Another year, another ranking. Hotly debated by the fans and cooly disregarded by the players, the “Top 100” is often arbitrary and always inflammatory. This time is no different.
Early this morning ESPN put out the first half (100-51) of their ranking of the best players in the NBA for the upcoming season, with the second half (50-1) set to come out over the course of this week. You can read it here. Of course the only part of this exercise anyone actually cares about is where the Thunder greats landed among the rest of the league.
The first thing that jumps out is who’s not featured. Dennis Schröder is coming off a down year statistically but looks set to bounce back in a big way. After averaging 15.5 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 4.1 assists, as the head of the Thunder’s bench mob last year, the German point guard will see an expanded role in an offense desperate for scoring. Just two seasons ago the same ESPN ranking had Dennis the Menace, then a 24 year old Atlanta Hawk, at 96. Now he is unranked.
While he is a more well rounded player now than he was back then, his absence is excusable. The whole league is improving year after year while Schröder’s growth has largely stagnated. Now that he is a veteran instead of a blank slate prospect, Dennis will need to prove his worth instead of relying on hype to make the list next summer.
On this year’s actual list, the Thunder have four players featured. Danilo Gallinari at 91, Steven Adams at 75, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander at 64, and Chris Paul somewhere in the top 50 still to be revealed. The homer in me is dying to tell you that they’re all too low. The national media is sleeping on little Oklahoma City yet again! But I’ll resist that route (mostly).
We’ll start with the Italian swingman Danilo Gallinari. While ESPN puts him at the bottom of the Thunder’s top four, he could just as well be at the top. Last season he was a more consistently impactful player than any of the others listed. He just missed out on the All-Star team in the West and likely would have made it had he played out East. But of course, we’re looking ahead to next year.
It makes sense that the rankers are in love with younger prospects, glowing in their shiny potential. Of the 50 players listed so far, a shocking 31 of them are 25 or younger. We think we know what we’re getting out of the veterans, but the young kids? They COULD do anything. It’s why we see Gallinari, a 20ppg scorer who shot 43% from 3 last season as the lead man for a playoff team, come in behind guys like Bogdan Bogdanovic, Bam Adebayo, Dejonte Murray, and other largely unproven young ‘uns.
But this youth inclined bias helped another soon to be Thunder star climb the list. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, also a former Clipper, found himself at number 64. Shai was great for a rookie, don’t get me wrong, but numbers don’t lie. Last year, as teammates, in nearly the same amount of minutes, Shai scored half as many points as Gallinari, grabbed half as many boards as Gallinari, had a True Shooting rate 8% lower than Gallinari, and had a Player Efficiency Rating 8 points below Gallinari’s. Shai had a notable advantage only in steals.
While we can reasonably expect the 21 year old SGA to improve and easily imagine the 31 year old Gallinari to decline this year, having a difference of 27 spots between the two is absurd. I think it would make far more sense if the two ex-Californians, now-Oklahomans had their positions switched. Put Gallo in the 60s, put Shai in the 90s. Seems like a fair trade off to me.
Right between the two sits Steven Adams. Ranked number 75. Way too low.
Steven Adams is one of the best big-man defenders in the league, an absolute monster setting screens, catching lobs, and finishing at the rim. He should be at least a dozen spots higher, and probably in the Top 50!
What Steven Adams brings to the board is so much more than his 13.9 points and 9.5 boards per game illustrate. He is potentially the strongest man in the NBA and uses his size as effectively as anyone. Not afraid to bump and bruise his way through the paint down low, Adams is a force of nature in every way. Opposing centers dread their matchups with OKC, knowing they’ll be tasked with the impossible job of containing the Khal Drogo of the Oklahoma prairie.
Chris Paul is currently not on the list, but it seems almost impossible that the future Hall-of-Famer won’t be in the Top 50 (although, as one of my Twitter followers suggested, Gallinari is arguably better than Paul, so maybe he should be outside the Top 100 entirely). I’d personally put CP3 in the late-30s, but apparently my opinion isn’t as respected as those at Sports Illustrated and ESPN (which is cool guys, I get it). It will be interesting to see how his age and experience (not always a positive, as we’ve seen) factor into Paul’s position. How many more shiny under-25’s will we see at the top?
Regardless of where Paul lands, Thunder fans should get excited about the talent amassed in Oklahoma. It may not have it’s stars in the top 10s and top whatevers anymore, but if the players listed aren’t losing sleep over where they’re ranked, maybe we shouldn’t either.
Connor Ayubi is the newest member of The Franchise’s OKC Thunder insider coverage team. An Oklahoma native, he now studies Economics and Sport Analytics at Rice University. Connor has experience leading the analytics team for Rice Men’s and Women’s basketball, consulting for Rocnation Sports, and preparing the Phoenix Suns for the 2019 NBA Draft with his scouting and analysis. Follow him on Twitter @AyubiNBA