I’ve been procrastinating my return to the blog game for long enough.
What better way to announce my much-anticipated comeback than by ranking the Top 10 Players in the NBA.
A few notes before we start:
If a player is currently hurt or has been hurt for most of this season, they are eliminated from consideration.
Actually you know what, I’ll throw in KD and Steph because, well because it’s just more fun that way.
Without further ado, let’s get to the good stuff.
Ranking backwards from 10-1 to build anticipation and get the people going.
But first, let’s touch on the Honorable Mentions:
- Jimmy Butler – The Heat are struggling as of late, 3-7 in their last 10 games, but Jimmy still just about deserves an honorable mention. He’s having one of the best seasons of his career with 21/7/6 on 46/25(yikes)/84 shooting splits and solid defense. His 3 point stroke has completely betrayed him. He’s made up for it by attacking the rim, with a career high 9 free throws per game to show for it. He’s rounded out his all-around game, averaging career highs in assists and rebounds. Maybe I am giving Jimmy extra credit for taking a huge risk with his career this past summer, and sticking the landing. He left a Sixers team that was one bounce away from possibly going to the Conference Finals. He could have played the rest of his career with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. The team would only get better with an offseason/training camp/preseason together under their belt. Instead, for reasons that haven’t been fully explained, Butler bolted for South Beach to play for Pat Riley, Erik Spoelstra, and a Miami Heat team fresh off of … a 39-43 season. He left the 3 seed in the East for the 10th seed in the East. It didn’t make sense to me at the time and yet, it has worked out better than most would have expected. Jimmy’s insane work ethic and WannabeKobe pyscho teammate persona have meshed perfectly with the Heat’s militaristic culture. It’s a weird match made in hardo heaven.
- Russell Westbrook – Russ’ season with the Rockets started where his last season with the Thunder left off. Putting up huge counting stats, on crappy efficiency. Launching 5 or 6 threes a game while shooting under 30%. This was the new normal for Russ. Harden was carrying the team and opposing defenses felt comfortable double-teaming Harden when he crossed halfcourt in part, because they weren’t afraid of what Russ would do when he caught the ball behind the 3-point arc. I always wondered what would happen if Russ just stopped shooting so many 3s. One or two per game isn’t the end of the world. Anything over 3 is just punting possessions. He’s 30% from deep for his career. A lot of people would say, “Well you have to let Russ do what he’s gona do, take the good with the bad.” That seemed like a cop-out. Why couldn’t Russ maintain his same competitive fire, his balls-to-the-wall effort for every minute of the game, while only adjusting one part of his approach: Stop Shooting Threes. Well, the 2020 Houston Rockets have given us a glimpse into this new version of Russ. Since December 7th, Russ is averaging 31/8/7 on 51/29/82 shooting splits. On only 3 shots from deep per game. Since 12/31? He’s at 32/8/7 on 53/30/78 on only 2.3 threes a game. Since the Rockets traded Clint Capela and embraced the 6’7” Or Less Revolution, Russ is putting up 34/7/6 on 57/43/75 and the Rockets are 7-2. Another minor detail in Russ’ resurgence is he’s shooting 79% from the line this year, a great return to form after shooting 66% from the line last year in OKC. Whether or not the Pocket Rockets and their micro ball style make a deep run in this year’s playoffs it has been great to see Russ back to his old ways. Not many players can match the gaudy statlines he puts up on a night-to-night basis and he deserved a shoutout.
