Simply Ballin’s NBA Tiers: Guards, Self Creation, Defense vs Offense in Bigs & Some Wings

Simply Ballin
18 min readAug 30, 2023
Photo by Ned Dishman

We are back with more tiers. In the previous tier, we went through what makes up the majority of the top 100-ish players. Those were the players that would usually be considered elite role players or high-level starters. They’re highly impactful and provide much of their value in 1–3 skills that translate and fit well with other star players.

Today, we are moving past that. We are entering a tier where it’s players that you may consider stars or at least on the verge of being one. Players in tier five were ones that were only ideal in an off-ball role. Players in this tier have that extra on-ball juice, self-creation, and much better playmaking.

Though there are a handful of players who are in this tier because of that added self-creation skill that they have, there are still situations where players in tier five can be above them. And looking at this list of players, probably the majority of the players fit this.

I’m not exactly sure how to balance out a player being individually better when it comes to offense and a player that may be worse but better in other areas and would fit better.

I do think self-creation and playmaking is the most important skill to have. Even if it’s just the ability to have that as a thing you can go to makes the player more dangerous than if they were better in other skills but didn’t have that on-ball juice.

And it’s because of that skill that I feel it would be wrong to box these players in with other off-ball players. Most players in tier five couldn’t do what these players do when it comes to running an offense. I think that in itself, regardless of how elite that skill is kind of boosts them up individually.

But at the same time, what holds these players back is the fact that their on-ball skill isn’t at the level that warrants such a higher offensive load. They’d also be more suited and have more impact in a lesser role. Because there does come a point where having more self-creation isn’t as important or may not even add anything if that’s your primary way of having value. That’s the main point.

However, another issue comes with that. When it comes to players in tier five, that’s where defense and being a 2-way player are weighed more. A lot of these high-scoring guards aren’t plus defenders and there are situations where having a lesser player on offense but a better defender is what you’d need.

Towards the upper end of this tier, though. That’s where you’d have the clear guys that would usually be the third-best player on a championship team. Those players are somewhat similar to the group of players discussed above but their on-ball game is a lot better to the point where they can be the primary ball handler when needed. They are more capable of running an offense. And in addition to that, they are still highly capable, if not better, of playing off guys effectively.

So, with all that said, let’s get right into it.

Small Guards

Photo By Cole Burston

I know this title describes many of the next players that will be discussed, but this mainly brings up two players in mind.

Chris Paul and Fred VanVleet.

Looking over the players I talked about, I can definitely see Paul being dropped to the lower tier, and the more I think about it, the more I think I was wrong to have him here.

If this was Paul from even last year, I’d still have him here. I initially put him here because of his self-creation ability. He’s still one of the smartest players in the league and because of that still ranks high in almost all passing stats.

Per BBall-Index, amongst 159 on-ball players:

  • A+ in passing efficiency
  • A in passing versatility
  • A in passing creation volume
  • F in passing creation quality
  • A in high value assists
  • A- in playmaking talent

But that F grade was the first sign of a potential decline. Before this season, he’s never ranked below C- and this is a huge drop off from A- last year. It’s as if his playmaking has taken a hit where he can’t generate quality looks enough.

That still isn’t the biggest issue when he’s a highly efficient passer who is excellent in every other area. This is an area that is the least concerning.

The main reason why I’d have him drop off a tier is how long can his scoring and shooting continue. That’s important if he’s going to continue to have the ball in his hands because what else do you do with him? He had ONE. ONE singular cut in the regular season.

He has graded out well as a pick-and-roll ball handler, scoring 0.912 points per possession, but that’s only in the 60th percentile — down from 0.993(83rd) last year. That also dropped even further in the playoffs.

There’s clearly a decline there. It hasn’t declined enough to be bad in general, but for his standards it’s significant. That’s concerning for someone who relies a lot on that mid-range jumper off of PnRs, especially when their rim pressure is non-existent.

Then we have VanVleet. A small guard who was average efficiency once in his career.

He’s been an up-and-down 3-point shooter and struggling to finish at the rim. This year, he converted only 58.6% within 3ft. His pull-up game is what’s most important, but even that has been quite low with 33.6% on 4.4 3s. And that’s a percentage he’s been at over the last four years.

I don’t know how much value they’d have on a good team if they have a high usage role or are the lead ball handlers. That’s why I’m changing my mind and placing them in the guard section in tier 5.

LaMelo Ball

Photo by Jacob Kupferman

Ball gets the entire section for himself. I was going to talk about him with the following group of young guards, but putting him in that group doesn’t feel right.

Quick note, though! Remember this isn’t based on any long-term potential. This isn’t a ranking based on a hypothetical re-draft where you’re planning for the future or to build your team around.

