Two weeks ago, Press Basketball published a ranking of the best player on each NBA team for the 2017–18 season, from LeBron James to D’Angelo Russell. Amidst the many responses (and Devin Booker stans), a few people wondered who was the worst second-best player on each NBA team. One thing led to another, and eventually curiosity ranked the KAT.
Below is a ranking of all 30 second bananas for the new NBA season. Any ranking is fun to argue over, but these rankings turned out to be pretty enlightening, too. The NBA is a league driven by stars, perhaps more than any other major sport. And in a star-driven league, a ranking of the top stars turns out to be a pretty good facsimile for a ranking of the teams themselves.
Let’s take a look at the rankings and draw some conclusions at the end…
Golden State Is Not Fair
1. Steph Curry, Golden State
You can argue whether Curry or Durant is second best, but they’re both top five players and that’s what makes Golden State so dangerous.
But it’s not just that. If we did a third piece (narrator: they didn’t) ranking the third-best players, Draymond Green would be a runaway winner. So too Klay Thompson among fourth bananas and Andre Iguodala with fifth wheels. If anything, the gap between one and two on each list just gets bigger and bigger.
That’s why the Warriors are so unfair. It’s not just the two superstars at the top but also the depth. Think of it this way: if the worst happened and Golden State lost Curry or Durant for the season, they’d still have a top-three best player, Draymond would still be a top-three second banana, and Klay and Iggy would still be top-three third and fourth players. Even without Steph or KD, the Warriors would still be deeper and better than every team in the NBA.
Of course, 73–9 already proved that.
Everyone Wants a Second Superstar
2. Chris Paul, Houston
3. Paul George, Oklahoma City
4. DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans
5. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota
You can tell how good these stars are because you could argue for each of them over their superstarrier teammates any given night. We talked about these four teams all offseason, in part because they’re all so much better than they were a year ago because of their star acquisitions.
You’ll notice they’re all out West. Eight of the top-nine second bananas are in the West. The conference disparity is real. The Thunder, Pelicans, and Wolves have all struggled at times, but they’re three of the five teams with a pair of legitimate superstars, so don’t count on them falling away so easily.
Everyone’s Favorite Underrated Players
6. Mike Conley, Memphis
7. Kevin Love, Cleveland
8. Paul Millsap, Denver
None of these guys are actually underrated after years of Basketball Internet complaining how underrated they’ve always been, but they’re still awesome. Conley has the highest ceiling of the trio as we saw last May, high enough that perhaps Marc Gasol should have been here. He can take over the game for stretches. Love and Millsap can’t quite do that, but they’re the best traditional power forwards in a league that doesn’t really play guys at the four anymore.
The Second Bananas
9. DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers
10. Al Horford, Boston
11. DeMar DeRozan, Toronto
12. C.J. McCollum, Portland
13. Bradley Beal, Washington
14. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia
15. LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio
Every player on this list is a star. Each brings a lot to the table, but they each take something off too. Some of them don’t play defense. A couple can’t shoot. A few can’t seem to stay healthy. All of them feel like second bananas.
Well, all of them except Ben Simmons. He’s the lone rookie that counts as his team’s best or second-best player, and that’s because he’s not exactly playing like a rookie. It’s probably foolish to rank Simmons this high so soon, but not many guys average 18/10/8 with three stocks over their first ten games and it might seem just as foolish to rank Simmons so low a year from now.
You can order the rest how you like. I’d push Costco Kobe DeRozan down a few spots with LMAo if I was being really honest, but the order of this group isn’t really the point of the exercise.
It’s worth noting the gradual slide of the Boston Celtics because of the season-ending injury to their would-be best player. Gordon Hayward would’ve ranked 12th among best players; Kyrie ranked 16th. Irving should have been the sixth-best second player; Horford is 10th. Horford would have been one of the very best third stars. Instead it’s probably Marcus Smart, and he may not even rank in the top half of the league’s third bananas. That’s what happens to a non-Warriors team when a star gets hurt. Everyone has to play one level up. Even if the guys at the top overachieve, it’s the depth that can really suffer if the folks at the end of the bench don’t step up too.
The Bledsoe Trade
16. Eric Bledsoe, Milwaukee
Sure, Eric Bledsoe is already the second-best player in Milwaukee in less than a week. Jabari Parker is still rehabbing, and a healthy Bledsoe is easily better than even Khris Middleton’s or Malcolm Brogdon’s best day. Already you can see how much speed and dynamism he adds to Milwaukee’s guard rotation.
So how good is Bledsoe? At his best, you could probably place him somewhere between seventh and tenth on this list, a borderline top ten point guard with a penchant for defense and a mini-LeBron on offense. Of course the same player has averaged only 55 games over the past four years with a 33 percent three-pointer and has never really featured on a winning team.
At 16, Milwaukee is the lowest ranked team on the list assumed to be a playoff lock. That’s not great. But once Jabari is back, he, Middleton, and Brogdon will rank among the top third-, fourth-, and fifth-best options, and that’s the strength of this Bucks squad now. One Freak at the top and a deep, long team of athletes around him.
The Old School Centers
17. Dwight Howard, Charlotte
18. Andre Drummond, Detroit
19. Hassan Whiteside, Miami
It’s tough to imagine an old school seven-footer being the best player on an NBA team in 2017, and these guys found that out the hard way. Twenty years ago, each of them would’ve been 12-time All Stars and first ballot Hall of Famers. Now it just feels like they get in the way.
