I’ve familiarized myself with every player on this list by watching games, film, and doing stat and play-type research to try and round out any blindspots. If you disagree with any of the rankings that’s all well and good, and you can even say I’m dumb if you so choose. It’s hard to rank 100 players, and I just hope the write-ups are accurate to the player, entertaining, and worthwhile. Thanks for reading.
Before we begin:
- If a player hasn’t played prior to the season’s suspension, they are not considered for the list. Ex. Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, John Wall.
- This list is made with the assumption that the teams would finish the 82 game season. That isn’t a likely outcome, but the list was made with that in mind.
- If a player has an existing injury that is expected to keep them out going forward, they are not considered for the list. Ex. Kyrie Irving, Clint Capela.
- There is an aspect of momentum to these rankings. If a player was coming on particularly strong at the end of the season (Christian Wood, Malik Beasley) their finish is rated higher than their start.
- I have guest blurbs on a few players from writers I admire and their names will appear next to their blurbs.
- Thank you to resources that make these things much easier: Bball Index, Basketball-Reference, NBA.com/stats, and Cleaning the Glass.
Bradley Beal – Washington Wizards
The man gets buckets endlessly. At the expense of almost any commitment defensively, Bradley Beal has supercharged his offense this year. He’s one of the best triple-threat operators in the NBA, and few players are better at attacking the weak-foot of a defender whether they’re in motion or stationary. His balance while moving towards the rim is light years better than when he came into the league. Beal changes speeds with the best of them and can finish through heavy contact in the air, or slow things down and sneak to the opposite side of the rim. His shiftiness in the lane has caught heaps of guards and bigs alike, and it’s one of the main tools Beals uses to get to the free throw line (which he’s doing remarkably well this year). His control has also made him a much improved playmaker, and when teams lock onto a 30-point per game scorer, teammates will find themselves open. All this while keeping in mind that Beal is an extremely dangerous pull-up threat and he’s been letting it fly from deep with reckless abandon this season. When you account for the defense, Beal isn’t going to take the Wizards any place special (at least not this version), but the sheer immensity of his offensive output has provided a fantastic spectacle for fans to enjoy.
Brandon Ingram – New Orleans Pelicans
At first it seemed like Brandon Ingram’s impressive scoring to start the season was buoyed by an unsustainable accuracy from mid-range, and we’ve seen that happen with other players. Only, Ingram’s performances are well past sustained. Ingram flashed playmaking chops in Los Angeles and a jump-shot that seemed like it could become lethal, but he never captured consistency as a 3-level scorer until he landed in New Orleans. His length (it’s a lot of length!) automatically grants him angles as a shooter, passer, and finisher that few players have in the NBA. And not every player has been able to translate an advantageous body type into success, but Ingram is well on his way. His body control is leaps and bounds better when taking contact, and his pull-up game this year has been incredibly potent. He’s much better defensively, too. His length bothers all types of players in 1-on-1 matchups, he’s always disruptive and he’s never too far away as a help-side defender. His first year as a pseudo-star has been a victory lap for Ingram, as he’s basically taken steps towards every conceivable skill that moves him closer to his ceiling, and did it after a serious health scare. Ingram’s improvements this year have been so astronomical that in a league where players are constantly stepping into stardom, he’s completely dominated the conversation around the most improved player award.
Devin Booker – Phoenix Suns
The leading man on a team that has finally started to support him as a star. I think the Suns are much better than the numbers indicate, and they seem legitimately close to a playoff squad. Devin Booker is the prime creator for their offense, both as a scorer and passer. He’s much improved at creating 3-point looks for his teammates from the middle of the floor, where he can always seem to get to, and if no passes present themselves he has one of the most lethal stop and pops in the game. There’s only a handful of players in the league that are better in the triple-threat. He was heralded as the next great shooter earlier in his career, but that’s been replaced with an increasingly impressive floor game that, yes, is much more dangerous because of his jumper, but far from reliant on it. He’s still not anything to write home about defensively, but the overall strides he’s made elsewhere have primed him for life as a good first option, with potential to be great.
