We are back with Simply Ballin’s 2023 NBA player tier rankings. Yesterday, I laid out what my criteria are, what I value, what these rankings aren’t, and the general idea of what each tier will include, which you can find it here!
Today we’re jumping right into the first tier. But before we get to tier five, I wanted to touch on some young players that most likely haven’t made the cut.
- Tier Explanation
- Tier 4: Guards, Defense vs Offense in Bigs & Wings
- Tier 3: Lead Guards, #2s & Different Bigs
- Tier 2: Championship-Level Guys with Limitations
- Tier 1: The Elite of the Elite
- Final round-up & ranking
The Young Blood
For a lot of the younger players, I don’t see how they’d realistically have a higher impact than the majority of elite role players. A lot of these young players are usually the best or 2nd best players on a bad team that has more of an on-ball role.
But what they do on-ball is nowhere near good enough to warrant that on a good team. So, the question is do they do enough of the other stuff on both ends of the floor that can also fit with better players?
This other stuff should be skills that can translate to contending teams and that could be something like off-ball movement, elite shooting, being able to contribute to the offense without the ball, and elite defense for your role.
High lottery picks rarely have those skills when they get to the league or at least not to the level that other players will bring. These players include:
- Jalen Green
- Cade Cunningham
- Jaden Ivey
- Scottie Barnes
That doesn’t mean these players aren’t good or are putting up empty stats on bad teams(I also don’t really believe in empty stats). I just don’t think that they are there yet when it comes to helping teams win. For some of them, it’s just a matter of when. Some might need more time actually develop those skills. But for the most part, it’s way too early to make any decision on these players, and their ranking here, shouldn’t matter as much.
With that said, though, I wanted to highlight Paolo Banchero, as I could see making him that leap quite soon, even this season.
Out of pretty much all the young players, Banchero is the one who could easily take this leap sooner rather than later. He, by himself, got me watching Orlando Magic
For the season he averaged:
21 points, 7 rebounds, and 4 assists per 75 possessions on 52.9% true shooting. That stat line joins Luka Doncic as the only other rookie to do so.
But as impressive as that is, it’s his foul drawing that stood out the most.
Out of 367 players that have played at least 500 minutes, he’s 21st in fouls drawn per 75.
Out of 87 players with at least 10 drives per 75, he’s second in foul-drawn rate with 13.6%. Even when you do the same filter but from 2014, where there are 727 players, he’s SIXTH!
That’s a highly important skill and one that I think matters the most when it comes to being able to generate good looks as the guy on offense. Foul drawing is key. You combine that with everything else he’s shown flashes of — passing, self-creation, getting to the rim and upside on defense — then it’s just a matter of when he’s taking that next step.
Now, with that out of the way, here’s where the actual ranking can start.
When I was working out what each tier should be and trying to define them that have a general rule but are both strict and flexible, I decided to call this tier your elite role players and starters.
For the most part, I think that still applies, but I want to go away with the word role players because there are some players that I feel could be in this tier but I don’t know how to feel about them being role players.
However, the idea of the tier remains the same. They are your players who excel in their roles. These are the players that may be elite at 1–3 skills that highly translate to contending teams. They thrive with players who can create for them because that’s the main thing they lack.
But despite that, they are still highly impactful players and pretty much every contender would love to have these players. You can never have enough of them.
One important point is that defense and being a 2-way player is emphasized. If the player isn’t elite at a couple of offensive skills that can offset the value they may not add on defense, then a player that can do more on defense is boosted.
The players in tiers aren’t necessarily ranked but there might be some caveats and exceptions here and there where a certain player or a group might be at the top of the tier or on the brink of the next one.
Big note on these rankings! This tier is a non-exhaustive list. I tried to narrow it down to just around 100 players. But there are plenty of others that are likely in this tier 5. That’s where the majority of the starters fall for me. Because there are a lot of players, this is also focusing on the general archetype, but I also highlight some of the key players in each role.
The playoff bigs
- Al Horford
- Myles Turner
- Brook Lopez
- Jarett Allen
- Nic Claxton
- Kevon Looney
To me, there are two different types of bigs. Ones that you can play more in the regular season and ones that you’d want in the playoffs. And it’s these six players that are right at the top of this tier.
