Ranking the Top 50 Players in the 2019 NBA Playoffs

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistApril 11, 2019

Ranking the Top 50 Players in the 2019 NBA Playoffs

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    Another NBA postseason is upon us, and with it comes the opportunity to examine how the best players from the best teams stack up against each other. Because, after all, what's the point of the playoffs if not to uncork such rankings?

    Answer with a sarcastic "Um, to win a championship" if you like, but the Kevin Durant-era Golden State Warriors exist. Until they do not, these rankings are basically all we have. 

    Regular-season performances shape this pecking order more than anything else. Some projection is stirred in for good measure. We're evaluating these players as if we want to acquire them for the postseason. This takes into account injuries, current workload, lineup forecasts, team situations and anything else that applies.

    Playoff track records count as well, but nothing matters more than the mammoth sample size that is the regular season. Certain instances weigh more recent turnarounds. That's the extent of our deviation.

    Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal and Andrew Bailey weighed in on the rankings process, while B/R's Grant Hughes and Bryant Knox served as jurors during the tiebreaker process. Final say lied with me and the written analysis is mine, but please be sure to blame them for anything that makes your skin crawl or temper seethe.

Injury Exclusions

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    These players would have earned consideration for a top-50 nod if they weren't done for the year or expected to miss a large chunk of the postseason:

    • Dejounte Murray
    • Jusuf Nurkic
    • Victor Oladipo
    • Andre Roberson
    • Marcus Smart

Tough Cuts

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    Excluding these players is painful. They miss the cut because we're unsure whether late-season upticks will hold or they'll play large enough roles in the playoffs (listed in alphabetical order):

    • Jarrett Allen
    • Al-Farouq Aminu
    • Jaylen Brown
    • Spencer Dinwiddie
    • Gary Harris (this reaaaally hurt)
    • Joe Harris
    • Gordon Hayward (this was equally painful)
    • Aaron Gordon
    • Jerami Grant
    • Serge Ibaka
    • Andre Iguodala (holy cow, the NBA is deep)
    • CJ McCollum
    • Monte Morris
    • Mason Plumlee

50-46: Cousins, Young, Murray, Lopez, Williams

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    50. DeMarcus Cousin, Golden State Warriors

    Here's to hedges!

    DeMarcus Cousins has the counting stats to make this look foolish. His value to the postseason Warriors isn't as certain.

    Rival offenses are getting out in transition more often with him on the floor, according to Cleaning the Glass, and he's not generating points at an especially efficient clip. He's finding nylon on just 27.4 percent of his threes, shooting under 40 percent on drives and ranks in the 55th percentile for points scored per possession on post-ups.

    More complicated still, playing like peak Boogie wouldn't guarantee him anything. The Warriors are at their Warriors-est with Draymond Green in the middle. Cousins is going to see his involvement dwindle in crunch time and, potentially, for entire games against certain matchups.

         

    49. Thaddeus Young, Indiana Pacers

    Thaddeus Young's value doesn't mesh with all the numbers. He's shooting almost 36 percent from beyond the arc and activating facilitation mode more than ever since the Pacers lost Victor Oladipo, but he also owns Indy's worst net rating differential.

    Resist the urge to read into his splits. The Pacers are light on matchup-friendly perimeter stoppers, so the burden falls to him. He's neither fit for nor hopelessly overmatched against these terms. He's just grinding through less-than-ideal circumstances.

    Admire his balanced output if you're buying into anything about his season. James Harden, Paul George Russell Westbrook, Nikola Jokic, Willie Cauley-Stein and Draymond Green are the only players matching his defensive rebounding, assist, steal and block rates in over 2,000 minutes.

          

    48. Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets

    Select advanced metrics paint Monte Morris as a more valuable player than Jamal Murray. It turns out numbers sometimes do lie.

    Murray is not a beacon for consistency, but his season has fallen by the wayside—lost to Nikola Jokic's transition to universally accepted stardom, the rise of a scrappy supporting cast, Denver's perseverance in the face of too many injuries and a top-two Western Conference finish. He deserves better.

    Following his 4-of-19 clunker in a Dec. 26 loss to the Spurs, Murray is averaging 18.9 points, 4.0 rebounds and 4.7 assists while drilling 38 percent of his pull-up threes. His brand of shot-making is exactly what the Nuggets need to properly wreak havoc in the playoffs.

    Jokic is a star, but the offense will inevitably bog down. Murray is Denver's best bet to get face-up buckets in the half-court when it does.

         

    47. Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks

    Let us count the ways in which Brook Lopez is tearing it up.

    No one else in NBA history has ever averaged more than two blocks and two made threes per game. He is 12th in opponent field-goal percentage among the 262 players who faced at least 100 shots at the rim. Milwaukee's defensive rebounding rate improves by 3.5 points when he's in the game checking bodies under the basket so Giannis Antetokounmpo can grab the rock and go.

    Perhaps some teams can mismatch Lopez into a liability. Don't count on it. He's doing enough to avoid that fate. 

         

    46. Lou Williams, Los Angeles Clippers

    Lou Williams is something else. He touts a superstar's usage—he's fourth in the entire league—as a reserve but doesn't come across as a chucker.

    On the contrary, the Clippers depend on his volume. He is sixth among all guards in free-throw-attempt rate and hits just enough of his pull-up threebies (34.6 percent) to run defenses aground. Los Angeles does not have a better orchestrator. Mr. Fourth Quarter initiates more than twice as many pick-and-rolls as any of his teammates, and his efficiency in those situations is off the charts relative to his volume.

    Score-first guards are always stereotyped, and Williams is no different. Rival offenses can target him in the half-court. There will be times when he drops 25-plus points and his minutes feel like a wash.

    Whatever. Williams is an offensive star by regular-season standards. The Clippers are about to test whether he holds up as a co-No. 1 (sup, Danilo Gallinari?) when higher stakes kick in.  

45-41: Favors, Millsap, Green, Redick, Tatum

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    45. Derrick Favors, Utah Jazz

    Derrick Favors is a top-50 shoo-in by the numbers. He's averaging 19.3 points and 11.7 rebounds per 36 minutes on 57.7 percent shooting since Jan. 1 and has given Utah a blueprint for offensive survival within bench-heavy lineups. 

    Using him at center opens the floor and diminishes the Jazz's need for a stable shot-creator. In the nearly 1,300 possessions Favors has played without Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, the Jazz have an offensive rating of 113.7 and are a net plus overall.

    The thing is, this works both ways. The Favors-Gobert frontcourt is a plus-3.4 points per 100 possessions this season, but the Jazz are at their best with small-ball-4 arrangements. Leaning into that, as they might have to, would come at an opportunity cost for Favors.

         

    44. Paul Millsap, Denver Nuggets

    Credit Paul Millsap with accepting—and then owning—a lower-key role when he isn't yet in his twilight. His usage has dropped off since he signed with the Nuggets, and it has almost nothing to do with the time he's missed due to injuries. 

