I was going to wait until the Finals are finished for this post, but I see no need to wait. I’ll go over it more when we get to Giannis, but this is the top 10 players in the NBA right now, according to me. It’s based on simple criteria: what is the player capable of, but also, what has he accomplished in his career? That, to me, is what we mean when we say, “Who is the best player in the league?” It’s not just “Who is the best at the game of basketball?” But also, “What tangible, concrete proof do we have of that player’s greatness?” It can be rings, hardware, stats or all three.
The top 10 players in the NBA right now:
1. LeBron James
In order for anyone to un-seat the King, we’ll need more concrete evidence that he’s actually washed. I’m not buying it. He was hampered by injuries all season long and wasn’t 100% in the playoffs, plus he was missing AD for most of that series against Phoenix. When AD was healthy, the Lakers looked like they were in complete control of that series. Even though LeBron’s scoring numbers weren’t as high as they normally were, he was still the most dominant player in the series–the Lakers were +10 when he was on the court and -49 when he went to the bench.
The last time LeBron was healthy for a postseason run, the Lakers gentlemen swept the entire Western Conference and then won fairly easily in the Finals against Miami, with LeBron taking Finals MVP. This was last October–let’s not act LeBron was not the consensus best player in the league barely 10 months ago.
There will come a day in the next few years where LeBron is knocked from his perch, but it is not this day. Because even if he wasn’t the most gifted basketball player in NBA history, which he is, his greatest trump card that he has above everyone else is his brain. And his Basketball IQ isn’t going anywhere–in fact, it only grows the longer he plays.
2. Kevin Durant
In my view, LeBron and KD have been 1 and 2 in the league since at least 2012, when they first met in the Finals. KD has averaged at least 25 points per game since 2009, his second year in the league when he was just 20. He might be the most pure and dangerous scorer in NBA history–and yes, that means over MJ and Kobe, because KD is both way more efficient and a far superior three point shooter than those guys ever were. We saw him almost single-handedly carry his team to a series victory over Milwaukee without Kyrie or Harden, and had his foot been an inch or two further back and behind the three-point line, he would’ve done it. His Game 5 and Game 7 performances were some of the best in NBA playoff history.
When he is fully unleashed, he is basically unguardable. However, I do have my concerns about him being able to make plays and elevate his teammates, as well as with injuries and durability. In terms of defense, there’s a lot to be desired just because he has the physical tools to be an Anthony Davis or Giannis-level defender, but he’s not bad by any stretch. He’s the best offensive player in the game, but he’s not on LeBron’s level in terms of leadership, playmaking, passing and Basketball IQ. But that’s okay, because nobody else is, either.
Though the Finals are still in progress, winning or losing will not affect my view of Giannis. Even if he wins and wins Finals MVP (which he almost certainly will if Milwaukee wins), I can’t put him ahead of KD or LeBron, and even if he loses, I think he’s shown through these three games that he is for real. I don’t care what people want to say about him–he can’t shoot from outside, he’s unreliable at the line, he’s not his team’s closer–the dude is a force of nature. He can get to the rim at will, he’s a monster defensively, and yes, he’s mentally tough and doesn’t get discouraged even when he airballs free throws.
He’s a physical freak who only missed a week after his knee literally bent backwards–this means he’s durable and reliable, and as they say, the best ability is availability. He is exactly the kind of guy whose shoulders you want to place your entire franchise on.
Again, whether he wins or loses this Finals series does not alter his place in the rankings, in my eyes. The fact that he’s balling out in the Finals is enough for me to consider him as elite as elite gets. I couldn’t put him ahead of Curry until I saw Giannis perform at an elite level on the biggest stage, but after four games, I’ve seen enough. Giannis is That Dude. The craziest thing is, he still has so much room for improvement offensively. Imagine if he develops even a mid-range game; it’s over for the whole league. But what he has right now is good enough. He’s simply unstoppable. He can go past you, over you, or through you–take your pick.
4. Steph Curry
This one was close for me, between Steph and Giannis. But I gave Giannis the edge because I just think he’s more physically dominant and reliable. The reason was not because Steph’s team missed the playoffs this year and Giannis’ team is in the Finals–Steph’s supporting cast was worse than Giannis’ this season, plus Steph plays in the West. It’s not a fair comparison. Imagine if Khris Middleton tore his Achilles before the season even started–we would cut Giannis some slack in that situation, right? So of course we should cut Steph slack for not having Klay this season. We cannot underestimate the impact of losing Klay–he’s made the All Star team the last five seasons he’s been healthy, and he’s an elite defender. He is an integral part of that Warriors system and it does not work anywhere near as well as it should without him. Klay Thompson is not just a great shooter; he’s a top-20 player in the league in my opinion.
However, that said, I do have to ding Steph slightly for missing the playoffs this season. Beyond that, he has been hampered by injuries in the past so I’d consider him less reliable than Giannis, plus he’s nowhere near as good on defense. But he is the greatest shooter of all time and one of the most electrifying players in the league.
