Player Position Rankings: NBA's Top 100 Players for Season's 2nd Half
Against all odds, we've come up with a definitive set of top-100 rankings and ordered the NBA's best players into a countdown with which literally no one can disagree.
Except...that won't be the case. Far from it. Counterarguments will surely run rampant, as they should during this admittedly subjective process in which everyone values elements of the game in slightly different fashion.
Has Victor Oladipo risen far enough in the pecking order that he can challenge Paul George for post-trade supremacy? Is Anthony Davis or DeMarcus Cousins the superior member of the New Orleans Pelicans? Is Joel Embiid the NBA's best center? Would you rather have Chris Paul or Russell Westbrook for the rest of the year?
These are all questions that can, should and will inspire debate. But allow Bleacher Report's Dan Favale and Adam Fromal to guide you toward some informed answers, just as they've done at each step of the way with their positional rankings (the orders contained in those individual articles won't be changing for this overarching look):
As has been the case with each previous installment, we're evaluating players as if we're acquiring them for the rest of the 2017-18 season while assuming health. Players will only be deemed ineligible due to injuries if they're not expected to play again this year. (Lucky you, Kawhi Leonard). The distant past and long-term future don't matter, but everything else is fair game.
Cleaning the Glass' extensive position data has been used to determine who qualifies as a 5 or a 1 and everything between. Starting-lineup composition won't matter. We've instead emphasized total volume, so don't be dismayed when you see some non-traditional classifications.
Now, let's answer those many questions.
Note: The text for most players is taken from their positional ranking, some of which has been edited for length and context.
Soul-Crushing Exclusions (Among Many Others)
Carmelo Anthony, PF, Oklahoma City Thunder
Carmelo Anthony remains one of the game's more talented scorers, but his status as a top-50 player has collapsed since joining the Oklahoma City Thunder. Though he'll make a case on any given night, his role has been simplified by necessity, and it isn't conducive to everyday cachet.
Harrison Barnes, PF, Dallas Mavericks
Despite seeing his efficiency dip compared to last year, Harrison Barnes' efforts as a featured scorer greatly exceed the expectations inferred from his Golden State Warriors days. But his impact on the Dallas Mavericks offense bloats and deflates depending on how you tinker with his season splits. Playing beside a rookie point guard isn't enough to ignore that awkward inconsistency.
Malcolm Brogdon, PG, Milwaukee Bucks
Conceding status to Eric Bledsoe hasn't done anything to help Malcolm Brogdon's stock. He remains a close-to-automatic spot-up shooter, but his defense has plateaued, if not regressed, and lineups that feature him without Bledsoe or Giannis Antetokounmpo barely stand up to the bench-heavy units they're often matched up against.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, SG, Los Angeles Lakers
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope continues to toe the line of complete inefficiency at the offensive end. He hits just enough of his threes and offers some collateral ball-handling, but he needs to chill with the pull-up jumpers. His defensive activity alone, though, made it difficult to leave him off.
John Collins, PF, Atlanta Hawks
Picture, if you will, a version of DeAndre Jordan with quicker reload time and a certain natural comfort when attacking off the dribble. That's John Collins. He's too much of an unfinished project to get the ultimate nod, but the early returns are tracking in that direction.
Jae Crowder, PF, Cleveland Cavaliers
Jae Crowder is verging on a complete flop for the Cleveland Cavaliers. His three-point acumen fluctuates by the game, and he's not doing nearly enough in one-on-one situations to diversify the team's sorry excuse for a defense. He remains pivotal to the Cavaliers' hopes against the Warriors, but that default dependence cannot carry him back into the top 100.
Dewayne Dedmon, C, Atlanta Hawks
Dewayne Dedmon would have a stronger case to fall inside the actual rankings if he didn't miss significant time with a stress reaction in his left tibia—or if we could be certain which team he'll finish the season on. Every rim-running big with subtle switchability who jacks threes deserves some love, though.
Taj Gibson, PF, Minnesota Timberwolves
Taj Gibson's spacing limitations haven't hampered the Minnesota Timberwolves' offensive ceiling. He's shooting nearly 80 percent at the rim and pancaking opponents on screens. He's a better-than-OK pickup, even at his $14 million price point.
Marcin Gortat, C, Washington Wizards
Marcin Gortat's value has long been tied to his work out of the pick-and-roll, but he's seen his accuracy in those situations drop by more than 10 percentage points compared to last year. Excluding him isn't as gut-gouging as it usually would be.
Rodney Hood, SG, Utah Jazz
Just call Rodney Hood Mr. On-Again, Off-Again. One night, he's taking smart shots, swishing threes and flipping nifty passes on the bounce. The next, he's laying bricks on low-efficiency looks and defending like a double-agent for the other team.
Zach LaVine, SG, Chicago Bulls
Ticketing Zach LaVine for top-100 duty so early in his return from an ACL injury is too ambitious. Even if we assume his offensive pop doesn't suffer long term, defensive mobility tends to be an issue when recovering from these injuries—and he was hardly a reliable stopper in the first place.
Patty Mills, PG, San Antonio Spurs
Patty Mills stays underrated. The four-year, $50 million deal he signed last summer has tainted general interpretation of his play, but he, like LaMarcus Aldridge, is at the forefront of keeping the San Antonio Spurs offense afloat in Kawhi Leonard's absence.
Jamal Murray, PG, Denver Nuggets
Jamal Murray is coming along nicely at both ends—so much so that the Denver Nuggets needn't be in any real rush to add a veteran point guard. (Waiving Jameer Nelson was still questionable at best.) Expect Murray to garner more serious consideration in offseason top-100 lists if he keeps improving his reads and ball control in the pick-and-roll.
Dirk Nowitzki, C, Dallas Mavericks
Only Dirk Nowitzki could flirt with a 50/40/90 slash at the age of 39. Our fragile mental states will never recover from bumping him outside the top 100.
Jusuf Nurkic, C, Portland Trail Blazers
Jusuf Nurkic would be so much harder to bounce from the top 100 if he burned through fewer post-ups and didn't almost double the frequency with which he's vomiting up long twos.
Jakob Poeltl, C, Toronto Raptors
Jakob Poeltl has a higher offensive rebounding rate than Dwight Howard and better block rate than Anthony Davis. He's also averaging more points per possession as the pick-and-roll diver than Karl-Anthony Towns. He's earned this honorable mention.
Domantas Sabonis, PF, Indiana Pacers
The rumors are true: Domantas Sabonis has, in fact, missed when shooting a jumper between eight and 16 feet. It just doesn't happen often. Also, he could, and totally should, host a camp devoted to teaching today's youths about slipping screens.
David West, C, Golden State Warriors
If the Warriors played David West even 15 minutes per game, he could be spun as a top-100 player. But they don't. So he can't.
Delon Wright, PG, Toronto Raptors
Cody Zeller, C, Charlotte Hornets
Dirty-work superhero Cody Zeller would totally warrant top-100 love if he weren't out indefinitely with a torn meniscus in his left knee. Throwing caution to the wind and listing him anyway was an option, but the Charlotte Hornets are late-season tanking candidates, so we cannot be sure whether he'll play again this year.
100-96: Oubre, Hollis-Jefferson, Ball, Schroder, Roberson
100. Kelly Oubre Jr., SF, Washington Wizards
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.2 points, 4.9 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.4 blocks
Kelly Oubre Jr. is coming around. He's canning more than 40 percent of his threes, looking a tad more comfortable working off the dribble and rotates across defensive assignments more than any of the Washington Wizards' other wings.
General offensive restrictions prevent him from climbing any higher at the moment. He's thrown off-kilter when defenses coax him into non-finishing decisions off the bounce, and Washington cannot get away with using him as the face of its second units.
If Oubre ever grows into a complementary facilitator, his stock will explode. But given how the Wizards typically treat their supporting cast, with Otto Porter serving as the precedent, he might not ever get the chance to branch out.
99. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, PF, Brooklyn Nets
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.6 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.7 blocks
Fuss over Ronade Hollis-Jefferson's three-point shot, and you'll come away unimpressed. But he does so much else for the Brooklyn Nets. Harping on his jumper is unfair.
Head coach Kenny Atkinson has found other ways to experiment with him on offense. Hollis-Jefferson will run some pick-and-roll, and he's even used as a screen-setting rim-runner. He's not a complete spacing liability either; he's nailing more than 50 percent of his shots between 10 and 16 feet, which at least ensures defenders cannot crowd the lane without consequence.
Brooklyn does have to game-plan lineup combinations around his warts. Playing him with a traditional big is almost out of the question, and he'll need to be entirely phased out of small forward minutes if his long-range touch never develops. But everything he does on defense, right down to his rotations around the rim, is worth the legwork.
98. Lonzo Ball, PG, Los Angeles Lakers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 10.2 points, 7.1 rebounds, 7.1 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.9 blocks
Lonzo Ball's early-season struggles weren't an omen of permanent doom. Go figure.
The rookie point guard is still rough around the edges, and the Los Angeles Lakers offense is far from meteoric with him running the show. But the team carries itself with a detectable difference when he's on the floor.
Teammates leak out harder off defensive rebounds. They're more active off the ball overall. Half-court sets aren't as reliant to from-scratch shot creation.
Ball is slightly more aggressive looking for his looks once he enters the lane, and he's shooting a reasonable 36.1 percent from deep over his past 18 games. Tack on his ahead-of-schedule defensive decision-making, and he's earned a glass-half-full outlook.
97. Dennis Schroder, PG, Atlanta Hawks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 20.0 points, 3.0 rebounds, 6.7 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.1 blocks
Dennis Schroder will probably never rank among the top 10 players at the point guard spot, but we must show a certain appreciation for his situation. He's increased his volume over each of the past two seasons without wrecking his efficiency, and he doesn't have a wealth of auxiliary creators to help him vary his attacks.
Still, he's an incessant prober with the means to finagle league-average offensive output from some of the Atlanta Hawks' many lower-level lineups. And he's rounding out as a table-setter, albeit slowly, even if he does get tunnel vision when driving towards the tin.
96. Andre Roberson, SG, Oklahoma City Thunder
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 5.1 points, 4.8 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.9 blocks
No player would benefit from a steady three-point shot more than Andre Roberson. He's so impactful on the defensive end, trading off exhaustive assignments with Paul George, that even a marginal outside punch would vault him into top-50 territory.
Roberson is fourth among all wings in points saved at the less glamorous end, according to NBA Math. And yet, he's drilling under 23 percent of his threes overall and actually faring worse when he's afforded six or more feet of room.
95-91: Ingram, Redick, Miles, Kuzma, Valanciunas
95. Brandon Ingram, SF, Los Angeles Lakers,
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 15.7 points, 5.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.7 blocks
This is one of those situations where you must fully apply contextual evidence to the advanced metrics, which universally peg Brandon Ingram as a below-average player. He's not, and he's shown tremendous improvement during his second season with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Take ESPN.com's real plus/minus as an example. His score leaves him at No. 55 among small forwards. And though you might not expect it, most of the negativity stems from a putrid offensive score.
Looking just at his numbers, this seems to make sense. Turnovers can be an issue for the Duke product, and his shooting percentages place him at a sub-par level. But the Lakers are also asking him to handle a massive scoring load for such an inexperienced player, thereby overextending him and forcing his metrics to nosedive.
Just watch Ingram, and it won't take you long to realize how much talent his frame contains.
94. JJ Redick, SG, Philadelphia 76ers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 17.3 points, 2.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.1 blocks
Lost in the Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid hype (and the constant question marks surrounding Markelle Fultz's troublesome shoulder) is another intriguing storyline out of the Philadelphia 76ers camp: JJ Redick is in the middle of an incredible offensive season.
Never before has he averaged so many points per game. He's only topped his dime-dropping contributions once, and that came during a year in which he split time between the Orlando Magic and Milwaukee Bucks. He's on pace to set a career high in rebounds per contest as well. Oh, and he's doing all this while still shooting 40.5 percent from deep.
Now, if only he could play defense...
93. C.J. Miles, SF, Toronto Raptors
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 9.9 points, 1.9 rebounds, 0.6 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.4 blocks
Last year, C.J. Miles was a godsend for the Indiana Pacers offense. Able to drill spot-up jumpers from every portion of the floor, he scored 1.34 points per possession to finish in the 98th percentile for that play type. But has he been able to sustain that success while shifting over to the Toronto Raptors?
He's not rebounding the ball as effectively or exerting too much effort on defense. A higher percentage of his shots come from outside the arc. But he's still providing that gravitational pull that benefits Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and everyone else on the Toronto roster.
Maybe he hasn't been the same game-breaking presence, but his 1.16 points per spot-up possession still leave him in the 82nd percentile.
92. Kyle Kuzma, PF, Los Angeles Lakers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 16.4 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.4 blocks
The Los Angeles Lakers found themselves quite a steal when they drafted Kyle Kuzma at No. 27 in the 2017 selection process. Under a calendar year later, he's emerged as a scoring phenom who outpaces Lonzo Ball for the top spot among rookies wearing the Purple and Gold.
