Top 100 NBA Players

Given it’s evidently that time of year, I may as well put some substantive thoughts behind a list I made as a note on my phone one night when I couldn’t sleep and reveal my top 100 NBA players.

How is this list compiled? Well, it usually starts when I have too much caffeine, or take an unseasonably late nap. Then my wife goes to bed, and there’s nothing I can think of to watch on TV or play, so I figure I may as well go to bed too. Normally I read in these situations, but this year has been a complete down year for me reading-wise, so I am pretty empty in that department too. And then, with the NBA season freshly completed, my mind begins to race through different players, potential free agent matches, draft matches, etc., and I get to thinking it’d be nice if I delineated how I feel about who the best players in the game are. And the second best, and the third best, and so forth. It starts with me thinking, “well, who’s the best player in the world?” and then answering “obviously Giannis Antetokounmpo,” and then asking “OK but what about second best?” and I come up with a list of guys I think could be second best. I save myself the squabbling over who actually is number two, and satisfy myself by clustering together some fellas who could argue their case pretty effectively. This becomes a tiered list, and I basically make it by running through each team in my head — division by division, and thinking what players they have that are in the tier I’m currently listing, and do that again and again. Eventually I have 100 players listed and it’s a list.

So that’s my methodology, I don’t rely on analytics because what do analytics know? They’ve never played basketball before. I will use some basic stats to aid my decision-making. I reserve my right to factor in analytics if I feel there’s reason to. Just because I burned them atop this paragraph doesn’t mean I can’t use them. That’s a nice thing about analytics: No matter how mean you are to them, they don’t change what they say.

Anyway, methodological explanations are sort of pompous but also somewhat of an obligation. I just want to be transparent that these are my thoughts, off the dome, not filtered through any other lists, at least consciously right now, and if you disagree, that’s fine (I’ll cut you, but it’s fine). As it sits now, the list is on my phone in tiers, including some big tiers (25ish players), and since that’s less fun than picking a f*cking side, I’ll rank them as I go because why not, like, who’s gonna care, the world’s ending, anyway.

Start the list, man.

Tier 5 — Players 76–100, kind of a clusterf*ck by this point

100. Patrick Beverley, PG, Utah Jazz :(
99. Al Horford, PF, Boston Celtics
98. Marcus Morris, PF, Los Angeles Clippers
97. Terry Rozier, G, Charlotte Hornets
96. Malcolm Brogdon, PG, Boston Celtics

Because of his assault charges, I moved Miles Bridges off the list. He’s good at basketball, and I haven’t seen him much, but he’ll be no more valuable to his team this season than anyone else ahead of him on this list, I promise. I also realize the inclusion of Patrick Beverley will irk the whiny and the lame who don’t think Pat Bev absolutely rules, but I don’t care. I would have bumped him into the top 100 whether Bridges was on here or not. He started for a playoff team and his intensity and extraness absolutely changed the culture in Minnesota. They had to clear him before Rudy Gobert arrived because the Stifle Tower would not be able to handle the smoke. Horford and Morris are silly little inclusions, given Horford played like a top 15 player at times in the postseason, while Morris is only here because of how he handled the opportunity brought on by the absences of LA’s top two wing players. To his credit, he recognized that shots were there for the taking and he took them. He had his second-highest average FGA season, behind a year where he jacked 15 shots a game for a hapless Knicks roster before being traded to Los Angeles. Accordingly, his PPG was second-highest to that season (thanks to that chuck-heavy start) of his career as well. Rozier was a needle-mover in Charlotte, as the Hornets won 75% of their games when he posted the team’s best stat line (12–4; this I know because I track this throughout the year, manually). Brogdon could wind up being the biggest acquisition of the summer, even though better players changed teams, because he may give Boston the additional reliable ball-handler they need to get over the top (you know, assuming the rest of their entire team is as excellent and they manage to make the Finals again, which of course is easy to do).

95. Luguentz Dort, SG, Oklahoma City Thunder
94. Aaron Gordon, PF, Denver Nuggets
93. Jusuf Nurkic, C, Portland Trail Blazers
92. Kevin Love, PF, Cleveland Cavaliers
91. Gordon Hayward, SF, Charlotte Hornets

When the Thunder eventually take flight from the dregs of the league standings, it will be interesting to see whether Dort remains a part of their core or if he moves on in a new role somewhere else. It’s hard to rank players like Dort, a second fiddle on a terrible team, because aside from their individual highlights, they bear some degree of responsibility for the lack of success, but knowing how much is very difficult. The rest of these guys are far more familiar. Gordon is also tricky to rank because he was second fiddle when he signed up to be fourth, more of a glue starter than torch-bearer. Nonetheless, the Nuggets needed more of a Jerami Grant player than Gordon this year, it will be interesting to see what happens when the Nuggets regain full strength. Gordon’s ranking can be discounted for that, Nurkic’s can be discounted for being on a terrible Blazers team that missed Dame Lillard for most of the year. Love is really hard to rank as well because he played 103 games in 3 seasons prior to this year; it’s like he went into a pandemic-created black hole as a star player on a Finals team, and came out 33 and a bench player. He fit well enough for Cleveland this year, but his role could be refined this year in a way that moves him back up or completely off this list. Hayward similarly entered a black hole as an All-Star centerpiece in Utah and came out as a bench wing in Charlotte after a bizarre stint in Boston that began with a horrific broken ankle. He and Love both may never start again, or they could be contributing starters on playoff teams this year. It’s confusing.

90. Dillon Brooks, SF, Memphis Grizzlies
89. Victor Oladipo, SG, Miami Heat
88. OG Anunoby, SG, Toronto Raptors
87. Bojan Bogdanovic, SF, Utah Jazz
86. Saddiq Bey, SF, Detroit Pistons

This part of the list is riddled with players who have struggled with crushing injuries. In normal circumstances, major injuries are a turning point in one’s career, but amid the pandemic gauntlet of the bubble and the two rushed seasons after, it has been, well, I guess I’ve already been kinda making this metaphor, it’s like a black hole. Victor Oladipo played 75 games in 2017–18, and in four seasons since then has played 96. He remained a mystery on Miami’s bench into the second round of the playoffs, where he was revealed to … be pretty much fine? Injuries took away some explosiveness, but he definitely didn’t look like someone who had been practically part-time for four years. These groupings are arbitrary, by the way. I just think it makes sense to comment on about five of these guys at a time at this point in the list. However, the groupings do seem to be coherent. All these guys are wings who want more than to be an 86th-90th best player in the league. Brooks thinks he’s already better. Oladipo is trying to get back to being better. Anunoby seems like he would be better in a different setting. Bogdanovic always felt he should be more of a second scorer in Utah than he was. Bey is the guy Detroit keeps trying to find someone better than, and he keeps trying to stay the second best player on that roster. The Pistons brought in Grant last year, and now they bring in Ivey. They’re also guys I’ve barely seen play (at least lately), so feel free to disagree especially with the way those five were ordered.

85. Bobby Portis, PF, Milwaukee Bucks
84. Tyrese Haliburton, PG, Indiana Pacers
83. Kyle Kuzma, SF-PF, Washington Wizards
82. Harrison Barnes, SF, Sacramento Kings
81. Reggie Jackson, PG, Los Angeles Clippers

Continuing the theme of these groupings having themes, all of these players have been slept on at one point by their own teams. Jackson was almost waived in Detroit and lucked into a great fit with Tyronn Lue in Los Angeles. Barnes was discarded expeditiously by Golden State when Kevin Durant came available. Kyle Kuzma was shipped out of Los Angeles for Russell Westbrook. De’Aaron Fox, not Tyrese Haliburton, was declared Sacramento’s point guard of the future this past trade deadline. Bobby Portis stayed ready to contribute before emerging in the final two series of Milwaukee’s playoff run, then took less to stay in Milwaukee, then started in the absence of Brook Lopez, then was sat right back on the bench as the playoffs began when Lopez regained health. Of these players, only Portis stuck it out with the team that slighted him (unless of course, you count the Bulls, Knicks, and Wizards all moving on from him). Haliburton was a coveted trade target in Indy, Kuzma has been a huge part of Washington’s core, Barnes was a prized free-agent signing in Sacto after a rocky tenure in Dallas, and Jackson has been rejuvenated in a great situation in Los Angeles. The addition of John Wall figures to complicate Jackson’s role and test the relationships he’s built, but nonetheless he’s more than earned the starting role.

80. Spencer Dinwiddie, G, Dallas Mavericks
79. Myles Turner, C, Indiana Pacers
78. Jarrett Allen, C, Cleveland Cavaliers
77. Mikal Bridges, SF, Phoenix Suns
76. Mike Conley, PG, Utah Jazz

Dinwiddie has a major opportunity in Dallas with the departure of Jalen Brunson. Myles Turner will likely continue wasting away on uncompetitive Pacers teams unless he is traded at some point. Between the other three, Jarrett Allen, Mikal Bridges, and Mike Conley, you have players with elite defensive skills who need to maintain intensity on that end while improving what they can do on offense. Conley may be seeking a new home at the trade deadline if Utah continues down the path of rebuilding it set out on with the trading away of Rudy Gobert. Bridges (as well as wingmate Cameron Johnson) is at risk of not meeting his potential because they play on a team where their roles are almost too well defined to allow them to grow. A wing with his defensive acumen and shooting splits should at some point get the space to figure out how similar to Kawhi Leonard they can become. It sounds farfetched, but Bridges is really good at what he does because in Phoenix he’s only asked to do what he’s really good at.

Tier 4 — Players 51–75, elite role players and fatally flawed stars

75. Kristaps Porzingis, PF-C, Washington Wizards
74. Jonas Valanciunas, C, New Orleans Pelicans
73. Anfernee Simons, SG, Portland Trail Blazers
72. Jerami Grant, PF, Portland Trail Blazers
71. Nikola Vucevic, C, Chicago Bulls

None of these players are stars, even though all five believe they are. They are — look at them, read the names again — they are players who are featured as though they are stars, relied on to be stars, and yet are simply not. Jonas Valanciunas is the nearest to an exception, as he is a role player who took on an outsized role to fill the Zion Williamson-shaped hole in their lineups. He had his best season yet and made the Steven Adams trade seem plain bad for Memphis. Grant and Simons will now be teammates in Portland, and unless they are right about their own games and many intelligent basketball thinkers are wrong, their failure will be a launching point for a rebuild in Rip City. Of these guys, Simons’ trajectory is most promising, but half a season of being lead dog on a sinking team is hardly enough to prove that he can thrive as an undersized backcourtmate to Lillard. He and Grant, who is longer in the tooth, more established, with less upside, will vie to be the second scorer in Portland. It should be Simons, but I’d bet Grant would insist it should be Grant, and he has more control over that situation than I do. Nikola Vucevic was brought to Chicago to be a third All-Star but has been pretty much just a center. His numbers remain plump, but he doesn’t do anything at a level that makes you glad your team has him instead of other guys. It remains to be seen if he has any extra gear to compete seriously in a playoff setting, but right now, younger more athletic players are taking advantage of him inside and defenses are evolving to be unfazed by his outside capabilities. The most disappointing player from this group at this point is Kristaps Porzingis, the original unicorn who, at 7'3" handles like a 6'8" wing; amazing enough for 2015, less amazing now. It has turned out that his frame, combined with his athleticism, is a recipe for missed games. And when he has played, he seems to be perpetually ramping up for some moment that is likely never coming.

