A few years ago, The Athletic’s Seth Partnow launched a project he came to call NBA Player Tiers. The idea was a fairly basic one: ranking the top 125 players in the league after each season separating them into tiers instead of building an ordered 1-to-125 ranking.
The main reason for approaching the task this way is to avoid little-detail arguments about who should be one or two spots ahead in such a vast landscape, even more considering how tight and small the margins are when it comes to comparing the best professional basketball players doing it in the NBA.
Back in the first edition, only Mitchell Robinson (Tier 5A) represented the New York Knicks. A year ago, with the Knicks making the postseason after a big free-agent spending spree to strengthen the roster, as many as six Knicks appeared on the list with all of Julius Randle, Kemba Walker (both in Tier 4A), Derrick Rose (Tier 4B), Evan Fournier, Immanuel Quickley (Tier 5A), and Nerlens Noel (Tier 5B) finding their way there.
Now, entering the 2022-23 campaign, five players are repping the Knicks brand in Partnow’s list: Jalen Brunson (Tier 4A), Immanuel Quickley, Julius Randle, RJ Barrett, and Quentin Grimes (all Tier 5). Brunson, who made it to Tier 4A thanks to his Mavericks days, is part of a select group of just 44 players split into Tier 4B (25 players) and Tier 4A (19) where he resides. The other four players (those who have already played in New York’s threads) all belong to Tier 5, which includes players ranked between the top 85 and top 125 following Partnow’s evaluation system.
All of the above means that, yes, RJ Barrett has finally broke into the top-125 players of the league after missing on it in the 2020 and 2021 editions while Quentin Grimes is also following him at that. On the other hand, Derrick Rose, Kemba Walker, Evan Fournier, and Nerlens Noel have all fallen down and out of the ranks, missing on them entirely. Mitchell Robinson also failed to get ranked for the second year in a row. It also means that Brunson, the same one who has put the FO under hot fire after it “overpaid” for his services, is a top 85 NBA player, or getting into the finer details (he’s part of Tier 4A, slightly above all Tier 4B members) a top 60 players entering next season. Not bad for an overpayment, if you ask me.
Anyway, keep in mind that players slotted in the same tier are all meant to bring a similar level of production to the table. Of course, metrics will give a better idea of where everyone’s truly at. For example, Mike Conley has the highest EPM—Estimated Plus/Minus—among those in Tier 5 at 3.9 compared to Ayo Dosunmu’s tier-lowest mark of minus-3.32.
Similarly, Immanuel Quickley’s RAPM (read more about it here) of 2.85 is the highest mark (0.76 points above second-best 2.09 by Jae Crowder) compared to the tier-lowest minus-1.93 figure posted by Norman Powell.
I have taken the data present in Partnow’s first entry (the one covering the Tier 5: 85-125) and built a couple of plots to make it easier to digest where the New York Knicks sit in terms of different metrics among those in this tier.
Here is the EPM (and EPM Wins) table.
And the RAPM leaderboard, with IQ on top.
Finally, here is a chart combining both metrics (EPM and RAPM) into a single plot, clearly showing IQ ahead of the pack of players comprising the Tier 5 in Seth Partnow’s ranks.
Here is the same exercise, only now using data from the second entry of the series and thus exclusively including players who belong to Tier 4A and Tier 4B, so Brunson’s top-85 placement in the NBA pecking order gets properly put in context.
Again, quite a pleasing overpaid player to have around, this Jalen Brunson.
When it comes down to building the tiers, Partnow’s have five levels of play broken down this way. Keep in mind that :
- Tier 1: Five players per season worth 35 percent of the team’s cap in terms of their production, significantly adding to a team’s championship equity
- Tier 2: 10-15 players worth 30 percent or more of the cap
- Tier 3: 20-25 players worth 25 percent of the cap or higher
- Tier 4: 30-35 players worth 20 percent of the cap
- Tier 5: 50-75 players who provide some additional championship equity on top of their “everyday” production, but only a minor amount
With that in mind, Partnow arrives at varying amount of players (in the 125-to-150 clip) worth listing every season if we add the number of guys expected to appear in each tier. The author explains his aim for “three-to-seven Tier 1 guys, with Tier 2 stretching out over the rest of the top 20, down to the top 45 or 50 for Tier 3, Tier 4 making up the rest of the Top 75 or so, and the remainder of the top 125 included in Tier 5.”
If you’re interested in the nitty-gritty details of his method to build the tiers, Partnow also provides a breakdown of the aspects he takes into consideration when doing so. I have written a brief summary in the list below:
- Many metrics play an important part, but impact towards winning is heavily factored
- Regular-season floor-rising is valued, but there are bonus points for raising a team’s ceiling
- The rank is based on a combination of “the whole player’s recent career”, not just the most recent campaign. The reasoning is that approach reduces year-to-year outlier swings in role/situation that are out of the players control
- Salaries are ignored. Getting paid big bucks doesn’t translate to on-court production, and it’s about ranking players, not assets
- For players in Tier 5 (mostly), Reliability and Role are heavily factored into who made and who missed the list. This is based on having a complete skill set (one that aligns with the NBA’s current trends and style of play) and having a proven track record of sorts (players who have not appeared on the Playoffs, for example, are more “unknown/predictable” and therefore get knocked down a bit).
- Younger players get a little boost over veterans as the former “could benefit from either physical or skill development” that help them improve in different areas going forward.