Ranking NBA's Top 100 Players of 2018-19 Season so Far
Ranking the NBA's top 100 players is a thankless task steeped in self-loathing and instant regret. Midseason evaluations are exceptionally difficult. The numbers are changing every day, and the tug-of-war between track records and recency bias is relentless.
Fortunately for you, we don't like ourselves much anyway, so we're up to the task of underrating your team's best players while overrating everyone else.
Some ground rules and context to keep in mind before we get going:
- Players need to have logged at least 500 minutes as of Jan. 22 to be considered for inclusion. If they're injured and have surpassed that threshold, they must have a target return date for this season. Passing judgment on someone who has just come back (DeMarcus Cousins) or has yet to suit up (Kristaps Porzingis) isn't fair to anyone.
- Our focus is on this year alone. We don't care about the larger picture. That's for offseason rankings. Track records will be used to settle deadlocks, but marquee names aren't getting a pass if they have struggled.
- Availability is a skill. This year's sample size will impact where players land.
- Performances to date will shape the pecking order, but we're also ranking these players as if we're trying to acquire them for the rest of the regular season. This does not include the playoffs.
- Repeat: This does not include the playoffs.
- Finally, let's all agree that points-per-game averages aren't everything. Efficiency, playmaking, defense and overall contributions to winning matter. Capiche?
Days of grueling debate and critical thought went into hammering out this list. Endless hours of film were watched. Numbers were crunched. Outside consult was sought. (Shout-out to Andy Bailey of the Hardwood Knocks podcast.)
Tough decisions were made. Tears fell by the bucket. Friendships were fractured. Time itself sped up until we arrived here, with this hierarchy for you to consider and, if you must, furiously pick apart.
Injury and Small-Sample Exclusions
Though these players would otherwise be considered for top-100 placement, they either haven't eclipsed the 500-minute threshold as of Jan. 22 or don't have a semi-distinct timetable for their return from injury (listed alphabetically):
The Tough Cuts
These players were discussed to exhaustion throughout this process, but they ended up missing the cut (listed in alphabetical order):
- Bam Adebayo
- Harrison Barnes
- Kent Bazemore
- Davis Bertans
- Thomas Bryant
- Wendell Carter Jr.
- Zach Collins
- Ed Davis
- Dewayne Dedmon
- Rudy Gay
- Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
- Jeff Green
- Tim Hardaway Jr.
- Joe Harris
- Gordon Hayward
- Justin Holiday
- Brandon Ingram
- Jeremy Lamb
- Patty Mills
- Nerlens Noel
- Jakob Poeltl
- Dwight Powell
- Taurean Prince
- Kelly Olynyk
- Terrence Ross
- Tomas Satoransky
- Jeff Teague
- Tristan Thompson
- Fred VanVleet
- Trae Young
100-96: Saric, Warren, Morris, Tucker, Hart
100. Dario Saric, Minnesota Timberwolves
Every baseball team can use a utility player capable of lining up at any position across the diamond, and every basketball squad can make do with a player who's comfortable contributing in a wide variety of roles without ever demanding the spotlight. Dario Saric qualifies. Whether he's hustling for an offensive rebound, thanklessly setting screens or spotting up from the perimeter in hopes of a catch-and-shoot jumper, he's a prototypical glue guy for the Minnesota Timberwolves, just as he was for the Philadelphia 76ers prior to an early-season trade.
99. TJ Warren, Phoenix Suns
TJ Warren can seem underrated when you focus solely on his scoring. This season, he's averaging 18.0 points per game for the Phoenix Suns while shooting 48.6 percent from the field, 42.8 percent from beyond the arc and 81.5 percent at the stripe. But even as he's shored up the biggest hole in his scoring profile by expanding his jump-shooting range, his overall profile remains hindered by his defensive inadequacies and lack of facilitating capabilities.
98. Monte Morris, Denver Nuggets
A sophomore who played only 25 total minutes for the Denver Nuggets in 2017-18, Monte Morris has now established himself as one of the NBA's best bargains. He's on a three-year minimum contract after proving himself on a two-way deal as the No. 51 pick of the 2017 NBA draft. Morris might not put up glamorous numbers, but his turnover-averse play (6.7 turnover percentage) and steady ball-handling have already allowed him to factor into head coach Mike Malone's crunch-time rotation.
97. PJ Tucker, Houston Rockets
So long as PJ Tucker is hustling for rebounds, bouncing between positions in traditional and small-ball lineups, knocking down triples and grinding out possessions on defense, he'll remain a vital piece for the Houston Rockets. He's still living up to the three-and-D label (38.1 percent on 4.8 deep attempts per game with a 1.37 defensive real plus-minus), but injuries throughout the team's rotation have forced him into too many minutes and exposed his inability to make a massive impact as a featured contributor rather than an ace-in-the-hole role player.
96. Josh Hart, Los Angeles Lakers
Even though Josh Hart's missing three-point stroke has prevented him from fulfilling the breakout expectations—his three-point percentage is down to 35.0 percent after he connected at a 39.6 percent clip as a rookie—you can still see flashes of a capable offensive player who just needs further molding. Even more obvious is his defensive potency, complete with a sturdy frame and strong core that allows him to switch screens and body up against bigger players when he isn't making the most of his lateral mobility.
95-91: Vonleh, White, Jordan, Bjelica, Cauley-Stein
95. Noah Vonleh, New York Knicks
"He does a little bit of everything for us," New York Knicks head coach David Fizdale said about Noah Vonleh, per ESPN.com's Ian Begley. "I would say he's probably our most complete player [this season]."
Though he's checking in behind 94 other players in this countdown, Vonleh is the top-ranked member of the downward-spiraling New York Knicks, although that'll change when Kristaps Porizingis eventually makes his long-awaited return from a torn ACL. And while Vonleh probably won't be surpassing a healthy Porzingis anytime soon, his newfound ability to knock down three-balls (40.2 percent on 2.0 attempts per game) has coupled with his enduring athleticism to allow for an escape from the draft-bust territory he occupied with the Charlotte Hornets, Portland Trail Blazers and Chicago Bulls.
94. Derrick White, San Antonio Spurs
A first-round pick in 2017, Derrick White is finally getting an opportunity to strut his stuff as the San Antonio Spurs' starting floor general. Even if he eventually relinquishes that job to a healthy Dejounte Murray, his time spent proving himself as a defensive stalwart who can handle both scoring and distributing responsibilities on offense has ensured him a rotation role moving forward. White's ability to avoid bad-pass turnovers is particularly impressive, as he's averaging fewer than one per appearance.
93. DeAndre Jordan, Dallas Mavericks
With DeAndre Jordan on the floor, the Dallas Mavericks are posting a minus-0.8 net rating. When he takes a seat next to head coach Rick Carlisle on the pine, that number goes into the green (plus-2.0). He might still be posting impressive individual numbers (11.1 points and 14.0 rebounds per game), but his declining involvement in the Dallas offense, increased turnovers and waning defensive influence have made it clear this 30-year-old is no longer an upper-tier center.
92. Nemanja Bjelica, Sacramento Kings
Including Nemanja Bjelica is more of a risk than it should be. He's dealing with a back injury, his glitzy shooting has cratered since the start of December, and the return of Marvin Bagley III will keep cutting into his playing time. There's no guarantee Bjelica even stays in the rotation should Sacramento tumble down the Western Conference standings.
This is us not caring (too much). Bjelica is uber-important to the reinvention of the Kings. His spacing opens up new frontiers for their ball-handlers and bigs. Both Sacramento's offensive rating and effective field-goal percentage drop significantly without him in the game, per Cleaning the Glass. Even when he's not hitting shots at mind-boggling clips, his is a presence the Kings always feel.
91. Willie Cauley-Stein, Sacramento Kings
If you ask Willie Cauley-Stein to protect the rim as the last line of defense, you might not be using him properly. He's allowing opponents to shoot 69.2 percent while stationed at the hoop, which is hardly ideal. But don't let that convince you Cauley-Stein a liability on the preventing end, because nothing could be further from the truth. He continues to hound smaller players on the perimeter and showcases his beneficial switchability in myriad situations. There's a reason his DRPM has swelled from 0.82 in 2017-18 to 1.63 this season.
90-86: Bogdanovic, Jackson, Kuzma, Zeller, Markkanen
90. Bogdan Bogdanovic, Sacramento Kings
Highlighted by a buzzer-beating step-back jumper over the outstretched arms of Tyson Chandler to take down the rival Los Angeles Lakers on Dec. 27, Bogdan Bogdanovic has morphed into a go-to scoring force for the Kings. While continuing to function as a willing passer when an open teammate emerges on the perimeter, the Serbian forward has fired away accurately and frequently from downtown to help justify a soaring usage rate. He might not be the Kings' No. 1 option, but he's reliable on any given possession.
89. Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies
Jaren Jackson Jr.'s spot is fluid. He has a top-75-and-up case. He still fouls a lot, but that isn't atypical for a rookie. His defensive IQ belies his experience. He has quickly become a crutch on which even Marc Gasol needs to lean.
More offensive freedom is a must for Jackson to rise a tier or three. He has done some interesting things with the ball in his hands and owns the Grizzlies' second-highest usage rate, but he's somewhat buried within the pecking order. Once Memphis stops deploying him as an accessory, his rise will be swift.
88. Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers
Kyle Kuzma is not the Lakers' most important prospect. That responsibility still falls to Lonzo Ball or Brandon Ingram. If his career arc outstrips either of theirs, it will say more about them, because Kuzma's holes aren't going away. He does not profile as a plus defender, and the Lakers cannot count on him for more than incremental improvements as a playmaker.
