Bleacher Report's Top 100 Players in the NBA Right Now
Fire up your inner rage monsters. Bleacher Report's ranking of the top 100 NBA players entering the 2019-20 regular season has arrived at long last.
Disagreements are unavoidable throughout this pecking order. Ditto for imagined slights. That's never the point of this exercise. Nor is it meant to be above critique. Perfection is impossible, and this does not aim for it. The goal here, quite frankly, is to be as not wrong as possible.
No one formula shapes this attempt at relative correctness. Large-scale pecking orders are an inexact science. This one takes into account a variety of factors, including past performance, objective data, injury history, age, and subjective forms of reasoning like film review, role expectations, skill sets and career trajectories.
Players are evaluated within this context as if we're acquiring them for the entire 2019-20 season. That includes the playoffs. Candidates will not be penalized for repping lottery teams; we're trying to rate them without regard for limitations beyond their control. At the same time, players will be judged on their ability to positively impact winning.
Anyone who isn't expected to play this year will not be included. DeMarcus Cousins, Kevin Durant and John Wall are top-100 staples when healthy, but they don't project to appear in a meaningful number of games—or any at all.
Jusuf Nurkic, Victor Oladipo and Klay Thompson have more concrete recovery timelines, so their nominations are intact. But their placements are affected by the challenges they face following serious injuries and the amount of season left in front of them upon return. Even the league's best players can add only so much value in a finite span.
In a deviation from Top 100s of years past, rookies are entirely excluded. New kids on the block always make the cut by season's end. Zion Williamson is definitely cracking (read: obliterating) the threshold, along with some others. Probably. Overall, though, placing players without extended NBA samples is too crapshoot-y. We'll circle back to them in the fall of 2020.
Bleacher Report's Andrew Bailey, Adam Fromal, Grant Hughes and Bryant Knox served as invaluable consultants throughout the ranking process. This list reflects their attempts to reason with yours truly. But responsibility for the final product is entirely on me. So if you have any concerns, gripes or declarations of war, you may send them to...everyone but me.
Youngsters on Top-100 Watch
Apologies to the NBA rookies for giving them the boot. To kind-of, sort-of, not-really make up for it, here are a few new kids on the block who have feasible paths into the top 100 this year:
- RJ Barrett, New York Knicks
- Jarrett Culver, Minnesota Timberwolves
- De'Andre Hunter, Atlanta Hawks
- Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies
- Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets
- Nickeil Walker-Alexander, New Orleans Pelicans
- Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans (more on him in a second)
Just for kicks, here are some second- and third-year cases to keep an eye on:
- OG Anunoby, Toronto Raptors (he made the top 100 last fall)
- Mikal Bridges, Phoenix Suns
- Miles Bridges, Charlotte Hornets
- Wendell Carter Jr., Chicago Bulls
- Zach Collins, Portland Trail Blazers
- Kevin Huerter, Atlanta Hawks
- Jonathan Isaac, Orlando Magic
- Luke Kennard, Detroit Pistons
- Collin Sexton, Cleveland Cavaliers
- Anfernee Simons, Portland Trail Blazers
Toughest Top-100 Snubs
Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans
Adhering to the no-rookie rule was difficult from the beginning. Zion Williamson made it hell between the ears. His per-36-minutes splits for the preseason: 30.8 points, 8.6 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.0 steals on, ahem, a 73.7 true shooting percentage.
Sticking to principles is important. No rookie inclusions means no rookie inclusions. No exceptions. Not even for Zion. Even though I wanted to make one. And still do. Unless his right knee injury turns into a more sinister issue, it seems like he has a top-30 or better ceiling as a rookie.
Malik Beasley, Denver Nuggets
Braver souls would've included Malik Beasley. He found nylon on 42.2 percent of his spot-up threes while finishing in the 88th percentile of transition efficiency last season, and he gave the Nuggets' bare-bones wing rotation someone with the athleticism to guard wings.
