Simply Ballin’s NBA Tiers: Championship Level Guys BUT With Limitations & Questions as the Guy

Simply Ballin
18 min readSep 6, 2023
Photo by Michael Reaves

We have reached the point where these players are your best players on a championship team and that is the standard that they’re evaluated against. These are the players that you can build around to have a legitimate chance at winning a title. Each has a case to be in that top 10 conversation.

I think for the most part, they have done enough to separate themselves from everyone else in the tiers below and that’s mainly because there’s a proven track record of them doing so. Though that also depends a lot on the team context and may not be perfect, but I think I will give the edge to players that don’t have any hypothetical around their play in a deep playoff run.

But there’s also a big difference in having these players as your #1 versus the elite of the elite tier. There’s a reason why I have each of these players in this tier when being compared to the others who can be the best players on a championship team.

First, it’s that track record. That plays a part where all but one of the guys in tier 1 have won at least one championship being the best player. That gives them a boost.

Then it’s them all having all-time-level talent. Whatever it is, what they do isn’t just great right now. It’s not something that’s close to the rest of the guys. What some of those players do is just historic.

Equally as important, they don’t have significant weaknesses in their game(or at least something that can’t be offset by their all-time talent in other areas).

I don’t think I can say the same about these players.

And because of those last two points, the players in this tier don’t provide the team with more room for error. That’s the key difference. You need more to win with them. That may be surrounding them with the better talent to hide their weaknesses or to maximize them. This makes the team construction around them a bit harder than it needs to be.

Though there is a player that even though this certainly applies to him, he made sure that it wasn’t going to stop him and the team from pulling off a deep playoff run. But that still to me was them doing in spite of the drawbacks instead of not having them in the first place.

For some(older) players, that’s what they are. That’s likely their ceiling and that’s where they’re going to be. But there are also a couple of young players that this can change in a season or two.

The following players aren’t necessarily ranked, but they are in order of preference.

  • Joel Embiid
  • Damian Lillard
  • Devin Booker
  • Jayson Tatum
  • Anthony Davis
  • Jimmy Butler

I tried to group some of the players together because I think there are players that I’d clearly prefer over another. And I wanted to make a distinction between both Lillard and Embiid and the rest.

Although this is a tier where I can legitimately see them being the best player on a championship team, I would also say that it would be best if they had another 1B — someone of similar caliber.

Let’s start with Embiid

Joel Embiid

The reigning MVP(though I don’t know about that). If this was based on the regular season, then he’d be much higher than this.

He’s had a career-high in scoring in each of the last three seasons — going from:

33.0 → 33.8 → 35.5 points per 75 possessions

Not only that, he just had the most efficient season too with a 65.5% true shooting. That is elite, elite scoring. Across those three seasons, he’s averaging the most points with 34.5 and is doing it on 63.1% true shooting — that efficiency is better than Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, Damian Lillard, LeBron James, Jayson Tatum, Devin Booker, Kawhi Leonard, and many more.

There’s no denying that in the regular season, he has been a beast. This goes beyond just your scoring and efficiency. In each of the last three seasons, he ranked third in LEBRON. The only other player to do that is Nikola Jokic, who of course, ranked first in each season.

And I think that’s Embiid’s biggest strength. He is one hell of a floor-raiser. In the last three years, the Philadelphia 76ers have a +9 net in 6166 minutes with him. They even had a +8 net with him on and no James Harden. It doesn’t matter who they surround him with, it’s likely going to be great in the regular season.

There is value in being an elite floor raiser. Not many stars are able to do so much with so little, especially on both ends of the floor. Across those three years, they had a 119 offense and a 110 defense. That would be six points better than average on offense and three points better on defense in the same span.

One of the reasons he’s been such an elite-level scorer is through his isolation, which is his most used play type at 23.0% of the time. On isolations that include passes, he’s tied third with 8.5 possessions but he would be one of the most efficient with 1.123 PPP. That number is better than Doncic, Harden, Durant, Tatum, Kawhi, Antetokounmpo, and LeBron.

These are his grades compared to on-ball players in the entire database from 2014. Just a bunch of As. That’s probably his best skill.

