2017 NBA Superstar Rankings: Giannis Antetokounmpo Keeps Soaring
Giannis Antetokounmpo has become a force unlike any other in the NBA.
The 22-year-old superstar keeps rising, keeps producing monstrous statistical outings for the Milwaukee Bucks, and they're by no means empty lines. He flies through the air for constant dunks, extending his lanky arms to put the ball beyond the reach of paint-protecting presences. He finds teammates with passes no player his size should be able to make with any semblance of consistency. He even locks down his assignments while ready to switch onto virtually any player.
Plenty has changed since our end-of-2016 superstar rankings, but one thing hasn't: Antetokounmpo keeps trending up the individual hierarchy, ascending closer than ever to the top of the pile. But how close? And who is he displacing? Who else is coming up with him?
That's the fun part.
As always, we're not concerned with the level these 25 players will reach by the end of the 2016-17 season. The distant past doesn't matter either. This is about who's the best on the floor right now, considering all facets of the game with a heavy emphasis on recent performances.
25. DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors (Previous Ranking: No. 25)
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 28.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.2 blocks
DeMar DeRozan won't stop scoring. As he continues to rack up points, he's proving Dwane Casey was correct.
"I think strength has helped him a lot, being able to take the bumps," the Toronto Raptors head coach told Bleacher Report about DeRozan's improved mid-range shooting.
"Because if you're in that tight space right there, you're going to get hit, touched, whatever. So he's playing through that now. He's doing a much better job of playing in that crowd, exploding up, vaulting up, taking the hits, taking the bumps, taking the physicality and completing the play."
The grueling nature of the NBA calendar often forces players to slow down, but DeRozan has done no such thing.
Since the calendars flipped to 2017, he's averaging 30.5 points while shooting 47.8 percent from the field. He's also continued to abandon the three-point arc, taking just five long-range attempts so far and making one. Instead, he's scored by attacking the basket and dropping mid-range jumpers, just as he's done throughout what should be an All-Star campaign.
Others Receiving Consideration: LaMarcus Aldridge, Carmelo Anthony, Harrison Barnes, Nicolas Batum, Eric Bledsoe, Avery Bradley, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Mike Conley, Andre Drummond, Eric Gordon, Blake Griffin, George Hill, Dwight Howard, DeAndre Jordan, Zach LaVine, Brook Lopez, Dirk Nowitzki, Jabari Parker, Otto Porter, Kristaps Porzingis, Dennis Schroder, Jeff Teague, Klay Thompson, Myles Turner, Hassan Whiteside
24. Paul George, Indiana Pacers (Previous Ranking: No. 21)
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 22.0 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.3 blocks
Paul George's scoring hasn't dipped. He's posting his highest field-goal percentage (44.4) since his rookie season, shooting above his career average from downtown (38.6) and knocking down 92.5 percent of his freebies—the best mark in the NBA as well as the top score of his career.
So why does he keep slipping in the rankings? Shouldn't he be sitting far closer to the top 10?
The reasons are threefold:
First, George's percentages are misleading. He's not attacking the basket nearly as frequently, which prevents his overall efficiency levels from rising high enough to offset his diminishing impact as a facilitator.
Third, and perhaps most important, his efforts aren't leading to many wins. The Indiana Pacers are just two games over .500, and they've outscored opponents by a restrained 3.3 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor.
23. Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies (Previous Ranking: No. 13)
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 19.4 points, 6.1 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.4 blocks
So much of Marc Gasol's mystique is steeped in his ability to do the little things that don't necessarily show up in the box score but assist the Memphis Grizzlies' chances of winning.
Naturally, when they start losing, his stock drops.
Memphis' offense is jumping into gear lately, but the defense—which rests so strongly on his shoulders—hasn't been up to the same standard. Since the beginning of 2017, the Grizzlies are allowing 108.4 points per 100 possessions, which leaves them in the league's bottom half.
Gasol's individual numbers are holding steady. Even as his three-point stroke begins to wither, he's averaged 18.9 points, 6.1 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.6 steals and 0.7 blocks during that same stretch.
But the W's aren't coming as frequently, and the Grizz have been outscored while he's on the court. Sure, they've played a tough schedule, but his previously lofty rating was predicated upon his ability to lift Memphis into that realm of elites.
22. Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz (Previous Ranking: Unranked)
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 22.0 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.3 blocks
The 26-year-old's entire season has been praiseworthy. In spite of the team's many injuries, his two-way efforts have helped keep the Jazz in contention for home-court advantage in the playoffs' opening round.
He's just taken his game to that proverbial next level in 2017, averaging 21.7 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.2 assists while shooting 52.1 percent from the field, 52.4 percent from downtown and 86.4 percent from the charity stripe. Hayward is playing with unabashed confidence: The rim must look like a hula hoop, regardless of the spot from which he chooses to launch jumpers.
Now, he's finally getting recognized.
"If Gordon isn't an All-Star, something is wrong," Phoenix Suns head coach Earl Watson told reporters Monday.
21. Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers (Previous Ranking: No. 19)
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 20.7 points, 10.8 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.4 blocks
Kevin Love still thrives as a rebounding threat and interior scorer. According to NBA.com's SportVU data, he's even putting up 0.9 points per possession as a post-up player, which leaves him in the 55th percentile.
But Love remains most valuable as a spot-up shooter.
He's scoring 1.25 points per possession there and joins Otto Porter, Kawhi Leonard, Danilo Gallinari and Jae Crowder as one of only five players to rank in at least the 90th percentile while using no fewer than four spot-up plays per game.
Teams are figuring out how to exploit Love's interior defense, and that's the primary reason he's starting to slide in the rankings. But the good more than outweighs the bad, as the Cleveland offense couldn't hum without his spreading out the opposition and opening driving lanes for Kyrie Irving and LeBron James.
20. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (Previous Ranking: Unranked)
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 19.7 points, 7.7 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.8 steals, 2.4 blocks
Now that Joel Embiid is helping the Philadelphia 76ers win games—they've won four of their last five outings—it's impossible to deny his star power.
The rookie sensation does have a pair of notable warts: He fouls too frequently and can't seem to stop turning the ball over. The latter, in part, stems from the Sixers' utter reliance on his offensive abilities.
But not even those issues can stop him from taking the league by storm.
Halfway through his initial campaign, he's averaging a brain-melting 28.0 points, 11.0 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per 36 minutes—numbers only one player (not just among rookies) has ever matched.
(But who was that other per-minute stud? That would be the legendary Cozell McQueen, who played just seven total minutes for the Detroit Pistons in 1986-87 before falling out of the league entirely.)
Moreover, Embiid's doing so while shooting 46.1 percent from the field, 34.5 percent from downtown and 78.6 percent at the stripe. He's also become one of the league's best rim protectors, holding opponents to just 40.6 percent shooting at the hoop.
19. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves (Previous Ranking: No. 23)
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 21.8 points, 11.9 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.5 blocks
Karl-Anthony Towns struggled immensely as a help defender early in the year. Constantly out of position, he gambled excessively and created easy opportunities around the hoop as he struggled with interior fundamentals. Despite his reputation as a two-way asset, he was one of the reasons the Minnesota Timberwolves couldn't stop a nosebleed.
But as his sophomore campaign has progressed, he's started to figure it out.
Prior to Dec. 13's victory over the Chicago Bulls, Towns posted an individual defensive rating of 111, and the 'Wolves were 13.8 points per 100 possessions more porous when he was on the floor. Since then, that first number has sunk to 104, and Minnesota's defensive rating is only 1.1 points per 100 possessions worse when he plays.
Towns has a long way to go before his athleticism translates into Defensive Player of the Year-caliber defense, but he's getting closer. When you pair that with his offensive prowess, he's already one of the league's best centers.
18. Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers (Previous Ranking: No. 15)
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 23.6 points, 3.5 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.1 blocks
As Scott Rafferty broke down nicely for Sporting News, Kyrie Irving can't be contained in isolation:
Irving in particular is a nightmare for opponents to slow down in isolation. 20.1 percent of his offense comes in those situations on the season and he ranks in the 92.9 percentile with 1.18 points per possession. To put into context just how impressive that is, Irving has attempted 118 shots out of isolation and only two players ahead of him in efficiency have attempted more than 50 shots: Chris Paul (81) and Isaiah Thomas (53). 1.18 points per possession is also basically as efficient as Steven Adams and Hassan Whiteside diving to the basket in the pick-and-roll.