Maybe Kuzma's ceiling isn't as high as his running mate's, but he's already established himself as a deadly offensive option who can produce points in a variety of manners. His advanced jumper allows him to knock down 37.2 percent of his triples, and he has the athleticism necessary to attack the basket.
All that's holding him back (both in these rankings and in terms of future upside) is something that doesn't currently exist: defense.
91. Jonas Valanciunas, C, Toronto Raptors
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 11.1 points, 8.1 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 0.3 steals, 0.6 blocks
It's not what Jonas Valaniuncas does with his role that prevents him from rising any higher in these rankings, so much as the fundamental nature of his role. The Toronto Raptors have been more than willing to get their non-stars more touches in 2017-18, but they've resisted any urges to expand his responsibilities, because he's best in this highly efficient setting that seldom asks him to function as anything more than a tertiary piece.
Valanciunas has never scored this many points per 36 minutes (19.0), nor has he pulled in as many rebounds over the same average span (13.9). Ditto for his assists (1.2), though that number's far from impressive.
The Lithuanian center has found his sweet spot. And there's nothing wrong with that, even if it means his ceiling falls well shy of the stardom once thought to be achievable when he was just breaking into the Association.
90-86: Favors, Gay, Wade, Jackson, Dragic
90. Derrick Favors, C, Utah Jazz
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.4 points, 7.1 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.0 blocks
Now that he's working with two healthy legs, Derrick Favors has seen his explosion return.
Last year, the big man suited up in only 50 games and slammed the ball through the tin on 52 separate occasions. He's already topped that by 22 dunks while playing in seven fewer contests, and he's requiring set-up passes on a smaller percentage of those jams.
Favors hasn't become a perfect frontcourt member in today's NBA, given his limited range and occasional switchability struggles. But at least we're seeing him look like himself again.
89. Rudy Gay, PF, San Antonio Spurs
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 11.5 points, 5.2 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.6 blocks
Rudy Gay has only played in 34 games for the San Antonio Spurs and will be out for a while longer as he continues to work past his heel issues, but the 31-year-old forward has already shown this organization can work its magic on anyone.
Draw up a player who doesn't fit the Spurs schemes in a lab, and he'll probably look something like Gay. San Antonio contributors don't tend to stop the ball and rely more on athleticism than fundamentals. They try on defense. They're willing to pass the rock. They aren't volume shooters. Gay flies—well, flew—counter to every narrative.
And yet, head coach Gregg Popovich got him to buy into every aspect of their schemes, resulting in arguably the best defensive year of this veteran's career and more sporadic offensive attacks.
88. Dwyane Wade, SG, Cleveland Cavaliers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 11.1 points, 3.9 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.7 blocks
Kudos to Dwyane Wade for accepting a role off the Cleveland Cavaliers' bench, knowing that filling such a job description would be the best use of his dwindling talents. The future Hall of Famer no longer plays like the explosive Miami Heat guard who punished rims and defenders alike, but spending less time on the floor and focusing on leading the second unit has allowed him to remain a positive.
Wade might not be a jump-shooting threat, though he still gets defenders to bite on his patented pump fake. He's a solid on-ball stopper who gambles too frequently on the preventing side and routinely fails to provide help defense in the right spots. And yet, his veteran tricks and savvy have helped him boost the Cavaliers' net rating by 5.5 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor.
87. Reggie Jackson, PG, Detroit Pistons
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.6 points, 2.8 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.1 blocks
Is Reggie Jackson the man who broke out during his initial stint with the Detroit Pistons and began crafting a compelling All-Star case? Is he the broken shell of a point guard who struggled with explosion and became an unfixable defensive liability during the 2016-17 campaign?
Turns out, the answer lies somewhere between the two extremes. Shocker, I know.
Jackson has dealt with his fair share of injuries and hasn't solved the curious case of his disappearing jumper, but he's finishing plays around the basket and knocking down mid-range attempts. Defensively? Well, let's not finish this brief blurb with negativity.
86. Goran Dragic, PG, Miami Heat
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 17.3 points, 4.2 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.2 blocks
When age starts to hit and players slow down, regression can manifest in so many different places. We've seen Goran Dragic struggle to gain quite as much separation on the perimeter this year (yes, in spite of the respectable points-per-game average) and let plenty of opponents blow by him on the defensive end. But the more subtle slippage has come right around the basket.
During Dragic's best years, he was an unstoppable force at the hoop, capable of quickly exploding into the air and contorting his body to find the best angle of attack. From 2011-12 through 2014-15, he took 34.6 percent of his field-goal attempts within three feet and connected at a 69.2 percent clip.
This year, those numbers stand at 27.7 and 60.2, respectively. The latter is his worst mark since his rookie campaign with the Phoenix Suns.
85-81: Anderson, Dunn, Richardson, Anunoby, Bazemore
85. Ryan Anderson, PF, Houston Rockets
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 10.2 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.4 blocks
If you're expecting Ryan Anderson to challenge for double-digit rebounds on a nightly basis, you'll be sorely disappointed. The same is true if you want him to serve as a secondary facilitator, emerge as a noteworthy defender or go to work on the interior (the occasional highlight-reel dunk notwithstanding).
But Anderson remains one of the league's premier stretch 4s, consistently setting up well beyond the three-point arc and splashing triples through twine. He's a tremendous fit alongside James Harden and Chris Paul as a weak-side spot-up threat or pick-and-pop partner, since the mere possibility of him scoring three points in one quick flick of the wrist—something happening 36.6 percent of the time in 2017-18—requires constant defensive attention.
84. Kris Dunn, PG, Chicago Bulls
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 13.7 points, 4.6 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 2.1 steals, 0.5 blocks
So much for Kris Dunn being a bust. Instead of continuing down the nondescript trajectory he began last year with the Minnesota Timberwolves, he's now making the Chicago Bulls feel a whole lot better about their decision to trade away Jimmy Butler.
The 23-year-old sophomore still struggles to remain consistent on the offensive end, thanks largely to his shooting percentages (43.3 field-goal percentage and 32.4 three-point percentage). But he's improved substantially after falling below hypothetical Mendoza lines in both areas as a first-year point guard, which allows him to function as less of a scoring liability and maximize the benefits of his passing vision and defensive intensity.
Chicago has found a building block, and that'll be doubly true if he keeps working on that jump-shooting form.
83. Josh Richardson, SF, Miami Heat
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.8 points, 3.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.9 blocks
Quick: How many players can you name who are shooting better than 36 percent from beyond the arc while firing away at least four times per game and are posting a defensive box plus/minus of 0.9 or greater?
We'll help you out with the full list of qualified contributors in 2017-18:
- Al-Farouq Aminu
- Kent Bazemore
- Jaylen Brown
- Robert Covington
- Kevin Durant
- Danny Green
- LeBron James
- Josh Richardson
The defense rests for this three-and-D candidate who's quickly proving his shooting woes last year were an injury-related fluke.
82. OG Anunoby, SF, Toronto Raptors
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 6.4 points, 2.2 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.1 blocks
OG Anunoby turned heads from the jump just by being available to open the season—and he hasn't stopped since. He's emerged as the perfect complementary piece for the Toronto Raptors in the starting lineup while Norman Powell recovered from a hip injury.
Anunoby tackles some of the toughest defensive assignments and has injected balance into an otherwise uneven starting five. He won't ever be a wholly self-sufficient scorer, but when more than 90 percent of his shot attempts come inside three feet or from behind the three-point line, he doesn't need to be.
81. Kent Bazemore, SG, Atlanta Hawks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.6 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.7 blocks
Moving Kent Bazemore would've been impossible last year. The four-year, $70 million deal he signed in the summer of 2016 to remain with the Atlanta Hawks had become an unabashed albatross saddled around the neck of a ferocious, passionate defender who couldn't find nylon on the more glamorous end of the floor. If Atlanta wanted to remove him from the ledgers, it surely would've had to include a pick as recompense for the organization absorbing those massive expenditures.
The Hawks might choose to keep Bazemore on the roster as a foundational piece. But they could also get something for him at this February's deadline now that he's shooting 41.4 percent from the field, 37.6 percent from downtown and 78.7 percent from the stripe. Those percentages might not make him an offensive stalwart, but they represent drastic improvement upon 2016-17's unpalatable slash line of 40.9/34.6/70.8.
80-76: Fournier, Anderson, Teague, Johnson, Lamb
80. Evan Fournier, SG, Orlando Magic
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 18.0 points, 3.3 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.3 blocks
Game-planning for Evan Fournier is a tough proposition, as the French shooting guard is a tremendously versatile scorer. Some players are just "versatile," but this one demands the adjoined adverb because he can function as an above-average point-producer in nearly every situation. Just take a peek at his percentile ranks in points per possession for each qualified play type, per NBA.com:
- Spot-up: 95.3 percentile
- Cut: 81.3 percentile
- Isolation: 67 percentile
- Pick-and-roll ball-handler: 58.1 percentile
- Handoff: 48.9 percentile
- Transition: 40.4 percentile
- Off screen: 39.5 percentile
If Fournier attacks in Orlando's half-court offense, you better hope he's engaged in some sort of off-ball motion that requires a quick shooting attempt. And even when he does come off a screen or receives a handoff, he's still not too far below the league average.
79. Kyle Anderson, SF, San Antonio Spurs
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 8.1 points, 6.0 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.8 blocks
Kyle Anderson, believe it or not, is among the primary forces allowing the San Antonio Spurs to smoothly navigate Kawhi Leonard's brush with injury bugs. He's always showcased Boris Diaw- and Joe Ingles-like switchitude at the defensive end but never found his place on offense—until now.
Anderson mirrors some of DeMar DeRozan's patience when dribbling through traffic and is a legitimate option to trigger some pick-and-rolls. Low-volume success from three helps keep defenses on their heels, but his improved finishing around the rim and splashy clip between 10 and 16 feet have given him jack-of-all-trades appeal.
78. Jeff Teague, PG, Minnesota Timberwolves
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 13.0 points, 3.1 rebounds, 7.1 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.3 blocks
Transitioning to a new team for the second consecutive season hasn't been easy for Jeff Teague, especially since a strained knee ligament briefly knocked him out of action and prevented him from gaining more chemistry with his Minnesota Timberwolves running mates. The 29-year-old's game is predicated upon speed and cerebral understanding of his teammates' positioning, and that injury has made maintaining either element difficult.
But when healthy, Teague remains a water bug of a point guard whose quick first step allows him to blow by countless defenders. He's a savvy finisher with an endless arsenal of touch shots around the hoop, which forces foes to collapse around him and opens up passing lanes to spot-up shooters lurking on the perimeter.
Quite frequently, he can find them.
77. James Johnson, PF, Miami Heat
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 10.5 points, 5.0 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.7 blocks
James Johnson is the same Swiss army knife he was last season, albeit in smaller doses. The Miami Heat's frontcourt rotation is weird, and his share of the offense has dipped even with Dion Waiters watching from the sidelines.
But he's still their most versatile player—and among the most multifaceted in the league. He can switch across almost every position on defense, direct pick-and-rolls, act as the primary rim-runner and lead the charge in transition.
If he could shoot league average from three—or even match last year's accuracy on long twos—he'd leapfrog more than a few names currently in front of him.
76. Jeremy Lamb, SG, Charlotte Hornets
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.0 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.4 blocks
With increased run comes increased responsibility, and Jeremy Lamb has been up to the challenge for the Charlotte Hornets. His three-point stroke is coming around, but not at the expense of the athleticism that originally made him such a promising prospect. He's still serving as one of the league's deadliest mid-range marksmen, knocking down 45.5 percent of his shots between 10 and 16 feet while shooting at a 40.0 percent clip on even longer twos.
Though Lamb might not be a stud on either end, he's developed into a versatile contributor who can fill just about any role for head coach Steve Clifford. His defense remains solid whether he's guarding opposing backcourt players or bigger wings, and he's comfortable scoring from all over the half-court set.
75-71: Korver, Mirotic, Collison, Iguodala, Young
75. Kyle Korver, SG, Cleveland Cavaliers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 9.4 points, 2.0 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.3 blocks
Kyle Korver has traditionally served as an underrated defender and rebounder, but that hasn't been the case during his first full season with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He's been atrocious on the preventing side and doesn't venture into the painted area often enough to impose his will and sturdy lower body on the glass.
And yet, that still seems almost irrelevant.
Sure, the increased limitations depress his overall value. But Korver is rostered almost solely because of his shooting ability, which hasn't gone anywhere. In fact, the 36-year-old joins Nikola Mirotic and Klay Thompson as one of only three players taking at least five three-pointers per game and connecting on no fewer than 43 percent.
74. Nikola Mirotic, PF, Chicago Bulls
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 17.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.5 blocks
Call this an optimistic hedge. Nikola Mirotic's production won't hold all year. He's fewer than 25 games into his season and flashing featured-option appeal uncharacteristic of anything he showed through his first three years.
Then again, Mirtoic has never enjoyed the freedom the Chicago Bulls are gifting him now. This could be a case of opportunity redefining potential. Heck, if we were positively certain he'd finish the season with Chicago, in this exact role, his onset explosion would be worth an even better spot.