One thing that stood out is his scoring with and without Harden:

  • With: 36.2 points on 58.5% eFG & 65.7% TS. 59.2% from 2 with 65.5% being assisted
  • Without: 35.4 on 55.1% & 63.7%. 57.7% from 2 with 48.9% being assisted

There’s a clear difference in how he gets his points. He can work with other star players with him in the PnR getting those assisted 2s. But when he’s on his own, he can flip the switch and go get his own alone.

And as good as his offense is, it’s also his defense that allows him to be such an elite floor-raising player. It’s that two-way impact that’s so valuable.

Here are his defensive stats compared to 47 anchor bigs. That’s elite interior defense, great defensive rebounding, and good enough perimeter defense. But it was this comparison that make me feel hmm:

This is him being compared to both anchor and mobile bigs. I also chose the reigning DPOY, a 3x DPOY, and another elite rim protector. These are comparable stats that it’s hard to make a case for another.

The only negative about his defense is the inconsistency. Sometimes you watch him play and it’s OBVIOUS that he’s one of the best defenders. The other times, not so much.

But as great as all of this is, it’s still just the regular season. The playoffs are weighted more and that’s where he struggles the most. Granted a lot of it has to do with health(which is a very important point realistically) but even when considering health, I don’t think he’s there to be at the top of the list.

I do think his playoff struggles are somewhat overexaggerated. In both 2021 and 2022, he averaged:

27.5 points, 11.2 rebounds, and 2.9 assists per 75 poss on 53.2% eFG 61.2% TS, including 54.9% 2pt & 31.1% 3pt

He did have a significantly worse playoff run this year, though.

At the same time, I don’t think even at his best, that his best translates a lot. His scoring has decreased in each of the playoffs significantly(and I don’t think health is the main reason). His efficiency has dropped. His free throw rate has dropped. His usage rate has dropped. His turnover rate has increased a lot. He’s relying more on 3s.

Here’s his isolation(including passes) in the regular season vs. playoffs.

  • 2021: 1.063 → 0.957
  • 2022: 1.000 → 0.825
  • 2023: 1.159 → 0.853

And his turnover percentage in the half-court

  • 2021: 12.5% → 15.6%
  • 2022: 10.7% → 14.4%
  • 2023: 11.9% → 14.8%

That’s a significant decrease in his main strength and an increase in his main weakness. I think because of those two things, it’s much easier to game plan for him and not allow him to have the same kind of impact. And even as an improved passer, he’s not going to kill you creating for others.

Plus something that’s also weighed here is it feels like Embiid has way more lows than highs in the playoffs. And those lows are pretty bad. I still wouldn’t say his playoff career is a big failure, it hasn’t been terrible all the time. It just feels there’s a hump that he right now can’t get over.

But I still think he’s one of the best at carrying a team in the league and with just a better #2 in the playoffs alongside him can do real damage.

Damian Lillard

Lillard, the soon-to-be starting point guard for the Miami Heat. He just had the best scoring season of his career and the most efficient season. This was a career year for him across the stretch.

There is an argument that he is one of the five best offensive players in the league and I think that’s legit. He had the highest impact on offense according to O-LEBRON. That would also rank 10th in the entire database from 2014.

To me, he’s also, hands down, the second-best 3-point shooter guard behind Stephen Curry. He has the volume. He has the creation. He has the percentages too. He’s a sniper from 3. He has made this jump since 2020 where he increased his 3pt rate.

From 2016 to 2019, he had a 41.6% 3PT rate and shot 36.9%. From 2020 to now, that increased to 52.3% and shot to 38.0%. To increase the rate by over 10% and also increase his accuracy is insane.

And it’s that what I think made him a much more impactful on offense. He essentially became Curry in a way where he separated himself with his elite 3-point shooting.

But what’s also interesting is more of his 3s are also assisted:

28.9% → 39.3% → 44.6% → 51.6%

Just four years ago, almost a third of his 3s were only assisted. Now it’s over a half. That’s a significant difference and it’s what also allowed him to be more dangerous. Here are his types too:

He’s taking more 3s, he’s making more 3s, and he’s more of a threat off-ball. Now, you combine that with this elite play in the PnR:

It’s no surprise that he’s this good offensively.

