Simply Ballin’s NBA Player Tiers 2023: The Elite of the Elite

Simply Ballin
17 min readSep 9, 2023
Photo by Garrett Ellwood

We are finally here. These players are the elite of the elite. Every single one of these players does something that’s on a whole different level compared to anyone else in the league(and some do something that’s never been done in the history of the league). Their talent is simply historic.

I see these players as having little to no limitations that greatly affect the kind of impact that they kind have. There are no flawless NBA players but there are players that despite those limitations, what they do well outweighs any potential weakness that they may have.

Take a guy like Giannis Antetokounmpo. He’s not an average 3-point shooter or even a mid-range shooter, but that didn’t stop him from being a two-time MVP. Or Nikola Jokic who may have limitations as a defensive guy but what he does as a scorer and passer makes that irrelevant.

That’s the big difference between them and everyone else. They make whatever limitations they may have not affect their game and ceiling.

And that’s another point. Because of their all-time talent, they elevate their teams as well as anyone else in NBA history. They’re able to raise the team’s floor and ceiling, which makes constructing the roster easier, as you wouldn’t need as much help or more holes to cover up.

Although winning a title is very situational and requires a lot of context, I think it’s fair to give those players who have proven to have won(and in most cases won multiple championships) a slight boost. Similar to how I feel about certain young players where they had success in the regular season, but still need to prove it in the playoffs, all but one in this tier have proven they legitimately can be the best player on a championship team.

With everyone else, it’s hypothetical even if it’s very valid that they could win with a better-supporting cast or have a serious chance. With these players, nothing is uncertain. You know you can win with Stephen Curry or LeBron James.

Finally, something that I’ve been thinking about as I write these tiers, I think when it comes to being the best player on a championship team, they should ideally be capable of being an offensive engine. That’s where players have the most value, so it makes sense that those players should be highly efficient scorers, and elite passers, provide rim pressure, and be able to play off-ball to complement other stars. Elite players should be able to fit seamlessly with others and still add a lot of value.

In order of preference:

  • Kawhi Leonard
  • Kevin Durant
  • LeBron James
  • Luke Doncic
  • Giannis Antetokounmpo
  • Stephen Curry
  • Nikola Jokic

Kevin Durant

Continuing on the point of these players needing to be the offensive engine, as great as Durant is, I’m not entirely sure he’s that or at least elite enough to belong with some of these players.

As I’ve mentioned plenty of times in these tiers, offense is weighed more. Don’t get me wrong, Durant is an all-time offensive player. The stuff that he does as a scorer is something that has never been done before.

But offense is more than just being a great scorer, particularly if the scoring comes from tough shot-making and mid-range shots. Similar to what I talked about, particularly with Devin Booker, I think there’s a ceiling on offense without that elite passing or rim pressure.

That same thing applies to Durant. Although it matters significantly less when he’s on a whole different level everywhere else.

There’s stuff like that. How can one player be so far ahead of everyone?

In the last three regular seasons, he has attempted the ninth most long mid-range attempts with 642. Almost a quarter of his shots have been from 14ft to the 3pt line. For almost anyone in NBA history, that’s not a good shot diet, at least when it comes to being efficient. But Durant isn’t human, as he casually has knocked down 56.1%.

  • Out of 20 players with at least 500 FGA in that span, he ranks first in efficiency.
  • Out of 78 players with at least 250 FGA, he ranks first in efficiency.
  • Out of 171 players with at least 100 FGA, he ranks, oh yeah, first in efficiency.
  • EVEN, out of 268 players with at least 50 FGA, he ranks first! Hell, he ranks 10th without any sort of qualifier. That is absolutely insane.

This is almost the same thing with the short mid-range(except he’s second behind Jokic). Out of players with at least 750 and 500 FGA, he’s second. Without any qualifier, he’s 10th. There’s simply no one better than him in the mid-range. Period.

He clearly checks the first box as an uber-efficient scorer. There’s no spot on the floor that he isn’t efficient at. There’s also no type of shot that he isn’t efficient at.

Next, per BBall-Index, he and Curry are the only players with multiple seasons(they have six seasons) of ranking in the top 10 in both off-ball and self-created shot-making.

Durant is one of those players who can fit in with everyone. He’s shown that whoever his teammates are, he’s going to come in and do whatever he needs to do well.

So, he clearly checks all but two boxes. Rim pressure and being an elite passer. Now, as a scorer, he doesn’t need the rim pressure, as clearly he’s the best mid-range scorer. But that’s needed if you want to have a bigger impact as a passer.

Since 2014, there have been 119 on-ball players with an A grade or better in both passing creation volume and passing creation quality. But out of them, only 12 players have a D+ grade or worse in rim shot creation. The only player who has managed to generate consistent, high-quality looks without pressuring the rim has been Chris Paul.

