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NBA Pre-Postseason Player Tiers 1 and 2: Wembanyama quickly rising; Giannis, Jokić steady at top

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NBA Pre-Postseason Player Tiers 1 and 2: Wembanyama quickly rising; Giannis, Jokić steady at top

Yesterday, I largely focused on setting the table for the updated NBA Pre-Postseason Players Tiers before revealing Tier 3 (players between the 24th and 42nd spot) and Tier 4 (Nos. 43-80).

Today, I’m going to get a little more into some of the more interesting and/or challenging placements, as well as note a few overall trends.

For starters, a consistent bit of feedback — and one I’ve gotten from multiple sources since the release of Tiers 3 and 4 — is the always difficult evaluation of which player is more valuable between an elite role player and a good-but-not-great primary or secondary creator. A senior analytics staffer within the league went so far as to argue they would prefer essentially the entirety of Tier 4A, largely made up of elite role players or connectors, over Tier 3B, which is made up of borderline All-Star primaries.

I don’t think there is a reliable way to solve this debate and on some level, deciding between, say, Mikal Bridges on one hand and Jaylen Brown on the other is more a function of the rest of the respective rosters than the individual players. In that particular comparison, I think it’s entirely possible, if not likely, that both the Celtics and Nets would be better if the two were exchanged!


NBA Player Tiers: ’20 | ’21 | ’22 | ‘23: T5| T4| T3 | T2 | T1 | ’24: T3&4

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In some ways, this is really an extension of the long-simmering question of how to rate the sub-elite, yet still very good, level of on-ball players. At least to my way of thinking, there is nothing more valuable in the league than elite shot creation and nothing more overrated than mediocre shot creation, but finding the importance and desirability of players in between is just hard.

It’s also, in some form, the reason to do this exercise in the first place, as identifying that there is a fairly wide gap between Brown and Jayson Tatum and that the difference between Luka Dončić and Donovan Mitchell is substantial is a vital part of roster evaluation. Avoiding the cheapening of the term “franchise player,” in other words.

Another set of teammates who illustrate this dichotomy is Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner. I didn’t think Banchero was an especially worthy All-Star this year. Through games of April 10, there are only eight players who have scored at least 100 fewer points than they would have a similar number of scoring attempts at league average efficiency according to Basketball Reference, with Banchero being seventh on that list. However, on some level, this is a result of Orlando’s lack of other creators. On my Simple Shot Quality model, his 50.2 percent expected eFG% is 24th lowest among the 162 players with at least 500 tracked shots attempted this season.

But to swing back around, the players with the 21st, 22nd and 23rd hardest shot diets are Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Anthony Edwards and Tatum, all of whom have significantly outperformed their shot expectancies by 209 (SGA, third of 162), 73 (Edwards, 45th) and 151 (Tatum, 13th) points scored, while Banchero has shot essentially at the level of his shot quality (-3 points, 124th of 162). Should he get credit for helping keep Orlando’s offense afloat at all by at least being able to soak up possessions? How would he perform with more creative guard play around him? I’m not entirely sure, which is why Banchero is a hard player to rate.

Meanwhile, Wagner does not have the same self-creation ability as Banchero, but he is superior in most other areas — more efficient scoring, better and more versatile defense, off ball play — in a way which would make him a very plug-and-play addition to any team that already had their primary creative roles filled.

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Moving on, there are a few notable players who might have been much higher had I done a tiers update around midseason. Tyrese Haliburton is one. He’s been great this year, a worthy All-Star and the driving force behind Indiana’s powerful offense. But the second half of the year hasn’t measured up to the first, whether as result of nagging injuries slowing him down or defenses starting to figure him out or most likely a combination of both. This, combined with my uncertainty over how well his style translates to the playoffs has him down in Tier 3 when for much of the season I had him penciled into the bottom end of Tier 2.

Damian Lillard is another player who has dropped down a tier over the course of the season. Early in the year, it was easy to give somewhat of a pass based on both the adjustment to a new team and role as well as the coaching turmoil which beset the Bucks for the first stage of the season. But even though he has shown some of the old dominance in fits and starts, such as the 29 points (on 19 shot attempts) and nine assists he tallied on Wednesday to drive the Bucks past the Magic despite Giannis Antetokounmpo’s absence, those performances have been the exception rather than the rule. Over his final four seasons in Portland, Lillard combined for 62.1 True Shooting on 31.4 Usage. In Milwaukee, his efficiency has dipped to 59.3 TS on 28.4 Usage, his least efficient full season relative to league average since his rookie year. For a player who has always been a huge question mark defensively, it’s a worrisome decline at age 33.

Of course, he could shoot the hell out of the ball in the playoffs and help drag the Bucks to the Eastern Conference finals or even NBA Finals and prove he still belongs in the Top 20 discussion.