When it comes to that. When it comes to running the offense and being the primary ball handler, I have Ball quite higher than the rest of the guys.

Per BBI, Ball was 44% better than the average primary ball-handler in O-LEBRON in 2022. He’s been highly impactful in his role.

This was this group of players this year. I used 2022 for Ball mainly because of the injuries. But even in his down year, he has been much more impactful as the primary ball handler than the rest of the group.

Last year, amongst rotation primary ball-handlers, Ball ranked:

  • 81st in rim shot creation
  • 92nd in 3pt shot making
  • 63rd in 3pt shot creation
  • 85th in passing creation volume
  • 65th in passing versatility
  • 97th in passing creation quality

That’s elite for a player at that age.

The only issue I have is, similar to what I said in tier five when talking about young players.

I don’t think Ball is there when it comes to those types of skills and like I mentioned earlier, there comes a point where you don’t need extra ball handling or creation if that’s their main skill. These are things that can easily be improved on and when it’s on top of the skills that he already has, I can see him being in this tier of players.

The (Young) Scoring Guards

Photo by Michael Reaves

This. This is the group that was the most difficult. I think everyone in this group is kind of on the same tier(with some exceptions) with everyone having some better skills than the other.

  • Anfernee Simons
  • Tyler Herro
  • CJ McCollum
  • Tyrese Maxey
  • Jordan Poole

And it’s this exact group that the introduction was about. They are all capable primary ball-handlers. They are all capable of running the offense. It’s for these reasons that I have them in this tier as opposed to tier five(where I also wouldn’t have an issue with them being in). But despite all of that, I’m not sure any one of them is capable of having a bigger offensive load and helping good teams with it.

Outside of all being elite shooters(a down year for Poole), there’s not much else that they do at an elite level to warrant them having such a big role as an on-ball creator.

All but Poole don’t generate quality looks. Almost all aren’t versatile passers. And that F grade outside of Poole can’t be there if you want to win.

Maxey is on a whole level below when it comes to his passing ability. That definitely can’t be a guy that is the engine.

The rim shot creation for most of them isn’t where you’d want it to be. No one is able to create in isolation either, which hurts them a lot in this area. All of that ties into them not being efficient enough compared to on-ball players.

But as mentioned earlier, their having this ability adds value in itself. They aren’t just boxed into an off-ball role because they can do so much more. When you look at their stats compared to off-ball players:

It doesn’t make sense to have them in that tier either.

Take a look at some of their stats without their best on-ball creator:

  • Herro without Jimmy Butler: 24 points per 75 possessions on 54.6% eFG and 58.3% TS
  • Maxey without James Harden: 27 points on 54.4% eFG and 58.8% TS
  • Poole without Stephen Curry: 28 points on 50.3% eFG and 56.9% TS
  • Simons without Damian Lillard: 28 points on 55.5% eFG and 59.4% TS

That’s tough to do. So, they’re all clearly talented players who are capable of sharing that offensive load.

But that’s about it and most of their impact would still come off-ball. And when that’s considered, plus how they fit within that role(because that’s also highly important) and most of the tier-five players being better defenders, there’s a clear argument that you’d prefer to have someone else.

With that said, all of this depends on the rest of the team’s context and needs. There are definitely situations where these players can be the team’s third-best player on a contending team.

The Upper Tier Guards

Photo by Brad Mills

Everything that was said about those guards lacking, I think these guards have that. They don’t have as many weaknesses as the previous group does as an on-ball creator.

  • Darius Garland
  • Zach LaVine
  • Bradley Beal
  • Desmond Bane
  • Jrue Holiday

Here are those same stats above for this group compared against other on-ball players:

This is much better than the previous chart. There are players like LaVine who lack the playmaking but make up for it with ridiculous efficiency and rim pressure. Beal had a down year shooting but is a plus passer, a great 1v1, in the mid-range, and I’d have them as the best off-ball player. Garland is the best 3-point threat, particularly on pull-ups, and is by far the best passer.

I do have some questions when it comes to Bane, but he has shown great flashes and I like the potential jump this season. Also, take a look at his stats without Ja Morant:

25.3 points per 75 poss on 58.5% eFG and 61.7% TS. He also added around 6 assists. That’s all great but it’s how he gets those points:

  • 55.7% on 2s(47% assisted)
  • 41.8% on 3s(71.9% assisted)
  • 65.2% on 6 shots at the rim per 75 poss
  • 47.3% on 5 shots in the short mid-range
  • 46.3% on 1 shot in the long mid-range

Scoring well on all three levels. Six shots at the rim is pretty significant, especially at that percentage.