But Kuzma's balanced scoring, ill-conceived heat checks and all, is aspirational. He is a fantastic finisher, doesn't commit a ton of turnovers and has found a way to fit around LeBron James' ball dominance. His three-point shooting is historically bad, but whereas Ball and Ingram have both grappled with their offensive identities, Kuzma is proving more adaptable.
87. Cody Zeller, Charlotte Hornets
Cody Zeller is getting the benefit of the doubt, with a slight hedge. His game hasn't grown enough to put him much higher, but he remains too valuable to write off because of a right hand injury that will keep him sidelined until after the All-Star break.
Box scores will never do Zeller justice. No aspect of his game is rooted in volume—not even his rebounding. But he is pesky defending the rim, hits enough of his longer twos to pop off picks and creates a canyon's worth of space with bulldozing screens. Rudy Gobert is the only player generating more screen-assist points per game—here's to Kemba Walker pull-up threes—and no one in Charlotte has a greater impact on the team's net rating.
86. Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls
Elements of Lauri Markkanen's offense are drowning in over-simplicity. Fewer of his made buckets are coming off assists this season (71.1) than last (76.7), but not by much. Chicago's spotty point guard rotation should be necessitating a more complex role—harder drives to the rim, a beta-test for his passing off the dribble and a generally larger workload.
As far as the Bulls' season goes, though, it would be unfair to call Markkanen a disappointment. He has held last year's efficiency on slightly higher volume and after missing a chunk of the year with a right elbow injury. His floor game still intrigues, he isn't terribly mistake-prone when he does drive, and he looks more stout defending the rim.
Brook Lopez, Nikola Vucevic and Marvin Williams are the only players matching his block and turnover rates while swishing at least 38 percent of their threes. Chicago should want more from Markkanen, but this is workable for now.
85-81: Plumlee, Brown, Gordon, Porter, Valanciunas
85. Mason Plumlee, Denver Nuggets
A strained right calf and troublesome core muscle prevented Mason Plumlee from strutting the full extent of his stuff for the Denver Nuggets in 2017-18, but he's belatedly proving worthy of his three-year, $41 million deal. Now healthy and throwing down reverse dunks with aplomb, he can (partially) replicate the pass-first offensive role of Nikola Jokic for the Mile High City's second unit with his pinpoint distributing while also adding an infusion of athleticism on defense. If he could spend more time on the floor or convert his freebies at better than a 48.2 percent clip, his stock might continue rising.
84. Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics
Jaylen Brown's sparkling contributions during the 2018 playoffs were apparently a mirage—something we probably should've acknowledged due to the incompatibility of his 39.3 three-point percentage and 64.0 free-throw percentage. The uber-athletic swingman remains a valuable force for the Boston Celtics because of his well-rounded play, defensive ferocity and take-over-a-play hops, but his value won't match the hype until he can slash far better than a disappointing 43.9/31.3/66.4.
83. Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic
At some point, Aaron Gordon won't be viewed as a star simply because of name recognition, athletic highlights and strong per-game numbers for a perpetually struggling Orlando Magic club. In fact, that time should have arrived already.
After years of bouncing between roles and developing different skills in Orlando, Gordon fails to stand out in any one area. He's a decent all-around contributor who doesn't hold his team back, but his mediocre distance shooting, mediocre facilitating, mediocre rebounding and strong (but not elite) defense combine to justify neither his perceived star status or his four-year, $76 million contract.
82. Otto Porter Jr., Washington Wizards
Through an unheralded Otto Porter Jr. provided the value you might typically expect of an All-Star in 2016-17 and 2017-18, his game remains predicated upon extreme levels of efficiency. He isn't a high-usage star while playing alongside John Wall and/or Bradley Beal, which makes it troubling that he's turning the ball over more frequently with a slash line that's fallen from 50.9/43.7/83.0 over the last two years to 48.2/40.3/77.4 in 2018-19. Porter remains a useful all-around player, but his ceiling declines drastically when he isn't functioning as one of the league's most consistent spot-up threats.
81. Jonas Valanciunas, Toronto Raptors
We aren't advocating for a trade here, but perhaps Jonas Valanciunas would look even better elsewhere, on a team that allowed him to make the most of his wide-ranging skill set. He's opportunistically shown signs of developing three-point range and the ability to facilitate from the top of the key, but the Toronto Raptors didn't feature those elements of his game prior to his significant thumb injury. They likely won't after Valanciunas returns, either. The 26-year-old remains valuable in his non-glamorous, do-the-little-things role, even if that also makes it easier to wonder how much more he could be.
80-76: Drummond, Grant, Iguodala, Favors, Ayton
80. Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons
Erring on the side of harsh with Andre Drummond is fair. He tantalized us with expanded playmaking and a rosier shot selection last year, but he has yet to start delivering an adequate encore.
Setting up shop beside Blake Griffin has bilked Drummond of a chance to inflate his assists. That's acceptable. A similar turnover percentage and declining efficiency despite diminished usage is not. His rim protection is fine, albeit overrated, but the Pistons are more than five points per 100 possessions worse on defense with him in the game—a troubling trend that dates back to 2016-17.
79. Derrick Favors, Utah Jazz
Derrick Favors is a brutal player to rank. His individual scoring numbers are fine, and he's defending well enough for the Jazz to get by when he plays center. But without a dependable three-point stroke, he doesn't have the makeup of someone who can influence winning.
Utah's offense is better off, both aesthetically and statistically, with Jae Crowder at the 4. At this point, Favor is miscast as a power forward—and maybe even a starter. Playing as the lone big in shooting-heavy bench lineups is probably his ideal gig.
78. Jerami Grant, Oklahoma City Thunder
Jerami Grant's defensive portability isn't new. He's comfortable in any situation, against any position, from jockeying on the block and rotating around the basket to chasing ball-handlers outside the paint. His offensive performance is a bigger development.
Grant's identity is starting to crystallize. He's hovering around 34 percent from beyond the arc, the second-highest mark of his career, and shooting better than 60 percent on two-pointers while showing a higher comfort level off the dribble. Playing him with Steven Adams and Paul George has amounted to a two-way cheat code, according to Cleaning the Glass—one that supersedes Oklahoma City's relative dearth of shooting.
77. Andre Iguodala, Golden State Warriors
Regular-season Andre Iguodala is playing with a little more oomph this year. Maybe he's feeling the squeeze of Kevin Durant's next foray into free agency. Perhaps he took Golden State's onset defensive struggles personally.
Whatever the impetus, Iguodala is playing a plane above his usual cruise control. His counting stats will never wow, but he's still one of the reigning champs' most unselfish and highest-IQ players, with an aptitude for coming up big on defense. And the Warriors reliance on him shows.
By way of him spending time on George, Kyle Lowry, Devin Booker or Pascal Siakam, it just shows.
76. Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns
Deandre Ayton's rookie campaign is suffering from a severe case of "I'm not Luka Doncic." It's a shame, because he's given the Suns another genuine cornerstone around which to build—a walking double-double who isn't getting burned as often on defense and has yet to scratch the surface of his offensive apex.
Now seems like a good time to note Ayton is the only rookie in league history to average at least 15 points, 10 rebounds, two assists and one block with a true shooting percentage better than 60.
75-71: Ibaka, Brogdon, Green, Mirotic, Bogdanovic
75. Serge Ibaka, Toronto Raptors
Serge Ibaka isn't an ace defender capable of reminding onlookers of his Defensive Player of the Year candidacy for the Oklahoma City Thunder. He isn't a true stretch big, as evidenced by his unfortunate 28.2 percent shooting from downtown on 2.6 attempts per game. But he's a poor man's version of both roles, which has allowed him to remain eminently valuable north of the border. Which team wouldn't love to have a big man who's capable of protecting the rim, knocking down 46.4 percent of his 10-to-16-foot jumpers and hitting even longer twos at a 57.3 percent clip?
74. Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks
Malcolm Brogdon's historic quest for the foul-stripe holy grail is likely over. Although he spent the early portion of the 2018-19 campaign chasing Jose Calderon's single-season free-throw-percentage record (98.05 percent in 2008-09), he's now down to "only" a league-leading 96.0 percent. He'd have to make his next 107 freebies to take over the top spot, and that feels pretty darn unlikely when he's only taken 99 attempts in his first 43 games.
Fortunately, Brogdon's knack for avoiding turnovers, his off-ball work as both a cutter and a spot-up shooter and his secondary facilitating still provide plenty of value to the Milwaukee Bucks' cause.
73. Danny Green, Toronto Raptors
Don't be fooled by Danny Green's per-game line of 9.9 points, 4.2 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.9 steals and 0.9 blocks for the Toronto Raptors. That masks his precision marksmanship (41.9 percent on 5.5 three-point tries per game) and staggering defensive contributions, which have allowed him to post the No. 1 score among 2-guards in ESPN.com's DRPM with room to spare.
Green is one of the NBA's leading examples of someone who can make an impact without stuffing the stat sheet, as evidenced by his team-high swing from a minus-5.9 net rating with him on the bench to a plus-13.1 when he's on the floor.
72. Nikola Mirotic, New Orleans Pelicans
Although he's more than just a shooter for the New Orleans Pelicans—that becomes clear through his hustle on defense both before and after an attempt goes up—Nikola Mirotic's marksmanship remains his primary asset. A whopping 57.0 percent of his field-goal attempts have come from beyond the arc, where he's connecting at a 36.4 percent clip that, while down from last year (37.7 percent), keeps defenses honest and opens up driving lanes for his teammates.
71. Bojan Bogdanovic, Indiana Pacers
Buoyed by an improving off-the-bounce game, Bojan Bogdanovic keeps functioning as an efficient scoring option with the Indiana Pacers. Perhaps he'd be ill-equipped to handle a volume-shooting role despite slashing 49.2/43.3/82.1, but he's one of those players doing the most with the least. This season, 175 qualified scorers have a usage rate below 21, and among that group, only Clint Capela (17.6) has posted more points per game than Bogdanovic (16.0).