Kemba Walker – Boston Celtics
Few players in the NBA are as explosive with a live dribble as Kemba Walker. He’s most effective breaking down players and looking to create his own shot. He can hang with other elite point guards as a scorer, but has always been lagging behind as a playmaker and finisher. Luckily, the Celtics boast playmakers at numerous positions and Kemba has been deployed as a scoring guard this season. More of his shots are coming off of assists this year than in his last 4 years in Charlotte and like so many other players he’s begun to pull from downtown more frequently. His quick-twitch first step and rapid pull-up jumper make him a nightmare for dropping bigs to defend, and he’s a frequent relocator behind the 3-point line. The bevy of spacing his teammates provide on offense has allowed for his best season as a finisher at the rim. His lack of size is hidden well in the Celtics defense. Walker is the best version of himself in Boston because they let him hunt shots first, hunt shots second, and play-make third.
Khris Middleton – Milwaukee Bucks
From ‘3 and D’ glue guy, to All-Star, to the second star on the most statistically impressive team in the league. Khris Middleton’s rise to this point is remarkable. Despite the whispers that Middleton is reliant on Giannis Antetokounmpo’s gravity and playmaking to get shots, it just isn’t true. Middleton is clinical at creating his own shot and a major cog in Milwaukee’s offense. You can throw entry passes to him in the mid-post and watch him go to work with a fadeaway that’s fueled by long arms and a velvet release. He can run the pick n’ roll and pull-up from three, or venture into the lane and side-step to safety and a high percentage look. Off-ball he’s a clever manipulator of pin-downs and he slides effortlessly into corner offense. He’s added counters to most types of defenders. He also got his start in the NBA as a lengthy defensive wing, and that’s still a huge portion of his value to Milwaukee, even if they have an embarrassment of elite defenders already. He makes great reads and rotations in help-side and his hands and feet make him great in closeouts. This postseason will be a major proving ground for Middleton.
Ben Simmons – Philadelphia 76ers
A top-5 defender in the league, and an absolute freight train in transition. When Ben Simmons gets to operate in a simplistic manner his basketball IQ shines through, as he rim-runs with the best of them, creates countless looks for teammates, and can lock down nearly any player on the opposite end. He can bounce players at full speed before rising for rim-rattling dunks, and he’s relentless attacking a defense without a big in waiting. Not to mention he’s one of the most creative passers in the league, with more angles to choose from than most because of his height and length. He makes passes every game that most players will never even attempt. The enormity of his talent and size is hard to understate. When teams cheat off of him he’s a really good cutter and he’s generally decent at using space to his advantage as a runway or an opportunity to grab great post position – where he’s a fantastic scorer. The rub with Simmons is the lack of a jump shot or any potent offense outside of the paint, and how that is extremely limiting for himself and the 76ers. Good defensive teams can load up in transition and the half-court to take away a lot of what Simmons likes to do, and the best teams can track him in the half-court so that his elite cutting is mitigated. All that being said, Simmons is an overwhelming threat for teams to deal with and can easily take over games and maybe series some day.
Kyle Lowry – Toronto Raptors / Via Katie Heindl
Kyle Lowry is the most overlooked player in the league. Not by his peers, if you have spent any time watching Lowry pre or post game, home or away, guys will quietly approach him and he will either take their extended hands, lean in to say something in their ear that makes, most always, their faces light up, or pull them in for an embrace. They see him, clearly and typically first, before they lay eyes on anybody else. It is fans and occasionally media whose eyes will skip over him, looking for the obvious or else what’s louder, right then. Lowry has spent this season stepping fully into a role he’d been at first outright hostile to, then reluctant, then had half of, then handed away — team leader. Guys watch him because they know how much he sees. For his own teammates, their gaps, their potential and what they need to do to make those two ends meet. For players up against him, how mercilessly he understands the floor, what’s going to happen based on the way they might glance down the court, or how their foot will shift, slightly, they can never hide. Most coaches see it, will remark on it with fascination or fear, because they know Lowry is looking as close as they do twice as often, that nothing really escapes him. Add a Championship to what he’s caught and the looks take on a faraway trace: admiration. You always have a choice with Lowry, whether to watch or not. He’ll never force you, never call for your attention other than the occasional charge, which he is gravitational to and can’t help, and if you quit and slide your eyes to somebody else, you’ll miss him. Overlooked doesn’t mean it’s not happening, that he hasn’t been lighting it up every night his banged up body let him be on the floor, it only means it’s on you to search, to let your eyes slip into soft focus like they would on a magic eye puzzle, to find what Lowry’s doing there, underneath the buzzing lilt of everything else.
