Simply Ballin’s NBA Tiers: Lead Guards, #2 Wings & 2 Different Bigs in Tier 3

Simply Ballin
15 min readSep 3, 2023
Photo by Jasen Vinlove

We’re finally getting closer to the upper talent of the league. This is where I’d say the top 25-ish players come in. The way I’d describe a lot of the players in this group are guys that are capable of being the #1 option and having the offense run through them, but at the same time, they’d still be more suited with a player in the next tier.

Teams are still capable of building a contender around some of these guys, but their ceiling would be significantly higher if they’re you’re #2.

Similar to the previous tier, this is again split by position. Where there are the lead ball-handlers, wings, and bigs. One thing I’ve been thinking about is how much value each position and role has because I don’t think each is the same.

And looking at this group of guys, I’d weigh the lead ball-handlers more because they’re usually more suited to have an offense run through them and that’s an important skill to have, especially when they’re paired with someone that’s capable of doing so too. Having two guys who are capable of sharing the load is what a lot of championship teams have.

The next group of guys are again wings. Unless you’re an elite-level wing i.e. Jayson Tatum, Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James, then a lot of these wings aren’t good enough to be a #1 at all. But what a lot of these guys can do is be an elite #2 — probably better than some of the lead guards.

So, it’s again balancing how much you value guys that can be #1 and how their skills would translate to being a #2 versus a guy that may be a better #2.

So, let’s get right into it!

The Lead Guards:

I was really considering putting some of these players in the next tier, but it also didn’t feel right having them with players that I definitely consider above them.

This may be a lot to look at. But these are almost all of the lead guards in this tier being compared to other on-ball players. And within this group, there’s another sub-tier. You can clearly see that there are players that aren’t as well-rounded as others or that they have significant weaknesses.

The top 5

  • Ja Morant
  • Shai Gilgeous Alexander
  • Donovan Mitchell
  • Trae Young
  • Kyrie Irving

I think these are the main guys out of this group. I do have some question marks about a particular player in this group, but in general, I feel comfortable with these guys as the team’s lead ball-handler a lot more.

Two of these players are the best players on a legitimate playoff team and have more of a track record being the guys that can still be impactful against playoff teams.

Since becoming an All-Star, in the last four playoffs, Mitchell is averaging:

28.0 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 5.1 assists on 59.2% true shooting

Now, the average true shooting may be misleading because of very high highs and very low lows.

69.6% → 60.2% → 50.5% → 51.8%

Mitchell has clearly struggled when it comes to efficiency in the playoffs but I don’t think that’s as big of an issue as it seems on the surface. A lot of it has to do with his 3pt shooting. In the last two years, he has shot 20.8% and 28.9% from deep. A lot of that comes from his pull-up game completely disappearing, but that’s not the norm for him.

Here are his 3pt catch-and-shoot % in his career

40.0% → 40.4% → 43.2% → 42.9% → 34.6% → 37.6%

Here is his 3pt pull-up %

29.4% → 34.0% → 32.1% → 35.9% → 35.6% → 39.2%

And then look at his grades in some of the BBall-Index metrics:

This does show encouragement that a lot of his struggles could be an outlier. And what shows more encouragement in the playoffs is how he scores inside the arc.

  • 61.5% on 7 FGA per 100 possessions at the rim
  • 46.5% on 7 FGA in the short mid-range
  • 34.3% on 3 FGA in the long mid-range

Amongst 40 players with at least 100 minutes that attempted at least 7 FGA at the rim in the last four playoffs, Mitchell ranks 27th in percentage — second-best guard behind Anthony Edwards. Same filter for the short mid-range and he’s 14th out of 27 — around the same as Devin Booker.

If he’s able to bounce back as a 3-point threat in the playoffs, then he’s a dangerous scorer. The passing could be better(and what I think holds him back) but that matters less when he has Darius Garland as his #2.

Young had a down year when it comes to his shooting and efficiency and I think that has got him to be quite underrated. He’s still one of the best offensive players in the league. For some reason, though, a down year and one awful series against the Miami Heat last year, and now you can’t win with him.