70-66: Young, Harris, McCollum, Hield, LaVine
70. Thaddeus Young, Indiana Pacers
Thaddeus Young is all things to the Pacers. His half-court defense seldom lags, and he remains that bridge between wings and bigs, rotating in ways Domantas Sabonis cannot. Myles Turner is the team's best defender, but Young continues to be in contention for a not-so-distant second.
Dirty work is not often celebrated on the offensive end. In particular, wings on clean-up duty find themselves overlooked—hopelessly obscured by higher-usage, more idealistic All-NBA archetypes. Young's range has never fully developed, but he fills small voids by offering a mix of rim-running, close-range finishing, offensive rebounding and emergency ball-handling.
69. Gary Harris, Denver Nuggets
Gary Harris' season is a disappointment by some measures. His three-point percentage is down, and Jamal Murray has a stranglehold on Denver's second-best-player crown. Left hamstring issues haven't helped Harris. Those injuries linger, and they can be a detriment for a player who makes his living as an off-ball worker bee.
There remains a smoothness and reliability to Harris' game. His chemistry with Nikola Jokic is telepathic, and he's not someone who needs volume to grind his way out of slumps. That he's established himself as essential to the defense despite a shorter wingspan only boosts his value. If he stays in the rotation without interruption long enough, this is a finish he will outperform.
68. CJ McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers
CJ McCollum can score with the best of them. The quick-fire finesse of his mid-range game is a virtue at a time when those looks are actively avoided. Some have deemed his season a slump, or a major drag. Really, it's neither.
McCollum's three-point splits are turbulent, and he seems more prone to those 5-of-16ish, 6-of-17ish nights. But he's progressed to his mean since December's close.
What gets termed a down year is actually an almost-typical season restrained, as ever, by what he doesn't do. He's not an assist-smith, frequent foul-line visitor, expert finisher around the rim or net-neutral defender. His game wants for that multidimensional flash, and it's beginning to catch up with him.
67. Buddy Hield, Sacramento Kings
Pushes to put him higher are not unreasonable. His role just isn't complicated enough. He isn't tasked with jump-starting the offense with any sort of regularity, and he's an even defender at his peak. At the same time, he's clearly more than a specialist. Over two-thirds of his made buckets come on assists, but he's worth his salt when operating off the dribble.
66. Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls
Zach LaVine's standing is all kinds of warped by the Bulls' tank. Someone has to put up numbers on a cruddy team. He can't get a top-50 nod for blowing past 20 points per game when he has carte blanche. Then again, LaVine's creative license is not without merit. His job isn't easy. It's ill-fitting.
He shouldn't be burdened with so many passing obligations. His assist-to-turnover ratio reflects as much. But he's getting to the rim more often than ever and shooting a respectable 49.1 percent on twos, the vast majority of which are unassisted.
65-61: Allen, Dinwiddie, Covington, Millsap, Redick
65. Jarrett Allen, Brooklyn Nets
Though the tantalizing jumpers he took at Texas haven't manifested themselves as actual three-point production at the sport's highest level, Jarrett Allen has nevertheless become a two-way asset for the Brooklyn Nets. He's an increasingly patient scorer on the interior, showcasing newfound touch with his rim-running attempts, and he's an undeniable defensive asset capable of not just swatting shots but actively deterring players from entering his territory—a job that isn't particularly easy when he's frequently paired with guards doing their best matador impersonations.
64. Spencer Dinwiddie, Brooklyn Nets
Spencer Dinwiddie is one of those matador-impersonating guards, incapable of corralling dribble penetration while earning a bottom-10 mark in ESPN.com's DRPM.
That porosity inherently limits his ceiling, but it doesn't prevent him from functioning as an overall positive who makes up for his defensive miscues with an incredible driving game. Assisted by a developing three-point game that keeps adversaries honest and an enduring willingness to keep his eyes up in search of teammates extricating themselves from their foes (1.1 driving assists per game), he's shooting 51.5 percent and scoring more driving points per contest than all but a dozen NBA players.
63. Robert Covington, Minnesota Timberwolves
Let's pretend Robert Covington was an inept shooter who couldn't even hit the rim when 23 feet away from the basket. (That's not even remotely accurate, considering he's knocking down 37.8 percent of his deep tries on 6.4 attempts per game.)
In that scenario, he'd still be a positive presence for the Minnesota Timberwolves, just as he was for the Philadelphia 76ers at the beginning of the year. He's that good on defense, seamlessly switching between assignments and showing off fundamental excellence by sliding his feet to remain between his mark and the basket at all times.
62. Paul Millsap, Denver Nuggets
No longer hampered by the injuries that plagued him throughout his inaugural season with the Denver Nuggets, Paul Millsap is now proving why he was initially viewed as a beneficial fit alongside Nikola Jokic. Not only is he capable of taking over possessions with a devastating pump fake and the scoring skills to get buckets from mid-range zones or around the rim, but he's a versatile and committed defender who leads through sheer effort. Denver outscores opponents by 10.4 points per 100 possessions with both him and Jokic on the floor, and that's everything that front office could've envisioned when pursuing him as a free agent last summer.
61. JJ Redick, Philadelphia 76ers
Despite a high-water mark in scoring (18.4 points per game), this isn't quite a career season for JJ Redick, who played the best basketball of his lengthy NBA tenure during the 2017-18 campaign.
He's still been quite effective for the Philadelphia 76ers, excelling as an off-ball scoring threat capable of knocking down his patented lean-in jumper while curling off a screen, but his relative inaccuracy from downtown hinders the overall numbers. Redick is one of only three qualified snipers shooting at least 37.9 percent from deep while taking no fewer than 7.8 long-range hoists per game, but those marks still pale in comparison to last year's respective figures of 42.0 and 6.6.
60-56: Murray, Smart, Randle, Lopez, Ingles
60. Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets
Jamal Murray is playing better than you think. He's averaging 20 points and 5.2 assists while banging in 39.4 percent of his 5.7 three-point attempts over his past 25 games.
Erratic shooting and vanishing acts remain part of his offensive DNA, but he's a light-you-up scorer with developing pick-and-roll vision. More consistency is all that separates him from diet stardom.
59. Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics
Don't look now, but Marcus Smart is blending his bloodhound defense across three, sometimes four, positions with a 36.7 percent conversion rate from downtown on meaningful volume. No one in the league has a better steal rate than Boston's engine, who's also shooting a career high at the rim.
Keep this up, and Smart will finish with a better true shooting percentage than Kemba Walker.
58. Julius Randle, New Orleans Pelicans
Julius Randle's defense is a problem for the Pelicans. He fouls like it's his job, and while he can stand his ground in one-on-one situations, he's a train-wreck helper. But the offense. Oh, the offense.
Randle is again shooting better than 70 percent at the rim, and he's one of just seven players averaging more than 24 points and 3.5 assists per 36 minutes with a true shooting percentage above 60. His company: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and LeBron James.
57. Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks
Underrate Brook Lopez's contributions in Milwaukee at your own risk. His is a niche skill set, but it's one rarer than the cubbyhole occupied by Clint Capela and Rudy Gobert: that of a floor-spacer and rim protector. Lopez doesn't have the portability of other bigs, but his length and body control are defensive assets.
Opponents are shooting under 50 percent against Lopez at the rim, the third-lowest mark among roughly 130 players who've challenged at least 100 looks around the basket. And as of now, he's in line to become the first-ever player to average more than two blocks and two made threes per 36 minutes.
56. Joe Ingles, Utah Jazz
Joe Ingles is putting up career lows in just about every shooting metric. The past few weeks specifically are not being kind to him. The Jazz still cannot afford to be without him. He is their second-best passer (Dante Exum ain't there yet), and more importantly, he's their defensive lifeblood on the perimeter. They funnel everyone into Rudy Gobert, but his assignments span the biggest and deadliest wing scorers, and he holds his own.
Utah is allowing 6.2 points per 100 possessions more when Ingles is off the court. Not even Gobert's mid-game breaks are costing the Jazz that much ground.
55-51: Harrell, Gasol, Williams, Rose, Russell
55. Montrezl Harrell, Los Angeles Clippers
There's the "high-energy player" prototype, and then there's whatever Montrezl Harrell has become.
Operating with an indefatigable motor for the Los Angeles Clippers, this Louisville product has displayed a gritty tenacity and hustled his way to a breakout season on both ends of the floor. He's overcome his undersized frame through sheer physicality on the interior, and he's thriving as a pick-and-roll option who can also knock down baseline jumpers. Harrell may not be best-served playing any more than 26 minutes per game, but he's damn sure figured out how to maximize that relatively limited run.
54. Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
Marc Gasol can still provide the occasional throwback performance, but the man who built his defensive foundation on anticipating player movement and beating adversaries to the expected spots can no longer display the fleetness of foot necessary to become a devastating two-way force. On offense, he's posting his lowest usage rate in a half-decade with a below-average true shooting percentage. On defense, he's again outside the top 10 DRPMs for centers—still impressive but not where he needs to be in order to carry a lackluster Memphis Grizzlies roster.
53. Lou Williams, Los Angeles Clippers
Lou Williams is still Lou Williams, which is a good thing for the Los Angeles Clippers.
Even if he's a shoddy defender who often takes possessions off to recuperate for his offensive exploits, he's such a deadly shot-creator that head coach Doc Rivers can live with the lapses. During fourth quarters alone, Williams is averaging 30.1 points (No. 6 among players with at least 20 fourth-quarter appearances, behind only Kemba Walker, LeBron James, James Harden, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry) and 6.9 assists per 36 minutes while slashing 42.4/37.0/90.4.