    Working beside Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray was always going to require concession. Surrendering touches and status to Will Barton and Gary Harris is more of a surprise, yet it isn't entirely unexpected. 

    Assuming more of a complementary job description has not muted Millsap's engagement. He is the Nuggets' defensive keystone—a buffer that lets Jokic guard to his strengths. Denver hemorrhages points whenever its superstar plays without Millsap. 

    After that, it's the usual box-score-filling. Role reduction and all, Millsap's across-the-board impact remains Draymond Green-esque. And fittingly enough, Green is the only player matching his defensive rebounding, assist, steal and block rates in as many minutes this season.

         

    43. Danny Green, Toronto Raptors

    Toronto getting Danny Green in addition to Kawhi Leonard remains unfair. One megastar was enough. The Raptors snagged an All-Defensive team candidate and lights-out sniper to boot.

    Green is shooting a career-high 45.5 percent from downtown, because why not. He's even more accurate off the catch; he's averaging a preposterously high 1.33 points per spot-up possession—the second-best mark among the 112 players to attempt at least 150 such shots.

    Some of his defensive returns are noisy. It comes with the territory. He almost exclusively keeps tabs on off-the-bounce know-it-alls and lethal shooters. He cannot help but give up buckets. 

    Consider the 10 players he's spent the most time guarding this season: Joe Harris, Bradley Beal, Jamal Murray, CJ McCollum, Evan Fournier, Bojan Bogdanovic, Luka Doncic, Malcolm Brogdon, Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum. That Green has held this group to a combined 43.5 percent shooting, albeit 43.3 percent from downtown, is a fairly big deal.

         

    42. JJ Redick, Philadelphia 76ers

    JJ Redick earns heaps of praise for his shooting, but he's so much more.

    Make no mistake, he can shoot. He's putting down more than 39 percent of his threes for the sixth consecutive season. But odes to his range imply he's a specialist. He isn't.

    No one on the Sixers takes more pull-up jumpers, on which he's posting a 51.6 effective field-goal percentage—a top-five clip for someone with his volume. And Philly has him jump-starting a fair amount of pick-and-rolls to great success. His 1.06 points per possession rank fifth among 141 players who have churned through 100 or more of these sets.

         

    41. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

    Jayson Tatum's sophomore season is not the claim-to-superstardom it was supposed to be. That's not a problem. He is not a major letdown. He is only guilty of not blowing up after last year's blowup. 

    Preliminary concern is fine. He's not yet a genuine pull-up threat, and he bails out on drives. It'll be a while before he lives down his mid-range binge from the start of the season.

    This cannot cloud the fact that Tatum is less than two months removed from his 21st birthday, or that he's playing for an arguably overstocked Celtics squad no longer fit to fast-track his stardom, or that he's making incremental improvements as a playmaker. 

    What he's doing now, as a reliable three-point marksman and No. 2 option, should be enough.

40-36: Gasol, Brogdon, Bogdanovic, DeRozan, Russell

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    40. Marc Gasol, Toronto Raptors

    Marc Gasol is earning his keep with the Raptors. His pass-happy approach has helped Kawhi Leonard's offensive integration look more organic, and he's an ideal lifeline for the brief stretches in which both Leonard and Kyle Lowry are off the court. Toronto is scoring more than 111 points per 100 possessions when Gasol plays without either star.

    It remains to be seen how much the Raptors will lean on him in the postseason. He's in the starting lineup, but offenses will try to mismatch him off the floor, and Pascal Siakam-at-center combinations need to become more of a thing. 

         

    39. Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks

    Malcolm Brogdon's timetable for return from a right foot injury puts him back in Milwaukee's lineup after the start of the first round—at the absolute earliest. That's enough to remove him from the top-50 running altogether. 

    What if the Bucks get bounced before he's ready to rock? What if it takes him time to work through the rust upon return? 

    Let's not play this game. The Bucks have earned the benefit of the doubt; they won't get dispatched before Round 2. Similarly, Brogdon has outgrown the burden of proof. He's averaging 15.6 points while slashing 50/40/90 and draining 47.5 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes.

         

    38. Bojan Bogdanovic, Indiana Pacers

    Bojan Bogdanovic was upgraded to indispensable the moment Victor Oladipo went down. The Pacers don't have anyone else who can imitate go-to scoring.

    Bogdanovic is the closest Indiana gets to a consistent foul-drawer on the perimeter. He's shot better than 51 percent on drives, has knocked down 42.5 percent of his threes and has improved his comfort level running pick-and-rolls.

    Faring this well on career-high usage is not a given. Bogdanovic is exceeding expectations and keeping nice company in the process.

    Only five other players are averaging more than 20 points per 36 minutes while matching his effective field-goal percentage: Giannis Antetokounmpo, John Collins, Stephen Curry, Montrezl Harrell and Domantas Sabonis. 

        

    37. DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs

    DeMar DeRozan pours in 20-plus points per game like clockwork, and he does it, once more, without tapping into any three-point volume. That's equally impressive and cause to drop him outside the top 30.

    This is the most combustible DeRozan's stock has ever been entering the playoffs. His postseason resume is already a meme, and the Spurs don't play the personnel or style to maximize his trips to the charity stripe.

    Then again, his playmaking has caught up to his scoring. He's never averaged more assists per 36 minutes, and his stop-and-start tempo out of the pick-and-roll is a nightmare even for set defenses.

         

    36. D'Angelo Russell, Brooklyn Nets

    D'Angelo Russell is a postseason newbie and playing for a Nets team that, while plucky, wants for additional star power. It will be interesting to see how he measures up to the Philadelphia 76ers' size-drunk, albeit underachieving, defense.

    If the regular season is any indication, Russell won't have a problem. He's turning in a career year ferrying a superstar's burden. Just five players own a higher usage rate, and he attempts more pull-up shots than anyone other than James Harden and Kemba Walker.

    With stardom comes nitpicking, and Russell remains imperfect. He is a coin-toss finisher around the rim and doesn't get to the line nearly enough. Settling for jumpers is part of his game, but pairing a top-six usage rate with a 226th-ranked free-throw-attempt rate is untenable.

    Split hairs are a form of flattery, and Russell warrants the higher standard. He now joins Curry and Harden as the only players in league history to clear 25 points, eight assists and three made long balls per 36 minutes. 

35-31: Sabonis, Drummond, Harrell, Adams, Capela

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    35. Domantas Sabonis, Indiana Pacers

    Domantas Sabonis has the offensive catalog for more preferential placement. He is an operable fulcrum from set positions, both as a passer and scorer. His touch is patently absurd. He's shooting above 59 percent on two-pointers, including better than 74 percent at the rim and close to 49 percent from floater range.