Rudy Gobert – Utah Jazz
Rudy Gobert’s DPOY awards were not appointed flippantly. He’s a skyscraper near the bucket that can defend the lob and contest any shots at the rim without sacrificing either play. He can stifle countless pick n’ roll attacks and completely shift a team’s offensive identity away from the rim. Offensively he’s a top-tier screen setter, a heady cutter, and a truly elite lob threat. He’ll never be a primary offensive threat and the Jazz are trying to figure out how to contend with him as a tertiary option. However, he deserves a lot of credit for how he’s been able to fit in their offense, and his ability to make things easier for all of his teammates. Gobert is constantly carving out space and finishing plays – two very important skills in the NBA. He’s one of the great rim-defenders in the league, and for that reason, Gobert alone makes the Jazz’s defense a force. When you can transform an otherwise middling defensive team into a top-tier one, that’s when you’re truly transformative.
Pascal Siakam – Toronto Raptors / Via Joshua Howe
In his first foray into his new role as The Man on the Toronto Raptors, Pascal Siakam’s season has, understandably, been a rollercoaster.
He kicked off the 2019–20 campaign in red-hot fashion, managing to somehow maintain an elite degree of efficiency while simultaneously increasing his shooting volume and usage rate exponentially (he had a 62.8 true shooting percentage on a 30.7 usage rate through Toronto’s first eight games), shocking opposing defences and sending both fans and pundits alike into an expectation-raising frenzy.
It was precisely these expectations that had those same voices down on Siakam for the middling portion of the season, when defences no longer were surprised by him and were therefore able to better scheme for his game, resulting in a sudden decrease in efficiency as the Cameroonian truly began navigating the role of acting as the team’s primary option for the first time.
Then, just prior to the season being thrust into indefinite hiatus, Siakam had begun to reemerge as his All-Star self, falling into an improved rhythm of picking his spots and recognizing when best to take over games. This was capped by his pick-and-roll dominance with Kyle Lowry as the screener, a play that Nick Nurse had only recently broken out and that had been leading the Raptors to a profusion of crunch time victories (Toronto had the fourth-best clutch offence in the league when the season paused, per NBA.com).
It is also worth noting that a partial cause of Siakam’s frenetic season was the injury bug—the team played hardly any games with a fully healthy roster, and with varying key cogs out at any given time, Siakam’s burden was increased in an effort to replicate, to some degree, what was lost. All this while also learning on the fly and expanding into an already-weighty offensive workload.
Despite all of this (and keeping in mind the fact that growth is not linear, no matter if the broader portrait of a career may appear to be painted that way), Siakam has posted career numbers across the board, added a multitude of new weapons to his offensive game, persisted as a plus defender, and acted gallantly throughout the entire process.
The level of his lightning-speed growth remains unprecedented and historic, making Siakam an outlier even amongst his uber-talented peers. And while he evidently has things to work on (his proficiency in the midrange, for example), there is simply no indication he won’t be able to continue along the sky-bound trajectory he has charted thus far.
