Ranking the Top 10 NBA Small Forwards Entering 2017-18 Season

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistOctober 5, 2017

Ranking the Top 10 NBA Small Forwards Entering 2017-18 Season

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    Jason Miller/Getty Images

    The NBA's small forward pecking order needs another once-over.

    Many of the usual suspects still rule the class, but the line of dominance, as a whole, is undergoing some wholesale revisions and transitions. Chief among these shifts: tactical revolution. 

    Every team isn't necessarily ditching the concept of positions altogether, but slots typically reserved for bigs are commingling with wings. These playmaking studs are now soaking up time at shooting guard and power forward, in addition to the 3, distributing talent traditionally blocked together across a wider landscape.

    Discretion will be used when determining who qualifies as a small forward entering the 2017-18 campaign. Roster construction and lineup tendencies will matter just as much, and sometimes more, than where a player starts games or finished last season.

    Kevin Durant logged a lion's share of his minutes at power forward during his inaugural go-round with the Golden State Warriors even though he played small forward within the starting lineup. He won't be getting a shoutout here.

    Jimmy Butler ended last year as a 3, but his majority role will change with the Minnesota Timberwolves. They'll run out two bigs most of the time, and Andrew Wiggins saw more minutes at power forward than shooting guard. Butler gets the nod as their full-time 2; you can catch him inside the shooting guard rankings. Likewise, in a long-overdue move, Carmelo Anthony will be moving from the 3 to the 4 after joining the Oklahoma City Thunder.

    Similar logic is applied when high-profile players from the same team collide. The Milwaukee Bucks' rotation allowed for both Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton to earn small forward designations. This food chain won't reinvent that balance, since Antetokounmpo's moonlighting elsewhere permits it to persist.

    Players will be arranged solely on their expected values for 2017-18. Last season's performance will play a pivotal role in shaping the order, but age, health, projected playing time and role changes (new teammates, play-style adjustments, etc.) will all be reflected in the final returns.

Honorable Mentions: Nos. 15 Through 11

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    Bill Baptist/Getty Images

    15. Wilson Chandler, Denver Nuggets

    Age: 30

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 15.7 points points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.4 blocks, 46.1 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 14.9 Player Efficiency Rating (PER), -1.24 Real Plus-Minus (RPM), -35.99 Total Points Added (TPA)

    Player stocks don't usually rise much on the heels of a 30th birthday, but Wilson Chandler lands in a unique situation with the Denver Nuggets. They're short on real wings, which will prompt more than a few funky solutions: Gary Harris playing up a position; should-be 4 Juan Hernangomez being groomed as a 3; and Paul Millsap switching onto more small forwards.

    Chandler, along with Will Barton, will be crucial to mitigating the Nuggets' dependence on the unconventional and impractical. His game melds nicely will whomever they throw around him. He gets buckets off the dribble, hits enough of his standalone threes to justify shooting them (34 percent) and ran about as many pick-and-rolls per game last season (1.6) as Harris and Danilo Gallinari.

    Denver would do well to conjure some minutes for Chandler at power forward, but his value isn't predicated on simplification. He maintains the lateral gait to stalk opposing 3s and the north-to-south acceleration conducive to whirlwind offense.

                            

    14. C.J. Miles, Toronto Raptors

    Age: 30

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 10.7 points, 3.0 rebounds, 0.6 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.3 steals, 43.4 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 13.8 (PER), 0.35 (RPM), -21.29 (TPA)

    C.J. Miles doesn't receive enough credit for his positional plasticity. He defends up to power forwards, and while he's often outmuscled or outfoxed off the bounce, the option of having a 6'6" protective patch in the frontcourt is on its own a luxury.

    For the Toronto Raptors, much like the Indiana Pacers before them, it could prove to be a necessity. Patrick Patterson is gone, and Serge Ibaka doesn't have the sidelong spring to rotate as often as most 4s.

    Pascal Siakam can replace much of that fast-twitch zip, but he isn't as easy to integrate into the offense. Miles, by comparison, is a catch-and-shoot crackerjack. Out of the 240 players to work through at least 75 spot-up touches, he finished first in points scored per possession.

    Shifty defense and reliable shooting are hallmarks of the most coveted three-and-D specialists—a niche group to which Miles doesn't just belong, but helps headline.