These bigs are the only ones that are in this tier that get around 30 minutes per game, instead of in the low 20s in the playoffs:
- Allen: 38.1
- Lopez: 36.3
- Horford: 30.8
- Claxton 29.2
- Looney: 25.0
- Turner: 36.4(2020 playoffs)
The main thing you’d want from your big in the playoffs is defensive versatility and to not be a complete liability on offense. That’s what you get from those players in different ways.
Take a look at some of the main perimeter, interior, and coverage defense versatility stats from BBall-Index:
The stats are compared against 59 bigs that played 500+ minutes and were in anchor or mobile bigs' defensive roles.
I should note that both Allen and Turner are anchor bigs and yet still graded out fairly well even when compared against mobile bigs. This is the type of defensive versatility that you need from a big in 2023. They can protect the paint, be somewhat versatile in pick-and-roll coverages, and won’t get killed on the perimeter.
One question I have is how long will Horford keep this up. It seemed like there has been a drop-off on defense from him in these playoffs.
On the other hand, Claxton is looking like he could be one of the most impactful bigs in the playoffs(if he fixes up that screener rim defense and polishes his offense)
Now, I did leave out Lopez because he kind of doesn’t fit the mold of a versatile defensive big, but he kind of doesn’t have to when that’s not what the Milwaukee Bucks are aiming for and he’s elite at rim protection:
His grades for versatility aren’t exactly good. But that hasn’t mattered for the Bucks as much because of what he offers with his rim protection.
In the last four regular seasons, here are some defensive stats with Lopez on vs. off
- Bucks’ defensive rating: 108.3 → 111.5
- Bucks’ opponent rim FG%: 58.5% → 64.7%
- Bucks’ opponent rim frequency: 24.2% → 26.4%
Same thing but for the playoffs:
- Bucks’ defensive rating: 109.4 → 106.9
- Bucks’ opponent rim FG%: 60.2% → 65.9%
- Bucks’ opponent rim frequency: 19.2% → 23.6%
Now, the defensive rating does improve with him off in the playoffs, but there is some significant difference in opponent 3-point shooting that may contribute here.
But the rim protection is constant. Opponents shoot almost 6% better and get there 4% more. You may also be thinking that he has freaking Giannis Antetokounmpo, so it’s going to be elite. BUT!
In the last four seasons, with Antetokounmpo on but no Lopez, opponents shoot 62.9% at the rim and have a 25.4% rim frequency. Flip that the other way around and the opponent shoots 61.9% at the rim and has a 25.2% rim frequency with Lopez on but no Antetokounmpo.
I do have some questions about the lack of versatility and how that may cap the ceiling on their defense but I don’t think that says much about Lopez, though. He still provides tremendous value with what he does.
You combine all of this defense with:
- Horford’s passing on the short roll and his 3pt shooting
- Looney’s offensive rebounding
- Lopez scoring inside(in the 75th percentile in post-up efficiency and 83rd as a roll-man) and being a threat outside
That’s where you get one of the most impactful bigs.
The offensive questions are where I have some questions about Allen and another potential big that could’ve been in this sub-tier and that’s Robert Williams.
Whereas the rest of the bigs are also in this tier:
- Nikola Vucevic
- Jonas Valancinuas
- Clint Capela
- Jakob Poeltl
I feel like the defense is what’s holding them back, especially in the playoffs. Defense is important. And I just don’t see these bigs being able to play high minutes on a deep playoff run.
I think this is one of the most important positions, especially when the big is elite on defense, is versatile, and has some use on offense. That type of player can raise the team’s ceiling tremendously(as you’ll see in the upcoming tiers).
But the next position is also just as important.
The Multi-faceted Wings
We have seen three consecutive champions add a key wing that has played a huge role in them winning it all — PJ Tucker, Andrew Wiggins, and Aaron Gordon.
This is one of the positions where if you have top-end talent, you can’t have too many of these players. The things I’d do to have some of these wings on the Miami Heat.
But not all wings provide the same thing or play the same role. Some are more specialized, particularly as off-ball scorers. Some are more defensively slanted. Others have an all-around game where they can do a bit of everything pretty damn well. And the rest might just be falling somewhere in between.
