Ranking Every NBA Team’s Alpha Dog
by Ben Liebowitz on SportsRaid.com
In the scope of the NBA landscape, the importance of big-name stars is more integral to championship contention than it is in any other professional sport. Teams without a bonafide go-to guy can certainly succeed via team play, but without that one dominant leader — an alpha dog, if you will — winning a title is nothing more than a pipe dream.
Looking back at the 2015–16 NBA season, PointAfter, a sports data visualization site that’s part of the Graphiq network, aimed to rank each team’s alpha dog against one another. In this case, the term “alpha dog” merely means each team’s best player.
In order to determine the top players on every team, PointAfter turned to two metrics.
First, we looked at each player’s Total Points Added — a stat developed by Bleacher Report’s Adam Fromal. You can read the full explanation on NBAMath.com, but the TPA Model basically measures a player’s defensive and offensive effectiveness on a per-possession basis. TPA uses offensive and defensive box plus/minus (OBPM and DBPM) to do so, while also incorporating playing time.
Second, we leaned on my PointAfter colleague Will Laws’ Player Value Index metric. This formula, referred to as PVI, includes the following statistics in its equation: Player Efficiency Rating (PER), Value Over Replacement Player (VORP), overall box plus/minus (BPM), win shares and usage rate.
In just about every instance, the best player on each team by those two measures was determined to be the the alpha dog for the latest season — for guys who led in one of the two statistics on a team, we made a judgment call rooted primarily in usage rate. We made an exception for the Los Angeles Lakers. Their alpha dog was quite clearly Kobe Bryant, even though he graded out poorly in his final season as a pro in terms of statistics (Brandon Bass was actually the best Laker by TPA).
By then accounting for team standings, we applied scores based on each player’s rank (30 points for a first-place finish and one point for a 30th-place finish). For example, if a player ranked No. 1 by TPA, PVI and team record, he scored 90 points. We’ll call this the “Alpha Dog Index” and be ranking the players by that score.
In the event of a tie, the player with the higher usage rate (signifying a larger role within his team’s offense) was ranked higher.
So which high-profile NBAers were the best of the best in 2015–16?
#30. Nerlens Noel, Philadelphia 76ers
Alpha Dog Index: 4
Total Points Added (TPA): 28.05
Player Value Index (PVI): 65.3
Usage Rate: 18.8
Perhaps rookie center Jahlil Okafor could have been viewed as Philly’s alpha dog during yet another abysmal season, but the Duke product was woefully ineffective on both ends of the court (finishing with a BPM of -4.1 in 53 games before a knee injury knocked him out for the season).
Instead, Nerlens Noel takes over as the Sixers’ best player. He remains a raw talent on the offensive end with little-to-no skills outside of dunking, but where he saves his bacon is on the defensive end. Only nine NBA players graded out better than Noel in terms of defensive points saved, according to NBAMath.com.
#29. Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers
Alpha Dog Index: 5
Usage Rate: 32.2
Kobe Bryant’s final go-round in the pros will go down in history as one of the most bizarre seasons ever recorded. Despite sharply declining skills, the Black Mamba notched a 32.2 percent usage rate — good for fourth in the entire NBA.
Lakers fans got what they wanted (watching Kobe dominate the ball), but the results included a career-worst 35.8 percent shooting mark from the field. He managed a final vintage “Vino” performance by scoring 60 points in the last game of his career, but his final campaign was otherwise hard to watch.
#28. Eric Bledsoe, Phoenix Suns
Alpha Dog Index: 13
Usage Rate: 27.2
After playing in 81 games (all starts) for the Suns throughout the 2014–15 season, Eric Bledsoe was limited to just 31 contests this season before a knee injury shut him down for the season.
Despite all the missed time, E-Bled was still the best player the Suns had to offer, so it’s no surprise they floundered near the bottom of the standings.
Bledsoe is a rock-solid, two-way talent when healthy, but the “when healthy” caveat continues to be a concern for Phoenix’s brass.
#27. Brook Lopez, Brooklyn Nets
Alpha Dog Index: 18
Usage Rate: 27.3
The Brooklyn Nets are a franchise in complete disarray. With little talent on the roster and virtually no draft picks to speak of for the foreseeable future, Nets fans don’t have a lot to be cheery about.