I do like Beal a lot out of this group. One question mark is that poor shooting, but that does seem like a down year:

Throughout his career, he’s been great at creating those 3s. Not once has that been an issue. There has been a slight drop recently in his shot-making, but that also coincides with being more of the guy. But when he’s in that role where he doesn’t have to create, he’s been a great shooter.

I think this is what would hold him back from the next tier of guys. But when it comes to being in this tier as the complementary guy who can step up as a #2 when needed, he’s perfect. One reason for that is his ability to play off-ball

Compared to on-ball players, he’s elite at getting points off cuts and off screens.

Next, when we talk about scorers, I’m surprised LaVine doesn’t get much love. Scroll up to see all of his talent metrics in various areas. It doesn’t matter if it’s finishing at the rim, in the mid-range, 1v1, or 3s.

Did you know in the last three years, he’s shooting 55.3% on almost 11 2s? And also 39.4% on over 7 3s! That’s the same efficiency on similar attempts as Kawhi Leonard.

We also have Garland. I was shocked to see that his passing was that good.

These are the only players in the on-ball role this year with at least A- grade in all stats but passing efficiency. That’s a good company to be in, especially so early in his career.

I was also surprised to see that he’s shooting 39.1% on over 3 pull-up 3s. Amongst players who take 3 or more, that percentage would rank 6th. An elite passer and an elite 3-point pull-up threat.

Finally, we have Holiday. He’s an interesting case. He’s arguably the best guard defender and(at least in the regular season) has been so damn good on offense.

Unfortunately, you need that qualifier. In the last three regular seasons with the Milwaukee Bucks:

20.1 points and 7.4 assists per 75 poss shooting 55.0% from 2 and 39.5% from 3 with a 59.0% TS

In the playoffs, this drops to:

16.8 points and 7.4 assists shooting 45.1% from 2 and 30.4% from 3 with a 47.6% TS

Those are two completely different players. It’s as if he completely forgets how to put the ball in the basket on all levels in the playoffs. What doesn’t change, though(and what makes me still put him in this tier) is his passing and his ability to get to the rim. He still averages over 5 shots at the rim per 100 poss in the playoffs(same as in the regular season). That plus the passing and his elite defense is what makes him in this tier.

So, these are the main guards that I can see capable of being primary ball handlers and an engine. But at the same time, I feel like those certain skills that each lack, whether that’s passing, 3pt, or rim pressure are what hold them back. But I’m comfortable with them being towards the top of this tier.

Not Sure With These Wings

Photo by Rick Scuteri

When it comes to these wings, I can’t see them being the type of player that can effectively run an offense through them and win that would put them any higher. But I think there are some different issues with each that kind of leaves me with question marks:

  • Mikal Bridges
  • DeMar DeRozan
  • Brandon Ingram

Let’s start with Bridges, who had himself a great second half of the season with Brooklyn. That’s where he averaged:

28.7 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 2.8 assists on 60.7% TS.

That’s elite stuff. He was lighting it up in the mid-range. Literally. He shot 47.8% in the short mid-range and 50.6% in the long mid-range. He clearly possessed more than what he’s shown in Phoenix.

But similar to the first group of players, I don’t think those are his main strengths. I don’t think he’s there yet where this can be his main skill and where he has the most impact. What he’s been doing with Brooklyn is great for his development but not for impact.

Here are some of his grades compared to on-ball players vs off-ball players:

  • F → A+ in overall shot creation
  • F → C- in rim shot creation
  • F → D in drive assist/pass%
  • C → A+ in one on one talent
  • F → B+ in passing creation volume
  • F → A- in on ball gravity
  • D+ → C+ in passing creation quality
  • D → B in playmaking talent

There’s again a significant difference when comparing it to a different role. Because he does everything so well… but compared to guys in lower tiers. The difference between him and the others is that he’s clearly more than that.

And when you combine that with this defense:

Outside of Holiday, no one is as good offensively and it isn’t even close. That’s one of the best 2-way players in the league.

Next, we have Ingram. I know it’s only FIBA World Cup but this recent stretch has kind of got me lower on Ingram.

He’s in a similar position as Bridges. I’d comfortably have Ingram as the better guy on offense and I don’t know how close that even is. So, the ceiling is certainly higher. But the general idea is still there where I don’t know how much impact Ingram can have on winning with the ball in his hands.

He might be more suited off-ball with on-ball juice(like the other guys). The issue is I don’t know how much I like Ingram off-ball and whether he can add as much value there. He’s showing he’s struggling with all of the talent with Team USA. And what he doesn’t have is that elite defense.

That’s how I feel about DeRozan too. He’s a very, very talented scorer. Arguably the best mid-range scorer right now, especially because of what he does at that volume.

He provides so much value by being one of the best isolation scorers and being a hooper. But his defense isn’t anywhere to add any kind of value. Plus being a non-shooter from 3 hurts his fit with other players.