First, we have the shooters:
- Michael Porter Jr
- Cam Johnson
- Keegan Murray
- Trey Murphy
I’d say these three are more slanted on offense with a particular focus on 3pt shooting and efficiency. Per BBall-Index, amongst 142 off-ball players, all four have an A- grade or better in:
- 3pt shot making
- Catch-and-shoot 3pt shot-making
- Off-ball shot making
- Overall shot making
Then some players are better at other talents:
- Porter Jr. has an A- grade in mid-range shot-making
- Murphy has a B- grade or better in mid-range and floater shot-making, as well as an A- in rim shot-making
- Johnson has a B grade in rim shot-making
I think you get the point. They are play-finishers. They can score efficiently in multiple ways. And they are mostly low-usage guys.
Every team needs these types of scorers. You can literally never have too many guys that can spot up, come off screens, cut, finish inside, finish in the paint, or take a dribble for a mid-range. They may not create their own shots or be elite passers, but this type of game still has value. Though for some of the players here, defense is also one of the main issues.
One of the main ways this group of players can elevate their impact is by either becoming a plus defender for their role or adding something to their game when it comes to self-creation or passing. There’s a ceiling on a player if all they can do is be a play-finisher or have a limited handle/vision to make plays.
One player in particular that I’m probably higher on than the rest is Murphy. His improvement across the board was insane.
Going into his sophomore season, he developed into a wildly efficient all-around player. Obviously, growth isn’t linear, but this is definitely something to keep an eye out for a potential third-year leap.
Other players in this tier may include Buddy Hield, Joe Harris, and Quentin Grimes.
Next, we have the defensive-slanted guys:
- Jaden McDaniels
- Herb Jones
- OG Anunoby
These are some of the best wing defenders out there. I don’t think you can get better than this trio.
Seriously. Like what is this? These are the only 3 players that have this many A grades across the board. Don’t think there’s anyone else that beats them in this. These are the types of defenders that you want to surround yourself with.
But one question with players in this tier is what about offense? Not everyone here will be an offensive liability but at the same time, they may also not excel at anything. Some may be a complete liability from 3, which hurts the spacing. Some may not do anything else outside of spotting up. That lack of offensive bag is what hurts them from being in a different tier of wings.
Some other guys that I feel fit this are both Jarred Vanderbilt and De’Andre Hunter.
Finally, we have the Swiss army knife wings:
- Andrew Wiggins
- Aaron Gordon
- Josh Hart
- Tobias Harris
- Jerami Grant
Out of all the other groups of wings, these are the most important. They may not be elite at a particular skill such as shooting or defense, but their all-around game and being a plus on both ends of the floor is what drags them up. But again, this might change depending on the team context.
Per BBall-Index, out of all the wings, these are the only four that have a B grade in both O-LEBRON and D-LEBRON that defend multiple positions, defend in isolation well, and have the most difficult matchup. They’re highly versatile on defense but they also have very high offensive impact, whether that’s from finishing well, being good passers, spacing or even being good 1v1.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that two of these players played a huge part in their teams winning a championship.
In the last two seasons with Denver, Gordon had by far his most efficient season — 60.2% true shooting in 2022 and 61.7% in 2023. That plays a significant role when Jokic is on the court, giving him a reliable play-finisher that’s insanely efficient. But I’d say he was more important in what he did when Nikola Jokic was off the floor.
His defensive versatility is what allowed Denver to run him as the backup 5. In the regular season, Denver was plus 2.7 with a 114.9 offense and a 112.2 defense with Gordon on and no Jokic. This is great, but this was also supercharged in the playoffs.
In 146 minutes with Gordon and no Jokic, Denver was plus 12.2 with a 117.7 offense and a 105.5 defense! That defense was elite mainly because Gordon allowed them to switch everything. It was that switching defense that stopped the Heat from doing anything in the finals when Jokic sat.
Wiggins gave the Warriors something different. He’s much more capable of creating his own shot, especially from 2. In the 2022 playoffs, he shot 54.0% from 2. As well as adding some crucial offensive rebounds, especially in the finals. That’s how he was able to be the second-leading scorer on the team in the finals.
But it was also his defense that was key, as he was tasked with guarding the best player:
I didn’t include Grant with those four because I feel like he’s more geared towards offense and is worse on defense. He had a pretty good year:
21 points, 4 rebounds, and 2 assists per 75 poss on 60.6% true shooting.
He is capable of being a lower-usage, high-efficiency guy. He spent over 1.5k minutes with Damian Lillard where almost 60% of his 2s were assisted and all but one of his 3s were assisted. His efficiency improved to 63.1%.
