Ranking the Top 50 Players in the 2018 NBA Playoffs
Sit tight. The NBA postseason-participant player rankings you (obviously) ordered are en route. We just have to go over a few ground rules first.
Players are being evaluated as if we're acquiring them for the 2018 playoffs. That's it. Regular-season performance has helped shape their stock, but this is not a retrospective pecking order.
Nor, for that matter, is it an irreversible referendum on where these baller dudes stand entering 2018-19. That discussion is for a different day, months from now, after LeBron James has forced his way to the Houston Rockets and the offseason dust has settled.
Injuries helped determine the pool of candidates but will not be held against those eligible for inclusion. Stephen Curry can thank us later.
Anyone who is officially done for the year or has appeared in fewer than 10 games and doesn't at least have a semi-concrete return date won't be up for consideration. Kawhi Leonard, among other studs, has our sincerest apologies. He would certainly make the cut if not for whatever the heck is going on with his recovery from tendinopathy in his right quad.
And on a final note: These rankings are absolute gospel*, reflect the current beliefs of every life form in the galaxy** and will in no way potentially change*** as the Cleveland Cavaliers Cupid Shuffle toward a fourth straight NBA Finals cameo****.
***This is false.
50-46: Poeltl, Mbah a Moute, Aminu, Teague, Young
50. Jakob Poeltl, C, Toronto Raptors
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 6.9 points, 4.8 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 0.5 steals, 1.2 blocks
Both Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam were in contention for this spot. Rendering a verdict wasn't easy. Toronto's attempts to hone Siakam's shooting and handles worked against him in the end. He should eventually be the more complete pro but isn't as polished in his role right now.
Poeltl has already matched Jonas Valanciunas' value on the offensive glass and is coming along as a rim-runner. He's shooting 70.3 percent inside three feet and close to 65 percent out of the pick-and-roll.
Keeping him in the game against five-out lineups requires less forethought than sticking with Valanciunas. Poeltl is quicker to close out and more on balance around the hoop. Opponents are hitting just 52.3 percent of their shots at the rim when being hassled by him—the sixth-lowest clip among the 94 players who have challenged at least 200 point-blank looks.
49. Luc Mbah a Moute, SF/PF, Houston Rockets
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 7.5 points, 3.0 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.4 blocks
As ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported, Luc Mbah a Moute isn't expected to partake in the first round of the playoffs after dislocating his right shoulder during the Rockets' penultimate regular-season tilt. It would be too easy to dismiss his absence as a minor bump in the road.
It would also be all too wrong.
Houston retains much of its defensive tenacity and switchability with Trevor Ariza, PJ Tucker and even Clint Capela. Gerald Green is no stranger to tussling with power forwards either. But the Rockets are a special brand of dominant when Mbah a Moute plays beside James Harden and Chris Paul. They're the monster in the closet you didn't know existed that devours the monster in the closet you knew about.
Take a look at the net rating of this tricycle compared to the rest (via Cleaning The Glass):
Pay some mind to the smaller sample size. Like Paul, Mbah a Moute missed time earlier in the season (ironically with a dislocated right shoulder). This otherworldly troika could tumble back down to earth if broken out with more frequency.
Still, the point stands: Mbah a Moute is crucial to the Rockets' remaining in godmode—particularly if his 36.4 percent three-point hit rate from distance and 50.6 percent clip on drives hold upon his return.
48. Al-Farouq Aminu, SF/PF, Portland Trail Blazers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 9.3 points, 7.6 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.6 blocks
Al-Farouq Aminu is all over the place. He's by far Blazers' most versatile defender, in addition to their most undervalued player.
Jusuf Nurkic garners applause for his rim protection—and deservedly so. And head coach Terry Stotts' scheme simplifies everyone's job descriptions. But neither the system nor the players within it would excel as they do now if Aminu was removed from the equation.
No one else on the team passes so many low-block and perimeter tests. Maurice Harkless (knee injury) and Evan Turner don't have the strength to jockey post-up maestros, and Ed Davis is the closest Portland comes to a switchy big. (Zach Collins: SOON.)
Aminu is the bridge between the two. He's defended as many pick-and-roll ball-handlers as Kevin Durant (121); as many rim-runners as Aron Baynes (57); more spot-up possessions than Damian Lillard (177); and more post-ups than Anthony Davis (124).
When he's wearing so many hats, and when he's shooting almost 37 percent from long range, we can imitate Portland and overlook his sub-15-percent accuracy between 10 feet and the three-point line.
47. Jeff Teague, PG, Minnesota Timberwolves
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.2 points, 3.0 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.3 blocks
Jeff Teague is the perfect point guard for the Timberwolves. He can run a functional pick-and-roll, but he's not a micromanager. He'll let Jimmy Butler, Jamal Crawford, Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and, I guess, Derrick Rose do their thing while chillaxing away from the ball.
Turning to him for beelines toward the basket expects too much. He has never been an above-board finisher at the rim and doesn't have the strength to barrel through thickets of bigs. But he bangs in 41.6 percent of his spot-up threes, and his pull-up twos that act as the substitute to authentic drives aren't as frustrating when he's taking and making those same looks from beyond the arc.
Teague is a defensive wash at the point guard slot, which makes him an asset for Minnesota. He doesn't get into guys on the ball or bulldoze his way through screens, but he's not a measurable detriment. Coach-president Tom Thibodeau has Tyus Jones if he's in the market for a more physical worker bee and experiencing one of those unicorn "Oh snap! I have a bench?!?" epiphanies.
Butler, Towns, Wiggins and even Crawford will win the Timberwolves a playoff game before Teague. There will also be nights, like their play-in victory over the Denver Nuggets, when he's their savviest playmaker and most consistent floor-spacer. The Timberwolves will take it. Teague's night-to-night assimilation is among their few bankable virtues.
46. Thaddeus Young, PF, Indiana Pacers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 11.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.4 blocks
Fear not: We're not here to drum up an obscure statistical relationship between Thaddeus Young and Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and other all-time greats from past eras.
Tying him to a few current standout wings will suffice.
Only three other combo forwards match Young's steal, block and defensive rebounding rates: Kyle Anderson, Robert Covington and Paul George—each of whom has a realistic shot at snagging an All-Defensive Team nomination.
This connection is neither forced nor meaningless. Young is similarly valuable to the Pacers. They're tallying what would be top-three defensive marks with him on the court since the All-Star break. No one on the team, including Victor Oladipo, has a higher net rating than him during this stretch.
If Young dropped in more of his threes or worked exceptionally well as a pick-and-roll rim-runner, he'd have an argument to be 10 or 15 spots higher.
Honorable Mentions: Derrick Favors, Eric Gordon, Danny Green, Maurice Harkless, Dejounte Murray, Larry Nance Jr., Terry Rozier, Tomas Satoransky, Pascal Siakam
45-41: Anderson, Redick, VanVleet, Olynyk, Turner
- Eighth among all point guards in ESPN's Real Plus-Minus
- holding pick-and-roll ball-handlers to a 41.3 effective field-goal percentage—11th-best among 76 players to defend at least 200 such plays
- burying more than 41 percent of threes
- regularly closing games next to DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry
- about to make Toronto or another team happy in free agency
45. Kyle Anderson, San Antonio Spurs
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 7.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.8 blocks
Kyle Anderson is the lock-pick set that opens the steel-reinforced safe within which lays the Spurs' most terrifying lineup combinations.