Nevertheless, Brook Lopez continues to stay relatively healthy and put up impressive stats for basement-bound Brooklyn. The big man averaged 20.6 points, 7.8 rebounds, two assists and 1.7 blocks throughout 2015–16.
#26. Victor Oladipo, Orlando Magic
Alpha Dog Index: 21
Usage Rate: 22.9
A former No. 2 overall pick of the 2013 draft, Victor Oladipo has been solid at the next level, but Orlando is still waiting on that breakout season experienced by the likes of Kawhi Leonard and Kemba Walker this year.
His numbers remained about the same across the board, but his box plus/minus and VORP both hit career bests — hinting that the Indiana product is getting more comfortable against NBA competition.
#25. Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies
Alpha Dog Index: 25
Usage Rate: 22.5
Following what was an injury-riddled season for the Memphis Grizzlies, it’s difficult to remember exactly what the core of this team looks like when healthy. Marc Gasol played 52 games before getting knocked out for the year with a foot ailment. Zach Randolph missed a chunk of time, and soon-to-be free agent Mike Conley ended the year sidelined as well.
The point guard functioned as the team’s alpha dog when he was on the court this season, mainly because Gasol regressed. Conley experienced his own struggles as well, though. Viewed as one of the best defensive point guards in the game, Conley’s defensive box plus/minus (DBPM) hit a career-low -1.9 in 56 games.
The “Goon Squad” Grizzlies led by Lance Stephenson and Matt Barnes helped the team tread water valiantly in the season’s final months, but is it possible we’ve seen the end of the “Grit n’ Grind” era?
#24. Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks
Alpha Dog Index: 26
Usage Rate: 25.5
When you account for how ineffective Kobe Bryant was throughout his age-37 season, it’s honestly eye-popping to see what Dirk Nowitzki did at the same age.
Now, Nowitzki is not coming off a barrage of serious injuries. Nor does he have as many miles on the odometer when compared to Bryant. But still, averaging 18.3 points on 44.8 percent shooting from the field and 36.8 percent shooting from beyond the arc is nothing to scoff at. Dirk’s days as an alpha dog are dwindling, but he continues to move the needle on offense even as he approaches his 38th birthday.
#23. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Alpha Dog Index: 29
Usage Rate: 22.3
What Giannis Antetokounmpo was able to accomplish during the final two months of the 2015–16 NBA season should make Milwaukee Bucks fans positively giddy. The 21-year-old averaged 18.4 points, 7.2 assists and 7.1 rebounds through the month of March after head coach Jason Kidd tweaked his role to become the team’s primary ball-handler.
The “Greek Freak” embraced his shift to the point forward by posting incredible stats that only got better in April: 20.7 points, 9.1 rebounds, 7.1 assists, two blocks and 1.3 steals per game on 52.5 percent shooting from the field and 45.5 percent shooting from long range.
If Giannis can parlay that success into a hot start next season, the Bucks will certainly be enamored with future possibilities.
#22. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
Alpha Dog Index: 31
Usage Rate: 29.6
Anthony Davis’ standing on this list admittedly got nerfed by an injury-plagued season for the New Orleans Pelicans. “The Brow” played a career-low 61 games before getting shut down to undergo knee and shoulder surgeries (hurting his individual standing), and that was but a fraction of the roster’s problem with injury bugs (hurting the team standing).
It was a season to forget for Davis even though his numbers were still quite good. As a silver lining, the Kentucky product revealed he’s been playing through a shoulder injury for three years, an ailment that should be healed by next season.
If he’s been this good while playing through pain, he’s got a heckuva high ceiling.
#21. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
Alpha Dog Index: 32
Usage Rate: 24.8
Karl-Anthony Towns will unquestionably be named the league’s Rookie of the Year. He was durable (played all 82 games) and effective, finishing second in the league in double-doubles behind Russell Westbrook.
Towns even showed flashes of being able to step out and hit the three-ball as a rookie — something comparable rooks like David Robinson and Tim Duncan never developed throughout their careers.