    Carrying lineups pruned of replacement-level creators is his specialty. The Pacers are pumping in almost 110 points per 100 possessions during the extensive time he's logged without Bojan Bogdanovic and the injured Victor Oladipo. 

    Toppling bench units is whatever. Captaining an average offense when so many of those reps come next to Cory Joseph and Tyreke Evans is miraculous. The two balance each other out.

    Sub-starter minutes hamper Sabonis' case for higher standing. Oladipo's absence hurts it more. The Pacers don't have a clear path to playing Sabonis with Myles Turner and fielding a decent offense without the pressure their star applied to half-court defenses.

        

    34. Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons

    Way back in late January, Andre Drummond missed three games after suffering a concussion. Upon returning, he exploded.

    Drummond is averaging 18.6 points, 16.5 rebounds, 1.9 steals and 1.8 blocks on 58.2 percent shooting since that three-game absence. Opponents are hitting just 51.6 percent of their looks when challenged by him at the rim during this stretch—one of the league's 10 stingiest marks among the 75 players who've contested at least 100 point-blank attempts.

    Most importantly, Drummond has taken the empty-calories potshots and buried them six(ty) feet under. The Pistons' net rating spikes by a team-best 22 points per 100 possessions when he's the court. He enters the postseason Monstar-ing all over the place.

         

    33. Montrezl Harrell, Los Angeles Clippers

    Sorry, not sorry.

    Montrezl Harrell lives in a gray area. He's an acceptable option for Sixth Man of the Year, but he shouldn't win. Lou Williams is too much of an offensive dynamo. And yet, Harrell profiles as the more valuable player because he has an all-around impact.

    Someone who plays predominantly at center needs to snare more rebounds, and he is not size-proof. Bigger players can knock him around. But Harrell is a worker bee. He can zoom across gaps for perimeter contests and won't shy away from challenging dives from rival bigs.

    Harrell's offensive feats are more staggering. His chemistry with Lou Williams is divine, but he's evolved into more than a guard-dependent roller. He uses around three post-ups per game, and while he's not the king of efficiency in these situations, he's good at drawing fouls.

    Filling up the box score is sexy, and Harrell, despite his role-player makeup, piles on numbers from virtually everywhere. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Vucevic are the only other players clearing 22 points, eight rebounds, two assists, one steal and one block per 36 minutes.

         

    32. Steven Adams, Oklahoma City Thunder

    Steven Adams' defense is a known virtue. He is the rare small-ball-proof big man. Punishing him on switches is hard. He won't be caught wrong-footed when contesting shots outside the paint and strikes a nice balance between getting into the ball and sagging off to play passing lanes.

    Other bigs are more talented shot-blockers, but the mere idea of Adams protects the rim on its own. Opponents don't get to the basket as often with him on the floor. What he lacks in traditional rim protection, he makes up for with subtle hands. It doesn't matter whether bigs are backing him down or in idle stances; he excels at ending possessions before shots.

    Guarding Adams at the other end is torture. He will railroad defenders on dives and slips screens so often and effectively he induces whiplash. And he doesn't stop there. 

    Adams is shooting 54.9 percent on post-ups—second to Kevin Durant among players who use at least five such possessions per game. He's also honed a nifty floater he breaks out every once in while, making him that much more of a headache to cover.

         

    31. Clint Capela, Houston Rockets

    Clint Capela is quietly balling...again.

    Since his return from a right thumb injury, he's averaging 15.0 points and 12.8 rebounds on 68.2 percent shooting. Unsurprisingly, this quarter-season stretch aligns with Houston's defensive about-face.

    Sure, the Rockets were on the come-up before he re-entered the fold. But they're second in points allowed per 100 possessions during this time.

    Capela's frontcourt synergy with PJ Tucker is at a season high. Houston is grabbing 75 percent of opponent misses when they play together, and their rim protection is beginning to crystallize. The Rockets are suddenly a defense to be reckoned with again, and Capela, ever the good screen-setting, rim-rolling soldier on offense, is at the heart of it all.  

30-26: Turner, Ingles, Bledsoe, Aldridge, Harris

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    30. Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers

    Myles Turner is largely overlooked thanks to an unspectacular role. It doesn't make sense to post him up as often as Domantas Sabonis, and he is not an elite rim-roller. He's deceptively quick when cutting without setting a screen, but ho-hum touch on the move betrays his finishes.

    Turner does have the whole floor-spacing thing down. He's burying nearly 39 percent of his threes, shooting 41.1 percent on long twos and hitting close to 48 percent of his looks between 10 and 16 feet. Indiana just has yet to show an interest in meaningfully increasing his usage.

    Defense is Turner's bread and butter. He is the stymying backdrop for a team that, prior to the All-Star break, ranked third in points allowed per 100 possessions after filtering out garbage time. The Pacers have slipped in the weeks since, but Turner is the same nuisance around the basket.

    Opponents are shooting 55.5 percent against him at the rim—a top-10 mark among the league's higher-volume rim protectors. That surety is hard to find when paired with Turner's workload. Joel Embiid and Rudy Gobert are the only players who challenge more shots at the bucket. 

    Beyond that, Turner has developed a knack for swatting jumpers. He's averaging almost 0.9 blocks on short mid-range attempts per 36 minutes, according to PBPStats.com. Embiid, by comparison, sends back roughly 0.5.

         

    29. Joe Ingles, Utah Jazz

    Joe Ingles suffers from excessive unselfishness. He could stand to throw up another four or five (or 12) shots per game.

    Utah will settle for the extra playmaking he has offered amid an unstable point guard rotation. He is still turnover-prone when running pick-and-rolls, but he's a whiz in the open floor and an expert at letting plays develop in the half-court.

    Directing a larger share of the offense has demanded Ingles at least feign intent to score. He has responded by eclipsing 10 drives per game. Kyle Lowry is the only player who comes remotely close to matching his shooting and assist percentages on similar volume. 

    And in case you're wondering: Yes, Ingles' defensive assignments continue to belie the deliberately discreet pace at which he plays. Putting him on specialists is a waste. He can instead be found on the other team's most prolific perimeter scorer, almost without exception.

         

    28. Eric Bledsoe, Milwaukee Bucks

    Giannis Antetokounmpo is not the sole beneficiary of Milwaukee's era-appropriate shot profile. Eric Bledsoe's offense has received a similar boon from the additional space.

    For starters, his own outside shooting isn't a problem. The Bucks have the breathing room to work around his sub-30 percent clip on spot-up threes. 

    Bledsoe, by extension, has an easier time maneuvering inside the arc. He is among the nearly 50 players who average more than 10 drives per game, and Antetokounmpo is the only one converting a higher percentage of his shots on these plays. Bledsoe has also seen his scoring efficiency out of the pick-and-roll skyrocket from last season.