52. Derrick Rose, Minnesota Timberwolves
An offensive revelation for the Minnesota Timberwolves, Derrick Rose has revitalized his career and reasserted himself as a point guard who belongs on the outskirts of the brutal Western Conference All-Star conversation. We can forget about discussing defense like he so often dismisses playing it, but his offense has bordered on unbesmirchable: 18.9 points and 4.8 assists per game while shooting 48.0 percent from the field, 42.1 percent from downtown and 85.4 percent from the stripe.
So why doesn't he register as a top-50 player?
Remember, these rankings serve both as a look back at the first half and as a barometer of expectations for the season's post-break portion. Maintaining his shooting excellence would go a long way toward further gains, but some degree of skepticism is still allowed as regression typically follows a man who entered the year as a career 29.6 percent three-point shooter, peaked as a marksman five years ago and is now brushing shoulders with the league's elite snipers. Plus, sitting at No. 52 is already a massive jump for a player who sat at No. 481 in RPM during the 2017-18 campaign.
51. D'Angelo Russell, Brooklyn Nets
D'Angelo Russell has gone supernova since calendars flipped over to 2019. Averaging 24.0 points, 3.7 rebounds, 7.5 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.3 blocks and only 2.5 turnovers while slashing 50.0/44.8/92.9, he's asserted himself as a worthy All-Star in the Eastern Conference who can score in any and all situations. The finishing around the basket is improving. The pull-up jumpers are clicking. Everything is starting to slow down as he doesn't just take what the defense gives him, but instead actively exploits flaws in the coverage.
Some cooling off is inevitable. His inadequacies on defense still limit his overall ceiling. But Russell has made it clear A) he's not a draft bust, B) he's the best player on the Brooklyn Nets and C) he's ready to keep moving up future iterations of these rankings.
50-46: Turner, Collins, Morris, Richardson, Nurkic
50. Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers
Myles Turner leaves a lot to be desired on offense, but that's not entirely on him. The Pacers haven't allotted expansion for his role. They're too deep, in a sense. Even Victor Oladipo is making concessions. Turner is shooting a career high from behind the rainbow, making smarter reads as a passer and getting harder to stop around the rim.
Growth doesn't always have to come in volume. And what Turner lacks in opportunity on offense, he makes up for with his defensive impact. As Tony East wrote for the BBall Index:
"Myles Turner just gets it now. All the yoga and weightlifting he participated in this offseason has made him more nimble while also making him stronger—the perfect combination he needed to refine his defensive game. ... He is the anchor of the league's second-best defense, capable of altering a game by patrolling a 15-foot radius away from the rim. Add his name to the list: Myles Turner is a real, legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate."
Playing time might cap Turner's DPOY case. He's at under 30 minutes per game. But his imprint is undeniable. His lateral quickness has augmented Indy's pick-and-roll coverage, and he remains a one-person blockade at the basket. Opponents are shooting just 54.6 percent against him from point-blank range—a top-five mark among high-volume rim protectors.
49. John Collins, Atlanta Hawks
Sample size almost displaced John Collins from the top 50. A left ankle injury kept him off the court until mid-November. But his return has unlocked a spunkier version of the Hawks.
Collins is the same spring-loaded pogo stick but with a deeper arsenal. Atlanta is asking him to do more with the ball, and although it'll be some time before he's a face-up nuisance, if he ever gets there, he looks at home dropping passes in motion and taking shots and dribbles from above the break.
Grooming him as a defensive linchpin will be tough—even more so if the Hawks don't see him surviving long stretches at the 5. But Collins' offensive tool belt, which includes semireliable shooting from the corner and an unyielding presence on the boards, is letting him hang with the league's new-age power forwards.
48. Marcus Morris, Boston Celtics
Please don't overthink Marcus Morris. Pretty, pretty please. He is not a top-50 player in a vacuum. For the rest of this season, after being Boston's second- or third-best player since day one, he absolutely belongs.
Here's everyone averaging at least 19 points and two made three-pointers per 36 minutes while matching Morris' true shooting percentage: Stephen Curry, Danilo Gallinari and James Harden. Like, whoa.
Playmaking wings are all the rage. Morris will never be a go-to ball-handler, and the Celtics might be overextending his pull-up jumper. But the season is more than halfway gone. Morris' night-in, night-out effort—right down to his coverage of bigger wings—cannot be treated as temporary.
47. Josh Richardson, Miami Heat
Josh Richardson entered the season as the Heat's lone top-50 player in our rankings. He is no longer alone.
Justise Winslow has a strong case as Miami's best player following his promotion to primary playmaker. But Richardson is right there. His declining shooting percentages are no real surprise given his increased prominence. He's notching career-high usage and assist rates while tallying his best turnover percentage to date.
Richardson has almost doubled his drives per game from last season. The Heat will live with his modest drop in efficiency when he's doing so much more with the ball—especially when he's still shooting better than 37 percent on threes and defending everyone from point guards to small-ball 4s.
46. Jusuf Nurkic, Portland Trail Blazers
Jusuf Nurkic is obnoxiously hard to place. His raw numbers aren't far and away better than last season, but they're coming in a more Blazers-friendly manner. At the very least, he's less predictable.
Almost 35 percent of Nurkic's post-ups are ending in a pass, up from 21.8 percent last season, and he's shooting at a higher clip in these situations. He's not a pick-and-pop threat, but he's finishing with more decisiveness and zip around the basket. Both have lent themselves to a career-high free-throw rate. Incidentally, he has never shot better from the charity stripe.
Portland has its defensive warts, but Nurkic's rim protection and opportunistic hands are a savior. He is a must-have when Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum share the court. Top-50 placement may even be underselling him. Nurkic's average rank across 10 catch-all metrics lands inside the top 20, according to a handy database compiled by the Hardwood Knocks podcast's Andy Bailey that weights Real Plus-Minus (RPM), RPM Wins, Player Impact Plus-Minus (PIPM), PIPM Wins, Box Plus-Minus (BPM), Total Points Added (TPA), Win Shares (WS), Win Shares Per 48 Minutes (WS/48), Game Score and Game Score Per Minute.
45-41: Winslow, Sabonis, Mitchell, Tatum, Bledsoe
45. Justise Winslow, Miami Heat
Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra often functions as a player-personnel wizard, tinkering with schemes and rotations to unlock dormant skills from the members of his roster. Justise Winslow is the latest example, and the alterations have allowed him to maximize his newfound shooting strides while also functioning as a primary playmaker for the South Beach residents. Through it all, he's remained a physically imposing defender who refuses to back down from even the toughest wing assignments.
But since taking over as an offensive initiator during a Dec. 7 victory over the Phoenix Suns, Winslow has averaged 14.7 points, 5.6 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.2 blocks and 2.1 turnovers while shooting 46.9 percent from the field, 40.0 percent from long range and (an admittedly regression-indicating) 63.5 percent from the line. He's served as Miami's best player and boosted the net rating by a team-high 10.3 points per 100 possessions while on the floor, completing his transformation from written-off backup falling out of favor with the organization's fanbase to obvious foundational piece.
44. Domantas Sabonis, Indiana Pacers
Among the leading candidates for Most Improved Player, Domantas Sabonis has apparently decided he can do everything imaginable on the basketball court, ranging from throwing down impressive jams to playing sharp interior defense to providing assists that would make his father, Arvydas Sabonis, proud. Correspondingly, he's putting up a rather unique line. Only the following qualified players have ever matched his 21.4 points, 13.7 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 0.9 steals and 0.7 blocks per 36 minutes:
- 1975-76 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
- 2018-19 Giannis Antetokounmpo
- 2018-19 Nikola Vucevic
Except that's not all Sabonis is doing.
He's posting those numbers while shooting 61.7 percent from the field, keeping his turnovers in check and consistently holding his own on defense. Only his limited time on the floor keeps him from earning even higher placement during this breakout season.
43. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
Here comes Donovan Mitchell.
This young offensive talent struggled at the beginning of his sophomore campaign, greeted with more defensive attention than he could handle while showing a surprising unwillingness to involve his Utah Jazz teammates. But he's started to remind the world of his superb rookie go-round in recent weeks, picking his spots with more surety and remembering how to finish plays on the interior.
And this isn't some fleeting hot streak. Mitchell has been setting fire to defenses since Christmas. He's averaging 25.9 points and 4.4 assists on a roughly 46/39/81 shooting slash through his last 14 appearances.
Mitchell still needs to develop on defense, where his physical tools and quick hands should offer a strong foundation. He's also an inconsistent offensive threat who can go cold out of nowhere and occasionally forget that passing is an option. But the overwhelming talent is still abundantly clear, and his role in Salt Lake City makes him far more important to a competitive organization than Domantas Sabonis can be in his limited minutes.
42. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
This isn't something we expected to say after his lone season for the Duke Blue Devils, but Jayson Tatum's defensive ability ensures he has a higher floor than Donovan Mitchell on any given night. Even if the depth of the Boston Celtics rotation prevents him from taking over as many possessions and elevating his ceiling, he almost always functions as a two-way positive who can find some way to contribute when the shots aren't falling.
Unfortunately, those nights have come with too much regularity in 2018-19.
Perhaps inspired by his workouts with Kobe Bryant, the second-year standout has fallen into some bad habits—dribbling his way into contested jumpers and taking an additional 2.2 percent of his field-goal attempts as two-pointers from at least 10 feet. If he can remedy those shot-selection shortcomings and capitalize on his prodigious talent more frequently, he'll be a lock for higher placement in the near future.