Beasley should be a better defender. He isn't long, but he's quick enough to be more aggressive. He shouldn't get thrown off tilt by so many screens or end up caught in the middle of nowhere off the ball. There might be another level to his scoring, too. He shot 6-of-8 on threes in the playoffs when using two or more dribbles.
Bogdan Bogdanovic, Sacramento Kings
Leaving off Bogdan Bogdanovic stings—and not just because he torched basically everyone in sight during FIBA World Cup play. He's been an offensive dynamo for a while now.
Bogdanovic finished third on the Kings in assist rate last season, behind De'Aaron Fox and the sparingly used Frank Mason, and second in pick-and-roll possessions as the ball-handler. His offense can shape-shift depending on the lineup. He converted 40 percent of his standstill threes last year and shot an encouraging 34 percent on pull-up triples after the All-Star break.
Predicting what comes next for Bogdanovic is a headache. The Kings will get him reps as the de facto backup point guard, but the roster makeup caps his peak in Sacramento. Fox and Buddy Hield aren't going anywhere, and playing him beside the 2 is a hard defensive sell unless Harrison Barnes or Trevor Ariza and Dewayne Dedmon are on the frontline.
Goran Dragic, Miami Heat
Healthy Goran Dragic is a problem. He is an underrated finisher at the rim and a fit for pretty much any lineup, whether he's piloting the offense or playing off another ball-handler.
Right-knee problems torpedoed his 2018-19 season. He is Miami's biggest swing piece, aside from maybe Bam Adebayo, if he can muster 70-ish appearances. He's also 33, and his efficiency dipped in 2017-18. Even with good health, a decline isn't off the table.
JaMychal Green, Los Angeles Clippers
JaMychal Green will require reevaluation if the Clippers commit to using him almost exclusively at the 5. His three-point volume isn't scaring anyone, but he hits enough of his triples (37.7 percent since 2016-17) to pull opposing centers out of the paint.
Select teams won't try to counter Green-at-the-5 lineups. They will often pay. Letting him unleash the more-than-occasional three comes at a greater opportunity cost when he's physical enough to jockey with more brutish bigs.
Green isn't merely the Clippers' antidote to potential matches. He's their blueprint to creating them.
Serge Ibaka, Toronto Raptors
Serge Ibaka's impact continues to wane. He enjoyed somewhat of an offensive revival last year, but only after extreme accommodation. The Raptors cater to his every limitation by gifting him spot-up twos—which, to his credit, he knocked down 55.5 percent of the time—and surrounding him with better-defending bigs.
Not all of those luxuries remain. Toronto is light on proven shooters and could be hard-pressed to tee up its more dependent scorers. Marc Gasol and Pascal Siakam provide adequate defensive cover, and Ibaka can get by on his own against bench mobs. But the lengths to which the Raptors must travel to prop him up are steep and, frankly, not quite worth it if he isn't taking or making many threes.
Andre Iguodala, Memphis Grizzlies
Andre Iguodala would sneak into the top 100 under normal circumstances. He is more of a 16-game player these days, but his defense and playmaking are still treasured commodities.
These are not normal circumstances. Iguodala is a member of the Grizzlies only in name. We don't know where he'll be traded or if he'll be traded. It could be mid-December before he plays again, or it could be sometime in February.
DeAndre Jordan, Brooklyn Nets
DeAndre Jordan squandered enough goodwill over the past season-and-a-half to earn exclusion.
Brooklyn is going to be good even without Kevin Durant. Jordan finally has a reason to get back on defense posthaste again.
Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers
Kyle Kuzma can get buckets. He's averaging 17.3 points per game for his career, and it's fair to assume his shooting mean is closer to 2017-18 (36.6 percent from three) than 2018-19 (30.3). But his fit with the Lakers is slightly more awkward after the Anthony Davis acquisition.
Playing both of them and LeBron James effectively leaves Kuzma as the nominal 3. For all of the strides he took defending quasi-bigs last year, he remains a liability when tracking quicker wings and guards in space.
