Why DeRozan and Melo got squeezed, and the problem with rankings

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Every year, NBA publications post player rankings during the deadest period of the offseason to generate buzz. Hurt feelings are inevitable - and somewhat intentional, getting players and fans to fire back.

Carmelo Anthony and DeMar DeRozan were two of the most notable names that took exception to their grades this September. Anthony called it "blatant disrespect" for ESPN to rank him 64th, while DeRozan tweeted "F SI" after being ranked 36th by Sports Illustrated following his first All-NBA nod.

The comparatively generous grades role players received make these evaluations even harder to accept. Anthony was sandwiched between defensive specialist Marcus Smart and untested rookie Lonzo Ball, while SI put 3-and-D wing Khris Middleton ahead of DeRozan.

It's almost as if volume scorers are punished for having more responsibility, while supporting players are elevated for making the most of their opportunities while having to do less.

Comparing players in different roles forces an evaluator to decide how much they believe those roles are worth - so while only one person's being graded, the player's also being held responsible for the context they're in. That's the problem with rankings, and explains why they're both so difficult and so contentious.

The case of DeRozan versus Middleton really comes down to preference.

Do you want a durable volume scorer that focuses on giving you 27 points a night while adding little else, or do you want a supporting piece who can make positive but marginal contributions across the board?

It all depends on context and fit. Neither the Toronto Raptors nor the Milwaukee Bucks would be better off if DeRozan and Middleton swapped places. A ball-dominant wing like Giannis Antetokounmpo needs shooters to open the lane for his slashes to the basket, while a facilitator like Kyle Lowry needs a primary scorer to feed.

DeRozan can score baskets against the toughest of stoppers, but he prioritizes individual scoring over playmaking and defense. Middleton is mostly limited to spot-up threes and the occasional post-up over smaller wings, but he usually defends at a high level and the threat of his shooting gives other players easier scoring opportunities.

Middleton could probably be effective on just about any team in the league, but he'll never be even the secondary option on a successful playoff team, let alone the main guy. DeRozan would have to adjust his game significantly if asked to play a smaller role, but he's been the primary focus for a Raptors side that won three series over the last two seasons.

If we're splitting hairs, then head-to-head encounters should probably matter. In Toronto's 4-2 win over Milwaukee in the playoffs, Middleton averaged 14.5 points, 4.7 rebounds, 5.3 assists, and two steals while shooting 39.7 percent from the field. DeRozan managed 23.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, three assists, and 1.7 steals on 43.9 percent shooting. Middleton was better on threes, but DeRozan shot 92 percent on 8.3 free-throw attempts, and it was DeRozan who sealed the series in emphatic fashion.

That play illustrates the difference between roles and responsibilities. With the series on the line, the Raptors counted on DeRozan to deliver with the entirety of Milwaukee's defense fixated on him. What did Middleton do on the ensuing play? He pushed it into traffic and tossed a shaky pass out of bounds in an attempt to push the pace. Instead, he should have given the ball to Antetokounmpo and gotten out of the way.

There are, of course, countless examples where DeRozan looks off an open teammate for a contested shot in a situation where Middleton would have deferred for an assist. Still, this case shows that it's not so simple to compare players in different roles.

The case of Anthony versus Smart illustrates a shortcoming in statistical models that try to determine a player's worth as the whole of their parts - as in what he puts on the table and what he takes off - without considering their roles and limitations.

Anthony is undoubtedly more gifted and more skilled, but he's making an inconsequential impact for a terrible New York Knicks side. Though there's plenty of blame to go around, Anthony can't duck culpability as their central figure. His negligence on defense feeds into the Knicks' ineptitude as a whole, and his proclivity for inefficient contested shots also reflects global problems for the team. Anthony is a phenomenal scorer, but he's not helping the Knicks win.

Smart is almost the polar opposite; he's asked to do very little, but he makes a winning side better. Even wide-open threes and driving layups are a challenge for Smart, who shot 28 percent from three and 48.8 percent within the restricted area. But the Celtics ask Smart to guard multiple positions and often trust him to guard top scorers like Anthony, and that formula produces winning results.

Anthony puts a lot on the table with his scoring, but he also takes a lot off with his poor defense and bad shot selection. Smart provides value with his defense and limits his offensive deficiencies by not taking many shots. Using catch-all analytics like ESPN's Real Plus Minus, then, Smart looks like the better player.

But how much fault does Anthony bear for being unable to fill a bigger role? If he were the second or third option, attacking lesser defenders with more open shots, wouldn't he grade out better? That's pretty much what the Houston Rockets have had in mind with their many attempts to trade for him, and no franchise seems to value analytics more.

Likewise, should Smart be elevated because he's asked to do less? Wouldn't he look a lot worse if he was asked to be a starting point guard? He'd have less energy on defense, become more cognizant of foul trouble, and his scoring shortcomings would be magnified, likely to the point where he would grade out as negative.

Simply comparing Smart's RPM wins of 5.98 to Anthony's 5.26 doesn't prove Smart is the better player. The same goes for Middleton and DeRozan. It omits the context each player is operating within, and oversimplifies a difficult problem to produce catch-all answers that leave players and fans upset. Then again, maybe that's exactly the point.

(Photos courtesy: Action Images)