- Kyrie Irving – Look, I am a fan of Kyrie. He is a hilarious character within the NBA community. He is liable to show up to the pregame shoot around tripping on magic mushrooms and start ranting to the assembled press about the dangers of chemtrails. He is the best “layup-maker” and “small-guy finisher at the rim” that I’ve ever seen. He has arguably the best handle in NBA history. He just looks cool when he plays. And most importantly, he helped LeBron win a title. But the past 2 seasons with the Celtics, and this one with the Brooklyn “Clippers to the Knicks’ Lakers” Nets, have answered the question of: Can you win a title with Kyrie as your #1 player?” with a resounding: NOOOOOOOO. He’s also injury prone, and a moody weirdo. It is fine to be erratic and antisocial as a NBA player if you’re the 6th man or the 3rd leading scorer but not if you claim and want to be the leader of that team. Kyrie wanted out of Cleveland. He wanted to get out from under LeBron’s shadow like Neymar wanted out of Messi’s. He got exactly what he asked for in Boston and how did that work out? What’s gotten lost in the discussion of KyrieIrvingTheMoodyWeirdo in the past few years is that the last 3 seasons have been Kyrie’s statistical peak. With Boston he averaged 24/6/4 on 49/40/88 shooting splits, improvements across the board from his time in Cleveland. In 20 games with Brooklyn this year he’s put up 27/6/5 on 48/39/92 splits. And yet, does Boston miss Kyrie at all? What do you think? And the Nets haven’t exactly cratered when he’s missed games this year. Next year is the biggest of Kyrie’s career. It’s put-up-or-shut-up time. No more whining about the horrible lifestyle of being an NBA superstar making trillions of dollars a year. No more weird postgame comments throwing your teammates under the bus. You wanted to play with KD. You wanted to play in Brooklyn. Enough talking, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZXsQAXx_ao0
- Dame Lillard – Is it just me or is the whole, “Nobody ever gives Dame the credit he deserves” narrative overblown? It seemed like for 3-4 years he was known first and foremost as DameSnubbedFromTheAllStarGameLillard. And yet, he’s made 5 allstar games in his career. He currently holds the Point Guard Championship belt, right? Unless we are counting Luka as one (I don’t) or Harden (who to me just plays the position of James Harden). It’s not fair to call Dame DollarStoreSteph but I just can’t shake the fact that he’s like, Steph but only 85% as good? Their games are so similar, with the 30 foot pull-up threes galore, and their career stat-lines (Dame with 24/7/4 on 44/37/89 and Steph with 24/7/5 on 48/44!!!!/91) that whenever I think of Dame I can’t help but think, “More Durable and Less Efficient Steph. He’s going to go down as the best TrailBlazer in history. He will get a statue outside of their arena. He has some of the most memorable playoff buzzer beaters in NBA history. He’ll get his jersey retired. He’s going to the Hall of Fame. He’s dead-set on staying in Portland for his entire career. But I don’t really see a path for the Dame-CJ combination to win a title unless the front office hits on a game-changing wing or big man with a draft pick, that most of the time will be outside the lottery. If your Neil Olshey, Blazers GM, do you trade CJ? What if that pisses off Dame? I get that injuries to Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic and even Rodney Hood have hurt the team but where would they be with better health? The 6 seed? Maaybbeee the 3 seed? I don’t think the roster, as currently constructed, has the upside of even making the Finals let alone winning it. Dame has made one Conference Finals in his career. He’s turning 30 this summer. The clock is ticking. If he’s adamant about playing with CJ and playing in Portland then I don’t see him ever getting a ring. But his current season is giving me second thoughts. A 30/8/4 line on 46/39/89 splits is ridiculous. Maybe he has a magic playoff run in him ala Dirk in 2011 where he finally breaks through and his loyalty to Portland pays off. We shall see.
- Karl Anthony Towns – I really want to buy into KAT. Let’s start with this: He is the best big-man shooter of all-time. Does the casual NBA fan realize that? Probably not because he plays in Minnesota but it’s true. Career 40% shooter on 3.6 attempts from deep per game. This year he’s shooting 41% on 8!!! attempts per game. Dirk for his career was 38% from deep on 3.4 per game. How times have changed in the NBA. The most 3s Dirk ever attempted per game over the course of a season was 4.9. If he played today that number might be in the double-digits. Back to KAT. He’s going to go down as one of the most prolific offensive big men in NBA history if he develops and improves at a rate you would expect from a 24 year old. His career numbers are 23/12/3 on 53/40/83 splits. This season, though riddled with injuries, he’s putting up 27/11/4 on 51/41/80. Again, he’s 24. He’s 7 feet tall. He’s been very durable before this season, (82, 82, 82, 77 games played). He’s an efficient scorer and shooter from every level. The T wolves have been better with him on the floor every season of his career. Not saying much when you consider the teammates he has played with, but a good sign. His defensive deficiencies are overblown. He weirdly doesn’t show the same awareness and nimble feet on defense as he does on offense. Will he ever be a DPOY contender? No. But surrounded by other solid defensive players I bet he can anchor the backline well enough to put him in Top-5-player-in-the-NBA status during his prime. KAT has the reputation of being soft. Just ask Jimmy Butler. If I were disrespectful I might call him kitty-KAT. Dirk had the same rep for most of his career. Most offensively gifted big men get that criticism. If I were Towns I would ask out of Minnesota. The T-Wolves go under-the-radar in the discussion for most pathetic NBA franchises. Because it’s Minnesota and nobody cares. After this year they will have made the playoffs (1) time in the last 16 seasons. The last, and only time, they made it out of the first round, George Dubya was wrapping up his first term in office. I know they traded for Towns’ BFForever in D’Angelo Russell but if Towns cares about his career he would demand a trade and get to a winning organization sooner rather than later. Yeah, the media will rip him, the fans will hate him, but that is temporary and mostly meaningless. Ask Anthony Davis if it was worth it.