One major improvement is his splits inside the 3:

  • 0–3ft: 67.1%(career high)
  • 3–10ft: 42.7%(second best)
  • 10–16ft: 53.3%(career high)
  • 16–3pt: 48.6%(career high)

He has significantly improved all around. This makes sense because he did have his lowest percentage of shots at the rim and that has been a trend in the last three years too — all are bottom three in his career. That’s where the increase in 3s and around the paint becomes clearer why.

But even with all of that, this is how he ranks amongst on-ball players:

So, what are the questions with Lillard? Initially, I would’ve said something about him in the playoffs. He did have some very poor series from 2016 to 2019. And when compared to his regular-season self, there’s a significant drop off:

And it’s that 2pt% that’s alarming. Because of the poor mid-range shooting and shooting

These are his splits in the regular season vs. playoffs. There’s a big difference, especially in the mid-range. That seems like a completely different player. But that’s old Lillard.

My question marks about him would be, how can his offensive impact translate when it does look like he drops off a lot, and what does that even look like now if he can’t get to the rim as much?

But that’s when I realized that this Lillard is completely different. His increase in 3s(to offset fewer shots at the rim), being better off-ball, finishing better at the rim, and just generally being a smarter player negates all of my concerns.

In the last two series, we have seen this Lillard and although it’s a small sample, they are similar to what he does regularly. So, I guess, I’m open to putting him at the top of this tier.

This also becomes less of a concern if he goes to a team like Miami where he has a significantly better offensive team with Butler and Bam Adebayo.

Devin Booker

I thought everyone in this tier had a clear case over the rest of the league, but then I wasn’t so sure when it came to Booker. Though thinking about it, I guess this is more about others being potentially good enough to be in this tier too instead of Booker not being good enough:

However, this is Booker compared to the players in tier 3 that are lead guards. I don’t think there’s a clear advantage anywhere. Booker is a really tough shot-maker. He’s great in the mid-range, he can create his own shot and is a good enough 3pt threat.

What he also has is now three playoff runs where he has shot the ball well enough and was good enough to be a guy on a team making a deep playoff run.

Here’s his scoring and efficiency in the playoffs:

  • 2021: 25.5 on 55.8%
  • 2022: 24.6 on 58.7%
  • 2023: 29.8 on 68.6%

This is impressive stuff. And what he’s done this year was historic. Even if it may not exactly be sustainable, that’s not something that was completely out of the norm. It’s not as if he did something that wasn’t something he was good at.

And in a longer sample, across four years, his shooting splits:

  • 0–3ft: 70.3%
  • 3–10ft: 47.8%
  • 10–16ft: 51.0%
  • 16–3pt: 45.2%

That’s elite shot-making from all around the mid-range, paint, and elite finishing at the rim.

There are two questions, though, mainly to do with the not-so-elite rim pressure and creating for others. In the last three playoffs, here are his attempts and shot frequency:

  • Rim: 4.0 & 15.2%
  • Short mid-range: 8.2 & 32.2%
  • Long mid-range: 6.3 & 24.0%

You combine that with a career playoff average of 30.0% free throw rate and that lack of rim pressure is kind of alarming. That’s why his rim shot creation grades as a C amongst on-ball players. The only way to not make that matter as much is by being elite at other things. But those are exceptions. Only Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry have been able to have consistent high impact without pressuring the rim as much.

It’s tough relying on jumpers all the time and not being able to generate easier looks because what happens if the jumper isn’t falling?

But outside of that, there are some questions as a passer too. I feel like last year he made a jump and that jump was one of the reasons I had him comfortably in this tier. I’m not sure whether that jump was big enough to have him be the engine. If you’re going to be in this tier as an offensive guy, there needs to be better playmaking for others.

In the last three playoffs, the Phoenix Suns without Chris Paul but with Booker on were minus 5.2 with a 114.3 offense(despite shooting almost 39%). Whereas you swap that around and the Suns were minus 1.3 with a 116.0 offense(but also shooting worse from 3 at 35%). I think the reason for that is Booker's lack of ability to create high-quality looks for others.