                      

    13. Trevor Ariza, Houston Rockets

    Age: 32

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 11.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.3 blocks, 40.9 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics:  12.4 PER, 1.93 RPM, 92.43 TPA

    Trevor Ariza would have found himself trickling down the NBA's food chain if the Houston Rockets' offseason didn't save him.

    His 34.4 percent clip from downtown will explode while catching passes from both James Harden and Chris Paul, and he won't need to tackle the quickest wings on defense with Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker in the rotation.

    This doesn't imply he'll be doing less. The Rockets should be mixing and matching him more than last year. And that suits him. 

    Ariza works much better when he's not pigeonholed to an inflexible job description. Some nights he'll have it in him to switch pick-and-rolls. Other times he'll be better off scrapping with low-post bangers. There will be games in which he should get stashed on more stationary assignments.

    Houston has set itself up to play matchmaker with his defensive duties, paving the way for him to do more without straining himself on the offensive end by year's end.

                        

    12. Joe Ingles, Utah Jazz

    Age: 30

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 7.1 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.1 blocks, 45.2 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 12.4 PER, 2.55 RPM, 97.84 TPA

    Inviting Joe Ingles to the party isn't blasphemous just because Gordon Hayward and George Hill are gone. The Utah Jazz offense is a giant question mark without its two most important shot-creators and -makers, but Ingles' breakout 2016-17 wasn't borne entirely from privilege.

    Neither Hayward nor Hill reduced his defensive responsibilities. He switched from point guards through power forwards, using his anticipation and keen sense of space, and his surrounding personnel, to offset his slow-motion movements.

    Utah similarly didn't experiment with Ingles as a pick-and-roll instigator because it looked fun. Repeated absences from Hill and a largely suboptimal backup point guard rotation dictated he broaden that part of his game. And though his 44.1 percent three-point conversion rate may be in jeopardy, he's never converted less than 35.6 percent of his outside attempts.

    Three other players cleared four assists and 1.5 steals per 36 minutes last season while putting down 40 percent or more of their threebies: Malcolm Brogdon, Stephen Curry and Chris Paul. Anyone who makes nice with that club deserves recognition—not to mention the benefit of the doubt that he won't completely fall off next time around.

                  

    11. Robert Covington, Philadelphia 76ers

    Age: 26

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 12.9 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.9 steals, 1.0 blocks, 39.9 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 13.2 PER, 3.55 RPM, 60.88 TPA

    Ever wonder how Michael Kidd-Gilchrist would fare with a jump shot? Look no further than Robert Covington.

    Ben Golliver expanded on this for SI.com:

    "The undrafted forward firmed up his reputation as one of the best multi-positional defenders in the NBA last season, ranking fourth overall in Defensive Real Plus-Minus and finishing (a very distant) fourth in Defensive Player of the Year voting despite playing for the 28-win Sixers. One of just 10 players to average at least one assist and one block per game, Covington's length, mobility and strength make him a nuisance for point guards and power forwards alike."

    Covington drained an uninspiring 33.3 percent of his treys in 2016-17, but his efficiency should explore career-best terrain now the Philadelphia 76ers have multiple A-plus playmakers around him. And with his combo-forward defense approaching All-NBA levels, he needn't do more than pump-and-drive or spot-up offense to rationalize this induction. 

10. Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves

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    David Sherman/Getty Images

    Age: 22

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 23.6 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.4 blocks, 45.2 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 16.5 PER, -1.60 RPM, -162.20 TPA

    Placing Andrew Wiggins this high takes a little imagination.

    David Aldridge polled a dozen rival general managers for NBA.com on whether they would have Wiggins or Devin Booker as their long-term building block, and the returns among those brave enough to choose weren't great:

    "Said one GM: 'Booker... not even close. Better scorer—game means more to him—stylistically fits today's game better—can be a No. 1 option.'

    "Said another: 'Booker. Never been convinced of Andrew's desire to compete. Hesitant to trust after he dropped Bill [Duffy, Wiggins' former agent] in the manner/timing he did.'

    "And, a third: 'Booker. More driven and passionate on a consistent basis.'"

    This spot banks on Wiggins overturning far-flung perception—not unlike the Minnesota Timberwolves' decision to offer him a five-year, $148 million extension. And some of the most popular knocks against him aren't entirely fair.