70. Klay Thompson, SG, Golden State Warriors
69. Cole Anthony, G, Orlando Magic
68. Robert Williams, PF-C, Boston Celtics
67. Tobias Harris, SF-PF, Philadelphia 76ers

Switching to four at a time now. Klay Thompson has been a complete triumph in returning from an ACL tear and then a torn Achilles, an injury barrage worse than that suffered by Derrick Rose at the height of his powers. Thompson is to be commended for the way he came back and was probably 80–90% the player he was before. He came back and averaged a career low in 3-point percentage and a career high in FGAs per 36, a deliberate effort to round into form for the playoffs. Last season was so much about trying to fit in as well as possible and play a role for last season, it remains to be seen if his role lessens or returns to normal. If it returns to normal, he will be higher on this list next season. (I will probably not do this again next season.) The area where he lost most effectiveness is likely his defense, where his agility and explosion are lacking. With that, right now he finds himself 70th on my list, behind Tobias Harris, Robert Williams, and Cole Anthony. Is Cole Anthony better than Klay Thompson? At this point in their respective careers I am expecting him to be. Maybe that’s wild. I don’t know. Anthony is a budding playmaker on a terrible Orlando team. We’ll learn a lot more about him if he manages to get traded out of Orlando, where he has a high shooting volume and low efficiency. Tobias Harris is boringly consistent. He was averaging 17 a game by his second year and averaged 17 a game this past season in year 12. He is like the third-best player on the opposing team in the movie; he is there, and you will notice him if you look for him, but he is not a focal point who impacts plot. Robert Williams, also known as Time Lord, which is a nickname he got basically for being late to stuff, which is hilarious, is a defensive freak whose offensive game is lacking but also basically irrelevant given the weapons surrounding him.

66. Evan Mobley, PF-C, Cleveland Cavaliers
65. Tyrese Maxey, PG, Philadelphia 76ers
64. Fred VanVleet, PG, Toronto Raptors
63. Marcus Smart, PG, Boston Celtics

What’s more impressive: Being named to the All-Star team and lauded as one of the top 12 players in your conference, or being the first guard to win Defensive Player of the Year since Gary Payton? This is a messy part of the list, and you could argue that both VanVleet and Smart should be higher, but both have limitations on their game. I wonder how Smart follows up his DPOY season, whether he becomes complacent and lessens his intensity for the regular season, or if he maintains his extra-effort style even after a grueling playoff campaign. VanVleet is going to be the third best player on his own team with the continued development of Scottie Barnes. Tyrese Maxey is ascending to this tier of guard, although he’s not there yet. A problem with guys like Smart, VanVleet, and Maxey (eventually) is they eat up a lot of contract space even though they generally need to be your third or fourth best player to have a contending team. Maxey’s contract right now, 4 years 12 million, and his age, 21, separate him value-wise from FVV and Smart. They are currently better players than he is, but his value and upside exceed theirs, so their impact on winning is likely quite comparable.

I don’t understand last year’s draft class. I often get this wrong about young NBA players and I’m going to do so here, but: I don’t get why Evan Mobley is so exciting for people. At seven foot, he’s a center, but he’s skinny and agile enough to play power forward next to Jarrett Allen. Here I thought we just spent the last six or so years learning that lineups like that, two big bigs, won’t win you anything. This is maybe why I stay interested in the NBA, because the game is evolving in ways that are hard to understand but also directly caused by the personnel playing the game at a high level. Mobley is going to have a moment where he faces a small ball lineup in a playoff series and he will have the opportunity to break that lineup and be one of the first big power forwards to break through the small-ball logic and tip the scales toward bigger, more physical teams. Between Mobley, Scottie Barnes, and Cade Cunningham, you have three players whose impact we’re still unpacking. It’s apparent that these guys will be good, but it’s murkier what these guys being good will look like.

62. Christian Wood, PF-C, Dallas Mavericks
61. R.J. Barrett, SG, New York Knicks
60. D’Angelo Russell, PG, Minnesota Timberwolves
59. Lonzo Ball, PG, Chicago Bulls

Is Christian Wood good? Can he be very good? Playing in Houston and, before that, Detroit and, befort that, for five teams who didn’t give him significant minutes has made evaluating him really tough. Also, not seeing (or ever wanting to see) the Rockets play has made him more of a mystery to me. What I have noticed is that the guy shows up. In Houston he played 67 games last year on a miserable team and was his team’s best player in 37 of them (they went 12–25, bad but far above their percentage in games where he wasn’t their top performer). His highlight package shows off an enticing skillset, a true seven-foot frame (rats not along his back) that can handle driving to the basket and spotting up from 3 (39% on 5 attempts per game). The Mavs like what they see in him, and I do too. Fortunately for Wood, Porzingis set the bar very low in Dallas as a roll man for Doncic, so good things should be ahead for both the team and the player.

R.J. Barrett is coming upon a pivotal season in his career as he figures out his fit alongside Jalen Brunson under Tom Thibodeau in New York. Brunson will alleviate the pressure on Barrett to run the offense and allow him to be a more pure scorer. Brunson-Barrett-Fournier-Randle-Robinson is a starting five that demands Barrett take a major step forward, and also asks Barrett to do more heavy lifting defensively. New York’s plan right now seems destined to get them in the play-in picture but not into the playoff seeding race in the East. Adding another star seems quite unlikely until the trade deadline, where one is unlikely to be available.

Ball was having his best season yet in Chicago playing with toys like Zach LaVine in transition, DeMar Derozan in the halfcourt, and seeing his 3-point percentage balloon over 40 for the first time in his career since entering with a shooting motion that was a red flag for many teams including, as it turned out, the one that drafted him. Ball’s defense has evolved too, as he is figuring out how to leverage his length against opposing guards. Russell, who is more of a defensive liability, continues to be a slashing scorer and may be coming into a perfect role as Karl-Anthony Towns continues to put it all together and Anthony Edwards shoulders more of the scoring load, allowing Russell to be more judicious and efficient.

58. T.J. Warren, SF, Brooklyn Nets
57. Scottie Barnes, PF, Toronto Raptors
56. Jaren Jackson Jr., PF-C, Memphis Grizzlies
55. Domantas Sabonis, PF, Sacramento Kings

Of these four players, whom would you most want to have? The easy answer is Barnes, whose potential is leaps and bounds ahead of anyone else here, even Jackson, who has plenty of upside. Barnes, is just so spry, is 6'9" and as terrifying as anyone in transition not named Antetokounmpo. So would I really rather have Jackson and Sabonis this year? Ask me in five months. Barnes’ potential is the stuff of fantasy, but his ability to add to it will dictate how high he can fly up this list (which, again, likely won’t ever recur).

T.J. Warren is someone I will disclose I had ranked higher before I remembered he last played in 2020, not 2021. Bubble T.J. Warren was a phenomenon of the sort endemic to the NBA, where a guy is just there for a while and then suddenly becomes awesome. He may be off this list 10 games into the season, or he may come back strong and show he deserves to be 20 spots higher. Or more. Who knows? Wing forwards who stand 6'8" tend to be viewed as potential franchise players, and Warren was starting to look the part before his injury. Of course, he also has done most of his damage on a rebuilding Phoenix team and a hapless Indiana team. His signing with Brooklyn is newsworthy, and until the Durant situation is resolved, it’s unknown what type of scenario he’ll be in for this upcoming season.

Jackson Jr. and Sabonis both shot 31% from three, but JJJ took 5 3s a game compared to Sabonis’s 2. Jackson still seems to be figuring out his offensive repertoire, and Sabonis seems oddly content in his game, playing below the arc and being the focal point of bad offenses. This odd concoction of a roster Sacramento is working up will reveal what kind of a player Sabonis can be for a franchise. Jackson has been given some grace with his erratic shooting and foul-happy defense, but he will need to refine and grow his game if he is to enable Memphis to get to the next level.

54. Jordan Poole, G, Golden State Warriors
53. Tyler Herro, SG, Miami Heat
52. Desmond Bane, SG, Memphis Grizzlies
51. Draymond Green, PF, Golden State Warriors

Jordan Poole runs around like the true heir to the Splash Bros’ fortune. He is a major vibes guy, the kind who heaves up end-of-quarter half-courters with zeal, who emulates Steph Curry because that’s who’s there to emulate. He is a happy gunner. Tyler Herro is a serious gunner. Tyler Herro wears a shooting sleeve and adjusts it whenever it gets even slightly out of position. Herro thinks hitting off-balance jump shots is as tough as you need to be in this life. Herro has the potential to be a star, but also just seems like maybe he’s Jamal Crawford, destined to get buckets while looking excessively boyish for the next 15 years. Both Poole and Herro are less “complete” players than the players ranked above them here, Bane and Green. Ranking Draymond anywhere is such a weird exercise because he averages 7.5 points a game and impacts winning more than the next 15 guys on this list, at least. Given that, he is ranked below those people because his impact is specific to the context of this currently constructed Golden State team. How it would exist if he got traded to Detroit tomorrow is anyone’s guess.

Tier 3 — Players 31–50, fringe stars (sometimes they are, sometimes they aren’t)

50. DeAndre Ayton, C, Phoenix Suns
49. Kyle Lowry, PG, Miami Heat
48. Julius Randle, PF, New York Knicks
47. Russell Westbrook, G, Los Angeles Lakers(?)

Russell Westbrook has engendered more polarized fan conversation than any superstar ever. This past season with the Lakers was a trainwreck. There are legitimate arguments to be made that he is worse for his team than Patrick Beverley and should be off this list. I am somewhat conservative in this respect. I don’t consider a guy who can average a triple double to be bad. Russ averaged 18.5 points last year, his lowest since 2010, when he was 21. His rebounds and assists dropped to around 7 from 11.5 or so each when he was in Washington, where his team made the playoffs as an 8 seed after starting the season 17–32 and finishing 17–6. It is fair to argue that Russ made LA worse. I believe LA also made Russ worse. He’s better than what he showed last year.

Continuing on the theme of guys who had down years last season, Julius Randle went from the lead dog on the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference to sort of ceding alpha duties to a third-year shooting guard still figuring things out in R.J. Barrett, while the team tailspun out of the play-in (albeit they would have made the play-in in the West). Randle’s first season under Tom Thibodeau in New York seemed to be a match made in heaven as the puggish Randle bulldozed his way through opposing frontcourts. The Knicks were a tough regular season team in 2021 with Randle typifying Thibodeau’s gritty style. Then the Atlanta Hawks made quick work of them in round one and New York panicked in the wrong ways, adding Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker. Walker floundered, Derrick Rose got hurt, Fournier struggled, and Randle capped off the Knicks’ demise with a weird year where he lacked focus at times and his play dipped significantly as relations with his head coach came under scrutiny. Oddly enough, Randle’s personal success is contingent on how well Jalen Brunson can round out New York’s roster. Brunson-Barrett-Fournier-Randle-Robinson is a very competitive lineup in most matchups. Between Barrett and Randle, Barrett had the more lead-scorer skill set, but Randle was always the adult in the room. Brunson should smooth out that dynamic, providing a scoring valve who is more mature than Barrett or former starter Immanuel Quickley. Rose’s return could help strengthen the Knicks’ bench units. All of this could put Julius Randle in a position for a bounce-back year. In fact, the Knicks’ major problem heading into the year is being a little too reliant on everything fitting together just so. We’ll see how it comes together for Randle.

Kyle Lowry’s addition in Miami seemed at many points throughout the year to be the brilliant chess move Pat Riley intended, as he tied together the high-octane skill sets of Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro by providing stability and consistent ballhandling. Then, he got hurt and became dysfunctional at the end of the season leaving Miami with the uneven keel of Butler, whose three in Game 7 was either ballsy or puzzling, depending on whether you like fun. With a healthy Lowry, a million things go differently, but the lack of a steady offensive general was never more apparent than in Miami’s biggest moment this season. Lowry might be at the end of his career now, and could fade fast down these rankings (you’ll never see that because this won’t be redone next year). He also might have just had an injury, and might be back to business as usual and be ready to lead Miami to a top seed again. He also could be shipped out in favor of Donovan Mitchell or Kevin Durant tomorrow.

More in question than Lowry’s future is DeAndre Ayton’s. It’s never fun to see things go very wrong between a player and a team (OK, it’s actually fun like half the time, you’re right), and things in Phoenix got very dark when he only saw 17 minutes in a Game 7 that abruptly changed Phoenix’s ascension to league powerhouse to a sudden retrograde as they lost to Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks. Ayton seems eager to leave Phoenix, who doesn’t seem eager to keep him despite (considering?) his restricted free agent status. That should be done, probably about 20 minutes after I do eventually publish this. Not that anyone cares. Lol. Ayton is a rorschach center, you can see him as a glorified Clint Capela or as a superstar in the making who is actually stilted in Phoenix’s offense taking whatever offense Chris Paul gives him and nothing more. Ayton will be 24 and could be a dominant center in this league for the next decade. Or he could land in a bad situation (my thinking: Indiana) that wastes 2–5 years of his career and careens him into irrelevance. Everyone in this phase of the list is approaching a crossroads. Ayton has to hope leaving the top team in the league with a point guard who is unparalleled in his ability to create points for big men turns out to be wise. Those are long odds. Also if you’re wondering why I wrote about them in reverse order, dude, I dunno, this shit is free don’t yell at me.