But since his rookie year, this has been his efficiency:

59.5% → 58.9% → 60.3% → 57.3%

That’s not someone who’s an inefficient shot chucker. This looks even better at his shooting splits:

  • 0–3ft: 59.6% → 57.2% → 62.0% → 55.2%
  • 3–10ft: 45.2% → 47.0% → 45.1% → 42.6
  • 10–16ft: 46.7% → 42.8% → 46.9% → 52.9%
  • 16–3pt: 41.3% → 53.0% → 51.3% → 41.0%
  • 3pt: 36.1% → 34.3% → 38.2% → 33.5%

He’s pretty damn good everywhere around the court. His inside finishing is boosted by a 46.0% free throw rate.

This is something that translates to elite offense. In those four years, the Atlanta Hawks have a 117.6 offense with him in almost 10k minutes — that drops to 108.3 without him.

What is even more impressive, this year with him on but without Dejounte Murray, they were still able to have a 119.4 offense(the team also shot 33.6% from 3).

He’s top-tier talent on offense. And a big reason why he’s been able to do that despite the drop off in shooting and finishing at the rim is because he’s one of the best passers in a long time:

Here are the only seasons that had a player ranked in the top 100 in both passing creation volume and creation quality in the entire database since 2014. He, alone, has five of the 12. That’s a special, special passer.

I don’t buy into the notion that you can’t win with Young. There are weaknesses and questions in his offensive game, especially in the playoffs but I don’t think they’re as significant that you can’t overcome them or improve on. His off-ball ability is something that can be better. How this also translates versus a playoff defense is something that can grow and be better. He’s still only 25 years old and is already one of the best offensive players.

I do think that if the talent around him is better, then the Hawks can have a high ceiling with him as the best player.

Who would have thought that Shai was going to have this type of season?

He had one hell of a season as a scorer. He scored over 31 points per 75 poss on 62.6% true shooting and he did so in a not ideal situation. There have been 21 players since 2014 to score 31 points or more with at least 60% TS and he did so with the worst teammate spacing.

I don’t think there was anything to stop him from getting past whoever he wanted to his spots.

Here’s his frequency and FG% by distance:

  • 0–3ft: 28.3% & 67.8%
  • 3–10ft: 27.6% & 43.8%
  • 10–16ft: 24.6% & 51.2%
  • 16–3pt: 7.3% & 39.6%

Almost a quarter of his shots in each spot within 16ft and in each area he shot it at an absurd clip. Even without a reliable 3-point shot, he’s been one of the best scorers.

But it is that 3-point shot(self-created and off-ball) that holds him back and his passing. I don’t think either is elite enough to warrant being higher. Plus there’s the element of having to prove it in the playoffs.

Then, we have the player I have the most questions about. I do wonder about inefficient, high-usage slashers that can’t shoot. Morant is one of the best at getting to the rim and that has value in itself. He’s able to generate easy looks for himself(even if he’s not converting at an elite level) and for others(especially when Morant has been improving as a passer).

There’s a reason why both his scoring and efficiency have dropped quite significantly in the last two years in the playoffs.

If that’s your best offensive player by a good margin on the team, then I don’t know how much that lowers your ceiling. I always think back to teams with Russell Westbrook and Paul George. Those teams had that type of ceiling too.

With that said, I think this type of floor-raising and still being able to put so much pressure on the rim with elite playmaking is enough to still be in this tier.

Finally, we have Irving. I wasn’t sure where to put him. Irving has had an odd career journey for me. He’s been an elite #2 alongside LeBron James. Then struggled being the guy once he left. But then again became one of the most efficient players in Brooklyn alongside Kevin Durant and James Harden.

In the last three years(regular season and playoffs), Irving averaged 23.7 points per 75 poss on 57.4% eFG and 60.9% TS alongside Durant. Just highly efficient basketball.

Then we also have this:

Where he’s done a great job as the #1. Maybe he has definitely improved in that area. Then there are these stats too:

  • PnR(including passes): 1.097 PPP(87th%ile)
  • Isolations(including passes): 1.194(92nd)

I’d argue that he’s the best #2 out of any of these guards and if you combine that with this type of all-around efficient offense, then he’s certainly in this tier.

