The impulse of comparison is encouraged by the very nature of sports. One team beats its opponent. One player dominates a matchup. One teammate overtakes another on the depth chart. Games and leagues are built on that engine of relativity, and the NBA is no exception.
It’s in that spirit that we offer our list of the Top 100 NBA players of 2020—an endeavor to identify and order the best of the best for the 2019-20 season. The scope of our ranking is relatively simple (every player is evaluated for the coming season alone, independent of their team context), but there is nonetheless a daunting complication built into the exercise itself. While we make a considered effort to somehow compare an incredible variety of basketball talent, there’s little grounds to suggest that players can be assigned any kind of absolute value at all.
On the one hand, the decision to divorce players from their real-life team settings is essential in a project of this nature. No player should be penalized for landing on the wrong team, just as no lesser contributor should be promoted merely for filling an ideal role. Players need to be evaluated individually to whatever extent such a thing is possible, and to that end the counterbalancing of team factors helps us inch closer to some measure of objective quality.
At the same time, basketball players are unavoidably subject to their surroundings. There are a few luminaries for whom fit is a non-issue—an elite class of ultra-flexible superstars who would work in most every system and would mesh with most any roster. They are the extreme minority, and run maybe four deep. The rest of the league needs specific factors in place to maximize their on-court value: a particular kind of role, a specific sort of usage, a customized set of responsibilities. Some players are more pliable than others when it comes to compromising on those needs, but that in itself creates problems for defining player value across the board. How does one accurately measure player worth when every player’s contribution is so deeply conditional?
Making that determination inevitably becomes a matter of taste, as we don’t otherwise have the means to make sense of such disparate items. It’s hard enough comparing vastly different players at different positions—say, Kyrie Irving and Rudy Gobert—but all the more complicated given that both players have unique prerequisites to their effectiveness. If Gobert is positioned for a low-usage role where his chief priority is defense, his strengths can be maximized and his weaknesses disguised. If put on a team that doesn’t have enough firepower to compensate, Gobert’s limited offensive game and range might cramp his team’s scoring efforts.
A different set of concerns are in play with Irving, who needs helpful defenders, spot shooters and supporting playmakers to get the most out of his own game. When all of that is in place, Irving can be a tremendous weapon. Without them, the driving lanes Irving relies on dry up and more challenging defensive responsibilities tilt his game unfavorably. And that’s before even considering all of the other quirks of having Irving as a part of your organization.
Those factors define the range between a player’s ceiling and floor, though without necessarily addressing the probability that either is actually met. How does one place Clint Capela without knowing if he’ll have a solid point guard to make use of his hard rolls to the rim? Or rank Ricky Rubio without understanding how likely he is to have the supporting scorers he so desperately needs? And where does that leave players like Khris Middleton, who are not only skilled and productive but also malleable to a wide variety of roles?
Certain players are clearly more challenging to build around than others, and in some way that distinction has to be taken into account. There’s just no clean, satisfying way to do so, and therefore no perfect fashion to consider every player on his own merits. That doesn’t diminish the value of these results or the process behind them. It’s simply important to note that a player’s worth shifts dramatically with his surroundings, bringing a level of distortion to every comparative ranking of this kind.