Karl-Anthony Towns – Minnesota Timberwolves
‘KAT’ has the body to bang in the post and finish at the hoop with ease; extend possessions or create new ones by getting after it on the offensive glass. On top of that, Towns is one of the greatest shooting big men of all time when you consider both his efficiency and volume (51/41/80 splits this year). The combination of his shooting touch and his athleticism makes him one of the most difficult players to close out on – you either hustle like crazy to get a hand in his face, leaving your help-side defenders in a vulnerable position should he put the ball down, or you try and stay controlled and he pours in shots from downtown. He’s a lot to handle. When teams load up on him he’s a good passer out of double teams (and improving) and he’s shown flashes of being able to carry the Timberwolves offense for stretches as a facilitator. The defense is, admittedly, lagging far behind his offense, and while some players get a big boost when they’re asked to hang low and drop back, Towns is still underperforming as a rim protector. His placement doesn’t get dinged as much as guards on poor performing teams, because I subscribe to the idea that big men usually raise ceilings not floors. DeMar DeRozan might guide your team to more regular season wins, but you want ‘KAT’ as a running mate with another star in the playoffs. It’s early in his career, but Karl-Anthony Towns is already one of the most gifted offensive big men to ever play in the NBA.
Jayson Tatum – Boston Celtics
Jayson Tatum was crowned the next big thing really early in his career, and his trajectory thus far hasn’t disappointed. He’s a 3-level scorer, a pseudo-elite defender and only 22 years old. 10 pounds of muscle and nearly 3x as many pull-up 3-pointers (which he hits at a staggering 40-percent on almost 5 attempts a game) have made him a force at the rim and behind the 3-point line – the two most coveted shots in basketball. This change in shot-profile has ushered in a new era in Tatum’s game, and I suspect, the foundation of a future hall-of-famer. While players like Pascal Siakam are known for leaking out on the break, Tatum is a monster in that area too. He’s a hawk above-the-break defensively and can pluck balls loose or jump passing lanes to set himself loose in transition. He’s a lengthy finisher in the lane with plenty of surface area to draw fouls, and long steps to transport himself around defenders with a euro step and a stretch to the glass. He has counters in the pick n’ roll, where he can snake, put defenders in jail, pull-up, or burst to the rim. Tatum’s bag is really deep, and it’s made him an increasingly potent late game scorer. Defensively, Tatum is intelligent and diligent when he’s off-ball and his length is a major disruptor on close-outs and when he’s swiping or jumping passing lanes. He’s not getting the most difficult wing assignments (those would be for Jaylen Brown) but he’s a vital and impressive piece of Boston’s top-5 defense. He’s started to cover all the bases, and he’s the best player on a top-5 team.
Paul George – Los Angeles Clippers
The ceiling of Paul George’s game is absurdly high. He can throw his hat in contention for DPOY, one of the best pull-up threats in the league, and a top tier finisher given the game. He’s seen a steep drop in production this year as his health has waned in and out and he’s been adjusting to life next to Kawhi Leonard. Consistency is as much a part of being a superstar as production is, and that’s been in and out this year for George. Still though, George’s bag of tricks runs deeper than most players in the league. He’s got countless attack packages out of the pick n’ roll, snaking against the chase, pulling up over the drop, and mixing in bursts to the rim for good measure. Defensively, his long arms and intuition make him a perpetual disruptor that other teams always have to be wary of. George can paralyze a go-to offensive option in isolation defense, or he can feast on cross-court passes as a rover. His handle, shooting touch, and size make for one of the most uniquely gifted players in the NBA, and somebody who can lock down games on either end of the floor.
Russell Westbrook – Houston Rockets
Russell Westbrook had a tough start to the season trying to find his way with the Houston Rockets. He wasn’t a natural fit in their system, but he joined the Rockets because they believed in his immense talent. The feedback was clear, and the Rockets changed directions to try and accommodate Westbrook’s game. Out went Clint Capela, in came Robert Covington, and the Rockets offensive game plan fundamentally changed. The era of micro-ball spaced teams out too thin, and fearing that James Harden would eviscerate their defenses they doubled him and opened the door for repeated 4-on-3 scenarios for the ever explosive Westbrook to attack. Since the Covington trade, Westbrooks field goal percentage has ballooned to nearly 55-percent and he’s scoring almost 32 points per game. No longer an awkward fit who could only really make a difference in transition, Westbrook morphed into the Tasmanian devil and began attacking the rim relentlessly in the half-court. If he couldn’t get all the way to the bucket he comfortably pulled up from mid-range, and he’s still an elite playmaker who creates remarkably well while absorbing attention. Whether or not this unlocks a new ceiling for the Rockets in the postseason remains to be seen. At the very least, it unlocked an absurd amount of production from ‘The Brodie’.