    Guaranteeing him an All-Defense selection does not require stepping out on a limb. Not all numbers are in love with him, but he's light on weaknesses. He does a nice job haunting the more complicated half-court actions and has a nose for shot contests inside the three-point line even when he's not the primary defender. 

        

    27. LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs

    LaMarcus Aldridge is the Mike Conley of big men, only with actual All-Star recognition. He's steady to the point of being taken for granted.

    This year didn't start so hot for LMA. Establishing himself alongside DeMar DeRozan took time, and his shooting splits didn't turn the corner for more than a month. That crisis of fit has long since subsided.

    Aldridge is averaging 22.2 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.4 assists while shooting a whopping 55.3 percent on twos since his 14-of-25 detonation against Indiana in late November. His shot difficulty is the same. More than 60 percent of his two-point attempts come as contested and tightly contested opportunities, of which he's hitting 55.9 percent during this most-of-the-season stretch.

    Given DeRozan's checkered postseason resume, Aldridge's unvarying offense is crucial. He is the most important Spur.

         

    26. Tobias Harris, Philadelphia 76ers

    Tobias Harris' recent cold spell from long distance is neither ideal nor damning. The Sixers need him to shoot way better than 32.7 percent on catch-and-fire threes. And they need him to substantially boost his 43.4 effective field-goal percentage on pull-up jumpers.

    He will.

    Scorers always work their way out of slumps, and Harris has shown time and time again, for numerous teams, that he's one of the NBA's most dependable bucket-getters. He will figure it out.

    In the meantime, Harris offsets some of his rut by playing smart. He is not whiling away possessions with unnatural attempts to score. He's making quicker decisions.

    More than 47 percent of his touches are ending in under two seconds—a demonstrative increase over his 38.6 percent share with the Clippers—and he's proving to be a serviceable pick-and-roll table-setter and tactful cutter. (Aside: Philly would do well to call for more pick-and-rolls between Harris and Ben Simmons in the time they log without Joel Embiid.)

25. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

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    Donovan Mitchell's strongest backers got a little carried away with their 11th-hour All-NBA stanning. He wandered in and out of stardom until Christmas, at which time he made a permanent turn. But those first 30 games still matter for season-long awards.

    Of course, over-the-top support is easy to forgive.

    Mitchell has spent more than half the season as a worthy lifeline. He's averaging 26.0 points and 4.7 assists since Dec. 25 while canning 40.9 percent of his threes on nearly seven attempts per game. Utah's offense has hardly survived spells without him.

    Calls to slot Mitchell higher are not without merit. But his standing is compromised by his prominence.

    The Jazz do not have another player with an elite floor game, and he will pay the price. His efficiency on pull-up jumpers and drives dropped in the playoffs last year, and he might face a steeper decline this season given how much more Utah depends on him.

    To wit: Mitchell is second in crunch-time usage rate this season, behind only James Harden.  

24. Chris Paul, Houston Rockets

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    Congratulations to Chris Paul. He is the recipient of our first-ever "Most Likely to Obliterate His Postseason Ranking to the Point of the Author Looking Immeasurably Foolish" award!

    Left hamstring issues warped the trajectory of Paul's season. The fear of further injury, related or not, always lingers with him. His absences seem to come at the worst possible times. Last year's right hamstring injury may have cost Houston an NBA Finals appearance.

    Age has officially become a factor, too. The eye test shows he's lost a little oomph in the aftermath of hamstring battles. He isn't frying fools on switches with the same pep in his step; his one-on-ones are closer to labors of necessity. 

    Paul is notching a sub-47 effective field-goal percentage in isolation, down from 53.7 last season. He's pushed his pull-up three-point percentage to 35 since returning from injury, but the Rockets' offensive rating is mediocre when he plays without James Harden.

    Higher-variance outings aren't a good enough excuse to write off Paul completely. He can still turn on the jets when knifing inside the arc, he's a solid catch-and-shoot option and, with the exception of Ben Simmons, no playoff-bound point guard rivals his defensive impact.

    For all his ups and downs, Paul ranks first among floor generals in ESPN's defensive real plus-minus by a wide margin. Houston is second in defensive efficiency since the All-Star break and sees its standing worsen by a team-high 8.8 points per 100 possessions when he's on the bench.  

23. Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks

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    No one on the Bucks has received more of a play-style shock under head coach Mike Budenholzer than Khris Middleton. He has needed to rework his shot profile, and though his one-on-one opportunities remain, he's saddled with more responsibility as a playmaker.

    Fewer of Middleton's buckets are coming off assists this year compared to last season. He's also passing on a higher percentage of his drives.

    The learning curve is real—or rather, it was real.

    After seesawing for the first two-plus months of the season, Middleton is averaging 19.0 points and 4.5 assists while slashing 45.7/38.4/81.7. This will be the fourth consecutive year in which he posts at least 17 points and four assists per 36 minutes with a true shooting percentage better than 55—a streak he shares with some of the game's most elite: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Eric Bledsoe, Jimmy Butler, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, James Harden, LeBron James, Damian Lillard, Chris Paul and Kemba Walker.

    Middleton's defensive portability swings his top-25 candidacy. He is not a lockdown stopper, but he can hang with most wing scorers and remains a viable emergency option to tussle with 4s if Antetokounmpo is otherwise occupied.  

22. Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors

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    Attempts to question Klay Thompson's value independent of the Warriors are beginning to have the reverse effect. He's close to joining the ranks of the league's most underrated. He might even be there.

    Over 70 percent of Thompson's looks come without taking more than one dribble. So what? That's his role, and he has mastered it. That doesn't mean he's incapable of doing more. 

    On the rare occasions he's tasked with creating for himself, Thompson has shined. He's shooting better than 51 percent on drives, canning more than 41 percent of his pull-up triples and posting a 64.9 effective field-goal percentage when launching out of pick-and-rolls—tops in the league among the 200ish players who finished at least 50 such possessions.

    Thompson doesn't suffer from the same functional restrictions on the defensive end. His rep has instead taken hits due to the inconsistent love he receives from more advanced metrics.

    These spins are generally unfair. They're at the very least overstated. Thompson is almost never overmatched in one-on-one situations. He is tough to get by on an island, and his post defense is sneaky awesome. 

    And he's really found his groove guarding pick-and-rolls. Ball-handlers are averaging 0.72 points per possession against him, one of the five stingiest marks among 115-plus players who have defended at least 150 of these plays.  

21. Jimmy Butler, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Jimmy Butler has not wowed since joining the Sixers. He goes entire games looking out of sorts on offense. His effective field-goal percentage on pull-up jumpers has plunged below 38 since arriving in Philadelphia, and he's not totally comfortable working off the ball.

    Fits and starts are not atypical for stars who switch teams midseason. Players have a hard enough time finding their wheelhouse after entire offseasons in their new digs. Butler's motions are closer to the standard than a legitimate concern.

