808s and Fast Breaks: In basketball and in rap, rankings are earned when it matters most

Columnist graphic for Taj Mayfield in fall 2020.

Watching supposed stars like Pascal Siakam and Paul George self-destruct in the second round of the NBA Playoffs helped me pinpoint why I love playoff basketball so much. In the past, I thought my love came from things like NBA Twitter or a winning team’s locker room. But, thanks to Siakam’s meltdown and Playoff P being Playoff P, I realized what I love more than anything else about the playoffs is the clarity they provide. After a regular season filled with countless debates and controversial player rankings, the playoffs paint a definitive picture of who’s who.

I notice the same level of clarity in music when rappers release an album. Just as the regular season serves as a relatively low-stakes setting for players to shine, artists have relaxed periods of time between project releases to boost their hype. Standout features, successful singles and catchy Instagram Live snippets can push a lot of talented rappers into conversations they haven’t fully earned. Much like the playoffs, a full body of work tells the true story of who’s really a star. 

This column is dedicated to categorizing the best of the best in basketball and rap, and the best of the best can be broken down into five hierarchical tiers: budding stars, borderline stars, stars, superstars and megastars.

Budding stars and borderline stars are self-explanatory and almost identical to one another, with the only separating factors being age and experience. Of the five tiers, athletes and artists in these two classifications provide the most optimism due to the low pressure surrounding them and the assumption that the best has yet to come. Stars are the most common of the five, but they are also the most frustrating since they’re usually too good to demand much more from.

Superstars are rare, usually less than a dozen at one time, but they’re rarely in serious discussions of who’s the best. Those discussions are reserved for the artists and athletes who are so great their crowning as the best sounds cliche — these are the megastars. 

Megastars are easy to spot in the NBA: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Kawhi Leonard. See? Easy. They are the best of the best of the best, but by ranking so high, they operate under a constant microscope and continuously need to prove their ranking to avoid demotion. Any one of these four players instantly turns a team into a title contender. 

NBA superstars don’t possess this ability. Teams led by superstars usually exist in playoff purgatory for the superstar’s entire career, bouncing between first and second-round exits yearly with the occasional trip to the conference finals. Stars are the players that megastars and superstars push their teams to trade for. They’re usually referred to as “Pippens” or “Robins.” These are the Bradley Beals and Khris Middletons of the NBA. Budding and borderline stars are usually one year or an extra skill away from jumping to stardom or superstardom. Insert players like Brandon Ingram and Ja Morant.

The NBA Playoffs provides crystal clear pictures of which stars belong in each tier. For example, after only scoring more than 20 points once and shooting below 40% in a seven-game series, it’s clear Siakam belongs with the borderline stars instead of stars. Players such as Jayson Tatum and Bam Adebayo, on the other hand, have used the playoffs to build on their All-Star regular-season campaigns and solidify themselves as stars with potential room to climb to superstar status in the Eastern Conference Finals. 

Remember what I said about superstars only being able to lead a team to playoff purgatory? Well, players such as Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden and Damian Lillard are examples of that. All three are undeniably top-10 players that consistently fall short of the Finals. 

This isn’t an issue for megastars. With James making the Finals again this year, this will be the 10th straight season that at least one of the four previously mentioned NBA megastars are in the final round.

Much like in basketball, a rapper’s tier rank is dependent on performance and results, but unlike basketball, a rapper can’t be classified as a star without the results. 

Playoff wins in rap are album sales. This eliminates a lot of great artists from being labeled as stars. For example, Freddie Gibbs has arguably three classic rap albums under his belt, but with his highest first-week sales total being 30,000 units, it would be hard to argue Gibbs as a star. Similar to how Finals appearances and playoff series wins place a basketball player in certain tiers, album sales automatically place artists in one of the five tiers. The quality of the project determines if they rise or fall from there.

Lil Baby is the best example of how the rapper hierarchical tier works. His sophomore album, “My Turn,” is the first album to go double platinum in 2020 and is both the highest-selling and highest-streaming album of the year. Despite his first album arguably being his best work, the success of “My Turn” leveled up Lil Baby from a star to a superstar. If his next album is as high quality as the first two and produces the same record-breaking results as “My Turn,” Lil Baby will have another theoretical championship and become a rap megastar, joining names like Drake, Kendrick Lamar and J.Cole.

The tiers of music and sports provide clarity to fans, and that clarity is most clear when it matters most. So when James wins ring No. 4 or Drake stops the world with “Certified Lover Boy,” think about where they rank and how their performance solidified that.

Taj Mayfield is a junior writing about the connections between music and sports. His column, “808s & Fast Breaks,” runs every other Monday.