Los Angeles can stagger his minutes so he plays the 4, and that might be an answer if he can float lineups as the No. 1 scoring option. He probably can't. His scoring profile is accessory-friendly. The Lakers offense failed to hang in the 1,843 possessions he logged without LeBron last year, and even with better shooters around, giving him fewer minutes alongside Davis and/or James hardly registers as a solution.
Marcus Morris, New York Knicks
If Marcus Morris shoots like he did during the first half of last season and makes good on his promise to give the Knicks an old-school identity renowned for its resiliency, then he'll belong in the top 100.
You can therefore see why he didn't make the cut.
Terry Rozier, Charlotte Hornets
Terry Rozier has an outside chance of creeping into the top 100 by virtue of volume. That isn't exactly an endorsement. His breakout in 2017-18 was overstated, and the Hornets don't have the secondary shot creators around him to preserve the quality of looks.
Tomas Satoransky, Chicago Bulls
A 6'7" pass-first point guard? With a methodical handle to navigate through traffic? But also with blow-by speed coming around screens and against unset defenses? Who is content to play off the ball and drain catch-and-fire threes? And who can match up defensively with certain wings?
Regret is seeping through already. If Satoransky was more inclined to look for his own shot, he'd be a shoo-in.
Landry Shamet, Los Angeles Clippers
Labeling Landry Shamet a shooter undersells his ceiling.
The Clippers stretched his defensive range after acquiring him in the Tobias Harris trade, using him against both guard spots and select forwards. That margin of discretion opens up more lineup-building doors.
Chief among them: rolling out Shamet as the titular point guard. He has looked mostly at home when taking on spot pick-and-roll duty and is a useful alternative to Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams when the Clippers want to balance shot creation and defensive integrity.
Hassan Whiteside, Portland Trail Blazers
Hassan Whiteside is not Jusuf Nurkic. He doesn't have anywhere near the offensive versatility, and his rim protection is less about quick rotations and positional awareness than trying to swat anything he pleases.
Still: This high-variance marriage could pay off. Nurkic wasn't the most disciplined defender before being traded to the Blazers, and the offensive chemistry between Whiteside and Portland's guards will take form at some point.
And let's not forget, Damian Lillard is involved. This could be the year we get Hassan Whiteside reborn.
Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves
Scorers forever have their place in the NBA, but Andrew Wiggins' points have neither rhyme nor reason. His specialty, that one marketable skill to which optimists can cling, is unknown.
Getting to the line is no longer his thing. His free-throw-attempt rate has been on the relative decline since his sophomore season. Using him off the ball has come to serve no purpose. His effective field-goal percentage on catch-and-shoot jumpers has dropped beneath 53 in each of the past two years.
Letting him create is the quickest path to nowhere. He doesn't have the vision to warrant running more pick-and-rolls, and he might be the league's worst pull-up jump shooter. His 35.3 effective field-goal percentage on these looks last season ranked last among every player who averaged at least five attempts per game.
Head coach Ryan Saunders has high hopes for Wiggins. They are not entirely misplaced. Wiggins doesn't turn 25 until late February. Consistent and more inventive coaching might go a long way toward rebooting his career.
Five years in, though, the skepticism isn't just earned or expected. It is obligatory.
100-96: VanVleet, Robinson, Nurkic, White, Ball
100. Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors
Fred VanVleet became a vibe by the end of the NBA playoffs. Following an ice-cold start, during which he averaged four points on sub-20 percent shooting from deep, he caught fire in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals and remained ablaze the rest of the way.
Over the Raptors' next nine games en route to a championship, VanVleet put up 14.7 points and 2.4 assists with a 51.1/52.6/85.7 shooting slash, all while playing the same feisty, disruptive defense that has staked his claim to second-string fame. This tear happened to coincide with the birth of his son, which gave his eruption a folklore feel.
At the same time, VanVleet's postseason struggles underscored his importance. His shooting and familiarity with playing off the ball is nice. But the Raptors kept him on the floor even when his offense wasn't clicking precisely because they couldn't afford to soldier on without his defense.