He’s still primarily a scorer(a great one at that) but I don’t know how to feel if he has to be the one carrying a huge offensive burden.

Jayson Tatum

Tatum is in a similar boat as Booker. I think a lot of the things said apply to him too.

This is how they both compare to one another.

There are a few significant differences. Tatum provides much more rim pressure but isn’t as great of a mid-range shooter(and it’s not even close) but makes up for it being a better 3-point shooter when it comes to creating and making it. In the last four years, Tatum is shooting 36.9% from deep, and 56.1% of them are assisted.

He’s also turned into a much-improved player at getting to the rim and drawing fouls. Almost a quarter of his shots are within 3ft and he just attempted the most free throws per game — went from 4.7 → 5.3 → 6.2 → → 8.4 in the last four years.

I think that raises the ceiling he can have IF he fixes some of the weaknesses that hold him back.

That poor mid-range shot and around the paint is one of the main things to work on that gives him another option on offense. I sometimes feel like he settles too much on 3s.

His Morey rate has increased in each of the last three years(regular season and playoffs). And I think that’s why he has many up-and-down games. He was almost at a 40% 3-point rate and I don’t know how effective that may be if he’s not that of an elite shooter and has been prone to slumps.

The rim, 3pt, or bust approach is what I think hurts him as a scorer, particularly in the playoffs and it was a big reason why they lost in the finals. Did you know that he shot 45.4% from 3 against the Golden State Warriors? But shot 31.5% from 2? That’s exactly the thing that I’m talking about.

The next thing is the passing and cutting down on the turnovers, especially down the stretch. I don’t think the passing and creating for others is there yet too — similar to Booker.

Here are Tatum’s stats with and without Marcus Smart in the last two playoffs:

  • With: 24.9 points, 4.9 assists & 2.8 turnovers on 52.6% eFG & 58.3% TS
  • Without: 23.7 points, 6.4 assists & 4.3 turnovers per 75 poss on 48.8% eFG & 53.7% TS

Seems like there’s a need to have that ball handler.

The shot selection, improved mid-range, and better passing is something that can develop, especially with his age. There’s a good chance that he could make the leap into the next tier, but not until these three things get addressed.

Anthony Davis

Similar to how I talked about both Bam Adebayo and Draymond Green, that applies to Davis. He is one of the three best defenders in the world and I don’t think it’s particularly close either.

We saw what he can do in the playoffs fully healthy on defense. Against both the Golden State Warriors and Memphis Grizzlies, the Los Angeles Lakers had a 108.1 defense. Opponents shot 46.4% from 2pt. That’s absurd. That number jumped to 55.6% without him.

He practically took away the entire paint and the rim. In the playoffs, within 6ft, players shot 15.8% worse than expected.

He provides elite rim protection but is also more than that. He does provide that extra defensive versatility where he can switch or play in multiple different coverages. That’s exactly what you’d need from a defensive big man and he does it at an elite level.

I’ve mentioned this at the start of the tiers that I value individual offense a lot more than individual defense because it makes sense that individually, a player can have significant impact on offense. But, of course, there are exceptions, and Davis is one of them.

Bigs have the most impact on defense, so that’s weighed more than what a perimeter player can do. And now you add the fact that what he does on defense is at an elite level, then the impact is there, and in a lot of cases, higher than some offensive players.

I don’t know where exactly would I rank Davis on offense, though. It’s still good enough to have him in this tier, but not enough to propel him any further. He’s not a shooter. Not an elite passer, especially when compared to other on-ball guys, but is good enough for his role.

This is how he compares to all on-ball players and here’s Embiid and Jokic for another comparison. I don’t see anything that he’s particularly elite at anymore. What is Davis’ thing on offense? Is he just primarily a guy who relies on someone else to create his shot? A lot of his shots are assisted.