    They'd stick out far less if he looked the same on defense. He isn't neutralizing pick-and-rolls with the same in-your-face aggression and doesn't match Robert Covington's reaction time when providing help closer to the basket.

    Stripping Butler of his star label goes too far. His man-to-man defense is tailor-made for the playoffs, when he'll see less time without Joel Embiid—mind you, the Sixers defense gets by when Butler plays without him.

    Philly does need him to be more of an offensive constant. He can start with taking more threes. Slightly diminished usage and an emphasis on off-ball beelines are no excuse for his attempting about the same number of treys per 36 minutes as Amir Johnson.

    Failure to get more continuity out of Butler will sting. It won't be a death knell. He remains a battle-tested closer. Since coming over from Minnesota, Butler is averaging 28.7 points and 4.4 assists per 36 minutes of crunch time while shooting 35.3 percent from deep—benchmarks matched by only Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and the injured Victor Oladipo.

20. Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors

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    Chris Elise/Getty Images

    Crummy outside shooting is among the drawbacks to the full Draymond Green experience. That's different from a flat-out liability.

    He's knocking down 28.5 percent of his three-point attempts, including 27.7 percent of his wide-open looks, but his postseason clips tend to be easier on the eyes. He's hitting almost 35 percent of his treys through Golden State's past three playoff runs, and that includes last year's 26.6 percent dud.

    Comforts don't get much tinier. Defenses will live with Green drilling uncontested threes at higher rates, assuming he can even creep close to or above his career postseason average (32.7 percent).

    The Warriors will cope if he doesn't turn into a guardable threat from beyond the arc, just as they have all season. They don't need Green to have a superstar profile on offense—not as a scorer. The chaos he creates off the dribble is enough. He's shooting 48.9 percent on drives and 70.2 percent at the rim, and he lives to fling passes while moving at full throttle.

    Take away every element of his offense, and he's still the consummate defensive captain. The Warriors have trailed off compared to years past, but they're allowing a stout 104.8 points per 100 possessions whenever Green jumps center. And like the rest of the team, his activity will heighten when the stakes are higher.  

19. Danilo Gallinari, Los Angeles Clippers

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    More than a few will marvel at Los Angeles scraping together a playoff berth after it traded away its best player at the deadline. This impression is founded around misconception. Tobias Harris was not the Clippers' best player this season. That distinction has belonged to Gallinari pretty much wire-to-wire.

    Declaring him a certified No. 1 option is a slight exaggeration. His place within the NBA's pecking order is fluid. He cannot be counted on to play at an All-Star level every year. For this season specifically, his value is beyond debate.

    Gallinari isn't always the nerve center of the Clippers offense. That comes with the territory of playing beside Lou Williams. But he so often sets the terms of Los Angeles' approach by straddling the line between from-scratch scorer and complementary weapon.

    Neither role is obligated to exist in harmony with the other. Gallinari finds a way. His shot-type distribution is a near-perfect mix of pull-up jumpers and spot-up opportunities, and he leverages both into drives that showcase his power, finesse and disregard for contact. While he is not the splashiest playmaker, his lost-ball turnovers are almost nonexistent, and he makes the reads necessary to serve as a secondary pick-and-roll triggerman.

    Here's everyone who has ever averaged more than 23 points and three assists per 36 minutes while sniffing Gallinari's free-throw-attempt rate and true shooting percentage: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Charles Barkley, Adrian Dantley and Kevin Durant.

    The magnitude of Gallinari's performance has yet to sink in for non-Clippers fans. It may never entirely register. Make an effort to grasp it, because he will snag a handful of All-NBA votes. If the league expanded the year-end honor to include a fourth team, he'd be a virtual lock.  

18. Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Criticize Pascal Siakam's placement as you must. It won't have any impact on the logic. He more than warrants top-20 consideration.

    Attributing his success to a partnership with Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry is an ill-conceived oversimplification. His role is more than the talent around him.

    Toronto gives Siakam free rein to run fast breaks and work off the dribble. He averages as many drives as Kevin Durant and is second on the Raptors in isolation possessions. They even experiment with him as a pick-and-roll maestro. 

    And you know what? It works.

    Among the nearly 200 players who have used at least 50 pick-and-rolls, only Giannis Antetokounmpo and Klay Thompson average more points per possession. For real. 

    Oh, and this says nothing of Siakam's defensive significance. He will overplay ball-handlers and close out with too much enthusiasm, but that unbalance is part of his charm. 

    He is recklessness under control. He has the length and speed to recover and allows the Raptors to switch liberally when they're under duress in the half-court. The number of possessions on which he'll guard three or more different players isn't worth tracking because it's too friggin' high.  

17. Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Brand-name snobs will argue this is a mistake—an overreaction to the Orlando Magic nuking preseason predictions and making the playoffs at all.

    Kitchen-sink metrics, on the other hand, consider this an underestimation.

    Average together Nikola Vucevic's ranks in 10 of the most popular catch-all stats, and he grades out as a top-10 player, per Bleacher Report's Andrew Bailey. Putting him that high commits to a certain status. It doesn't make sense to go there yet.

    Emphasis on yet.

    Vucevic's three minutes of postseason experience beg for reserved expectations. Maybe they shouldn't. He is an authentic offensive switchboard capable of finishing possessions with jumpers, back-to-the-basket moves, passes from the post and even some drives. Orlando's offensive rating craters whenever he's catching a breather.

    Other bigs outrank Vucevic in the defensive department. He is not an anchor. He's also miles from ineffective. The Magic are second in points allowed per 100 possessions since Jan. 19—a span covering nearly half the season—and they're even stingier with Vucevic in the lineup.

    Once more: He won't shape the identity of a defense. He won't hurt it, either. Vucevic is more reliable than not as a rim protector and post stopper, and he doesn't get tripped up on screens or close-outs that take him beyond the paint.  

16. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors

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    Kyle Lowry doesn't have the glitziest playoff resume, but he far from flopped over the past two postseasons. Even at his lowest point, the Raptors' struggles were never really about him. They nodded to a bigger-picture problem: Toronto faced an artificial ceiling with him as its most valuable player, even when he was the best version of himself.

    Lowry is no longer that to the Raptors. Kawhi Leonard bears that cross. Lowry is more responsible for fitting in—triply so on the heels of Siakam's rise and Marc Gasol's arrival. 

    None of this renders him any less integral. Lowry's is a delicate balancing act. He hasn't taken a step back so much as reinvented himself. His usage hasn't been this low since he played for the Rockets, but he's third in assists per 36 minutes and second among all postseason players, trailing only Russell Westbrook.

    Points-per-game purists will still count this as a reduction. They'd have a leg to stand on if Lowry could no longer cook as the lone wolf. The Raptors have a net rating in the green when he plays without Leonard and Siakam, over which time he's averaging 18.1 points on 14.5 field-goal attempts per 36 minutes.

