The “Best” Player Isn’t Always the Best Player


“Who is the best player?” is both the most interesting and least interesting question in all of sports. Usually, it is answered lazily with faulty or simplistic logic; however, I think it’s often the case that the questioner is more at fault than the one answering. The issue with the question is the question itself because the best player is never always the best player.

I think that when most people ask the question, they usually mean something like “which player gives his team the best chance to win a championship?” This can be boiled down to any level of competition such as “which player gives their team the best chance to win this pickup game?”

The issue with how this iteration of the question is answered is in how it is interpreted. Most people perceive it as “starting from scratch, which player will give their team the best chance to win?” In the NBA, no player is being drafted, traded, or signed to a team that has literally no other players. Therefore, a player’s value is dependent on the other players on the team. This splits the original question into two separate questions: a hypothetical one and a reality-based one. My aim is to answer the former (Ben Taylor answers the latter with his own statistical-based response for 2018-19).

The Best Player Fantasy Draft

To hypothetically answer who the best player in the league is, it’s necessary to answer the following questions:

  1. If the league entered a full fantasy draft, who would be selected first overall to give his team the best chance to win a championship?
  2. Who would be selected second?
  3. Who would be selected third?

And this line of questioning would continue until a full roster of twelve players was created. Actually selecting the players is obviously where this hypothetical becomes tricky.

Player Fit is the Key

The common parlance for maximizing a superstar on a team is “building around” him. This implies that a player’s skillset requires some level of fit to ensure success (for a much deeper dive of this, check out my article series from a couple of years ago). It also means that a player who contributes significantly to winning WITHOUT being able to fit into any system should be selected first. Let me explain.

If I have the first pick in an all-time draft and I select Michael Jordan, my choices for subsequent picks drop significantly. I shouldn’t look for another player who also plays the guard position and focuses on scoring. Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, and James Harden might still be on the board in the second round. Unfortunately, their skills would encroach significantly on MJ’s skills reducing the impact that either would have on the team.

Is this annoyingly pedantic and blog boyish? Should you just select the “best” possible player no matter what? NO! That shows a fundamental misunderstanding of “best” in this situation! Real, actual players don’t come with a handy 2K rating that shows some objective level of skill that they have. If it’s my turn to select my third player in a draft and I already have LeBron and Gobert, who should I choose given the following three players: Danny Green, Donovan Mitchell, or Nikola Vucevic. Most people would list both Mitchell and Vucevic as better players than Danny Green. However, given the context, Danny Green would actually be the “better” player. How? Because, in this case, Green is the “best, third-best” option available based on how his skills complement LeBron and Gobert.

The Nth-Best Players

I propose that each player should be described as the “best, nth-best” player where “n” is the round in the fantasy draft in which the player would hypothetically be selected. Looking back to the first iteration of the question “who is the best player?” most people consider only players who would be the “best, first-best player” player which is why Stephen Curry is often so underrated.

The magic of Curry is that the scalability of his skillset is so immense that he could theoretically be the “best” player in any round of the fantasy draft. His off-ball movement, shooting, and off-ball screening have such an independent value that he could be plugged into any system with significant returns. Contrast this with Harden who derives almost all of his value from having the ball.

Good Teams Already Know This

For the Win – USA Today

Throughout these last few years, the Warriors have built their immense success on matching players who are either the “best” or one of the “best” at multiple rounds of our fantasy draft. Some people argue that Durant is the “best, first-best” in the league. Curry has a similar “first-best” impact, but he is also the “best, second-best” player by a margin that we have never seen in the league. Klay and Draymond are both the “best, third or fourth-best” players in the leauge. Honestly, Draymond is possibly the greatest “3rd-best” player ever (competing with the Bulls’ Rodman and the Celtics’ Garnett).

As a sports community, we often ignore the contingent and necessary value of players. The 90s Bulls, 2000s Lakers, 2010s Warriors, and 2000s Spurs all had one of the “best, first-best players” along with the “best, second-best” player and multiple other “best, nth-best” players. A player like Stephen Curry who can fluidly transition between being the best at different roles should be viewed in a much more positive light than we view him.

Follow Cody Houdek on Twitter for more NBA content and conversations. This article was originally posted at NBAcademic.

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