#20. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Alpha Dog Index: 34
Usage Rate: 19.9
Is rookie center Nikola Jokic a better player right now than Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo and others before him on this countdown? The answer is likely a two-letter word starting with “N” and ending with “O,” but the first-year player from Serbia was an analytics darling throughout 2015–16. His 165.84 TPA ranked No. 14 out of all the alpha dogs on this list.
Adam Fromal wrote a piece back in February that highlighted the youngster’s impact — particularly Denver’s production with and without Jokic on the court. He didn’t play a ton of minutes nor garner much acclaim from the media, but he is very clearly the future of the Nuggets organization.
#19. Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks
Alpha Dog Index: 34
Usage Rate: 29.7
Carmelo Anthony quietly put together another respectable year for the New York Knicks, but NY’s inability to sniff playoff contention in the Eastern Conference isn’t a good sign for the 31-year-old’s basketball future.
Though he won an NCAA title at Syracuse back in 2003, can an NBA team win it all if Melo is its best player? It seems a fair question to ask.
Unless Phil Jackson surrounds Anthony and budding young star Kristaps Porzingis with a lot of new needle-moving pieces, New York will remain far from title contention.
#18. Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz
Alpha Dog Index: 36
Usage Rate: 25.7
Many pundits expected the Utah Jazz to reach the playoffs in 2016, but a rash of injuries ultimately prevented them from escaping the lottery. Nevertheless, Gordon Hayward continued to prove his chops as an NBA alpha dog.
Excluding Alec Burks, who played just 31 games due to injury, Hayward had the highest usage rate on the team. He was also the team’s leading scorer at 19.7 points per game and notched 8.9 win shares — most on the team by a considerable margin.
#17. Reggie Jackson, Detroit Pistons
Alpha Dog Index: 41
Usage Rate: 29.1
After signing a five-year, $80 million contract to remain in Detroit, Reggie Jackson faced heaping amounts of pressure. Was he worth such a big payday after showing out for a 27-game sample size post-trade a season ago?
Turns out, the answer (at least in the short term) is yes. Jackson averaged 18.8 points, 6.2 assists and 3.2 rebounds for the season while shooting a career-best 35.3 percent from beyond the arc. Due to his on-court leadership, Detroit put an end to a six-year postseason drought.
#16. DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings
Alpha Dog Index: 42
Usage Rate: 35.4
Even though DeMarcus Cousins missed 17 games due to injury throughout the 2015–16 season, he continued to establish himself as one of the best centers in the league. He once again posted gaudy stats via 26.9 points, 11.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game.
Unfortunately, he led the Kings to just 33 wins, which is still the most ever during his Sacramento tenure. He stuffs box scores, but six seasons into his career, his teams have yet to win even 50 percent of their games. That starts with building a solid core around Boogie, but at some point he needs to mature enough to become a true leader.
#15. Hassan Whiteside, Miami Heat
Alpha Dog Index: 43
Usage Rate: 20.7
An argument can still be made that Dwyane Wade is Miami’s alpha dog as he continues to play at a high level into his mid-30s. That being said, Hassan Whiteside graded out more favorably than Wade by both TPA and PVI — an interesting takeaway from the season.
If the Heat didn’t climb to the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference in 2015–16, Whiteside certainly would not have ranked ahead of fellow center DeMarcus Cousins. But because Boogie’s Kings floundered outside the playoff picture, Whiteside barely edges him out here.
Whiteside is a largely limited offensive player, and the repertoire he does boast still needs polishing. But while some fans think he gambles too much simply to block shots, he was the eighth-best player in terms of defensive points saved this season.
#14. John Wall, Washington Wizards
Alpha Dog Index: 45
Usage Rate: 28.6
Provided the Wizards disappointed this season by finishing 10th in the Eastern Conference standings, it’s quite impressive that the head of their snake checks in at No. 14 among NBA alpha dogs.
Wall finished No. 3 in the league in assists (10.2 per game), No. 8 in steals (1.88 per game) and No. 21 in points (19.9 per game). On the negative side, only James Harden and Russell Westbrook averaged more turnovers per game than Wall, but it’s hard to blame the Kentucky product when he was basically Washington’s entire team throughout the latest campaign.