Dwight actually is a surefire Hall of Famer, and he looks terrific in Charlotte. It’s crazy that a decade ago, you could have made a sane argument (and some did) for starting a franchise with Howard over LeBron James. He’s a weird dude and he’s not particularly likable, but he’s still terrific.
Drummond gets the nod over Whiteside in hopes that this free throw thing is real. And the thing is, it pretty much has to be. Drummond was a career 38 percent free-throw shooter coming into this season. He had 40 attempts his first 10 games. Binomial probability gives Drummond about an 8.4 percent chance of making at least half of those, but Drummond hit 30 of them, an incredible 75 percent. The odds of a 38 percent free-throw shooter randomly having a 30-of-40 streak are not good — like around one in a million. So you’re telling me there’s a chance.
Drummond is still 24 and could still be a really valuable player if he isn’t such a black hole on free throws. The advanced metrics always make Whiteside look better than the eye test. At some point it matters that you never pass, block your shots out of bounds, and guys don’t seem to love playing with you. Either way, these three are very close and very good at what they do. It’s just hard to know if what they do is still valuable in 2017.
The Point Guards that Can’t Shoot
20. Ricky Rubio, Utah
21. Elfrid Payton, Orlando
Derrick Favors? Joe Ingles? Rodney Hood? Nikola Vucevic? Evan Fournier? All nice players, but we’ll go with the point guards. Having a good point guard no longer guarantees you anything as deep as the position is these days, but it’s nearly impossible to win without at least a decent point guard in 2017.
Rubio will always be more valuable on the court than any stat can encapsulate. He just makes his teammates better, and he’s a very good point guard, whether he can shoot or not. Payton averaged a tidy 14/7/8 line post-All-Star Break, but let’s see if he can keep that up when it’s not garbage time all game. Neither of these guys can shoot a three to save their life, but they’re both good starting point guards anyway.
The Very Expensive Shooting Guards
22. Victor Oladipo, Indiana
23. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Los Angeles Lakers
24. Tim Hardaway Jr., New York
25. Wes Matthews, Dallas
If you were building an NBA team in 2017, would you want to spend $18 million of your precious cap room on an average shoot-first-shoot-second two guard? Me neither, but that’s the going rate for the guys here.
They all shoot well enough, each of them between 35 and 36 percent from downtown last season. They’re fine passers. They’re okay defensively. They don’t draw many fouls. There’s just not much to write home about. Put one of these guys on the Spurs, Cavs, Rockets, Warriors… are they the fourth-best player? Do they even start? Are they Jamal Crawford with starter minutes?
This Is Why Your Team Is Awful
26. T.J. Warren, Phoenix
27. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Brooklyn
28. Robin Lopez, Chicago
29. Taurean Prince, Atlanta
30. Buddy Hield, Sacramento
You can rank this quintet any order you like, and you could talk yourself into another option or three on any of the teams, too. And not because there are so many good choices, but because there are so very few.
Phoenix, Brooklyn, Chicago, Atlanta, and Sacramento are going to be really bad. Go ahead and combine all five rosters — could you find a starting five that contends for the playoffs? Even in the East?
Last year’s worst second-best players included names like Jrue Holiday, Nikola Vucevic, Joel Embiid, and Devin Booker. Those are good players! A year ago, there was hope. With these five teams, the only hope is for a high lottery pick next summer. The other end of the spectrum has expanded too. Last year, guys like LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan were top-seven second bananas. This year guys like Boogie, KAT, and PG-13 took their spots. The good teams got much better, and the bad teams got much worse. There is a chasm between the top of the league and the bottom.
Scroll back up and look through the list one again, focusing on the teams instead of the player names. It’s not a terrible power ranking of the real-life NBA, is it? The Warriors are at the top, with the Rockets just behind them. The Rockets, Thunder, Timberwolves, and Pelicans made the biggest jumps from a year ago, just as they did in our minds. The Cavs and Spurs fell off from last year. The Hawks, Bulls, and Knicks bottomed out completely.
The NBA is a star-driven league, so perhaps it’s not surprising that we can determine so much just be looking at the top couple stars on each team. Depth matters, along with coaching and defense and all the other stuff, but it still comes down to the stars at the end of the day.
Who’s the top third banana outside of the Warriors? A year ago it was Kevin Love, and that’s part of why the Cavs have been in three straight Finals. Who’s Cleveland’s third-best player now? It will be Isaiah Thomas by playoff time, but who is it right now and are they even among the top half of the league’s third bananas? No wonder the Cavs are struggling so much.
Is Carmelo Anthony a great third banana? Could Otto Porter or Andrew Wiggins be the best non-Warriors third banana by the playoffs? For all the great pairs around the league, we are seriously lacking in threesomes. That’s why the Warriors are so darn good, and that’s why this is such an interesting season anyway because it’s so hard to figure out who their top contender is. One role player making the leap (think Gary Harris or Marcus Smart) could send a team to another level, one key injury could doom a sure playoff team, and one superstar leap (Giannis or Porzingis) could change everything.
This wouldn’t work in any other sport. Just having Antonio Brown and LeVeon Bell isn’t enough to make the Pittsburgh Steelers a sure contender. Mike Trout and Albert Pujols can’t drag the Los Angeles Angels to the playoffs. Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic haven’t returned Manchester United to greatness.
But basketball is different. Just five guys share the court, and a couple players can dominate the shots or have a supersized impact on defense. One star isn’t enough to make a team, but two just might be.
So next time you need to decide which NBA teams are best, do like the astronomers of old and turn your gaze upon the stars. But instead of focusing on the one shining brightest, look for the second star to the right — that might be the one to lead you to the Promised Land.