- Paul George – Playoff P (lmao) is the last player I felt even deserved a mention in the top 10 discussion. After vaulting himself into the All-star stratosphere as a 22 year old in 2013 and getting baptized by LeBron as one of TheGuys during game 2 of the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals, we sort of knew what we were getting with George. After that season, George put up 22/6/4 with 43%/38%/86% splits from 2013-14 until the 2017-2018 season. Excluding the 2014-2015 year he lost to a broken leg, he made the All-star game every year, made the All-Defense team(s) a couple of times, and made All-NBA (3) times. You were getting an All-star, one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, and a scorer in the low 20’s. A top 10-12 player in the league no doubt, but he never quite got to that top 5-7 level we thought/hoped? he was capable of. Another Conference Finals appearance in 2014 with Indiana was followed by 3 straight 1st round exits in 2016-17-18 with the Pacers and the Thunder. It seemed like after 2018 playoffs, when the Jazz bounced the Thunder in 6 games, that the book was closed on George. We knew at age 27 that he was an overqualified #2, the perfect 2nd banana, but if he was the best player on your team your chance to win the title was close to zero. And then the 2018-2019 season happened. George had by far the best season of his career. 28/8/4 on 44/39/84 splits, made 1st team All-NBA, and 1st team All-Defense, finishing 3rd in MVP voting. His play tailed off towards the end of the year due to shoulder issues. The Thunder got bounced in the 1st round in 5 games by Dame and the Blazers and George got rotator cuff surgery on his right shoulder in May of 2019, and then had surgery on his left shoulder to repair a torn labrum in June. Then Kawhi and Steve Ballmer kidnapped/rescued? George from OKC bringing him to the Los Angeles Minor League Basketball Team That Nobody Cares About. George missed the start of this season recovering from the shoulder surgeries and has also been in and out of the lineup with hamstring issues. He’s only played 37 games and when he’s been on the court he has reverted back to pre-2019 PG with a statline of 21/6/4 on 43/40/90 splits. With 2019 Paul George the Clippers would be close to unbeatable. With this version? They’re probably still favorites to come out of the West. I’m looking forward to seeing what version of him shows up come April, May, and June(?).
Ok enough dilly-dallying for the (2) people who have made it this far. It’s time to get to the big-boys, the heavy-hitters, the Big-Kahunas, the blah blah blah let’s GET READYYY TO RUMBLE (copyright of the BufferBros).