    Toronto need only be concerned with Lowry's three-point shooting, which has ducked below 35 percent for the first time since 2014-15. Even that feels forced. He's downing 37 percent of his treys this side of the All-Star break.

    Don't mistake Lowry's adaptation for regression. He is now to Toronto what Al Horford is to Boston: steward and star.  

15. Al Horford, Boston Celtics

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    Al Horford is the Celtics' beating heart. He doesn't match Kyrie Irving's importance to the offense and will never have the counting-stats clout to be considered dominant. He is, however, the next best thing.

    As Michael Pina wrote for SB Nation:

    "Horford is not perfect. He still isn't a first option or self-reliant shot creator, and don't expect him to roll out of bed and grab 15 rebounds. But as Boston readies itself for a critical postseason run, he's one of the only players alive who can remove Joel Embiid from his comfort zone, momentarily make Giannis Antetokounmpo look human and turn matchups against the Golden State Warriors into basketball's own version of the movie Us. He's everything."

    Dabbling is not held in the same esteem as concentrated stardom. That works against the perception of Horford, but he is no less pivotal to the Celtics' livelihood than the average cornerstone.

    Few other bigs are as fit for duty against today's shape-shifting offenses. He is the antidote to the league's inconsistent frontlines—a match for conventional bruisers, outside shooters and off-the-bounce attackers alike.

    Pushing 33, he is a tad slower. But teams still have trouble punishing him on switches, and Boston has zero qualms about pairing him with Aron Baynes in dual-big arrangements.

    Shooting better than league average from distance bends defenses on its own. Horford breaks them with his vision and seldom-celebrated handles. He pump-fakes into dribble drives with ease and can absorb and react to defensive responses whether he's working on the run or at a standstill. 

    Boston is once more reaping the benefits of his handiwork. The offense has by and large wanted for direction whenever Irving is off the floor. His absence has not been as dire since the All-Star break, in no small part because of Horford. The Celtics have mustered a respectable 106 points per 100 possessions when he plays without the star point guard.   

14. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Ben Simmons' season runs the risk of being too harshly judged. He has not expanded his range, his free-throw shooting remains a problem, and the Sixers are hard-pressed to cobble together a competent offense or defense whenever he logs time without Joel Embiid.

    The latter knock is the most disappointing, particularly for someone routinely mentioned among the league's 20 or 25 best players.

    Opponents outscore the Sixers by 5.5 points per 100 possessions in the stretches Simmons plays without Embiid. Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris have proved to be marginal help. The Sixers remain a net minus when running all three without Embiid, and the defense during these stints is rouuugh.

    Only so much of the blame can fall to Simmons. Philly isn't deep even with its four stars and remains especially shallow at center. Yanking Embiid from the lineup is a huge blow. It'll be even bigger in the playoffs, when defenses sag further off Simmons. (Hoop idea: Play Simmons at the 5...or maybe cut out these as-little-shooting-as-possible supporting casts head coach Brett Brown routinely deploy around him.)

    Trading for Butler hasn't simplified Simmons' defensive role. He's underperformed outside of crunch time since his arrival. Simmons' matchups are hell to begin with, and he misses the team defense Robert Covington once provided. Philly's midseason roster turnover only complicates matters.

    Squint hard enough, though, and Simmons has made progress. He's within a stone's throw of 65 percent shooting from the foul line since Jan. 15 and is slightly more of a threat outside three feet. He's draining more than 45 percent of his floaters, up from 31.4 percent last year.

    Combine this with a 70-plus-percent success rate at the rim, his on-the-move passing and defensive bandwidth that still extends across five positions, and his inclusion inside the top 15 is far from premature. 

13. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Russell Westbrook is as divisive as ever. He has almost single-handedly extinguished the cachet tethered to triple-doubles by turning them into a daily constant.

    Lackluster efficiency has cost him ground among his fellow superstars more than anything else. His three-point shooting has found a manageable medium since the All-Star break, but he's below 29 percent for the season, and his shooting issues have spilled over to the free-throw line. 

    Across the 155 occasions in which a player has averaged at least 20 field-goal and six free-throw attempts per 36 minutes, Westbrook's true shooting percentage this season ranks 126th.

    Plenty about his force-of-nature style still resonates. He is among the NBA's scariest players traveling downhill. He has one setting: top speed. His zero-to-100 probing will wear on half-court defenses.

    Whether Westbrook reaches peak value in the playoffs rests on his capacity to cede control. The Thunder are at their best when Paul George is being featured not just as a scorer but as a pick-and-roll initiator. His crunch-time shooting splits barely outstrip Westbrook's since the break, but he is a far better pull-up shooter, and Oklahoma City has won 60 percent of its games when he tallies a usage rate above 30.   

12. Blake Griffin, Detroit Pistons

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    Blake Griffin's most durable regular season since 2013-14 ended with him nursing a left knee injury. Detroit still managed to win out and clinch a playoff appearance. The Memphis Hustle Grizzlies and Westchester New York Knicks remain forgiving.

    Pistons head coach Dwane Casey told reporters on Sunday that Griffin "is at a point where his playing can't injure the knee any worse, according to the medical staff." That is, um, certainly an update. 

    Detroit must hope life in the can't-get-any-worse lane is a silver lining. Making the teensiest bit of noise against the Bucks is out of the question if he doesn't play. The Pistons have been better without him in the lineup over the past month, but that won't remain the case for long. His recent slump is not forever—unless, of course, this knee injury is worse than Detroit has let on.

    Either way, Griffin has climbed his way back into the superstar discourse. He was the Pistons for the lion's share of the regular season.

    Griffin ran almost as many pick-and-rolls as Kevin Durant, averaged more points than Kyrie Irving and more assists than Stephen Curry and made more pull-up three-pointers than Bradley Beal. This body of work speaks for itself.

    The Pistons' playoff hopes subsisted on Griffin's return to the All-NBA radar. Their livelihood now that they're in the postseason will do the same.  

11. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Kyrie Irving grabbed a top-10 slot in the midseason rankings. Tumbling down a tick within a smaller field is not the slight or injustice it might seem.

    Joel Embiid got healthy. Rudy Gobert propped up the Jazz. Damian Lillard went boom. And here we are.

    Various injuries have hampered Irving's availability since the All-Star break, but his numbers are right in line with the All-NBA nod for which he's a lock. Any real concern should be reserved for his defense. He isn't fighting through screens with the same gusto he was at the beginning of the year and last season.

    That does little to hold back Irving's standing considering how critical he is to the Celtics offense. He and Al Horford are the only players posting an effective field-goal percentage of at least 43 in isolation, and even with Gordon Hayward perking up, he's Boston's sole reliable pull-up option. 

    Granted, Irving hasn't looked as spicy off the dribble in recent weeks. That changes nothing. He is the Celtics' be-all in the clutch. Only Donovan Mitchell and James Harden notch higher usage rates in crunch time, and Irving's mark has actually climbed since the All-Star break.