Slowbro Pokemon comparisons write themselves. (If they don't, someone should.) But Anderson doesn't need speed to be a defensive switchblade. He leverages calculated gaps between him and ball-handlers against explosive first steps and uses a 7'3" wingspan to make up ground on closeouts. His sturdy frame serves him well on the block.
San Antonio needs him to hit a higher percentage of his thees, but he's not a space-killer. He's swishing almost 39 percent of his corner threes and ranks in the 82nd percentile of efficiency on long mid-rangers, per Cleaning The Glass. He's an understated passer as well. His sloth-placed work off the dribble lets his head remain on a swivel.
Not surprisingly, the Spurs have figured out how to best use Anderson's amalgam of girth, length, finesse and intellect: at the power forward spot, alongside LaMarcus Aldridge. They're demolishing opponents at both ends when trotting out this 4-5 combo.
44. JJ Redick, Philadelphia 76ers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 17.1 points, 2.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.1 blocks
JJ Redick is everything the Sixers needed—supercharged spacing.
Among the 150-plus players who have launched at least 150 catch-and-shoot three-balls, Redick's 45.9 percent clip ranks fifth. He's averaging more points per possession coming off screens than Klay Thompson, and Philly's offense is an inextinguishable fireball whenever he shares the court with Robert Covington and Dario Saric, according to Cleaning The Glass.
Markelle Fultz's initial sabbatical demanded the Sixers plumb the depths of their playmaking. Redick has delivered. He jump-starts more pick-and-rolls, out of which he's averaging 1.14 points per possession—third among 144 players to initiate 75 or more of these plays, just barely trailing Kyrie Irving and his royal splashiness, Stephen Curry
Worrywarts will lose sleep over his defense against postseason offenses. They shouldn't. Redick is ready to rumble on ball and versus orthodox pick-and-roll setups. And with Covington and Ben Simmons in tow, plus a stingier-than-expected Dario Saric, the Sixers have the leeway to move Redick around when the situation calls for it.
43. Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 8.6 points, 2.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.3 blocks
Fred VanVleet is:
That about covers it.
42. Kelly Olynyk, Miami Heat
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 11.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.5 blocks
Seven players enter the postseason averaging at least 17 points and four assists per 36 minutes with a true shooting percentage above 60 (and played in at least 58 games): Kevin Durant, James Harden, LeBron James, Nikola Jokic, Kyrie Irving and...Kelly Olynyk.
Need we say more?
Other than his passable defensive rebounding and fruitful frontcourt partnerships with Bam Adebayo and James Johnson being grounds for limiting Hassan Whiteside's playoff spin?
Didn't think so.
41. Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.7 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.8 blocks
Victor Oladipo's obliteration of conventional wisdom, along with the Pacers' post-Paul George pluckiness, has unfairly masked Myles Turner's superlative offensive performance.
Eye-raising detonations are few and far between. Turner doesn't have the ball in his hands enough. His usage rate has essentially gone unchanged from last season, and Indiana is teeming with face-up guards and wings.
But Turner has once again increased his three-point percentage and accuracy on long twos. Though his efficiency around the rim has dipped, he looks more at home in pick-and-pop sets and is shooting almost 48 percent on post-ups, up from 38.1 percent in 2016-17.
Turner's efforts on the defensive end toe the line of underrated. Burlier bigs aren't overpowering him as often, and he's no deer in headlights when forced to extend himself beyond the paint. Quicker rotations and recoveries around the rim are all that stand between him and defensive-hub status.
40-36: Tatum, Brown, Dragic, Richardson, Adams
40. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 13.9 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.7 blocks
Jayson Tatum's rookie-year detonation has encountered some "well, actually" flak for the relative simplicity of his offensive role. Welcome to the year 2018, in which we still cannot enjoy awesomeness without boo birds wondering whether a hot dog is a sandwich or Ben Simmons is actually a rookie.
Over 50 percent of Tatum's offensive possessions have come in transition and spot-up situations. That makes for a generally cushy gig. But news flash: Newbies aren't supposed to be jacking a jillion contested pull-up jumpers when they count Al Horford and Kyrie Irving as teammates.
And don't look now fact haters, but Tatum is balling out in Irving's absence. He's averaging 16.9 points and 2.5 assists on 48.6 shooting, including a 43.9 percent clip from downtown. And for all the difficulty junkies, he's nailing more than 36 percent of his pull-up triples during this time.
Boston still runs the equivalent of a league-worst offense when Tatum plays without Horford and Irving, per Cleaning The Glass. He probably won't solo-artist the team's way out of the first round. The idea that he could, or that the Celtics might look for him to, is the next best thing.
39. Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.5 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.4 blocks
Jaylen Brown has been pushing his offensive bill all season. He's splashing in 39.5 percent of his threes, shooting almost 48 percent on drives and more than doubled his scoring output from last season.
Brown has been even better since missing six games with a concussion and in the aftermath of Irving's absence. In his last nine games, he averaged 17.2 points while clearing a 57 percent success rate—not a typo—from behind the rainbow.
Tatum is the more valuable offensive player. His playmaking gives him the edge, and he looks more comfortable at the point of attack. Brown's defensive chops render him the (slightly) better player overall.
He can rotate on to point guards and body up against bigger wings. He may, in fact, already have the reputation necessary to pin down an All-Defensive Team selection.
38. Goran Dragic, Miami Heat
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 17.3 points, 4.1 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.2 blocks
Ceremonial Joe Johnson All-Star selection Goran Dragic should not be held responsible for the Heat's underwhelming offense. Their scoring attack would be in shambles if he wasn't doing his thing—shimmying between on- and off-ball work, downing threes, sinking floaters in the lane and setting up those who cannot create for themselves.
That last part is critical context. Of the eight players Dragic has spent the most time alongside, only two are comfortable working off the dribble in meaningful volume: Tyler Johnson and James Johnson. The Heat are lucky their offensive rating doesn't dive off a cliff when Dragic catches a breather.
They're also fortunate their primary floor general is getting hot at the right time. Dragic is averaging about 17 points and five assists while slashing 48/40/91 since the All-Star break.
37. Josh Richardson, Miami Heat
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.9 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.9 blocks
[Cheesy Pauly D voice.]
Passing Miami's best-player torch to Josh Richardson feels a little weird. Dragic has been balling in recent weeks, and we don't want to risk deflating Hassan Whiteside's herculean opinion of himself.
Alas, Richardson has left us no choice. He's the Heat's Sherlock Holmes of defense: investigating, detecting, anticipating, seldom overreacting. He has the tools, at 6'6", to defend positions 1 through 3. Don't be surprised when he freelances against power forwards, sort of like a taller Marcus Smart.
Off-the-bounce offense remains his Achilles' heel, but the Heat will deal when he's canning almost 38 percent of his threes.