41. Eric Bledsoe, Milwaukee Bucks
As Andrew Sharp brilliantly highlighted in a profile for Sports Illustrated, Eric Bledsoe's performance in 2018-19, though often overlooked, has been vital to the Milwaukee Bucks' level of top-tier success:
"His season in Milwaukee has been easy to overlook, in part because his success doesn't come with a convenient narrative. He's more accomplished than a role player, but he's not quite a star. He's the point guard, but the offense begins and ends with Giannis [Antetokounmpo]. He's a two-way Antetokoumpo sidekick who can help this team challenge for the East, but as far as underrated two-way success goes, most of the NBA nerd community has already pledged lifelong allegiance to [Khris] Middleton."
Bledsoe might not have overtaken Khris Middleton in the importance battle, considering the dire need for spacing around Giannis Antetokounmpo and the increased defensive versatility offered by the swingman's size. But he's close—close enough that he can be deemed indispensable in the push for legitimacy as a title contender and might have a shot at becoming No. 2 in Brewtown if he'd hit more than 30.7 percent of his 4.7 deep tries per game.
40-36: Harris, Middleton, Gallinari, Fox, Siakam
40. Tobias Harris, Los Angeles Clippers
Tobias Harris has an argument as the Clippers' best player. Choosing between him and Danilo Gallinari is a matter of preference—or, with the latter suffering from a back injury, an issue of availability.
Harris' offensive skill is not subject to debate. He is among the league's most rock-solid scorers. He doesn't cut his teeth at the foul line or as a high-volume half-court initiator. He finishes well enough around the rim but does not subsist on head-down drives. His jumper is everything, and it works.
More than 20 percent of Harris' attempts are coming on spot-up threes, on which he's shooting better than 40 percent. His off-the-dribble looks are a staple of Los Angeles' offense, and they're falling at a neat-o clip. Just three players are averaging as many pull-up jumpers as Harris and have a better effective field-goal percentage: Stephen Curry, James Harden and Kyrie Irving.
39. Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks
Khris Middleton's overhauled shot profile has not reinvented his offensive value. He is taking fewer long twos, but his effective field-goal and true shooting percentages are right in line with last year's.
A December to forget didn't help. Mostly, Milwaukee doesn't need him to play like a junior lifeline anymore. Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon and Brook Lopez have allowed for a redistribution of the offensive workload behind Giannis Antetokounmpo. Middelton is averaging more shots per minute but playing less overall.
Still, his numbers keep him in good company. Stephen Curry, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and D'Angelo Russell are the only other players eclipsing 20 points, four assists and two three-pointers per 36 minutes while shooting 37.5 percent or better on those triples.
38. Danilo Gallinari, Los Angeles Clippers
Another back injury may cost Gallinari the wee bit of ground he has gained on Harris. But if his season ended right now—knocks incredibly hard on the closest wooden object—he will have turned in one of the most complete scoring performances ever.
Gallinari is averaging more than 20 points per 36 minutes while slashing 45/44/90 from the floor. The list of players to do the same include Stephen Curry (three times), Peja Stojakovic, and that's it. Long revered for his ability to draw fouls, Gallinari has turned into a viable pull-up three-point shooter and dependable finisher around the rim.
What's more, the Clippers' wing and big rotations have necessitated a deeper exploration of his defensive utility. The results are not always good, but Los Angeles has pieced together a quality—albeit partially lucky—three-point deterrent while having him switch across positions 2 through 5.
37. De'Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings
Better spacing from the Kings offense has unleashed De'Aaron Fox. For the most part, he's so fast the lineups in which he plays aren't be-alls, but Sacramento's increased speed and wider lanes perfectly align with its point guard's own zero-to-100 acceleration and off-the-bounce vision.
Fox is shooting better than 73 percent around the rim, finishing more often and deftly through contact and keeping defenses on tilt with a mixed bag of decision-making. He is showcasing his low-turnover passing on drives, but also working in floaters and putting down pull-up jumpers.
Even as a rookie, Fox didn't shy from firing off the dribble. That onset willingness has since translated to a tangible danger. He's drilling about 36 percent of his stop-and-pop treys, no small victory given the 31.9 percent success rate he registered on those looks last season.
The hardest part of any rebuild is getting that player with top-20 or better chops. If Fox's sophomore detonation is any indication, the Kings have secured theirs.
36. Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors
Finding Pascal Siakam so cozily in the top 40 will rub plenty of people the wrong way. The prevailing notion might be that he benefits from playing beside Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry. Which, well, he does. But his identity is not tethered to the minutes he spends beside them.
Anchored by its defense, Toronto is outscoring opponents by more than two points per 100 possessions when Siakam plays without Leonard and Lowry, according to Cleaning the Glass. The sample size isn't huge (350ish possessions), but largely thanks to injuries, the Raptors' bench-heavy units are not the fireballs they were last season.
Siakam's solo time matters. So, too, does his offensive development. His face-up game-winner over the Suns on Jan. 17 was not an anomaly. Nearly 45 percent of his made baskets go unassisted, and he's shooting a blistering 61 percent on drives—third to only Giannis Antetokounmpo and T.J. McConnell(!) among the 115 players who have at least 200 attacks to their name.
35-31: Paul, Horford, Doncic, Booker, DeRozan
35. Chris Paul, Houston Rockets
No point guard is immune to the clutches of Father Time, and this is the season during which Chris Paul is finally affected. Not just because of the balky hamstring that has limited him to only 26 appearances during the first half of the season, but also because he's finally unable to get to his spots quite as easily.
Throughout his career, the league's resident Point God has controlled tempo and the spacing within the half-court set, but his movements haven't been quite as quick during his age-33 season. He's slashing just 41.5/35.3/81.3, and he's been unable to earn nearly as many clean looks around the rim and from floater territory.
Paul remains a brilliant floor general who can play the position as well as anyone on any given night. But for the first time, obvious cracks have emerged.
34. Al Horford, Boston Celtics
Speaking of players affected by the unshakable grips of advancing age, Al Horford has also looked a step slower during the 2018-19 season. But even if he was starting from a lower point heading into the campaign, his versatility and cerebral excellence have still allowed him to make a major impact for the Boston Celtics. The slippage has existed; it's just been a bit less extreme.
During the 2017-18 calendar, Horford finished fourth among centers in RPM. But take a gander at the trend on both ends of the floor:
He's still a positive on both ends. He's still capable of functioning as an offensive hub one possession and then anchoring the defense on the next. But his brilliance is fading, to the point that he won't belong in the award conversation at the end of the current season.
33. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
What more can we say about Luka Doncic, who's carrying a remarkable burden for the Dallas Mavericks and already establishing himself as the obvious alpha on a team filled with more experienced NBAers? He seems to produce a new record or achievement on a nightly basis during a rookie campaign that can reasonably be compared to the inaugural efforts of LeBron James.
Sure, picking nits is possible. We could highlight his occasional struggles with turnovers or the nights during which he can't find anything but iron. We could point out the defensive deficiencies that quick guards love to exploit, even if his versatility and size allow for that ultra-valuable switchability on a number of possessions. But the flaws are still few and far between, and that says more than anything in a culture of fandom that typically features young players picked apart for what they can't do, not celebrated for what they can.
32. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
Grading Devin Booker on a curve is necessary, if only because the Phoenix Suns have consistently failed to surround him with top-tier talents capable of drawing away defensive attention. Now, he's trying to lead a team without a true point guard logging major minutes, which forces him to overextend his skill set and basically necessitates some inefficient volume shooting.
In a vacuum, his 45.2/31.8/83.5 slash line might disqualify him from top-40 positioning. Even if he's producing 24.2 points, 3.7 rebounds and 6.9 assists per game, he's doing so with a mediocre 56.1 true shooting percentage while engaging in a perpetual disappearing act on the defensive end. But we're not operating in a vacuum. Context has to matter, and that context shows a tantalizing skill set as well as a player who can't leave the floor for fear of the offense utterly collapsing in his absence.
31. DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs
Leave it to San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich and the rest of his coaching staff to completely alter DeMar DeRozan's playing style after the 2-guard had unsuccessfully attempted to overcome the same weaknesses for the better part of a decade. Admittedly, the three-point strides made in previous years have all but disappeared in the Alamo City. But from their ashes, other skills have emerged.
DeRozan is averaging a career-high 6.4 assists per game without a substantial uptick in the turnover department, and he's earning the first positive defensive box plus/minus of his professional tenure. He might not be as dangerous a go-to scorer as in years past, and that's usually what made him the most valuable. Instead, he's playing strong two-way basketball with a more well-rounded game than ever before.
30-26: Green, Capela, Thompson, Adams, Oladipo
30. Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
Draymond Green's offense is as troubling as advertised. He is shooting 25 percent from deep, the second-lowest mark of his career, and hardly becomes more reliable when left alone. Among almost 119 players who have appeared in at least 10 games and are averaging two or more wide-open three-point attempts, Green's sub-28 percent clip ranks inside the bottom five.
Most teams would be sunk by such a stark non-threat. The degree to which perimeter defenses leave Green unattended is so high it crosses the threshold of egregious. The Warriors aren't most teams. They have the star-power playmaking and range to offset a premier non-shooter.
Green, who's shooting slightly better from distance over the past couple of weeks, is even part solution to his own problem. He still dazzles with his decision-making off the dribble and can leverage Golden State's other bigwigs into easy finishes at the rim.
His defensive slide is also being exaggerated. When he turns on the jets, which happens quite often this side of his toe injury, he's the NBA's most disruptive all-around defender. It speaks volumes that, to date, the Warriors are at their stingiest when he plays center, per Cleaning the Glass.
29. Clint Capela, Houston Rockets
Clint Capela's importance to the Rockets will be reinforced during his recovery from right thumb surgery. He is an exacting worker inside his wheelhouse, forever receiving but fragments of credit for Houston's success—or, in the case of this season, its survival.
