This week Bleacher Report has released rankings of the top-200 players in the NBA entering the 2016-17 season. Considered were- 71 guards, 56 wings, and 73 bigs. (Click the links for the full rankings.) The Wolves, apparently, have six of the top-200 players. Note that rookies were not considered in these lists.
The Guard Position
The guard position was determined by using basketball-reference.com and their positional distinctions from last season. Point guards (PG), combo guards (CG) and shooting guards (SG) make up the definition of a guard for this list. The two Wolves to rank top-71 in the NBA, entering the season, are Zach LaVine and Ricky Rubio.
30. Avery Bradley, SG, Boston Celtics
29. J.J. Redick, SG, Los Angeles Clippers
28. Tony Parker, PG, San Antonio Spurs
27. Bradley Beal, SG, Washington Wizards
26. Zach LaVine, Combo Guard, Minnesota Timberwolves
Pretty nice company to be in here. Bradley is one of the best on-ball defenders in the league, Redick led the league in 3-Point% last season (47.5%), Parker has four rings, and Beal is the 17th highest paid player in the entire league.
What is LaVine’s best distinction? Two-time Dunk Champion? LaVine is the youngest player of the five guards which is a reason for intrigue, but in actual basketball games, he has done very little, outside of scoring, to distinguish himself.
Bleacher Report, rightfully so, likes his three-point and overall offensive improvement featured at the end of last season.
“After Feb. 19, he averaged 16.4 points while shooting 48 percent from the field and 43.7 percent from beyond the arc... Defenders had to respect his 43.7 percent deep shooting in those situations, but they also couldn't get too close due to the risk of him darting to the hoop for an alley-oop finish.” -Bleacher Report-
I think herein lies the disconnect in public perception of LaVine and his actual game-to-game performance. Yes, LaVine is a good shooter. Potentially great. Over 40% from three is a rarity these days. Only 20 players in the league shot better than 40% from three last season. But, the concept that LaVine is, at this point in his career, a serious threat off the ball isn’t true.
“The risk of him darting to the hoop for an alley-oop finish,” makes LaVine sound like the guard version of Deandre Jordan. LaVine converted 12 total alley-oops last season, according to NBA.com/stats. About one alley-oop per seven games.
Overall, the crew at Bleacher Report sees the ailments of LaVine’s first two years to be primarily due to the fact that he was a combo guard. If in this season LaVine moves to playing exclusively off the ball, his impact will positively increase.
“Minnesota produced a minus-0.8 net rating when Rubio and LaVine shared the court, as opposed to a minus-11.3 net rating when LaVine was on and Rubio off, per NBAWowy.com.” ~Bleacher Report
22. George Hill, PG, Utah Jazz
21. Brandon Knight, CG, Phoenix Suns
20. Goran Dragic, PG, Miami Heat
19. Victor Oladipo, SG, Oklahoma City Thunder
18. Ricky Rubio, Point Guard, Minnesota Timberwolves
The 18th best point guard in the league would have been a favorable acknowledgment for Rubio, but the 18th best overall guard is very generous for Rubio who is often overlooked among the top backcourt players in the NBA. Rubio is usually denigrated for his jump shooting ineptitude, which Bleacher Report remarks on but does not obsess over.
“Scoring simply isn't Ricky Rubio's game. He averaged just 10.1 points for the Minnesota Timberwolves, and those didn't come in efficient fashion. The point guard shot 37.4 percent from the field, and his 32.6 percent clip from downtown was a marked improvement from 2014-15.” -Bleacher Report-
They, of course, mentioned Rubio’s distribution abilities and his passing “before the play is able to develop.” But, it was his defense that was most highly regarded. Of the 17 guards ahead of Rubio on this list, only Eric Bledsoe graded out as a better defender.
“Somewhat quietly, Rubio has developed into one of the league's better defensive 1-guards. His quick hands allow him to rack up steals, and his positioning has improved dramatically throughout his NBA career. Even though he constantly gambles in passing lanes, he never seems to be too far from his assignment to recover and contest a spot-up shot.”
Something to note: Rubio was ranked 13th on the point guard list.
The Wing Position
Again, using basketbal-reference.com positional distinctions, the writers at Bleacher Report decided to combine swingmen (SM), small forwards (SF) and combo forwards (CF).
Being defined as a “wing” in today’s NBA is becoming more and more of a broad and arbitrary term. This list of wings includes both players as small as Eric Gordon and as large as Luis Scola. Largely, the 56 wings ranked fall into the mold of 3-and-D wing players. Being as the Wolves didn’t shoot many threes or play much defense, it isn’t much of a surprise that only one player from the Wolves made this list.