And on that note: Just three other guards in NBA history have ever hit his steal and block rates while matching or exceeding his deep-ball accuracy: Kent Bazemore, Eric Bledsoe and Danny Green.
36. Steven Adams, Oklahoma City Thunder
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 13.9 points, 9.0 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.0 blocks
Steven Adams, Mr. Dirty Work himself, is Oklahoma City's underprized hero. He revels in the granular—the grit that is utterly necessary and responsible for his lucrative salary but somehow remains unsung.
Adams has upped the ante in all his usual areas of expertise. He not only leads the NBA in offensive rebounding percentage but is notching one of the 35 highest second-chance rates in league history. Only Rudy Gobert averages more screen assists, and Adams is shooting over 65 percent out of the pick-and-roll after dropping below 59 last year.
Using him as the sole defensive linchpin is difficult. He's a stout rim protector, but the Thunder shouldn't be actively funneling dudes his way like the Utah Jazz do with Rudy Gobert. And while he's semi-comfortable journeying outside the paint and into space, his East-West gait doesn't allow for lightning-quick switch-and-recovers.
This stuff doesn't matter when he gets to play with Paul George and Andre Roberson, or when he doesn't have to help cover up for one or both of Carmelo Anthony and Russell Westbrook. But Roberson is done for the year, and neither Anthony nor Westbrook is going anywhere. So it matters, ever so slightly, right now.
35-31: Saric, Covington, Ingles, McCollum, Mitchell
35. Dario Saric, SF/PF, Philadelphia 76ers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.6 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.3 blocks
Plenty of people were worried about Dario Saric's fit on the new-look Sixers. He hasn't just put that concern to bed. He's smothered it and buried it six feet under the deepest part of the Atlantic Ocean.
Markelle Fultz's protracted absence may have helped him a smidge. One fewer ball-dominant player to compete against. But Saric's transition to quick-fire duty came in full force. More than half of his total attempts are coming off the catch, and he's shooting over 40 percent on standstill triples.
Ditching one-on-one sprees hasn't terribly impacted his usage. He still shows out on an island every so often and keeps defenses guessing with pump-and-drives. His defense has also improved a tick. The Sixers don't ask him to do much, but he's not hopelessly harmful in any one area. He's even flashing bright spots as a last-resort rim protector.
34. Robert Covington, SF/PF, Philadelphia 76ers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.6 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.9 blocks
Robert Covington is rivaling Joel Embiid's indispensability.
Repeat: Covington is almost as valuable to Philly as The Process.
The Sixers outscore opponents by almost 11 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor—second-best net rating on the team, behind only, you guessed it, Mr. Embiid. What's more, they're worse when playing without Covington than they are without Sam Hinkie's biggest fanboi.
Covington doesn't need offensive plays run for him; almost two-thirds of his looks come as spot-up threebies. And he's sneaky strong on the defensive end. He feasts on perimeter assignments by design, but the Sixers' stopping power doesn't miss a beat when he mans the 4, according to Cleaning the Glass.
This isn't meant to be inflammatory. Covington isn't the singular player holding the Sixers together. But he fits everything they do like a glove.
33. Joe Ingles, SF, Utah Jazz
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 11.5 points, 4.2 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.2 blocks
Joe Ingles does just enough of everything for us to want him to do more of it all.
He averages more points per spot-up possession than Kyle Lowry. He's hit more pull-up threes than Jamal Crawford. He'll sometimes run disjointed pick-and-rolls, mostly out of indecision that culminates in turnovers, but he has no problem initiating them.
Having Ingles defend power forwards isn't a problem. Ditto for point guards. And every position in between. He's not fast, but he's smart. He uses acute spacing, angles and footwork to deter some of the game's most dangerous scorers.
Ripping him from his pass-first, oft-passive shell verges on impossible. His high-volume stretches never seem to stick. That's fine. He's the basketball equivalent of a handyman, dabbling in almost everything in perpetuity.
32. CJ McCollum, SG, Portland Trail Blazers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 21.4 points, 4.0 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.4 blocks
CJ McCollum remains super-smooth. Few featured options shape-shift their identity so seamlessly. He hits more than 36 percent of his pull-up threes and continues to be money from that 10- to 16-feet sweet spot. He's also in the 98th percentile of spot-up efficiency.
McCollum's finishing around the rim is underwhelming, and we'll never know the extent of his playmaking faculties in Portland's offense. But his defense still holds him back more than anything.
His closeouts are strong, in no small part because the Blazers don't have him providing interior help. He's even made strides versus pick-and-roll attackers. At 6'3", though, he gives up size and strength to many 2s. He's not someone to rely upon for consistent stops, and stashing him at the 3 would be untenable if not for Portland's nifty 4-5 combinations.
31. Donovan Mitchell, SG, Utah Jazz
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 20.5 points, 3.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.3 blocks
Donovan Mitchell's workload is basically unprecedented for a rookie. Ben Gordon and Michael Jordan are the lone newbies to ever post higher usage rates.
He's handled the volume with mostly admirable efficiency, only enduring the occasional glacial stretch. His true-shooting percentage ducks the league average, but not by much, and his numbers will climb.
Mitchell will shoot better out of the pick-and-roll, and he already looks more comfortable in an off-guard capacity. He's averaging more than 1.27 points per spot-up touch—seventh-best mark among 185 players to churn through at least 125 of these possessions.
Good luck exploiting him on the defensive end. Rudy Gobert makes everyone's life easier in Utah, but Mitchell rarely gets caught out of position or becomes flustered in space. He will eventually defend some small forwards. More importantly, he's playoff-ready.
30-26: Middleton, Bledsoe, Capela, Love, Holiday
30. Khris Middleton, SG/SF, Milwaukee Bucks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 20.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.3 blocks
Khris Middleton is forever on the threshold of stardom but never crossing it. Watching him can be infuriating for different reasons. He's not doing enough. He's not receiving his due. It waffles.
It would be nice if he changed out more of his no-man's-land twos for threes and looks at the rim, but he hits those grungy deuces. He's shooting close to 50 percent between 10 feet and just inside the arc.
His defense feels underrated and overrated at the same time. He ranks outside the top 400 in ESPN's defensive real plus-minus, and the Bucks allow more points per 100 possessions when he's in the lineup. But this profiles as personnel-driven to some degree. Middleton sees more time independent of Antetokounmpo than Eric Bledsoe, and Milwaukee's persisting defensive schemes aren't doing anyone favors.
All things considered, as a quality scorer, secondary playmaker and spot-switcher, Middleton is right where he belongs.
29. Eric Bledsoe, PG, Milwaukee Bucks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 17.7 points, 3.8 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.6 blocks
Bledsoe is a tough one to place. He finished 10th in our general point guard rankings to start the season. He now checks in at ninth among all playoff floor generals. (Ben Simmons counts!)
His scoring is fine. He's finishing at an absurd percentage around the rim, and the offensive fit between him and Antetokounmpo isn't all that awkward.