I think that in itself limits what he can do as an engine, but it’s also that I don’t think he’s at that elite level as a passer.

That’s why I don’t think it’s a surprise that in each playoff with the lead ball handler off the court, the offense is quite worse.

In the 2014 and 2016 playoffs, here’s Oklahoma City Thunder’s offense:

  • With both Durant and Russell Westbrook on: 114.1
  • With Durant on and no Westbrook: 97.6
  • With Westbrook on and no Durant: 111.6

Here’s the Golden State Warriors offense from 2017–2019:

  • With both Durant and Curry: 122.8
  • With Durant on and no Curry: 113.6
  • With Curry on and no Durant: 115.6
  • With Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green on but no Curry: 112.9
  • With Curry, Thompson, and Green on but no Durant: 114.2

And it’s this that holds him back from being in the clear top-3 conversation or why I can also see a certain player from tier two being ahead of him in the playoffs but with him being an all-time level scorer, the best mid-range scorer today, and still being a good enough passer is enough to have all-time level impact.

Kawhi Leonard

Leonard is in a similar place to me. He’s another of these wings that I don’t see being able to be that engine. But he also makes up for it in other areas.

From January 1st, 2023, Leonard scored 27.7 points per 75 possessions on 59.1% eFG and 64.4% TS. And these were his shooting splits:

  • 54.8% 2pt
  • 46.3% 3pt
  • 65.8% rim
  • 53.5% short mid-range
  • 48.8% long mid-range

That is absurd efficiency from anywhere on the court. He and Durant are simply not human when it comes to efficiency everywhere. I don’t think there’s a shot that they’re not comfortable with. He’s also another one of those players that is able to fit in with anyone.

It’s this all-time level as a scorer that makes any other limitations not as relevant.

And I know it was only two games in the playoffs this year, but those were some of the best games I’ve seen all year. But that’s Leonard’s issue and it also makes it difficult to evaluate him. It’s small sample after small sample with him because he hasn’t been able to give us anything more in a long while.

That makes it tough to say if there have been improvements in other areas. Although he’s 32 years old, there’s no reason to believe he’s done improving as a player, but with there not being a long stretch of him playing consistently, these constant gaps make it harder to tell.

But there’s still over a 200-game sample in the last four seasons with him averaging 28.1 points on 60.7% TS and that actually increases in the playoffs.

Also, a fun stat when it comes to his playoff sample, since 2019, he’s played in 50 games — that’s more than Joel Embiid, Devin Booker, LeBron James, Durant, Paul George, Donovan Mitchell, and Luka Doncic. And that’s with him missing the entire 2022 playoffs and only appearing in two games this year.

LeBron James

Even at his age — at 38 years old, who’s going to turn 39 in December — I can’t see a case for James being lower than this tier.

As these tiers emphasize the playoffs, being consistent throughout the 82 games matters a bit less. James hasn’t played more than 67 games since 2018 — including not playing over 56 in four of the last five years.

That’s why his total impact throughout the season is significantly less than a lot of players. Here are his LEBRON WAR ranks(which values players that play more) vs. LEBRON(which is a rate stat)

  • 2023: 21st & 10th
  • 2022: 17th & 14th
  • 2021: 15th & 6th
  • 2020: 3rd & 4th
  • 2019: 17th & 9th

When considering his aggregate impact for the entire season, outside of 2020, he hasn’t been a top 15 regular season performer. On the other hand, his LEBRON ranks, outside of 2022, still rank him as a top 10 player.

That’s the main difference we’re seeing from James. You’re not going to get a consistent peak of James’ impact through 82 games. That’s why guys like Tatum, Doncic, Giannis, Jokic, and Embiid, will come out better in those impact stats because they simply play more.

So, it makes sense why those players have a strong case to have had a better season than James. But to me having a better, impactful season(which games played matters) is different than being the better player overall. Though when it comes to the playoffs, I have a hard time finding, at the max, five players ahead of James.

There is a decline in his play across the board compared to himself. His scoring is down, his efficiency is down, and has run out of gas more often late in games. His rim frequency has dropped(his frequency between 3–10ft is a career-high) and what I found interesting is the amount of shots being assisted increasing.

I also don’t think he’s able to go into that next gear even in the playoffs, especially when it comes to scoring. But his rim pressure, the ability to punish mismatches, and still being arguably the smartest player in basketball make it tough to bet against him. It’s his IQ, his passing, and simply mastering everything he needs to know that still puts him in this tier even with his limitations.

Luka Doncic

Maybe it’s premature to put Doncic in this tier. I do think he has some flaws and limitations in his game on both ends whereas some of these players don’t. At the same time though, some of the things he does well, I don’t think there’s anyone else in the league that can do what he does either.

He’s one of the best on-ball players in the league. The way he can create an efficient offense out of anything is something that only a handful of players in NBA history have been able to do so.