    Wiggins absolutely profiles as a No. 1 option. His passive demeanor should not be used to infer otherwise. He led the Timberwolves in total crunch-time shot attempts by a country mile and posted the best drawn-foul rate on drives among 64 players to average five or more downhill attacks per game. He's also just the ninth player in NBA history to average 20 points per game more than once before his 22nd birthday. His company: Carmelo Anthony, Elton Brand, Adrian Dantley, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, LeBron James and Shaquille O'Neal.

    Flashes of ugly are peppered throughout Wiggins' offensive armory. He sometimes dribbles too much; jacks way too many long twos; has yet to shoot a league-average rate from downtown; and isn't a premier playmaker. But his efficiency should go up beside Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague and Karl-Anthony Towns, while the departure of Ricky Rubio mixed with a dearth of backup playmaking opens the door for him to gain more work as the pick-and-roll slinger.

    Coaxing more from him on defense is the bigger concern. He should be switching between 2s, 3s and 4s, but he's an inattentive train wreck prone to off-ball misreads and lackadaisical closeouts. Another year under Tom Thibodeau might do wonders for his execution. Playing off Butler, a defensive workaholic, will help as well. If all else fails, a budding offensive game should catapult him up the NBA's individual ladder by itself.

9. Andre Iguodala, Golden State Warriors

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    Age: 33

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 7.6 points, 4.0 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.5 blocks, 52.8 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 14.3 PER, 3.53 RPM, 124.62 TPA 

    Andre Iguodala is far removed from double-figure scoring averages, and his three-point success rate (36.2 percent last season) remains noticeably unremarkable for a Swiss Army knife surrounded by four All-NBA studs. It doesn't matter. He is the quintessential accessory piece—a superstar role player.

    Thirteen years into his career, he still tackles the toughest defensive assignments. Golden State throws him on LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard, without hesitation or regret, an approach grounded more in his ability to keep pace with bulldozing ball-handlers than the team's compilation of safety valves around him.

    If you're going to beat Iguodala, you'll do it with low-quality step-back jumpers or because the other four Warriors have vacated the paint behind him to jacket knockdown shooters. And he has a switch he flips down the stretch, in the half court, when games are on the line.

    Golden State seldom sends help within close proximity of Iguodala unless he ends up defending deep inside the free-throw line. He has carte blanche to crowd ball-handlers or drop back to guard against drives. The Warriors let him work on his own either way.

    Surrendering a featured option's workload has not stamped out Iguodala's selfless disposition. He revels in creating for others and does so at breakneck speed. He placed fourth on the team in potential assists despite finishing sixth in touches, owning possessions for about as long as Klay Thompson and averaging under 27 minutes.

    Cold spurts tend to cap his offensive contributions, but that happens when deferring to younger, flashier running mates. Iguodala drills enough of his catch-and-shoot threes to lure defenders out of the lane (36.6 percent) and shot a brain-bending 78.6 percent on a steady stream of cuts.

    Lower-usage roles punctuated by limited playing almost always derail value. Iguodala's worth, both to the Warriors and overall, is the rare stock affected by neither.

8. Danilo Gallinari, Los Angeles Clippers

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Age: 29

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 18.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.2 blocks, 44.7 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 17.4 PER, 2.88 RPM, 34.96 TPA

    Danilo Gallinari would rank more favorably among his peers if the Los Angeles Clippers didn't need him to spend most of his minutes at the 3. He can play small forward without skipping a beat on offense, but he's a bigger mismatch and less of a defensive liability when manning the 4.

    Lining up next to Blake Griffin could expose him in ways the Nuggets' cruddy defense didn't. He'll have a harder time fending off pick-and-rolls and find himself running through more screens and adjusting for additional hand-off sets.

    Indeed, the variance in skill sets between the 3 and 4 is infinitesimal, but it exists. Extra looks against those situations will garble his value, demanding he lean more on his offensive resume.

    Good thing that won't be a problem.

    Gallinari toes the line of unguardable. He doesn't have a predictable tendency. He still falls in love with low-percentage fadeaways and icky pull-ups, but he's also calculated in his chaos.

    Routinely hoisting shots most won't traps defenders in an unending cycle of guesswork. Will he stop on a dime and fire from mid-range? Launch off the catch? Use a screen to run some pick-and-roll? Attack before the screener reaches him? 

    And what happens when he's around the basket? One head fake? Two? Three? Four million?

    Dancing between on- and off-ball work is a difficult balancing act. Gallinari has virtually mastered it.

