What rankings are getting wrong

September 18, 2017

 

 

 

The basketball world might would be better off without #NBArank. ESPN's annual exercise in organized boredom to pass the hoops-barren late summer inspires just all kinds of stupid controversies and debate. It is a magnet for takes we could all probably do without.

 

But, hell, people also like ranking things, and you gotta talk about something in September, right? So maybe the problem isn't so much the concept but the execution. Maybe the problem is that how we conceptualize rankings is fundamentally flawed.

 

Take the case of Nikola Jokic and DeMarcus Cousins. Jokic and Cousins don't stick out as naturally comparable, but they are both at least nominally centers, and ESPN's rankings had them at 16 and 17 in the NBA. Jokic, notably, ahead of Cousins.

 

This has spurred, at least among a number of the people I follow on Twitter, a debate about the two (and in some cases a debate more largely about advanced analytics and whether they overrate Jokic, but that's not the rail I'm trying to touch here).

 

The central question - is Nikola Jokic better than DeMarcus Cousins - isn't really best satisfied by a straight yes or no. I mean, gun to head, is Jokic actually a more talented basketball player than Cousins, I think I'd say no. But that's kind of the issue I'm getting at - what value really is there in that question, put in such a binary way?

 

Even setting aside that Cousins probably isn't best characterized as a center, these two simply do vastly different things for a basketball team. Comparing them straight up, asking which one is better than the other, is the wrong question to be asking. 

 

Cousins is a primary scorer, one of a very few such true alphas in the game, and one of even a smaller few who are bigs. Offensively, he plays like a power forward, and even more like a small forward than a center. He can stretch the floor with his three-point shot, he can attack from outside. He's at his most impossible to guard from the elbows,where he can reliably knock down jumpers or beat you with his ferocious mid-range dribble-drive game. He can do back-to-the-basket, post scoring too, but his skill-set is diverse enough that it doesn't have to be his bread and butter.

 

Compare that with Jokic, who is his best as a facilitator. The Serbian plays like a 6-10 point guard, a high-low anchor who can marshal a set from the top with his exceptional passing vision and creativity or work a pick-action, from which he can ably finish a roll or use those passing skills to shift a play. He's nimble around the rim and comfortable scoring in the post. 

 

What he doesn't do is shoot as well as Cousins, nor can he break down a defense in isolation remotely as well. Last year Cousins took nearly 20 (19.9) field goal attempts per game, Jokic 11.7. In the four zones closest to the basket tracked by NBA.com, Jokic took 73.5 percent of his attempts. Cousins, just 60.8.

 

These are not similar players. Were it not for their height and position and the idea of needing to stack every player in basketball directly against one another, they would have little to no reason even to be in the same conversation.

 

Cousins is a scorer, over 21 points a game for his career and over 24 even when he moved over to New Orleans last season (he was over 27 a game in Sacramento). Jokic averaged 16.7 points per game last year.

 

Who's better? In a vacuum, it's a pretty straightforward case to make that Cousins is the more talented, dominant basketball player. But that's the point, basketball isn't in a vacuum, and ranking guys against each other as if it was borders on being masochistically pointless. 

 

Cause here's the rub. Jokic grades out better on most all of the advanced catch-all stats that are publicly available. Whether that's win shares/48, or box plus-minus or ESPN's real plus-minus stats, Jokic rates comfortably ahead of Cousins.

 

What does that mean? Well, Jokic is a second option. He might be an ideal second option, the best second option you could possibly hope to have. He can finish in a wide variety of ways inside and keep you honest outside, he can keep the ball moving with his passing skills. He's a perfect secondary cog in a modern offense. But he is also able to be as efficient as he is, and grade out as well as he does, because he is not required to do the kind of bulk scoring Cousins can. He can't.

 

So then that gets us to the heart of what we mean by better. Cousins does what only maybe a dozen or so players in the NBA are capable of, but he's probably toward the back end of that group. There are a great many more players who can occupy a secondary/complementary role in the league, but Jokic is arguably at the very top of that class. 

 

What Jokic does for his team, in his role, you could argue is better than what Cousins does for his team, in his role. You could just as easily argue that as one of among a small number of players who can credibly fill his role, Cousins is, ipso facto, better than Jokic. 

 

Who's right? It's an impossible conflict to really referee. Is LeBron James, who ranked No. 1 on ESPN's list, better than Kevin Durant, its No. 2? Probably still, sure, when he wants to be. How much stock do we still put in that though when you have to qualify it with, "when he wants to be?" What does it actually matter when Durant turns into a superman because his absolute best is brought out by the talents around him on the Warriors?

 

Is Carmelo Anthony, a lightning rod for the takes after ESPN had him at No. 64, really worse than Eric Gordon (No. 62)? Of course not, if what you mean is which player is more talented and can carry an NBA offense. But again, at this stage Melo might be at the very bottom of that tiny group of true primary scorers in the NBA. If you're the Houston Rockets, and you already have someone better from that group (James Harden), it's plausibly more valuable to you to have a very good tertiary option/three-point specialist, of which Eric Gordon qualifies.

 

Basketball is contextual, and an absolutist battering ram of a list like this, stripped of context, does precious little to advance any meaningful analysis of the game. 

 

Is Nikola Jokic better than DeMarcus Cousins? No and yes. It really all depends on what you want that question to actually ask.

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