73. Darren Collison, PG, Indiana Pacers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.7 points, 2.7 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.2 blocks
The Indiana Pacers' jump to No. 7 in offensive rating wouldn't be possible without Darren Collison's steady presence. The speedy point guard may continue to serve as a matador on defense, but his ability to space the floor, find open teammates and avoid costly mistakes allows him to maintain value into his 30s.
Last year, Collison became the 18th qualified player in NBA history to average at least 12 points and four assists while shooting better than 40 percent from downtown and coughing it up fewer than twice per contest. He's tracking toward the club yet again despite actively building up chemistry with a new set of teammates.
72. Andre Iguodala, SF, Golden State Warriors
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 5.7 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.6 blocks
Andre Iguodala's ice-cold jumper would be a real concern for the Golden State Warriors if they were any other team. But they're not. They're flush with star power that nullifies a cast of lackluster marksmen.
Besides, Iguodala's value isn't tied to his jumper. He's still someone the Warriors can toss on the game's premier wings when it matters, and his frigid shooting has not impaired his ability to anchor bench-heavy fireballs. Golden State obliterates opponents when he runs the show without Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant or Draymond Green.
71. Thaddeus Young, PF, Indiana Pacers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 11.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.4 blocks
Thaddeus Young just keeps chugging along. He is neither spectacular nor insignificant. He's predominantly switchy on defense, puts down just enough of his three-pointers to decongest the paint, works as a pick-and-roll diver and can initiate half-court sets as the primary ball-handler.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Robert Covington, LeBron James and Otto Porter are the only other wings who match his per-36-minute scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and effective field-goal percentage. Really, Young is the perfect mid-end tweeter—a quiet, yet effective, contributor almost across the board.
Note: This is where Thabo Sefolosha would have ranked before suffering a season-ending injury.
70-66: Olynyk, Vucevic, Lee, Mitchell, Smart
70. Kelly Olynyk, C, Miami Heat
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 10.8 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.4 blocks
The Miami Heat have to be pleased with Kelly Olynyk. He was never going to become a star after they inked him to a four-year, $50 million deal; presumably, they were hoping he'd morph into a useful two-way frontcourt presence who could handle more minutes than the Boston Celtics gave him. And that's exactly who he's become during his first year in a red uniform.
The 26-year-old isn't a high-scoring center, but his 41.7 percent shooting from beyond the arc (on 3.1 attempts per game) is crucial to Miami's spacing when games slow down. He's continued to flash distributing skills that let the Heat generate offense in unorthodox ways (a staple during last year's second-half surge). He's held his own defensively, posting a positive DRPM that validates the point-preventing growth he showed in a C's jersey.
Complaints about Olynyk's game should be scarce, even if effusive compliments are similarly fleeting.
69. Nikola Vucevic, C, Orlando Magic
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 17.4 points, 9.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.1 blocks
Before he broke his hand in December, Nikola Vucevic was having a career year.
The defensive strides he'd made in 2016-17 were carrying over for the surprisingly competitive Orlando Magic, and everything was coming together on the scoring end; he shot 49.1 percent from the field while putting his new three-point range on display. Head coach Frank Vogel used him more as a facilitating presence from the elbows and blocks, and the Magic posted a 108.4 offensive rating when he was on the floor.
Of course, not all career years are made equal. Vucevic is a limited player who demands the ball for lengthy amounts of time, and his defense forces adjustments around him in the style trademarked by Pau Gasol. He may be increasingly adept at shutting down his section of the half-court set, but his limited mobility requires schematic shifts that disadvantage his teammates.
68. Courtney Lee, SG, New York Knicks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 13.6 points, 3.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.2 blocks
Courtney Lee might not boast the well-rounded game of some positional counterparts, but that hasn't stopped him from serving as a three-and-D asset for the New York Knicks. When he's not hounding opposing wings with pestilent defense that maximizes his veteran savvy, he's putting together some of the league's best shooting figures.
The 32-year-old is leading the NBA in free-throw percentage, knocking down 96.5 percent while taking 1.8 per game. He's also firing away 3.9 times per contest from outside the arc and connecting at a 43.4 percent clip—numbers only five other qualified players have been able to match.
67. Donovan Mitchell, SG, Utah Jazz
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 19.3 points, 3.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.4 blocks
No one could have expected Donovan Mitchell to be this good, this fast. He's proved capable of taking over as the Utah Jazz's No. 1 scorer, routinely dazzling defenders with an endless supply of off-the-dribble tricks, athletic finishes and off-ball prowess. Clearly, he's drawn inspiration from legendary 2-guards of the near and distant past—perhaps none more so than Dwyane Wade.
But is this sustainable? Can he avoid hitting the rookie wall? How much can he show on defense while assuming such heaping offensive responsibilities? Those are the questions he must answer before ascending even higher up the pecking order.
66. Marcus Smart, SG, Boston Celtics
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 9.8 points, 3.6 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.5 blocks
Marcus Smart is a conundrum. Considering we're in the midst of the pace-and-space era, it's downright disheartening that he remains such an abominable shooter with seemingly no conscience when firing away. He's taking 9.7 field-goal attempts per game, but he's slashing an appalling—avert your eyes if you're squeamish—35.2/29.4/72.6.
And yet, the Boston Celtics always seem to need him. His passing and willingness to do the "little things" remain valuable on offense, and he's a defensive menace capable of baiting James Harden into back-to-back offensive fouls at the end of a tight contest. He's the rare wing who really might not need shooting skills.
65-61: Gasol, Turner, Dinwiddie, Green, Gasol
65. Marc Gasol, C, Memphis Grizzlies
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 18.1 points, 8.5 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.5 blocks
Marc Gasol's game has always been predicated upon a cerebral understanding of basketball flow.
He can diagnose opposing sets seemingly before foes are even aware of what they're running, allowing him to apparate to spots in a split second and disrupt the action. Offensively, he's capable of maximizing the space around him because he understands the placement of everyone else on the floor.
But applying that mental acuity still requires physicality, and the 32-year-old center hasn't been quite as quick in 2017-18. His defense has fallen back from its typical DPOY level, and he's no longer as able to carry the Memphis Grizzlies' scoring thrust while Mike Conley and Chandler Parsons are injured. Those 18.1 points per game look nice, but less so when they come on a 41.8/33.5/83.6 slashline and his turnovers and assists trend in the wrong directions.
64. Myles Turner, C, Indiana Pacers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 13.9 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.5 steals, 2.2 blocks, 49.0 percent shooting
Breakouts from Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, along with a more democratic approach from the Indiana Pacers overall, have prevented Myles Turner from assuming a high-end offensive role. He's posting a career-high usage rate by only a slim margin and isn't afforded freelance touches on a much larger scale.
But Turner is still one of the most economical performers at his position. He's a quality screener and looks mildly more comfortable when rolling and popping off those picks. He makes up for his lack of imposition at the rim by working (fairly) well when pulled outside the paint. He needs to boost his three-point clip (33 percent) but still preserves Indy's spacing by canning more than 50 percent of his long twos.
Yes, Turner has ceded ground to the other star-billed bigs from that famed 2015 draft class. The Paul George trade may have curtailed his trajectory rather than amplified it, and the Pacers must make some tough decisions up front knowing Sabonis is best suited at the 5. But Turner, still just 21, continues to offer glimpses of almost everything teams want from today's centers.
63. Spencer Dinwiddie, PG, Brooklyn Nets
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 13.4 points, 3.3 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.4 blocks
Spencer Dinwiddie has become a machine in the pick-and-roll game, scoring effortlessly by maximizing his 6'6" frame and dismantling rotating defenses with pinpoint passes. His vision makes him a menace to any helping foes; he's already so damn good at keeping his eyes up on the move.
Might this seem like lofty placement? Sure, but Dinwiddie has pedigree (remember, he was viewed as a potential lottery pick before returning to Colorado and tearing his ACL) and has helped the lowly Brooklyn Nets earn a 0.1 net rating while on the floor—the lone positive among rotation members.
62. Danny Green, SG, San Antonio Spurs
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 8.5 points, 3.5 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.1 blocks
Danny Green won't finish many plays around the hoop. He's not a facilitating wing who can pick up distributing slack to help primary ball-handlers. He won't post whopping scoring totals and has moved past the 20-point benchmark only once in 2017-18.
But the 30-year-old remains among the league's premier three-and-D contributors, just as he's been since the San Antonio Spurs unearthed him as a rotation player six years ago. This time around, he's one of only two qualified players who are connecting on at least 38 percent of their triples with a defensive box plus/minus north of two. The other? Al Horford.
61. Pau Gasol, C, San Antonio Spurs
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 10.7 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 0.3 steals, 1.1 blocks
Pau Gasol's status is most definitely specific to the San Antonio Spurs being the San Antonio Spurs. They're uniquely built to control the pace, accentuate his half-court offense and use him as a stock-still rim protector. Put him on another team—perhaps any other team—and he won't be the same hyper-efficient weapon.
Consider this blurb our "We don't care" dance. Gasol is 37 and reworked his offensive game to include heftier amounts of three-point shooting (career-high 2.0 attempts) to solidify his value. And perfecting verticality around the rim, even from comfy gridlock stances, is a skill. He won't help the Spurs against the Golden State Warriors, but he's sure as heck a regular-season asset.
60-56: Whiteside, Aminu, Jordan, Ibaka, Gordon
60. Hassan Whiteside, C, Miami Heat
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.5 points, 11.8 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.9 blocks
Speaking candidly, Hassan Whiteside could fall higher or lower. Many of the Miami Heat's top offensive lineups don't include him. Throwing it to him in the post is an iffy proposition on his best nights, and head coach Erik Spoelstra has thus far proved unable to coax more playmaking out of him on handoffs or pick-and-rolls.
On the flip side, Whiteside is an active deterrent. He knows how to use his length in space, and his rim protection is not bogged down by volume. He's one of three everyday players limiting opponents to sub-56 percent clips around the basket while contesting five or more of those looks per game. His company: Joel Embiid and Kristaps Porzingis.
What do we do with a player so entrenched in seesaw practices? Well, um, this.
59. Al-Farouq Aminu, PF, Portland Trail Blazers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 9.9 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.7 blocks
Al-Farouq Aminu is the Portland Trail Blazers' silent hero. He adds a little extra oomph to all of their best lineups with his cross-position defense and improved three-point shooting. He plays the role of wing and big depending on the opponent, and Portland struggles to make waves without him.
Look no further than his impact on Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. When they play without him, the Blazers have the net rating of a lottery team. When they run with him, though, Portland tallies what would be a top-five point differential per 100 possessions.
58. DeAndre Jordan, C, Los Angeles Clippers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 11.8 points, 14.9 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.5 steals, 1.0 blocks
DeAndre Jordan misses Chris Paul. He's not finishing out of the pick-and-roll nearly as often this season, and his presence around the rim has been compromised by the Los Angeles Clippers' questionable cast of perimeter defenders.
But Jordan still ranks 19th in the entire league on the win-share ladder and has found something close to a happy medium when sharing the floor with Blake Griffin and Milos Teodosic. And given how many other bigs ebb and flow with those they're surrounded by, Jordan remains a premier option at center.
57. Serge Ibaka, PF, Toronto Raptors
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 13.2 points, 6.1 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 0.4 steals, 1.5 blocks
Serge Ibaka helped turn the shot-swatting, floor-spacing anomaly into a coveted player archetype. In more ways than one, he is the OG of what we now reflexively, if exhaustively, refer to as unicorns.
As the NBA's towers, both incumbent and incoming, have acquainted themselves with this bag of tricks, Ibaka's own sparkle has dulled. His skill set is no longer an abnormality but rather the new standard for marquee bigs—and the most basic one at that.
Stretchy 4s and 5s should now be putting the ball on the floor. They should be setting up teammates. They should be switching pick-and-rolls and defending in space. Their rotations around the rim should be portraits of pinpoint timing.
Ibaka isn't that guy. Nor will he ever be. He isn't an expert passer or self-sufficient shot-maker, and the Toronto Raptors don't want him guarding opponents on an island. The influx of wing-sized 4s has even detracted from his rim protection. He's contesting noticeably fewer looks around the iron than three years ago, and opponents shoot better than 60 percent when he challenges their point-blank attempts.
To his credit, Ibaka remains a master of his original craft. He sends back a good number of shots despite spending more time on the perimeter, and every team wants a forward-center who nails over 35 percent of his treys. This season specifically, he's more comfortable and efficient working off the dribble—proof he's in no danger of letting the game pass him by.
56. Eric Gordon, SG, Houston Rockets
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 19.3 points, 2.1 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.4 blocks
Eric Gordon may be a mediocre defender with low shooting percentages (41.6 percent from the field, 33.6 percent from downtown), but don't undersell him. The mere threat of his skill set opens up plenty of opportunities for the Houston Rockets, whether he's spotting up on the perimeter or breaking down defenders off the bounce.