    More than 67 percent of his made baskets came off assists, but he posted a free-throw rate within breaths of Butler and James Harden. Only five players, meanwhile, burned through as many isolation (128and spot-up (263) possessions: Wilson Chandler, Tobias Harris, Dario Saric, Isaiah Thomas and Leonard—a blend of stars and high-ceiling glue guys befitting Gallinari's all-purpose arsenal.

7. Otto Porter Jr., Washington Wizards

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Age: 24

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 13.4 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.5 blocks, 51.6 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 17.3 PER, 3.56 RPM, 205.94 TPA

    Otto Porter Jr. is being paid like a star (four years, $107 million) because he typifies the perfect role player.

    Nine-figure contracts infer a certain level of offensive freedom Porter will never get with the Washington Wizards. He won't direct more than a handful of pick-and-rolls (0.8 per game in 2016-17) or stage a ton of drives (1.1) so long as Bradley Beal and John Wall are his teammates. That comes with the territory of being a spare tire.

    Where some players in their 20s might grapple with this dynamic—think Rodney Hood with the Jazz—Porter has owned it. Embraced it.

    Perfected it.

    Almost 250 players churned through 75 or more spot-up touches last season. Stephen Curry and C.J. Miles were the only ones to average more points per possession. And this catch-and-shoot glory isn't to be confused with a stationary role. Porter ranked second on the Wizards in distance traveled per game at the offensive end, right behind Beal. He works to reach his spots and is an opportunistic cutter—particularly when Marcin Gortat or Markieff Morris is on the bench.

    Branching out into more pick-and-rolls, drives, isolations and post-ups would carry Porter closer to an All-Star's rap sheet, but that strategic mutation is hardly necessary. The Eastern Conference will need to take out a "Help Wanted" ad for high-profile wings ahead of February's playground exhibition in Los Angeles, and he's within striking distance of All-Defense consideration.

    Washington often prefers to slot Morris on opposing heavyweights, and Kelly Oubre Jr. sometimes shoulders more responsibility as a switcher. But Porter is already the team's best all-around stopper. No non-guard matched up with more pick-and-roll ball-handlers, he'll be the Wizards' go-to isolation gnat before this season's end, and his effort on the defensive glass isn't the least bit tied to his offensive involvement.

    For a squad with two star egos in the backcourt, Porter is a tactical dream.

6. Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Dylan Buell/Getty Images

    Age: 26

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 14.7 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.2 blocks, 45 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 15.0 PER, 1.40 RPM, -10.50 TPA

    Khris Middleton is the most underrated player in the NBA.

    Lanky wings are nearly impossible to overrate these days as teams cannonball into positionless lineups. But Middleton doesn't get enough shine as a fringe star.

    From-scratch creation is all that separates him from the league's glitziest crowd-pleasers. He doesn't wield the speed or explosion of Paul George; brute force of James; rise-and-fire quickness of Carmelo Anthony; or general inhibition of one-on-one artists such as James Harden and DeMar DeRozan. 

    But Middleton isn't incapable as a focal point. His game is absent of flash, not substance. The Milwaukee Bucks scored like a top-10 offense last season when he played without Giannis Antetokounmpo. He isn't the guy you count on for efficient crunch-time scoring, but he's a selfless playmaker wired to deliver more goodies than Santa Claus. As The Ringer's Jonathan Tjarks explained:

    "That's what separates him from [Jabari] Parker, and it's a big reason the Bucks have gotten better in Jabari's absence. Parker is a more explosive scorer, but he doesn't have Middleton's ability to read the floor at this stage in his career. Whether Middleton is in the post or in the pick-and-roll, he's always looking to draw multiple defenders and set up his teammates. His ability to have offense run through him at 6'8" is a huge weapon, because he can see over the defense and throw passes smaller players can't even attempt."

    Middleton partners his pinpoint passing with a deadeye outside stroke. He leverages both into clean looks on drives with the occasional pump fake and hesitation dribble. He completes his game with disruptive switching on defense. Downtempo footwork betrays him when defending isos, but his length and anticipation are an offense's worst nightmare when trying to initiate pick-and-rolls.

    In a league where team fit can be everything, Middleton plays like a universal complement. His mix of playmaking, off-ball awareness and defensive peskiness would translate just about anywhere. And though he'll more often than not get looped into role-player tiers, his production bears more resemblance to full-fledged stardom—and has for some time.