Air space is hard to come by whether VanVleet is on or off the ball. He defends larger than his 6'0" listing, which is a big part of why dual-point guard lineups with Kyle Lowry are such a staple. VanVleet gets into ball-handlers without noticeably opening himself to blow-bys, and roving shooters will find him attached to their hip.
Every rotation would welcome the opportunity to play him. To some, he'd even be starting-caliber. Toronto's offense didn't fare well with him as the primary pilot, but his affinity for getting into the lane and finding shooters hints at a higher solo ceiling if he can get more floaters or looks around the rim to drop.
99. Mitchell Robinson, New York Knicks
At its worst, Mitchell Robinson's inclusion is a rush to coronate. I call that a win. Robinson has makeup of a top-100 mainstay in the near future, if not already.
His immediate case isn't even contingent upon any particularly massive to-be-determineds. It would be nice—and incredibly unfair—if he started knocking down threes. He probably won't. And it isn't necessary. He can feast on rim runs, lobs and putbacks.
Robinson's defense is his meal ticket. Let's just say he won't go hungry.
Moving past his absence of discipline doesn't take long, and once you're beyond it, a unifying defensive force begins to take shape. Robinson is the guy who will guard three different people on the same possession and still have the recovery time to swallow a shot at the rim whole.
Doubters will harp on his foul troubles (5.7 per 36 minutes last year) and blah presence on the glass (19.4 defensive rebounding rate). Resist the same urge. Rookie foul sprees are more explicable than not, and Robinson kept himself in slightly better check as the season wore on.
Lackluster rebounding numbers are a non-issue. Robinson spends so much time trying to party-crash plays on the perimeter that the Knicks can live with it. He swatted away more than 1.1 short mid-range shots per 36 minutes, according to PBPStats.com. For comparison's sake, Myles Turner, last year's blocks king, sent back fewer than 0.9 of those same jumpers per 36 minutes.
98. Jusuf Nurkic, Portland Trail Blazers
Coming up with a spot for Jusuf Nurkic is a no-win proposition. He's closer to the top 50 at full strength, but including him at all is a marginal risk. He's recovering from compound fractures in his left leg, and it doesn't seem as if he has a target return date.
Most of what Nurkic does on offense should hold whenever he's back: screening, short rolls, work in the post, soft-pitch passes from above the break, dunker's spot sneaks, etc. His post-recovery defensive expectations are more mysterious.
Will he be able to hang in space when dropping back in the pick-and-roll? To rotate from his man to the backline-help position and then sometimes back again?
Nurkic's play in those situations is critical to the Blazers' defensive survival. It was always going to be tougher sledding after the Blazers subbed out Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless for some combination of Kent Bazemore, Mario Hezonja and more Rodney Hood. That extra strain isn't conducive to the feeling-out process Nurkic figures to need.
97. Derrick White, San Antonio Spurs
Barely putting Derrick White within the top 100 has the potential to look foolish. His defense is exhausting. He can shut down point guards of varying explosion, and a sub-6'8" wingspan has not stopped him from standing the test of larger wings.
White's presumed move to the Spurs' second unit, and his offense in sum, serves to pump the brakes. He looks like he has a better feel for creating for others in the half court, but his approach is more methodical. San Antonio's bench thrived last season while inducing a sort of measured chaos. White's style may conflict with those with whom he spends the most time beside.
This says nothing of his questionable range. He is a hesitant scorer even when he's on, and he could wind up launching fewer threes than Dejounte Murray. He was quite efficient on in-between looks last year and finds ways to finish when he gets to the basket, but without a full-bore attack mode, he is very much an offensive wild card.
96. Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans
All of the things Lonzo Ball does best will be accentuated with the Pelicans. His immediate ceiling is much higher than this if he makes it through the entire season without suffering an injury.
Resident stanners have not exaggerated his passing. His vision on the move is transcendent. He's the type of playmaker who will inspire his teammates to live on the break. He and Zion Williamson might immediately form the best passer-to-finisher duo in the league.
