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As summer winds down, players rankled, getting motivation from rankings

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

For one reason or another, this has wound up being the NBA offseason that put the rank in rankings.

We’re talking rank as in “having a foul or offensive smell,” one of the dictionary definitions for the word when used as an adjective. Common synonyms include: offensive, unpleasant, nasty, revolting, obnoxious.

That’s how numerous, notable NBA players reacted this week to attempts by several media outlets to rank the league’s top performers. Both Sports Illustrated’s and ESPN’s Web sites went with the traditional round number of 100. Earlier this month, SLAM Online began its countdown from 50, releasing its picks a name or two at a time.

This is old stuff.

ESPN has done this for seven years now. provides links to its first four such lists right there on the home page for this fifth edition.

Yet none of the previous rankings generated nearly the hue and cry among the players themselves, judging by entries on social media. To read and hear the reactions of some of the NBA’s most elite members — remember, any top 100 represents the upper 22 percent of the league’s approximate 450 players and 50 is in the 89th percentile — this is some new, offensive and entirely out-of-bounds treatment from folks who cover them and the league.

Rating suddenly is right next to “hating.”

For example, Toronto’s All-Star shooting guard DeMar DeRozan didn’t appreciate that Sports Illustrated put him at No. 36, even though that represented a 10-spot improvement over last season:

New York veteran scorer Carmelo Anthony was downgraded by ESPN from No. 31 last year to No. 64 this time around. ‘Melo supporters and some Knicks fans took umbrage to that slide ( has Anthony at No. 37), while the man himself also expressed his disagreement on Twitter:

Paul Millsap, Denver’s big free-agent acquisition this summer, landed at No. 27 on but was placed behind 37 of his peers by SLAM Online. That prompted this from a fellow who covered Millsap in Atlanta:

Not surprisingly, some players suggested they might draw motivation from a perceived slight. Whether that means they intend to show up the sports media people responsible for the rankings or, instead, go hard in 2017-18 at players who were ranked above them, the outcome might be the same for their team and its fans: Better performance, possibly more victories.

That’s how Indiana’s Victor Oladipo framed his feelings about being No. 77 on SI, adding wood to a fire already stoked by criticism of the Pacers’ haul (with Domantas Sabonis) in the Paul George trade:

Admittedly, a far greater number of NBA players ignored the rankings or missed them entirely, given how many did not react publicly. Then there was Chicago’s Dwyane Wade, who shrugged off his spot at No. 74 like this:

Meanwhile Phoenix’s young Devin Booker showed nice maturity in his response:

Then came the inevitable “what goes around comes around” and “two can play this game” reaction, as demonstrated by Portland guard C.J. McCollum. The Blazers’ backcourt star obviously didn’t appreciate being ranked No. 39 by

Beyond the fact that hardly anyone — a sliver of the audience for the player rankings — would care or even know most of the NBA media folks’ names, here are some things the players might want to remember before wasting what little time they have remaining before training camps open.

1. It’s the offseason. The league has done a remarkable job of squatting on the calendar for several months beyond the end of The Finals. The Draft, free agency and the Summer Leagues in Orlando, Salt Lake City and Las Vegas kept the NBA in the headlines deep into July. But August and September still are a little sleepy, leaving media outlets hungry for eyeballs and page clicks. That’s the reason for these meaningless lists, period.

2. Rankings are opinions. Nothing but opinions. Even when they’re loaded up with references to snazzy analytics, they’re based on somebody’s opinion of the merit of those analytics for a specific player. And of all the people in and around the league whose opinions matter — franchise owners, general managers, coaches, teammates, opponents, fans — the media’s check in somewhere near the bottom.

3. Rankings aren’t new. The NBA and other leagues are knee-deep into rankings, from the balloting for All-Star berths to the bestowing of annual awards such as Kia MVP, Kia Rookie of the Year and Kia Sixth Man. What are the All-NBA first, second and third teams if not a ranking of the league’s alleged top 15 players (allowing for position requirements)? You vote for the MVP, you rank the top five candidates. These projects by media outlets are just bigger — with far less lasting impact, to be honest.

4. Opinions are like, er, noses. Getting bent out of shape about somebody else’s opinion, about you or anything else, could be a full-time job. As motivational speaker, Les Brown has said, “Don’t let someone else’s opinion of you become your reality.” Or as NBA MVP Russell Westbrook has urged us in commercials, “Don’t do they. Do you.”

All of which helped to explain the question from our man David Aldridge of after McCollum’s clearly agitated Twitter suggestion. Aldridge wondered why these talented and successful stars would even think twice about their various rankings:

That led to a few thoughts from both sides of the equation.

Why might NBA players care how these eager-to-be-noticed outlets assess their games? One factor surely is their competitive natures. Seeing oneself ranked below a rival, or feeling disrespected in the critiques that accompany the rankings or by a slide from where they were pegged a year or two ago, lights a fire. Maybe it’s all basketball related, maybe it’s complicated by a guy’s spot relative to someone with a higher or lower profile off the court, bigger or smaller endorsement deals.

Never before have players and their camps safeguarded their “brands” the way they do in 2017, so that might explain the newfound clamor.

It can’t be easy, either, to constantly be evaluated and argued about in public, whether on the floor during a game or in what’s left in the 24/7 world of nonstop scrutiny. A lot of armchair critics will scoff at that, citing Don Draper’s “That’s what the money is for!” as rationale enough. Constantly being poked, prodded and dissected is the downside of the NBA’s unprecedented popularity, they’ll maintain, and the eight- and nine-figure riches that go with it.

Frankly, the objections that flared up this week, in the wake of some grumbling over their ratings in the NBA 2K18 video game, did serve as a reminder that a lot of current NBA players grew up as part of the participation-trophy generation. There’s an ethos afoot these days of not wanting to be judged, professionally, personally, privately, certainly publicly.

But the fact is, NBA players are judged by coaches and GMs in ways about which they can say or do little. Many, like a lot of us, hear mostly positive things from family and friends. In between are the people — the media, the fans — from whom they might be in no mood to get graded or hear tough love.

Scoreboards and bank accounts would seem to be all the balm players would need. But if they really want to rank the folks who cover them, I’ll offer on behalf of myself and my colleagues this old saying from show biz and politics: “I don’t care what they say, as long as they spell my name right.”

It’s one that can apply to pro sports, too.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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