    To wit: Since 2014-15, two players are averaging more than 17.0 points, 3.0 assists and 1.5 steals per 36 minutes while canning at least 40 percent of their triples. Middleton is one. Curry is the other.

5. Gordon Hayward, Boston Celtics

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    Brian Babineau/Getty Images

    Age: 27 

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 21.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.3 blocks, 47.1 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 22.2 PER, 3.06 RPM, 201.66 TPA

    Gordon Hayward's stock could fall a tick or two after joining the Boston Celtics. Adapting to new digs always takes some time, while his newest co-stars, Al Horford and Kyrie Irving, command the ball more than Rudy Gobert and George Hill, his most prominent partners from 2016-17.

    On the flip side: Nah.

    Hayward's transition from Utah to Boston will be more seamless than problematic. He has a longstanding relationship with head honcho Brad Stevens, dating back to when the latter recruited him in high school, and the Jazz's communal offense under Coach Quin Snyder was nothing if not adequate preparation for life beside other All-Stars.

    Horford and Irving will help alleviate the usual wrinkles involved when switching teams. Irving is the most ball-dominant of the bunch, and he posted the second-highest catch-and-fire effective field-goal percentage (68.5) among 200-plus players who launched at least two such shots per game.

    Possession allocation could become an issue if Irving really coordinated his departure from the Cleveland Cavaliers because he wants more touches. But he has extra freedom in Boston by default and might not stress about the chain of command when no one on the Celtics casts a four-time-MVP-sized shadow.

    Above all else, Hayward has the skill set to navigate the minefield of possible warts. He boasts a doctorate in assimilation. Over half of his buckets were assisted last year, while more than one-quarter of his total shot attempts came off the catch. No one in the league ran as many pick-and-rolls (419) while finishing more than 100 possessions as a cutter.

    Topping 20 points per game for the second time of his career feels like a formality. His assists should even climb with Irving's role as a score-first floor general and an iffy backup point guard rotation.  

    Bake in his underrated defensive work ethic that stretches across the 2, 3 and 4 spots, and Hayward will spend 2017-18 exactly where he spent 2016-17—next to all the other top-20 stars.

4. Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Age: 27 

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 23.7 points, 6.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.4 blocks, 46.1 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 20.2 PER, 2.58 RPM, 150.42 TPA

    Paul George finds himself in a situation similar to Hayward's with the Celtics: playing alongside two more stars, Carmelo Anthony and Russell Westbrook, who will eat into his share of the offense.

    Except, compared to Hayward's undertaking in Boston, George's new dynamic is far more tenuous.

    Westbrook and Anthony placed second and third, respectively, in isolations used per game last season. George himself finished 11th.

    Things get hairier when parsing crunch-time roles. From a sample of 281 qualifying players, George and Westbrook notched top-eight usage rates. All three wrapped 2016-17 inside the top 20 of total shot attempts during clutch moments.

    Something will need to give this year—lots of things, actually. Each player should welcome the opportunity to sync up with fellow stars, and both Anthony and George are spot-up assassins. But forging offensive symmetry between high-volume headliners is a delicate process—especially when one of them, in Westbrook, is working off a campaign during which he reset the NBA's usage-rate record.

    George will have the easiest time acclimating to the new status quo. He is a little more accustomed to playing off the ball and should sense the value of destroying defenses from standstill positions. He finished third in catch-and-shoot points per game during his swan song with the Pacers—and that was when he counted Jeff Teague or Myles Turner as his best collaborator.

    Getting off more of those looks should sit well with George and his shooting slashes when he's deeding touches over to Anthony and Westbrook. Crunch time may still be a sore subject. Just ask C.J. Miles. But George recruited Anthony, in conjunction with Westbrook, per ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski. Stars are more open to compromise when their situation is, at least partially, of their own design.

    Whatever energy George saves on offense leaves him that much fresher on defense. He could emerge as Oklahoma City's clear-cut No. 1 option, and his impact on that side should still balloon.

    Andre Roberson can assume the most prolific assignments, and on those nights when Westbrook isn't switched off rival point guards, George will get reps versus third wheels. It'll be a genuine shock if he's not named to his fourth All-Defensive team.