**Look, I know what happened but I’m not deleting that. Here’s what I’ll add: A marriage where one spouse says “Do you love me?” And the other says “I don’t want to leave you right now” is not a happy marriage. Something’s up with Ayton in Phoenix and either winning will wash it away or it will fester and Ayton will be out. At least he dodged Indy.

46. Ben Simmons, PG, Brooklyn Nets
45. John Collins, PF, Atlanta Hawks
44. Andrew Wiggins, SF, Golden State Warriors
43. Jalen Brunson, PG, New York Knicks

Ben Simmons can’t shoot. John Collins’ PPG has gone down two years in a row, Andrew Wiggins from the timeline where he and LeBron stayed teammates verse-jumped onto the Golden State version somehow, and Jalen Brunson went 1–1 in the playoffs without Luka Doncic and became damn near maxable. Weird set. Simmons could find himself on a pretty skimpy Brooklyn team by the time the smoke from this offseason clears. Who knows if his jumper is anywhere near fixed. Who knows if he wants to play again. Who knows how good he can be. Collins had his worst scoring and 3-point-shooting season since his rookie year, the Hawks brought in Dejounte Murray which could bite into his scoring, and he’s somehow writing the blueprint for how to be a tweener in positionless basketball. Jalen Brunson averaged a career-high 16.3 points this year, combined with 3.8 rebounds and 4.8 assists. He was playing point guard for a team with Luka Doncic on the court with him. That’s like when Muhammad Ali went for that run and all those kids started running with him, Jalen Brunson is those kids. He’s not the one. In a down free-agent market, Brunson convinced the Knicks of all teams to spend 100 million on him.

However, to be less pessimistic, let’s look at some potential upside here. Ben Simmons was on his way to becoming a perennial all-star and a top 20 player in the league before he wigged out at the end of a playoff series and then got cyber-bullied and became depressed. If he is able to get up and running for Brooklyn, there’s no physical reason he couldn’t regain that form. People think of him as a guy who can’t even dunk open dunks, but he averaged 16.9 points a game his second year. Most guys improve their ability to score as their career goes on. He could do that. I’m not sure what type of team he’ll return to but I’m not sure it matters. In fact, playing for a crummy team may shield him from the spotlight and free him to jack up a bunch of shots to get his confidence moving in the right direction. He’s elite defensively, but also as a floor general he has great vision and intelligence. He’s good at basketball. People forget. Collins now has some stability, with Atlanta choosing to keep him around and not use him to acquire Murray. Collins may benefit from the addition of Murray creating another focal point on offense so defenses can’t just camp someone between Trae Young and Collins and shut him like a valve. Collins is still very young and likely to improve as well. Wiggins should be getting more of the responsibility as Curry, Thompson, and Green age out of their primes. Wiggins is just the kind of player who can provide as much scoring (and defense and rebounding, apparently) as he needs to, and hopefully him winning a championship has given him the confidence to commit to being great in a way he seemed reluctant to do in Minnesota. Brunson has bided his time and honed his craft and is ready to step up to a lead role in New York. He won’t have to defer to Luka’s offensive vision and can work with Tom Thibodeau, whose offense was always a boon to undersized point guards, at least in Chicago where I watched his teams play each game. So maybe these guys fizzle out. Maybe they ascend further. It’s a weird group.

42. Michael Porter Jr., SF, Denver Nuggets
41. LaMelo Ball, PG, Charlotte Hornets
40. Cade Cunningham, PG, Detroit Pistons

Michael Porter Jr. has the potential to be better than Jayson Tatum. He has a very similar toolbox, trading an ounce or two of shiftiness for an extra bit of length and size. Unlike Tatum, Porter Jr. has dealt with injuries since his freshman college season, where he sat out at Mizzou and saw his draft stock fall from consensus number one pick to late lottery gem for Denver. He’s been in the league for four seasons. The first and last one he played nine games combined. The middle two, he played 55 games averaging 16 minutes in one year, and played 61 games with a 31 minute average in the other. His durability has never been there. He has been monitored and rested by Denver, smartly, to keep his development on track. His back injury and subsequent surgery are a pivotal moment in his career. If his back is solid, and he can play fully and play physical, he could be a top tier player. If his back continues to bother him, he will never be more than a slash-and-shoot wing averaging 18–22 points off limited minutes. His ability to reach his potential will decide whether Denver can win a championship with their current core or not (of course, Murray must also recover and Jokic must stay impeccably healthy).

So, in praising Porter, we must note that LaMelo Ball and Cade Cunningham are ahead of him because of potential and durability, rather than where they’re at right now. Their rookie seasons are fairly comparable, Ball averaging 15.7/5.9/6.1 and Cunningham 17.4/5.5/5.6. Cunningham’s potential as a scorer gives him a slight nod as far as his potential. Ball’s potency as a passer makes him ripe for highlight reels, but his turnovers increased by 0.5 a game from year one to year two, which is the wrong direction to be headed, even as his points per game jumped 4.5 points. Another problem Ball and Cunningham both have to overcome is organizational management. Detroit and Charlotte have toiled for years, combining for 5 playoff berths since 2009–10, when the Pistons’ championship core finally collapsed (one 6 seed, two 7 seeds, two 8 seeds, 3–20 record in the playoffs combined). Both players are seen as the hope for new beginnings in their respective franchises, but must be complemented appropriately. The Pistons drafted Jaden Ivey, and rarely is a fourth overall pick so essential to a team’s plans, as the Pistons would really like to stop being a top-tier lottery team this year. Their rumored pursuit of Jalen Brunson and DeAndre Ayton belies an eagerness to elevate their squad, and their failure to land either player increases the pressure on Cunningham to carry the load and at least bring Detroit to the level of competing for a play-in spot this season. The Hornets, meanwhile, fired head coach James Borrego and were unable to convince Warriors assistant Kenny Atkinson to hold to his commitment to be their next head coach. Instead, they are bringing back Steve Clifford, who guided Charlotte to its best season since 2002 when it notched the 6 seed in 2016. He also guided Charlotte to three losing seasons despite Kemba Walker’s presence and several complementary free agent signings through his time. It all looks kind of bad: firing a coach whose teams won 10 additional games each of the past two seasons, having your replacement back out after agreeing to become your next coach, getting back with your ex as a rebound from that breakup, and to top it off, your second-best player lands a felony domestic violence charge and may be unavailable to you for some or all of the next season. Essentially, Ball is getting a new coach and a downgraded roster and expected to improve. Cunningham has a slightly better situation in this respect as well.

39. De’Aaron Fox, PG, Sacramento Kings
38. Darius Garland, PG, Cleveland Cavaliers
37. Dejounte Murray, G, Atlanta Hawks

Other than Rudy Gobert, and pending cases of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, Dejounte Murray is the highest-ranked player to be moving teams this offseason, as he leaves Pop’s nest in San Antonio to spread his wings as a Hawk (wow, what a line). He’ll co-star alongside Trae Young in what is sure to enter the season as one of the highly rated backcourts in the league. Aside: People love to compare and fawn over starting backcourts, but very rarely do two high-level backcourt players complement each other to the point of title contention. Shooting guard James Harden has been paired with Kyrie Irving, Russell Westbrook, and Chris Paul and produced one disappointing conference final, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum were never able to make a Finals together, same with Kyle Lowry and DeMar Derozan, John Wall and Bradley Beal, and many other top-level backcourts. That trend works against Atlanta, but good players are good players, and Murray makes Atlanta better. He’ll be an even bigger upgrade if he can improve his 3-point shot, where he took over 4 a game but made just 32% last season. Murray’s steady improvement over 6 years in the league (minus a lost year due to an ACL tear) should make Atlanta fans optimistic that he could pop up to 36 or 37% this season.

Behind Murray here are two other point guards who find themselves as solo stars in small markets, where Murray was until the trade. Fox and Garland are smaller than Murray, but mighty nonetheless. Garland was named to the All-Star team this year after Cleveland’s hot start in the East. The team fizzled and Garland and the Cavaliers were overwhelmed late by Atlanta in a play-in game. Fox has never reached an All-Star game or even a play-in scenario in the West. Fox and Sabonis are a fraught pairing considering neither of them are too effective from 3, with Fox shooting a shade under 30% last season. Adding Kevin Huerter and Keegan Murray gives the Kings some shooting depth so Fox can shoot better 3s and be more effective attacking the basket. This would almost certainly be Fox’s last chance to take a step forward with a more complete roster. Garland asserted himself alongside Collin Sexton before taking over when Sexton tore an ACL last season. Sexton could return this season and try to make it work with Garland again, but Cleveland seemed to benefit from Garland’s role becoming more defined when Sexton went out.

36. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, SG, Oklahoma City Thunder
35. Brandon Ingram, PF, New Orleans Pelicans
34. Jrue Holiday, PG, Milwaukee Bucks

No two players are a less likely pairing to be nearly identical in so many major stat categories than Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Brandon Ingram. SGA is a long two guard, sure, but Brandon Ingram’s body frame looks like a design glitch. Their stats are damn near identical. Here is a brief rundown of their deltas from the 2021–22 season (SGA holds advantage in bolded stats, BI in non-bolded): GP: 1, MPG 0.7, FG 0.3, FGA 0.9, FG% 0.8%, 3P 0.3, 3PA 1.2, 3P% 2.7%, 2P 0.0, 2PA 0.3, 2P% 1.3%, eFG% 0.2%, FT 1.1, FTA 1.3, FT% 1.6%, ORB 0.1, DRB 0.9, TRB 0.8, AST 0.3, STL 0.7, BLK 0.3, TOV 0.1, PF 0.3, PPG 1.8. The biggest discrepancy in their numbers is that SGA has 1.3 steals per game to Ingram’s 0.6. Otherwise, they’re the same guy. I have Ingram above Gilgeous-Alexander because Ingram finally got the chance to perform in a playoff series and had the pleasure of pre-exposing the Suns before their eventual Luka Doncic beatdown. The Thunder are likely to miss the playoffs this year (unless one or two teams lose their seasons to injury, and a Lakers/Kings/Trail Blazers doesn’t rise up to replace them), so Ingram’s ability to be a lead dog for a playoff team gives me more confidence in him as a player right now (SGA’s previous playoff experience notwithstanding). Plus he presents more matchup anxiety for opponents because he’s longer than hell.

Jrue Holiday has never been appreciated for what a supplementary star he is. His offensive repertoire is not enough to carry an offense, and his position pretty much precludes him from serving as an anchor for a defense. However, in Milwaukee, where there’s offense above him and defense behind him, he’s an absolute menace for opposing teams. He is the scorer teams forget about and the defensive stopper that makes opposing point guards forget what they’re supposed to be doing. I don’t love his offensive game. Holiday relies too heavily on pull-ups meant to catch a defender on their heels, and his midrange shot is just OK. It’s very fun to watch him punish an opposing guard with his outsized strength down low. However, both those offensive tendencies lend themselves to creating buckets outside the flow of the offense. When a defense can plan for Holiday (like, say, because Khris Middleton is out and he’s the strongest option beside Giannis), he is easily limitable. He shot 37.9% from the field in the 2021 playoffs, compared to his season average of 50.1% and career average of 46%. He is a top-flight third star, but this season showed even alongside the world’s best player, he can’t win you a championship as your second best player.

33. Jaylen Brown, SG, Boston Celtics
32. Bam Adebayo, PF-C, Miami Heat
31. Anthony Edwards, SG, Minnesota Timberwolves

Where were you when we all collectively realized Anthony Edwards was going to be a star? I was in my living room, the Timberwolves were playing the Grizzlies, and Anthony Edwards shot a 3 and it was like “oh yeah duh that dude is it.” Edwards has a confidence that works so symbiotically with his skillset, and most of his game is still raw. He has several potential leaps left to take. One such leap might have happened in Minnesota’s lone playoff series, where he upped his production from 21.3 to 25.2 points per game. He’s going to come into next season and find points even easier to get in the regular season than they were against Memphis in the playoffs. He’ll also get a lot more respect from teams, not that the former number one pick was some major secret. He has all the tools and appears completely poised to take off. I just can’t technically give him credit because he hasn’t gone out there and done it yet, even though we all fully expect him to. Also he’s got a couple weeks before he can legally drink. Jesus.

