It’s that time of year: When publications and media sites start ranking NBA players and NBA players start getting mad about it. Sports Illustrated is one of the first to publish their rankings this year, with players 100 through 50 of their top 100 (as ranked by Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney) hitting the web this morning.
And guess what? There are three Toronto Raptors sprinkled in the bottom 50 here: Fred VanVleet (94), Serge Ibaka (78) and Jonas Valancuinas (63). And there isn’t even really anything to get mad about!
Let’s break down what SI had to say about each player:
This is VanVleet’s first year making the SI NBA player ranking, and coming off a stellar sophomore season and a big summer payday perhaps it’s not a huge surprise. SI breaks down the numbers:
It’s no exaggeration to say that VanVleet (8.6 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 3.2 APG) was an impact stats god last year... When he played with his fellow young reserves, who led the NBA among bench groups in net rating, Toronto was +17.1. When he joined a veteran-heavy and starters-dominated group as a floor-spacing third guard, Toronto was +24.9. Remarkably, VanVleet ranked No. 28 in the NBA in Real Plus-Minus and in the top 100 by both Win Shares and WARP.
”Impact Stat God” has a pretty nice ring to it! And the final numbers are even more impressive when you remember that the guy couldn’t hit a damn shot for the first month of the season.
SI does pose the necessary questions about FVV’s small role and how well the numbers might translate as he transitions to a larger one.
How well would his contributions hold up if he was forced to play more than 20 minutes a night? How would he fare if he was asked to lead a less-talented bench group? How well would his game translate to the playoffs? The early returns on that last question were not pretty.
As SI points out, VanVleet’s shoulder injury (and some, um, odd lineups deployed by his former coach) had a significant impact on his postseason play. But the minutes and experience were surely valuable and I expect a healthy VanVleet, who has appeared completely unflappable thus far, will be just fine in this year’s playoffs—and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him move up (er, down?) this list next season.
That Ibaka fell in SI’s rankings from 56 last year to 78 this year is a testament to both how highly regarded Ibaka used to be, and how much he fell off last year. SI shares the most concerning thing about Serge as he enters the second season of a massive three-year deal:
At the root of Ibaka’s troubles is major slippage on the defensive end: Toronto’s defensive rating was better without him last season, and his block rate was less than half of his peak levels during his early-20s.
Unfortunately his offense has slipped as well; as I wrote in my season-ending Ibaka review, the overall numbers weren’t that bad, but the game-to-game consistency was severely lacking. Golliver finishes Serge off with the hammer:
His career arc sadly mirrors that of his former team, the Thunder: He rose to prominence years before everyone expected and then crumbled years before everyone wanted.
Woof. The memory of Ibaka’s playoff run make this ranking seem high, to be honest.
Is a re-Serge-ance (ugh, sorry) possible? Perhaps more time at the 5 next to Kawhi Leonard and/or Pascal Siakam, or fewer minutes overall, might help. We can only hope!
Jonas jumped from 80 in last year’s SI NBA player rankings all the way to 63, despite playing the fewest minutes per game of his entire career. The big man has transformed himself from lumbering post presence to an efficient offensive player who knows when to pick his spots—including shooting the occasional deep ball.
Rather than overhauling his game to become a full-fledged stretch five, Valanciunas has evolved in softer fashion: exerting maximum effort in fewer minutes, seeking out and exploiting undersized defenders for high-percentage scoring opportunities, dabbling with the three ball, and gradually improving his feel and confidence when forced to defend away from the hoop
With Leonard and Danny Green in the fold, as well as continued development from Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby, I suspect Valanciunas’ limitations defending in space will be even less of a problem this season.
As SI continues, Jonas’ efforts last year came to a beautiful head in the postseason:
Valanciunas, 26, proved to be a skilled battering ram in the 2018 playoffs, notching six double-doubles in 10 games, outplaying Washington’s Marcin Gortat in the first round, and pounding the Cavaliers for 21 points and 21 rebounds in Game 1 of the second round.
Raptors fans know all too well the pain of seeing a stellar Valanciunas performance seemingly get forgotten by Dwane Casey as a playoff game (or series) wore on. New coach Nick Nurse, who has reportedly worked very closely with Valanciunas in helping make that transformation a reality, will likely have a little more trust in his centre, and that should help justify this ranking.
(It’s also a fun reminder to see SI mention Jonas’ age: it feels he’s been in the league forever, but yeah, he’s still only 26!)
It also looks like traditional Valanciunas punching bag Andre Drummond will end up in the top 50 of this list, which might add another layer of spice to those upcoming Pistons-Raptors games.
We’ll have plenty more during NBA player rankings season, so stay tuned!