Jimmy Butler – Miami Heat
In a league full of specialists, and despite entering as one himself, Jimmy Butler plays the role of basketball player supreme in Miami. Jimmy Butler isn’t in the 95th percentile of any one thing anymore, but he’s comfortably in the 80th percentile and above in everything except for 3-point shooting. He can still defend like hell, whether that’s in a man on man situation or in a team concept. Miami has asked Butler and Adebayo to fill their gaps on offense and defense, and Butler in particular has stretched himself without getting too thin. He can work off of Goran Dragic or Kendrick Nunn as a dangerous cutter or sneaky offensive rebounder, he can spot-up on occasion and especially late in games; or he can play the role of primary facilitator, throwing lobs to Adebayo or finding a relocating Duncan Robinson. And if Miami needs points and points quickly, Butler can go to work in isolation, the pick n’ roll, or in the high post. Butler is one of the smartest and most tenacious players in the league, and Erik Spoelstra continues to utilize him in unique ways.
Chris Paul – Oklahoma City Thunder
As one of the people who thought that trading Chris Paul away from the Rockets was a huge mistake, I’m not really surprised at how OKC’s season has turned out. Paul is still THE example of how an intelligent floor game can help you dominate games despite physical limitations. He’s one of the league’s very best pick n’ roll operators. Very few players can set the table for their teammates like Paul can, and if he sees a passing lane closing, he can settle into a comfortable and high-percentage mid-range look. Paul is always in control, and his gamesmanship has made the Thunder the NBA’s very best team in clutch-time by a significant margin. On the defensive end he’s as much a pest as he’s ever been – jumping dribble-handoffs, swiping away at unsuspecting bigs, and barking orders at his teammates to keep the integrity of the Thunder defense intact. The Thunder have done a great job of retooling in the wake of Paul George and Russell Westbrook’s departure, and Chris Paul is the biggest reason for that.
Luka Doncic – Dallas Mavericks
Luka Doncic almost makes you redefine what athleticism is in your head. It’s so often connected to burst and vertical, but Doncic’s control of his body is amazing. His lower extremities are never seen out of place, and his hips respond to all of his whims, transporting him wherever he needs to go and letting the top half of his body finish plays. He’s clearly at his best in the pick n’ roll and is already creating offense out of it at levels that put him in a conversation with Chris Paul and Damian Lillard. Doncic’s awareness, control, and size make him a nightmare for defenses to deal with. He’s one of the only superstars who took on the Raptors rapid, switching defense and out-foxed it because of his ability to read the defense and pass around it – that’s no small feat. His 3-point shooting numbers appear to be low (32-percent), but when you take into consideration the vast majority are pull-ups, the spacing they create (because teams still respect his shot), and the opportunities they open up for him downstream, it’s still very much a weapon. He shifts his weight brilliantly in the lane to bounce smaller players or goad bigs into fouls, and defenders are kept constantly off-balance trying to defend him as an elite lob-passer or finisher. His control in the middle of the floor with his handle, size and touch have made him into a masterful finisher at the rim. Similar to Lillard, if you pair a rolling big with him you’re guaranteeing heaps of high-quality possessions every game. While his influences are clear to see (LeBron, Harden) he’s established himself as a singular force in the NBA. The Mavericks league best offense (per offensive rating) is built firmly and intentionally on Doncic’s genius.
Joel Embiid – Philadelphia 76ers / Via Yasmin
*Yasmin started a terrific journal and you can find it here.
Joel Embiid or, as Sixers fans affectionately call him, “JoJo”, is the all-star center for the team we love to hate (or in my case, love to love). A two-way phenom, Embiid’s power is contained in his strength, defensive capabilities, coordination and offensive savvy in the post. There wasn’t much pushback when Sixers coach Brett Brown referred to him as “Shaquille O’Neal with soccer feet” for good reason. Despite his young career being marred by continuous injuries (broken feet, back, hand & face. Also, some gastrointestinal chaos, lest we forget) and thus subsequent cautious play, his potential is somehow relatively unscathed and his presence is still feared. Coach Brown has reduced the workload and minutes his star endures as a means of preservation and although the result has been a 4PPG drop compared to Joel’s statement season last year, he’s maintained efficiency across the board with a notable improvement in his 3p%. The team’s morale, potential and limitations all hinge on the abilities and health of their most skilled and productive player.