Similarly, Bam Adebayo seems poised to become a franchise centerpiece but hasn’t quite done it. His scoring inched up but is still under 20 ppg, his assists dropped off (adding Lowry as a facilitator of offense took away opportunities for assists, and that’s not Bam’s fault), and his defense remained very, very good. If Bam is unable to take a step forward this season, it will cast some doubt on whether he will ever be a franchise player. His partnership with Jimmy Butler is odd because both guys are very underappreciated, Adebayo’s versatility and rounded play and Jimmy’s blue-collar heroism. You’d think we could just appreciate what makes players good at basketball instead of wanting them to be great in a certain way. Adebayo breaks that mold because no one’s ever really been a Bam Adebayo type before he arrived. He’s like Draymond Green but offensively gifted. Where’s the love?

Jaylen Brown is also here, pressed against the glass of stardom looking inside. Brown had an up-and-down playoff run, from unconscious shooting quarters in the Milwaukee series, to 7 turnovers but 40 points in a loss versus Miami, to 12 points in a win the next game, to a Finals where he outperformed Jayson Tatum but it wasn’t enough. He is the second star of the Boston team that made the Finals, but also seems optional sometimes, as he disappears for stretches. He can do everything you want your two-guard or wing to do: drain threes, drive and finish, make free throws, defend tenaciously, make plays for others. It’s almost symbolic that his biggest skill gap may be the most basic facet of the game: dribbling. There came a point earlier in the season when the Celtics got really snippy with one another, and there was thought that Brown needed to be moved, because the core was becoming unworkable and Tatum was the franchise player. Brown and the Celtics responded by dominating the second half of the season and reaffirming the need to stay the course with one of the league’s most talented cores. Brown has the chance this year to respond to adversity again, by backing up his team’s Finals loss with a focused and complete campaign.

Tier 2 — Players 9–30, stars you can build around

30. Jamal Murray, G, Denver Nuggets
29. Zion Williamson, PF, New Orleans Pelicans

It’s a superstar mystery box! You have two guys here that you know are damn good, but you still have no idea what they’ll be able to give you in this upcoming season. Both of these guys chose not to rush back from injuries to help their desperate teams make longshot playoff runs last season. Given that, they had better step up and be ready for this season. Murray was averaging a career high 21.3 points per game in the 2020–21 season before he tore his ACL, which was slightly disappointing after a 2020 Bubble run where he averaged 26.5 and shot 45% from 3. Still, he was calibrating toward being that elite scoring threat to pair with Nikola Jokic, and it came crashing down. Williamson was averaging 27 points a game with New Orleans when he exited in 2021, a monster, All-Star year where he seemed like a future MVP candidate. A foot injury, on top of rumored issues with conditioning and weight, makes him a far more precarious franchise cornerstone. Nonetheless, he signed a four-year extension with New Orleans and will be joining a well-complemented roster with CJ McCollum, Brandon Ingram, Jonas Valanciunas, and several young energizing players. Both these players, if they return confident and healthy, will shift the West standings through their presences alone, and will have both their teams vying for top-4 seeds in the West.

28. Bradley Beal, SG, Washington Wizards
27. Rudy Gobert, C, Minnesota Timberwolves

The extension Bradley Beal signed with the Wizards obligates Washington to build its first contending team since 2017, when the Wall-Beal backcourt finished fourth in the East and lost a second-round series to Boston in seven games. Since then, Scott Brooks took three years longer than he deserved to unravel the team as Wall floundered and was sent away for Russell Westbrook, who had a decent season before being moved to Los Angeles. The return on that deal, Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell, and Spencer Dinwiddie actually proved quite fruitful for Washington as Kuzma has been superb in his role, Harrell was salary-dumped for Ish Smith, who was subsequently packaged with Caldwell-Pope to net Monte Morris and Will Barton; Dinwiddie was obviously the centerpiece of the trade for Kristaps Porzingis. The Wizards’ core is one that could have maybe competed for a title with Kobe Bryant in Beal’s spot (it actually sounds like something the mid-2000s Lakers would have put together). The problem is, despite two years averaging 30+ points per game, Beal is not Kobe Bryant. The Wizards’ road to contention involves Beal reclaiming his best ball, Porzingis thriving in a way he hasn’t since he had second-year expectations in New York, the continued excellence of Kuzma, plus elite fit for Barton and Morris, even then the Wizards will need one of Cory Kispert, Daniel Avdija, Rui Hachimura and Johnny Davis to provide a spark on a semi-regular basis. Your three-year plan has to involve upgrading either a wing or point guard next to Beal, and even then, it’s hard to see the Wizards defending a healthy Bucks team or scoring over the suffocating defense of a Boston. It’s hard to win. Did Beal lock himself and Washington into four years of mediocrity? Probably. He’s still really good at basketball.

Rudy Gobert was the crown jewel of this offseason, and Minnesota paid a king’s ransom to add him to their core. Gobert’s whole ethos has been picked to death and I don’t really have much more to add: great defensive center who will make the regular season easy for Minnesota, total question mark in the playoffs, also nobody seems to like him very much. Of all the components of the package for Gobert, the inclusion of Beverley — and swapping his locker room presence for Gobert’s — is going to be an interesting undercurrent to watch for this season in Minny.

26. CJ McCollum, G, New Orleans Pelicans
25. Khris Middleton, SG, Milwaukee Bucks

Getting out of Portland, it turns out, was really good for CJ McCollum. Next to Damian Lillard, McCollum had this persona as like, Lillard’s nerdy roommate who stayed in bed while Lillard snuck out the window to go fight crime. He had to defer stylistically to Dame’s hero-ball ego, painting the margins with impeccable jumper mechanics and keeping the ball moving on offense to get it back to number 0. In New Orleans, McCollum rounded a hardy bunch of whippersnappers into shape (the whippersnappers: Jose Alvarado, Jaxson Hayes, Herbert Jones, Trey Murphy, Naji Marshall, all born in 1998 or later) to challenge the defending conference champions to a six-game first round series, this off a triumph in the play-in tournament over the older, more expected Los Angeles Clippers (after beating the just-here-for-the-free-food San Antonio Spurs in the 9–10 match). It was a momentous stretch for New Orleans and changed the mood of the franchise from “Zion’s foot” to “we have a good basketball team.” The benefits of a basketball franchise focusing on being good at basketball as opposed to an appendage of one specific player should be obvious. Should Williamson return, the Pelicans have an enormous opportunity to transform into a title contender in the West, a status that utterly eluded them even when they had Anthony Davis. It’s still eluding them at this moment, but never has it seemed closer within reach.

Khris Middleton had to feel validated watching the Bucks sink in game seven to the Boston Celtics. Of course, he also had to feel like he let them down, like they missed their chance to get him back and make a legitimate run at a title defense, like the timing of this made no sense, why God, why now, why couldn’t the knee heal just a hair faster? But also, validated! The Bucks absolutely do need him to be the championship version of themselves. His clutch play throughout last playoffs played a perfect counter-melody to Giannis’ occasional slip-ups and mistakes, and his ability to score in bunches significantly eased the Bucks’ offensive struggles that were so apparent against Boston. Middleton hasn’t had a full offseason since 2019, so I don’t think my expectation that he’ll have his best year ever at age 31 is crazy.

24. Zach LaVine, SG, Chicago Bulls
23. Pascal Siakam, PF, Toronto Raptors

As these players were known for years to their respective fanbases, not-Jimmy Butler and not-Kawhi Leonard, they have slowly molded themselves into franchise players. LaVine made his first All-Star appearance in 2021, but 2022 was the first time a team LaVine was on won more than 31 games, and thus the first time we saw LaVine win a lot of games as his team’s best player. Of course, LaVine wound up being his team’s second-best player due in part to DeMar Derozan’s personal rebirth and also to LaVine’s nagging knee soreness that kept him out of many games and kept him from playing full strength in many others down the stretch. LaVine is a smooth player, but he didn’t quite get a real chance to show how well he can manufacture tough buckets in a playoff atmosphere; the Bucks blew the Bulls out of the water in a gentleman’s sweep, and LaVine was still deferring to Derozan late in games by that point.

Pascal Siakam, who inherited the Raptors when Kawhi Leonard left for Los Angeles, has held the franchise together surprisingly well, and seems poised to keep the Raptors on the cusp of contention while Scottie Barnes develops into a bona fide franchise co-star. I don’t believe Siakam will ever be the best player on a champion, but he could be a Khris Middleton if Barnes develops into an All-NBA-caliber player. Siakam is one of the best players playing through contact, and he operates in tight spaces with all the freedom of a point guard dancing around the perimeter. If the Raptors can figure out how to optimize all their most talented players (Anunoby, Siakam, Barnes, VanVleet) they would begin to give off 2004 Detroit Pistons vibes — no superstars, but every position manned by someone completely solid.

22. DeMar Derozan, SF, Chicago Bulls
21. Donovan Mitchell, PG, Utah Jazz(???)

DeMar Derozan’s signing in Chicago was greeted largely with shrugs. Los Angeles Lakers fans were relieved they didn’t trade for him. He was fresh off a few years on a toiling San Antonio team since being dumped by Toronto for a chance at Kawhi Leonard. Only he wasn’t toiling in San Antonio, he was building and rounding out his game. He arrived in Chicago a fully operating midrange surgeon. Derozan didn’t just lead the league in midrange buckets. He had 58 more field goals (284) from 8–16 feet than the second-place player, Kevin Durant. He had 85 more field goals (201) from 16–24 feet than the second-place player, Devin Booker. He had a stretch of eight games scoring 35 or more points (bookended by 31 point games that made it 10-straight 30-point games). Despite averaging 20 field-goal attempts per game, his season-high for 3-pointers attempted was 5, and he did that just three times. He received some MVP buzz though he never materialized into a serious candidate, and he brought Chicago back to the playoffs, even though a bad stretch toward the end of the season landed the Bulls in the six seed to face the Bucks, where they were overmatched. Derozan seems destined to leave his career without a championship, and part of that seems to be that he is too good to have a lesser role on a better team, and not good enough to have a major role on a title winner. Right now, his path to a title involves LaVine becoming significantly more prominent than him, and the pieces around that pairing improving significantly. It’s iffy at best. Honestly though, watching Derozan catch fire and dance the lost art of the midrange game in boisterous colors is worth everything. He’s a walking Kobe Bryant reenactment from underneath the arc. He is paying homage to the basketball gods, and it is good.

Donovan Mitchell is in a pickle. He shouldn’t be in Utah this year. He should avoid New York, definitely. He could fit well with Miami, but it’s unclear if they have the type of package Utah wants. After five years of trying to make it work with Gobert in Salt Lake, he’ll have to find a new paradigm to fit into. It is hard to know if Mitchell’s ceiling is anything higher than “best player on a second round loser where he scores 45 in the team’s 1–2 wins.” It’s also a challenge to figure out what kind of player he would pair well with. Gobert would seem an ideal fit, given the defensive boon he provides and the fact he doesn’t need the ball and is someone Mitchell could theoretically leverage as a ball-dominant guard. Instead, he and Gobert got annoyed of each other and continually disappointed in April, sometimes May. Right now it looks like Mitchell may end up stuck in Utah for at least half the season, waiting to be traded. New York is pining hard for him, but a backcourt of Mitchell and Brunson would be almost untenable defensively, and that’s one New York would be stuck in for a while unless they found a trade partner for Brunson. The way forward for Mitchell personally is really obscured right now, and until Danny Ainge carries out part two of his nuclear rebuild plan, it will remain that way.

