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Was CJ McCollum Right in Striking Back at NBA Player Rankings?

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Portland’s media-savvy guard called out journalists for ranking NBA players. Was it serious? Is it justified?

NBA: Washington Wizards at Portland Trail Blazers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum, New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony, and other NBA players got embroiled in Twitter discussions about controversial player rankings this week. Blazer’s Edge Reader Brian is curious how all this will shake out, especially a plot devised by McCollum and Golden State Warriors forward Andre Iguodala. Here’s his question.

Dear Dave,

CJ McCollum threatened to rank media members the way media ranks players and he sounded [miffed] about the whole thing. What do you think? Would you be upset if players started ranking you and media or is it all silly fun?

Brian

For those who missed it, CJ’s tweet looked like this:

I think this was mostly meant in fun with a dose of snark thrown in for effect. But if I’m passing judgment, the first thing I’d say is that McCollum is right. Rankings are inherently silly.

Most people passingly familiar with the NBA would be able to group players in general lots. We know that LeBron James and Kevin Durant are near the top, that Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving belong in the upper echelon near each other, that Carmelo Anthony is slipping, and that Miles Plumlee is going to get listed lower than Mason Plumlee. Achieving any kind of coherent granularity while evaluating hundreds of players—let alone keeping a straight face while doing it—is impossible. What’s the difference between the 36th and 37th best players in the league, or even the 26th and 40th? How does environment factor in? Jusuf Nurkic would have ranked in the 300’s in Denver. In Portland he’s Top 100. One team’s trash is another team’s pillar. Nobody can (and few would) claim inerrant accuracy. It’s an exercise, not a doctoral dissertation.

Things that aren’t serious can still be meaningful, though. People debate what order the Star Wars movies should be viewed in. There’s no right answer and it won’t affect the course of civilization at all, but it bonds us and it’s a fine way to waste time. Rankings may be useless except as discussion fodder, but discussion creates meaning and community. That’s important even if the rankings aren’t.

Acknowledging that, I also agree with our own @ChrisLuciaPDX who started a Twitter thread on this subject:

When the goal of the exercise is discussion, content bends to fit purpose. Sometimes warping occurs. After several years of rankings, they either run towards the mundane or ridiculous. The first is truer, but produces worse copy. The second makes for a better read, but has far less validity. Threading the needle between the two is harder than it looks. When in doubt it’s better to have lots of people reading something ridiculous than nobody reading something mundane and self-evident.

To be fair, this is not isolated to writers and rankings. Television and radio analysts—some of them ex-players—wander towards the farthest extremes in order to give something new that’ll capture your attention. McCollum will feel this temptation when he steps into the broadcast booth someday. Like most of us, he’ll find a middle ground he’s comfortable with. His middle ground will be too far for some, not far enough for others, and they’ll tweet about him like he’s tweeting about writers now.

Beyond that, McCollum’s playful threat to evaluate journalists brought up three separate thoughts for me.

  1. It’s a funny enough riposte, but we shouldn’t ignore the power imbalance in the relationship. Media folks can ignore, needle, or slander McCollum; he’ll remain the starting shooting guard for the Portland Trail Blazers either way. Players freezing out and disparaging media members has greater potential effect, up to and including those media members losing access (or keeping access but not being able to do their job as well). The shots are equal but the caliber of the ammo differs greatly.
  2. If they did craft rankings, players would need to evaluate journalists in terms of the medium, not their direct relationship or even a media member’s knowledge of basketball. Pundits aren’t ranking McCollum based on his facility with writing—abstract knowledge or execution—but based on his basketball ability. NBA players would need to rank writers in terms of their own craft: how many infinitives split, frequency of run-on sentences, perhaps ability to tell a story or convey information succinctly. I’d pay to see that, especially if we got a statistically-packed version of sportswriter-reference.com. I don’t think players would be able to confine themselves to that, though.
  3. Both the comment and discussion following brought up the old specter of, “If you don’t know as much about Subject X as the people who practice it, you have no business critiquing it.” Humility matters. Observation and criticism should be delivered with respect. I’m never comfortable when a media member says things that you know they’d never repeat to a player’s face. But once the bar of self-awareness is cleared, the idea that people shouldn’t evaluate players if they’re not in the NBA themselves is ludicrous and hypocritical.

George Lucas makes better movies than 99.9% of all the people that view them. Does this mean we have nothing meaningful to say about the Star Wars prequel trilogy? Should we hear Anakin Skywalker mutter woodenly about sand in his jammies before kissing Padme with all the passion of two back-to-back turtles and offer no response besides, “I guess the filmmaker knows better than I...it’s all good”?

If the “can’t evaluate if you’re not as skilled as the person doing it” mantra is valid, then we should never, ever hear an NBA player (or anyone else) offer an opinion on music again. Every song we listen to should be greeted with unquestioning approval or silence. If you haven’t cut a platinum-selling album, don’t even try differentiating between any two rappers. You’re not qualified to say one is better than the other. Everybody on this list is just as good as your favorite.

We all talk about—and rank—things that are interesting to us. It’s part of the fun, an expression of our passion. It’s also integral to the entertainment industry, of which professional sports is a part. If we’re going to make the claim (and I do) that paying NBA players like movie stars is wholly justified, players cannot object too strenuously when they and their games get evaluated in the same terms as actors and films. Players do not deserve abuse. Their skill should be credited. They’re free to say the evaluations are biased or insufficiently supported and to point out why. But claiming that only players can evaluate players chains us all to a set of biases about the game and its purpose just as certainly as media rankings do. They may be different, more technically sound biases, but they’re still biases.

I’m of the opinion that players should play (and occasionally talk) while writers should write (and occasionally get their comeuppance if they go too far) and the world will go ‘round. This is one of those issues where any fix you’d find—up to and including trying to strike back in kind—would create as many problems as it solves. Strive for a baseline of consistency and fairness, show as much grace to others as possible whether you’re writing, reading, playing, or watching, and everything will work out well enough.

Thanks, Brian! Everybody keep those Mailbag questions coming to blazersub@gmail.com!

—Dave @blazersedge / @davedeckard / blazersub@gmail.com