Irving's defense is easily exploitable—more so than ever this year. He's also a lock to go through lengthy stretches in which he forgets to serve as a facilitator for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
That may depress his overall value, but his ability to produce points—regardless of whether he's playing in a low- or high-leverage situation—makes him well worth the lapses.
17. Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets (Previous Ranking: No. 16)
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 23.0 points, 4.2 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.2 blocks
The Charlotte Hornets love to initiate half-court sets with a high pick-and-roll, and they sometimes begin with two bigs coming to set screens at the top of the key. In the past, it was easy to sag off Kemba Walker and go under the picks to mitigate his driving ability, but he's making opponents pay for that mistake in 2016-17—just as he started to do in 2015-16.
Now, those opposing teams have adjusted.
It's still not enough.
Cody Zeller, in particular, is fantastic at holding screens through contact, and defenders are learning you can't just try to fight through. If you do, Walker will get off a shot so quickly that your efforts will be rendered irrelevant.
A staggering 56.0 percent of Walker's plays come as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, and he's scoring enough to fall in at the 86.8 percentile. Beno Udrih and Jrue Holiday are the only other players to use this type of action on at least half of their sets while suiting up in 20 or more games, and neither can match Walker's efficiency level.
16. John Wall, Washington Wizards (Previous Ranking: No. 17)
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 22.9 points, 4.5 rebounds, 10.1 assists, 2.2 steals, 0.5 blocks
John Wall means everything to the Washington Wizards.
His blitzing style of defense may lend itself to a few easy buckets for the opposition, but that's a worthwhile price to pay when he can wreak havoc in the passing lanes and terrify ball-handlers with his off-ball athleticism. He's also a deft scorer who can put up big numbers even without a three-point stroke, and his vision is among the best in the league when he's on the move.
On both ends of the floor, Washington is leaps and bounds better when he plays:
|Offensive Rating (Rank)||Defensive Rating (Rank)||Net Rating (Rank)|
|With Wall||109.1 (No. 6)||104.8 (No. 11)||4.3 (No. 7)|
|Without Wall||98.7 (No. 30)||107.9 (No. 25)||minus-9.2 (No. 30)|
This is in part due to Wall's spending so much time with his fellow starters. But it's impossible to overlook the impact that comes along with his individual production.
15. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz (Previous Ranking: No. 18)
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 12.4 points, 12.5 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.7 steals, 2.6 blocks
Rudy Gobert's ability to protect the rim just isn't fair, as the Phoenix Suns recently found out when a rolling Marquese Chriss tested the big man in a late-game situation. The result? A game-sealing stuff.
"I saw somebody try to score at the rim and I stopped them," the aptly nicknamed Stifle Tower said about that play, per the Deseret News' Scott Bordow. "I wasn't surprised. He had to do it. He was wide open."
Wide open or not, Chriss got stopped. Fortunately for the Phoenix rookie, he's not alone.
Gobert has faced a staggering 11 shots per game at the rim—1.2 more than anyone else in 2016-17 (and more than anyone in 2015-16, 2014-15 or 2013-14). Among the 74 players this season who have faced at least four shots per contest, just three have been stingier:
|Player||Attempts Faced Per Game||FG% Allowed at Rim|
Stop testing him already.
14. Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics (Previous Ranking: No. 20)
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 28.4 points, 2.7 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.1 blocks
Isaiah Thomas has developed into a scoring machine for the Boston Celtics. Forget about any pound-for-pound titles, because he's become one of the league's most dangerous point-producing threats of any size.
As calculated on NBA Math, he's become (by far) the league's most valuable isolation scorer. He only grows more dangerous as the game progresses.
During fourth quarters, Thomas is accounting for a staggering 10.1 points per contest while shooting 49.5 percent from the field, 45.1 percent from downtown and 89.9 percent at the stripe. He stops passing almost entirely, but defenses still aren't able to slow him down.
The only other player averaging at least eight points per fourth quarter is Russell Westbrook (9.6). As Dan Feldman noted for NBC Sports, nobody in the last 20 seasons has finished a campaign above 9.5.
We've never seen anyone like this.
13. Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors (Previous Ranking: No. 14)
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 10.7 points, 8.6 rebounds, 7.7 assists, 2.0 steals, 1.3 blocks
As has been the case for years, Draymond Green's scoring is ultimately irrelevant.