Embiid is not new to controversies and in-game skirmishes, but if NBA professionalism is a tailored suit, he has some frayed edges he’s actively snipping at. We were lucky enough for Joel to open up to us earlier this year in a Players’ Tribune essay entitled “The Only Way is Through”, detailing the depth of his personal losses and his journey to push through grief in honour of a loved one. If harmless humour and literal theatre (Phantom of the Process, anyone?) is a coping mechanism he relishes, then we move!
I love Joel Embiid because there’s an American decadence to everything my 2nd favourite NBA Cameroonian does. His height, his size, his goatee, his extra low temple twist-out fade, his gratuitous foul drawing, and, even after a decade in the United States, his soft tenor, dense, melodic Afro-francophone cadence is just that. Decadent. My guy lives well, unabashedly himself. Whether he remains a Sixer for the long run remains to be seen, but a man like Joel Embiid against the backdrop of a working-class sports town like Philadelphia is kind of poetic.
They boo him. He colourfully tells them to “shut the f*** up,” with a finger to the lips.
Steph Curry – Golden State Warriors
Steph Curry’s season is ostensibly done, but he was eligible for the guidelines I laid out for this list and I wrote those guidelines before the NBA chopped some of the teams from the tournament. A really unfortunate season for Curry, and one that is too harshly judged by some. This season shouldn’t be an indication of how Curry performs when he has to do more “heavy lifting”. In fact, it’s hard to glean anything from this season for players like Curry and Draymond Green. Still, Curry is an offensive system unto himself. Good teams shadow him with all 5 players, always aware of him and still unable to keep him locked down. He is the greatest shooter of all-time, and all too slick as a ball handler and passer. While Steve Kerr loves split-action, the pick n’ roll unlocks a level of dominance in Curry that few players have ever reached offensively. And even though he’ll never be a standout isolation defender, he’s smart and disciplined in a team concept. He’ll no doubt make a much stronger push when Klay Thompson and Green are back in tow, but this season has been lost for some time.
Damian Lillard – Portland Trailblazers / Via Michael Pina
Damian Lillard was the best point guard in the NBA before a global pandemic suspended the 2019-20 season. Long before that, he was the NBA’s most confident leader, coldest assassin and coolest leading man. Lillard makes it all look so effortless, from his quick dribble pull-ups to the way he’s learned to contort his small frame in and around increasingly dense paint protection.
Because Steph Curry exists as a more accomplished and slightly more threatening version of what Lillard has become, Portland’s lone All-Star for the past three seasons will forever be slighted by those who see him as little more than the lesser version of a revolutionary MVP. This is understandable yet inane.
Lillard gets better every year. His eighth season, at 29, has by far been his best. Not only did he lead the NBA in minutes at only 6’2”—in arguably the most efficient high-usage season anyone that size has ever had—but did so breathing flames beyond the arc with a frequency, accuracy, and degree of difficulty only Curry can match. Situations matter, though. And it’s easy to wonder how much brighter his star would shine if he found himself in a larger market, surrounded by more All-NBA caliber talent. Until that happens, the Portland Trail Blazers are a team nobody is particularly excited to play because Lillard is there.