Here are some wings that are also versatile on defense but their main strength is their all-around game on offense. And as you can see, it’s only Butler and him that have the highest matchup difficulty.
Some other all-around wings include RJ Barrett and Franz Wagner.
Finally, we have the guards, ball handlers, or just the perimeter players. Looking at the list of players I have in this tier, the categories seem to split almost exactly like the wings.
Impactful perimeter players
There are the primary shooters, defensive guards, scorers, and all-around guys. I do see some of these players at the top of this tier, but for the most part, a lot of these perimeter guys are on the same level, and it all depends on the team’s needs.
There are the shooters:
- Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
- De’Anthony Melton
- Kevin Huerter
- Klay Thompson
- Bogdan Bogdanovic
Even at his older age and coming off injuries last year, Thompson remains as one of the deadliest shooters. Per BBall-Index, his 3-point shot making ranked second only behind Stephen Curry. He attempted the most 3s in his career at 10.6 and shot it at a 41.2% clip. Although there might be some slippage on defense, this elite shooting makes up for it.
Next, we have one of the best shooters off a dribble handoff. That was a big part of the Sacramento Kings’ offense and Huerter played a big part in that. There were 12 players with at least 2 handoffs per game and he ranked second in points per possession. He shot 45.4% on 3s out of a handoff!
More factors go into this but the Kings offense with him on was 122.6 and without him, it dropped to 116.3. His spacing and elite 3pt shooting were a big reason why they were one of the greatest offenses in the regular season.
One issue with these players is what happens when the 3s aren’t falling. What can they offer beyond making 3s? Sure, they will always have that gravity and provide spacing, but spacing isn’t enough at times.
That’s why you have guys like Melton and Pope. They may not put up a high volume of 3s(though they’re still as accurate as anyone can get), but they make up for it by being elite at anything perimeter defense-related:
These are the only players that have an A- grade in:
- 3pt shot making
- Passing lane defense
- Perimeter isolation defense
- Off-ball chaser defense
- Ball screen navigation
They’re the top 5 3&D players in the league.
Another fun stat! Since 2014, out of 3546 players, Melton ranks in the top 6 in both perimeter isolation defense and ball screen navigation
There are two more players that could be in this tier if they improve as shooters or bring something more on offense:
- Alex Caruso
- Dillon Brooks
Both are elite defenders for their roles. Caruso is arguably the best guard defender. Do you know how many players rank in the top 10 in those four metrics above plus matchup difficulty and defensive playmaking in the entire database from 2014? Just him.
Then there are these offensive slanted guards:
- Norman Powell
- Caris LeVert
- Malcolm Brogdon
- Immanuel Quickley
- D’Angelo Russell
- Russell Westbrook
- Spencer Dinwiddie
- Mike Conley
I think some of these guards are ones I’d be lower on.
These are mostly inefficient ball-handlers who need the ball in their hands(with some exceptions) to be the most effective. They aren’t bad. They aren’t great. And mostly aren’t as impactful on defense.
A couple aren’t as good threats as 3, thus making it harder to space the floor. Some aren’t good passers, so they’re solely scorers off the dribble. Some are just hoopers.
Finally, we have the all-around guys who may not excel in one thing but still provide so much value:
- Derrick White
- Bruce Brown
- Austin Reaves
- Marcus Smart
These are my favorite guys. Plus defenders. Can play with and without the ball. High IQ. Offer many different things. I know that in their role, they will do their job.
Phew. And that is it for tier five. Here’s a list of the players in this tier that I feel are towards the top. Players above the line are the ones with the most impact in their role.
This is also one of those tiers where there is definitely a lot of overlap and minimal differences in ability but it all depends on what the role is and what the team context is. There are teams that would prefer to have OG Anunoby or Jerami Grant and vice versa.
I tried to have a cut-off line and I came up with just over 50 players in this tier. There might be a few more here and there, but in general, I think this group of players encompasses exactly what it means to be a highly impactful player in their role, even though they may not be as talented as some all-stars. These are also players that you can definitely make a case over certain players in tiers three and four if the goal is to win right now.
If you made it this far, I appreciate you reading! This certainly was a long, long piece trying to go through over 50 different players, different positions, so many roles, and many archetypes.