If the 26-year-old big man provides a few points to the Golden State Warriors' cause, that's gravy. But even if he throws up a goose egg in the points column, he can steer his squad toward victory with his tremendous defense, rebounding chops and ability to create easy looks for his teammates.
But these numbers aren't just unique in a 2016-17 context.
Throughout all of NBA history, he's the one man to clear the bar in all four categories. Even if we lower the restrictions to eight rebounds, seven assists, one steal and one block, only one other season joins the club: Green in 2015-16.
12. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans (Previous Ranking: No. 7)
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 29.0 points, 12.1 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.3 steals, 2.5 blocks
Anthony Davis can play like a top-five contributor when healthy, but the nagging pains, bruises and bumps tend to add up. ESPN.com's Justin Verrier compiled a list of what's plagued Davis during the first half of 2016-17, and it's staggering how lengthy it's already become:
- Mid-game injuries with returns later that night: lower back (Nov. 12), right kneecap bruise (Nov. 22), right shoulder (Dec. 2), left lower leg bruise (Dec. 16)
- Mid-game injuries that ended his night: left hip (Jan. 9), right hip bruise and left thumb sprain (Jan. 16)
- Missed games: right thigh bruise (Nov. 16), rest (Dec. 10), left hip (Jan. 12)
Avoiding extended absences has been huge, as it allows Davis to build defensive continuity with his teammates—the primary reason the New Orleans Pelicans are climbing back into the Western Conference playoff race.
But again, these add up. The most recent injury, stemming from a hard fall against the Indiana Pacers, could have lasting consequences.
Just imagine what Davis could do if he was fully healthy all year.
11. DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings (Previous Ranking: No. 11)
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 28.1 points, 10.0 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.4 blocks
When guys are playmakers like [LeBron James and Cousins], they also have five or six "hockey assists," where somebody (on defense) has to rotate and then you get an extra pass. Those are the shots you practice all the time.
I think we struggle only when we stand and watch (Cousins) play. If we cut off of him, whether he's at the elbow or the post, he's a willing passer, and it makes complementary players increase their scoring.
The big man is averaging 7.2 dimes in his last five outings, highlighted by an 11-assist showing against the Cleveland Cavaliers. These aren't all easy feeds either.
"I'm just trying to lead by example," he told Kawahara. "We preach ball movement. And earlier in the season, I think I was a little too aggressive with the ball and trying to get to the basket or whatever the case may be. Now I'm trying to pick my spots and make sure guys are involved and they feel a part of the game."
10. Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers (Previous Ranking: No. 8)
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 17.5 points, 5.3 rebounds, 9.7 assists, 2.2 steals, 0.1 blocks
Chris Paul could retire today and make the Hall of Fame.
Yet he's having the most efficient offensive season of his career. Better still, he's doing so at an age that sees so many point guards start to take serious strides in the wrong direction.
We're not just talking about Paul's averaging 9.7 assists and 2.4 turnovers for the Los Angeles Clippers—numbers only Muggsy Bogues and John Lucas have matched throughout NBA history. He's also having a spectacular shooting season, posting a career-high true shooting percentage by hitting 47.1 percent from the field, 39.5 percent from downtown and 87.6 percent on his free-throw attempts.
Paul has ceded some offensive responsibilities in 2016-17; he doesn't take over as a scorer quite as frequently as in the past.
But he's made up for that decline by avoiding mistakes and locking down on defense better than ever. According to DRPM, he's easily been the league's best defensive point guard, posting a score (3.5) nearly double Patrick Beverley's second-place mark (1.85).
Note: Enjoy seeing Paul in the top 10, because he'll likely be unranked by the next edition after Dan Woike of the Orange County Register reported he's expected to miss between six and eight weeks with a torn ligament in his left thumb.
9. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors (Previous Ranking: No. 10)
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 22.2 points, 5.0 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.4 blocks
Let's turn to Bleacher Report's Dan Favale, who recently called Kyle Lowry the most underrated candidate for the 2017 NBA All-Star Game:
Lowry creates the most separation from everyone else on the less glamorous end. He is a bulldog for someone generously listed at 6'1" and the main reason why Toronto's topsy-turvy defense sports top-five prevention at the point guard position, according to HoopsStats.com.
