle I never put any rookies in the Top 50. My annual logic: The league is already too stacked and we really have no way of telling what sort of immediate impact any Rookie is going to have. It’s inevitable that someone from this Rookie class will end up being one of the fifty best players in the NBA. There are five candidates I like the best: Lonzo Ball will put up impressive numbers playing with a crew of fun youngsters in Los Angeles … Ben Simmons (my Rookie of the Year pick) and Markelle Fultz could each end up joining Joel Embiid in the Top 50 next year (if health permits for all three) … Josh Jackson will be starting for the Phoenix Suns at some point this year, and he comes into the league armed with premier athleticism and a truly inspiring afro … And speaking of premier athleticism, everybody should take some time to get to know the 2018 Slam Dunk Contest winner, Dennis Smith Jr.

Jabari Parker (N/R on ESPN, N/R on SI, 76 on SB Nation)

-A torn ACL will keep Parker out of action likely until All-Star Break, but his play during the 1st half of 2016-17 (51 games, 20 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists per game, 49-37-74 shooting splits) was solid enough to warrant Parker All-Star consideration and a spot on the Toughest Cuts list.

Serge Ibaka (69 on ESPN, 56 on SI, 71 on SB Nation) 

-Ibaka is no longer the shot-blocking, rim-protecting terror he once was. His blocks have steadily declined from 3.7 per game in 2012 to just 1.6 last year, and it’s no surprise; Ibaka clearly isn’t the athlete he once was, and he never developed the all-around offensive game to make up for that. At this point, Ibaka is a floor spacing big who can’t create his own offense, create scoring opportunities for others, or prevent opponents from scoring around the basket like he once could.

George Hill (49 on ESPN, 63 on SI, 52 on SB Nation) 

-Over the Summer I was curious as to why George Hill willingly signed with the Sacramento Kings. With all due respect to H&H’s TJ Macias and the other 38 Kings fans out there that don’t live in Sacramento, it didn’t make sense that an established, steady, 31 year old Point Guard coming off the best statistical season of his career would be content with splitting minutes with a Rookie and overseeing a rebuild with a franchise that has lacked an identity or any semblance of stability for over a decade.

I started wondering why there weren’t any contenders or pseudo contenders lining up to attempt to sign Hill, and then I looked harder at each of their rosters and I realized that none of them had a glaring hole that could be filled by George Hill. The truth is, nearly every quality team in the league either has a Point Guard that is more skilled or a play-maker who can set the table better than Hill. He’s perfectly adequate and he’ll likely do a great job showing De’Aaron Fox the ropes in Sacramento. And if that’s his greatest contribution this year, it doesn’t earn him a spot in the Top 50. With that said …

Jeff Teague (73 on ESPN, 55 on SI, 70 on SB Nation)

– … I’d be moderately higher on the Minnesota Timberwolves had they signed George Hill instead of Jeff Teague.

Steven Adams (46 on ESPN, 47 on SI, 75 on SB Nation)

-Last season Steven Adams took time out of his busy schedule posing as the “Neanderthal Man” on the Human Evolution Chart to post career highs in points and rebounds per game. Now please, nobody let him know that I knocked his appearance or dropped him outside of the top 50. I don’t want him to club me to death and then cook my body over the fire that is burning inside the cave where he resides in Oklahoma City.

Ricky Rubio (48 on ESPN, 61 on SI, 67 on SB Nation)

-From February through April Rubio turned into the Point Guard everyone raved about in their pre-draft analysis of him back in 2009 … 15 points, 4 rebounds, 10 assists per game, plus solid defense, downright ridiculous court vision, and not-totally-atrocious shooting. It was Peak Rubio showing up at a time when it didn’t look like we’d ever get the chance to meet Peak Rubio, and personally, I love Peak Rubio. Seven years ago I thought Rubio was going to be a huge star; the modern day Nash who lacked a jumper. Admittedly, this was a stretch of the imagination on my part, but if Rubio performs all season at that level, he’ll be in the Top 50 next year.

Patrick Beverley (50 on ESPN, 90 on SI, 58 on SB Nation)

-Beverley is just as limited as Rubio is offensively, but the dude is an pissed off, unleashed pitbull on the defensive end. A lot of guys in the NBA play great defense; Beverley’s defense would be better described as “relentless,” and yes, that is a compliment.

Jae Crowder (38 on ESPN, 44 on SI, 88 on SB Nation)

-Crowder is coming off the most efficient shooting season of his career, and that bodes well for his outlook for the 2017-18 season.  Despite the fact that Crowder’s defense slipped by maybe ten percent last year, he can look really good at times, especially when his jumper is falling. In December and January last season Crowder hit from downtown at a 45% clip, and the quality of looks he’ll get playing alongside a savant passer like LeBron James could result in that two month blip turning into a season long reality based solely on the quality of looks he’ll be getting.

Brook Lopez (51 on ESPN, 45 on SI, 45 on SB Nation)

-Lopez has perennially been on the fringe of making my Top 50 countdown each year I’ve done it. I love the scoring punch he provides, the new addition of the three-point shot to his offensive repertoire, and the underrated rim protection he provides, but the fact that Russell Westbrook averaged twice as many rebounds last season is awfully troubling.

D’Angelo Russell (83 on ESPN, 100 on SI, 91 on SB Nation)

-Russell’s inclusion in the toughest cuts has more to do with where I project he’ll be at the end of the year than where he is right now. Russell very rarely approached anything resembling a Top 50 NBA Player, but the blame can’t totally be placed on his shoulders; he spent his Rookie year deferring to the Kobe Bryant Farewell Tour, and by the time his second season in LA had started Lakers fans were already daydreaming about Lonzo Ball running the modern day version of Showtime in Staples Center. Poor D’Angelo never had a real shot.

The Nets likely won’t compete for a postseason spot next season, but they should actually be fun to watch for the first time since they were residing in New Jersey. That starts with Russell getting an opportunity to showcase what made him the #2 pick in the 2015 Draft. I bought all kinds of stock in Russell back then and I was wise enough to hang on to most of it; I think this is a de facto breakout year for him. Honestly, I’m just super pumped that we’ve been blessed to be able to call the Russell/Jeremy Lin backcourt “Rush Hour” all season long.

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