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Who’s Making A Splash So Far In Our NBA Player Ratings?

The 2020-21 NBA season has been in action for a couple of weeks now, and the stats have begun to stabilize. (Somewhat.) So it is now time for us to roll out the newest edition of our RAPTOR NBA player ratings dashboard, with updated data to help you track the best players in the league all year long.

RAPTOR, of course, is the Robust Algorithm (using) Player Tracking (and) On/Off Ratings — FiveThirtyEight’s way of measuring each NBA player’s contribution to his team’s offensive and defensive efficiency while on the court. RAPTOR is derived by blending two components: one based on individual box score and player-tracking data, and another based on how the player’s team does with the player on the court (versus without) after adjusting for the quality of his teammates and opposing lineups. Just like last season, you can find both of these components in our dashboard, allowing you to judge where a player’s value is coming from.

With the default minimum of 13.4 minutes per team game,1 this year’s top RAPTOR players (in terms of who has played best on a per-possession basis) are a pretty fascinating mix of the expected and wildly unexpected so far:

Who’s atop the early RAPTOR leaderboard?

Best overall RAPTOR ratings for qualified* 2020-21 NBA players

RAPTOR
Rk Player Team Min. Box On/Off Overall
1 Nikola Jokić Nuggets 351 +9.9 +17.0 +10.8
2 Kyrie Irving Nets 231 +9.6 +16.8 +10.6
3 CJ McCollum Blazers 306 +9.0 +14.5 +9.7
4 Cameron Payne Suns 160 +7.9 +22.5 +9.6
5 Joel Embiid 76ers 258 +8.6 +16.0 +9.5
6 Paul George Clippers 347 +8.8 +10.1 +9.2
7 Hamidou Diallo Thunder 189 +8.8 +2.9 +8.5
8 John Collins Hawks 257 +7.1 +16.3 +8.2
9 Anthony Davis Lakers 297 +8.2 +5.8 +8.1
10 Chris Boucher Raptors 190 +8.2 +4.3 +8.0
11 Kawhi Leonard Clippers 312 +7.1 +8.2 +7.4
12 Talen Horton-Tucker Lakers 169 +7.9 -0.4 +7.2
13 Montrezl Harrell Lakers 266 +8.5 -6.1 +7.2
14 Nicolas Batum Clippers 322 +6.5 +11.3 +7.2
15 Clint Capela Hawks 185 +7.9 -1.9 +7.0

*Minimum 130 minutes played so far this season, through games of Jan. 10.

Sources: NBA Advanced Stats, Basketball-Reference.com

Denver’s Nikola Jokić at No. 1? Not inconceivable. Kyrie Irving helping to power the Brooklyn Nets to the league’s fourth-best point differential? Makes total sense. Ditto Paul George and Kawhi Leonard of the Clippers ranking among this season’s best duos. And it’s no shock to see Lakers superstar Anthony Davis in RAPTOR’s top 10. But it is surprising to see journeyman Cameron Payne at No. 4 overall with a +9.6 RAPTOR, or third-year swingman Hamidou Diallo and fourth-year big man Chris Boucher rank among the top 10. We’re quite sure these are the usual outliers and weird artifacts you tend to find in early season small samples — although soon enough, the rankings will become more “real.” In our research, we found that a player’s RAPTOR is pretty reliable after about 1,000 minutes played.

(Note that for the links above, you can now generate custom player URLs in the interactive by clicking on their name in the table — perfect for pointing Cameron Payne doubters to evidence of his emerging greatness!)

Perhaps a better measure of early value is our RAPTOR wins above replacement (WAR) metric, which fuses per-possession performance with playing time to determine how many more wins each player has produced than a generic player would have in the same minutes:

RAPTOR’s early season MVPs

Most RAPTOR wins above replacement (WAR) for 2020-21 NBA players, along with minutes played and RAPTOR plus/minus

Rk Player Team Min. RAPTOR +/- WAR
1 Nikola Jokić Nuggets 351 +10.8 2.44
2 Paul George Clippers 347 +9.2 2.14
3 CJ McCollum Blazers 306 +9.7 1.94
4 LeBron James Lakers 358 +6.3 1.65
5 Anthony Davis Lakers 297 +8.1 1.65
6 Stephen Curry Warriors 341 +6.4 1.63
7 Joel Embiid 76ers 258 +9.5 1.63
8 Nicolas Batum Clippers 322 +7.2 1.62
9 Kawhi Leonard Clippers 312 +7.4 1.59
10 Kyrie Irving Nets 231 +10.6 1.59
11 Mike Conley Jazz 306 +6.9 1.53
12 Khris Middleton Bucks 322 +6.2 1.45
13 Rudy Gobert Jazz 309 +6.4 1.44
14 John Collins Hawks 257 +8.2 1.43
15 Giannis Antetokounmpo Bucks 282 +6.8 1.41

Through games of Jan. 10.