Ball is comparatively useful on defense. He has the length and size to guard up, and his rebounding is yet another transition-offense boon.
Committing to more of a scorer's role is next on Ball's must-do list. The draw will always be his vision, but the threat of his taking extra shots would make him less predictable. He showed a willingness to let it rip from deep in the preseason. That's a start.
The geometry of the Pelicans offense—and its ceiling—changes if those trademark step-back threes are falling. And they have fallen. Ball didn't shoot the lights out in the preseason, but he's buried 44.9 percent of his step-back treys through his first two years (22-of-49).
95-91: Harris, Favors, Young, Rubio, Adebayo
95. Joe Harris, Brooklyn Nets
Joe Harris is the exact kind of player that teams with multiple ball-handlers need in their rotation: a low-usage sharpshooter who won't let the rock stick and can attack closeouts, all while trying to keep himself from getting lit up on defense.
Others are flashier in this role. Harris is not a lockdown stopper. But he works hard enough for the Nets to stick him on bigger wings.
All the dreamy offensive indicators apply. Harris swished 48.1 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes and finished in the 98th percentile of scoring efficiency off screens. His appeal starts here, but that isn't where it ends.
Running him off the three-point line doesn't inhibit his offense. He won't hesitate to dribble into the lane or go at smaller players. He has dabbled in more complicated routes to the basket when challenging slower-footed defenders and will punish overaggressive collapses or traps with quick passes.
Harris' offense does not exist in a cubbyhole. It's more like a miniature armory.
94. Derrick Favors, New Orleans Pelicans
Derrick Favors has a chance to thoroughly outperform this spot. The Pelicans are more of an organic fit for him than the Utah Jazz since he'll be able to play more as a center. It isn't as important for him to develop his three-point touch at the 5. It is non-negotiable at the 4, and it's something he struggled to do in Utah, where he shot 22 percent from deep on experimental volume over the past two seasons.
Extending Favors' range is not unimportant. He is a cleaner fit next to Zion Williamson if he can space the floor around whirlwind rim assaults. The Pelicans didn't have him hoisting threes in the preseason, but he has battle-tested mid-range touch and is light enough on his feet to mess around with face-ups from above the foul line.
Charging Favors with more reps in the middle is not a defensive drawback. The Jazz allowed only 105.3 points per 100 possessions (92nd percentile) last year when he played center without overhauling their approach. Ball-handlers were still funneled into the paint, and Favors protected the house. Opponents shot 50.1 percent against him at the rim, the lowest mark among everyone who faced more than four point-blank looks per game.
Playmakers are not in short supply for the Pelicans, but Favors can anchor the offense in a pinch. He logged over 1,000 possessions last season without Donovan Mitchell, Ricky Rubio or Rudy Gobert on the court. Utah's offensive rating placed in the 82nd percentile during that time.
The elephant in the room: Favors' volume in New Orleans isn't quite a given. Zion-at-the-5 arrangements will be a thing when he recovers from his right knee injury, and the Pelicans have No. 8 pick Jaxson Hayes and Jahlil Okafor in the fold as well.
93. Thaddeus Young, Chicago Bulls
Thaddeus Young goes unappreciated in real time.
Interchangeable defense is celebrated in theory, but its practice doesn't invite fanfare. Young's switchability falls under that purview: not unnoticed, but far from lionized. That needs to change. He is strong enough to wrestle with bigs and has the speed to erase monster gaps on closeouts. He might be the league's best help defender.
Exploitable offense holds him back. His limitations beg for cross matches that complicate his team's half-court attack. Defenses aren't fazed by his jumper or off-the-bounce work. Slower bigs get assigned to him without yanking themselves from rim-protecting territory, and more aggressive squads can pass him off to a primary wing stopper who then gains freedom to roam.
It says a lot about Young's defense that he was never close to joining the snubs. His effort is an engine, and it can drive lineups that include only one other plus defender.