All of this tends to go unrecognized: Lowry barely places fifth in backcourt voting.
Worse, he isn't yet the popular pick for hypothetical "Best Guard in the East" honors—even though that's exactly what he is. And, frankly, it's not really close.
The basketball-watching world should universally recognize Lowry as one of the 10 best players in the world. Within the confines of the Eastern Conference, no point guard comes within sniffing distance of his two-way abilities.
Until he cools from beyond the arc (if he ever does), that won't change.
8. Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls (Previous Ranking: No. 12)
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 24.9 points, 6.8 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.3 blocks
Don't mess with Jimmy Butler when the game is on the line.
In clutch situations—defined by NBA.com as the last five minutes of games separated by no more than five points—Butler is averaging 41.8 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists per 36 minutes while shooting 42.1 percent from the field and 97.6 percent at the stripe. While assuming a staggering 40.7 usage rate—think of Russell Westbrook's level of responsibility—he's helped the Chicago Bulls by producing a 14.3 net rating.
And he's not just scoring.
Butler's defense has been superb down the stretch of tight games. He's willing to make proper passes at the right times, and he's shown no compunction taking last-minute shots with the outcome on the line.
As good as he's been throughout his outings, he's been even better when it matters most.
7. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs (Previous Ranking: No. 9)
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 24.6 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.7 blocks
Kawhi Leonard was lighting up scoreboards and surging up early MVP ballots at the beginning of the season. He sparked a surprising amount of success from the revamped San Antonio Spurs, and the headlines came right along.
Leonard and the Spurs haven't slowed down, even if the attention has started to die away in favor of the league's other superstars.
Make no mistake about it: This 25-year-old is still playing phenomenal defense, even if the Spurs' schemes are detracting from some of his advanced metrics while his offensive game keeps getting better.
Since the start of 2017, Leonard has averaged 25.7 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.7 assists while shooting 53.6 percent from the field, 45.2 percent from beyond the arc and 84.3 percent from the free-throw line. It's almost unfair how potent he's become, since no two-time Defensive Player of the Year should be a threat to join the 50/40/90 club while scoring at least 25 points per game.
6. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors (Previous Ranking: No. 5)
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 24.6 points, 4.2 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.2 blocks
We've reached the point where it's disappointing that Stephen Curry is "only" producing the numbers you can see above.
He's ceding touches to Kevin Durant, which means he gets to spend less time working off the dribble and isn't producing the magical moments that became synonymous with his unanimous second MVP campaign. He's shooting the worst percentage of his career from beyond the arc. Even his assists have fallen.
Though all those are factual statements, it's ridiculous to look at his exploits in such a negative light.
Curry is still shooting 46.5 percent from the field, 39.8 percent on treys (while taking 9.6 per game) and 92.5 percent at the stripe. His turnovers have fallen in conjunction with his lessened dime-dropping, and yet he's remained one of the Association's most dangerous offensive threats.
According to NBA Math's offensive points added (OPA), only four players have provided more value on the scoring end.
5. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (Previous Ranking: No. 6)
Position: ALL OF THEM
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 23.4 points, 8.6 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 1.8 steals, 2.1 blocks
Every time Giannis Antetokounmpo shows signs of slowing down, he rebounds and continues to bend physics to his will. It's become impossible to keep him away from the basket as he works with a backbreaking assault of lengthy strides, quick spins and ever-extending arms.
From the beginning of December through Jan. 6, Antetokounmpo averaged 25.0 points, 9.3 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 1.8 steals and 2.1 blocks while shooting 53.8 percent from the field, 35.8 percent on threes and 78.0 percent at the stripe. Then he missed a game due to sickness and struggled to perform adequately in his nine-minute return against the San Antonio Spurs.
The struggles didn't last.
He's been back to his old tricks through the three outings since—averaging 25.0 points, 7.3 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.7 steals and 2.3 blocks on 58.5 percent shooting. Scarier still, he's showing flashes of confidence in his mid-range jumper, even stepping into the shot when the defense affords him that luxury.
At this point, denying Antetokounmpo's status as one of the elites is foolish. He's not a flash in the pan so much as an up-and-coming 22-year-old with a legitimate shot to become the league's best player in the not-so-distant future.
