July 22, 2024

NBA Player Tiers: Tyrese Haliburton, Tyrese Maxey and Tier 3’s All-Star level of play

This is the fifth annual NBA Player Tiers project, in which Seth Partnow names the top 125 players in the league after each season and then separates them into five distinct categories of value, each with their sub-categories to further delineate them. These are not meant to be read as firm 1-125 player rankings. Rather, they’re meant to separate solid starters from the very best superstars, and every level in between. This is how NBA front offices assess player value across the league when building their teams.

NBA Player Tiers: ’20 | ’21 | ’22 | ‘23 | ’24 pre-playoffs | ’24: Tier 5 | Tier 4

Tier 3 is the town with the “All-Stars Live Here” sign next to the highway exit. They might not all have technically been named to an All-Star team, but they all have at least approached All-Star level of play in the regular season while also being at least somewhat durable against the different environment and demands of the NBA playoffs.

Part of that distinction is that, other than a few elite interior defenders, each of them has shown the ability to be a driver of high-level offense. The line between “top role player” and “star” is a hard one to draw, but the ability to create advantages consistently on top of being able to finish off opportunities created by others is key.

In addition to the range of skills prevalent in this group, it is also something of a way station either for young players on the way up or veteran stars on the way down.

Tier 3C (38-42)

Speaking of old warhorses, DeMar DeRozan has aged remarkably well, and it’s a little bit sad to see him spend what has been a very good twilight of his career — during which he has added significant playmaking to his high-volume self-creation — happen in obscurity for a going-nowhere-fast Chicago Bulls franchise.

OG Anunoby and Lauri Markkanen are a bit in between aging vets and ascending youngsters in that both have been in the league longer (entering their eighth seasons) and are older (27 by opening night this fall) than you might think, but each has emerged relatively recently once given the opportunity to shine, Markkanen in Utah and Anunoby fully emerging as a two-way force following his midseason arrival to the Knicks. Though they do it in somewhat different manners, both present the kind of positional versatility and easy-to-fit offensive skill sets that prove so valuable for second-to-third options on top teams.

Meanwhile, two second-year players in Paolo Banchero (last year’s Rookie of the Year) and Jalen Williams (my hipster pick for 2023 ROY) showed great growth, each a big part of their respective teams’ return to the playoffs. While each discovered areas for possible future improvement in that postseason, both possess the combo of bully-ball strength and on-ball skill that tends to translate.

Tier 3B (30-37)

One last ride

The Milwaukee Bucks “enjoyed” something of a snakebit season in 2023-24. After the big splash of adding Damian Lillard, coaching turmoil, injuries, more coaching turmoil and yet more injuries gave their season a stop-start quality that continued into the first-round playoff loss — which Giannis Antetokounmpo missed the entirety of — to Indiana. While this season was the first time Lillard failed to make an All-NBA team since 2016-17, aside from his injury-abbreviated 2021-22 campaign, the general chaos in Milwaukee makes me want to give him something of a mulligan rather than completely attributing this apparent decline to age.

Meanwhile, Khris Middleton appeared in only 12 of Milwaukee’s last 31 regular-season games before putting in an excellent series against the Pacers. Heading into 2024-25, there is an “end-of-the-road” element for the Antetokounmpo-Middleton core that has seen the Bucks perform at such a high level, especially in the regular season over the last half-dozen seasons. But with a little bit of luck, this last ride should see them have a chance to make it a good one.

Next-gen creators

In Tier 4, I expressed worry about the playoff survivability of smaller, defensively vulnerable guards. The group of combo guards I was specifically discussing didn’t quite have the ability to playmake or otherwise drive efficient offense in the same way as do Trae Young, Tyrese Haliburton — who is taller than most of the players discussed there and here but also slight and terrible defensively by pretty much any metric — or Tyrese Maxey. But I do worry about having such a key offensive player also existing as such an obvious target for opponents. With Haliburton and Young each having made the Eastern Conference finals as their respective team’s best player and Maxey performing admirably in each of his last two playoff runs, they are playoff-viable.

But whether they can thrive at a championship level without some combination of defensive improvement, adding or in the case of Maxey playing alongside a teammate of higher ability or progressing offensively to play at the level of a Luka Dončić is very much an open question.