20. Chris Paul, PG, Phoenix Suns
19. Kyrie Irving, PG, Brooklyn Nets

Kyrie Irving played 29 games in 2021–22. He shot 41% on 8 threes a game. He matched his career high from two years ago for points per game. He is an incredible scorer. He moves like liquid with the ball in his hands. There’s just, you know, some issues. He turned 30 in March, and at this point, needs to put together some good basketball seasons, if that’s what’s important to him. If the Nets wind up running it back, testing out the Ben Simmons-Kyrie Irving-Kevin Durant trio, even with some tensions still simmering down, it’s hard to imagine that team being unsuccessful. Brooklyn has been imaginative as anyone ever in inventing ways for a surefire team to fail. A scenario that’s been floated is Irving traded to the Lakers, which would be the only way the Lakers could move on from Westbrook, get better, and be more fraught with drama all in one move. Irving is one of the most polarizing players the NBA has, and also one of the best and most interesting. His ranking here reflects partially the character nuances that make him a questionable investment for a basketball team. He has top-10 potential if he just plays 70 games. He also could retire just because. He has that type of personality: the set of values associated with an athlete’s journey to the top of the American sports world is like foreign currency to him; he doesn’t care; which I respect. He should have gotten vaccinated, it’s funny to watch his teams implode, and he’s also an incredible basketball player to watch. There’s no equivalent to Irving in any other major sport.

This is an odd sequence because Chris Paul absolutely subscribes to the set of values manifest in American professional sports culture. He “plays the right way” and “will do anything to win” and plays with grit, hustle, tenacity, a small guy dominating a tall sport, a genius outsmarting the hulkier competition while vying for the ultimate prize. And what has it gotten him? One less ring than Kyrie Irving, for starters. The idea that Irving is better than Chris Paul would be absolutely infuriating to Chris Paul. But Paul is going to be 38, he averaged a career low in points per game last season even as he led the league in assists. His Phoenix team appears to be descending from an apex that felt like just the beginning all of five games ago. Their biggest hope now appears to be to trade for Irving’s teammate, Kevin Durant. There’s a good chance Paul provides more basketball value for Phoenix next year than Irving does for Brooklyn, or for a team Brooklyn trades him to, but the production Irving provides and the potential he has if he plays a full season at a high level far outpaces what Paul can offer at this stage of his career.

18. James Harden, SG, Philadelphia 76ers
17. Paul George, SF, Los Angeles Clippers

Kawhi Leonard’s poorly timed ACL tear killed two more seasons of Paul George’s prime, which is a real bummer. George has been scrapping his way to get where he presumably is now: On a legitimate contending team with a great chance to put together a championship run. He had two seasons in Indiana, his first two All-Star seasons, where he had a legitimate chance but ran into a LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh juggernaut that was not about to lose to Paul George and Roy Hibbert. Then he had a lost season due to a broken ankle (where, amazingly, he still managed to return for 90 bench minutes in the final weeks of the year). On the other side of that injury, he returned to a re-tooled Pacers team that had downgraded three of its five starters, struggled to 7th place for two years, and he got his wish to be traded from Indiana. He landed in Oklahoma City on a paper tiger with a big three of himself, Russell Westbrook, and Carmelo Anthony. That team had its moments, ultimately finishing fourth in the conference one year and sixth the next, but they were never contenders alongside a Kevin Durant-led Golden State team. George then arrived in Los Angeles with Leonard, famously blew a 3–1 lead to Denver in the Bubble, and two years later, here we are. For those counting, George has had about three legitimate shots to make championship playoff runs. This year should be his fourth. Leonard and George have two more years under contract before they have player options in 2024. While Leonard was drafted into a title-winning program in San Antonio and then traded into an all-or-nothing scenario in Toronto that he made good on, George has had good-but-not-good enough circumstances and has waited patiently for an opportunity like this season. If he doesn’t win a title these next two years, he likely never will unless he finds a new team with a new core where he is option number three.

Similarly, James Harden is entering his career’s twilight at soon-to-be 33. He has solidified his reputation as a playoff flop, with another absentee performance (25 points, 10 rebounds, 13 assists combined in games 5 and 6) against Miami. Simply put, Harden needed Embiid at full strength and didn’t have him. Harden, like George is finally in a stable situation, where the team around him is solid, built up, and talented enough to win it all. Unlike George, Harden has been on several such teams and never come close to maximizing the potential his rosters had.

Harden and George, in their 13th and 14 seasons respectively, are an old guard of sorts in the league, early career darlings who never manifested a championship because they assumed, like we all did, it would happen at some point. Both players must win within the next few years or they never will. Both players are prolific scorers, great regular season players, have struggled in the playoffs, and have a certain mental funk about them when it comes to greatness. It is hard to tell the difference here between under-appreciation and legitimate staleness. Both players have everything left to prove, and all it takes is one good year. Their MVP contention days are behind them, and now it’s all about putting together a run from April to June. The problem is, the league has caught up to them and by the time the circumstances are finally aligning for them, they may be aligning more readily for others further ahead on this list.

16. Anthony Davis, PF, Los Angeles Lakers
15. Damian Lillard, PG, Portland Trail Blazers

Anthony Davis was once anointed the next MVP not named Kevin Durant or LeBron James (mind you, anointed by one guy on Twitter but the tweet stuck with me not for nothing). Instead, he has seen other stars ascend in front of him, he has battled injuries, he has pouted his way out of a small market and into Los Angeles, he has won a championship in true partnership with the greatest player of his generation, and he has declined in some areas in a way that raises questions about whether he’ll ever meet his potential. Davis last year played 40 games, many of them through injury, and averaged 23.2 and 9.9, far from career highs of 28.1 and 12.0. He’s still a tweener in terms of being a best fit as a team’s power forward or their center. LeBron James is no longer able to drive to the basket 15 times a game 82 times a season, and Davis needs to provide that consistent offensive production as well as a legitimate defensive presence. The problems in Los Angeles got blamed on Russell Westbrook and Frank Vogel, but Anthony Davis and even LeBron James deserve some of that accountability as well. If Davis is unable to stay healthy this season, it will be the third such year in a row and give Los Angeles legitimate cause to move on from him. He is still a dominant player when he’s firing on all cylinders. Shooting from distance, attacking the basket, giving bigger lunkier defenders migraines in the paint, and lurking on defense. It’s just a question at this point of what he can give on a consistent basis. It’s odd for Davis, who will be 29 this season, to be thought of as an older player, but given his recent injuries and his body type and athleticism, it’s fair to start thinking of Davis as an older player.

Damian Lillard is now 32, and will face similar questions, especially as it becomes clear whether a Lillard-Nurkic-Grant-Simons core can compete at the highest levels in the West. Lillard has been an iron man for his career, missing no more than 9 games in a season until last year. He will need to regain his 2020 form (30 points, 8 assists per game) to bring the Blazers into contention. His contract keeps him in Portland until 2025, and it’s unlikely that Portland will be able to create a fourth core around Lillard should this one prove insufficient.

14. Karl-Anthony Towns, PF, Minnesota Timberwolves
13. Trae Young, PG, Atlanta Hawks

If I had a darkhorse MVP candidate this year, it’d be Karl-Anthony Towns. Despite Anthony Edwards’ improvement, it’s still Towns’ show in Minnesota, and he is coming off his best year yet and is on a team that is going to win a lot of games. With Gobert relieving him defensively, he may be able to increase his energy on the offensive end. Towns had a confidence about him, and an energy, that was unlike any we’d seen from him in his career. Pat Bev changed him. Since the West is no longer dominated by prime Durant, prime Harden, prime Chris Paul, it is feasible that Towns could lead Minnesota to the top of that conference. The fact he has such a powerful inside finish and such a light touch from deep (shooting over 40% since his third year in the league) makes him a premier dual threat player. The roster in Minnesota has added pieces each year to become a complete roster. If Minnesota can build a better defense around Gobert than Utah could, and Towns, Edwards, and Jaden McDaniels provide better potential than Royce O’Neal, Bojan Bogdanovic, Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley ever could, Minnesota could own the number one seed. Gobert has struggled in the playoffs, but even if he is “played off the floor” like he was against the Clippers in 2021, a lineup of Towns, McDaniels, Kyle Anderson, Edwards, and Russell is still playoff caliber.

If Towns wasn’t my dark horse MVP candidate, Young might be. The addition of Dejounte Murray should make the Hawks win again. Cracking the top four of the East will still be really difficult, but if they can do that, a supercharged season from Trae Young would be why. Young isn’t a good enough shooter to be the true heir to Stephen Curry, but he has improved there, having his best shooting season (38%) from three, edging Curry by 0.2% on the year. It was, however, Curry’s worst season, shooting-percentage-wise. Hopefully, Murray allows Young to find better shots and make even more. Young’s scoring remains ridiculous, even compared to Curry and Chris Paul at this stage of his career. While he’ll never have the bounce of a Ja Morant, he’s becoming more of a pick and roll technician each season, and looks to be of that class, Paul, Curry, and Lillard, more so than Ja, who is more in the Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook mold. The problem is that of all those five players mentioned, only Curry has won titles, and Golden State’s magical offensive flow and defensive concoction have been thus far non-replicable.

12. Ja Morant, PG, Memphis Grizzlies
11. Devin Booker, SG, Phoenix Suns

The greatness of the Phoenix Suns last season may prove to be an unsolved mystery in NBA lore for years to come. How did a team so easily dominate the regular season, only to struggle so mightily in the playoffs. Moreover, it will be very hard to follow up the Suns’ 2021 Final run and subsequent regular season campaign with another dominant regular season. If the Suns never reattain that form, we will have to sit and wonder what it was they had so right for such a short time. Prior to the playoffs, it seemed Booker’s Suns were rising to the top of the NBA, with the potential for a new Warriors type run. While Paul was aging, and wouldn’t be able to start for eight more years, the core of Booker, Bridges, Johnson, and Ayton were all young, ascending players. They still are, but as a team they are no longer ascending. Booker is one of several Kobe Bryant disciples near the top of this list, and if the Suns want to reach another level, Booker will have to build out his game, like Kobe did, to maximize his teammates, improve his defense, and figure out how to attack defenses better. Booker finished fifth in MVP voting last season, but is capable of scoring, rebounding, and assisting more. Booker has room to grow, but he needs to be able to rescue that team right now if they want to stay at the top of the West and look back at the 2022 playoffs as a one-off anomaly. All of this becomes irrelevant if the Suns trade for Durant.

Ja Morant was, by great consensus, the most entertaining player in the league to watch last season. In fact, he may have been the most entertaining player in the league to watch since Russell Westbrook before his MVP. His game is beautifully explosive, and he added to it a critical 3-point shot last year, moving from 30% to 34%. If he continues to improve that number, and finds a mid-range shot he can rely on, he’ll have the three-level scoring down that enabled Rose and Westbrook to win MVPs. Additionally, he has a team around him in Memphis that is likely to stay together and get better. He’s only 23. He has lots of time to improve and do what it takes to achieve a championship level. His predecessors have spent time either dealing with injuries (Rose) or not improving on basics (Westbrook) and have been unable to win one. I don’t know if Morant with this Memphis team could break that trend, but I’m damn excited to see him try.

10. Jimmy Butler, SF, Miami Heat
9. Jayson Tatum, SF, Boston Celtics

Jimmy Butler and Jayson Tatum make for good arch-enemies. Their respective paths to this year’s conference finals feature several polarities that highlight the differences that characterize them as fitting rivals. Tatum went to Duke, was drafted as a shadow number one overall pick, has been labeled as the future of the NBA since the day he arrived, has garnered media adulation and respect of his peers. Butler went to Marquette, was a late first-round pick, was dumped from Chicago in favor of Fred Hoiberg, was offered less than the max by Minnesota after leading them to the playoffs (and dominated a practice, beating the starters with reserves while taking just one shot), was dumped by Phliadelphia in favor of Tobias Harris, went to Miami, led them to a Finals and two years later to the top seed in the East, and still nobody wants to give him respect as a top 10 player. Jimmy Butler is a top 10 player. Tatum has the edge in many areas, on the surface: outscored Jimmy by 5.5 points a game, played 19 more games than him, shot 12% better from 3, scored 800 more points, beat his team in the playoffs. Butler outscored Tatum by 1.8 points a game in the playoffs, shot 10% better from 3 than in the regular season, and had the favored Celtics on the ropes in a Game 7. Yes, this ranking flips if Jimmy hits that shot, or if he drives on Al Horford and scores a series-winning and-1. It’s a game of inches. Right now, Tatum is better than Butler by inches.