Bledsoe is a below-average shooter, and the Bucks can run into crunch-time issues when he's off the ball. They don't have him moving off cuts or around screens, which lays waste to his physical profile and accuracy from point-blank range. But he's hitting just enough of his spot-up triples to make it work, and Milwaukee carves out time for him on the ball. His usage rate hasn't cratered since last season.
Most of the luster has worn off Bledsoe's arrival anyway. The Bucks' defensive ceiling should be higher with him as their point guard, and the timeshare they run at the primary ball-handler spots dims his star.
28. Clint Capela, C, Houston Rockets
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 13.9 points, 10.8 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.9 blocks
Clint Capela basks in his basketball niche.
Close to 60 percent of his offensive possessions come as pick-and-roll dives, fast-break finishes and putbacks. He doesn't fight it. He owns it. The Rockets don't have to bog down the offense with post-ups to reward his off-ball work. He sets screens like he means it and scraps among the league's giants no matter what.
The 6'10", 240-pound Capela's lanky frame can be a concern against more powerful bigs, but only barely. The game doesn't revolve around back-to-the-basket behemoths, and a leaner makeup helps with his mobility when he's being pulled out to the perimeter.
This only becomes an issue if Capela is routinely getting outworked on the defensive glass. And he's not. He has the NBA's fifth-highest cleanup rate on opponent misses, just behind Andre Drummond, Dwight Howard, DeAndre Jordan and Karl-Anthony Towns.
27. Kevin Love, PF/C, Cleveland Cavaliers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 17.6 points, 9.3 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.4 blocks
Kevin Love doesn't get to wow us as much with sage passing out of the post. And he is, without question, a defensive liability—especially when manning the 5.
But dammit: Lil Kev can still ball. And the Cavaliers need him. Desperately.
Playing him at center is hell on the defense, but the trade-off is worth it—even to the Cleveland Turnstiles. The Cavaliers are raining down close to 115 points per 100 possessions with him in the middle, according to Cleaning the Glass. That output explodes to 137.5 (in limited run) when LeBron James sets up shop at the 4.
26. Jrue Holiday, PG/SG, New Orleans Pelicans
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 19.0 points, 4.5 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.8 blocks
Jrue Holiday has a strong All-NBA case if voters are turned off by protracted absences from Stephen Curry and Chris Paul.
Sponging up more off-ball reps has occasionally messed with his rhythm, but he's been a star since DeMarcus Cousins tore his Achilles on Jan. 26. He's averaging 19.4 points, 4.6 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.0 blocks on 49.2 percent shooting through 32 appearances.
Expect him to come close to All-Defensive honors. He's been a stifling presence wherever he's been stationed. Among almost 100 players to guard at least 150 pick-and-roll ball-handlers, he places sixth in points allowed per possession.
25-21: Beal, Porter, Wall, Oladipo, Aldridge
25. Bradley Beal, SG, Washington Wizards
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 22.6 points, 4.4 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.4 blocks
Is Bradley Beal officially an offensive lifeline? That remains the big-money question. It also remains tough to answer, since he's spent his entire career beside John Wall.
Washington floated a top-12 offense during its point guard's time on the shelf with a knee injury. Beal was a part of that. Sort of. The Wizards scored more points per 100 possessions when he was off the floor, and they're fielding an average offense for the season during Beal's solo stints.
Plenty of hullabaloo is baked into these returns. Washington's backups still aren't the deepest gaggle, and Beal, much like Wall, indulges in too many slipshod two-point attempts. Plus, he isn't eclipsing 20 points on respectable efficiency and registering a career-high assist rate by accident. He's an offensive force, with or without Wall—one that tends to pep up during postseason play.
24. Otto Porter Jr., SF, Washington Wizards
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.7 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.5 blocks
Otto Porter Jr.? In front of Beal? Controversy!
Except, not really.
Porter is the nice middle ground between Beal and Wall—that universal-fit combo wing every team with meaningful postseason aspirations needs in its rotation. As ESPN.com's Zach Lowe waxed:
"He's shooting 52 on long 2-pointers. Pressure that shot, and Porter scoots in for a teardrop; he's shooting 41 percent from floater range, a tidy mark, per Cleaning The Glass.
"He runs the floor. He cuts behind defenses. He has just enough post-up game to punish teams who hide little guys on him. Failing that, Porter might bum-rush inside for offensive rebounds. He can credibly defend four positions, even if he's not quite as airtight on that end as he looks like he should be."
Plug-and-play studmuffins invariably smash into glass ceilings. Porter is an off-ball whiz and snowballing defensive switcher, but he lacks curb appeal. The Wizards don't task him with square-one shot creation or regular lone-wolf duty.
Porter has seen just over 100 minutes without Beal, Wall or Tomas Satoransky—which, given how much time Wall missed during the regular season, says something. Washington is a plus-11 in that time, but the teensy-weensy sample is more telltale than the differential. Porter has that "I can only take a team so far, if anywhere at all, on my own" vibe.
Hold that against him at your own risk. NBA Math's TPA rated him as the Wizards' second-most valuable player last year and their most impactful contributor this season. That latter first-place finish wouldn't stand with a healthy Wall, but Porter has excelled long enough at fitting in on both sides of the court to squeak past Beal.
23. John Wall, PG, Washington Wizards
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 19.4 points, 3.7 rebounds, 9.6 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.1 blocks
You might say the Wizards' three most important players are listed so close together on purpose, as if to highlight how close they are to one another.
Because that's exactly what is happening.
Wall is a force of nature, and he remains integral to maximizing the offensive values of everyone in Washington—including Beal's and Porter's. Sticking him outside the top 20, even with his left knee injury in mind, comes across as too low.
But his shot profile has devolved this season. A smaller share of his looks are coming at the rim, and he's taking more long twos, on which he's shooting under 30 percent. His crunch-time exploits are concerning as well. Washington is getting blitzed by more than nine points per 100 possessions in clutch situations, and he has the fifth-worst true shooting percentage among every player with a usage rate of 25 or higher. (Beal, for the record, owns the third-worst.)
Wall can, and might, and probably will, improve as he gets more post-recovery games under his belt. Until then, he stays outside the top 20.
22. Victor Oladipo, SG, Indiana Pacers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 23.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 2.4 steals, 0.8 blocks
"All the Rookie of the Year back and forth is funny," Spencer Dinwiddie tweeted on the regular-season's final day. "I guess everybody just mailed Oladipo Most Improved Player huh? Lol."
Dinwiddie deserves an honorable mention for his Most Improved Player candidacy. He staked his claim as a top-10 point guard for half the season. But Victor Oladipo made the jump from overpaid disappointment to All-NBA prospect.
Never mind that he cooled off for a minute after the All-Star break. He led the Pacers within hugging distance of 50 wins in their first season without Paul George. Oh! He also relegated his cold streak to a fleeting memento by year's end, averaging 22.3 points, 5.9 assists and 3.4 steals(!) over his final seven appearances on 60.2 percent shooting (46.9 percent from three).
Nothing epitomizes Oladipo's jet-pack climb through the player ranks quite like comparing this year's catch-all metrics to last season's numbers. His average rank in TPA, RPM, PER and Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) was 198th for 2016-17.
For 2017-18? It's 12th.