#13. Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
Alpha Dog Index: 50
Usage Rate: 24.4
“Jimmy Buckets” put together another great individual season throughout 2015–16. He led the Bulls in scoring (20.9 per game), assists (4.8 per game) and steals (1.64 per game). However, he was also one of the league’s stars who saw his outside shooting touch regress.
Butler still made his second All-Star team, but he only converted 31.1 percent of his treys as Chicago missed out on the playoffs. It was a letdown of a season for Bulls fans, but despite his inconsistency from long range, Butler’s two-way talent (particularly as a defender who takes on the toughest assignments) makes him one of the game’s best alpha dogs.
#12. Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics
Alpha Dog Index: 58
Usage Rate: 29.6
“I think in retrospect trading Isaiah Thomas when we did was a mistake.” That’s what Phoenix Suns GM Ryan McDonough said on Arizona sports radio earlier this year. Suns fans can no doubt fault McDonough for opting to trade IT. The diminutive point guard played all 82 games for the Boston Celtics, blossomed into an All-Star and arguably put himself in the conversation to get some All-NBA team recognition.
His defensive capabilities remain an area for improvement, but the Celtics were 8.5 points per 100 possessions better on offense when Thomas was on the court. The scrappy southpaw knows how to score.
#11. Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets
Alpha Dog Index: 60
Usage Rate: 26.5
For three straight seasons following his rookie year, Kemba Walker averaged around 17 points while shooting about 40 percent from the field. The scoring output was nice, but the efficiency simply wasn’t there — hindering his value not only as a fantasy basketball stud, but also as an alpha dog for the Charlotte Hornets.
That narrative changed in 2015–16. The UConn product’s three-point shooting prowess skyrocketed to a career-best 37.1 percent (he also took a career-high six threes per contest). He buffed his scoring output to 20.9 points per game in the process and guided the Buzz to the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference despite prolonged absences for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Al Jefferson and Nic Batum.
#10. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
Alpha Dog Index: 61
Usage Rate: 31.3
The most alluring trait of Damian Lillard is his confidence. He’s not afraid to take big shots in crunch time, and he truly believes he’s among the best players in the game.
That self-assured nature is what molded an overlooked talent out of Weber State into an All-Star-caliber NBA point guard. Offensively speaking, Dame is elite. He scored from just about everywhere throughout the season and still managed to dish out a career-high 6.8 assists per game. What holds him back from superstardom is defense, as Lillard graded out as one of the worst players in the league on the less glamorous end of the court. If he can buckle down and become even a league-average defender, it’s unlikely he’ll continue to be one of the Association’s most noteworthy All-Star snubs.
#9. Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks
Alpha Dog Index: 65
Usage Rate: 24.3
According to NBAMath, Paul Millsap was the second-best defender in the league by defensive points saved — trailing only Draymond Green. Guys like Green, two-time Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard and bigs like Rudy Gobert garner plenty of praise for their ability to prevent baskets, but Millsap deserves to make the shift from underrated to properly rated on that end.
Of the Hawks Semi-Big Three — Millsap, Al Horford and Jeff Teague — Millsap thrust himself to the forefront as the undeniable best player on ATL’s roster. His stretch 4 chops on offense and anchor status on defense make him one of the most versatile talents in the game today. Not too shabby for a guy drafted in the second round.
#8. Paul George, Indiana Pacers
Alpha Dog Index: 65
Usage Rate: 30.4
Although Paul George said he wasn’t sold on the idea of playing power forward after the Indiana Pacers roster saw both David West and Roy Hibbert depart, Larry Bird sticking to his guns in saying it would be a good move for George proved a spot-on assessment.
As Indy played more small-ball throughout 2015–16, George thrived. He played just six games the season prior due to his recovery from a gruesome leg injury, but you couldn’t tell from his torrid start to 2015. He averaged 29.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists while shooting a lava-hot 49 percent from beyond the arc in November. Those numbers obviously weren’t sustainable, and while George did come back to earth a bit, he still posted a remarkably effective season.