Winning-play machines

With Boston finishing off a dominant playoff run Monday night, much of the attention was, rightfully, focused on the long path taken by the Jaylen Brown/Jayson Tatum pairing to reach that crescendo. But it doesn’t happen if the C’s didn’t surround them with just about the best complimentary talent in recent memory, right up there with Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala for the late-teens Golden State Warriors. Kristaps Porziņģis showed that his excellent 2022-23 season wasn’t simply a product of the anonymity of playing for a middling Washington Wizards team, as his deep shooting, rim protection and newly developed ability to punish switching unlocked a new level of two-way dominance for an already extremely good team. Though his unusual injury limited his effectiveness in the NBA Finals itself, in some ways the series turned with his first appearance in Game 1, during which Boston took control in a way it never relinquished.

Just as important to the Celtics were the “whatever we need” contributions of Jrue Holiday and Derrick White. Both often give the lie-to-the-commentator tick of rhapsodizing about “plays that don’t show up in the stat sheet” as White’s blocks and 3s or Holiday’s steals and rim finishes show up in the box score! The spirit of the comment is spot on, though. Loose-ball recoveries, tipped passes, heady defensive switches and recoveries, guarding one through four as needed, secondary playmaking — whatever it is, these two do it and do it well.

Tier 3A (24-29)

Not for the first time, James Harden’s disappointing playoff exit served to obscure some excellent regular season play. But with age having dulled some of the first-step and rim-finishing ability, his playmaking nous keeps him from falling further than the top of Tier 3 when he was a Tier 1 performer only three years ago.

I may have gotten a little ahead of myself with Jamal Murray in Tier 2 a year ago. Still an absolute nightmare to deal with on his day, the combination of slightly underwhelming regular season play alongside continued worries about availability and durability that surfaced again this postseason forced me to move him down a notch or two.

Speaking of questions about reliability and durability, Zion Williamson. But, man, is he dynamic when he is available and locked in. If he can somehow get his body right, his historic ability to get to the rim combined with significant improvement defensively could see him bounce up to Tier 2 and perhaps even higher. But at this point, that’s far more hope than expectation.

I’m done debating Rudy Gobert. He’s a walking top-10 defense, and while he won’t be confused with an offensive hub or engine any time soon, he is a perfectly fine cog in a functioning machine. Sure he’s awkward at times, but to quote Billy Beane in “Moneyball,” we aren’t selling jeans here. His teams consistently move the scoreboard in the right direction with him on the floor, a trend that largely holds true in the playoffs just as much as in the regular season.

In most normal years, Chet Holmgren would have waltzed to Rookie of the Year. He just happened to play his first games in the First Year of Our Wemby. But we shouldn’t let that detract from the degree to which Holmgren already looks like a star. I have to imagine that how good Holmgren was straight out of the gate, especially his toughness despite being at a strength disadvantage nightly, was a surprise even to the Thunder. Much of the criticism of OKC’s braintrust for not making a “win-now move” in the offseason comes off as revisionist because we weren’t even sure of Chet could survive at the five. By exceeding even the highest expectations the way that he did has unlocked an entirely new ceiling for the Thunder, with the combination of Holmgren, Williams and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander likely placing them amongst the favorites in the West next season.

One might think the rumored extension worth well in excess of $200 million for Pascal Siakam is a bit much, but that seems a dangerous argument to make while Jaylen Brown is still hugging the Finals MVP trophy after Brown’s own extension drew the same reaction a year ago. While Siakam is unlikely to get the same platform to justify his deal, you wouldn’t rule out him doing so. He was comfortably Indiana’s best player from the time he arrived, though that had much to do with Haliburton’s imperfect recovery from a hamstring strain. While a healthy Haliburton remains the Pacers best player, Siakam’s ability to score in a variety of ways on one end while defending multiple front court spots on the other likely fits better into a contention level team.


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Tier 3

Tier 4

Tier 5

(Top photos of Tyrese Maxey, Tyrese Haliburton and Derrick White: Patrick McDermott, Mitchell Leff, Alex Bierens de Haan / Getty Images)