Tatum has all the potential to vault into Tier 1. Butler really doesn’t, unless he wins a championship as Miami’s best player, which is frankly unlikely. Tatum would be there now if he had not had a quiet Finals, featuring a terrible Game 7 in which he had 13 points on 6-of-18 shooting. In fairness, he was probably pretty worn out. Still. Tier 2 is for the people who get worn out. Ultimately, Tatum needs to live a little basketball heartbreak before he’s ready to be the fullest version of himself. Boston is favored to repeat as conference champions, but it rarely goes that smoothly.

Tier 1 — Players 2–8, superstars who can win you a championship

8. Joel Embiid, C, Philadelphia 76ers

The last time a team won a championship with a center as its best player was in 1995. The Houston Rockets and Hakeem Olajuwon defeated the Orlando Magic to claim their second straight title. You could argue that Shaquille O’Neal was the best player on those three-peat Lakers teams, but even still, winning a title with Kobe Bryant as your second-best player still requires an asterisk. Embiid is trying to be the first center since Olajuwon to bring his team to greatness without a second superstar handy. So far, it has been a struggle. Drafted in 2014, Embiid missed his first two seasons (processing) before arriving pretty fully formed his “rookie” year in 2016–17. The Process was deemed a success when the Sixers went from 14th in the conference his rookie year to 3rd in year two with Ben Simmons playing in his “rookie” season. In ’18, ’19, ’21, and ’22, the Sixers lost in round two. The other year, 2020, they were swept in round one. A disgruntled James Harden was brought in in exchange for a disgruntled Ben Simmons. Now notably gruntled, Harden has agreed to take less in a contract to help build the 76ers roster. After failed pairings with Simmons, Butler, and sort of Harris, and sort of Al Horford, the roster as it currently stands represents Philadelphia’s best chance to at least make it past round two. Harden looks to be upping his focus for the upcoming season, Tyrese Maxey is improving as a young playmaking point guard, Harris remains as steady as ever.

For Embiid, though, much of this year was spent worrying over the MVP. Given Simmons’ absence, and the drama behind it, he was primed to have a strong narrative case for the MVP, leading his team from the ashes of that situation, leading the league in scoring along the way, and standing out for being a seven-footer who moves really well. From my vantage point, Embiid simply didn’t have the strongest case for MVP because of how much of the load others — Maxey, Harris, and eventually Harden — handled even in the absence of Simmons. Nikola Jokic, playing without two max-worthy players (Porter Jr. is still on a rookie deal) simply did more to overcome the hole his team was in. Embiid can reach heights that we haven’t seen reached in almost 30 years, but as he is learning the hard way, it is very much a process.

7. Kawhi Leonard, SF, Los Angeles Clippers

The fully realized Kawhi Leonard was terrifying. Of course, I’m referring to Leonard’s year in Toronto. Leonard scored 41 in a Game 7 against Philadelphia in round two, with one of the most iconic buzzer-beaters in NBA history to cap it off. Then he beat the Milwaukee Bucks in four straight, then conquered the Warriors, aided by unfortunate injuries to Kevin Durant and eventually Klay Thompson. But screw it, let’s watch that buzzer beater:

The collective patience of everyone in the arena remains breathtaking to this day. The narrative has warped a bit, to “Kawhi dominated the 2019 playoffs.” While that’s true, it’s definitely oversimplifying it. Leonard’s shot avoided overtime of a Game 7, so the Raptors were very close to not making the conference finals. More forgotten, though, is that the Raptors were down 2–0 to Milwaukee and won Game 3 in double overtime, meaning the Raptors were close to going down 3–0 (I believe they would not have won four straight at that point, even though they did win four straight to win in six) and being basically eliminated at that point. In the Finals, Kawhi’s dominance really hit a fever pitch. And to be fair, averaging 30.5 a game with 9 rebounds and 1.7 steals is dominant regardless of whether your team wins a series, but we certainly wouldn’t have anointed Leonard the best basketball player in the world after he lost in the playoffs (who is he, Durant?). The Warriors collapsed (physically, literally) in that Finals and Leonard took advantage, but certainly the Warriors were a great team even without Durant, but Thompson’s torn ACL in the third quarter of Game 6 made it a different story.

Since then, though, Leonard has moved to Los Angeles and in his one season where he finished the playoffs, the Clippers blew a 3–1 series lead to the Denver Nuggets, resulting in the firing of Doc Rivers. Tyronn Lue has done great work in LA, but Leonard hasn’t been a part of any of the concluding acts. That changes this year, barring further injury. If Leonard and Paul George are able to make it to the end of the season healthy, Leonard has a chance to show again why he is one of the best players in the league. He could rise up this list easily. Imagining him defending Luka Doncic, or Devin Booker, or Stephen Curry is enough to give one goosebumps, and serves as a reminder how much better the league is with a healthy Kawhi. Before his injuries, there had been challenges with the dynamic with Paul George, who is not used to being a second-in-command, even after pairing with an MVP in Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City. Beyond that, the perceived divide between the rest of the team and the two California-native stars began to bubble up as the team struggled through some early stretches of the season. There was some vague buzz around a potential return for Leonard in the postseason this year, but the Clippers were clipped in the play-in and never gave Leonard the chance. Regardless, it was understood that this year wasn’t the Clippers’ best chance to win it all. That comes now. With it comes a recovered Kawhi Leonard, ready to terrify opposing ballhandlers all over again. The league needs this.

6. LeBron James, SF-PF, Los Angeles Lakers

I found solace in matching LeBron James’ ranking to his jersey number, but otherwise it is weird not having him be number one, or like, putting him at number two as a hot take. Bron will be 38 this December, and is still one of the most physically dominant players in the league. You could call this an anomaly, but nothing is anomalous with James, who has taken meticulous care of his body for like 18 years. (Counterpoint: Everything about James is anomalous.) The Lakers toiled away at the bottom of the West standings in an all-around embarrassing season, even as James put up 30.3 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 6.2 assists per game. Compared to his last championship season, that’s 5.0 more points and 4.0 fewer assists. This year’s version of LeBron felt like he had given up on his team fairly early on, decided to prioritize his own production for his legacy’s sake, and take what he could from a lost year. James openly admitted his team didn’t have the potential to be at the level of a Milwaukee Bucks, despite being at the time one season removed from being champions themselves. The roster turnover was so great, and to such laughable results, that James knew there was no use pretending. James likely spared himself some physical toll because those winning basketball plays — the drives, the hard fouls, the bicep slaps — just weren’t going toward any greater good. Accordingly, James shot more 3-pointers than any year in his career, taking 8.0 per game, up from a previous career high of 6.3, a figure he reached in each of the previous two seasons.

This version of LeBron James is still great, just not the greatest player in the league. And also, there hasn’t really been an indication that James can’t play in a way that’s more consistently physically dominant. He just hasn’t in the past few years because it’s not worth it to bring such strain to his aging (supposedly) body. Unfortunately, it seems pretty unlikely that this year will magically find the Lakers becoming contenders. The big offseason acquisition for LA was head coach Darvin Ham, a longtime assistant who helped Giannis Antetokounmpo become a champion in Milwaukee. Other than that, the Lakers’ massive contracts to Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, and James have severely limited their roster flexibility. They added Lonnie Walker IV, Juan Toscano-Anderson, and will get Kendrick Nunn back, supposedly, from a supposed injury. They could do some work around the edges, potentially bringing back some bit players from last year (Wayne Ellington, DJ Augustin, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard), but … that’s not a competitive team, unless Westbrook and Davis can be dominant. Neither seems to be. For his whole career outside of four years in Miami and the Kyrie years in Cleveland, James has had to work unworkable rosters into title contention. Of all the rosters he’s had to work with, one with Davis and Westbrook on it would seem to be among the better teams he’s had. However, Russ and AD have such major roles on the team, it makes sense that James is relying on them to carry out those roles, that he isn’t willing to carry the team in their absence, that he’s admitting he can’t beat the Warriors by himself anymore, that he actually needs them to function like a cohesive team to win. If Davis isn’t healthy, or isn’t playing, the Lakers shouldn’t be contenders. If Russ is having a net negative effect on the team, the Lakers shouldn’t be contenders. If Davis can stay on the court and Westbrook can play better with others, then James will do his thing and make them get to the Finals. He still has the capacity to do that. It just feels like such a longshot right now for Davis to play even 60 games, and for Westbrook to contribute positively. In some ways, James’ ranking here isn’t even a reflection of him. It’s a reflection of how the roster around him has brought him down.

Now, you may be thinking: Didn’t LeBron James have a major hand in the entire construction of the roster from top to bottom? Yes he did. A lot of this is his fault. He pushed for the Westbrook trade, his best friend’s player agency has most of the roster as clients. It’s sort of a corrupted team, and James is the corrupter. If it was working out, this would be little more than unfair tampering, which is ubiquotous. Since it’s not working out, it’s fair to say “LeBron, if you want to be a player and a GM, we’re going to judge you for poor GMing as well as outstanding play.” Right now for James, it’s both. He’s still amazing at basketball.

5. Luka Doncic, PG, Dallas Mavericks

I don’t know of any other signature buzzer-beaters, but the left-wing stepback 3-point buzzer beater is a fact of life for opponents of Luka Doncic. The left wing is his preferred location, but he can actually do it from the right half of the court too. Anyway, the greatness of Luka Doncic remains hard to define. Perhaps the best way to describe it is an elite ability of control. His handle is elite (Kyrie better), his passing is elite (Jokic better), his vision is elite (CP3 better), and those are the things he does at a top level. His second-tier skills are his physicality, his 3-point shooting, and his athleticism. His god-level skill is his innate ability to feel the basket, like he could put up 12/6/5 a game if he went blind tomorrow. His game still has lots of room to grow, too. He was criticized early this past season for not having great conditioning. He still carries his physique like baby fat. He has a surprisingly limited repertoire of go-to moves, including the stepback and the stepback-step-through near the rim. All these things can and should improve over time. His emotional maturity also could be a little better, although he gets petty when he gets upset and I love watching that.

Doncic feels both undervalued and overrated. He had the second strongest MVP case behind Nikola Jokic this year, based on being his team’s best player in the highest number of wins. The Mavericks put out a lineup that Kevin Durant would never tolerate, the kind that drove LeBron James to abandon his hometown team, one only Nikola Jokic really understands, one Stephen Curry cannot fathom, one Giannis Antetokounmpo has been spared through a deliberate and incremental plan. Doncic, Jalen Brunson, Reggie Bullock, Maxi Kleber, Dwight Powell. Powell, whose game is as Nick Collison as they come, should be demoted in favor of Christian Wood. Wood and Tim Hardaway Jr. are Dallas’s main hopes to overcoming the loss of a scarce offensive resource in Brunson, but Doncic’s improvement can aid this process as well. To assert that Doncic is better than Joel Embiid, Kawhi Leonard, and LeBron James feels bolder than the numbers and results show it to be. James’s team missed the playoffs, Leonard has never reached Doncic’s 28-point average, Embiid has yet to make a conference final, which Doncic did this past year with a lesser roster. Doncic isn’t a god-level shooter, he doesn’t have freakish physical traits, and he is not fast and does not jump high. He is just solidly big and under control at all times. He can score close, medium, or far from the basket. He has a knack for the moment. He has a feel for the bucket. He is the youngest player in the top 10, with only Tatum coming close at a year older, and he is just starting to put his imprint on the league. It feels like for years we’ve talked about the new wave of talent — Doncic, Tatum, Young, Morant, Booker, et al — that was going to take over the NBA and relieve the old guard —James, Durant, Harden, Curry, Leonard, and friends (Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo being some kind of odd middle passage). That moment is happening, last year and the next couple years .