#7. James Harden, Houston Rockets
Alpha Dog Index: 68
Usage Rate: 32.5
Yes, James Harden is unquestionably a defensive sieve. There have been more than a few Vine and YouTube videos pointing out as much throughout his career.
It also didn’t help his case that Houston regressed from a win/loss perspective in 2015–16 as questions about team chemistry ran amuck. But Harden was still an elite talent. The 26-year-old averaged 29 points, 7.5 assists, 6.1 rebounds and 1.5 steals. Here’s the full list of NBA players who have accomplished that in a season:
2. Michael Jordan
3. LeBron James (twice)
#6. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
Alpha Dog Index: 75
Usage Rate: 26.1
Even though Kyle Lowry has once again struggled to find his shot in the postseason setting, he posted the best season of his career in 2015–16.
Like Kemba Walker, the key factor driving that improvement was consistent three-point shooting. Lowry jumped up to a career-best 21.2 points per game by shooting a career-high 38.8 percent on his triples. He made his second career All-Star team and is in the conversation to be voted to an All-NBA squad for the first time.
#5. Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
Alpha Dog Index: 75
Usage Rate: 27.1
Because Chris Paul has been such a competent floor general for so long, it seems as though pundits and fans have been desensitized to how great he is as a point guard.
Blake Griffin missed 47 games this season — the most of any season in his career excluding his rookie campaign that was completely lost due to a broken knee cap. Despite being shorthanded, the Clippers won 53 games. That was only a three-game slip compared to the season prior. Credit CP3.
#4. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
Alpha Dog Index: 81
Usage Rate: 25.8
Now a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, “The Claw” brought so much more than stifling defense to the table throughout the 2015–16 season. A massive increase in shooting efficiency translated into a boost of nearly five additional points per game (up to 21.2 from 16.5). Leonard was among the game’s most improved outside shooters, upping his three-point conversion rate by nearly 10 percentage points (from 34.9 percent to 44.3 percent).
Given how hard he works on defense, it would honestly be unreasonable to expect much more output from him in terms of scoring. And yet, Leonard kept on improving — which is scary for the rest of the NBA.
#3. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
Alpha Dog Index: 84
Usage Rate: 31.4
Chris Paul tends to be overlooked simply by being so good for so long, but LeBron James essentially invented that. He still finished third in MVP voting for 2016 — three points behind Kawhi Leonard — but by averaging more points, rebounds and assists compared to Kawhi, there’s at least fuel for an argument that he should have been second behind Steph.
A four-time MVP, King James has turned his attention toward bringing a championship home to Cleveland. All else appears secondary to the two-time champ, and the early playoff returns for the Cavaliers have been remarkably good.
#2. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
Alpha Dog Index: 84
Usage Rate: 31.6
Gone are the days when former MVP Kevin Durant was unanimously seen as OKC’s best player. In 2015–16, his fashion-forward dynamo of a teammate overtook the alpha dog role in just about every facet. He graded out better in terms of TPA and PVI, had a higher usage rate than KD and finished the season with a league-leading 18 triple-doubles (tying Magic Johnson for the most in a season over the past 30 years).
NBA awards voters agreed that Westbrook surpassed Durant this season. The point guard out of UCLA netted 339 more points in MVP voting, ultimately landing fourth. But he ends up No. 2 here, behind only … well, you know.
#1. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Alpha Dog Index: 90
Usage Rate: 32.6
How do you build upon a season in which you won MVP prior to taking home a franchise’s first Larry O’Brien trophy in 40 years? Ask Steph Curry.
Categories led by Stephen Curry this season: FG, 3P, STL, PTS/gm, PER, TS%, OWS, WS, WS/48, OBPM, BPM and VORP.
— Andy Bailey (@AndrewDBailey) May 10, 2016
The sharpshooting, slick-handling point guard upped his scoring output to 30.1 points per game — winning the scoring title in the process. He cashed in on an NBA-record 402 three-pointers, nuking the previous record that he set in 2014–15. And, as if the individual accomplishments aren’t impressive enough, he led the Golden State Warriors to a 73–9 record to overtake the 72–10 Chicago Bulls for the best single-season mark of all time.
Let’s just say he was the NBA’s first ever unanimous MVP for multiple reasons.