Nikola Jokic – Denver Nuggets
Nikola Jokic makes basketball look all too easy. He is the definitive hub of one of the NBA’s top ten offenses, and does so through his genius level application of his weight and hand-eye-coordination. The reads he makes in real time as a passer would take some people minutes to realize. Whether his back is to the basket or he’s facing up, he sees everything. The Nuggets run a bevy of actions around him every game, where he makes slick drop-off passes to his teammates while slyly stepping in front of the defenders giving chase, or he might even whip the ball over his head with one hand 24-feet across court to a spot-up shooter – the point is, he’ll create a good look. For his own offense, Jokic has some of the softest hands we’ve ever seen on a big man, and he leverages his weight against defenders so that he’s always moving downhill. His progress toward the bucket is inevitable and he makes reads the whole way there. If he doesn’t see something he likes, he’ll find himself near the bucket for a smooth finger roll or a velvety hook shot. He isn’t often in the mood to eat up the bulk of the Nuggets possessions with shot attempts, but when he does there’s less than 5 players in the league even equipped with the strength to stop him. His shooting touch and balance make him a headache to even stand across from. Sharing the floor defensively with players like Gary Harris and Paul Millsap has no doubt helped Jokic’s viability on that end, but he deserves a lot of credit for picking up some of the finer details of defense and improving what he can control. The Western Conference is packed in the middle, and Jokic leading the Nuggets to the third seed is no small feat.
Anthony Davis – Los Angeles Lakers
Anthony Davis has had a great season playing next to LeBron James, clad in purple and gold and performing for the stars out in Los Angeles. He was even a frontrunner for DPOY, for a time. He’s the defensive backbone of a team that has prided itself on that side of the floor. Davis is an ever present danger for opposing defenses, because of his status as one of the truly great lob threats in NBA history. LeBron James & co. can virtually throw the ball anywhere and Davis has the catch radius, hands, and bounce to go up after it and convert. It’s like staring down bumper-to-bumper traffic in rush hour ‘LA’ and seeing some guy flying to his destination in a helicopter. Davis is taking a helicopter to the rim. Help-side defenders are rendered useless, as Davis’ dominance in-air creates lanes to the rim that aren’t there for anyone, save for himself. He can slip screens and flash to the rim for easy baskets in stagnant offensive possessions. He can utilize pin-downs in the middle of the paint for baby hooks or deep post position, and he’s enough of a threat from outside to provide a bit of spacing. Few big men have ever been this potent off-ball. He’s crazy quick recovering on defense, and he can match steps with smaller guards to avoid jumping too early or getting caught on the wrong side of the rim. His size and IQ make 2-on-1 situations for offensive players significantly more difficult, and that creates hesitation in opposing players – the death of all offense. He’s been a little disappointing without James on the floor this year, but he’s been basically as good a second banana as anyone could ever ask for.
James Harden – Houston Rockets
James Harden might have the greatest mixtape in NBA history by the time he hangs up his sneakers. Anybody who can dunk like him, can’t shoot or handle like he does. Anybody that can handle and shoot like he does, can’t dunk like him. He’ll bang triples from the logo, snatch everyone’s ankles, and dunk on anyone at the rim. His interpretations and manipulations of the rulebook reminds me of a lawyer who’s looking to abuse a poorly worded law, either to find precedent or create it. His dribble packages, while off putting to some, make him one of the most innovative players to ever step foot on the hardcourt. He operates in the pick n’ roll like few other players in league history, leaving teams in the vicious circle of allowing him to march to the rim, drop in floaters, or throw lobs. He goes on month long tears where he’s virtually unstoppable, which is why teams started doubling him the moment he stepped across half-court. And despite everyone acknowledging his defensive hiccups, there’s a bit of progression in that area, though it might not be what you think. The Rockets have started to play micro-ball which incidentally has placed him in the post more often, where he’s statistically one of the most impressive defenders in the league. Not to mention he’s bucked conventional wisdom about who he is as a teammate by tailoring to Russell Westbrook as of late, by simply drawing double-teams and letting Westbrook operate in advantageous 4-on-3 scenarios. He’s controversial sure, but he’s undeniably one of the greatest scorers of all time.