Capela's offensive timing is as paramount as his rebounding and rim protection. Most of his screens are set knowing he's not the endgame. He trails James Harden's drives while leaving just the right amount of space—enough to allot Harden a head start on his way to the rim but not so much that he won't be in position for lobs.
Certain players tire of complementary repetition. Someone else might bristle at the prospect of an offensive role more finite than the one Steven Adams plays for Oklahoma City. Capela has owned it.
28. Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors
Perhaps the biggest endorsement we can given to Klay Thompson is that his placement will look too conservative (or foolish) by season's end. His sagging three-point clip gets talked about ad nauseam, as does his uptick in mid-range volume.
Viewed in its totality, Thompson's year is deservedly checkered by this quarter-season's worth of clumsy deviation from his norm. Like usual, though, he's put most of the doubts to bed. He's shooting better than 52 percent on threes since Golden State's Dec. 27 wake-up-call loss to Portland and burning through far fewer two-pointers outside the paint.
Defensive metrics have always dismissed Thompson's impact, which succeeds only in highlighting their imperfections. If Andre Iguodala is the Warriors' secret playoff weapon, Thompson is the every-night gnat who affords him regular-season respite and preservation. He covers lead guards without interruption, and Golden State turns to him against bigger wings when neither backcourt assignment is an elite off-the-bounce threat.
27. Steven Adams, Oklahoma City Thunder
Steven Adams plays an almost-unappreciated role for the Thunder. As SI.com's Rob Mahoney underscored while ranking him as the league's 38th-best player leading into this season:
"There's just no working around the fact that Adams is a proper giant. He can wipe out a guard with a screen and bulldoze a big with a roll. Players of that size aren't supposed to move around the floor so easily, and yet here is Adams, gliding through contact after teaching himself how. You might not consider Adams a standout athlete, but he's made himself into one."
Adams has buoyed his stock even further by expanding his role on Oklahoma City without straying from his core value. He is not a featured from-scratch scorer, but he's gone from finishing two post-ups per game last year to more than five, on which he's shooting 56.7 percent—the fourth-best mark among 61 players who've used at least 75 of these possessions.
Factor in a nifty floater, his ridiculous net-rating swing and that he is nearly small-ball-proof, and his finish shouldn't seem so ambitious.
26. Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers
Note: Victor Oladipo suffered a "serious" knee injury during the Pacers' Jan. 23 game against the Raptors. Since an official prognosis was not provided prior to the filing of these rankings, we've decided to let his inclusion stand. The calculus changes if he is, as expected, out for the season. But his performance so far warrants this level of consideration. Plus, injuries stink and deserve minimal courtesy whenever possible.
Victor Oladipo is basically a more human version of last year's Most Improved Player. His shots are similarly difficult, but they're not falling as often. He is no less indispensable on the defensive end, though Indiana is likely to have him cover an afterthought so he can be a freelance gambler and helper.
None of which makes his stardom a facade. The Pacers discovered extra layers within themselves while he missed almost a month recovering from a right knee injury. Oladipo is trying to assimilate into their committee approach while, perhaps, compensating for sub-100 percent health. And his attempt is admirable, if a relative success.
Pore over the performances of his teammates, and he still profiles as Indy's most valuable weapon. The offense's floor balance isn't the same without him. He has taken on more playmaking responsibility, and the Pacers generally see their shooting percentages outside the paint suffer appreciable swings in the wrong direction when he catches a breather, according to Cleaning the Glass.
25-21: Vucevic, Aldridge, Holiday, Conley, Beal
25. Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic
What more must Nikola Vucevic do to prove himself as a star in this league?
Averaging 20.5 points, 12.0 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 0.9 steals and 1.1 blocks per game for the Orlando Magic, the talented 7-footer has asserted himself as an unstoppable individual force who thrives from the blocks and perimeter alike. When he's not carefully threading the ball through traffic and into the hands of open teammates with nary a cough-up, he's knocking down 38.2 percent of his triples. When he's not firing away from beyond the arc, he's hitting 46.7 percent of his long twos, 40.9 percent of his 10-16-foot jumpers and 71.8 percent of his shots within three feet.
Vucevic has become a complete offensive dynamo, and he's made the metamorphosis without sacrificing his steadiness on the less glamorous end.
24. LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs
LaMarcus Aldridge doesn't get as many chances to operate with offensive autonomy while playing within the stricter confines of the San Antonio Spurs system, but it's reasonable to believe he could match Vucevic's individual impact if granted the opportunity. Instead, he's content to soldier on as an offensive force flying well beneath the radar, bouncing back nicely from an ugly start to his 2018-19 efforts with play more like what we saw during his All-NBA efforts the season prior.
Dating back to the beginning of December, Aldridge has averaged 23.3 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 0.7 steals and 1.2 blocks per game while slashing 57.8/42.9/85.2. He's resumed functioning as a go-to scorer who can get buckets from all over the floor, regardless of whether Popovich is calling his number or he's taking what comes within the flow of the ball movement-heavy offense.
23. Jrue Holiday, New Orleans Pelicans
If only Jrue Holiday could shoot...
The New Orleans Pelicans' lead guard has thrived in so many areas this season, bullying smaller players in on-ball defensive scenarios and capably setting up the lackluster supporting cast he and Anthony Davis are so often tasked with elevating. But his 20.8 points per game still come with a 55.8 true shooting percentage that's dragged down by his errant habits beyond the arc, and that prevents him from maximizing his already substantial value.
Still, that Holiday has earned a top-10 offensive real plus-minus among 1-guards despite misfiring so often from downtown is a testament to the brilliance of his table-setting for the Pelicans.
22. Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies
Mike Conley's defense has slipped slightly during his age-31 season—often the magical age that ushers in substantial declines for point guards—but he's overcome any issues on that end with inspiring offensive performances. Not only is he averaging 19.8 points and 6.1 assists per game while slashing 42.2/35.4/84.9, but he's also managed to control his turnovers to a historic degree.
Throughout NBA history, only 1986-87 Fat Lever (8.0), 1981-82 Gus Williams (6.9), 1989-90 Lever (6.5) and 1989-90 Michael Jordan (6.3) have averaged more assists per game with a single-digit turnover percentage. That, in a nutshell, is what allows him to check in at No. 6 among point guards in ORPM, which happens to be two spots higher than Holiday's placement.
21. Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
Neither the Washington Wizards nor the Memphis Grizzlies have too much talent surrounding their leading stars. On the season, their net ratings differ by only 0.4 points per 100 possessions. And because of those two factors, we can make some comparisons between Conley-sparked success on Beale Street and Bradley Beal-driven positives in the nation's capital.
When the Wizards have played with Beal and without John Wall, they've toppled their foes to the tune of a 4.3 net rating, per PBPStats. For perspective, that net rating stands at minus-15.3 in the reverse situation, minus-3.3 with both stars sidelined and minus-6.0 with both playing. In every situation, Beal's presence improves the product.
When Conley operates without Marc Gasol, the Grizzlies are outscored by 9.2 points per 100 possessions. Reversing the roles leads to a minus-14.8 net rating that shifts to 3.0 with both men playing and minus-5.1 with both men benched. The shifts come in the same direction but with less magnitude and a far lower ceiling.
Beal, thanks to a scorching streak after Wall was shut down for the season, has proved he belongs in the same tier as the more established Conley. His relative value to his organization, though, allows him to lead a playoff push as a solo standout and pushes him even higher in these rankings.
20-16: Lowry, Simmons, Walker, Butler, Westbrook
20. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
Points-per-game die-hards will disagree with Kyle Lowry's finish. He is an annual matter of issue around these parts, and placing him so high amid a weekslong shooting slump and with his scoring average at its lowest since 2012-13 will only increase the rancor and rebukes.
This isn't by design. Lowry monopolized a ton of thought throughout this process, his battles with back and thigh issues included. Invariably, though, he is more to the Raptors than his point totals and efficiency.
His defense isn't All-NBA material, but his effort remains a constant, stabilizing force—particularly in bench-heavy units. And he's endeared himself to Toronto's transition around Kawhi Leonard by saddling himself with extra playmaking responsibilities. The shot attempts and points won't always be there, but Lowry's net-rating swing, the second-highest on the team and comfortably larger than Leonard's mark, paints a far more accurate picture of his value to the Raptors.
19. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
Smart people are getting bent out of shape because Ben Simmons doesn't jack threes or mid-range jumpers, occupies Joel Embiid's preferred space when he doesn't have the ball and changes the way in which Jimmy Butler receives his shots. They're not wrong. They should also try harder to get over it.
Simmons' true shooting percentage has jumped from his rookie season despite a poor free-throw clip and the complete absence of range, and he remains one of the game's best half-dozen passers. Up until now, no other player has cleared 17 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists per 36 minutes while matching his efficiency. (Nikola Jokic is in the process of eclipsing those same benchmarks.)
Limited shooting isn't enough to entirely drag down Simmons' stock. Outside looks were never advertised as part of his game, and he's effective as hell without them. His turnover issues and slight defensive slippage are more worthwhile concerns.
18. Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets
How far can Kemba Waker carry the Hornets? It's an uncomfortably old question. And his star was, until recently, tamped down because of it.
Salary-cap mismanagement and questionable draft-day decisions have prevented Charlotte from ever surrounding Walker with a viable No. 2. Nicolas Batum is the closest the Hornets have come, and that dice roll crapped out after 2016-17. Jeremy Lamb or, when healthy, Cody Zeller is their second-best player. Only one cracked this list (Zeller), and he barely snuck inside the top 90.
That context elevates Walker's performance. He is an offensive ecosystem unto himself—in the most postmodern way possible. All his points seem to come the hard away. He is neither a next-level finisher nor free-throw machine.