Speaking of playoffs, I mentioned yesterday that there were a few players who couldn’t readily improve their tiering until the playoffs, with Tatum, Dončić and Joel Embiid as the prime examples. All three have great opportunities entering the postseason this year, with Dončić in particular seeming well-poised to go on a run; the midseason addition of Daniel Gafford and the Mavericks’ new ability to always be able to match Dončić’s creative mastery with a strong dive-and-dunk pick-and-roll partner surrounded with shooting appears to have unlocked something special.

Meanwhile, there are a few players for whom I have already more or less assumed playoff greatness based on past experience. Jimmy Butler and Jamal Murray haven’t exactly had banner regular seasons, but both have track records of playoff dominance.

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Bouncing around a little bit, I’m not sure what to do with Ja Morant and so I am essentially treating this as a gap year while acknowledging he has secured himself extra scrutiny next year.

Finally, let’s talk about the large Frenchman in the room. Victor Wembanyama in Tier 2B, among the Top 14 players in the league. I don’t think he has been All-NBA-level over the entire season, but he has been plenty good as a rookie and has shown development over the course of the year to suggest to me that he will start next season with a strong chance at all-league honors.

This growth is especially evident if you compare before and after either his move to starting at center instead of power forward in early December or the insertion of Tre Jones as a starter in early January to pair Wembanyama with a competent point guard.

On the former, he has been a top-five rim protector in the league since then, with a profile similar to that of Brook Lopez over that period. Meanwhile, prior to Jones joining the starters, Wembanyama only managed 53.3 True Shooting Percentage (on 29.9 usage), but since, that mark has jumped to 58.5 TS% on 33.7 Usage while he has raised his assist rate by nearly 50 percent. And all this with his 3-point shooting still very much a work in progress.

Of course, the numbers don’t even tell close to the full Wemby story as demonstrated by the near nightly parade of “Wait, he did what?!” highlights. While he won’t get a chance to prove himself in this year’s playoffs, it seems almost inevitable that, if he can avoid injury, he’ll be knocking on the door of Tier 1 soon as he has delivered on everything he was hyped to be, and more.

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(Illustration: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic; Photos: Michael Gonzales, Garrett Ellwood, Adam Pantozzi / NBAE via Getty)

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Celtics advance to NBA Finals after completing sweet of Pacers

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Celtics advance to NBA Finals after completing sweet of Pacers

All season long, the Eastern Conference was the Boston Celtics’ to lose.

After dominating their side of the bracket, they are back in the NBA Finals.

The Celtics completed the sweep of the Indiana Pacers on Monday night to return to the bidding of the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the second time in three seasons.

Jaylen Brown #7 of the Boston Celtics accepts The Larry Bird Trophy after winning Game Four of the Eastern Conference Finals at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on May 27, 2024 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Justin Casterline/Getty Images)

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The Pacers did all they could to live to see another day, leading by as many as nine points, but Derrick White broke a 102-102 tie with a three-pointer with just about 45 seconds to go.

Indy led by four with 3:33 to go, but missed their final four shots and turned the ball over twice – Jrue Holiday grabbed an offensive rebound with just over four seconds left to ice it.

The Celtics are seeking revenge after last year’s utter failure, where as the No. 2 seed, lost in the first round to the Miami Heat, an eighth seed, in the Eastern Conference Finals – they had fallen in that series, three games to none, and forced a Game 7, but lost it.

Celtics win East

The Boston Celtics celebrate after winning Game Four of the Eastern Conference Finals at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on May 27, 2024 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Boston has not won the title since 2008 – they lost to the Golden State Warriors in six games two years ago. It’s currently their second-longest drought, with their longest having been from 1987 to their most recent championship season 15 years ago. 

After beating the Los Angeles Lakers that year, Kobe Bryant got revenge by winning two years later, going back-to-back.

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Tyrese Haliburton missed his second-straight game for Indiana with an injured left hamstring.

Jaylen Brown with trophy

Jaylen Brown #7 of the Boston Celtics accepts the The Larry Bird Trophy earning the Eastern Conference Finals MVP after winning Game Four of the Eastern Conference Finals at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on May 27, 2024 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Boston is 12-2 in these playoffs – they beat both the No. 8 Heat and No. 4 Cleveland Cavaliers in five games.

Jaylen Brown was named the series MVP, averaging 27.3 points per game.

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Eagles Flight, half brother to Flightline, makes impressive winning debut at Santa Anita

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Eagles Flight, half brother to Flightline, makes impressive winning debut at Santa Anita

As Eagles Flight was walked from the detention barn toward the paddock at Santa Anita on Monday, the 3-year-old son of Curlin could look up and see a mural of his half brother, 2022 Horse of the Year Flightline. Expectations were high for Eagles Flight’s debut after a series of dazzling workouts, and let’s just say the future looks bright.