21. LaMarcus Aldridge, PF/C, San Antonio Spurs
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 23.1 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.2 blocks
Leaving LaMarcus Aldridge outside the top 20 wounds our souls more than you could imagine. He has carried the Kawhi Leonard-less Spurs. In many ways, for the time being, he is their Leonard—an offensive be-all.
San Antonio is piling on 107.8 points per 100 possessions through the 2,500-plus minutes he's logged. That offensive rating belly-flops its way down to 101.8 with him on the bench.
20. Klay Thompson, SG, Golden State Warriors
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 20.0 points, 3.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.5 blocks
Though Klay Thompson isn't much of a playmaking shooting guard and rarely makes an impact on the glass, he still fills his role perfectly for the Golden State Warriors, bodying up on defense against a variety of opposing guards and wings when he's not knocking down one triple after another.
Because of his lack of rebounding acumen and relatively limited height (6'7"), Thompson doesn't fit the typical profile of a defensive ace, which is why many of his metrics don't appear as praiseworthy as you might expect. But this 28-year-old is more impactful than the numbers would indicate, particularly when his gravitational pull opens up easier opportunities for the rest of his teammates.
That's been the case throughout 2017-18, which has seen Thompson put up historic numbers from beyond the three-point arc.
The 2-guard is draining 44.0 percent of his triples while taking a whopping 7.1 per game, giving him yet another remarkable combination of volume and efficiency. Throughout NBA history, 65 different individual seasons have showcased a player hoisting at least seven treys during his average appearance, and only 14 have seen said player connecting at no worse than a 41 percent clip.
This is Thompson's fourth time in the group, and it's his most accurate yet.
19. Draymond Green, PF, Golden State Warriors
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 11.0 points, 7.6 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.3 blocks
Draymond Green has flown beneath the radar for much of the year. He's not viewed as a front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year. He's scoring only 11.0 points per game and hasn't been able to rediscover any semblance of a three-point stroke (30.1 percent on 3.7 attempts per game). He hasn't been able to carry the Golden State Warriors to another season of at least 65 wins while his fellow stars miss time with various injuries.
And yet, Green is still putting together a similar season to the ones submitted in prior years.
He remains an elite defender, capable of switching onto any position for one possession at a time and lending his tough-nosed identity to the Dubs' overall schemes. He just hasn't quite been the same game-changing force. One season after finishing No. 2 to Rudy Gobert in ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus, he now ranks No. 20. There's no shame in that finish, but it helps explain why he's no longer on the cusp of earning top-10 status.
Still, so much of what Green lends to the Warriors can't be quantified. His desire to get into a brawl on every possession, his willingness to challenge the coaching staff, his knack for getting to 50/50 balls and refusing to sleepwalk through the season can all be contagious—maybe not always for an injury-riddled team fighting off complacency, but at least sometimes.
So whatever you do, don't judge this legitimate All-Star by his points-per-game average.
18. DeMar DeRozan, SG/SF, Toronto Raptors
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 23.0 points, 3.9 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.3 blocks
DeMar DeRozan hasn't "changed" his game. Claiming as much would be doing a disservice to the incredible resume he's submitted for the Toronto Raptors throughout a career filled with improvements.
He's still taking 24.4 percent of his field-goal attempts from between 10 and 16 feet, and he's connecting on those looks at a 44.0 percent clip. On even longer twos, which comprise 18.6 percent of his attempts, he's tickling twine on 40.9 percent of his tries. The frequencies have changed from last year's respective marks of 23.6 and 31.0 percent, but DeRozan is still feasting on those mid-range buckets for which he's become so famous.
Again, his game hasn't "changed" so much as it has evolved.
He's added to his offensive profile by sacrificing isolation assaults for spot-up triples and more passes to his supporting cast, even averaging a career-best 5.2 assists per contest. He's taking more threes than ever and hitting just enough (31.2 percent) to force defenders into respecting that new part of his game.
Best of all, buying into the egalitarian feel of the Toronto offense has allowed him to dedicate more of his energy reserves to the defensive end, where he's no longer serving as quite so much of a liability.
DeRozan has always been a dangerous scorer, a player whose contributions serve as a firm rebuttal to the three-point trends of the modern NBA. But he's now more complete than ever before.
17. Ben Simmons, PG, Philadelphia 76ers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 15.8 points, 8.1 rebounds, 8.2 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.9 blocks
Ben Simmons has arrived as a bona fide star, now proficient at carrying the Philadelphia 76ers to success even when Joel Embiid isn't on the floor. His combination of defensive ability (not many men are capable of switching on every screen and impacting so many different passing lanes on a single possession) and table-setting habits spark his squad on both ends.
Early on in his rookie season, Simmons was a codependent force. He hadn't yet determined how to leverage his otherworldly talents in the most effective manner and instead needed to rely on the extra attention Embiid drew when trying to make his incessant bursts toward the basket. But that's changed as his inaugural campaign has progressed.
Per PBPStats.com, the Sixers posted a minus-6.3 net rating when the point guard played without his center prior to the All-Star break. Since those midseason festivities, which really should've showcased this rising star rather than some of the representatives occupying lesser billing in these rankings (or omitted entirely for lottery finishes), Philly's net rating has climbed to 8.0 in the identical situation.
Simmons has learned how to carry a team. And he's only going to keep getting better, even as his jumper remains absent. Nothing is holding him back from top-20 status as defenders scramble for solutions when he's crashing toward the hoop with equal ability to finish at the rim (74.7 percent shooting within three feet) or set up one of his teammates for an even easier opportunity.
16. Rudy Gobert, C, Utah Jazz
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 13.5 points, 10.7 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.8 steals, 2.3 blocks
Since Rudy Gobert returned from a sprained PCL in a Jan. 19 loss to the New York Knicks, he's done nothing but remind the world he could be the best defensive player in basketball. With his pterodactyl wingspan, remarkable height and tremendous instincts, he fully shuts down the interior of the Utah Jazz's defensive schemes, actively deterring foes from even testing him at the hoop.
Dating back to that unfortunate outing against the Knicks, the Jazz have allowed just 100.6 points per 100 possessions when Gobert is riding the pine. That's already an elite number, indicative of a team hellbent on stopping its adversaries from scoring each and every time down the court. But the defensive rating dwindles to an unreal 96.2 when the starting center is on the hardwood, and it's fallen further still as the season has progressed and Gobert has regained his sea legs.
Since the All-Star break, the Jazz are giving up just 95.2 points per 100 possessions when Gobert plays. Dating back to the beginning of March, 95.4. Beginning in April (admittedly a small sample), Utah's defensive rating is a jaw-dropping 91.2 with this particular 7-footer patroling the paint.
Gobert hasn't quite made the same offensive impact in 2017-18 as he did during his breakout 2016-17 campaign. The patience around the hoop isn't quite there, and he's down from the 95.4 to 86.7 percentile for points per possession as a roll man. Terrible, right?
But even if he sat down on offense and refused to participate, his defense would remain stellar enough for him to earn star status.
