It’s end of September....we can hear basketball coming but we can’t quite see it yet. Thus it’s player ranking time, an annual tradition where Sports Illustrated and ESPN unveils their rankings of the top players in the NBA.
Unless you are going to compile the rankings based on one stat, it’s nearly impossible to do it objectively. Here’s how Sports Illustrated writer Rob Mahoney did his while ESPN doesn’t really explain much about how they came up with their list.
Anyway, there are a lot more Chicago Bulls on these lists this year than last year.
Sports Illustrated No. 90 (last year not ranked)
When given the freedom to lead an offense, some young players wind up leaning into their worst impulses. Zach LaVine, to his credit, has sought to correct his. After years of settling for pull-up jumpers, one of the league’s most dazzling athletes came back from an ACL tear and made it a point to drive. LaVine took more shots at the rim than ever before. He got to the line for six free throw attempts per game—a top-20 mark that compares favorably with Jimmy Butler, DeMar DeRozan, and Kemba Walker. Even if we grant that playing for a bad team allows LaVine to play through his mistakes and pile up points (and pile them up he did, to the tune of 23.7 per game), it’s meaningful that he boosted his scoring efficiency in spite of his circumstances. LaVine isn’t perfect. But it’s so much easier to stomach his awful defense and learning-on-the-job playmaking when he’s able to both convert difficult shots and create easy ones.
ESPN No. 55 (last year not ranked):
This is a huge year for LaVine and Lauri Markkanen. If LaVine grows into more of an all-around player -- and not an empty-calories hog -- Chicago’s ceiling and position in the trade market change. Markkanen should be good. He has a good stroke, and some handle and vision, as well as a bit of a nasty streak. But this will be his third season. It’s time for production to catch up with appearances.
The discrepancy between the two rankings is significant. Both writers note LaVine’s fatal flaw as his one-dimensionality, but Sports Illustrated thinks the flaw is so bad that it almost pushes him out of the top 100 players in the NBA for the upcoming season.
With competent point guard play this year with Tomas Satoransky and Coby White in the fold, Markkanen hopefully taking a step forward, and the steady presence of Otto Porter Jr., at least offensively LaVine may not need to be anything else except for a one-dimensional scorer for the Bulls this season.
Sports Illustrated No. 75 (last year No. 84)
The question with players like Lauri Markkanen is this: When does offensive production translate to winning production? It’s not exactly his fault that the Bulls went 22-60 last season, but it’s also not as if Chicago was anywhere close to breaking even during his minutes on the floor. Young players can be thrilling. They can be promising. Not often are they actually that conducive to winning basketball games, which is the foremost criterion in the making of this list. This ranking reflects a sort of optimism in Markkanen turning the corner this season. He’s entering his third year after showing meaningful progress, he’ll be 23 years old at season’s end, and he’s already showcased his talents to the tune of 18.7 PPG and 9.0 RPG. Markkanen has a chance to be one of the premier stretch bigs in the league. First he just needs to break even.
ESPN No. 50 (last year No. 66)
Chris Herring on Markkanen’s February: The Finnish 7-footer was on the biggest tear of his career, averaging 26.5 points and 12.5 rebounds in February on 49% shooting overall and 38% from 3. He and Zach LaVine really started playing well off each other.
Is Lauri Markkanen conducive to winning? Last season, the Bulls were more than five points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor and less than one point per 100 possessions worse defensively when he played.
No. 75 is a bit of a rob job if we’re being real. No. 50 feels a little high. His value is probably in between there somewhere.
Sports Illustrated No. 70 (Last year No. 76)
Thaddeus Young’s game is 100% mortar, a feat of cohesion and structure. Whatever the pieces around him, a quality team defense seems to follow. Stopping opponents is just simpler when there’s an intuitive big involved to rotate ahead of the action. Teammates on the perimeter are given license to pressure—to play even more tenaciously than they would otherwise. A coaching staff could call for any variety of coverage, secure in the knowledge that Young will execute his role and communicate with others. Young himself has some of the best hands in the business and a knack for finding his way into the thick of things. On defense, that manifests in a steal rate that’s rare among bigs. On offense, Young’s nose for the action leads him to all sorts of makeshift scoring opportunities: from shortish rolls to third-option reads to completely broken plays. It can all seem a bit random or insignificant in the moment. Yet when taken in total, it’s the kind of stuff that holds a team together.
Young gives off Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah vibes in terms of heart, how hard he plays, [insert other intangible quality you loved about the 2012-2013 Bulls here].
He should help a Bulls defense that ranked No. 27 in defensive rating last season. That’s huge.
Otto Porter Jr.
Sports Illustrated No. 57 (last year No. 42)
This is an interesting time for Otto Porter, who just turned 26 years old and is finally starting to show some creative flourish. What held him back wasn’t solely a lack of opportunity; there were times when the short-handed Wizards were desperate for Porter to take the next step, but watched instead as he floated along the game’s margins. The kind of force Porter showed in 15 games in Chicago could set him on a different path. At worst, Porter can be a strong defender at either forward position and a genuine spacer. There were only a dozen players 6’8” or taller last season to shoot 40% from beyond the arc. Porter, at 41% for the year and 49% with the Bulls, ranks among them. Any variance beyond that demands a willingness to press. Working his handle could help Porter get to new spots and create more often for his teammates. Making his first move more quickly might help a somewhat stiff creator get the space he needs. There’s no way for Porter to grow without first embracing the uncomfortable, embracing the world beyond the background role he knows so well.”
ESPN No. 90 (last year No. 38)
Porter is a solid complementary piece, a capable defender who scores with high efficiency in a limited role. He is a career 39% 3-point shooter who made better than 43% of his attempts in each of the previous two seasons, before dipping to 37% in the first part of 2018-19. There’s little question that the Bulls could use a player such as that alongside Zach LaVine on the wing.
Porter’s value sways with his 3-point percentage. If he shoots 40+ percent like he has for his entire career coupled with the lockdown defense and he’s every bit as valuable as that No. 57 ranking from Sports Illustrated indicates.