Sources: NBA Advanced Stats, Basketball-Reference.com

With playing time included, a few more familiar players rise toward the top — including the magnificent LeBron James, currently running in fourth, and a resurgent Steph Curry at No. 6. And funky outliers like Payne and Diallo are nowhere to be found here. But Clippers veteran Nicolas Batum and John Collins of the Atlanta Hawks (a good young player, though not necessarily a star) might be surprises in the top 15, ahead of even some of their higher-profile teammates. Although it’s still very early, we’ll have to keep an eye on their RAPTOR progress as the year goes on.

One of the other cool features we’ve added to this year’s dashboard is the ability to look at RAPTOR from past seasons, going back to 2013-14 (the earliest season for which the NBA collected player-tracking data). So you can explore Steph Curry’s epic 25-WAR seasons in 2014-15 and 2015-16, or look at last year’s leaders to compare which players are performing better or worse than in 2019-20. Among players with at least 130 minutes in 2021 and 950 in 2020, here are RAPTOR’s most (and least) improved players so far:

RAPTOR’S most (and least) improved players so far

Among qualified* players in the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons (including playoffs), the biggest improvements and declines in RAPTOR plus/minus

Biggest gainers RAPTOR +/-
Rk Player Team 2019-20 2020-21 Diff.
1 Bobby Portis Bucks -2.9 +6.5 +9.4
2 De’Andre Hunter Hawks -3.8 +5.3 +9.1
3 CJ McCollum Blazers +0.7 +9.7 +9.0
4 Darius Garland Cavaliers -6.5 +2.2 +8.8
5 John Collins Hawks -0.4 +8.2 +8.6
6 Mike Conley Jazz -0.2 +6.9 +7.1
7 Cameron Johnson Suns -0.1 +6.5 +6.7
8 Myles Turner Pacers -0.8 +5.6 +6.4
9 Jordan Clarkson Jazz +0.9 +6.8 +5.9
10 Jeff Teague Celtics -3.1 +2.7 +5.9
11 Nikola Jokić Nuggets +5.1 +10.8 +5.7
12 Khem Birch Magic -1.0 +4.6 +5.6
13 Joel Embiid 76ers +4.0 +9.5 +5.5
14 Monte Morris Nuggets -2.1 +3.2 +5.3
15 Aaron Gordon Magic -0.9 +3.9 +4.9
Biggest decliners RAPTOR +/-
Rk Player Team 2019-20 2020-21 Diff.
1 Aaron Holiday Pacers +1.1 -7.4 -8.5
2 Bojan Bogdanović Jazz -0.7 -8.9 -8.1
3 James Harden Rockets +10.5 +3.0 -7.5
4 Ivica Zubac Clippers +4.6 -2.5 -7.1
5 Danuel House Jr. Rockets +0.0 -6.9 -6.9
6 Bryn Forbes Bucks -3.4 -9.9 -6.5
7 Damian Lillard Blazers +6.4 +0.0 -6.3
8 Markelle Fultz Magic -2.4 -8.7 -6.3
9 Pascal Siakam Raptors +0.7 -5.5 -6.3
10 Bogdan Bogdanović Hawks +1.2 -5.0 -6.2
11 Kelly Oubre Jr. Warriors +0.1 -6.1 -6.2
12 Buddy Hield Kings -0.7 -6.8 -6.1
13 Paul Millsap Nuggets +0.9 -4.9 -5.9
14 Ricky Rubio Timberwolves +1.6 -4.0 -5.6
15 Gary Trent Jr. Blazers +0.0 -5.5 -5.5

*Minimum 130 minutes played so far this season, through games of Jan. 10.

Sources: NBA Advanced Stats, Basketball-Reference.com

As we’ve said many times in this story, it’s still very early in the season! So many of the biggest RAPTOR risers and fallers should change as the year goes on — or, at the very least, revert some toward their previous levels of performance. But if you’re wondering why certain teams have been better or worse than expected early on, these lists can help explain some of that.

At any rate, we hope you enjoy using the new RAPTOR interactive this season. While you’re at it, you can also download the data to play around with yourself, and be sure to let us know if you have any feature requests for future iterations of the dashboard.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Through games of Jan. 10. For the average team this season, which has played 9.7 games, this translates to about 130 minutes. Over an 82-game season, it works out to 1,100 minutes.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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