17. Tobias Harris, CF, Detroit Pistons
16. Luol Deng, CF, Los Angeles Lakers
15. Chandler Parsons, CF, Memphis Grizzlies
14. Danilo Gallinari, CF, Denver Nuggets
13. Andrew Wiggins, Swing Man, Minnesota Timberwolves
The Wolves continue to receive love here. The 13th spot seems to be fair and maybe a bit generous for Wiggins. Harris, Deng, and Parsons are good company, not all-stars, but key role players.
It’s the three players ahead of Wiggins who more so fit Wiggins mold, play-style, and age. Jae Crowder (#12), Demar Derozan (#11), Gordon Hayward (#10). Crowder and Derozan are fairly one-dimensional players. While Wiggins shows promise on both ends he has not come closely to fully developing his offensive game or becoming the forecasted defensive stopper that he was anticipated to become. We can call it two halves of a dimension for Wiggins. Improvements on both ends will put him in the Hayward conversation and therefore the top-10 of NBA wings.
“Yes, Andrew Wiggins needs to grow far more efficient if he's to serve as a go-to scorer during his prime years —45.9 percent from the field, 30.0 percent from long range and 76.1 percent at the stripe won't cut it. But it also takes an insane amount of talent for a sophomore in his age-20 season to average 20.7 points while creating so much of his own offense.” -Bleacher Report-
“Though many all-in-one metrics indicate Wiggins was one of the NBA's worst defenders, context is important. It was tough for him to thrive on a defensively inept team featuring plenty of liabilities, and he often drew tough assignments that he wasn't adequately prepared for. We're more inclined to focus on the fact he didn't have any truly atrocious scenarios. In fact, he was pretty average across the board with occasional flashes of future brilliance.” -Bleacher Report-
This is certainly a positive spin on Wiggins. I will note, the number-five ranked wing, Klay Thompson, graded out as a worse “scorer” than Wiggins.
Hmm ... No comment, I’ve already been too pessimistic.
What many Wolves fans would find most comical about Wiggins’s ranking is that he received 7 out of 8 possible points in rebounding.
“Tony Allen and Wiggins were the lone swingmen to qualify for NBA 200 analysis while grabbing at least 1.5 contested rebounds per game. This young Timberwolf is only kept from perfection by his sub-50 percent conversion rate, which indicates he was more aggressive than he should've been before improving his positioning.” -Bleacher Report-
Okay this isn’t pessimism, calling Wiggins a good rebounder just isn’t true. No one has ever thought the word “aggressive” when watching Wiggins try (or not try) to grab rebounds.
Simple counting statistics (PPG, APG, RPG) can often be an injustice to the player, but in the case of Wiggins, stating his contested rebound rate and rebound conversion rate seems to be painting a largely irrelevant corner of what is an ugly picture.
From a purely aesthetic perspective, Wiggins is not aggressive on the glass. He does not get a commensurate amount of rebounds for his size and athleticism. While part of rebounding can be team scheme, there was only one game last season that Wiggins grabbed double-digit rebounds. That was ten boards in a game against the Sacramento Kings. Wiggins has never had more than 10 rebounds in a game through two full seasons in the NBA. Rebound rate me that.
Probably the most notable snub of these rankings was Shabazz Muhammad. Even Lance Stephenson received wing recognition (wing #46, what!?). Muhammad didn’t receive top-56 consideration at the wing and therefore fell out of the top-200. In Gorgui Dieng’s profile, it is pointed out that Muhammad was 46 spots shy of making NBA top-200. Yikes.
The Big Position
The bigs are everyone else. The traditional power forwards and center, plus the players who shuffle between those two positions. For the sake of these rankings, they were denoted as power forwards (PF), combo bigs (CB) and centers (C). In this grouping of 73 bigs, the Wolves had three players. Of course, Karl-Anthony Towns made the list. Gorgui Dieng makes an appearance. And last but not least Peanut Butter and Belly (Nemanja Bjelica) made the list. (I see you Belly) This encouraging news for Bjelica who was snubbed from making the Wolves NBA 2K17 roster.
73. Trey Lyles, PF, Utah Jazz
72. Boban Marjanovic, C, Detroit Pistons
71. Meyers Leonard, CB, Portland Trail Blazers
70. Alex Len, C, Phoenix Suns
69. Nemanja Bjelica, Power Forward, Minnesota Timberwolves
Bjelica was the 35th overall pick when drafted in 2010. Lyles, Leonard, and Len were all lottery picks. Len was the fifth overall pick in 2013. After what was an up and down (often down) year for Bjelica, it is encouraging to see him be acknowledged as a capable big amongst the names of players who have started numerous games in the NBA.
However, Bjelica’s scoring didn’t receive a lot of love. Actually no love. None of the 72 other bigs that were ranked received a lower “scoring” grade.