This is what you’ll get with Doncic on offense. Outside of his rookie year, they’ve been an elite offense with him on the court.

And the reason for that is because he’s an elite scorer and arguably the best creator for others. This year, he had the highest scoring rate in his career and was the most efficient — he is one of the eight players since 2014 to average at least 30 points per 75 poss on over 60% TS.

It’s also this chart that makes you go WOW.

Out of 1303 on-ball players since 2014, Doncic is the only player to have an A+ grade in all major talent metrics on offense. He quite literally had one of the best all-around individual offensive seasons. I don’t think there’s anyone else that comes close when it comes to being elite at almost every on-ball-related skill.

He gets to the rim a lot and finishes extremely well(career 72.3% shooter). Has improved his paint and short mid-range significantly. Before the season, his career average from 3–10ft was 47.4% and from 10–16ft was 44.3%. It was 57.8% and 51.0% this year. The long mid-range and 3s are a bit questionable but are still elite considering the quality and volume of them.

This year, it felt like he prioritized getting better efficient shots inside, as he shot 58.8% from 2 on 13.8 attempts(both career-highs). And a big part of that was developing a post-game. He averaged 3.6 post-ups per game. He was the only guard or even a wing that averaged at least 3 a game. And out of 13 players that did, he was third in efficiency — behind Kristaps Porzingis and Jokic.

But as great as his scoring is, it’s his passing that transforms the offense. Because now the defenses have to choose something. Are you sending more help or letting him cook? But if you send help, chances are they’ll still get a high-quality look.

I think he’s easily a top-three passer in the world alongside James and Jokic and because of that, I genuinely think he mastered this type of offense.

However, there are questions about this style of play. This very high-usage, ball-dominant style. He constantly has the ball in his hands the most and there are many concerns about that.

One is very simple and it has shown to be an issue. He runs out of gas. There have been way too many times when the fourth quarter comes and he’s not the same Doncic.

But even beyond that, I wonder if there’s a lower ceiling with this offense. However, I don’t think that’s much of an issue with what Doncic does. Because he’s that elite with the ball, that might be the best possible option for the Mavericks to win given the current situation. Maybe this type of offense is needed because of the personnel and if the team was built better plus allowed for different schemes, then we might see everything work better.

We know that scheme is important(I think back to the 2015 Golden State Warriors). So, if the personnel allows it, that might change. And given what Doncic is capable of doing on the basketball court, I find it hard to believe that he and the team wouldn’t be better.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

When it comes to Giannis, I think he’s one of the only players, especially in this tier, where he has this level of impact on both ends of the floor.

He has shown that he can legit have a defensive player of the year level impact, even in the playoffs. In the 2021 and 2022 playoffs, without Brook Lopez, the Milwaukee Bucks had a 104.1 defense with Giannis. And he’s shown he can be versatile on defense too, which is probably the most important skill on defense right now in the playoffs.

But this defensive impact is just a cherry on top. It’s still his offense that is out of this world.

Though, I’m not sure if his offensive impact is accomplished in the same way as anyone else in this group. Arguably the most important thing in basketball on offense is rim pressure. That’s where you have the most efficient looks. The next most efficient spot is getting fouled. The next are corner 3s.

And who’s the player that is an unstoppable force at the rim? Out of every player since 2014, he attempts the third most unassisted shots at the rim per 75 poss with 8.9.(only behind Zion Williamson). But he’s also doing it with the wildest efficiency.

Here are the top 10 players in rim FG% out of 96 players that attempt at least 5 shots at the rim. It’s just a bunch of Giannis, James, and one Doncic season. But still, no one does it at the rate he does.

That alone can create one of the most efficient offenses. Now, you add the fact Giannis will get fouled a lot(but his free-throw shooting does hurt a lot).

Giannis is also more than just a scorer. He’s improved a lot as a passer. And as a result of this rim pressure, he’s able to generate a lot of 3s. He was sixth in 3pt assists per 100 poss. In the last three years, he’s also second in total 3pt assisted.

So, his strengths are exactly the things that are needed to generate elite offense. It’s all of that, that requires the entire defense to collapse on him and open up shots. And now being a much-improved passer, that makes that process even more effective.

But there are still limitations in his game, mainly on offense, where I don’t think I can have him above the last two players. He’s not a ball handler. He’s not an elite shot creator, especially in the mid-range or 3s. And I think that makes it more difficult in the playoffs.

It’s also not surprising that even in the year they won, his numbers were terrible without Khris Middleton vs with him:

  • 22.9 → 30.9 points per 75 poss
  • 44.2% → 60.7% eFG
  • 48.0% → 61.9% TS

And it also may be why last year without Middleton in the playoffs, Giannis had his worst playoff runs in terms of efficiency. It’s clear he needs that additional shot creator.