10. Joel Embiid – Even I feel weird having Joel this low. You might have heard the phrase “Availability is the best ability.” Yeah, good luck telling that to your boss when it’s time to negotiate a raise. “Hey I show up everyday! That counts for something right?!?!” Availability is important but production and skill are what matter most. Joel has the latter mostly down pat, but the former remains the eternal bugaboo (great word), the proverbial dark cloud, “The Sword of Damocles” (not using the phrase right but who cares it’s a cool visual look it up), that hangs over his career. You know the story by now, the human embodiment of Sam Hinkie’s process missed the first 2 years of his career with foot injuries before exploding onto the scene during 2016-2017 season playing 31 games, and announcing himself as the NextGreatBigMan. When I saw this play in January of that year https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QEM7kTt-1EM during the 24th game of Embiid’s career, I knew he would be a Hall of Famer if he stayed healthy. Over the 201 games he has played during his career his averages are 24/12/3 on 48/32/79 shooting with DPOY-level defense. When he’s locked in Embiid may be the best defensive player in basketball. The Sixers are 9.7 points per/100 possessions better with him on the floor during his career and were an unreal 41.3!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! points per/100 better with him on the floor in the 11 games he played last playoffs. That number doesn’t make any sense. He was on a team with Jimmy Butler, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, and JJ Reddick, and the team was getting blown off the court when Embiid wasn’t playing. And yet, this years’ Sixers team just feels off. They’re currently 5th in the East and in danger of falling to 6th and getting Toronto or Boston in the 1st round. Maybe that’s a better path because they wouldn’t have to play the Bucks in Round 2. They are on pace for a 3rd straight season of right around 50 wins, and though Embiid has stayed mostly healthy. He will probably finish the season short of 60 games played. As discussed on last week’s PeopleForgetThat Podcast I place most of the blame for the Sixers’ current predicament on Adam Silver, the Sixers’ ownership, and Elton Brand. 10th Best Player in the NBA feels right for Embiid as of now. He has potential to be in the top 5 but he’s not quite there. Maybe if Ben Simmons is ready to go for the playoffs after his recent back injury, and the Sixers make a run to the Conference Finals, we’ll be looking at Joel in a new light.
9. Nikola Jokic – The King of the DadBod. The Sultan of Sweat. The Prince of Pudge. Whatever you want to call him, I love Jokic’s game. To me he is the NewAge Dirk Nowitzki. The European big man with the one game-breaking skill that you can build an elite offense around. Dirk’s shooting and Jokic’s passing. Since Jokic’s 2nd season in 2016-2017 the Nuggets have ranked 5th, 6th, 9th, and 10th this season on offense. Jokic hasn’t been surrounded by offensive juggernauts either. Jamal Murray has been playing 2nd fiddle on offense the past few years and while he’s a fine player, I wonder what an offense led by Jokic and another top-tier offensive talent would look like. Concerns about Jokic’s defense are overstated. He isn’t electric athletically of course, he’s probably never going to make an All-Defense team, but he is mostly in the right place at the right time, is a great rebounder, and for reference, the Nuggets had the 11th ranked defense last season and are ranked 11th again this year. He is the best passing big man of all-time. He’s a 7 footer who has averaged 7 assists per game since the start of the 2017-2018 season. Since the start of his 2nd season in 2016-2017 he’s put up 19/10/6 on 53/34/83 shooting splits. After a slow start to this season he’s putting up 24/10/7!!!! on 56/38/83 over his last 40 games. If anything he should be shooting more. He’s only taking 15 shots a game. Bump that up to 20! The Nuggets are battling with the Clippers for the 2nd seed in the West with Paul Millsap and Murray having both missing games due to injury. Similarly to Embiid conditioning is a concern with Jokic but any questions about how his game would transfer into the grind and slog of the playoffs were answered last year when on his first trip to the postseason he averaged 25/13/8 on 51/39/85 shooting splits all while playing 40!!! minutes per game. He lead the entire playoffs in rebounds, Player Efficiency Rating, Win Shares/48, Offensive Box Plus/Minus and Box Plus/Minus overall. He just barely missed out on a trip to the Western Conference Finals. Jokic is only 25 and while I don’t see the Nuggets making the Conference Finals this season, his future is bright.