Then we have the next five:

  • Anthony Edwards
  • De’Aaron Fox
  • Jalen Brunson
  • Tyrese Haliburton
  • Jamal Murray

They’re still the team’s best lead guard(and all but one are the team’s best players) but they have a more significant weakness that stops them from being with the five above.

For Edwards, it’s clearly the passing. Those F grades and having an average playmaking talent just won’t cut it if you’re meant to be leading the offense. He’s a scorer. He gets to the rim well and has improved as a shooter, but none of that is still at a level where he’s efficient enough to have a high impact.

Fox’s lack of a 3-point shot is hurting him. Whether that’s him being a threat to pull up or being a threat off the ball. In his first playoff appearance, his 3-point attempts increased from 5 to 9, but he shot 33.3%. That’s a win for the defense. It’s no surprise his efficiency went from 59.9% to 52.4%.

Similar to Edwards, what holds Brunson back is his passing and shooting. He’s already a very talented scorer inside. He gets to his spots with ease. He has arguably the best footwork for a guard. He’s great in the post(for a small guy). He can straight-up cook 1v1. He has shot the ball well from 3, but the low volume and not being much of a pull-up threat does hinder him in the playoffs.

But his main weakness is the passing. I think he’s a good passer for a lesser role. He’s highly efficient and is a low-turnover guy. There’s value in that but not if that’s the guy running your offense. I don’t think he’s shown to be capable of making elite-level reads to generate easier looks. That was one of the reasons why the Miami Heat made him a scorer.

On the other hand, Haliburton was one of the best passers in the league. He’s a much better creator for others, but I wonder about his scoring in the half-court.

We also have Murray. I hate to say it but I think he’s got a bit overrated. He has definitely been a playoff riser since 2020 and that’s the main reason why he’s even in this tier. But I don’t see him as an elite passer. His stats without Jokic in both the regular season and playoffs aren’t eye-popping. And the not-so-elite rim pressure does hinder his efficiency.

Finally, there’s a guy missing on this list because I have no clue where to put him. James Harden is an interesting player because I don’t know which one we’re going to get and that’s the difference between a guy in this tier or someone closer to tier three. If the injuries have piled up enough to the point where he’s looking closer to how he was in the playoffs, I don’t know how much impact he can have.

He was still an All-NBA caliber guy in the regular season where he averaged 20 and 10 on great efficiency. But that all dropped in the playoffs, particularly his finishing at the rim — he shot 37.9% within 3ft.

The #2 Wings

When it comes to wings, they aren’t players that you’d want leading an offense. I don’t see these players being capable of having a huge offensive load for an extended period of time and being successful with it. And one of the main reasons for that is their lack of playmaking. But it’s these players that fit perfectly alongside star creators. It’s these players you want next to a #1 guy. 2 of these players have proven to be champions as a #2.

  • Paul George
  • Jaylen Brown
  • Khris Middleton(I used 2022 stats because that was fully healthy)
  • Pascal Siakam

What’s great about these players is they all provide something different.

You have Middleton who’s the best passer here. Can create his own shot, be efficient, space the floor, and attack in the mid-range. In both 2021 and 2022, Middleton without Giannis Antetokounmpo:

28.7 points per 75 poss on 53.9% eFG and 58.6% TS. He shot 49.2% from 2(29.3% assisted) and 42.0% from 3(57.9%). He even added over 6 assists. This was the same thing during their championship run where he scored at a similar rate except did it more efficiently with more shots being self-created. He’s very much capable of being a great, efficient scorer as a #1 even in the playoffs. But as you can see those F grades in finishing are big YIKES.

Whereas you have Brown who excels at that. This season, he ranked 15th in unassisted shots at the rim with 4.7 per 75 poss. That A grade in rim shot creation would 9th. He can get to the rim when he wants to. But that’s about it when it comes to something he excels at. He’s a good shooter inside and below average when it comes to 3s. And it’s his lack of ability to create for others that holds him back the most.