5. Luka Doncic
All the other guys in the top-7 have won MVPs, and all of them have had way more playoff success than Luka has. He hasn’t won a playoff series yet in his young career, but I’m still ready to say it: he’s top-5. There’s only a few guys in league history with the triple-threat potential that Luka has: LeBron, Larry Bird and Russell Westbrook. (You could argue James Harden as well–more on him shortly–but Harden isn’t in those guys’ category as a rebounder). Luka took the Clippers to 7 games basically by himself. He is already putting up unbelievable stats, and at age 22, he’s only going to get better. The dude is clearly an all-time talent. He might average a 30-point triple double next season.
6. James Harden
We didn’t really see much of him this post-season due to injuries, and when he did play he wasn’t anywhere near 100%. But when he was playing for Brooklyn this year in the regular season, he was a bona fide MVP candidate. James Harden is an unconventional scorer, to be sure, relying on the whistle and getting to the line, but he’s still one of the greatest scorers this league has ever seen. He averaged 36 a game for a whole season, then followed it up by averaging 34 a game.
But it’s not just his scoring that makes him so great: it’s his passing ability and playmaking. James Harden is underratedly one of the very best distributors in the league–he’s right up there with LeBron, CP3, Jokic and Luka. He’s one of the few players in league history who can put up a 40-point triple double with reasonable regularity. Brooklyn was 27-7 with Harden in the lineup, including a stretch where they went 14-1, and 9-10 without him in the lineup. They were 7-6 before they acquired him via trade. Many of those games he won for them were without KD or Kyrie Irving.
Harden is a legitimate superstar. However, he did have some injury concerns this year with his hamstring, which may have been tied to poor conditioning. And his defensive effort isn’t always there (although he does get hilariously crafty steals from the time to time).
The big question that has dogged him through his entire career, though is this: can he perform at a superstar level in the playoffs when he can’t consistently count on getting the whistle? Playoff games are officiated differently from regular season games, and people point to this as a way explain some of Harden’s high-profile playoff failures (i.e. 2018, 2019). As great as both KD and Kyrie are offensively, Harden is the playmaker that brings it all together for that Nets team.
7. Nikola Jokic
He won MVP this season and carried his team to a first-round playoff series win even without Jamal Murray, but the Nuggets were ultimately swept in the second round by the Suns. Jokic is one of the most entertaining players in the league because he’s so unconventional: he’s a big man, but he can shoot, and he looks like the most unathletic guy in the league so he beats guys with craftiness rather than pure physical dominance. Somehow it all works. He’s got a great habit of keeping the ball high above his head when going to the rim, but the part of his game that truly makes him great is his passing.
To say he’s the best passing big man in the league is selling him short: he’s one of the best distributors in the league, bar none. He’s out there throwing no-looks, behind the backs, through the defender’s legs and full-court football-style passes. It’s truly incredible to watch. However, we just haven’t seen enough from him in the playoffs to put him any higher on the list. Yes, the Nuggets did make it to the conference finals in the bubble, but Jamal Murray kind of stole the show during that run and Jokic took more of a secondary role on the team (although he still averaged 24-10-6 for the whole bubble playoffs).
Then there’s the elephant in the room: can you actually win a Championship in the NBA of 2021 with a center as your best player? This is why despite the MVP trophy he just won, it’s hard for me to rank him higher than #7.
For the first time in his career, there are serious doubts about Dame’s future in Portland. He went absolutely off in the playoffs, scoring 55 in one game, but ultimately no matter how good he was, it wasn’t enough to carry his team out of the first round. I said it the other week: Dame needs to get out of Portland because he’ll never win a ring there. He needs to go someplace where he’s surrounded with Championship-level talent. Does that mean he needs to join the Lakers and form a super team? No, not necessarily. For instance, he could go to the Bulls and it would be an instant upgrade in terms of roster, coaching and market exposure, and he would not be joining a super-team. He’d form an excellent Big Three with Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic, but by no means would they be considered this unstoppable juggernaut.
Dame is one of the most lethal shooters in the league, and although he’s not quite as efficient as Steph, I think Dame has the edge over Steph in clutch shooting. There might not be a more clutch shooter in the league, or possibly in the history of the league. This dude has iced not one but two playoff series with buzzer-beater threes. I will take LeBron with the ball in his hands over anybody in the league with the game on the line because I know LeBron will either make the shot, get to the rim or find the open man. But in terms of who I want actually taking that last shot? It’s Dame. In my opinion, he is the guy you want to take that last shot. He can fire from anywhere; they don’t call him Logo Lillard for nothin’. But I think what makes him so good late in games is that he’s tremendous in iso–in my opinion, even better than Steph. Dame isn’t as great a shooter as Steph, but I think I think Dame has more in his bag offensively. He’s also extremely durable and rarely misses games; this season he played 67 of 71, last season he played all 66, and the fewest games he’s ever played over the course of an 82-game season is 73. That’s really impressive.
However, due to his smaller stature, he’s not a highly effective defender. He’s also never been to an NBA Finals, which puts him in the minority on this top-10 list, but I personally give him a pass on that because he’s just never had the talent around him to get it done in the West in the playoffs. He’s a guy who does more with less, and if he ever leaves Portland, I guarantee you the whole franchise goes into a nosedive. It’ll be like when Harden left Houston or whenever LeBron leaves any team: they go from playoff contender to vying for the #1 overall pick. This, to me, is the mark of a truly valuable franchise player.