Few sixth men have the luxury of working in constant conjunction with either Harden or Chris Paul, but Gordon has already displayed offensive mastery over both situations. Plus, he can create a supercharged scoring unit when playing alongside both starting guards. Don't be fooled by those low percentages, since his impact is substantial even when he's drawing more iron than nylon.
55-51: Harris, Ariza, Barton, Booker, Brown
55. Tobias Harris, PF, Detroit Pistons
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 18.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.3 blocks
Around 80 percent of Tobias Harris' minutes come at the 4, the second-highest share of his career, according to Cleaning The Glass. Incidentally, he's never been a more dynamic offensive weapon.
Matching up against slower opponents helps. He ranks among the league's more efficient one-on-one scorers, his first step like Kryptonite for traditional bigs. And when he faces off with opposing wings, he has the size, at 6'9", and strength to bully-ball his way to points from the elbow and in.
But the Detroit Pistons' lineup configurations are just partially responsible for Harris' elevated profile. Cleaner polished shot selection and improved decision-making are his bread and butter. He's traded in long twos for threes, which he's hitting both off the catch and while pulling up, and he's posting the lowest turnover rate of his career amid apex usage.
Defense continues to be his Achilles' heel. He sticks close to his man off the ball and seldom helps when his assignment is one pass away, making it difficult to burn him from standstill positions. But he's limited elsewhere. He can get brutalized on the block and lacks the sideways motility to gum up off-the-bounce attackers.
Run him out beside enough shooters, and those defensive hiccups don't matter. The Pistons are unguardable when he has room to work. Watch him play opposite Luke Kennard. You'll get it.
54. Trevor Ariza, SF, Houston Rockets
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.4 points, 4.9 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.2 blocks
Trevor Ariza's outside accuracy has predictably climbed in the aftermath of the Houston Rockets' offseason makeover. Otherwise, he's largely the same player he's always been—and nothing's wrong with that.
Ariza struggles defensively when slotted against bigger players, but Luc Mbah a Moute (when healthy) and P.J. Tucker have limited the amount of time he sees versus more physical wings and fringe bigs. He remains a steadying defensive presence, even matched up with younger ball-handlers, and the Rockets have proven more unguardable than usual running him alongside two other wings.
53. Will Barton, SG, Denver Nuggets
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.6 blocks
Will Barton is extra important for a Denver Nuggets squad that needs two things from its wings: playmaking skills and a knack for creating shots off the bounce. Without established point guards who can rack up assists on a regular basis, they rely on unorthodox offensive creation, and Nikola Jokic can't always dish out dimes to everyone.
Fortunately, Barton has filled that role with aplomb and showed tremendous versatility throughout the 2017-18 season. He's been comfortable working alongside both the starters and second-stringers, and he's similarly spent time at just about all of the smaller positions. Basketball Reference has 22 percent of his minutes coming at the point, while another 2 percent are logged as a small forward.
With his athletic burst and timely finishes around the hoop, Barton can succeed anywhere. He's too fast for bigger defenders, and he's physical enough to bully smaller ones. All the while, the threat of his growing game as a facilitator—that isn't his preferred style, but he's capable of picking apart defenses with his passing chops—keeps everyone off balance.
The 26-year-old may not be Denver's best scorer. But his creating abilities and consistency might make him the Mile High City's most valuable one.
52. Devin Booker, SG, Phoenix Suns
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 25.3 points, 4.5 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.3 blocks
Seeing Devin Booker's name appearing at this relatively early stage of the rankings might surprise you. Scoring is the most glamorous aspect of basketball, and his per-game average leaves him trailing only six players.
But that's misleading.
Booker is a tremendous point-producer. No doubt should exist there, especially now that he's improved his percentages, started to take smarter shots and done a better job earning charity trips. Whereas he posted a below-average true shooting percentage during his sophomore season (53.1), he's fully erased that concern as a third-year player.
Scoring, however, isn't the only facet of the game. And while Booker is a growing facilitator who does solid work on the glass, his defense remains unabashedly putrid. According to ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus, he sits at No. 98 among 105 qualified shooting guards with a score that more than cancels out his offensive talents and leaves him as a net negative.
Obviously, that's also misleading, in large part because of the role he's asked to fill for the downtrodden Phoenix Suns and the lackluster nature of his teammates. But defense is important, and it won't allow him to rise much higher up the rankings at this stage of his career.
51. Jaylen Brown, SF, Boston Celtics
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.3 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.4 blocks
Jaylen Brown's three-point percentage has dipped in recent weeks, but he gets enough looks in the corners—from where he was effective even as a rookie—to suggest his ballooning clip will hold. Those post-ups the Boston Celtics pepper in for him are never pretty, but they can be useful, and he's making strides as a finisher in transition and off the dribble.
Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum should thank Brown for making their lives easier at the defensive end. Both look more poised and engaged than projected—pleasant surprises made possible by Brown's comfort switching up or down a position.
50. Jayson Tatum, PF, Boston Celtics
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 13.7 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.9 blocks
Jayson Tatum is everything teenage newbies aren't supposed to be: polished and poised and precise, with superstar efficiency.
People have been waiting for his three-point clip (46-plus percent) to plummet since day one. They're still waiting. He's not yet comfortable on stop-and-fire missiles, but he's money off the catch, and legend has it he's never missed from the corners.
Disregard the pull to typecast him as a product of the Boston Celtics' Mariana Trench-deep roster. He's at his best when working without pause in the half court, but his stop-and-go game will come around. He's shooting north of 60 percent in transition, better than 55 percent on pull-up jumpers and almost 50 percent when using between three and six dribbles.
Head coach Brad Stevens already trusts him to run without superstar safety nets. And while the offense sputters during these stretches, he's slashing 45/48/76 when Al Horford and Kyrie Irving are on the bench.
Tatum even turns heads on the defensive side. Having Horford, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart around helps, and he'll get tossed aside on the block. But he's a conscious off-ball pest and holds firm versus playmaking artists.
In other words: Tatum is no specialist, just really good.
49. Jrue Holiday, SG, New Orleans Pelicans
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 18.8 points, 4.4 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.6 blocks
Thanks to the New Orleans Pelicans' dearth of usable wings, Jrue Holiday has been forced into an uncomfortable situation. Basketball Reference lists 41 percent of his minutes at the 2 this season, and the remaining portion comes at small forward rather than point guard. Cleaning the Glass has 66 percent of his run at shooting guard. That non-point-guard consensus is all we need to deviate from the 27-year-old's traditional classification.
At first, the transition from the 1 was tough for the veteran guard. He's used to operating with the ball in his hands and shooting plenty of jumpers off the bounce while probing for paths to the rim. He's suddenly been thrust into more of an off-ball role than ever.
But especially after he started working in tandem with Rajon Rondo and receiving on-target feeds for his spot-up attempts, everything has clicked. In addition, Holiday's three-point exploits are bouncing back toward previous levels, he's been an on-ball defensive menace and he's learning how to maximize his offensive touches without turning the rock over.
Holiday is averaging just 2.6 turnovers per 36 minutes, which would be his lowest mark since 2014-15. And maintaining a usage rate north of 20, an assist percentage in the same ballpark and a turnover rate below 15 percent isn't easy. Along with Holiday, only 21 players are doing so while qualifying for 2017-18's scoring leaderboard.
48. Steven Adams, C, Oklahoma City Thunder
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 13.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.0 blocks
Grunt-work guru Steven Adams is an uncelebrated—albeit not underpaid—heartbeat for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
He's shooting better than 65 percent out of the pick-and-roll and ranks fourth among all centers in screen assists. His rim protection is spotty, and he ducks defensive rebounds by design, but he stamps out enemy rim-runners.
Adams can also hold his own when trundling into space. He forces turnovers more than percent of the time when defending isolations—sixth best among every player to guard 60 or more one-on-one situations.
47. Aaron Gordon, PF, Orlando Magic
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 18.4 points, 8.2 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.7 blocks
Pay no attention to the Orlando Magic's plunge following an 8-4 start. Look only at Aaron Gordon, who has stayed on the up-and-up amid their descent into oblivion.
Honing his three-point touch has opened up new offensive doors. He's jacking more triples per 36 minutes than Dirk Nowitzki and converting them at a higher clip than more renowned forwards such as Ryan Anderson, Carmelo Anthony, Serge Ibaka and Kristaps Porzingis. (He is, we should note, shooting under 30 percent on threes over his last 30 games.)
Gordon isn't solely capitalizing on idle spot-ups, either. Among more than 60 players who've attempted at least 35 shots off screens, his effective field-goal percentage ranks 11th.
"He's not just a spot-up shooter," head coach Frank Vogel said, per the Orlando Sentinel's Josh Robbins. "He's a pindown shooter. That says a lot about his development, quite frankly."
Everything Gordon does suddenly has new meaning. Defenses have to respect his pop-outs off screens, rendering him a more dangerous pick-and-roll diver. And when they crowd him off the catch, he'll showcase his on-ball foot speed; he's shooting almost 50 percent on twos when chewing through two to six dribbles.
Something has to give for Gordon's defense. Can he be a consistent switcher? How about a rim protector? The answers to those questions will determine how fast his star rises. But make no mistake, it is rising—just in time for restricted free agency.
46. Tyreke Evans, SG, Memphis Grizzlies
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 19.4 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.3 blocks
Heading into the current campaign, Tyreke Evans wasn't thought of as a star-caliber guard, hence his signing a one-year deal worth $3.29 million with the Memphis Grizzlies.
He wasn't mentioned when Dan Favale counted down the league's top 100 players. ESPN.com's #NBArank never noted his presence. Ditto for Sports Illustrated's top-100 countdown. NBA Math's #CrystalBasketball project slotted him at No. 176, directly between Shaun Livingston and Tony Allen. Everyone misfired.
Then again, who could've seen this coming? After years of jump-shooting struggles, Evans has morphed into a legitimate sniper, hitting his 5.5 triples per contest at a 39.2 percent clip. And that's opened the door for the rest of his offensive game, forcing defenders to meet him at the three-point arc and making it that much easier for the 6'6", 220-pound guard to utilize his superior size and strength while bursting past them for an interior finish.
Evans has been sensational for the Grizzlies, to the point that he's challenging Mike Conley and Marc Gasol for individual supremacy on the Beale Street roster. He's clearly been the most effective player, even if that doesn't mean he'll finish the season as the team's premier asset.
But should Evans regress to his career mean from beyond the arc (31.5), he's still demonstrated enough during his age-28 season that he'll never again be overlooked in free agency. Whether he finishes out the season for this downward-spiraling sloth or gets Memphis a first-round pick while joining a contender as a half-season rental, he's finally starting to justify the hype that stemmed from his Rookie of the Year campaign back in 2009-10.
45. Isaiah Thomas, PG, Cleveland Cavaliers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 16.1 points, 1.3 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.1 blocks
Though Isaiah Thomas has a few games under his belt in 2017-18, we don't yet know how he'll look when fully recovered from the hip injury that delayed his Cleveland Cavaliers debut and when acclimated to his new cast of high-usage teammates.
His fit alongside LeBron James after filling such a ball-dominant role for the Boston Celtics remains curious; Kyrie Irving had a then-career-high 30.8 percent usage rate last year, while Thomas' was 34.0 percent during his final Beantown season.
But we do know how deadly his offense can be when fully healthy, even if the early shooting returns have been atrocious. He performed like a top-15 player in 2016-17, and he could easily make this conservative placement look foolish by season's end.
44. Joe Ingles, SF, Utah Jazz
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 9.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.2 blocks
Joe Ingles' performance is rooted in balance and proportion. His game takes many forms for the Utah Jazz, shape-shifting based on opponents and lineups.
Swish threes with absurd efficiency? Done. Jumpstart pick-and-rolls with (occasional) sleight typically reserved for point guards? No problem.
Rotate between defensive assignments from all walks of skill—big and small, explosive and slick, on-ball maestros and spot-up assassins—with seamlessness that belies his workaday athleticism? Sure thing.
Few players are more underappreciated than Ingles. He's been billed as a modest-volume specialist, someone hardly worth his $52 million price tag. His absolute value, however, gets lost in the number of hats he wears.
Envisioning him as a featured option is tempting, if only to determine whether he can shine as an alpha. But this imagineering is an exercise in futility. Ingles' usage has climbed barely a tick following departures from Gordon Hayward and George Hill, and Donovan Mitchell's ascendence won't allow for much growth.
Functional variance, then, caps Ingles' ceiling. And that's fine. Every team pines for wings who drain threes at a 40-plus percent clip, flash sleek vision and defend their butts off—making Ingles a coveted, albeit underloved, commodity.
43. Eric Bledsoe, PG, Milwaukee Bucks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 17.4 points, 3.7 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 2.2 steals, 0.6 blocks
Though he no longer enjoys unfettered access to the ball on a rebuilding team and now operates in a Giannis Antetokounmpo-centric offensive scheme, Eric Bledsoe has retained value after an early-season transition from the Phoenix Suns to the Milwaukee Bucks.
