The Case for and Against Every Top Star Being Best in the NBA

mandela namaste@@mandiba13Contributor IAugust 2, 2019

The Case for and Against Every Top Star Being Best in the NBA

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    Richard Shotwell/Associated Press

    The 2019-20 NBA season will be notable for many reasons, especially because there is no clear favorite to win the title for the first time in several years.

    Due to an unprecedented level of player movement this summer, the league is flush with parity, and multiple teams in both conferences have a legitimate chance to make the NBA Finals. 

    This level of parity only exists because the NBA features a supreme amount of talent right now. For the first time in a while, no one is unquestionably the best player in the Association. A top tier of eight players is battling to be named top of the class, king of the court or whatever moniker you'd like to bestow upon them.

    Each of them has a good argument as to why he's the best player in the NBA—and a good argument to the contrary, as well. Let's talk about these elite eight. 

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    The Case For

    Well, this one is pretty easy, right? Giannis was the best player on the team with the best regular-season record last year. Accordingly, he won the 2018-19 MVP Award.

    He was completely dominant from October onward and also makes his teammates better. The gravity that Giannis carries with him on offense affords his supporting cast oceans of space with which to work. Brook Lopez became a perimeter sniper during his first year in Milwaukee, while Khris Middleton is now one of the best two-way players in the league and an All-Star.

    In addition, the Greek Freak is a completely appropriate nickname for Giannis.

    Remember when he literally jumped over Tim Hardaway Jr. to finish an alley-oop? Did you know he can travel the length of the court in just three dribbles? The man is truly remarkable.

          

    The Case Against

    For all our hoping and praying, Giannis is still a bad shooter, and his struggles from beyond the arc are easily the biggest skill-related weakness for any of these eight players.

    That isn't a concern troll. Giannis' lack of shooting definitely hurt the Bucks against the Toronto Raptors in last year's Eastern Conference Finals. Toronto didn't trust him to make jumpers, so they packed the paint with big defenders and forced him to rely on his teammates.

    Clearly, that was a successful strategy for the Raptors, and you have to assume more teams will try it against Giannis going forward. 

Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    The Case For

    Frankly, Stephen Curry has changed basketball forever. The fact that he is a threat to shoot as soon as he steps over half court stretches defenses to an unprecedented degree.

    Curry's greatest statistical season occurred during that famous 2015-16 campaign in which he became the first player to win the MVP award unanimously, but it's not as if that was an outlier performance. Steph is still just as efficient, but Kevin Durant's stint in the Bay Area did marginally affect his counting stats.

    We still see glimpses of what Curry is truly capable of, like his outlandish 47-point performance in Game 3 of this year's Finals when both Durant and Klay Thompson sat out with injuries. And we will likely see a full season of it next year with Durant now on the Brooklyn Nets and Thompson rehabbing a torn ACL.

    The modern NBA is in large part dictated by three-point shooting, and Curry is the best at it. 

          

    The Case Against

    It all comes back to size. While he is a regular-sized point guard at 6'3", he isn't as thick as, say, Russell Westbrook. That makes it easier for defenses to push and prod him, which the Raptors did during that aforementioned Game 3. It's something that will likely happen quite often next season.

    Additionally, while Curry is a surprisingly good finisher at the rim given his body type and relative lack of athleticism, he will never be LeBron James or Durant. He can be neutralized more easily in the paint due to his size.

    It's kind of a silly nitpick, but we've seen it affect Curry in the past. As he heads into next season with less offensive support than he's had in years, defenses will be completely focused on stopping him. 

    Curry's smaller physique also enables offenses to target him on defense. He actually ranked 15th last season among point guards in defensive real plus-minus, so that weakness may be a bit overblown, but that stat was likely influenced by playing with four elite defenders in Durant, Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala. How Curry will do alongside a poor defender in D'Angelo Russell this year could be a more accurate test of his value on defense.

Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Tyler Kaufman/Associated Press

    The Case For

    It feels like so long ago, but once upon a time, Anthony Davis played motivated and competitive basketball. And darn it, he was really, really, really good!