“Nemanja Bjelica was seldom used by the Minnesota Timberwolves, typically deployed off-ball so as to make most of his shots as a spot-up sniper. There was only so much he could do to look like even an average scorer... Shooting 46.8 percent from the field, 38.4 percent from downtown and 72.7 percent on his free throws.” ~Bleacher Report
Bjelica’s defense graded out slightly better as there were seven other bigs with worse defensive scores. He received a little damning with faint praise on the defensive end.
“Even though he was surprisingly effective guarding post-ups and isolation plays, Bjelica was horribly overmatched anytime he was left alone on the interior with no weak-side help to protect the rim.” ~Bleacher Report
Making this list is actually a stride for Bjelica considering the only stats used were from last season. The BR guys are right, last season Bjelica did prove he belonged in the NBA.
“All things considered, this was a successful rookie year for Bjelica. Not only did he prove he belonged in the NBA, but he carved out an important niche as a floor-spacing big man who could hold his own on the boards. He won't earn more playing time until he shows he can play adequate defense, but this is a solid start for the 28-year-old.” -Bleacher Report-
39. Taj Gibson, PF, Chicago Bulls
38. Thaddeus Young, PF, Indiana Pacers
37. Tristan Thompson, PF, Cleveland Cavaliers
36. Nerlens Noel, CB, Philadelphia 76ers
35. Gorgui Dieng, Combo Big, Minnesota Timberwolves
Karl-Anthony Towns, Nikola Jokic, and Kristaps Porzingis were the only three players with less NBA experience to be ranked above Dieng. While Dieng is 26 years old, he is still a fresh face in the NBA. To fall amidst the starting level bigs is warranted high praise.
Dieng received praise for his improved mid-range shooting last season, but his lacking physicality and inability to consistently protect the rim were downgrades for him.
“Gorgui Dieng began trying to expand his game in 2015-16. While it didn't result in many convincing showings from beyond the arc, he was far more comfortable taking and making mid-range attempts, which helped space things out for the Minnesota Timberwolves and keep defenders on their toes. They could no longer bank on him attacking the hoop, and forcing him to shoot jumpers was no longer a wise strategy.” -Bleacher Report-
“Dieng's biggest downfall as a defender—other than playing time, which was preventing him from moving into an All-Defensive category—is his inability to protect the rim consistently. While facing 7.1 shots per game, he allowed opponents to connect on 52.6 percent of their attempts, and he was forced into that position far too often.” -Bleacher Report-
10. Marc Gasol, C, Memphis Grizzlies
9. Derrick Favors, CB, Utah Jazz
8. Andre Drummond, C, Detroit Pistons
7. DeAndre Jordan, C, Los Angeles Clippers
6. Karl-Anthony Towns, C, Minnesota Timberwolves
Deandre Jordan was the All-NBA First-Team Center last season, DeMarcus Cousins was Second-Team and Andre Drummond was Third-Team. Towns was left off of all three teams last season and it is these three players who stand as his competition for the accolade of best center in the league this season.
While being viewed as the best center in the league may be a tenable task for Towns, being the best overall big in the league is a taller one. LaMarcus Aldridge, Cousins, Anthony Davis, Paul Millsap and Draymond Green stand ahead of Towns in ascending order, according to Bleacher Report. Of the top-10 bigs, Towns, at twenty years-old, is the most likely to take a large step forward in 2016-17.
“It's admittedly shocking to see Towns listed as the No. 2 center, as the No. 6 big man and among the league's top 20 overall players. But just go watch some tape, because he was legitimately that good. Despite being less than a year removed from playing for John Calipari, Towns excelled in virtually every area and had no distinct weaknesses. After the All-Star break, he was the only NBA player to average at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and three assists while making more shots than he missed.” -Bleacher Report-
The knocks on Towns were the typical demarcations of a young player: carelessness, inconsistency, and positioning.
“He wasn't quite good enough from beyond the arc, hitting only 34.1 percent of his deep attempts, and he relied a bit too much on his teammates' setup passes... Towns made too many careless mistakes with the ball... He had trouble against spot-up shooters and often found himself out of position against roll men, both of which were easy weaknesses for the opposition to exploit... Credit Towns for giving 100 percent every time a shot went up, but he'll have to learn that not every carom is worth pursuing.” -Bleacher Report-
With 13 active players on 30 rosters, the Bleacher Report list of 71 guards, 56 wings, and 73 bigs comprises just over half of the league. With Towns, Dieng, Bjelica, Wiggins, LaVine and Rubio the Wolves have just under half of their roster in the top-200. Rubio is the most tenured player of the six Wolves ranked, making it feasible that a few if not all six players move up this list a year from now.
My biggest questions: Should more Wolves have made the list this season? Was Rubio ranked too high? Was Muhammad’s snubbing worthy? Where’s the love for Adreian Payne!? Give us your thoughts.