We also have another player that has proven to be a championship caliber #2. I think Siakam has been one of the most underrated players in the last couple of years. He’s just had his highest-scoring season on just below league-average efficiency. And that’s kind of the issue. He has improved significantly as a self-creator, especially 1v1, but it’s still not to the level that you feel comfortable with him being the best offensive player. A big part of that is his poor 3-point shooting too. But his 1v1 talent, finishing at the rim and around the paint is perfect next to another creator.

Finally, we have George, who I’d say is tied with Middleton as the guy I’d give the edge to. He’s been a dead-eye shooter. Since coming back from his injury in 2016, he’s shooting 38.8% on 7.8 3s. Outside of that, I don’t think he does anything else on offense at an elite level, but everything is good enough. But it’s all-around offense and being a plus on defense that puts him here.

And to top this group off, we have two very different bigs. One is arguably the best defender in basketball right now and the other has been an absolute force on offense whenever he’s healthy.

  • Zion Williamson
  • Bam Adebayo

When I think of Zion, I think of this graph.

I’ve tweeted this graph plenty of times because it’s so wild. Zion is just something else when it comes to creating shots at the rim. He’s doing it better than Giannis.

There’s just no stopping him. In 29 games this year, he shot 61.8% on 2s. He scored:

  • 1.156(90th %ile) PPP in isolation
  • 0.991(58th) in post ups
  • 1.03(85th) as a PnR ball handler
  • 1.319(83rd) in transition

This year the New Orleans Pelicans had a plus 7 net rating in 956 minutes with him on. But that’s the thing. Only 956 minutes. Health is something that is constantly bringing him down. It’s tough to really assess him because it’s a small sample. So far, the offense has been elite, but I’d also want to see how teams will change how they defend him and how he adapts. I want to see this in the playoffs. There’s just so many unknowns.

And because of the lack of a track record, I can see him dropping down a tier and being more of a prove-it player.

Lastly, we have Adebayo. It’s a crime that he hasn’t won DPOY yet. To me, he is at the minimum the third-best defender in the world. And because of what he does on defense alone, it’s enough to have him here.

Adebayo is the reason the Miami Heat are able to have a top-10 defense regardless of personnel. Because of his skillset and versatility, he gives the Heat so much luxury. He covers for everyone. It doesn’t matter how many defensive liabilities you may have on the court if he’s there to clean it up.

When I talk about versatility, it’s not just about switching, but versatility when it comes to scheme and coverage. There just isn’t anything that you can’t ask him to do — whether that’s traditional PnR coverage in drop, at the level, or blitzing. You need him to switch, he will easily do that, contain it, and force a pass. Hell, you can even put him on a wing straight up. That’s exactly what happened against Boston.

The best defense is prevention. And that’s what he does. He prevents advantages as well as anyone.

This gives the Heat the ultimate flexibility. He can give them whatever is needed at any point in the game. That’s exactly what happened in the playoffs. Whether that was switching on Jalen Brunson or neutralizing that PnR entirely.

Or it was putting him on Brown.

Or perhaps in game seven switch everything to stall the Celtics offense.

There’s something else that I forgot:

Yep. This is your 2x MVP getting locked up by Adebayo. This is what the best defender in the world those. Full of versatility. Doing whatever is needed of him.

But that’s not the only thing he does and it’s his jump on offense that made me put him here. He’s not an offensive liability. He’s not just a rim-running big. He’s not entirely reliant on others.

This is him compared to both on and off-ball bigs. And it’s that self-creation plus playmaking that separates him from the rest of the bigs. He may not be as efficient as your typical rim-running big. But he makes it up by being more versatile on offense. How many bigs can take over as the point guard and make plays from the perimeter like he did to close out the Bucks?

You combine all of that and he’s one of the best 2-way players that has a tremendous impact that goes beyond the stat sheet.

And this is the end of tier 3. It’s led by two different tiers of lead guards(primarily on playoff teams) ones that are capable of being the guy and have an offense run through them, whilst the others have a particular weakness that holds them back.

Then we have a handful of wings that are ideal as a #2 next to an elite-level creator. All of them have their own unique strengths that make them impactful in their own way.

Lastly, we have two very different bigs that provide immense value on offense or defense, that goes beyond your traditional box score.

--

--