With jockey Flavien Prat aboard and sent off as the even-money favorite, Eagles Flight won the maiden special weight race for six furlongs by 2 3/4 lengths in 1:10.07. The way Eagles Flight pulled away in the stretch and overcame being in tight quarters and having dirt kicked into his face made trainer John Sadler very happy.

“He got about four races of experience in him from one race,” Sadler said.

There was a brief delay in the paddock because Prat was wearing the wrong silks and needed to switch to those from Summer Wind Equine, the breeder and primary owner with Hronis Racing and William Farish. Eagles Flight’s mother, Feathered, also produced Flightline, who won all six of his starts and also was trained by Sadler.

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Sadler said afterward Eagles Flight acts as if he wants to run a mile, so that could be in the future plans, maybe even the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile at Del Mar later this year.

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Bill Walton's former colleague, Jim Gray, 'heartbroken' over death of 'best friend': 'A national treasure'

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Bill Walton's former colleague, Jim Gray, 'heartbroken' over death of 'best friend': 'A national treasure'

The sports world lost an icon on Monday as basketball Hall of Famer-turned-analyst Bill Walton died of cancer at age 71.

Walton was loved by many, especially former colleague Jim Gray, who worked with Walton for several networks, and the two shared a friendship for 40 years.

“My heart is broken. Bill Walton was the best friend a guy could ever have,” Gray sent in an email to Fox News Digital. “He was loving, generous, kind, caring, intelligent, and so much fun. He loved life, his family, basketball, and most of all, people. I always marveled at how he had time for everyone and was never in a hurry. Bill was a national treasure and brought joy to the world.”

Announcer Jim Gray, right, is shown with analyst Bill Walton during the Duke-Wisconsin game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on April 6, 2015. (John W. McDonough/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

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“For 40 years, every time we were together, we would laugh,” he wrote. “He was a library of knowledge and a fountain of wisdom. Broadcasting games together at CBS, NBC, ESPN, ABC, Westwood One, and the [Sacramento] Kings was a strange and wonderful journey. I’m grateful for all the years with Bill. It was the blessing of a lifetime. He will be in my heart forever.”

“May God rest his soul and bless Lori, Adam, Chris, Nate, and Luke. Frann and I send our love, and we will always honor Bill’s memory and be there for the Walton family, just as he was always there for us,” Gray continued.

“Bill would always say, ‘I’m the luckiest man in the world.’” No, Bill, I am, and we all are, because we knew you. Rest in peace, my friend.”

Walton once credited Gray for saving his life in 2017 by finding his spine surgeon when he had been going through physical issues and his spine “absolutely collapsed and failed” nine years prior. Walton said he “had nothing” and contemplated the worst.

Bill Walton smiles

Bill Walton as a part of State Farm All-Star Saturday Night on Feb. 17, 2024, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. (David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images)

LEBRON JAMES’ AGENT SEEMS TO REVEAL NBA STAR’S OFFSEASON PLANS

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“My life was not worth living. I was going to kill myself. If I had a gun, I would have used it,” Walton said. “But Jim called every single day, said, ‘Bill, don’t give up, you can make it …’ He did everything he could to make sure I still had a chance.”

Walton won three straight national player of the year awards from 1972 to 1974 before becoming the first overall pick in the 1974 NBA Draft by the Portland Trail Blazers. His impact on an NBA court was quick as the Trail Blazers would go on to win the 1978 NBA Championship, and Walton was named Finals MVP and the league MVP for that season.

Following his time in Portland, Walton moved on to the then-San Diego Clippers, where he spent four seasons, including his final one when they moved to Los Angeles. He joined the Celtics for the 1985-1986 season, helping them to the NBA title that year, and he was named the league’s Sixth Man of the Year as well.  

Walton finished his career averaging 13.3 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game over 468 contests. He was named to the NBA’s 50th and 75th anniversary teams.

Walton’s color commentary was exceptional as he would always keep viewers – and his play-by-play partners – on their toes with wild stories from his playing days while providing excellent analysis and insight on the game at the same time.

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Walton was also a father who passed the game down to his children, including Luke Walton, who won back-to-back NBA Finals with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2009 and 2010 during his playing days. Luke currently serves as an assistant coach for the Cleveland Cavaliers after previously head coaching the Lakers (2016-2019) and Kings (2019-2022).

Bill Walton calling game

Bill Walton (Ethan Miller/Getty Images/File)

Chris Walton (San Diego State), Nate Walton (Princeton) and Adam Walton (LSU, Pomona College, College of Notre Dame) all played college basketball as well.

Fox News’ Scott Thompson contributed to this report.

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