His athletic scoring instincts are useful, though he can occasionally drive into trouble with unchecked aggression. More consistent deep shooting would be nice, as well. But his defensive acumen is unabashedly beneficial, since he can leverage his size, strength and speed into tremendous on-ball work in a trap-heavy system.
42. Robert Covington, SF, Philadelphia 76ers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 13.4 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.7 blocks
Public service announcement: Robert Covington is older than Khris Middleton. Major props if that doesn't blow your mind. You're an NBA-birthdate connoisseur.
Anyway, Covington is playing his age, in no small part because the Philadelphia 76ers are, for the first time of his career, stocked with actual healthy NBA players.
Spending time with Joel Embiid, J.J. Redick and Ben Simmons has opened things up for him on offense. He is canning almost 40 percent of his triples, and his efficiency on drives has skyrocketed from last year's 40.5 percent clip.
Covington could fall slightly lower in favor of higher-volume studs. Close to 90 percent of his baskets come off assists, and more than one-third of his threebies go completely uninterrupted. But his defensive contributions make the difference.
Philadelphia liberally switches him across all wing positions and isn't above using him to stalk point guards in pick-and-rolls. He leads all small forwards in defensive real plus-minus and, as a result of his two-way contributions, owns the Sixers' second-highest net rating, behind only Embiid.
What Covington lacks in usage, he makes up for with incontestable importance. Philly won't morph into a contender without him playing this exact brand of basketball.
41. C.J. McCollum, SG, Portland Trail Blazers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 21.6 points, 4.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.4 blocks
CJ McCollum's jumper hasn't lost an iota of aesthetic appeal. He still looks smooth when rising and firing over a defender's outstretched arms, particularly when he's working off the bounce and getting to his preferred spot before entering the shooting motion.
But the results haven't quite been there for a man who entered the 2017-18 campaign primed to challenge for one of the top three spots at his position. Though his three-point shooting and mid-range prowess haven't gone away during his fifth professional season, he's had trouble finishing plays around the hoop.
After knocking down 58.8 percent of his looks inside three feet and 48.8 percent of his tries between three and 10 feet last year, McCollum's numbers are down to 53.4 and 42.0 percent in those areas, respectively. That's made a world of difference for a 26-year-old who relies on his scoring to overcome his limited distribution habits and long-standing porosity on the defensive end.
McCollum has improved on the stopping side, as he's no longer giving up at the sight of screens and is displaying vastly superior positional tactics. But that's not his strength, and the strides haven't been enough to counteract those slipping interior percentages.
40. Lou Williams, PG, Los Angeles Clippers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 23.4 points, 2.5 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.2 blocks
Guards aren't supposed to be submitting career-best seasons at age 31, but that's what Lou Williams is doing for the Los Angeles Clippers (and might be doing later with a different organization if they sling him to an offense-coveting contender for a first-round pick and change). That parenthetical inclusion just looks increasingly unnecessary after this dynamic offensive guard has carried an injury-riddled squad back into the Western Conference's playoff picture.
Though Williams' defense is predictably putrid, donwplaying his point-producing chops would be foolish.
Not only is he averaging 23.4 points and 5.0 assists (both career highs), but he's doing so while shooting 44.9 percent from the field, 40.8 percent from downtown and 90.7 percent at the stripe. Defenses have been helpless against him, uncertain about whether there's any singular aspect of his game which they can take away.
That's, in a word, superduperelite.
39. Mike Conley, PG, Memphis Grizzlies
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 17.1 points, 2.3 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.3 blocks
Rather than anything he's done during the 2017-18 campaign, Mike Conley's past and expected future justify this placement. He served as a below-average point guard for the Memphis Grizzlies before succumbing to left Achilles soreness.
But we know better than to judge the 30-year-old solely off a 12-game sample, even if he inexplicably struggled to find his shooting stroke, became less involved on offense and looked a few steps slow defensively. That's not who he's been in recent seasons, instead dominating thoroughly enough to become (arguably) the best non-All-Star in NBA history.
When healthy, Conley should pick up where he left off in 2016-17, controlling the Memphis offense with a steady supply of patient performances. He won't explode to the rim as frequently as some positional counterparts, but he's a careful attacker who probes for weaknesses before exploiting them.
His ability to generate points for himself while assisting teammates and avoiding turnovers makes him an elite offensive option, all while he conserves those quick bursts of energy for the defensive end.
Due both to his lack of availability and worrisome play during the season's opening salvo, Conley's stock has dropped. But he can't plummet too far without a larger sample of lackluster showings.
38. Paul Millsap, PF, Denver Nuggets
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 15.3 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.3 blocks
Good news: Paul Millsap's recovery from wrist surgery is right on schedule.
"Not to get too excited, not to put the cart before the horse, but [the medical staff] said initially that All-Star break, before or after, was the timeline [for Millsap's return]," Denver Nuggets head coach Mike Malone said, per the Denver Post's Gina Mizell. "I think he's still on that timeline, so things are moving in the right direction."
Better news: This gives us license to include Millsap in these rankings without fear, or the assumption, of a setback.
Even better news still: He played well enough before going down to earn top-end consideration.
It took some time for Millsap to grow comfortable in his new digs, but true to his adaptable form, he eventually started leaving his mark. His work next to Nikola Jokic specifically drives up his placement. He's shooting 48 percent off passes from the Serbian superstructure, and the Nuggets have outpaced opponents by 9.7 points per possessions whenever they share the floor.
Denver is also a different defensive team when Millsap plays. His rotations are a godsend for its wings, while Jokic is free to take more risks. The Nuggets have defended like a top-10 unit with Millsap on the court, so even with Trey Lyles' emergence, he remains their ticket to two-way lethality.
37. Khris Middleton, SF, Milwaukee Bucks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 20.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.2 blocks
Khris Middleton is as close to accepted stardom as a player can come without inarguably reaching it. And the barrier separating him from the hottest #NBAVote ranks remains the same: an ostensible lack of from-scratch efficiency.
Although Middleton receives his share of isolation opportunities and ranks third on the Milwaukee Bucks in crunch-time shot attempts per 36 minutes, he's not a viable crutch. Deference is baked into his off-the-dribble work, and he, generally speaking, doesn't attack with the same sheer force displayed by Giannis Antetokounmpo or Eric Bledsoe.
Hence Bledsoe's arrival at all—not to mention Milwaukee's cameo in the Kyrie Irving sweepstakes last summer. The Bucks needed that additional jolt of star-powered self-indulgence.
Yet, at the same time, they stagger Middleton like their second in command. No one has played more possessions without Antetokounmpo, according to PBPStats.com, and he logs more solo time, on average, than Bledsoe.
These extra lone-wolf duties fuel Middleton's defensive demise in the eyes of catch-all metrics. The Bucks are collectively inconsistent on the less glamorous end to begin with, and headlining units barren of both Antetokounmpo and Bledsoe cramp Middleton's returns—even though he's still comfortably a member of the league's Switchables Guild.
36. Otto Porter Jr., SF, Washington Wizards
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 13.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.5 steals
Figuring out the Washington Wizards' hierarchy has become a headache-inducing errand. John Wall is clearly their best player, but who comes next?
Bradley Beal is the reflexive answer, and for good reason. He's a transcendent offensive talent, even as his shot profile devolves, and is thus more qualified to serve as a lifeline. But Otto Porter isn't far behind—if he trails Beal at all.
Washington doesn't give Porter work as a soloist. He seldom plays without Beal or Wall on the court, which gives way to arguments—or, more appropriately, illusions—that he's incapable of shouldering heavier offensive loads.
Let's assume Porter, for argument's sake, cannot dabble in pick-and-roll authorship (he can) and is undeserving of an off-the-bounce green light (he's not). Does it really matter? Not in the faintest sense.
Porter has flat-out mastered his niche role. He's chasing a 44 percent success rate from deep and is opportunistic on off-action cuts. Between last season and now, among nearly 200 players to jack at least 200 threes, only Kyle Korver, LeBron James and Tony Snell have a better effective field-goal percentage.
Stir in Washington's reliance on Porter as its (developing) go-to wing-stopper, and he's redefining the cachet usually awarded to specialists.
35. Clint Capela, Houston Rockets
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.5 points, 10.8 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.7 blocks
Other players can replicate Clint Capela's hyper-specific role, but few will be content to set screens, finish lobs and wrangle defensive rebounds without the promise of supplementary post touches. Capela doesn't subject the Houston Rockets to—or, more accurately, extort them with—usage demands.
More than 80 percent of his made baskets come off assists, and he's used fewer than 20 post-up possessions all year. Only Andre Drummond and DeAndre Jordan are notching higher defensive rebounding rates. And despite his spindly frame, Capela is flashing sturdier position against back-to-the-basket scorers while anchoring pleasantly average units on the less glamorous side when playing next to Ryan Anderson.
Translating this (clear) value across the league is nevertheless difficult. Capela wouldn't guarantee the same returns on a different team.
Always playing beside James Harden or Chris Paul is its own safety net. He is dependent on the space they forge. And though this can be said for many other centers, Capela isn't charged with as much responsibility at either end.
Houston remains hesitant to lean on him for protracted stretches. He's already set a career high in 30-minute outings, but his court time still heavily hinges on matchups and conditioning.
The Rockets advertise Capela as irreplaceable—and, to them, he just might be. But he has a (tiny) ways to go before he's viewed in the same breadth as the starriest bigs.
34. Andre Drummond, C, Detroit Pistons
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.3 points, 15.0 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.2 blocks
We wanted, and tried, to place Andre Drummond even higher. We really did. His offensive 180 incited many, many feels.
Under 10 percent of Drummond's possessions have come as post-ups this year, compared to 27.5 in 2016-17. He's still not a reliable scorer when working with his back to the basket, but he's a trustworthy decision-maker.
Last year, Drummond passed on just over 15 percent of his post touches. This season, on significantly more catches, he's deferring over 40 percent of the time while more than doubling his assist rate. He's averaging more dimes per 36 minutes than Marc Gasol.
Slotting him any higher would ignore his defensive inconsistency. He's yet to showcase DeAndre Jordan-level switchability, and his rotations around the rim are suspect. Opponents shoot over 60 percent when he challenges them at the basket—a so-so mark at best—and the Detroit Pistons are allowing more points per 100 possessions with him on the court for a second consecutive season.
This doesn't aim to paint Drummond as a sieve or defensive malcontent. The Pistons have all kinds of things wrong with their rotation—starting with each of their eight most-used lineups being net negatives. Drummond is not the root of all that plagues them.
He is, however, a mainstay for a team with waxing and waning defensive efforts.
33. Ben Simmons, PG, Philadelphia 76ers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 16.6 points, 8.0 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.9 blocks
We could highlight Ben Simmons' offense, picking apart his free-throw shooting and perimeter limitations before explaining how his preternatural passing and knack for getting to the hoop mitigate any concerns. But that's been covered ad nauseam—often at the expense of focusing on his ahead-of-his-experience defensive chops.
First-year players shouldn't display such fundamental understanding on the preventing end. And cry as you'd like about classifying him as a rookie, he is an NBA freshman by definition. Spending a year on the Philly sideline doesn't change the fact that he hadn't logged a relevant minute until this year.
Simmons routinely baffles opposing backcourt members with his length and then switches over to guard a bigger player for a possession or two. His passing vision translates into opportunistic defense, frequently manifesting as a quick jump into the intended lane and a subsequent burst down the court to hammer home the resulting transition opportunity.
The Sixers star no longer paces all point guards in ESPN.com's DRPM by a substantial margin, but he still sits at No. 4 at the position, behind only Dejounte Murray, Tyus Jones and, interestingly enough, Lonzo Ball. During the metric's five-year history, no rookie 1-guard has finished higher than No. 5 (Nate Wolters in 2013-14) or No. 6 (Marcus Smart in 2014-15).
32. Gary Harris, SG, Denver Nuggets
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 17.1 points, 2.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.3 blocks
Gary Harris might not be capable of carrying a squad all on his lonesome, but he's developed into one of the NBA's premier complementary players. That's not a statement meant in denigrating fashion, since filling a role to perfection is both valuable and often underrated.
The 23-year-old requires assists on 55.2 percent of his made two-pointers and 89.5 percent of his drained triples—both down significantly from last year. He often flits around the perimeter for the Denver Nuggets, waiting for the perfect spot-up or cutting opportunity. It's the ability to fill both roles that makes him a special asset alongside Nikola Jokic and Denver's unorthodox distributing schemes.
Plus, Harris is one of those rare 2-guards who doesn't often function as a defensive liability.
Not only is he willing to assume tough assignments on a regular basis—switching to bigger and smaller players to alleviate his teammates' burden—but he's also found success while doing so. Among the 105 players ESPN.com's DRPM lists at his position, only nine have submitted superior scores.
31. Blake Griffin, PF, Los Angeles Clippers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 22.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.3 blocks
Declining efficiency and the usual helping of bad-luck injuries can only hold back Blake Griffin so much. After all, we have to account for the circumstances.