For that to happen, the outside stroke will need to come around and make him a bit less one-dimensional as a scorer. That singular dimension is already giving defenses nightmares, but a more well-rounded game will be necessary as he attempts to vault the Milwaukee Bucks well above .500—something the four players ranked ahead have all done with their respective squads.
4. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors (Previous Ranking: No. 4)
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 25.8 points, 8.6 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.7 blocks
A lot of attention is paid to Kevin Durant's offense, and rightly so.
But what's often lost in the hype is his massive improvement on defense. Just look at how much better the metrics treat him this year than they did during his last few campaigns with the Oklahoma City Thunder:
|2016-17||2.7||79.87 (on pace for 159.74)||1.71|
Durant is even protecting the rim now. According to NBA.com's SportVU data, he's facing 4.8 shots per game at the hoop and allowing opponents to shoot only 47.5 percent. Last year, those numbers stood at 3.0 and 50.7, respectively.
Don't make the mistake of looking only at Durant's scoring numbers. This is the most complete season he's ever posted.
3. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers (Previous Ranking: No. 2)
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 25.6 points, 7.8 rebounds, 8.1 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.5 blocks
"Cavaliers superstar LeBron James has become increasingly frustrated with the way he has been officiated this season, multiple team sources told ESPN following Cleveland's 100-92 loss to the Utah Jazz on Tuesday," Dave McMenamin wrote for ESPN.com on Jan. 11.
It remains to be seen if his frustration will result in officials' changing how they call fouls on the King. So far, we've witnessed mixed results—just three free throws against the Sacramento Kings three nights after the original complaint and then an even 10 against the Golden State Warriors.
For the purposes of these rankings, it's irrelevant whether or not James is correct. What matters is how well he's playing and how he's perceived.
The complaints won't help, especially in the wake of his sell job after hard contact from Draymond Green. But if he gets to the stripe even more frequently and boosts his already sterling efficiency levels, there won't be any doubt about his accompanying rise back to the top of the leaguewide hierarchy.
After all, he's already close while taking "only" 7.1 freebies per game.
2. James Harden, Houston Rockets (Previous Ranking: No. 3)
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 28.4 points, 8.3 rebounds, 11.7 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.4 blocks
James Harden isn't just a point guard now; he's become one of the NBA's best at the position, a testament to how well he's running the show for the Houston Rockets.
Averaging a league-best 11.7 assists is special, and even that sells his abilities short. Harden has always been comfortable handling the ball and creating for others. It's one of the reasons he was able to rack up dimes even while he was very much a shooting guard during previous seasons.
But he's showing new levels of vision as he constantly searches for teammates and is able to pass them open.
As a whole, the Rockets (other than Harden) are shooting 47.6 percent from the field this season. Off passes from the bearded floor general, they're knocking down 52.9 percent of their looks—calculated by looking at the percentage of potential assists that turn into actual assists.
Harden's scoring ability warps a defense since it has to be ready for his constant drives and foul-drawing acumen. Better than ever, he's taking advantage of that extra space, and his teammates are the huge beneficiaries. Without him, for example, Eric Gordon wouldn't be second in the league in triples—59 of his 152 treys have come from a Harden feed.
1. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder (Previous Ranking: No. 1)
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 30.7 points, 10.5 rebounds, 10.3 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.3 blocks
The quest for the elusive triple-double campaign continues.
So much of the season remains for Russell Westbrook in his journey to match Oscar Robertson as one of only two players to average such a feat for an entire year. But he's shown no signs of slowing down during recent weeks, which helps that eventual outcome.
Westbrook posted 30.6 points, 10.6 rebounds and 9.9 assists per game during December, highlighted by his magnificent 22-dime showing against the Phoenix Suns. In his last four games, he's averaged 26.3 points, 10.0 rebounds and 9.5 assists.
Those last three numbers may appear to be diminished results, but they're dragged down by an inexplicably "poor" showing against the Los Angeles Clippers in which he finished with 24 points, five rebounds and four assists in a blowout loss.
During the other three relevant outings, he's triple-doubled each time.
So long as he keeps throwing up these statistics and keeps a lackluster Oklahoma City Thunder roster above .500, it'll be tough to displace him from the leading spot.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.