January 20, 2019

Damian Lillard or Mike Conley; who ya got?

As far as questions of ranking players go, that’s a pretty simple one. Two point guards, for (at least through last season) contending teams. Both playing at All-Star or near All-Star level. So, which one is better?

Lillard is certainly the bigger name, the more dynamic scorer, and the guy who has been selected among the Western Conference elite. Meanwhile, Conley’s genius is subtler, his cerebral style pairing well with the European skill and bear-like grace of Marc Gasol, while his defensive abilities are at the very top for any list of best guards on that end of the floor.

Statistics can be argued either way til the cows come home, Lillard’s gaudier traditional numbers against Conley’s defensive metrics, and the numbers can be fit to either side of the debate with remarkable ease. How about a thought experiment then? Which team comes out ahead in a straight swap? After all, it is like-for-like, one lead guard for another.

Except that line of inquiry leads us nowhere either, as there is the sinking feeling both teams would get worse. Without Lillard’s explosiveness and sheer willingness to drive the offense forward, who else on the Blazers, especially with LaMarcus Aldridge off to San Antonio, would pick up the slack? And at the same time, How would Lillard’s porous-at-best defense fit in with the Grit-and-Grind Grizz?

So, I ask again, who is better? What does “better” even mean? There is virtually no situation in the modern NBA in which the question of which player you’d rather have “in a vacuum” is both readily discernible and remotely interesting. LeBron James is better than Carmelo Anthony at basketball. Thank you and drive through, but our understanding hasn’t increased a whit through the repetition of that easy truth.

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For any two players closer in skill, a host of contextual factors and unknown unknowns play into the final decision. What role would they be filling? Who are their teammates? Who is “better” between the best player on a mediocre team or the co-pilot player on a champion? (otherwise known as “why is Scottie Pippen so underrated historically?” But that’s another argument for another time.) And how do we measure players who don’t do at all the same thing against each other?

How do you weigh an elite specialist, like a Kyle Korver or Danny Green, against even a second-tier go-to guy? Does Korver do more to help his team win than Blake Griffin? Kyrie Irving? Chris Bosh? How sure are you? I spend far too much time coming up with ways to measure players’ contributions and there is no way I’d give an answer without first knowing “who else you got on the squad?”

My general disdain for rankings and the discussion thereof isn’t simply an appeal to ignorance (or to put a more positive spin on it, a recognition of how much we don’t yet know.) Rather the above questions assume an argument made in good faith from a standpoint of a somewhat well-defined theory of how the game works and what is important. In actual practice, the “rankings” argument boils down to and endless circle of confirmation biases yelling at each other louder and louder. This is my guy, let me find the aspect that makes him look best relative to your guy, and then turn around and take the opposite point if it suits when comparing my guy, to their guy over their. It’s exhausting.

I should close by noting that I’m an incredible hypocrite for even writing this. This very website (and every other basketball website under the sun) has been rolling out our Top 50 for 2015 over the last few weeks. Additionally, I took part in ESPN’s #ESPNRank project as a voter. However, I still think player rankings are silly. And we spend way too much time and energy on them.

That said, the main reason (other than pure vanity) I participated in the ESPN survey was the way the question was phrased:

Which player will be better in 2015-16? Including both the QUALITY and the QUANTITY of each player’s contributions to his team’s ability to win games.

There is a lot of important definitional work being done in the second sentence there. “Who will do more” is a much different question (to my mind) than who is “better,” because all of those situational factors are acknowledged and incorporated. It’s also a “real world” question that will have answers provided (to a degree) over the course of the season rather than a flight of roto basketball-esque fantasy.

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Seth Partnow

Seth Partnow is a former small college player and current armchair analyst. In addition to BBallbreakdown.com, his work can be found on the Hardwood Paroxysm Basketball Network, The Cauldron and Washington Post's "Fancy Stats" blog. He is also the host of the Make or Miss Podcast and can be found on twitter @SethPartnow.

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  • The proliferation of NBA player rankings has more to do with the fan’s desire to play fantasy GM than it does with people being genuinely interested in analyzing players. That’s why so many player rankings are reductive and lack insight on what it is that player X does well or poorly.

    That being said, player rankings can be a fun jumping off point for deeper conversations about the effectiveness of players. The problem is that the people discussing rankings and shouting them down are often not informed enough to make an impartial decision.

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