Kawhi Leonard – Los Angeles Clippers
Gone are the days where he had peace of mind while load-managing, he’s not on the Raptors anymore (Clippers are 5-7 sans Leonard). He’s tallied the highest usage rate and assist percentage of his career. No longer just a potent scorer with all-time defense, but additionally, an all purpose facilitator and creator that must now supply his teammates with opportunities. The load has been heavy for Leonard, but he’s responded extremely well in his new role. He strikes fear into the heart of his opponents when he jumps a passing lane, or turns a hedge into an outright switch where he locks the ball handler in between his knees and they eventually surrender the ball to him. He’s still one of the truly elite isolation players in the league, and one of the best late-clock operators in the league. His control and ability to get his own shot under pressure is nearly unmatched league-wide as he utilizes a nearly unpluckable dribble package, a minimalist and effective jumper, and a body carved from granite that can bump anybody off of his path. The Clippers have asked Kawhi Leonard to carry a lot of the offense this year amidst their injury woes, and he’s responded in spades.
LeBron James – Los Angeles Lakers
LeBron James holds a credible ‘GOAT’ claim, and at 36 he’s still not done adding to his resume. This year is another footnote in the book titled “How LeBron is fending off father time”. He has no business producing at this level – sneaking up on one of the most dominant MVP years of all time (Giannis Antetokounmpo) and trying to steal a few votes off of him. After a couple years of truly poor defense, James is surrounded by a more defensively sound unit with standouts like Dwight Howard and Anthony Davis, and it’s allowed for him to play quarterback on defense. He’s equal parts free safety and help-side defender this season, and playing both roles as well as he has in years. Davis is still the best defender on the team, but James’ beautiful basketball brain let’s him see other teams for what they are and prey on the in-between. And he can still lock-down any player in the league for a short stretch. Offensively, the Lakers rely on him for just about everything. He sets the tempo and controls the pace. The Lakers suffer a steep drop-off with him off the floor (even if Davis is in) because he’s the resident pick n’ roll maestro, a brutal mismatch hunter, and an offensive hub in the post. The Lakers gambled this offseason by signing a collection of low-usage offensive players for James to unlock, and he’s responded magnificently this year. He’s still in the conversation for best in the league.
Giannis Antetokounmpo – Milwaukee Bucks / Via @Nigerianscamsss
There’s something in the power of stories. It’s probably why we still hold on to Greek tragedies and hail the myth of Zeus, Hercules, Athena, Aphrodite, and such. Even in the Yoruba world, there are stories of Obatala, Shango, Oshun, Ogun and such. What does Greek and Yoruba mythology have to do with anything? Well, stay with me. When you see yourself in someone else, you root for them that much harder. When I see Giannis, I see another Nigerian kid raised in a land far away from home, all because his parents wanted better, they saw something which probably made no sense to anyone but them.
His parents left Nigeria for Greece and because at the time Greek nationality law followed jus sanguinis, Giannis and his brothers were effectively stateless. Giannis did not receive Greek citizenship until he turned 18. But this isn’t a sad story, nope, it’s one of triumph.
So, let’s set the scene. The date, June 27, 2013, the location, Brooklyn, NY. It’s the 2013 NBA Draft. A young African man born in Greece, his life is about to change. Who exactly? Giannis Sina Ougko Antetokounmpo aka The Greek Freak.
Giannis has had a whirlwind journey. He only started hooping in 2007, and 13 years later he has gone from this lanky kid to this muscle-bound generational talent. In 2017 he made his first all-star appearance and since has won a ton of awards. Most improved, all first defensive team, 4x all-star, NBA MVP, and if it was not for COVID, he arguably would be the MVP again. There have been growing pains, but the sky’s the limit for the 25-year-old.
We see the talent each time he plays, he’s a one-man wrecking crew yet a team-player, he’ll bully you in the paint, he’ll jump over you, he’ll stop you on defense and now he’s adding a jumper to his game. I can wax lyrical about Giannis’ talent, how hard he has worked to get where he is and talk about everything that we know; but it’s beautiful seeing another black kid kick ass despite the odds stacked against him.
2021 will be a game-changer not just for Giannis but for the entire league. Does he stay in Milwaukee or does he move to Golden State, Miami, Toronto, or any of the often rumored teams?
What we know is, the sky’s the limit, and this is not ending in a Greek tragedy. Giannis is on a collision course for greatness, his game, his story is the stuff of legends. One could even say, he’s what happens when Obatala and Zeus clash.
This list took a lot of work, thank you very much for reading it.
Have a blessed day.