Griffin is working with a supporting cast ravaged by absences (Patrick Beverley, Danilo Gallinari, etc.) and a post-Chris Paul learning curve. His usage rate has never been higher, his offensive role never tougher.
Post-ups have become the Los Angeles Clippers' late-shot-clock failsafe—so much so that Griffin shooting over 40 percent on his back-to-the-basket sets is a minor miracle. Los Angeles turns to his face-ups in the same vein. He's averaging more than two attempts per game inside four seconds of the shot clock—third-most among 200-something forwards.
The Clippers' dependence on him doesn't stop here. Griffin is cycling through more possessions than ever as the pick-and-roll ball-handler. They have him running, on average, 2.5 such sets per game—about the same volume as a higher-usage backup point guard.
Give him Lou Williams and a healthy Gallinari, Austin Rivers and Milos Teodosic, and Griffin must still serve as the Clippers' end-all. Most other 4s cannot walk this line. That Griffin is good for 20 points and five assists while spearheading top-seven offensive returns in this situation speaks to his superstar standing.
30. Rudy Gobert, C, Utah Jazz
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.4 points, 9.7 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.5 steals, 2.4 blocks
From the offseason's second-best center to...to...to this?
Rudy Gobert is not entirely at fault for his downswing. Multiple knee injuries have limited his availability, and everyone on the Utah Jazz is reeling from the offensive drop-off incurred from the departures of Gordon Hayward and George Hill.
Ricky Rubio's fast-and-furious demise only casts more fog over Gobert's stock. Utah scores like the league's worst offense when these two share the court, and plucking out that noise is imperative to giving Gobert a fair shake.
Then again, the Jazz's offensive descent serves as a crash course in the Stifle Tower's limitations. He is neither a bail-out option in the post nor immune to downgrades at the point guard position. Utah is far more potent when he plays without Rubio but hardly elite.
It doesn't matter whether Joe Ingles or Donovan Mitchell is taking the ball-handler reins; Gobert has seen his offensive impact fracture and fade amid this new world order, exposing raw reliance that cannot be stricken from the conversation.
On the bright side, this reality check negates nothing about his defense. Gobert is impenetrable near the rim when he's not pirouetting around the perimeter, and the Jazz's stopping power noticeably tumbles when Derrick Favors, Jonas Jerebko and Ekpe Udoh pinch hit at center.
Traditional bigs aren't the most sought-after building blocks in today's playmaker-obsessed Association, but Gobert's absence is the mortal blow that strips Utah of its identity. And that says a lot.
29. Kevin Love, C, Cleveland Cavaliers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 18.6 points, 9.4 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.5 blocks
A memo to the positional police: Yes, Kevin Love qualifies as a center. Most of the Cleveland Cavaliers' starting lineups feature him at the 5, and more than 86 percent of his possessions have come as the primary big, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Sticking Love in the middle quickly became a non-negotiable aspect of life. Tristan Thompson missed substantial time with a left calf injury, and the offseason additions of Jae Crowder, Jeff Green and Dwyane Wade have necessitated fewer dual-big lineups.
But Love-at-the-5 arrangements are still more about function than convenience. He is a matchup nightmare for plodding bigs unaccustomed to contesting three-point deadeyes or pick-and-pop whizzes, and defenses are more willing to award him breathing room than abandon the paint when LeBron James is on the court.
Immersing himself in a more complementary role has chipped away at some of Love's glitziest volume. He gets touches in the post, where he's averaging a stout 1.0 points per possession, but has seen his assist rate shrink. He's turning in the best true shooting percentage of his career yet averaging under 30 minutes per game for the first time since his sophomore march.
Love would have an argument for more favorable placement if he provided any defensive value. But the Cavaliers are more porous with him in the middle, completely counteracting the intended offensive boon.
Things keep devolving when Love plays with Thompson. Cleveland is getting pummeled by more than 12 points per 100 possessions with both bigs in the game—an overarching issue that crimps both Love's ranking and his team's championship chances.
28. LaMarcus Aldridge, C, San Antonio Spurs
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 22.3 points, 8.7 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.5 steals, 1.1 blocks
LaMarcus Aldridge's stock is on the rise, in his age-32 season, all because he asked to be traded from San Antonio over the offseason. As head coach Gregg Popovich recently said of Aldridge's request, per ESPN.com's Michael C. Wright:
"So we had some dinners and meetings and laughed. I was very candid with him. I told him, 'I'd be happy to trade you. You get me a talent like Kevin Durant, and I'll drive you to the airport. I'll pack your bags. And I will drive you there, get you on the plane, and get you seated.' He laughed, you know, that kind of thing.
"I said, 'But short of that, I'm your best buddy because you're here for another year, and you ain't going nowhere. Because we're not gonna get for you talent-wise what we would want. So let's figure this thing out.' And we did. That's what we came to."
Laughter—and perhaps a good pinot noir—really is the best medicine. The Spurs own a top-six record despite playing most of the year without Kawhi Leonard. And they don't get here, inside striking distance of a No. 2 postseason seed, without Aldridge playing some of his best basketball ever.
He has averaged more points per 36 minutes only once and is providing above-average rim protection while almost evenly splitting time between the center (54 percent) and power forward (46 percent) positions, per Cleaning the Glass.
Subsisting on difficult fadeaways should spell offensive doom, but it works for both Aldridge and the Spurs. He's shooting almost 50 percent on all turnaround jumpers, and San Antonio's offensive rating falls by nearly seven points per 100 possessions when he's on the bench.
Lifelines for championship contenders (non-Warriors division) aren't created by accident. Aldridge is earning his keep.
27. Kristaps Porzingis, PF, New York Knicks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 23.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.8 steals, 2.3 blocks
Kristaps Porzingis is crashing into a midseason wall. His shooting percentages have careened into rock bottom since he missed two games in the middle of December, over which time the New York Knicks offense has croaked more than purred with him on the court.
"I'm tired, I'm tired, I'm so tired right now," Porzingis said at the beginning of January, per the New York Post's Marc Berman. And who can blame him?
Tim Hardaway Jr. only recently returned from a leg injury, and Porzingis' usage rate has ballooned in his first season as the Knicks' unchallenged No. 1. Playing power forward isn't helping matters. He spends more time flying around the perimeter, while also trying to help and recover around the rim. His head is on a swivel to begin with, and a turnstile starting five merely exacerbates his exhaustion.
None of which has stopped Porzingis from delivering a star's performance. His true shooting percentage sits above his career average despite a mega-uptick in volume, and he rates as the second-most effective rim protector among players who've harassed 150 or more close-range looks.
Subtle improvements are sprinkled throughout the rest of his game. He's more comfortable using his skyscraper size (7'3") to shoot over opponents and recognizing when he's better off putting the ball on the floor. He'll never run fast breaks like Giannis Antetokounmpo or dish out double-digit assists, but he's a more opportunistic passer.
Whatever becomes of the Knicks' roller-coaster season, Porzingis has ensured they'll exit 2017-18 knowing they house a superstar.
26. Bradley Beal, SG, Washington Wizards
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 23.8 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.5 blocks
Many of the shot-selection strides Bradley Beal made in 2016-17 are gone. He's no longer sacrificing long twos for basket attacks and three-point marksmanship, and his efficiency levels have suffered. But that's also a byproduct of his assuming even more importance within the Washington Wizards' schemes as John Wall deals with injuries and diminished production.
Beal has proved capable of shouldering a rising usage rate. The ball is in his hands more frequently, and he's been proficient while serving as both a leading scorer and a distributing 2-guard who can rack up 3.7 assists per contest (a high-water mark for the second consecutive campaign). He's also keeping his turnovers in check. And, perhaps most importantly, he's no longer been quite so much of a defensive liability.
Few people, even those wearing Wizards-tinted glasses, would mistake this Florida product for a lockdown perimeter defender. But he's beginning to display more discipline against pump fakes and off-ball action while constantly contesting three-point attempts in an advantageous manner.
Defensive growth typically occurs in conjunction with offensive backsliding. The fact it's taking place while he just about stagnates on the scoring end is a massive positive for Washington.
25. Klay Thompson, SG, Golden State Warriors
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 20.6 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.6 blocks
Don't be fooled by Klay Thompson's low scores in many defensive metrics, even as they push his overall marks lower than you might expect. ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton covered this in detail during a recent mailbag:
"Players with box score defensive stats like Thompson's are typically poor defenders, so his defensive box plus-minus rating is far worse than league average. That rating is similar to the one RPM uses as a starting point to rate players, which means it's beginning with the assumption that the Golden State defense is succeeding in spite of Thompson rather than because of him.
"The lack of steals suggests that Thompson's defense is probably somewhat overrated, since these contributions tend to be undervalued in favor of one-on-one defense by most observers. Still, this isn't a case like Avery Bradley, in which elite individual defense doesn't seem to be translating at the team level. Thompson is clearly a very good defender, just in a way that's difficult to measure for a system designed to provide the best estimate for all players and not unusual cases like him."
Of course, the offensive results are more obvious.
Thompson has made minor gains as a facilitator, and he's still scoring 20.6 points per game while shooting 48.6 percent from the field, a league-best 45.3 percent from downtown and 88.1 percent at the charity stripe—all career highs. In fact, he's on pace to join Stephen Curry (in both 2012-13 and 2015-16) as one of only two qualified players in NBA history to take more than seven three-point attempts per contest and connect on at least 45 percent of them.
Breaking news: A historically effective shooter remains historically effective.
24. John Wall, PG, Washington Wizards
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 19.5 points, 3.6 rebounds, 9.3 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.1 blocks
Even after returning from a knee injury that kept him out of nine consecutive games and required platelet-rich plasma and viscosupplementation injections to lessen the inflammation, John Wall hasn't been himself. He's averaged 18.9 points, 3.8 rebounds and 9.4 assists since throwing the Washington Wizards uniform back on, but one area of his game still need significant work and hints at continued physical limitations.
During that 19-game stretch, he's shot just 41.1 percent from the field, failing to get the necessary lift on his pull-up jumpers or separation from opponents when driving into the teeth of a defense. His thievery rate is climbing back toward elite levels, but those shooting concerns inside the three-point arc persist.
Wall still doesn't seem fully healthy. He's deferring slightly more, willing to play the part of facilitator rather than taking over the Washington offense and punishing his foes' relative lack of foot speed. This should change as he continues to gain comfort alongside Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr., which is part of the reason his placement in these rankings exceeds what the numbers might currently indicate.
The other factor? Even in a diminished state, Wall has continued to serve as a nightly 20/10 threat capable of playing elite off-ball defense, no matter how many additional possessions he might take off for conservation purposes.
23. Karl-Anthony Towns, C, Minnesota Timberwolves
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 20.2 points, 12.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.6 blocks
Karl-Anthony Towns is doing some stuff since his passive six-shot performance in a Dec. 4 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. He's averaging over 20 points and three assists while putting down more than 46 percent of his long balls and displaying more defensive engagement.
This heightened commitment on defense has been especially crucial to the Minnesota Timberwolves playing their way into the Western Conference's No. 3 seed. They were getting creamed with Towns on the floor after his first 25 appearances.
His rotations around the basket were undisciplined or, oftentimes, nonexistent. He did weird things with his hands that culminated in fouls or uncontested looks around the hoop. And he flittered aimlessly about the paint, haplessly gravitating toward the ball or watching chunks of possessions in a stationary stance without regard for his man.
Towns should not be misidentified as a lockdown defender. Opponents are shooting 65 percent against him at the rim during this stretch. But he's making crisper rotations, gluing himself to post scorers and keeping his head on more of a swivel.
Minnesota is allowing fewer than 103 points per 100 possessions through this quasi-surge when Towns takes the court—tantamount to a top-five defensive rating, and a mark surpassed only by Tyus Jones. Sustainability remains a question mark given Towns' previous transgressions, but he appears to have turned a climactic corner in his development.
22. Kemba Walker, PG, Charlotte Hornets
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 21.7 points, 3.3 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.3 blocks
Kemba Walker has done more than survive a dry spell from beyond the arc (though we should note he's not yet showing signs of pulling his three-point percentage out of the doldrums). He's continued to thrive as the unquestioned motor of the Charlotte Hornets, torturing countless foes with his basket attacks out of the pick-and-roll and weaponizing his game-changing step-back jumper.
Partially due to the putridity of Charlotte's supporting point guards, Walker has emerged as one of the game's most indispensable players. Some stars post dizzying on/off splits, but the Hornets with their fearless leader don't even resemble the bumblebees just attempting to survive the flyswatter without him.
When Walker is playing, they outscore the opposition by 5.1 points per 100 possessions—a mark that would exceed that of the No. 4 Boston Celtics (4.5). Without him, the net rating plunges to a dismal minus-12.1 that would leave them well behind the NBA-worst Sacramento Kings (minus-10.3).
Pick your favorite MVP candidate. Select your preferred superstar. As Bleacher Report's Dan Favale documented earlier this season, none of them are going to post differentials that span this yawning chasm created by Charlotte's irreplaceable heart and soul.