In this year’s playoffs, without James, he averaged:

28.7 points on 47.6% eFG & 57.3% TS, including 47.5% from 2 and 33.3% from 3. For a guy in this tier, that doesn’t look elite on offense. Outside of the bubble, where his shooting was out of this world, his offense in the playoffs has been something.

Regardless of where his offense is, I think as a big man, that’s still going to have a significant impact. Being an elite play finisher does have value and he’s obviously more than just that. And with his elite defense, where he will probably have the most impact, is enough to have him here.

I don’t think he can be your definite best player, though, especially on offense. He is always going to need another elite-level talent on offense.

Jimmy Butler

Playoff Jimmy. He’s someone who although falls into this category based on my criteria and rules, somehow made all of that irrelevant. It’s not as if he made those points irrelevant by not having them but by doing everything to overcome them despite having those weaknesses.

With the others, I do think those weaknesses have held the others back from having a legitimate chance at winning. With Butler, I don’t think that has been the case.

I don’t think these question marks or weaknesses were the reason the Heat couldn’t win. And I don’t even think that he also has some strengths to completely outweigh the weaknesses either. He’s just a very different case.

You don’t fluke yourself into three deep playoff runs(two of which made it to the finals). You don’t fluke yourself into having the type of series that he had against the Lakers in 2020, the 76ers in 2022, the Celtics in 2022, and the Bucks in 2023. That rarely happens.

I don’t think there are many players that you could’ve replaced Butler there and that the Heat would’ve still won.

Here’s a long tweet that mainly talked about the 2022 playoffs because it was that playoff run that made me think highly of Butler.

And when you look at his entire playoff stretch with the Heat:

24.3 points & 5.5 assists on 50.6% eFG & 58.2%

Those are on par with other superstars. That’s a similar scoring rate and similar/better efficiency than Tatum, Booker, Harden, Giannis, and LeBron.

But it’s also doing a disservice to Butler calling him just a playoff riser. He’s been elite in each of the last four seasons. In each season, he’s improved and become more efficient.

There are only five other players that ranked in the top 15 in LEBRON in each of the last five years. Butler is one of them.

Here are the players to rank in the top 5 in 2 of the 3 seasons:

  • Nikola Jokic
  • Embiid
  • Rudy Gobert
  • Antetokounmpo
  • Butler

Then you also have this:

He’s been highly impactful and highly efficient and has a lot of value on both ends of the floor in both the regular season and the playoffs.

But some of the weaknesses I do have have to do with the passing and the lack of a 3-point shot.

I don’t think Butler is as good of a passer to be creating high-quality looks for others consistently. He’s a big ISO guy in the post and uses that to draw help. I don’t think he attacks the doubles well enough and some of the reads that he makes aren’t as elite compared to others. I think that’s what holds him back a lot.

But the other thing is the 3-point shot. That just makes him more guardable. It’s easier to scheme(still difficult). There is something that the defense can force him into and it makes everything harder if the defense packs the paint. Plus this hurts his impact away from the ball because he’s a non-spacer, which has to be accounted for.

These limitations, ones that need to be taken care of are what stop him from being in tier 1.

On the other hand, he also manages to say F these limitations, I’ll get it done. Somehow, some way, he manages to pull everything off when healthy. And I think that’s because the things he does so well, translate so well.

He’s highly efficient. Can work on and off-ball. Puts immense pressure on the rim. He has completely improved as a shooter around the paint in the last two playoffs:

  • 0–3ft: 70.9%
  • 3–10ft: 43.1%
  • 10–16ft: 45.8%

And he draws fouls like no one else — he had a 62.5% free throw rate this season. All of that makes. This also doesn’t disappear in the playoffs either.

It’s all of that that allowed him to get the Heat on a deep playoff run, despite some unfortunate circumstances at times.

And this wraps up tier two. These are the players who can be the best players on a championship team but do have some question marks and limitations that may require more help than others.

Whether that’s not being as elite of a scorer, not having your offense translate to the playoffs, or not being a good enough passer to be the engine in the playoffs.

Some have a realistic chance of getting out of this tier with a leap this year. Or some(Butler) are so elite at all the little things across the board that they make the limitations irrelevant and because of that, I can also see him in the next tier.

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