One of the cool side effects of overhauling our NBA projections with a new player metric, RAPTOR — the Robust Algorithm (using) Player Tracking (and) On/Off Ratings — was the need to build historical RAPTOR estimates for players who would show up as comparisons for current stars. That means we have a brand-new set of detailed stats for every player since 2013-14 based on player-tracking data, as well as historical stats for every player in every season going back to the NBA-ABA merger in 1976 … and we have to do something with that, right?
So let’s run down our new metric’s rankings of the best (and worst) players and seasons in our new data set. We’re going to explore older stats dating back to the merger in a later installment. But first, let’s start by just focusing on the six-season period for which we have full player-tracking data from the NBA.
This period offers the best, most refined version of RAPTOR, and the one that, because it uses more data, varies most from other popular advanced metrics such as Real Plus-Minus, Box Plus/Minus and Win Shares. So who are the best players of the past six seasons? According to RAPTOR wins above replacement (WAR), Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors has been the most valuable, checking in with 120.0 WAR between the regular season and the playoffs, followed by Houston’s James Harden (107.9) and LeBron James of the Miami Heat, Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers (93.2).
Who are the best players of the playing-tracking era?
Most valuable NBA players since 2013-14 according to FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR wins above replacement, including playoffs
|RAPTOR +/- per 100||WAR|
LeBron has undoubtedly been the NBA’s biggest star in recent years, so ranking him behind Curry (and Harden) might be unexpected. You could make a strong case, though, that Curry is the NBA’s most transformational player of the past half-decade. Sure, RAPTOR might be overstating his defensive value, but it should be no surprise to see Steph’s unparalleled offensive impact carry him to the top of the list. The names that stick out are probably Draymond Green at No. 5 — ahead of Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard — and Kyle Lowry at No. 8, ahead of Paul George and Russell Westbrook. (Danny Green in the Top 20 is also likely to raise some eyebrows.) Draymond is there by virtue of his outstanding defense — so good we named a metric after it — and a league-best 25.9 playoff WAR throughout Golden State’s many finals runs. At the same time, Lowry is the king of the little things that RAPTOR gives extra credit for, and Danny Green is the quintessential 3-and-D wing that our new metric loves.
Since we break out modern-era RAPTOR into two components — “Box” (based on individual stats, such as box score and tracking information) and “On/Off” (based on plus/minus data) — we can also say which players received more of their value from each component. For instance, if you look at players whose individual components of their RAPTOR ratings were larger than the plus/minus-based components, Harden and DeMarcus Cousins had the biggest gaps. (Pau Gasol and, ironically, a quintet of current and former Toronto Raptors — Jeremy Lin, Jonas Valančiūnas, Marc Gasol, Kawhi Leonard and DeMar DeRozan — round out the top of the list.) Meanwhile, Kyle Korver, Jrue Holiday, DeAndre Jordan, Draymond Green (no surprise, see above), Robert Covington, Patty Mills and the King himself, LeBron James, were the players whose on-court impact exceeded their individual numbers by the largest margins.
As for the best single RAPTOR seasons of the tracking-data era, you can find a gigantic searchable table in editor-in-chief Nate Silver’s story introducing RAPTOR last week, but the cream of the crop belonged to Curry, Harden, Chris Paul, James and — again, somewhat surprisingly — Draymond Green (specifically, his 2016 season). Although the traditional metrics consider Green good but not great that year (his Player Efficiency Rating didn’t even crack 20.0, which is the mark of a “borderline All-Star” according to PER creator John Hollinger), we think Draymond was extremely valuable to the Warriors. He played a mind-boggling number of minutes — nearly 35 per game for 81 regular-season games, plus 38 per game over 23 playoff contests — and he made up for whatever shortcomings in his box score numbers by coaxing the best out of Golden State while he was on the court. Green’s +15.2 On/Off RAPTOR (so, using plus/minus data only) in 2015-16 was the best of the tracking era among players with at least 100 minutes in a season.
What are the best seasons of the tracking-data era?
Most valuable NBA single-season performances since 2013-14 according to FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR wins above replacement, including playoffs
|RAPTOR +/- per 100||WAR|
There are some surprising omissions from the list, including MVP seasons from Giannis Antetokounmpo (14.3 WAR) last season and Russell Westbrook (15.3 WAR) in 2016-17. Also, “only” three LeBron seasons crack the Top 20 since 2013-14, which feels low since we are including the playoffs and James-led teams made the NBA Finals five times in those six seasons. But most of the usual suspects are indeed present, including four entries from last season alone (courtesy of Harden, George, Nikola Jokić and Curry).
We’d be remiss if we didn’t also touch on the worst seasons of the tracking-data era. On a rate basis (minimum 500 minutes), then-Memphis Grizzlies point guard Kobi Simmons checked in with the worst modern RAPTOR rating for his 2017-18 performance, which was 9.8 points worse than average. Simmons was mediocre-to-bad in basically every statistical category, except free-throw shooting (he made all 25 attempts!), and his team was outscored by more than 17 points per 100 possessions he was on the court. Enough said.
But in terms of total value, the battle for the worst campaign of the modern era was staged last season between the Knicks’ Kevin Knox and the Cavaliers’ Collin Sexton. Knox put in a good effort — he was worth -6.0 WAR, so bad that we had to change our chart scale on his player forecast page to accommodate the value. But Sexton was worth a staggering 7.4 wins below replacement, easily the worst season not just since 2013, but in the entire post-merger period. Sexton was a rookie, and he did improve some as the year went on, so we should cut him some slack. But on a terrible Cavs team that lacked much in the way of alternatives, Sexton played more than 2,600 minutes at a -8.3 RAPTOR plus/minus rate, a recipe for possibly the worst season in NBA history.
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