3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    Age: 22

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 22.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.9 blocks, 52.1 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 26.1 PER, 4.21 RPM, 425.68 TPA

    Giannis Antetokounmpo is among the select few players who should be ecstatic Westbrook nabbed last year's MVP award, putting an official, albeit undefined, end to the "Maurice Podoloff Trophies are for the best players on top-three playoffs seeds" trope.

    Busting up that barrier welcomes eligibility from a cluster of other stars repping mediocre-to-good teams. Chief among them: Anthony Davis, Blake Griffin and John Wall.

    And Antetokounmpo.

    The 6'11" all-everything paced the Bucks in every major stat category for 2016-17—points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks. He is the fifth player to successfully wear this badge, joining Dave Cowens (1977-78), Scottie Pippen (1994-95), Kevin Garnett (2002-03) and James (2008-09).

    Serious MVP consideration is reserved for top-10 players. Don't be intimidated by lumping Antetokounmpo under that umbrella. Last year's kitchen-sink metrics say he deserves it:

    Mash these together, and Antetokounmpo has an average placement of nine—ranks he achieved while playing for a 42-win team and shooting a ghastly 27.2 percent from downtown. If he ever gets comfortable from behind the rainbow, the position of "Heir to LeBron's Best-Player Throne" will be irrevocably filled. 

    Scarier than that: This may still be the case by year's end even if Antetokounmpo never torches twine from long range with league-average efficiency. 

2. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Age: 26

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 25.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.7 blocks, 48.5 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 27.6 PER, 7.08 RPM, 383.56

    Leonard's absence from the San Antonio Spurs' preseason slate does nothing to curb enthusiasm about his future. He is a post-modern cyborg, sent to Earth from an unknown planet located in a far away galaxy, with the singular purpose of clowning basketball-playing humans for the next millenium or so.

    It will take more than a right quad injury to undermine his stature.

    The book is out on Leonard's defense. To challenge him is to face asphyxiation. He is a relentless invader across every perimeter assignment. The Spurs don't extensively use him to forfend plodding bigs, but he has the stringy brawn and resolute stance to contest and erase post-ups or rim-running divers. 

    Offense is a different story. Leonard's progression from spot-up ornament to featured option to, most recently, elite scorer still takes time to digest. He toggles between head-down pounder, pull-up whiz and finesse finisher with seeming effortlessness. 

    Identifying a match for his seesawing powers is exceedingly difficult. He averaged as many points per isolation as George (0.94); almost as many per spot-up possession (1.24) as Kevin Durant (1.26); as many pull-up attempts as Curry (7.9 a game); and as many mid-range jumpers as Dwyane Wade (6.3).

    Typecasting Leonard as a product of San Antonio's ideology isn't an insult. It's just plain wrong. The offense went from scoring a team-best 112.6 points per 100 possessions with him to a roster-low 102.6 when he sat—the difference between a top-two and bottom-five mark.

    So, no, Leonard is not a system player.

    He is the Spurs' system. 

1. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    Age: 32

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 26.4 points, 8.6 rebounds, 8.7 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.6 blocks, 54.8 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 27.0 PER, 8.42 RPM, 470.37 TPA

    All these years later, almost a half-decade removed from his last MVP award, James remains the NBA's individual pinnacle.

    Every other star is chasing him. His successor to the best-player crown is a mystery not because the Association wants for transcendent VIPs, but because no one's quite sure when James will relinquish his place atop the league's pedestal.

    Entering his 15th season, now would seem like a good time to bet on decline. But James won't allow it.

    Cleveland traded away Irving, and his replacement, Thomas, hasn't yet recovered from a hip injury. Good luck finding anyone prepared to write the Cavaliers out of their fourth straight NBA Finals.

    Three different players have secured MVP honors since his last victory. General managers named him the favorite for to win it in 2017-18 anyway...for the sixth consecutive year.

    Just look at the on-off differentials—the gap between a team's net rating with and without a player—for last season's top-five finishers on the MVP ballot

    • LeBron James: 16.2
    • Russell Westbrook: 12.2
    • Isaiah Thomas: 5.7
    • James Harden: 3.5
    • Kawhi Leonard: 2.0

    James might spend most of the regular season in cruise control. That may or may not change this year in light of Irving's awkward exit. It doesn't really matter. The mode he settles into is almost irrelevant. He's irreplaceable no matter what.

                       

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.

    Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference, NBA.com, NBAMath.com and ESPN.com. Salary information via Basketball Insiders, Spotrac and RealGM.