92. Ricky Rubio, Phoenix Suns
Relentless defense and a passion for deference have allowed Ricky Rubio to avoid the presumed fate of a shaky-shooting guard. Playing on the Suns will be a tougher gig than he had with the Jazz, but it may also reinforce what makes him special.
Utah's conservative defensive approach didn't call for (or allow) many dice rolls. Phoenix has the room to take chances. Funneling ball-handlers inside the arc doesn't have the same effect unless Deandre Ayton turns into a shot-swallowing machine.
Encouraging Rubio to chase turnovers has its advantages. It opens up the Suns to wild miscues, but they depend on enough young players that breakdowns will be the status quo. The transition opportunities Rubio would create matter more—except, maybe, when Aron Baynes is jumping center instead of Ayton. (Rubio's on-ball defense in general is paramount to alleviating Ayton's responsibility.)
Having a more seasoned game manager is a big win for Phoenix's offense. Rubio is less of a spacing liability when he isn't spending too much time off the ball. On it, he's an incessant prober who will find shooters and maximize his bigs.
Ayton in particular should be excited. He isn't (yet) the rim-runner Gobert has become, but he is quicker, has pick-and-pop range and can do more with the ball in his hands. Rubio should have a field day with him once their chemistry is fully forged.
91. Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat
Say a prayer for opposing defenses if Bam Adebayo's perimeter shooting is for real. He's already fast and bouncy, with great vision and occasional mid-range touch.
Bigs without high-volume jumpers can sometimes recede into ruts when their team isn't operating on the open floor. Adebayo is a more definitive asset in the half court. He works dribble handoffs with Miami's shooters well and has no trouble passing out of pileups near the basket. He seems to know where his four teammates are at all times.
Tack on higher usage from the perimeter, and forget it. Adebayo isn't about to start chucking threes, but he shot 39.2 percent last season between 10 and 19 feet. That is neither great nor even good. It's encouraging—as is his 72.8 percent shooting from the foul line for his career.
Potential is not a big part of Adebayo's defensive appeal. Results are. He isn't going to block as many shots as Hassan Whiteside did, but he doesn't need to. He's quicker to react around the basket and is just as valuable as a rim protector, if not more so.
Deeming Adebayo matchup-proof is not a stretch. He can switch ball screens liberally, and his jitterbug feet help him stay in front of just about anyone. If he starts putting down jumpers or sees a significant increase in offensive usage, this rank will look too low.
90-86: Barnes, Allen, Murray, Winslow, Dinwiddie
90. Harrison Barnes, Sacramento Kings
Harrison Barnes, president of Entering Free Agency at the Most Opportune Time, has slid back into the underappreciated ranks. The "he might be a star outside of the Golden State Warriors' marquee-name pileup" sheen has worn off, but his time with the Dallas Mavericks was nothing if not proof he has another offensive level.
Tabbing him as a No. 1 clearly isn't the answer. He doesn't get to the rim or the foul line nearly often enough, and his playmaking on the move is basic and approaching nonexistent. Put him on a team that balances Golden State Harrison with Dallas Harrison and you've really got something.
Sacramento really has something. Barnes hits enough of his set threes for bystander duty but has shown the side-to-side amble required to attack closeouts and go one-on-one. His isolations have more value as a tool in his belt, and the Kings have already granted him freedom in transition.
Nitpickers will quibble over whether he's a bankable small forward. Sometimes, I might be one of them. But Barnes is a rock-solid defender versus most 3s, and Sacramento finagled minutes for him at the 4 in the preseason. Barnes has never come closer to being optimally deployed, and the optionality he offers will be better known for it.
89. Jarrett Allen, Brooklyn Nets
Jarrett Allen polices the paint with zero fear. This man will challenge anyone at the rim. Anyone. He doesn't care how it ends. It could be with a highlight block, or with his being on the wrong end of a poster. It won't change his approach, because it hasn't changed his approach for the past two years.
Opponents shot 55.1 percent against Allen at the rim last season, the third-lowest mark among everyone who contested at least six such shots per game. The two players in front of him: Joel Embiid and Rudy Gobert.