4. Nikola Jokic, C, Denver Nuggets

This old Serbian bastard just won his second consecutive MVP for no goddamn reason. At no point this year did the Nuggets have a legitimate chance to win the NBA title, other than sparse murmurings as a potential dark horse in the event their big three could return in time to mount a playoff run (they could not). Instead of faking an injury to save his legs and bump up Denver’s draft stock, Jokic went out there, like a man mowing his lawn after a long week at a dead-end job, and played better basketball than anyone else in the league. He and Aaron Gordon and Jeff Green went out and drug the Nuggets to a six seed, all for the pleasure of getting eviscerated in round one by the eventual champions. Jokic, with all the temperament of a newspaper editor whose seen his staff reduced by a factor of six in the last decade, played 74 games at 33.5 minutes a night for a lost cause, recording a career high in triple-doubles and inventing a new club, the 2000–1000–500 club (points-rebounds-assists) of which he is the sole and charter member. Joel Embiid, in possession of one of the greatest basketball skillsets to ever exist, trying his damnedest at the height of his powers to win the MVP, and this lumbering muffin, who in almost any other era of human civilization would be a custodian, salted away all momentum, nullified all those 38-point games, and beat him down to second team All-NBA. That’s all Embiid got after his best season ever. Second team, second-round exit. Better luck next year.

So Jokic got the MVP, but for what? You love a guy who has the integrity to go out and beat someone when it gains him nothing. Now, the largest contract in NBA history isn’t nothing, but it’s not like Jokic was going to get less than the max if he turned in a casual All-Star, third-team All-NBA season. Now that the bag is, as they say, secured, the focus really shifts to trying to win a championship. As in, that’s the next step for Jokic’s legacy in our eyes. The long-awaited returns of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. will fundamentally change the Western Conference. Jokic will likely recede from the MVP picture, and the Nuggets will enter the fray at the top of the conference rather than hanging out in the bottom of the playoff standings just for fun. The addition of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope rounds out the Nuggets lineup, giving them a lineup of Murray-KCP-Porter-Gordon-Jokic that can go toe-to-toe with any starting five in the league, at least offensively. With Murray and Porter coming off injuries, their defensive capacity will likely suffer more than their offensive games, which will compel Caldwell-Pope and Gordon to carry the load on that side of the ball, as well as Jokic. In fact, given the Nuggets are returning what they hope amounts to 45 points a game, I believe it’s incumbent upon Jokic to shift his focus to defense as much as possible, as in, there’s no timeline in which Jokic sacrifices too much offense for defense, on the condition that Murray and Porter Jr. are able to provide 45 points a night. I expect Jokic’s average to drop to 23 or 24 points a night; however, if it fell to 17, but he emerged as a defensive stalwart, I’d bet the Nuggets would benefit from that trade-off. Jokic’s innate feel for the game is rivaled only by Doncic’s, and while that capacity gets maximized most often for offense, Jokic has shown that when he commits on the defensive end, good things come of that. Part of his MVP case this year was that, contrary to most conclusions drawn by the eye test, Jokic’s advanced metrics showed he performed at a high level on defense.

This will be a defining year in Jokic’s career. Either the big three reunites and turns the Nuggets into a contender, which will set the bar for the rest of Jokic’s time, or something will be off with one or both of them. If that’s the case, the Nuggets will initiate a search for a new direction that could take years to figure out, with Jokic’s status as an all-time great hinging somewhat on what his team is capable of achieving. Joker has already proved that he is capable of dominance on a nightly basis, but in the modern NBA, you cannot win a title with one MVP and Aaron Gordon. You need a complete rotation of capable players who contribute positively to winning. Jokic may have that, and finding out whether he does will determine a significant part of the complexion of the Western conference for years to come.

3. Kevin Durant, SF, Brooklyn Nets(????????????)

First off, f*ck Kevin Durant. It’s Durant that made the NBA season a foregone conclusion for two straight years. Really three, except he got injured in year three and so the ending changed, but if he hadn’t gotten hurt, everyone knows what it was. So, for that, I do not forgive him, and won’t do so until I feel like it, which is both not today and not while I decided on the order for the top of this list. I say this to make clear my own bias here. That’s not to say “KD would be higher if I wasn’t a diagnosable hater,” because if that were what it was I could justify putting him lower on this list, and I do think he’s better than everyone below and not as great as everyone above. So, the bias is there, but the opinion still stands. A caveat, though, is that this is all in the context of basketball and not out of it. I think Durant’s personality adds color to the league, and I appreciate it, and enjoy watching him on Twitter even though I sometimes pray he @s me so I can clap back because I, like obviously everyone else he folds on Twitter, believe my words could affect him. If I met Kevin Durant in person, of course I would not say any of this shit to his face. However, if Durant and I had like, a trusting friendship, I would definitely still be of the belief and be willing to tell him, “your decision fucked the whole thing up for a good while, and I wish you had chosen differently.”

My opinion on Durant isn’t anomalous, and it’s definitely part of a movement that shaped him into who he is. Durant was once a humble MVP, declaring the nickname “Slim Reaper” was too severe for him, that he’d rather be known as “The Servant,” a moniker more reflective of his Christian values. When he chose to go to Golden State, I feel it’s fair to say he misjudged what the reception of that decision would be. The backlash was enormous. The only choice Durant really had was to harden himself against public opinion, something he had never had to do because it was pretty much universal adulation from the moment he picked up a basketball. In that space, Durant carried on, winning a first title that was meaningful only to him, a second title that wasn’t that meaningful, and losing a chance at a third title due to injury. The course had been run by that point, and Durant set off in a new direction. When the Nets era began, it was a humbler space in which Durant was operating, one he could build a redemption story. Durant didn’t really embrace that idea, because it would be serving the public whose opinion on him had just turned so mean-spirited. It wasn’t about making people happy, even though it could have been. Durant’s Nets quickly became the darkness in the East that his Warriors had recently been for the entire league, as Kyrie Irving joined and the team swung for James Harden, who gave the Nets a talent advantage similar on paper to the one he enjoyed in the Bay. Despite elite-level performances from Durant that earned him the distinction (possibly for the first time) as the number one player in the world (informally), the Nets lost in seven games to the Bucks. A year of dysfunction, vaccine mandates, and Ben Simmons technicolor sideline outfits later, the Durant Nets couldn’t even muster up a single win against Boston, with Durant going out in the playoffs more quietly than he ever had.

There’s so much drama to clear before you even get to start talking about Durant the basketball player, and we’re almost there but not yet. After an embarrassing finish to their season, the Nets low-balled Kyrie Irving and Durant subsequently expressed a desire to be traded, a desire that hasn’t been met yet but is still very much up in the air. Durant’s request seems to be out of solidarity with Irving (despite Irving opting in to his Brooklyn deal, which makes the exercise somewhat counterintuitive), because Durant is loyal to his fellow employees, like Irving, over the management team that purports to have control over his future. Durant famously responded to a criticism of his leadership by saying he was “an employee … some moments I’m out in front, some moments I’m not.” This is patently false in a basketball sense, in that Durant’s talent precludes him from being “not” out front, in the minds of the nine other players on the floor, whose collective opinion matters here more than his individually. However, it reveals a little of why he went to Golden State, pursuing an environment in which his task was to contribute to a bigger whole, not to stand heroically at the forefront and save his team from defeat. It also speaks to another critique I have of Durant, which affects me as a basketball consumer way more than it affects him as a person or player: his seeming disinterest in greatness. Like, if you are named the Employee of the Month every month of every year, maybe you’re underselling yourself by refusing to express interest in management. Durant’s quick to point out to any detractors that he is perfectly content with the heights to which he has risen, cementing himself as a singular talent among anyone who has ever played basketball, one of the greatest scorers of all time and an indisputably iconic player. He seems, more than any athlete who’s ever been this good at their sport, ultimately most concerned with his own happiness, and not with pleasing the crowds that have made his hobby into a global spectacle. He could pursue greatness in a traditional way and make happy the fans who supposedly are responsible for his opportunity, but he seems to feel like the fans who betrayed him en masse when he chose to leave Oklahoma City owe him more than he owes them. It’s a level of ego that perhaps we’ve never seen in sports; but remember, we love ego in sports, so it’s hard not to respect it.

So anyways, Kevin Durant has a beautiful jump shot. And any team lucky enough to employ someone with such an effective stroke is going to be very good. He has the highest field goal percentage of anyone in the league on long mid-rangers (16–24 ft., >60 FGA). His percentages in every category rank near the top of the league, including at the basket. He is the quintessential bucket getter in all the world at basketball. He’s shown in the past an ability to defend at a high level when his team needs it, and he averaged a career-high in assists last season as his scoring rose to a level it hadn’t hit since his MVP year in 2013–14. It’s probably fair to assert that Durant’s unwillingness to give everything he had in the first round series against Boston was due to an informed pragmatism. This iteration of his team would not win a title with him going nuclear every night he possibly could, so he may as well take just 11 shots in a backbreaking Game 3 loss. A scoring average of 22 points a game through those first three games (buoyed by a 39-point outburst as he bowed out for the season) exemplifies how even though Durant has the most theoretical talent in the universe, his degree of applied talent isn’t enough to make him the best basketball player on the planet. Whether this changes is up to him, but since that change is precisely the transformation basketball fans want to see, Durant’s more than likely not to make it.

2. Stephen Curry, PG, Golden State Warriors

Stephen Curry would have been just fine without a comeback. If he had returned in 2021 and been an All-Star, a yearly playoff visitor like, say, Chris Paul, and never put himself in the picture for the world’s greatest player ever again, then no one would have blamed him. His rise with the Warriors from 2013 to 2018 was one of the most successful periods for any player. Three titles, two MVPs, most wins in NBA history. Nobody could — let’s lean in to his phrasing, here — tell him anything. He didn’t have to come back and enter the MVP conversation last year, didn’t have to lead his team to a fourth title this year. Great ones just do these things. Stephen Curry was greats, now they’ll have to say Stephen Curry was one of the greats. And also, why would he be done? He’s actually still got more to prove, and we will be lucky to witness him try to prove it.

In his worst shooting season of his career, Golden State’s big three finally reconvened, albeit only for a smattering of minutes prior to the postseason. In the playoffs’ opening rounds, against Denver and then Memphis, Dub City learned how to play together again. Frankly, they still could get better. Next season could be a reclamation of their 2016 greatness, the way these playoffs were a reclamation of their 2015 greatness. At the heart of it all was Stephen Curry, continuing to be the most obnoxious player in the world to play against. He’ll run you in circles and even when you keep up and force him to shoot a contested, off-balance long three, well, that’s just what he was hoping for — splash. In one more game than last season, Curry averaged 6.5 points fewer per game, shooting 4% worse from three (under 40% for the first time in his career, save his 5-game 2020 campaign) and 4.5% worse overall (career low, again save 2020). The Warriors were tied with the Phoenix Suns for the top seed in the West at 30–9 before Klay Thompson came back. Thompson’s return injected another 18 FGAs into the Warriors offensive equation, and those had to come from somewhere. Thompson was rusty, but the Warriors knew it was worthwhile to get him up to speed, so they lost some ground in the conference to do that (and also because Green and Curry took turns being hurt). They went 23–20 for the remainder of the season, while the Suns went 34–9 (the Celtics, by the way, went 32–10 over that stretch). They came into the playoffs with a mostly ready Thompson, and a healthy Green and a healthy Curry, and it was over from there.

Curry’s status among all-time greats is a bit of a difficult conversation. For some reason, he’s not seen as a potential GOAT player like Jordan or James. His height of 6'2" is a limitation defensively, but he’s also just not as strong of a defensive player pound-for-pound as either of those two, or a Tim Duncan or Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, or Kobe Bryant, or Bird or Magic or whoever you want to be entered into that conversation. But let’s be clear, nobody of his size is better, and we need to move beyond size, because he’s worthy of being in that conversation. The all-time comparison that I have for Curry is one that is a bit counterintuitive, but I believe it’s the most pure and best comparison for whose game impacted the league similar to Curry’s. Stephen Curry’s historical comparison, as of right now, is Shaquille O’Neal. It’s kind of ironic, given their opposite statures, and the high contrast in the way they play the game. However, Shaq was the best paint scorer in a paint-scoring league. Curry is the best 3-point scorer in a 3-point scoring league. Shaq’s gravitational pull inside got defenses out of position and made things easier on the rest of his teammates, Curry’s gravitational pull beyond the arc functions the same. Shaq had an immutable trait, his size, that made him practically unstoppable. Curry’s immutable trait is his shooting ability, which surpasses that of any player in league history. Unlike other elite shooters, Curry’s shooting ability is not a product of consistent mechanics. Curry’s shooting ability is good in all circumstances. He’s like Hawkeye or Bullseye or Gambit, one of those comic book characters whose accuracy is so absurd it passes for a superpower. Shaq’s comic book comparisons were the Hulk, the Colossus, the Beast, the Juggernaut (bitch!). Both players have won four titles. Both players got multiple of those titles alongside other all-time greats in their prime, detracting from the credit they were due.