8. Kevin Durant – Nets fans cover your eyes. The Eternal Malcontent. The Slim Reaper. Mr. Extremely Online. The Great Wanderer. Mr. Chase The Dragon of External Validation. One of the 10-12 Greatest Players who ever lived. Introooducingggg Kevin “The Hardest Pathhhhh” Durrrrrantttttt *the crowd roars but not quite as loud as they do for Steph*. I don’t know what you want me to tell you. First, let’s go backwards. Back to a time long ago. The night of April 26th, 2019 to be exact. KD had just finished dropping 50/6/5 on 15/26 shooting from the field and 14/15 from line during Game 6 of the Warriors’ 1st round series against the Clippers en route to a 129-110 victory. It was maybe the best game of Durant’s playoff career. The Warriors were heading towards their 3rd straight NBA title. Despite the will-he-or-won’t-he-leave melodrama that had surrounded both Durant and the Warriors for the entire season, they were still heavy-favorites to win it all. Durant, after his performance in the series against the Clippers, had seemed to finally won over the NBA commentariat, the NBA fans, the other NBA players, and the NBA world at large. Finally, he seemed to have wrested control of the BestPlayerAlive belt away from LeBron. The Lakers were a mess, LeBron’s body against-all-odds turned out to be not immune from the process of aging. Sure, Giannis had won MVP and Kawhi was in the process of leading the Raptors to the Promised Land. But at that specific moment in time, KD finally had what he always wanted, a mostly unquestioned seat on the throne atop the NBA kingdom. We all know what happened next, KD’s calf, but maybe his achilles, but probably his calf, but definitely looked like his Achilles, but Achilles is technically a part of the calf???, gave out on him during game 5 of the Warriors-Rockets Western Conference Semifinals. He was averaging 33/5/4 on 46/44/85 shooting splits in the series up until that point. Then, the Warriors went on to win game 5 without him, won game 6 in Houston without him, and swept the overmatched Blazers in the Conference Finals without him. It renewed the Do They Even Need This Guy? debate that had been going on since KD went SnakeMode in the Summer of 2016. It was like something out of a movie. Would the ole gang of Steph-Klay-Dray-Iggy be able to win without their mercenary/hired gun? Would they be able to prove to KD that, as Draymond said earlier in the season, “We don’t need you?” Would KD kinda, sorta, maybeeee just maybe like it if the Warriors didn’t win it all without him? Would he be healthy enough to make it back before the Finals ended? Find out next time on this season of NBA Melodrama: Silicon Valley Edition. The Warriors won game 1 against the Raptors before losing 3 straight setting up Durant’s triumphant return for Game 5 in Toronto. It couldn’t have broken any better for KD. The world could see that the Warriors needed him if they were going to beat the Raptors. He could swoop in, ball out for Games 5/6/7, maybe even win a 3rd straight Finals MVP, and then bounce during the summer. Once his Achilles ruptured during Game 5 all that went out the window. The Raptors went on to win it all and Kawhi snatched the BestPlayerAlive belt after both knocking Giannis out of the playoffs and toppling an admittedly depleted Warriors team in succession. KD’s 2019-2020 season went up in flames. This season was supposed to be the year that KD could prove once and for all that he could be the #1 guy on a title team that wasn’t playing with a stacked deck. His rings with the Warriors are just weird and we all know it. Coming into this year the league was as wide open as it had been since 2014-2015. A title with Brooklyn and Kyrie, another Finals MVP, maybe even another regular season MVP and KD’s place amongst the game’s great(s) would be unquestioned. It already is but that would have pushed him towards the Top 5 all-time discussion. KD’s Achilles injury was and is such a bummer for all the reasons any major injury to any player sucks, but also because he had so much to gain this season and was at the peak of his powers. He will be 32 by the time next season starts. Giannis is getting better by the day. Same for Luka. The Celtics are only getting better. KD’s time to be the best player in the league is over. The only big-name player in NBA history who has been able to return to form after rupturing their Achilles is Dominique Wilkins. Dominique ruptured his Achilles at age 32 on January 28th, 1992. Wilkins’ comeback 1993 season was arguably the best of his career. So there is some hope for KD. Hopefully he’s on whatever HGH, stem-cell routine is best to help him get back to as close to full-strength as possible. But even 90% of peak Durant is not in the discussion for best player in the NBA. Maybe he can get back in the discussion for Top 5 but even that is assuming the best possible outcome. Unless he proves to be some sort of medical miracle I feel comfortable putting KD at #8. Still good enough to possibly make a Conference Finals with Kyrie in Brooklyn but not good enough for a title unless the Nets swing a trade for a 3rd star.