I still like these wings here, especially Bridges with what he’s shown he can do as an off-ball player primarily and on defense but now has significantly deepened his bag on offense.

The Offensive Bigs:

Photo by Sam Navarro

I think this group is the one where I’m almost as low as the guards. Some I like better but the general group of them, I’d say I’m lower on:

  • Kristaps Porzingis
  • Deandre Ayton
  • Julius Randle
  • Domantas Sabonis
  • Karl Anthony Towns
  • Lauri Markkanen

They are all great individual offensive players. Towns is the best shooting big man in the league by far and is way more than that. Sabonis is one of the best passing big man and has played a huge role in the best offense in the league. Randle has carried a significant load on offense the last few years in New York and has been quite efficient. Both Markkanen and Porzingis just had the best year in his career.

That’s all great in the regular season, but with this group, I have significant questions in the playoffs about whether they have the same impact on offense and if some of their defensive limitations hurt the team too much.

We saw Randle drop off significantly in the playoffs twice now. There were injuries that played a part, but a lot of it was his style of play that may not always translate in the playoffs relying on tough shots and isolations.

And it does look like that’s been the same for all the other bigs. Everyone drops off in their scoring. So, it’s clear that their offense doesn’t necessarily translate.

There is one exception with Markkanen and that’s because we haven’t seen him in the playoffs. He’s been highly efficient in his first year in Utah and he does so many things well on offense that will fit with everyone. I just want to see how that would translate in the playoffs and see what his defense would be like.

When it comes to Ayton, he seems like the most safe option. He does what a big man does. Nothing special. Nothing bad. Just doing his job.

That wouldn’t be a problem if their defense was elite. A big just can’t be an offensive liability. Even with their regression, they aren’t liabilities. But I do feel like there’s a ceiling with their defense unless their offense steps up.

The Defensive Bigs:

Photo by Kyle Terada

These are the bigs I’d prefer. Being an elite defender and an average offensive player as a big is much more important than the other way around. Unless your offense is generational like Nikola Jokic, I don’t know you can survive with a non-defensive big.

  • Draymond Green
  • Jaren Jackson Jr
  • Evan Mobley
  • Rudy Gobert

Let’s just get Gobert out of the way. Yes, I’m aware of his playoff history. I’m aware of his limitations on offense. I’m aware that his impact as a rim-protecting, drop-big might not be as impactful in the playoffs(even though I don’t think he gets played off). Even with all of that, what he does on defense is needed.

This is Gobert’s impact in the playoffs(not including this year). So, it seems like his issues are over-exaggerated.

BUT! There’s also a ceiling on that defense. I mentioned that same thing with Lopez. But teams can live with that. This isn’t something that breaks your team.

And that’s not going into the real limitations on offense and being a complete non-spacer. The only reason he’s able to make up for it is with his generational rim protection.

There’s also Mobley, who I think I’m placing him a bit too soon. I really like him on defense. But I don’t think he’s on the same level as some of these players. And his offense has got to improve significantly. But this is where I think I’m giving the potential third-year leap. If not, I’d have to drop him to tier five.

Finally, we get to two of the most impactful bigs because of their defense. To me, both are top-5 defenders.

Green is still the best defender in my eyes. The smartest defender there is. His IQ and versatility are what separates him from everyone.

I’ve been playing around with so many filters and no one comes close to what he does on defense:

These are very generous filters. I set for most to be B or higher or even C or higher. But that’s exactly what makes him special.

He’s the most versatile defender in the league. He defends any position, can guard in isolation, can defend in PnRs, has great coverage versatility, guards tough matchups, and can chase screens. But on top of all that, he’s an elite rim protector.

Rim protection still remains the most important thing to defend. He does it like no one else and gives you everything else like no one else.

This is why his playoff impact metrics look like this:

Five of the top six belong to Green.

We also have Jackson Jr who’s almost there as a defender. Even though I have him as a top-5 defender, there are a few areas where I’d still need to see improvements like the perimeter defense or defending in drop. But they are little things that would make him elite.

The only reason I don’t have these 2 in the next tier is their offensive limitations. Their defense is so elite that it doesn’t matter about their offense as much(to a point), but without the offense being better, this is as high as they can be.

I definitely wasn’t expecting this to be this long again, but we’re finally at the end.

This is the full tier.

Remember tiers aren’t in order and players are evaluated compared within their group and roles. There’s no comparison between a big and a scoring guard. But there is a preference based on team context. In a vacuum, I’d have the elite defensive bigs(Green and Jackson) first, upper-tier guards, wings, defensive bigs, offensive bigs, and scoring guards.

Thank you again if you made it this far!

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