15. Al Horford, C, Boston Celtics
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.9 points, 7.4 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.1 blocks
Though no individual portion of Al Horford's per-game line should blow you away, the totality of what he does for the Boston Celtics might have the intended effect.
This big man has never been a go-to scorer, though his versatility allows for him to fill a plethora of roles and keep defenses on their toes. One trip down the floor, he'll show off a post move before spotting up and hitting a triple on the next. He's not a point center like Nikola Jokic, but he's arguably the best secondary distributing hub in basketball. Though rebounding remains a weakness, it's no longer a crippling one.
Oh, and he's one of the best defenders in basketball.
Horford hasn't ever flirted with Defensive Player of the Year candidacy quite like he has throughout 2017-18, and that's largely because head coach Brad Stevens and general manager Danny Ainge have unlocked his full potential. Putting rangy wings on the perimeter who can switch on screens is ideal, since that allows Horford to navigate through the entirety of the half-court set and put his point-preventing versatility on full display.
But let's go back to the per-game numbers.
Horford is the 12th qualified player in NBA history to average at least 12 points, seven rebounds, four assists and a block with a true shooting percentage north of 57 percent. The others? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (three times), Giannis Antetokounmpo (twice), Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Kevin Durant (three times), Julius Erving, Kevin Garnett, Draymond Green, LeBron James (twice), Brad Miller and David Robinson.
Hopefully, you've heard most names on that star-studded list.
14. Kyle Lowry, PG, Toronto Raptors
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 16.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.2 blocks
Last year, Kyle Lowry admitted he didn't feel the need to be an alpha dog, as relayed this April by CBS Sports' James Herbert:
"I don't mind being a second fiddle. I don't mind that. I don't care whatever happens, whatever helps my team get a championship is what I want to do. Whatever helps my team win is what I want to do. And if it takes DeMar [DeRozan] shooting 25 times a game, whatever he's shooting, it doesn't matter. If we're winning games, it doesn't matter. I just feel like if you win, no one looks at what happens or how it happened. You won. That's all that matters."
This season, he's allowed his actions to speak louder than those words.
Lowry is spending 5.2 fewer minutes per game on the court, sacrificing his run so the bench mob can continue to both dominate and improve. He hasn't taken fewer shots per game since his inaugural season with the Toronto Raptors, and his scoring average hasn't been lower in the last half-decade. Despite those declines, he's still operating at peak levels.
Much like DeRozan, he's traded in isolation proclivities for team-oriented basketball. That's allowed him to keep racking up dimes while cutting back on turnovers and missed shots, and it's also let him become even more dominant as the tip of Toronto's defensive spear. Leading the league in charges drawn, for example, is no fluke.
Lowry's new style should allow him to stave off the percentage declines that have greeted him in previous postseasons. But even if he struggles with his shot, he understands how to positively impact the game in myriad other areas.
13. Paul George, SG/SF, Oklahoma City Thunder
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 21.9 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.5 blocks
Paul George is obviously so much more than "just" a three-and-D contributor for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Players filling that role typically have far more limitations than this wing who's able to create his own looks with ease and take over as a go-to scorer on any given possession. But that's still the best one-phrase encapsulation of his diverse talents during his inaugural campaign alongside Russell Westbrook.
The 27-year-old can do just about anything defensively. He's a stifling stopper on the perimeter who's quite adept at snuffing out individual attacks, and he understands how to fit in with the overall scheme Billy Donovan employs.
But he's even more dangerous in off-ball scenarios, where he can roam the sets with autonomy and disrupt passing lanes ad infinitum. Just Robert Covington has picked up more deflections per game this season—and only if we go to beyond the first significant digit. Westbrook, Jimmy Butler, Patrick Beverley (in an 11-game sample) and Ben Simmons are the lone men grabbing more loose balls per contest.
The energy expended hasn't dissuaded George from firing away frequently from beyond the rainbow. He's calling his number 7.7 times per outing and connecting 40.1 percent of the time—volume and efficiency numbers matched or exceeded by only Kyle Lowry and Stephen Curry.
So once more: three-and-D.
12. Karl-Anthony Towns, C, Minnesota Timberwolves
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 21.3 points, 12.3 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.4 blocks
Though the Minnesota Timberwolves inexplicably refuse to feed him more frequently, Karl-Anthony Towns has continued to serve as one of the game's brightest talents on the offensive end. He performs like he was created in a lab, genetically engineered to function as an all-encompassing talent who can get buckets from all over the court.
Towns has a dizzying array of post moves, and he's able to torment defenders with either quick drop steps or physical pushes toward the basket. If they stave off his assault, he can flip in a jump-hook that catches nothing but net. His face-up game is elite. He knocks down 42.1 percent of his deep attempts. He works his way to the charity stripe quite often.
He's the complete package, which he showcased—among other outings—in a 56-point explosion against the overmatched Atlanta Hawks. Better still, he makes basketball look so easy when he's scoring, almost forcing you to wonder why the opposition can't keep up in such a seemingly effortless nature.
But Towns is closer than ever to earning top-10 status because he's paired his offensive game with some improving defensive chops. The 2017-18 campaign has seen him make dramatic strides on the preventing end, displaying more consistent effort and finally understanding the nuances of positioning. He's still overmatched against plenty of foes, but he's no longer the turnstile he functioned as during his first few seasons in Minnesota.
A quick glance at ESPN.com's DRPM tells you all you need to know: After posting a putrid minus-1.41 in 2016-17 (No. 383 throughout the Association), he's upped that mark to 0.14 during the current campaign. Yes, that means he's actually a beneficial presence now, even if his score lags behind the output registered by most players at his position.
11. Russell Westbrook, PG, Oklahoma City Thunder
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 25.4 points, 10.1 rebounds, 10.3 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.3 blocks
Say hello to one of the NBA's most polarizing figures.
Falling in love with Russell Westbrook's game is easy. He posts massive box-score numbers and has now averaged a triple-double for back-to-back seasons. Beyond that, he plays an enticingly athletic brand of basketball that creates more than his fair share of highlights.
On the flip side, the criticisms are easy.
He steals rebounds from Steven Adams to jumpstart fast-break opportunities, and he gets credit for them even though it's the big man doing the boxing out. His shooting percentages—44.9 percent from the field, 29.8 percent from downtown and 73.7 percent from the stripe—don't dissuade him from volume shooting. He turns the ball over too much and sometimes forgets he's supposed to try on the defensive end.
Naturally, his true value lies somewhere in the middle of the two extremes.
Westbrook hasn't been the same MVP-caliber force he was during his 2016-17 campaign, no matter what the triple-double average might indicate. That's obvious after taking even the tiniest dive into any advanced metrics. But he's still a game-changing point guard whose flaws are partially explained away by context.
His inflated rebounding figures are by design, since the Thunder would rather get the ball in his hands and let him turn on the jetpacks as soon as humanly possible. He's tasked with shooting a lot in an offense that relies upon his aggressive nature. The turnovers stem from the same need for shot creation, and he's expending so much energy attacking the rim that he has to take the occasional breather on defense.
Is he perfect? Of course not. But he doesn't have to be in order to continue serving as one of the NBA's deadliest stars.