21. DeMar DeRozan, SF, Toronto Raptors
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 25.0 points, 4.2 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.3 blocks
First, an explanation for the irrationally jilted: DeMar DeRozan qualifies as a small forward. Around 60 percent of his minutes come within lineups that denote him as the 3, according to Cleaning The Glass, which trumps his role as the 2-guard in the Raptors' preferred starting lineup.
For those refusing to look beyond this designation, here's a gift from us to you: After years as the whipping boy for overrated-star conversations, DeRozan is absolutely, positively, unambiguously producing like a top-25 player—positional constraints be damned.
Said standing is not punctuated by any unanticipated leaps. DeRozan remains an inattentive and passive defender and isn't suddenly a three-point flamethrower. But he is a threat to score from beyond the arc. He's shooting a career best from long range on watermark volume and turning to pull-up triplets as more than mere last resorts.
Combine this with progress as a distributor—he's running more than twice as many pick-and-rolls as Kyle Lowry—and DeRozan has transformed into a hub recognized by many.
20. Victor Oladipo, SG, Indiana Pacers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 24.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.9 blocks
The surprisingly successful Indiana Pacers lose their potency when Victor Oladipo isn't in the lineup. They've dropped all five contests he missed with injuries, and they aren't the same team when he's riding the pine.
With the breakout shooting guard on the floor, Indiana has played its way to a 7.2 net rating—for perspective, that would be No. 3 in the season-long hierarchy, trailing only the Houston Rockets (7.5) and Golden State Warriors (10.3). But without him, they're outscored by a staggering 8.3 points per 100 possessions, which would beat only the Sacramento Kings (minus-10.3).
Not only is that a massive differential, but it's also the largest among Indiana's rotation members. Thaddeus Young (6.9 better on the floor) and Darren Collison (5.5) have the next biggest on/off swings in the positive directions among regular contributors, and neither comes close to matching Oladipo's impact.
This isn't a fluke, hence the aggressive placement that puts him ahead of more than a few established options. The Pacers are using him correctly, allowing him to handle the rock and thrive in all different kinds of offensive scenarios while still leaving him time to buckle down on the defensive end. It's a luxury the Orlando Magic or Oklahoma City Thunder never granted him.
With two-way talent, a deadly three-point stroke and enough pick-and-roll skills to sit in the 86th percentile as a ball-handler, Oladipo has entered the realm of elites. He's not going anywhere.
19. Paul George, SF, Oklahoma City Thunder
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 20.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 2.2 steals, 0.6 steals
Paul George has found his footing within the Oklahoma City Thunder's offense, which should terrify the rest of the league—most notably any team that hopes to steal him by the trade deadline or in free agency (cough, Los Angeles Lakers, cough).
In the 23 appearances George has made since the end of November, he's averaging 21.0 points and 3.1 assists while shooting 44.9 percent overall and almost 45.6 percent from distance. Not coincidentally, Oklahoma City is 18-8 through these games and scoring like a top-three offense with him on the floor.
Many doubted whether George, following a below-board start, could thrive in a system featuring both Carmelo Anthony and Russell Westbrook. But his mixed skill set always suggested this breakout was inevitable, as Danny Chau explained for The Ringer:
"If Tony Snell is dimensionally the league's most average player, George is the Vitruvian NBA superstar: The template of a modern player who can assume the responsibilities of three different positions, shoot threes both pulling up and from a standstill, and play prideful defense and switch on any assignment. George's half-season with the Thunder has so far affirmed that his versatility wasn't just a convenient intellectual exercise for the offseason—he is every bit as plug-and-play as his game suggests."
That George has been completely engaged defensively solidifies his place among the NBA's elite. He is a top-15 player at his peak, and he guarantees no worse than top-25 value when displaced into sidecar duty beside a ball-dominant partner such as Westbrook.
18. Nikola Jokic, C, Denver Nuggets
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 16.2 points, 10.4 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.7 blocks
After capturing the hearts of knee-jerk enthusiasts and stat geeks everywhere last year, Nikola Jokic has flown under the radar for much of this season.
A prolonged fight with his sprained left ankle accounts for some of the disenchantment. Swelling indifference, too. The Denver Nuggets' inability to stave off fringe-lottery status takes care of the rest.
Look closer, and Jokic's performance stands the test of stardom. He's the same offensive visionary, even with rival teams gumming up Denver's cutting lanes, and his defensive activity is on the come-up. And he has the kitchen-sink cachet to prove it.
Check out where Jokic places among all bigs (4s and 5s) in some of the most important catch-all metrics:
These ranks don't align with last year's finishes, but they're stellar marks. And Jokic is arguably more appealing now that the Nuggets can survive on defense with him in the middle. He still retreats when guarding in space and doesn't have the quickest lateral reflexes, but his positioning is better overall.
Adding Paul Millsap has of course helped. But he hasn't played since mid-November following wrist surgery. The Nuggets have a close-to-average defensive rating when Jokic works without him—it has slipped of late—and they enjoy stingier returns when he sets up shop with Trey Lyles.
Moral of the story: Denver is a violent roller coaster, but Jokic retains his best-player-on-a-contender ceiling.
17. Kyle Lowry, PG, Toronto Raptors
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 17.0 points, 6.0 rebounds, 6.7 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.1 blocks
The perpetually underrated Kyle Lowry is now playing exactly the type of game that's going to make him...more underrated. He's scoring fewer points per game than in any of the past four seasons. He's not quite replicating his three-point numbers from 2016-17, though he's still at an impressive level of volume/efficiency/creation. He's playing fewer minutes than he has since his first season with the Toronto Raptors.
And yet, this is another All-NBA-caliber campaign.
In lieu of scoring, Lowry has spearheaded the Raptors' new-look offense, which has featured more ball movement and an egalitarian feel. His isolation frequency is down from 11.0 percent in 2016-17 to 6.1 percent this year, and he's replaced the production by averaging an impressive 7.3 assists per 36 minutes while keeping his turnovers in check.
Oh, and he's continued to excel defensively while putting up a great campaign on the glass. Throughout NBA history, only one qualified player listed 6'0" or shorter has averaged at least six rebounds per game: 1960-61 Guy Rodgers (6.5). Lowry is on pace to join the club during a year in which the league-average height is two inches taller.
16. Al Horford, C, Boston Celtics
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 13.3 points, 7.7 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.0 blocks
Points-per-game groupies aren't going to be happy. And so be it.
Al Horford is too damn instrumental to the Boston Celtics' season-long tear to dwell any lower. They have a comfortable hold on the Eastern Conference's best record, deploy the league's top defense and sport a top-six crunch-time offense—and he's essential to it all.
Smarty pantses see a clever and selfless facilitator rather than a reluctant scorer. Horford sets and slips screens as well as anyone, and his 40-plus percent shooting from deep vaults his passing to a new level. He is equal parts dangerous from inert states on the block and off-the-bounce attacks, with more potential assists to his name than Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Boston's defensive schemes are founded largely off Horford's own versatility. He doesn't have a problem picking up ball-handlers above the break and seldom gets beat off the dribble by fellow unicorns. If he does, he has the moxie to party-crash plays from behind.
Stocking the roster with like-sized wings drums up the Celtics' curb appeal against the most high-powered offenses, but Horford, more so than anyone, is a conduit between every possible identity. He works as a linchpin in the middle yet is switchable enough for extended burn beside a lumbering big like Aron Baynes.
Kyrie Irving is Boston's primary offensive maestro—the author for most of its crunch-time heroics. But Horford is the more comprehensive safety valve. The Celtics' splits with only one star in tow say it all. They're outscoring opponents by 8.4 points per 100 possessions when Horford runs without Irving, compared to a sound, yet inferior plus-2.9 when the point guard plays on his own.
15. Joel Embiid, C, Philadelphia 76ers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 24.0 points, 10.9 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.9 blocks
Joel Embiid is not perfect—far from it, in fact.
He remains an injury risk, someone the Philadelphia 76ers cannot count on for 70 games or in both nights of a back-to-back. He is more than occasionally sloppy with the ball; his turnover rate on post-ups is still too high, and he coughs up possession on nearly 13 percent of his drives—the worst mark among more than 175 players to appear in at least 10 games and average three or more drives.
Though Embiid's assist totals are solid for a big man, he suffers from frequent tunnel vision on the block and off the dribble. His three-point accuracy has also fallen below 30 percent despite Philly's sharper spacing.
This stuff matters. Yet, on the flip side, it kind of doesn't. Embiid transcends his shortcomings, both those in and beyond his control, by carrying the Sixers. As Rob Mahoney wrote for SI.com:
"Functionally replacing a player like Embiid is impossible, given that no one in basketball is like him. One could make a reasonable case that his defensive impact is the most profound in the league. Veteran bigs commonly dupe themselves in his vicinity, rushing or faking their way out of their usual rhythms based on the twitch of Embiid's shadow. All the while, Embiid functions as a gigantic skill player, riding technique to a smooth 24 and 10. Even the best reserves can't come close to operating—much less producing—in any similar way."
Injuries to Rudy Gobert and Kawhi Leonard, along with Draymond Green's (microscopic) declivity, might render Embiid the Defensive Player of the Year favorite. And his intermittent negligence at the offensive end is excused by his volume. He owns one of the NBA's three highest usage rates and has cycled through more post-ups (360) than 19 of the league's teams.
What's more, through everything, Embiid is all that stands between the Sixers and irrelevance. Most telling: Their other four starters go from a plus-17.6 per 100 possessions playing with him to a minus-9.1 when he steps off the floor.
14. Draymond Green, PF, Golden State Warriors
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 11.3 points, 7.9 rebounds, 7.6 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.3 blocks
That's Draymond "I have more career triple-doubles than anyone in Golden State Warriors franchise history" Green to you.
And you know what? Let's begin here, with Green's 21 career triple-doubles. They hold significance, even in the age of do-everything forwards who collect them like Pokemon. As Golden State of Mind's Brady Klopfer wrote:
"On the one hand, triple-doubles are an overhyped stat. It's an arbitrary statistical cutoff that really only exists because we like round numbers. We often put a little bit too much stock in them.
"On the other hand, triple-doubles have, for Green, been an indicator of when his contributions are really taking over in all facets of the game. In the 21 games that Green has recorded a triple-double, the Warriors are undefeated."
This franchise record would ring hollow if Green was, in fact, a system player. He's not. The Warriors' go-with-the-flow defensive schemes exist largely because he can guard all five positions, and they post a better net rating than the Philadelphia 76ers when he gets spin independent of Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant (Related: Whoa.)
Not unlike his All-NBA brethren, Curry and Durant, Green is a star for the era. This marks the third time he's eclipsing seven rebounds, seven assists, one steal and one block. Only one player has ever matched these touchstones even once: LeBron James (four times).
13. Damian Lillard, PG, Portland Trail Blazers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 25.2 points, 4.8 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.4 blocks
Much like Kyle Lowry, Damian Lillard isn't letting marginally diminished scoring and (relative) three-point struggles keep him from submitting a fantastic resume. He's just as explosive getting to the rim, and the rest of his offensive game remains on point, whether he's calling his own number or setting up one of his Rip City teammates.
But the major improvement this year?
For the first time, Lillard isn't treating screens like brick walls while playing defense, and his newfound ability to repel initial probing from opposing point guards has helped the Portland Trail Blazers produce significantly better defensive numbers. After posting a minus-1.49 in ESPN.com's DRPM last year, he's up to minus-0.67.
The Weber State product still isn't a fearsome presence on the preventing side, but that's fine. So long as he's continuing to produce so many points with his shooting, athletic finishes and precision passes, he doesn't have to be a defensive ace. Merely functioning like an average stopper gives the Blazers a distinct advantage and eliminates one of their longstanding issues.
Now, just imagine what might happen if he begins regressing—meant positively, of course—to his career average from beyond the arc.
12. Jimmy Butler, SF, Minnesota Timberwolves
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 21.7 points, 5.4 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.4 blocks
Jimmy Butler will incite the same ire DeMar DeRozan drew from positional sticklers. He, too, qualifies as a small forward, with more than 90 percent of his court time coming at the 3, according to Cleaning The Glass.
Similar to DeRozan, though, Butler's placement is more enlightening when measured against the entire league. Minnesota has ditched the early-season push-and-pull politics and since identified No. 23 as its best, and most important, player. The end result: a fully unleashed Butler in hot pursuit of top-10 dap.
The Timberwolves no doubt hoped he would match last year's three-point accuracy (36.7 percent), but the potential gripes stop there. And this hiccup has more to do with the team's makeup than Butler himself.
Head coach Tom Thibodeau scantly prioritizes spacing or long-range volume in his rotation, making it difficult to penalize a notoriously on-again, off-again shooter for turbulent outside splits. Plus, the Timberwolves enjoy first-rate offensive output whenever Butler plays. He's lights out near the rim, hits a high percentage of his long twos, hovers around the five-assist sweet spot and draws fouls in crunch time on command.
Most of all, the Timberwolves are an average defensive team with him in the game—no small feat, even as they climb the stopping-power ladder, given how much time he logs beside Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.