Curry’s performance in the NBA Finals, finally securing the elusive NBA Finals MVP (which once eluded Kobe Bryant because Shaquille O’Neal won all three of them during their run together), returned him to his rightful place at the forefront of discussions around the best player in the world. His pairing with Durant was a distraction from the writing of his own legacy because it only made sense for those teams to be considered Durant’s teams. Durant is one of the only people on the planet whose shooting can supplant Curry’s, and being that he’s 6'10", it is easier to get him open shots, and makes sense to put the offense in his hands. Curry’s willingness to allow Durant to be the focal point allowed those teams to be unstoppably great, and it cost him his status as second-best player in the world (he was, at the time they joined, fresh off of leading his team over Durant’s in the conference finals). Curry doesn’t have that much to gain individually from a dominant, MVP-worthy regular season, even though as I stated earlier it’s fair to suggest the Warriors as a team absolutely have plenty to gain. It is likely Curry won’t be in the MVP discussion next year, that he’ll quietly score 25 points a game in the background on a number one seed, and we’ll talk about Durant, Doncic, Embiid, Jokic, Leonard, James, and Antetokounmpo before we talk about Curry. But come playoff time, Curry will be there, ready to run defenses in circles and put them to bed when the time comes. This postseason was a reminder of the greatness he possesses, how he so easily won consecutive MVPs, how he is a better shooter than anyone else on the planet and it’s not close, and how when it comes down to it, basketball is mostly really about shooting. Even if he plays it cool during the season, having fun and cruising to a top seed, don’t forget that Stephen Curry is one of the baddest basketball players on the planet, and he’s not close to done yet.

Tier 0 — The Best Player in the World

  1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, PF, Milwaukee Bucks

The best stands alone. Well, in my pyramidal metaphor here, I like to imagine the greatest player hovering over the tiered players. It’s not really fair to suggest that there is a “tier” where the greatest basketball player stands alone, as being the greatest is a distinguishing characterization, and deserves to be singled out, elevated, beyond the comparability tiering implies. The fact is, there can only be one player who is better than everyone else, and that player is Giannis Antetokounmpo. Antetokounmpo is a marvel, a player whose best trait is his capacity to keep learning and improving both at the basic tenets of the game as well as the edges, the little things. This past year, Antetokounmpo improved his midrange shooting by nearly 6% from 10–16 feet and 11% from 16–24 feet. His free-throw shooting also hopped back up to 72% from where it had been 63% two years prior. Without Khris Middleton, he pushed the eventual conference champion Celtics to a seventh game, even as the Celtics played him better than any team since the Miami Heat in the 2020 playoffs, forcing into 36 turnovers that series, 8 more than his previous career series high (2021 against Brooklyn). His average in that Boston series was 33.9 points per game, his second-best series average behind the 2021 Finals (35.2). Antetokounmpo’s continuing quest to become a complete player, consider the raw rolled-dough ball of space energy he came into the league as, is one of the greatest sports stories of all time.

While I just got finished making the physically ironic comparison between Stephen Curry and Shaquille O’Neal in terms of their legacies, Antetokounmpo is the modern comparison physically to O’Neal. Antetokounmpo is positionless, as he can play point guard through center, but no matter where he is on the floor, he dominates and will score if you don’t execute a plan to stop him. Antetokounmpo set a career high for free-throw attempts (and makes) per game this season, with the 1.8 increase in made free throws matching his overall scoring improvement. If he can live a little more comfortably at the line, he becomes just a little bit more unstoppable. If he could manage to push his 3-point shot even just by 2 or 3 percent, he’d open his game even more. As it stands, his game involves downhill play both in transition and in the halfcourt, a Euro-step catalogue that ends in layups that look like they’re performed on a Little Tyke hoop or dunks that are liable to crunch the vertebrae in the opponent’s neck. He complements his inside game with a jump shot that takes place in cloud cover, far over the outstretched hands of would-be defenders. His 3-point shot is a weakness, but knocking them in at 30% means you have to acknowledge that a threat above the arc exists (even if it’s far preferable to allowing spine-smushing dunks). If you try to stop him, you will foul him. If you don’t try to stop him, you will lose. You need to double him because guys big enough to guard him aren’t quick enough to force turnovers on him, and guy quick enough to force turnovers will get run over. When you double-team him, he is surrounded by shooters and will usually find an open one beyond the arc or cutting to the basket or hanging out in the dunker spot. On defense, he is capable of playing center, or lurking as a rim-protecting power forward. If you attempt a game-winning shot at the rim, he will simply block it.

Criticisms of Antetokounmpo’s perceived lack of skill used to be anchored in his failure to win a championship. With the title under his belt, he proved he is skilled enough to be the best. His propensity to play his best in the biggest moments is another strength. Being without Middleton in the second round this year and losing to the Celtics does sidetrack what could have been a legendary run, because with Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Holiday under contract for years to come, the Bucks could be title contenders into the late ’20s without changing much about the roster at all. Middleton’s importance to the Bucks was made plain in the series loss, but regardless, Antetokounmpo’s detractors will use it to suggest he’s not smooth enough to carry a team to a dynasty. They will prefer players like Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Jayson Tatum, whose fluidity masks their inferior production. The problem for the league is that Antetokounmpo is still getting better, exists in a continual state of growth, and will continue to hone his craft until he is no longer able to remain competitive. This will be Antetokounmpo’s longest offseason since 2018, giving him the most time to improve his game since he was in his early 20s. Even after earning the distinction (informally!) as the greatest player on Earth, Giannis will continue focusing only on how to get better. His commitment to greatness, his inherent understanding of the pursuit of it, is his superpower. It’s why you can bet that now that he has this spot, he will hold onto it for as long as his body allows.

So that’s it. That’s the list. Hurray! Here’s a svelte, readable look at it.

Tier 5 —A clusterf*ck of good players
100. Patrick Beverley, PG, Utah Jazz
99. Al Horford, PF, Boston Celtics
98. Marcus Morris, PF, Los Angeles Clippers
97. Terry Rozier, G, Charlotte Hornets
96. Malcolm Brogdon, PG, Boston Celtics
95. Luguentz Dort, SG, Oklahoma City Thunder
94. Aaron Gordon, PF, Denver Nuggets
93. Jusuf Nurkic, C, Portland Trail Blazers
92. Kevin Love, PF, Cleveland Cavaliers
91. Gordon Hayward, SF, Charlotte Hornets
90. Dillon Brooks, SF, Memphis Grizzlies
89. Victor Oladipo, SG, Miami Heat
88. OG Anunoby, SG, Toronto Raptors
87. Bojan Bogdanovic, SF, Utah Jazz
86. Saddiq Bey, SF, Detroit Pistons
85. Bobby Portis, PF, Milwaukee Bucks
84. Tyrese Haliburton, PG, Indiana Pacers
83. Kyle Kuzma, SF-PF, Washington Wizards
82. Harrison Barnes, SF, Sacramento Kings
81. Reggie Jackson, PG, Los Angeles Clippers
80. Spencer Dinwiddie, G, Dallas Mavericks
79. Myles Turner, C, Indiana Pacers
78. Jarrett Allen, C, Cleveland Cavaliers
77. Mikal Bridges, SF, Phoenix Suns
76. Mike Conley, PG, Utah Jazz
Tier 4 — Elite role players and fatally flawed stars
75. Kristaps Porzingis, PF-C, Washington Wizards
74. Jonas Valanciunas, C, New Orleans Pelicans
73. Anfernee Simons, SG, Portland Trail Blazers
72. Jerami Grant, PF, Portland Trail Blazers
71. Nikola Vucevic, C, Chicago Bulls
70. Klay Thompson, SG, Golden State Warriors
69. Cole Anthony, G, Orlando Magic
68. Robert Williams, PF-C, Boston Celtics
67. Tobias Harris, SF-PF, Philadelphia 76ers
66. Evan Mobley, PF-C, Cleveland Cavaliers
65. Tyrese Maxey, PG, Philadelphia 76ers
64. Fred VanVleet, PG, Toronto Raptors
63. Marcus Smart, PG, Boston Celtics
62. Christian Wood, PF-C, Dallas Mavericks
61. R.J. Barrett, SG, New York Knicks
60. D’Angelo Russell, PG, Minnesota Timberwolves
59. Lonzo Ball, PG, Chicago Bulls
58. T.J. Warren, SF, Brooklyn Nets
57. Scottie Barnes, PF, Toronto Raptors
56. Jaren Jackson Jr., PF-C, Memphis Grizzlies
55. Domantas Sabonis, PF, Sacramento Kings
54. Jordan Poole, G, Golden State Warriors
53. Tyler Herro, SG, Miami Heat
52. Desmond Bane, SG, Memphis Grizzlies
51. Draymond Green, PF, Golden State Warriors
Tier 3 — Fringe stars (sometimes they are, sometimes they aren’t)
50. DeAndre Ayton, C, Phoenix Suns
49. Kyle Lowry, PG, Miami Heat
48. Julius Randle, PF, New York Knicks
47. Russell Westbrook, G, Los Angeles Lakers
46. Ben Simmons, PG, Brooklyn Nets
45. John Collins, PF, Atlanta Hawks
44. Andrew Wiggins, SF, Golden State Warriors
43. Jalen Brunson, PG, New York Knicks
42. Michael Porter Jr., SF, Denver Nuggets
41. LaMelo Ball, PG, Charlotte Hornets
40. Cade Cunningham, PG, Detroit Pistons
39. De’Aaron Fox, PG, Sacramento Kings
38. Darius Garland, PG, Cleveland Cavaliers
37. Dejounte Murray, G, Atlanta Hawks
36. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, SG, Oklahoma City Thunder
35. Brandon Ingram, PF, New Orleans Pelicans
34. Jrue Holiday, PG, Milwaukee Bucks
33. Jaylen Brown, SG, Boston Celtics
32. Bam Adebayo, PF-C, Miami Heat
31. Anthony Edwards, SG, Minnesota Timberwolves
Tier 2 — Stars you can build around
30. Jamal Murray, G, Denver Nuggets
29. Zion Williamson, PF, New Orleans Pelicans
28. Bradley Beal, SG, Washington Wizards
27. Rudy Gobert, C, Minnesota Timberwolves
26. CJ McCollum, G, New Orleans Pelicans
25. Khris Middleton, SG, Milwaukee Bucks
24. Zach LaVine, SG, Chicago Bulls
23. Pascal Siakam, PF, Toronto Raptors
22. DeMar Derozan, SF, Chicago Bulls
21. Donovan Mitchell, PG, Utah Jazz
20. Chris Paul, PG, Phoenix Suns
19. Kyrie Irving, PG, Brooklyn Nets
18. James Harden, SG, Philadelphia 76ers
17. Paul George, SF, Los Angeles Clippers
16. Anthony Davis, PF, Los Angeles Lakers
15. Damian Lillard, PG, Portland Trail Blazers
14. Karl-Anthony Towns, PF, Minnesota Timberwolves
13. Trae Young, PG, Atlanta Hawks
12. Ja Morant, PG, Memphis Grizzlies
11. Devin Booker, SG, Phoenix Suns
10. Jimmy Butler, SF, Miami Heat
9. Jayson Tatum, SF, Boston Celtics
Tier 1 — Superstars who can win you a championship
8. Joel Embiid, C, Philadelphia 76ers
7. Kawhi Leonard, SF, Los Angeles Clippers
6. LeBron James, SF-PF, Los Angeles Lakers
5. Luka Doncic, PG, Dallas Mavericks
4. Nikola Jokic, C, Denver Nuggets
3. Kevin Durant, SF, Brooklyn Nets
2. Stephen Curry, PG, Golden State Warriors
Tier 0 — The Best Player in the World
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, PF, Milwaukee Bucks

--

--

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store