    After former teammate DeMarcus Cousins ruptured his Achilles in January 2018, Davis averaged 30.2 points and 11.9 rebounds, leading the New Orleans Pelicans into a first-round series against the Portland Trail Blazers, where he proceeded to average 33.0 points, 11.8 rebounds, 2.8 blocks and 1.8 steals in a four-game sweep. New Orleans ran into Golden State in the next round, ending its season. But for a good four months, Davis might have been the best player in the NBA.

    Famously a guard in high school before growing eight inches, the Brow marries all the skill of a guard with the size and athleticism of a big man. For all intents and purposes, he is the future of the NBA.

          

    The Case Against

    Davis might be the best player in the league right now because his game is close to flawless. He's a below-average shooter, but not so much so that defenses can ignore him. He hasn't won a lot in the playoffs, but he also didn't play on great teams in a Western Conference that's always a bloodbath.

    One thing the Brow could get over, however, is his stubborn insistence on playing power forward. Anyone with a sense of modern basketball can watch Davis operate for five minutes and conclude that he should play center.

    However, he apparently hasn't gotten that message, as he reiterated during his introductory press conference with the Lakers that he prefers to play the 4 even though LeBron James and Kyle Kuzma are also best suited there.

    For Davis to fully realize his mind-boggling potential, he needs to stop thinking like a guard. He can hang down low with literally anybody in the NBA and could be truly dominant on a historical level if he committed to it. 

Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    The Case For

    If you were to build the perfect modern basketball player in a lab, he would look an awful lot like the Slim Reaper.

    There's nothing KD can't do on a basketball court. He's big and long enough to defend four positions with ease, has a great handle for someone with his size (conservatively listed at 6'9") and can thrive both with and without the ball.

    Oh, and there's also the small matter of him being one of the greatest scorers in the history of the sport. Nobody has ever had Durant's combination of size, fluidity and skills, and the fact he is a knockdown shooter at his height is borderline unfair. 

         

    The Case Against

    Unfortunately, we may have already seen the best of Durant.

    Ruptured Achilles tendons are historically the most difficult injury to fully recover from in the NBA, and they have ended the primes of everyone from Chauncey Billups to Elton Brand to Kobe Bryant.

    Durant ruptured his Achilles in Game 5 of this year's NBA Finals, and he is likely to miss all of his first season with the Brooklyn Nets while friend and new teammate Kyrie Irving takes the reins. If he returns to form, he may well be the best player in the league. But that "if" is now the million-dollar question looming over this season and the rest of his career.

Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers

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    Rob Ferguson/Associated Press

    The Case For

    George led the league in ESPN's real plus-minus last season. While that stat isn't the end-all, be-all of basketball arguments, it supports the general sentiment that he was dominant on both ends of the floor for most of the 2018-19 campaign.

    George finished second in scoring and first in steals, and he put together an absolutely preposterous stretch from December through February in which he averaged 31.4 points, 8.3 rebounds and 4.2 assists on 46.3 percent shooting from the field and 41.9 percent from the three-point line.

    Do you know how many players in NBA history have done that for a full season? Nada. Zilch. Zero.

    George's season got derailed by a minor tear in his rotator cuff, but he still finished third in MVP voting and was named to the All-NBA first team. 

           

    The Case Against

    The newest Los Angeles Clipper has been a perennial All-Star for most of this decade. But it was only last year that he rose up into true superstardom, and even that level of play didn't last for the entire season. Granted, his play may have suffered due to that troublesome shoulder, but who's to say his three-month run wasn't just the hottest hot streak imaginable?

    George has always been an analytics-friendly player, but he's shown this kind of potential at brief points in the past before regressing to the mean.

    A healthy replica of 2018-19 George is likely the difference between a Clippers title and an early-round exit.

James Harden, Houston Rockets

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    The Case For

    If king of the court were the ultimate form of NBA supremacy, then Harden would reign far above the competition.

    He is arguably the most unguardable isolation scorer in NBA history and is made even more fearsome by the fact that the opposition knows his bag of tricks and still can't stop him from scoring. At one point last season, he scored 304 consecutive unassisted points. That looks like a fake stat, yet somehow it isn't.