Call me a hater if you want, but I have just never bought into the Kawhi hype. When he led the Raptors to the title in 2019 and won Finals MVP, I was not one of those people desperately trying to get on-board the “Kawhi Leonard Is the Best Player In the League” Bandwagon. I thought all that talk was absolutely ludicrous. I’ve written here and there about why I am way lower on Kawhi than most of the sports media, and maybe one day I’ll devote a full post to why I think Kawhi is overrated, but at the end of the day, I’ll still put him in my top-10, although quite honestly there’s a very convincing case that he doesn’t even belong inside the top-10.
Undoubtedly, we have to re-evaluate our view on Kawhi after his team closed out the top-seeded Utah Jazz without him, and then went on to take the Phoenix Suns to 6 in the Conference Finals. Certainly the Clippers would’ve been better off with him in the lineup, but they were pretty damn good without him. So it does beg the question, fairly or unfairly, “How much value does he truly add?”
But at the end of the day, he is an efficient 24-27ppg scorer with the ability to go for 40+ on any given night. He’s a lock-down defender. And he’s won multiple Finals MVP awards. I think the first one was undeserved, but still. He’s arguably the best two-way wing in the league. There is admittedly a lot to like about Kawhi. But then there’s also the injury concerns and the “load management.” And, he’s not known to be a vocal leader of a team. For all these reasons, I can’t put Kawhi any higher than this spot. I know he’s got an unstoppable mid-range pull-up jumper and he’s become a low-key sniper from three, plus his defensive prowess is top-notch among wings, but there’s just so much missing with him that I cannot consider him a true, unambiguous #1 option. I honestly think he’d be better as a #2 option on a team with literally any of the 8 guys I have above him.
Setting aside all that, it was just reported that Kawhi underwent surgery to repair his partially torn ACL. From what I gather, repairing a partially torn ACL is the same surgery as repairing a fully-torn ACL, meaning Kawhi will be out at least 6-9 months, possibly more. That’s a devastating injury for the Clippers, and obviously you really have to feel for both the team and Kawhi. But now we’re going to see how truly valuable Kawhi is to that team.
10. Anthony Davis
Based on talent alone, AD is right up there in the top-5. But he just hasn’t been able to carry a team by himself, as we saw in New Orleans. He’s a #1 in terms of talent, but he’s better off as a #2. However, I don’t really hold this against him, because for AD’s entire career, the NBA has been a wing-centric league. Not since Shaq and Tim Duncan in the 2000s has a team won a title with its primary option being a big man. And even then, Shaq had Kobe, and Duncan had Parker and Ginobili, plus young Kawhi for the 2014 title.
And being a #2 isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I think there’s only a handful of true #1s in the whole league, and you could argue that nearly half the guys on this top-10 list aren’t cut out to be true #1s.
AD didn’t have a great 2021 season, so to some degree he has a bit of pressure on him to have a strong bounce-back 2022 season, but a lot of the reason he wasn’t himself this past season was due to injury and the 71-day offseason. The 30 games he missed in the regular season were the most he’s missed in a season in his entire career, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence it happened after the shortest offseason ever.
Still, he’s as close to the Full Package as it gets in the NBA for anyone not named LeBron James: he can shoot, he can rebound, he can get to the rim, he can play big–and on top of that, he’s an elite defender; maybe the best in the league, quite honestly. Because he was a guard in high school and then shot up to 6′ 10″ late, he has so much more mobility than a traditional big man.
Just missed the cut:
Joel Embiid. Look, I know he’s extremely dominant, and I know he has to deal with not just Ben Simmons as his teammate but also Doc Rivers, the biggest playoff choker of our generation, as his coach, but I’m just not fully sold on him. For one, I don’t think you’re winning a title in today’s NBA with a center as your best player. Second, he’s one of the most injury-prone superstars in the NBA; he’s unreliable and can’t stay healthy.
And third, I just haven’t seen him do it in the playoffs yet. Every other guy ahead of him on this list has either won a ring or balled-out in the playoffs–or both. Luka Doncic has never even been out of the first round but we’ve still seen him put on some unbelievable performances in the playoffs. Embiid has had some great games, but there hasn’t been a lot of winning to accompany those great performances. I can totally see if someone wanted to put him ahead of Anthony Davis, but I just think AD is a better basketball player overall. We’ve seen AD ball out deep in the playoffs and in the Finals; we’ve seen him hit game-winning shots in the playoffs. We know that AD can get it done when it matters most. We haven’t yet seen Embiid do it. I’m not saying he can’t do it; just that we haven’t seen him do it thus far.
So that’s my list: the top-10 plus one. The biggest thing for me is seeing Giannis shine on the biggest stage–I’m ready to put him in the most elite category. He is truly one of the most dominant players the league has ever seen. When you do it in the Finals, it elevates you into the historical all-time great conversation. That’s what we’re seeing with Giannis right now.
—header photo credit: Sports Illustrated