James Harden is the only player averaging more pull-up jumpers, and Walker ranks eighth overall in contested shot attempts per game. That he's notching about the same effective field-goal percentage as Jimmy Butler against this (three-point-heavy) difficulty is something we cannot take for granted.
17. Jimmy Butler, Philadelphia 76ers
Did we penalize Jimmy Butler for sabotaging the early portion of the Timberwolves' season? Not consciously. His fall from our preseason exercise (No. 9) is twofold: unavoidable amid a change in scenery and an uprising of other standouts.
Over half of Butler's shots since he joined the Sixers are coming after no more than a single dribble—a far cry from the freedom of possession he enjoyed in Minnesota. That functional shift has not nuked his efficiency; his shooting slashes are intact. But he is less than an offensive hub. Philly doesn't have the luxury of staggering his minutes with both Embiid and Simmons.
This doesn't yank Butler so far from the top 10 by itself. Curious defensive returns are in play. We might be witnessing the limitations of his one-on-one chutzpah in relation to the bigger picture. The Sixers fall well short of elite on the less glamorous end when he plays with his co-stars, and the Embiid-Simmons partnership is proving more effective on its own, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Whether this is the byproduct of Butler's newness or something more ominous remains uncertain. But within the parameters of this discussion, it warrants the hesitation shown here.
16. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
Slotting Russell Westbrook just inside the top 10 entering the season didn't go over well. Digesting this isn't going to be any easier.
Westbrook continues to have a positive, if complicated, impact on winning. He's shooting a career high around the rim and deferring more of the workload to Paul George. Oklahoma City is a monstrous plus on offense with him in the lineup, and he's on pace to average a triple-double for the third consecutive season—a pursuit he has for the first time married with consistent half-court defense.
Surrounding surges from younger big men have dampened Westbrook's standing. But he's also getting docked for enduring offensive warts. His crunch-time hijackings have quieted in some form, but the iffy decision-making persists. He's shooting under 30 percent overall and below 12 percent from three during clutch play. And he has firmly entrenched himself as one of the NBA's mid- to high-volume long-range shooters.
There have been 1,905 individual seasons in which a player averaged at least three attempts per game from beyond the arc. Within that group, Westbrook's 24.2 percent clip ranks...1,905th.
15-11: Griffin, Towns, Lillard, Gobert, Embiid
15. Blake Griffin, Detroit Pistons
Remember when Blake Griffin was a havoc-wreaking dunker who forced interior defenders to live in constant fear of posterization? Remember when, later in his career, he looked like he was declining on both ends of the floor before the Los Angeles Clippers traded him, Brice Johnson and Willie Reed to the Detroit Pistons for Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, a 2018 first-round pick and a 2019 second-round pick?
It's tough now that Griffin has revamped his game, excelling on the perimeter en route to a career season as a 29-year-old taking a whopping 6.6 triples per game. He's become the unquestionable lifeblood of the Pistons, willing them into competitive results despite a roster seemingly intent on holding him back. His going for 40 points every night feels like one of the few ways to guarantee victory in the Motor City.
14. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
Jimmy Butler played his final game for the Minnesota Timberwolves on Nov. 9. Since then, whether freed from the turmoil that existed while both stars operated in concert or because he's been handed even more responsibility within the offensive schemes, Karl-Anthony Towns has averaged 23.4 points, 12.9 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.8 blocks while shooting 50.6 percent from the field, 35.9 percent from downtown and 81.7 percent from the stripe.
This former Kentucky standout has long been viewed as an offensive force, and he's continued to justify that label throughout 2018-19. Defenders might be able to shut down his deep-shooting game or keep him contained around the basket, but they can rarely do both on the same night. That he's continuing to excel as a scorer while simultaneously posting the best DRPM of his career (1.15) is a clear-cut indication of his arrival as a top-tier star capable of carrying a team without sacrificing other elements of his game.
T-12. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
T-12. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
In the interest of full disclosure, we had to take the easy way out and declare this battle a tie.
Our process for determining these rankings involves poring over film and numbers while debating placements over the phone for countless hours. Usually, we can come to a consensus. In this case, after an hourlong debate featuring raised voices, plenty of deep statistical dives and a handful of bribery attempts led to neither of us ceding our positions (Favale is #TeamLillard; Fromal is #TeamGobert), we had no choice.
How do you decide between a pair of players providing All-NBA-level value but operating in polar-opposite fashions?
Lillard means everything to the Portland Trail Blazers, taking on enormous off-the-bounce responsibilities that hinder some of his individual efficiency numbers but keep the flow offense humming in Rip City. He's become an adequate pick-and-roll defender over the years, but his pure offensive ability—26.3 points and 6.2 assists per game with a 58.9 true shooting percentage and an 11.1 turnover percentage—remains central to his on-court value.
Gobert means everything to the Utah Jazz, anchoring their defensive scheme with his impeccable PNR defense and otherworldly rim-protection habits. He paces the Association in DRPM and still finds time to contribute on offense with a strong, patient rim-running game. The only real knocks involve a dearth of shooting range and a dependence on other players to set up his improving scoring habits.
In both cases, the strengths are undeniably elite, while the few weaknesses that exist aren't even that detrimental. They're franchise centerpieces in the truest sense of the phrase.
11. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Joel Embiid essentially functions as his own defensive system, capably switching onto smaller players when he's not ferociously protecting the interior. The Philadelphia 76ers allow 5.0 fewer points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor, and that shouldn't be considered even remotely flukey. Nor should the positive presences of other players detract from his excellence during a campaign that will inevitably result in serious Defensive Player of the Year consideration.
But offensive inconsistency is what keeps him (barely) out of the top 10.
For all the nights on which he explodes in the scoring column, dominating with a smooth face-up jumper and post-up moves that would make players not named Hakeem Olajuwon or Kevin McHale jealous, he can also call his own number too frequently and make negative plays. Until he's shooting better than 30.5 percent from beyond the rainbow—to be fair, just taking triples drags defenders out of the paint—and turning the ball over fewer than 3.5 times per game, he won't have maximized his world-beating potential.
10. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics
10. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics
Entire seasons have been dedicated to debating where Kyrie Irving stands relative to the rest of the NBA's superstars. And at long last, he is settling into top-10 territory without any real controversy.
Other players could land in this spot. Joel Embiid, Rudy Gobert, Damian Lillard, Karl-Anthony Towns and Russell Westbrook all have their own cases. Talent is separated by molehills at the top of the mountain. But Irving is making his strongest case yet to stand above his most direct competition.
Questionable leadership tactics aside, he is easily having the best season of his career. His shot-making and circus finishing are the same brand of nasty, but he's fighting harder on defense and more self-aware as a passer.
Kitchen-sink metrics are recognizing Irving's clout. Here are the NBA's top 10 average ranks across 10 catch-all metrics—RPM, RPM Wins, PIPM, PIPM Wins, TPA, BPM, WS, WS/48, Game Score, Game Score Per Minute—courtesy of the Hardwood Knocks podcast's Andy Bailey:
- Anthony Davis: 2.7
- James Harden: 3.3
- Giannis Antetokounmpo: 3.4
- Nikola Jokic: 7.1
- Paul George: 7.2
- Rudy Gobert: 7.9
- Kevin Durant: 8.2
- Stephen Curry: 8.6
- Kyrie Irving: 9.2
- Joel Embiid: 12.5
Both cumulative and rolling measure-alls have typically stuck Irving outside the top 20. For him to place ninth while having kept the Celtics offense afloat during their darkest, most unpredictable hours isn't everything, but it means something—a whole lot, actually.
9. Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder
9. Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder
Paul George is having a top-seven kind of season at a time when the NBA is loaded with top-seven kind of players. That's just where we're at.
Party poopers will tear down George by noting he isn't the prototypical No. 1. To entrust him with total care of your offense is to cap your ceiling, and to point that out is trendy.
There will be none of that here.
George is not the breadwinner of the Thunder's offense. Russell Westbrook has more influence. He will always have more influence. But Oklahoma City is living and dying by him less and less. George assumed a larger on-ball role while Westbrook missed time with knee and ankle problems earlier in the season, and some of that responsibility has translated with the Thunder at full strength.
Fifty-five percent of his baskets are coming without an assist, the most of his career. His effective field-goal percentage on pull-up jumpers is reaching 2016-17 levels of bliss against noticeably more volume, and he's pairing a career-best scoring average with four assists per game.
All this, and George is still in the running, if not the favorite, for Defensive Player of the Year. Combined with the peak of his offensive powers, this is, by far, the best basketball he has ever played.
8. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
8. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Nikola Jokic doesn't make sense. There shouldn't be a big who can score, rebound and drop dimes in volume on watermark efficiency.
And before now, there wasn't one.
Oscar Robertson and Russell Westbrook (twice) are the only other players who have turned in at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists per 36 minutes for an entire season. Both are guards, and neither came close to matching Jokic's true shooting percentage.
Bake in his improved defensive awareness (it's real), and the always-buggy argument against his superstar ascension is officially bankrupt. Even the "But he's not the best player on a contender!" sticklers are being toppled.
Nuggets players have missed more games because of injuries than any other team, according to Man Games Lost. Denver still has the West's second-best record and the league's sixth-highest point differential per 100 possessions. That doesn't happen without Jokic elevating the offense above its available personnel and tightening up his defensive decision-making.
7. Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors
Kawhi Leonard has overcome the most important part of his return from last year's right quad injury: quashing any and all questions about his superstardom.
He isn't the 2016-17 version of himself, but he's close. He's averaging career highs in points (27.6) and rebounds (7.9), and his three-point shooting has leveled out after a shaky start. He's canning 38.9 percent of his triples, to go along with 30.4 points per game, since Toronto's statement win over Golden State on Nov. 29.