    The Beard has made drawing fouls into an art (or a crutch, depending on who you ask), and he is to step-back threes what Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was to mid-range hook shots.

    In addition to scoring whenever and however he wants, Harden is one of the league's best passers, routinely throwing lobs to Clint Capela and finding his teammates for wide-open shots with regularity.

    Quite simply, he's the engine of one of the NBA's best offenses, and the Rockets wouldn't be competitive without him. 

            

    The Case Against

    A few years ago, Draymond Green said, per The Athletic's Anthony Slater, "There are 82-game players, then there are 16-game players."

    By this, he meant that some players thrive in the regular season, and others rise to the occasion in the postseason.

    Harden is one of the best 82-game players in NBA history. While he runs through the league every year from October to mid-April, he is not so historically dominant once the lights get brighter. The Beard was benched when the Rockets made their famous comeback against the Clippers in Game 6 of their 2015 series, he shot 2-of-11 in an elimination game against the San Antonio Spurs in 2017 and he was unable to lead Houston past the Golden State Warriors each of the last two postseasons.

    If Harden is able to break through and raise the Larry O'Brien Trophy with Russell Westbrook, then his legacy will be unassailable. Until then, he must be regarded with some degree of skepticism at the highest levels of the sport. 

LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    The Case For

    Let's not overthink this too much. It's LeBron James we're talking about here. The man is the epitome of consistency. He's still besting his career averages in points, rebounds and assists in his 16th NBA season.

    LeBron has a genius-level basketball IQ, not to mention an ever-improving skill set that is close to impeccable at this point. And, of course, he's still one of the premier athletes in the NBA. The other day, he threw down a dunk at his son's basketball game, and his head was level with the rim.

    Remember, this guy is almost 35 years old.

    But it's not just his leaping. The combination of that athleticism, preternatural talent and a tight end's body makes him unstoppable.

    LeBron is like the New England Patriots. He's the best until emphatically proven otherwise.

             

    The Case Against

    Father Time comes for all of us, and we saw hints of an aging King for the first time last year. He pulled a groin muscle on Christmas Day that hindered him for the rest of the season and almost singlehandedly derailed the Lakers' playoff hopes. 

    LeBron has played over 56,000 total NBA minutes, not to mention his Team USA stints. He'll start breaking down at some point, and this could be the year.

    Additionally, LeBron is usually a complete non-entity on defense now. He'll turn it up in big moments like a Game 7, but he saves most of his energy for the offensive end. That makes sense since LeBron is typically responsible for the success of his teams' offenses, but he's blatantly disinterested on defense often enough that it warrants mentioning. 

Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    The Case For

    Kawhi just defeated a superteam and won Finals MVP for the second time in his career. That should already be enough of a case for him.

    The 28-year-old is as good a testament to relentless hard work as there is in the NBA.

    Coming into the league, he was a bad shooter. Now he's a career 38.3 percent three-point shooter and was draining step-backs from distance in the playoffs like he was James Harden. Kawhi has also gained a LeBron-like ability to grit his teeth and finish through contact in the paint, and it helps that he is a deadeye free-throw shooter.

    Plus, Leonard may be the best perimeter defender since Scottie Pippen. His gigantic hands and Herculean strength enable him to wall off whoever he's guarding and prevent them from moving with or without the ball. His defensive stats are good enough, but even they don't tell the full story. He won the 2014 Finals MVP because of his defense on LeBron, and has only gotten better since.

           

    The Case Against

    It's troubling that even during the Raptors' run to an NBA championship, Kawhi was reportedly limping after games. That he was so clearly hurt only makes his playoff performances that much more impressive, but it does leave a lot of room to worry about his health going forward.

    Will he have to engage in load management throughout the rest of his career and only be healthy in spurts? If so, then he is clearly not the best player in the league; that status implies consistent health alongside high-level play.

    Other small questions about Kawhi's game also exist. For instance, he's not a great passer. But he's shown the ability to rise above those concerns when necessary.

    At this point, it's really just health that stands between Kawhi and the best-player belt. 

          

    All stats, unless otherwise indicated, courtesy of ESPN.com and Basketball Reference.

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