Superstars leave profound impressions, and Butler is making one helluva dent. Minnesota is within striking distance of a top-three playoff seed almost entirely because of him.
11. Kyrie Irving, PG, Boston Celtics
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 24.5 points, 3.7 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.3 blocks
Kyrie Irving keeps answering the questions that plagued him with the Cleveland Cavaliers and followed him to the parquet floors of the TD Garden.
Can he lead a team without LeBron James alongside him? Well, he's been one of the Association's premier scorers and has helped propel the Boston Celtics to the best record in the Eastern Conference. When he's on the floor, Boston's net rating has improved 6.5 points per 100 possessions—by no means a meager impact on a deep team brimming with talented backups.
Can he play enough defense to avoid canceling out his scoring production? No one would mistake him for a legitimate stopper, but the effort has been ever-present in 2017-18. He's engaged both on and off the ball, which is far more than we've been able to say at earlier stages of his professional career.
Irving might not have the non-scoring game necessary to surpass the three enduring elites at his position, but there's no shame in that. He's a fringe MVP candidate all the same, currently sitting at No. 7 in Basketball-Reference's award tracker.
Plus, he's closer to a podium position than ever before while still only 25 years old. Head coach Brad Stevens probably isn't done helping him improve his all-around game this early into their Beantown relationship.
10. DeMarcus Cousins, C, New Orleans Pelicans
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 25.2 points, 12.6 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.6 blocks
DeMarcus Cousins has not neutralized all—or even any—of the red flags that followed him to the New Orleans Pelicans.
His defensive interest fluctuates. He spends too much time complaining about missed calls. He commits turnovers on more than 20 percent of his post-ups—seventh-worst share among all players to use 50 or more such possessions. The Pelicans' point differential when he lines up without Anthony Davis is damning.
Like Embiid, though, Cousins earns something close to a pass by way of volume. He, too, is recording a top-five usage rate, and a certain level of sloppiness is incumbent upon that workload.
No other big fills up the box score like Cousins. He blends brute force and explosion with mobility and finesse in a way we haven't quite seen. A 6'11", 270-pound leviathan should not be able to set up above the break, pump-fake those closing out on him and attack the basket with the routineness of a guard.
New Orleans has Cousins initiating the occasional pick-and-roll, and he's averaging more drives than starting floor generals Stephen Curry and Kyle Lowry. His solo struggles, without Davis, are blown out of proportion. The Pelicans score like a top-five offense during those stints, and they're a net plus when his Davis-less minutes come without Rajon Rondo.
Cousins wouldn't hold off a more durable version of Embiid. The Sixers tower is, by all appearances, coming for the NBA's best-center pedestal. Right now, the honor stays with Cousins, one of the most dominant players at his position and in the league—flaws, doubts, irreconcilable question marks and all.
9. Chris Paul, PG, Houston Rockets
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 19.2 points, 5.9 rebounds, 9.0 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.4 blocks
Chris Paul was the Point God with the Los Angeles Clippers. And though injuries partially derailed the first half of his initial venture with a new team, he's remained a Point God for the Houston Rockets.
Sure, the style of play is drastically different. Whereas he patiently probed defenses in his old home, waiting for the right opportunity and getting to his preferred spot before launching a mid-range attempt, he's played with fervent fury alongside James Harden (or while running the show as a solo point guard). The shot clock and defense are his mutual enemies, and neither has proved capable of slowing him.
During his final season with the Clippers, Paul took 26.1 percent of his field-goal attempts from beyond 16 feet but inside the three-point arc. Meanwhile, 7.4 and 38.5 percent of his shots came from the two most efficient spots on the floor: within three feet and from beyond the three-point arc. This year, those three respective numbers stand at 11.0, 10.2 and 50.1 percent.
His shot profile has changed, and all for the better.
Paul under head coach Doc Rivers was unstoppable. Somehow, Paul under Mike D'Antoni is just as good. His production, while similarly mistake-free, is just coming in different fashion.
8. Russell Westbrook, PG, Oklahoma City Thunder
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 24.8 points, 9.7 rebounds, 10.1 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.2 blocks
Russell Westbrook hasn't been nearly the same player he was during his MVP season. He's continuing to check out of too many plays on the defensive end, struggling with his free-throw stroke, letting those woes carry over into his half-court shooting, failing to finish transition opportunities and turning the ball over far too frequently.
But don't hold him to an unrealistic standard, especially while he tries to adjust to life with both Paul George and Carmelo Anthony on the roster. He's still playing valuable basketball for the Oklahoma City Thunder and starting to figure out that his squad is at its best when he's throwing caution to the wind. Give him the ball, hope he doesn't launch too many three-point attempts and get out of the way. The strategy worked in 2016-17 with a drastically inferior supporting cast, and it's starting to lead toward even more success alongside improved running mates.
Plus, Westbrook is getting dangerously close to averaging a triple-double yet again.
Since the beginning of December—a sample that now includes 26 games—he's posting 26.7 points, 10.0 rebounds and 10.6 assists during his average outing for the Thunder. Bst of all, he's doing so while shooting 45.8 percent from the field and turning the ball over slightly less often.
7. Anthony Davis, PF, New Orleans Pelicans
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 26.5 points, 10.6 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.1 steals, 2.1 blocks
Remember when Anthony Davis was next in line to grab the best-player-alive tinfoil badge from LeBron James? Good times. But the basketball world at large appears immune to his nightly detonations nowadays.
Smatterings of injuries haven't helped. Nor has James' refusal to vacate the NBA's top-most mantle. Ditto for the discovery of life on other planets (aka Giannis Antetokounmpo).
But no amount of numbness or incuriosity (or martians) can actually rip Davis from this particular superstar discourse. At worst, if he's surrendered his rights as James' successor, he still belongs in the top-five-player argument.
Sporadic absences and the New Orleans Pelicans' annual averageness should not warp views of Davis' trajectory. He's not the same player he was two or three years ago. He's better—a snapshot of all-around brilliance.
Points, rebounds, blocks, blah, blah, stinking blah. Davis is quietly averaging a career-high in assists per 36 minutes. And he's shooting a personal best from downtown on peak volume.
If the Pelicans were more than a fringe playoff squad, Davis would be an MVP candidate. And he should probably receive residual recognition anyway. New Orleans posts a top-five differential per 100 possessions with him on the court—and a top-two mark when he plays without DeMarcus Cousins—compared to a bottom-two net rating whenever he takes a breather.
6. Kawhi Leonard, SF, San Antonio Spurs
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 16.2 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 2.0 steals, 1.0 blocks
Kawhi Leonard is incurring some serious bad luck. He missed the San Antonio Spurs' first 27 games while rehabbing a right quad injury, and now, fewer than 10 outings into his return, finds himself sidelined indefinitely while continuing to address said quad injury.
To make matters worse—or, at the very least, more complicated—league sources told ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski, Michael C. Wright and Zach Lowe the two-time Defensive Player of the Year and the organization are increasingly at odds over his path toward recovery.
Anyone who followed Leonard's first stint on the shelf knows non-specific optimism means nothing in San Antonio. The Spurs are tight-lipped when it comes to injury timetables—opacity that does little to help his case within this discussion.
But it doesn't take much brainpower to put Leonard here. Again: We're assuming health and grading these players as if we're trying to acquire them for the rest of this season. And we'd be fools not to give him latitude.
Just last season, the Spurs went from scoring like a bottom-five attack without him to tallying second-place efficiency when he took the floor. Having already affirmed his worth as an offensive savior while retaining DPOY mystique, he deserves benefit-of-the-doubt treatment so long as he's expected back this year.
5. Kevin Durant, SF, Golden State Warriors
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 26.2 points, 6.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 0.8 steals, 2.1 blocks
Kevin Durant is growing into the ultimate anomaly with the Warriors.
Never mind his dalliance with another 50/40/90 shooting slash. That's child's play for him—especially on the best team ever assembled. But almost the league leader in blocks? Him? Seriously? That feels unfair.
Durant is not the stingiest rim protector, and his one-on-one defense is showing signs of decline. (Now's a good time to note he turns 30 in September, which, just, wow.) The whole "Has Durant seized the best-player torch from LeBron James?" rallying cry from last June is overblown as well. That debate exists only to prisoners of the moment.
Obsessing over Durant's proximity to the four-time MVP does a disservice to his overall value anyway. He's a surefire top-five talent who, on any given day, lays a certain claim to the NBA's second-best argument.
Stephen Curry is Golden State's most valuable player. But Durant isn't any less of a generational name because he forfeits status to two or three (or four) other era-significant megahumans.
The Warriors still fare like a superpower—not quality team, but actual juggernaut—when he goes it alone. In the time he's logged without Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, they post a better point differential per 100 possessions than the San Antonio Spurs. Durant is a superstar for the ages. Remember that.
4. Giannis Antetokounmpo, PF, Milwaukee Bucks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 28.2 points, 10.1 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.3 blocks
Properly capturing the unprecedented life form that is Giannis Antetokounmpo remains an impossible task. The words to describe his do-everything-times-everything-plus-more-of-everything style have yet to be invented.
So, in lieu of context befitting his singularity, let us instead scratch at the surface of all he does.
- scoring more points than LeBron James
- posting a better defensive rebounding rate than Anthony Davis
- notching a higher assist rate than Eric Bledsoe
- forcing more steals per 100 possessions than Draymond Green
- challenging more shots at the rim than Kristaps Porzingis
- running more pick-and-rolls than Nicolas Batum
- averaging more possessions as the pick-and-roll diver than Dwight Howard
- hitting more threes per game than Andre Iguodala
- tallying a better true shooting percentage than Klay Thompson
This could go on. It should go on. But our time and space are finite—you know, unlike Antetokounmpo's ceiling.
3. James Harden, SG, Houston Rockets
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 31.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, 9.0 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.6 blocks
James Harden is an offensive machine. His current hamstring injury won't change that, and the fact that he'll be out at least two weeks doesn't impact his ranking one bit.
Even though the NBA implemented rule changes designed to slow his constant parade to the free-throw line, Harden's racking up double-digit shots per game from the charity stripe for the fourth consecutive season. He's displaying a fundamental mastery of basketball within the half-court set, always searching for the right play within the Houston Rockets' uptempo schemes.
If that involves his breaking down a defender in isolation, he's capable of putting on a dribbling display while his matchup buckles up his skates. If he needs to find the open man with a skip pass, he'll put the ball right on the money. Need him to finish a play on the interior or drain a step-back triple? He's plenty capable of scoring from either spot.
Turnovers can still be problematic for Harden, though he's such a high-usage individual that his cough-ups are more understandable. He might rank No. 3 in turnovers per game (behind only DeMarcus Cousins and Russell Westbrook), but 92 qualified players have higher turnover percentages. His defense follows a similar story: often mediocre but nowhere near as bad as many would assume.
Harden may not be an impeccably complete player. Few men underneath the NBA umbrella are. Thing is, his offense is so devastatingly effective that he doesn't have to be while pursuing the first MVP trophy of his career.
2. Stephen Curry, PG, Golden State Warriors
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 27.4 points, 5.2 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.1 blocks
The Golden State Warriors boast the services of Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, but the offense still falls apart without Stephen Curry on the floor. Seriously. The Dubs can only muster 107.1 points per 100 possessions without the two-time MVP, which would leave them trailing seven teams in the season-long standings.
Still impressive, right? Well, consider this: Every other member of the star-studded roster can head to the pine and watch as the offensive rating remains well higher. Golden State has a 109.9 offensive rating without Kevin Durant (No. 4 overall) and everyone else is at 111.8 or above, which would lag behind only the Houston Rockets.
That seems impossible, but it's an objective fact. Curry is that important, twisting defenders into the ground with his yo-yo handles, initiating offense from the top of the key in a way that creates easy looks for his teammates and yanking foes out of the paint with his unmatched gravitational pull.
His positional defense still doesn't get enough credit, as he possesses both quick hands and the instincts necessary to usher his assignment into tricky areas. He remains one of the league's best rebounding guards. But his offense takes center stage yet again, especially during a season in which he's somehow been as efficient as he was during his unanimous-MVP campaign.
1. LeBron James, SF, Cleveland Cavaliers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 26.8 points, 7.8 rebounds, 8.7 assists, 1.7 steals, 1.1 blocks
Now, about the belief that someone, anyone, will reasonably challenge LeBron James for the best-player-alive crown sometime, anytime, in the near future...it ain't happening.
James, in his age-33 season, is exploring previously unplumbed levels of dominance. His true shooting percentage—which measures two-point, three-point and free-throw accuracy—is hovering near his career high. He has never averaged more assists. He's tracking down steals and swatting shots with fountain-of-youth frequency. And he's a staple at the top of every pertinent kitchen-sink metric:
Isaiah Thomas will eat into James' share of the Cleveland Cavaliers offense as he returns to normal. And the King himself will always battle cruise-control warts through mid-April. The Cavs, even as they manage to tread water when he sits, will play down to the level of inferior opponents, harshing his MVP vibes in the process.
Still, the idea that anyone should curry favor over James has long been, and will continue to be, unequivocally laughable.