    Even with his recent dry spell included, he's a made-for-the-postseason shot-maker.  

10. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

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    Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

    Some are still resisting the idea of Rudy Gobert as a superstar. Warm up to it if you haven't already. 

    As ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton wrote:

    "Even with opponents searching for ways to pull Gobert out of the paint, he's among the leaders in shots defended in the restricted area. And when the below-average percentage opponents shoot on those attempts is factored in based on Second Spectrum data, Gobert has saved more points with his rim protection than any other player.

    "Moreover, Gobert's fearsome paint defense allows Utah's perimeter players to stay home on shooters, meaning no team gives up three-point attempts less frequently than the Jazz. Add it up and Gobert is key to taking away the two most efficient types of shots in the league, making him Defensive Player of the Year again."

    Most Gobert holdouts like to accentuate his offensive limitations. He is a component of Utah's machine, not the central hub. Penalizing him for that is unfair. 

    His screens are a form of playmaking. His rolls to the basket are magnetic. He isn't cooking anyone off the dribble, but his putbacks are a different kind of self-sufficiency. More than 26 percent of his buckets have gone unassisted. That's closer to stars like Anthony Davis (34.7 percent), Karl-Anthony Towns (34.4 percent) and Nikola Vucevic (29.1 percent) than you think.

    The difference: Gobert isn't carrying an offense on his own. The Jazz get anemic whenever he plays without Donovan Mitchell. Certain attempts to legitimize his offensive value cast that aside, ultimately playing into the hands of his doubters.

    Gobert doesn't need desperate validation at the more glamorous end. Defense is his claim to stardom. That won't change, and it doesn't have to.  

9. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Joel Embiid fancies himself the league's most unstoppable player. Plenty of eye-in-the-beholder stuff is at play when talking about that inexact distinction, but he's not wrong to consider himself a candidate.

    Defenses cannot find a singular answer for Embiid. His bag of tricks is vast. He flummoxes in the post with a combination of force and finesse, and his sharp changes in direction off the ball are atypical for a big man. 

    Embiid's three-point touch isn't the league-average crutch it was during his rookie campaign. It doesn't need to be. He fires enough treys to keep defenses on tilt and has become more comfortable dribbling into baby jumpers. Only three players own a higher free-throw-attempt rate.

    Philly very much treats Embiid like a lifeline, even with three other stars around him. His usage rate has hovered around 32 since the Tobias Harris trade, just a touch below his season average. Among every player in NBA history who logged at least 1,000 minutes through his first three years, Michael Jordan is the only one to post a higher usage rate than Embiid.

    All the usual warts persist. Embiid can be turnover-prone and gets tunnel vision. The ball is vulnerable on his one-handed finishes—provided opposing players can reach it.

    He's still more under control overall. His turnover rate on post-ups has dropped since last season, and Philly will live with selective tunnel vision so long as he's averaging 27-plus points and shouldering a much-too-heavy defensive workload.  

8. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

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    Randy L. Rasmussen/Associated Press

    Damian Lillard is powering the Portland Trail Blazers more than ever. He has no choice. CJ McCollum missed a chunk of time with a left knee strain, and Jusuf Nurkic suffered compound fractures in his left leg during a March 25 victory over the Nets.

    But Lillard was playing the most well-rounded basketball of his career long before injuries threatened to derail the Blazers' standing in the West. Portland's first-round sweep at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans last year necessitated change without meaningful turnover. Lillard has delivered.

    His off-the-bounce burden remains. Only James Harden and Kemba Walker have chucked more pull-up threes, on which Lillard is shooting better than 37 percent.

    He's also baked in more drives and accelerated his decision-making against double-teams. He has never attempted more of his looks at the rim—though he's not the cleanest finisher—and he's ninth in potential assists per game since the All-Star break.

    Suspect defense will always keep Lillard's stock at bay. (He's at least not vanishing into screens anymore.) Someone with his offensive juice cannot be dragged much lower. His on-a-whim shot selection and ball protection keeps defenses scrambling, verging on helpless, and uniquely equips him to bear the weight of an entire system. 

    Portland is scoring over 117 points per 100 possessions whenever he has played without McCollum or Nurkic. And in many ways, that says it all.  

7. Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Rob Ferguson/Associated Press

    Paul George has slowed down since the All-Star break. Oklahoma City faced a tougher schedule, and he's labored through a shoulder injury.

    This late-season slump might cost George a top-three finish on the MVP ballot. It shouldn't do much else.

    Oklahoma City's offense only looks fit for battle when he's raining ridiculously difficult threes. Russell Westbrook has more influence as the primary ball-handler, but George puts a different kind of pressure on defenses. He is the more efficient scorer out of pick-and-rolls and downing an absurd 37.3 percent of his pull-up triples. 

    Playing alongside another star helps. But George is not scoring at a career-high clip and dropping more assists because he's a No. 2. The Thunder have turned him loose as a 1B, as his own primary playmaker. They have an offensive rating of 108.5 when he plays without Westbrook. They're at 104.8 when Westbrook runs without him.

    George's Defensive Player of the Year case is no longer airtight. Oklahoma City's post-All-Star slide is that stark, and he looks gassed. The latter, though, speaks to his importance.

    Staying home on shooters isn't an option when George doesn't get assigned to the other team's best player. He exists in a near-constant state of recovery. He's effective anyway. Even now, he's flying into lanes to force turnovers and closing serious ground to contest shots.  

6. Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors

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    Kevin Hagen/Associated Press

    Load management has put Kawhi Leonard's top-five status into question. What do we make of someone who has barely appeared in 60 games and frequently existed outside his team's offensive flow?

    Part of this awkwardness extends to his defense. He is as adept, just not as apt. His half-court activity, frenetic by normal standards, has waxed and waned, almost in deliberate conservation.

    Leonard's numbers make it easy to envision him outperforming this hedge. He is scoring more than ever during a feeling-out season and has recaptured much of his shot-making flair. He's hitting more than 50 percent of his pull-up two-pointers since the All-Star break and generating more looks at the rim, where he's shooting above 70 percent, than he has since 2013-14.

    Indulging his one-on-one leanings is not a concession. These touches are an asset. He ranks in the 85th percentile of points per isolation possession. And he's not entirely ransoming the Raptors' ball movement. Adding Marc Gasol has pushed the bill, and Toronto can milk Leonard's standstill touch when he's surrounded by playmaking alternatives. 

    Still, by availability alone, Leonard and the Raptors are entering uncharted territory. As SI.com's Rob Mahoney wrote:

    "Toronto will begin its postseason course with its most dangerous team yet: a balanced, proven outfit with room for so much more Kawhi Leonard. There will be more minutes for Kawhi when it counts, stretching the dominant margins the Raptors have enjoyed whenever he shares the floor with other principal contributors. There will be no vacancy in the lineup every third or fourth game, further stabilizing what is already one of the most well-conceptualized rosters in the league. The full Leonard experience will force us all to consider Toronto in a different way, all without the bother of flipping a switch."