10. Damian Lillard, PG, Portland Trail Blazers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 26.9 points, 4.5 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.4 blocks
As Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins detailed during his fantastic profile of the Portland Trail Blazers superstar, complete with a quote from Damian Lillard himself, the defensive strides made by this point guard don't stem solely from increased effort:
"Lillard used to be a dubious defender, same as [Kyrie] Irving and [Stephen] Curry, expending most of his energy throwing flames. But he resents the notion that effort alone can halt 50 pick-and-rolls a night. 'You learn terms and you get ahead of the curve,' he says. 'If I hear rub, I know a mid pick-and-roll is coming. If I hear wide, I know a pin-down is coming, and away a drag screen is coming. If I hear 99 or 77, I know it's a double drag with the bigs up top, and twist is a screen and re-screen.' His defensive rating has improved in the past year, from 108.9 to 103.7, as he's applied NBA jargon the way he mastered running an offense."
Lillard still isn't a prolific stopper.
His score in ESPN.com's DRPM, though vastly improved from last year's minus-1.49, remains a slightly subpar minus-0.05—the No. 32 mark among men qualified as point guards. And that's fine. The fact that he's no longer a glaring liability who opens himself up for easy attacks at the top of the key is a massive positive in Rip City.
After all, Lillard hasn't needed to sacrifice his offense for those defensive gains. Instead, he's remained one of the league's most explosive scorers, continuing to function as a floor general who can explode to the hoop for an athletic finish, thrive in an off-ball spot or pull up for a momentum-swinging triple over the top of a tight contest.
9. Chris Paul, PG, Houston Rockets
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 18.6 points, 5.4 rebounds, 7.9 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.2 blocks
We're now 13 seasons into Chris Paul's career, and I'm not entirely sure what area of his game is supposed to serve as a weakness.
The NBA's resident Point God remains a deft scorer who can get to his spots and contort his body to create extra space. He's hitting 38.0 percent of his triples while taking 6.5 per game, and that last number is easily a career high as Paul learns how to operate under the run-and-gun proclivities of Houston Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni. Finishing at the rim (66.2 percent within three feet) isn't a problem, and the 32-year-old remains a deadly mid-range marksman.
Obviously, passing isn't the weakness.
Paul still sees lanes few others can imagine before they materialize, and he has the technical skills necessary to feed the rock into tight spaces in the blink of an eye. Perhaps even more impressively, he still never turns the ball over. In fact, he now has five seasons with an assist percentage over 40 and a turnover percentage under 13—something only seven other players have ever done in a year featuring at least 50 appearances.
All the while, Paul remains a bulldog of a point guard who operates with unrelenting intensity on defense. He frequently pokes the ball away from unsuspecting ball-handlers, bodies up against bigger players, jumps into passing lanes and directs his teammates into the right spots.
Apparently, the best way to stave off the traditional early-30s decline suffered by most 1-guards is to play a complete game.
8. Joel Embiid, C, Philadelphia 76ers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 22.9 points, 11.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.8 blocks
Entertaining as Joel Embiid may be off the court—seriously, if you're not following him on every social media outlet, what are you doing with your internet life?—he's even more fun when suiting up for the Philadelphia 76ers.
His sophomore season has been filled with answers to the questions that his phenomenal, but limited, rookie efforts demanded.
Can he stay healthy? Absolutely. He even started playing in both halves of back-to-backs this year, and we shouldn't be scared off by the fluke orbital injury suffered in a collision with teammate Markelle Fultz. The lower extremities were the concerns, after all. Can he cut back on his turnovers and fouls? He still has to improve in those areas, which remain his biggest weak spots, but he's already trending in the right direction.
Embiid is everything you could want in a modern-day center, to the point that the 24-year-old is already grading out as the class of his position. He might not yet have the durability to match some of his primary challengers, and he enters this postseason in the healing process for his facial injury, but the package is still oh-so-complete.
If you need a center to completely shut down the interior of a defensive scheme, Embiid is your man. He actively deters opponents from entering his domain, and he stifles the best efforts of those who dare test him.
During the 2017-18 season, 113 different players have made at least 50 appearances and defended no fewer than three shots per game from within six feet. Of that group, none have a greater impact depressing accuracy than this Philly center, who drops his foes' field-goal percentages a staggering 12.2 points below their typical levels.
Couple that with an advanced set of post moves, a deadly face-up game and a willingness to spot up on the perimeter and drag defenders away from the paint to decongest the Philly schemes, and you have a two-way standout.
7. Jimmy Butler, SG/SF, Minnesota Timberwolves
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 22.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.4 blocks
On/off numbers aren't always informative, and they're universally subjected to plenty of confounding factors. But when splits are this extreme and support what the vaunted eye test is practically screaming at us, it's still easy to buy into them.
The Minnesota Timberwolves, as they've proved while falling well back in the playoff standings as Jimmy Butler recovered from surgery to repair his right meniscus, aren't even close to the same team without their best player on the floor.
Sans Butler, the 'Wolves can only muster a minus-4.5 net rating, for which the closest comparison is the season-long efforts of the lottery-bound New York Knicks (minus-4.2). Forced to rely more heavily on Andrew Wiggins' volume-scoring attempts, they descend into mediocrity on offense while completely falling apart on defense. But when this swingman is on the floor, that net rating soars to 8.3, which would leave them behind only the Houston Rockets (8.5) in the overall standings.
Let's put this another way.
When Butler is benched, whether because of injury or head coach Tom Thibodeau letting him rest (hah, as if that would ever happen), Minnesota plays offense like the No. 9 New Orleans Pelicans and defense like a significantly worse version of the No. 30 Phoenix Suns. When he plays, the 'Wolves operate better than the No. 1 Golden State Warriors on offense and like the No. 11 Detroit Pistons on defense.
That's a massive discrepancy, and no other member of the roster boasts such a substantial impact. Karl-Anthony Towns might get there one day in the near future, but this is still Butler's team when he's ready to go.
6. Anthony Davis, PF/C, New Orleans Pelicans
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 28.1 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.5 steals, 2.6 blocks
Anthony Davis was doing just fine cohabitating the New Orleans Pelicans frontcourt with DeMarcus Cousins. But since his fellow big man went down with a ruptured Achilles at the end of a Jan. 26 victory over the Houston Rockets, the unibrowed standout decided to prove he was even better as a solo star.
In games after that fateful injury, Davis has averaged a whopping 29.9 points, 11.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.8 steals and 2.9 blocks. On top of that astronomical line, he's turning the ball over just 2.2 times per contest while shooting 51.8 percent from the field, 33.3 percent from downtown and 84.3 percent at the charity stripe.
In short, he's been nothing short of miraculous.
This is the version of Davis we've been waiting to see since he entered the NBA and immediately began shattering expectations. He's a Defensive Player of the Year candidate impacting passing lanes when he's not swatting away shots and capably protecting the rim. He's finding open teammates without committing cough-ups. He's thriving as a scorer who can get buckets in a variety of ways, and he's even started linking together dribble moves that should leave defenders quaking in their boots.