Some of Leonard's sets don't feel organic. The Raptors are traveling great lengths to adapt around him. Leonard is gradually making quicker decisions on the catch, but Toronto often clears out the lane and overloads one side of the floor so he can go through his motions.
That isn't a potshot at either side. It does, however, make using him in combination with other playmakers that much more important. Lineups that feature him without Lowry or Fred VanVleet, rare as they are, rank in the 8th percentile of offensive efficiency, per Cleaning the Glass.
Split hairs aren't making or breaking anyone's case, not even this late in the process. It's the same story with Leonard's defense. He isn't the every-possession wrecking ball that seized two Defensive Player of the Year awards earlier this decade, but he's still a one-on-one clobbering stick who has plenty of moments in which he is everywhere at once, just like old times.
Availability drags Leonard outside of the top five more than anything else. He has missed almost 30 percent of the season, including a recent four-game stretch due to load management, and he isn't yet playing both ends of back-to-backs.
Missing that much time detracts from his All-NBA and MVP cases, so it matters here as well. In the grand scheme of things, though, it is but a footnote to the more essential takeaway: Kawhi's back.
6. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
Insofar as one of the NBA's best half-dozen players can go relatively unnoticed, Kevin Durant is flying under the radar.
Golden State's early-season dramatics are partially at fault. Durant's performance has forfeited focus to his pending free agency and a dustup with Draymond Green. (No worries, they're friends again!) When head coach Steve Kerr bemoaned Golden State's inconsistent ball movement in late December, Durant bristled at those comments.
For a while, even if their dynasty never genuinely hung in the balance, it looked like all joy had been stripped from the Warriors. Everything else, however impressive, fell by the wayside. But with DeMarcus Cousins having recently made his debut and three-pointers falling in droves again, the fun-having Warriors are back.
And the truth is, Durant never actually left.
Injuries to Green and Stephen Curry, coupled with a slumping Klay Thompson, opened the door for him to control even more of the offense. Golden State's reliance on Durant has at times tilted toward pandering, but he's responded with an objectively unfair season.
Durant is averaging a career high in assists while flirting with a 50/40/90 shooting slash as the NBA's fourth-leading scorer. That shouldn't be possible. And yet, it's basically Durant's status quo.
The Warriors are 18.1 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor, the highest net-rating swing in the non-Cousins division, which is an honor usually reserved for Curry. Durant's case as Golden State's most valuable player will never be airtight, or even successful. But right now, it's stronger than ever.
5. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Which offensive season would you take?
- Player A: 30.1 points and 6.7 assists per game while slashing 50.4/45.4/90.8 (66.9 true shooting percentage) with a 12.9 turnover percentage
- Player B: 29.3 points and 5.6 assists per game while slashing 48.8/44.8/92.7 (66.2 true shooting percentage) with an 11.5 turnover percentage
You're probably rolling with the first option because of the increased volume and slightly elevated shooting efficiency, even if it comes with a bit more ball-handling sloppiness. It's a valid choice. Probably the correct one. That would be Stephen Curry's 2015-16 season, during which he submitted some of the best offensive numbers in NBA history en route to a unanimous MVP award.
But Player B is current-year Curry, posting tantalizingly similar offensive numbers while sparking yet another dominant Golden State Warriors outfit. He's an even smarter player now, making sharper decisions with his passing game while firing away from beyond the arc with increased impunity. That he can even challenge his 2015-16 exploits is remarkable in and of itself.
Early-year health scares and declining defensive effort should prevent Curry from rising back into the forefront of the MVP conversation, but he remains one of the Association's deadliest weapons—the greatest shooter in the history of the sport who can also finish 66.0 percent of his plays at the rim and excel as a primary distributor for his talented teammates.
4. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Maybe Giannis Antetokounmpo would be an even more dangerous player if he'd develop a consistent three-point stroke rather than hitting his 2.3 deep attempts per game at an 18.2 percent clip. But honestly, it might just not matter.
The aptly nicknamed Greek Freak displays his own type of unique gravity, forcing defenders to play him tighter because he can close gaps in the blink of an eye with his lanky strides. Even though foes don't have to respect the jumper, they're still unable to keep him out of the painted area, where he's throwing down one dunk after another with his Pterodactyl wingspan and spring-loaded athleticism.
Antetokounmpo's defensive potency is of paramount importance to the Milwaukee Bucks' efforts. His distributing flair out of the frontcourt is vital, unlocking the five-out schemes employed by head coach Mike Budenholzer. We can't overlook his willingness to get physical on the boards or even the unbelievable combination of all these different tools. But during the 2018-19 season, it may well be the slams that rise above all the rest—they don't provide the bulk of his monumental value, but they best showcase the unstoppable nature of his talent.
With 163 jams to his credit, Antetokounmpo has already exceeded last year's impressive tally (161) while requiring assists on only 57.1 percent of the rim-rattling conversions. Only Rudy Gobert has more (171), but you have to go all the way down to No. 33 on the leaderboard to find another player who's creating more than 40 percent of his own throw-downs: LeBron James, who's used assists on 58.7 percent of his 46 dunks.
Put another way? Antetokounmpo has made 70 unassisted dunks this year. No two-man combination has combined for more than 65 (Rudy Gobert and Ben Simmons). Only two men have made more in a full season during the last decade.
3. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
We cannot emphasize this enough: If the playoffs factored into these rankings, LeBron James would sit in the top spot after consistently proving he can elevate his game when the results matter most. This is not an indication he's no longer the best player in the world, so much as an admission that after looking back at the first half of the 2018-19 season and ahead at the remaining portion, he fails to impress as much as two other players.
Health is one factor.
A groin injury has already forced him to the sidelines for 14 contests, which is more than he's missed during any other year of his illustrious career. And while that could normally be written off as a fluke development for a bionic baller seemingly impervious to the hostile takeovers of the injury imp, it's also troubling when viewed in the larger context. A 34-year-old James is getting older. That's a fact. So too is the inevitability of the mileage accumulated in near-constant runs to the Finals eventually adding up. If that's happening now, his stock has to decline.
Secondly, James is taking too many possessions off on the defensive end—the culmination of a trend that's been brewing over the last half-decade. He's excellent when fully engaged, but the ball-watching habits and self-preservation tactics employed with increased and understandable frequency do matter.
James is obviously a game-breaking player who can affect the proceedings in myriad ways. When locked in, he can do things of which no other player can realistically dream, which he'll likely prove in the postseason yet again...if he can will the Los Angeles Lakers back into the Western Conference's punishing playoff picture after an extended absence.
Take this ranking for what it's meant to be—an acknowledgment that the world's best basketball player has to pick his spots rather than perpetually cling to that title.
2. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
Though it may seem hypocritical to ignore a significant finger injury suffered by Anthony Davis right after dinging LeBron James for his unavailability while rehabilitating a balky groin, the New Orleans Pelicans superstar has the luxury of youth at his disposal. He's right in the midst of his athletic prime as a 25-year-old and, contrary to the lasting reputation that emerged after his injury-plagued initial foray into the world of professional basketball, he's been rather durable in recent years.
Even with the games he's missed in 2018-19, Davis has spent more time on the court than all but a dozen players since the start of the 2016-17 campaign. We're willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, especially because the malady shouldn't have any long-term repercussions.
Plus, suffering an injury is even more understandable when the unibrowed big man has shouldered such an immense load for a Pelicans squad failing to surround him with enough talent. His combined usage rate and assist percentage has never been higher, and he's making the most of his increased responsibilities by averaging a staggering 29.3 points, 13.3 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.7 steals and 2.6 blocks.
Those aren't just empty numbers. They come while he shoots efficiently (50.8 percent from the field), demonstrates some three-point ability (32.5 percent on 3.0 attempts per game), keeps his turnovers in check (an even two per contest) and excels on the defensive end (No. 11 DRPM in the NBA).
No one has displayed a more complete game, which has even prompted some members of the Reddit community to request he be made unavailable in rotisserie fantasy basketball leagues because of the sheer unfairness of his all-around statistical prowess.
1. James Harden, Houston Rockets
This isn't just a prisoner-of-the-moment reaction after James Harden dropped 58 and 57 points in back-to-back contests. Ever since Chris Paul went down with a hamstring injury on Dec. 20, the bearded guard has taken it upon himself to carry a monumental load for the injury-riddled Houston Rockets.
He's done so admirably, using his deadly step-back triples and relentless assaults on the rim to carry an unfathomable scoring load without sacrificing the efficiency that makes him so effective. Perhaps his foul-drawing habits and dribble-the-ball-into-the-ground style turn away some viewers, but they're legitimate elements of his game that no one has been able to replicate.
Dating back to the first game sans Paul, a seven-point victory over the San Antonio Spurs in which the Rockets outscored their foes by 14 points with Harden on the floor, this offensive juggernaut has averaged an eye-popping 43.1 points, 7.6 rebounds, 8.3 assists, 1.9 steals and 1.1 blocks while shooting 42.5 percent from the field, 37.7 percent from downtown and 88.4 percent from the stripe. His true shooting percentage stands at a staggering 61.4 during the red-hot stretch that has seen Houston's net rating rise to a team-best 15.1 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor.
Despite the heavy involvement, Harden hasn't played selfish basketball. Sure, he's taken some ill-advised heat-checks. Shooters gonna shoot, after all. He's also merited the attempts with his enduring efficiency and produced a whopping 16.1 potential assists per game—second only to Russell Westbrook's 19.4.
Maybe Harden will slow down as the season progresses. Averaging 50 points, as he's done during his last four outings, is pretty tough to maintain. He's also potentially setting himself up for another postseason disappointment, not because he's due to choke in the playoffs, but because human beings ultimately have finite amounts of energy—energy he's expending at a remarkable rate just to keep Houston's win tally rising.
But keep the tally rising he is by playing better than anyone else in the sport.