7. Steph Curry – This is the ranking that I might be looking back on 12 months from now and cringing at. Writing out this post has shown me how many great players there are in the NBA. Ranking Steph is a lesser version of the ranking-KD-conundrum. How do you project a player that is aging into their early 30’s, where you would expect to start seeing some decline regardless of injury, who has suffered a serious injury, and who has been a top 5 player for around 5-6 years running (or in KD’s case 9-10 seasons). With Steph at least the broken left hand tat has limited him to 4 games this season is much less severe than KD’s ruptured Achilles. But just this week we got word that Steph is dealing with nerve damage, that might not heal for a year. 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 Steph, AKA back-to-back MVP Steph, was one of the best players we have ever seen. A lot of people don’t treat him and think of him that way but it’s the truth. Steph’s combined averages in the regular season of those 2 MVP years are 27/7/5 on 50/45(on 9!!! Attempts)/91 shooting splits. He broke basketball. The popularity of the off-the-dribble 3 can be traced mostly back to Steph. Nobody used it as a weapon to the degree that he did/does. He was getting trapped 30 feet from the basket on pick-and-rolls. He has a weird reputation amongst some people as an underperformer in the playoffs but his playoff career stats of 27/5/6 on 45/40/91 say otherwise. He’s a little less efficient against playoff defenses. Most players are. Having Steph on your team almost guarantees a top 5 offense. This year, with no Klay and no KD, was supposed to be the season we saw Steph unleashed. He would have the freedom to dominate offensive possessions like Harden does and was a popular bet for MVP. Missing out on that has sucked. Steph’s game should be more immune to aging than most superstars due to his shooting but getting to the basket and finishing around the rim has always been an underrated part of his success. I’m interested to see how his game changes as he gets older. He turns 32 in March. Maybe the days of MVP Steph are over but I wouldn’t be surprised if we get one more year like that next season.
6. Anthony Davis – At this point differentiating between players is getting very tough. The margins are razor thin. I can see an argument for having AD 7th behind Steph. I can maaaybeee see an argument for having him in the top 5. I am starting to feel like AD’s Asian Father. He keeps bringing home 94’s and 95’s on his math tests and all I can think is “Why aren’t you getting 100s?!?!?!” He’s a super mobile, 6 foot 10 monster with a 7’6” pterodactyl wingspan. So why hasn’t he ever won DPOY? When I watch him just feel like he’s lacking certain oomph. If you want to call him soft, I might not agree with you, but I’m not going to stop you. It seems like he picks up a minor bump or bruise every single game. The Lakers are 4.6 points WORSE per/100 possessions with AD on the floor this year than when he’s off the floor. Now, the obvious counter to that is AD plays a lot of his non-LeBron minutes with Rondo, and a lot of his LeBron minutes with another big, either Javale or Dwight. Both of these lineup configurations are suboptimal (as any Lakers lineup that involves Rondo is) and yet AD is partly to blame for the time he shares the floor with another big man. AD doesn’t want to play the 5. Uhhhh why not dude? What are you worried about? PJ Tucker backing you down in the post? How many big men are there in the league that dominate in the post? Is battling for rebounds with Embiid and Jokic really that big of a deal? If the Lakers are going to win the title this season, AD needs to be playing the vast majority of his playoff minutes at center. With AD at PF the spacing is way too janky. Dwight and Javale can’t shoot 3s. As far as PF’s go AD isn’t a great 3pt shooter and LeBron is always around league average from 3. The Lakers are a bit low on shooters to begin with and jamming two bigs on the floor doesn’t help. When AD tries to post up, Javale or Dwight’s man is always lurking in the paint. We always hear that AD is great in part because he can play like a “guard in a big man’s body.” Davis ended his high school freshman year basketball season at 6 foot. By the time his senior season started he was 6’10”. You can see the fact that AD grew up as a guard in the handle he has, which is great for his size, and also his agility. The way he moves around the court is a lot more graceful and under control than we normally see from big men. However, it seems like sometimes AD forgets how huge he is. He gets pushed off his spot too often when trying to post-up. He tends to go for a finesse approach on shots around the rim rather than ramming the ball, and his man, through the basket. These are nit-picks for sure. AD is putting up 27/9/3 on 51/32/84 shooting splits. He’s playing amazing on defense. But when you’re competing for a title, every edge matters. If the Lakers are going to win it all this season, we need to be talking about AD as a no-doubt-about-it top 5 player who took over the playoffs on both ends of the floor. I would love to be proved wrong but I don’t quite see him reaching that level this year.