The 25-year-old is now playing basketball the right way rather than just relying on his superior physical tools. That's vaulted him into the MVP runner-up discussion, put him in conversations about the best player in the world (something he's looked like on quite a few nights) and allowed him to will his team into the playoffs as a clear-cut leader.
Davis, for all intents and purposes, has firmly arrived as a superduperstar.
5. Kevin Durant, SF/PF, Golden State Warriors
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 26.4 points, 6.8 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.8 blocks
Kevin Durant, to be clear, does not belong in the Defensive Player of the Year race, no matter how many times he's been linked to that award throughout the season.
He sits at No. 92 in NBA Math's defensive points saved and No. 400 in ESPN.com's DRPM with a decisively negative score, while the Golden State Warriors have been 6.4 points per 100 possessions worse on defense when he plays. That's the team's worst on/off split with room to spare.
But this doesn't mean Durant is a bad defender. Contextual clues tell us that much, since you need only watch him for a few possessions to see the impact lent by his versatility. His long arms, coupled with a newfound willingness to operate on the interior, have made him a competent rim protector, while he still has the lateral quickness to stick with any perimeter matchups.
Durant's DPOY candidacy is overblown. He's still a solid stopper.
Both can be true.
But without a top-tier level of play on both ends, this former MVP falls further down the standings than you might have expected.
He's still one of the NBA's most fearsome scorers, a man who can push toward 30 points on a nightly basis while coming close to a 50/40/90 slash line. He's finding open teammates and displaying an advanced game as a facilitator. However, his defense and relative turnover struggles depress his ceiling slightly below what we've come to expect from the man vaulting above him in the countdown.
4. Giannis Antetokounmpo, PG/SG/SF/PF, Milwaukee Bucks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 26.9 points, 10.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.4 blocks
Giannis Antetokounmpo might not have the scoring reputation of Kevin Durant, but his game is now wholly devoid of weaknesses. And before you cite his dearth of three-pointers as a weakness, keep in mind that his shooting limitations hinder neither his individual output nor the work of his teammates. He provides gravity in his own way, using his lanky limbs and jaw-dropping physical traits to work his way past defenders who have no choice but to sag off him anyway.
And then we have his veritable strengths.
Antetokounmpo is an unquestionably elite scorer, leveraging his size, strength and athleticism to finish countless plays at the rim. He's now one of just 25 qualified players in NBA history to score at least 26 points per game with a true shooting percentage no worse than 59 percent, even if he's somehow not known for his point-producing acumen so much as his well-rounded skill set.
Then again, that reputation might be on point.
How many of those elite scorers can also average double-digit rebounds? How many often serve as a primary distributor, as Antetokounmpo constantly does for the Milwaukee Bucks? How many have become awe-inspiring defensive presences who can guard all five positions for short stretches?
Again, the aptly nicknamed Greek Freak is now virtually devoid of weaknesses. In that light, it's time we recognize him as not just a challenger to earn categorization among the top tier of basketballers, but as a newly established member of that class.
3. Stephen Curry, PG, Golden State Warriors
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 26.4 points, 5.1 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.2 blocks
Why is Stephen Curry allowed to show up in our rankings while Kawhi Leonard is doomed to be omitted?
Well, we have a firm timetable on the Golden State Warriors point guard's injury, and his sprained MCL should allow a return to action during the second round (assuming the Dubs aren't upset in the first). That's more clarity than we have for Leonard, and we also have a 51-game sample to draw our conclusions.
During those 51 outings, Curry proved—unequivocally, we should add—that he remained a floor general capable of detonating against any given opponent.
Averaging 26.4 points is impressive, but it's better still when coupled with a 49.5 field-goal percentage, a 42.3 three-point percentage (on a whopping 9.8 attempts per game) and a league-leading 92.1 free-throw percentage. He continued to play underrated positional defense, serve as an elite rebounding guard and dazzle with some flashy passes, but it's that scoring prowess that remains his most special trait.
Curry's 67.5 true shooting percentage paced the NBA and topped his score from his unanimous MVP go-round (66.9), and it's worth noting how unique this combination of volume and efficiency is among professional basketball players. Only 25 individual seasons have ever seen someone match or exceed that mark with at least 50 appearances, and the vast majority of candidates were big men or contributors who never lofted up deep attempts. In fact, Curry, 2014-15 Kyle Korver, 2011-12 Steve Novak and 1995-96 Tim Legler are the only members of the exclusive club who joined while making at least five treys.
Among the same group, Curry is the only player to average at least 20 points. If you're looking for evidence that he remains an all-time great on the scoring end, there you have it.
2. James Harden, SG, Houston Rockets
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 30.4 points, 5.4 rebounds, 8.8 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.7 blocks
James Harden has become everything Houston Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni could ever have wanted out of an offensive threat.
He's capable of knocking down threes off the dribble (mostly with a step-back move that freezes defenders and creates just the tiniest modicum of space he needs for his release) and off set-up feeds, and he rarely shows any hesitation before firing away. He's a devil in transition with his rim-seeking habits and ability to finish from within three feet at a 65.8 percent clip. He's a terrific and unselfish passer willing to seek out more three-point opportunities from his teammates.
Basically, he's a machine programmed to play basketball in the most efficient manner...with one notable exception.
Harden loves playing the isolation game, which typically isn't the best type of offense in today's NBA. The league as a whole has an 89.4 offensive rating on ISO possessions, which would fall well below the No. 30 Phoenix Suns (100.9) on the season-long hierarchy. Those plays, almost by design, shouldn't be used as a main source of scoring.
But the bearded guard is an exception. Leading the league in ISO frequency—they comprise over one-third of his plays—Harden is scoring a sensational 1.22 points per possession. When he uses this inefficient play type, he still functions—with room to spare—as the NBA's best offense.
No wonder he always has a green light.
1. LeBron James, SF, Cleveland Cavaliers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 27.5 points, 8.6 rebounds, 9.1 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.9 blocks
James Harden deserves the MVP for leading the Houston Rockets to the NBA's best record, thriving as an individual and lending his identity to his team, but LeBron James remains the premier player in the Association. Those are not one and the same.
Even in his 15th professional season and even with 33 years on the earth weighing him down, James refuses to falter. Closer than ever to averaging a triple-double for an entire campaign and setting career highs in assists and rebounds (by 0.01 boards per contest), this ageless wonder is putting on nightly shows while meaning everything to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Take him away from the Northeast Ohio residents, and where do they stand? They probably don't make the Eastern Conference playoffs with Kevin Love and Kyle Korver leading the charge, assuming we allow for the same injuries that plagued the Cavs throughout 2017-18. But here we are, ready for the world's best player to somehow find another level and lead his team back to the NBA Finals for the umpteenth time.
Maybe he doesn't try on defense as often these days. Turnovers are problematic. But that's about where the list of weaknesses ends now that he's shown impervious physical ability by playing in all 82 games for the first time in his career and shored up a previous hole in his profile by connecting on 36.7 percent of his looks from beyond the arc.
James remains the preeminent example of a do-everything star. And at this point, we should probably assume he'll keep filling that role until he eventually teams up with LeBron James Jr. to fulfil the ultimate father-son dream.