But because of his all-time-level strengths, that alone has all-time-level impact and there’s no one else that comes close to what he does in that area.

Stephen Curry

Easily the top-2 offensive player in the NBA. I think he has a legit case for being the best in the world and before this season, I would’ve said it was him.

Last year must have had some people fooled in the regular season where he had a drop off in scoring(down from his league-leading 32 per game the year before), drop off in efficiency, and for the first time shot below 40% from 3 when healthy. Fortunately, that didn’t last long, as after his first FMVP he was back to business this year.

The only players since 2014 to have scored more than him and more efficiently is himself twice, Durant twice, and Jokic. That’s the list. So, he’s back to being one of the most efficient scorers to have ever lived.

What’s interesting about Curry as he ages is there are clear signs of decline in many areas that he was elite at. The quickness isn’t there. The rim pressure significantly dropped — only 10.7% of his shots came at the rim. But that matters less when he’s able to improve in other areas.

Rim pressure dropped? Okay, he’ll have the best finishing season of his career, as he shot 76.0% within 3ft — 6% better than his second-best. As his rim attempts, his attempts in the paint have increased but that also matters less when he’s now shooting 55.1% in that area. He’s also begun to take more mid-range shots and has been just as efficient.

That’s what elite players do. They make up for their weaknesses in other areas.

He still remains the best off-ball player that we have ever seen and that will always have tremendous value. He is what transforms the Warriors' offense. The Warriors still had a 120.1 offense with him on the court. That’s funny. People will say he’s past his prime but still has an insane impact.

And his impact was clearer in the playoffs where with him the Warriors were +3.1 with a 115.8 offense and once he sat, they were -14.9 with a 96.5 offense.

He did have a rough second round against the Lakers, but I do expect the same type of bounce back we’ve seen him in last year’s playoffs.

Nikola Jokic

Finally, we have Jokic. Someone who should’ve won three straight MVPs.

He’s been my MVP in each three seasons. I’d say he’s been comfortably my top 3–5 player for a while now. And now I’m pretty comfortable saying he’s the best player in the league.

I don’t know if I’d have him in a different tier than anyone else, but outside of Curry, I don’t think anyone else has a strong enough case to be made that they’re the best in the world.

Similar to what I talked about with Doncic and how he’s mastered a side on offense with the ball in his hands. Where he’s capable of doing anything that’s needed. Before I showed a graph with Doncic’s talent metrics:

Outside of the 3-point shot and slightly worse 1v1 talent, he’s also someone who is almost perfect on offense across all these metrics.

And I would say that Jokic is the best offensive player mainly because of the off-ball, having a different type of impact as a big, plus there’s a strong case that he may be the best passer in the world.

He may be one of the most efficient 3-level scorers ever.

This is a list of players that have shot above 50% from the short mid-range, 70% at the rim, and 40% in the long mid-range. But that’s also not including that floater range. He’s also the only one to have a 70% TS — out of all on-ball players since 2014, he’s also the only one to reach that(without including any points qualifier).

He’s unstoppable 1v1. He’s unstoppable in the post. He’s the most efficient in the floater range. He’s comfortable scoring from anywhere spot on the court. There’s a reason why he has an isolation eFG of over 60%. As an individual scorer, he’s one of the best.

But because he’s also a big, he adds significant value that opens up everyone else when he rolls. He scored 1.37 PPP as a roll man!

But again, similar to Doncic, his biggest strength is his passing. That is the reason he’s able to be the engine of one of the most efficient offenses ever.

The Nuggets had a 126.1 offense with him(this dropped to 121.1 in the playoffs). The offense with him on the court was 11 points better than average. It was 7 points better than the league-best, Sacramento Kings. The best offense relative to the league average was the Mavericks in 2004 with 9 points better.

And the impact he has goes beyond a simple offensive rating. Everyone around him is better. Everyone around him gets easier looks. Out of nine players who played at least 100 minutes in the regular season, everyone either got more efficient or stayed the same.

One argument everyone will bring up is the defense, especially him a big. But he’s not a bad defender for his role. Yes, he gets cooked when he gets stretched out and has to defend in space — as are most big men in the NBA.

Despite that, his impact is positive on that end because of his big body in the paint. The opponent shot almost 10% worse than expected in the playoffs. So much for him costing games on the defensive end. Combine that with his IQ and his quick hands, I don’t see him as a negative defender that should bring him down.

And because of all this, with an all-time impact on offense that has been met by only a handful of players in NBA history, I think he’s the clear-cut best player in the world.

So, there it is. A full 110 players are done. Though the job isn’t finished yet.

As I continued working on these tiers, a lot of the research changed my mind about certain players and the process behind how they should be ranked. These specific tier pieces should act as a guide. But there’s going to be a round-up piece going through some changes and the full tiers in order with the players roughly ranked.

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