    Unknowns are seldom trustworthy postseason investments. Leonard and the Raptors give a different vibe. They've won more games than every team outside Milwaukee without ever trying to maintain full strength. What comes next should only elevate Leonard in the aftermath of last year's quad injury and divorce from San Antonio.  

5. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

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    This is a tough blow for the "NiKoLa JoKiC iSn'T a SuPeRsTaR" crowd.

    To be fair, his boo birds have receded in droves. The catch-all metrics are doing their job, and Denver's claim to second place in the West put him on the map. But let's not pretend he's viewed in the same vein as his peers.

    MVP discussions mostly came and went without Jokic consistently garnering top-three consideration. That's laughable, even if he winds up with third place, considering where the Nuggets finished despite navigating injuries en masse.

    Anyone resting their case on his passive scoring has lost their life raft. Jokic put up just under 20 points per game (with an elite true shooting percentage).

    That doesn't compare to the NBA's foremost guns, but he is not any less of an offensive force because of it. As B/R's Andrew Bailey noted at the end of March, Jokic is third in total points generated from scoring, assists and screen assists per 36 minutes, just behind James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo. That hasn't changed.

    Jokic's status hasn't, either. He's years into his star tenure. It's just now becoming common practice to recognize him for it.

4. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

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    Superstar dominance never flies under the radar, but Kevin Durant's 2018-19 campaign comes pretty darn close. His performance is secondary to free agency, past kerfuffles with Draymond Green and the media and, above all, the potential dissolution of Golden State's dynasty.

    This is hardly surprising and not the least bit unfair.

    Durant and the Warriors have only themselves to blame for the former's clandestine-ish awesomeness. They have turned the championship discussion into a nanosecond-long debate, after which the focus naturally shifts to what or who, if anything or anyone, can subvert their empire.

    Drips and drabs of Durant's play are also falling short of his well-established norm. He's barely shooting the league average from three on fewer attempts, and his crunch-time numbers underwhelm.

    Reconcile all of this, and Durant is still having one of the most efficient seasons in NBA history. This marks the fifth time he's cleared 25 points per game with a true shooting percentage better than 62. Stephen Curry and LeBron James have as many such seasons between the two of them. Adrian Dantley is the only other player to hit these benchmarks on five different occasions.

    Everything Durant does well gets amplified during the postseason, when one-on-one possessions become currency. Curry remains the Warriors' go-to closer, but Durant's combination of size and explosion is tougher to stop and the more attractive late-game fail-safe. And while that still doesn't earn him a top-three billing, he's in no imminent danger of falling any lower.  

3. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

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    Anyone clamoring for Stephen Curry to land the No. 2 spot, or even the top spot, has...a fair point. A certain someone in front of him is worked to exhaustion during the regular season, while the person in front of that certain someone is new to this "Best Player in the League" game.

    Mostly, Curry just belongs in that conversation until further notice. He's the same unsolvable matchup nightmare. His voodoo handles send defenses into collective spasms, and he has range that extends beyond each and every one of Jupiter's (known) 79 moons.

    Averaging more than 27 points per game on unfathomable efficiency earns entry into the MVP race 99 times out of 100. It just so happens this year is the exception. Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden turned the MVP ladder into a two-person heat months ago, and Curry won't ever again win the contextual case unless Kevin Durant plays elsewhere.

    It likewise doesn't help that Curry's offensive detonations are so routine they no longer engender the same gushing fanfare. He has lost the element of surprise—unless we take into account his corrected vision.

    "I started wearing contacts," he told The Athletic's Marcus Thompson II. "No, I'm serious ... It's like the whole world has opened up."

    Well, this is absolutely terrifying. Curry has a 68.6 true shooting percentage in the clutch this season and is nailing roughly 1 jillion percent of his three-point attempts over the past couple weeks. 

    If his vision wasn't ideal before, what in the actual hell are defenses supposed to do now that he can read all the letters on the back of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander's jersey?  

2. James Harden, Houston Rockets

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    James Harden's place in the postseason hierarchy is very much a matter of preference. His numbers demand a top-two finish, but his past three trips to the playoffs are instructive warnings on the perils of burnout.

    That risk endures this year, perhaps more than ever. Harden has quite literally needed to carry the Rockets. His heroics during Chris Paul's month-long absence between late December and the end of January broke records and saved Houston's season. He now owns the second-highest usage rate in NBA history.

    Giving Harden the No. 2 spot isn't about ignoring the potential pitfalls attached to his workload. He's just too damn good for those very real dangers to matter.

    Adjust for pace, and no one in league history has ever scored more than he's doing now. The degree of difficulty on his shots is wild. Almost half of his looks come as pull-up threes, and more than 60 percent are with a defender inside four feet of his person.

    How this hasn't torpedoed his efficiency is beyond comprehension. Harden's true shooting percentage benefits from trips to the foul line, but his go-to move is a contested step-back three, and he still owns a higher effective field-goal percentage than Bradley Beal. He's also tallying about as many points per possession in isolation as Joe Harris averages as a spot-up shooter.

    Analysis of Harden's improved defense has snowballed into overly romanticized hyperbole, but he is better. The Rockets use him on bigger players, both inside and outside the post, knowing he'll hold up. He picked up some of the assignment slack while Paul recovered from his hamstring injury. That matters. 

    When Harden is redefining the relationship between difficult volume and efficiency, just like Stephen Curry before him, it matters a whole lot. 

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Mea culpa time: Giannis Antetokounmpo got a raw deal in the midseason rankings.

    Never again.

    Antetokounmpo is the NBA's best player right now. Others have overshadowed him for stretches, most notably James Harden and his resident ridiculousness. But Antetokounmpo's year is neither grounded in nor defined by any stretch of games. 

    His is a wire-to-wire act.

    Bleacher Report's NBA staff unanimously voted for him to win MVP. We got it right. He is unlike anyone we've ever seen. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the only player ever to match his per-game counting stats. Adjust for pace, and he stands alone.

    Antetokounmpo's defense takes this from a debatable discussion to a matter of fact. He is the NBA's most versatile defender without a real challenger. A locked-in Draymond Green is his closest rival.

    Just look at how Antetokounmpo's defense stacks up across different play types:

    Parson my French, but !@$%*.

    Sticklers will note that Antetokounmpo is potentially schemable without a jumper. This is kind of fair. But his issues from the perimeter aren't new, and defenses have yet to stop him from reaching the rim. Also: He canned 33 percent of his threes over the past 30 games. That's good enough for this conversation to be over.

            

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Cleaning the Glass or Basketball Reference.

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

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