If you're now wondering why the Nets gave DeAndre Jordan a four-year, $40 million contract over the summer, welcome to the club. Allen is the more reliable backline defender, with a little more switch to him on the outside. Jordan is the better rebounder and finisher on dives, but Allen improved in both areas as a sophomore.
Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving clearly wanted Jordan in Brooklyn. The Nets should have no regrets, and his contract won't go down as an overpay if he finds purpose in getting back on defense again. But his arrival does complicate Allen's standing.
Which one of them will close games? Will it be matchup-based? Default to Allen? Is it more likely the Nets use him to co-headline a win-now trade with Jordan in the fold? At the bare minimum, these two will eat into each other's minutes. That needs to factor into both of their outlooks.
Glass half-full: Allen has the offensive tricks to distinguish himself. The Nets are invested in his corner three-point shot, and he can put down the occasional hook shots and floater.
88. Dejounte Murray, San Antonio Spurs
Preseason performances did not drastically impact these rankings. They were taken into account but didn't make or break a singular case.
With that said, holy friggin' moly, Dejounte Murray curried serious favor in the preseason.
Coming off a torn right ACL injury that cost him all of last year, Murray was initially a snub candidate. He eventually wound up just inside the top 100, a classic hedge against his recovery.
Would he have the same mobility on defense? What would he look like on offense? Particularly on a Spurs squad more that's clunkier than the one he last played for in 2017-18? Would he have a mid-range game? Be scared to take threes?
Then the preseason happened. And let's just say Murray looks good.
His defense isn't going to be an issue. His quick-twitch feet are the same, and he hasn't shied away from getting into ball-handlers. Long after you read this, I will still be thinking about his defense on James Harden during this play.
Murray's offense is still a work in progress, but he isn't as hesitant to shoot from the outside. He hit three of his five three-point attempts in the preseason, and while his accuracy from mid-range wasn't great, his willingness to dribble into jumpers appears to be at an all-time high.
Games without stakes make for dangerous sample sizes. This isn't an overreaction. It does not guarantee Murray will leap into stardom. (He could.) It is an acknowledgement that a really good player is still really good.
87. Justise Winslow, Miami Heat
Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra won't commit to using Justise Winslow at point guard. That isn't a red flag. He wants Miami to be positionless, and Winslow remains a huge part of that.
"I don't want us to take a step back in terms of vernacular," Spoelstra said, per the Miami Herald's Barry Jackson. "Positionless basketball, this is the league, so catch up. Will the ball be in his hands? Yes. But you better believe Goran Dragic will have a big impact on the ball. That's what he does best, and that's where he's been an All-Star."
Building up Dragic after an injury-riddled season is a smart move. It spares Miami from "should Winslow permanently replace him at the 1?" coverage—for the time being. It also doesn't mean the Heat have to get away from leaning on their point wing.
Dragic is the closest they get to conventional floor generals. Winslow, Jimmy Butler and James Johnson are their best playmaking alternatives. Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn would like a word, too.
Read between the lines, and Winslow doesn't have to worry about relinquishing last year's role. That's great news for him. Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving were the only other players to clear 15 points and five assists per 36 minutes while shooting better than 37 percent from deep on Winslow's volume. Cherry-picking stats has questionable value, but wow.
Winslow now has to show last season wasn't a fluke. He's still a poor free-throw shooter (64.4 percent for his career), and his improved outside touch doesn't carry the same cachet if he doesn't sustain or up his volume. The prospect of a drop-off is caked in here. Putting him any lower just doesn't sell when he can capably defend four positions.
86. Spencer Dinwiddie, Brooklyn Nets
Spencer Dinwiddie might've wrested 2019 Sixth Man of the Year honors from the field if not for a midseason downswing that featured a thumb injury and plunging shooting percentages. And even with all of that baggage thrown into the equation, he still pieced together a standout campaign.
Another leap from Caris LeVert would knife into Dinwiddie's volume, but not severely so. Kevin Durant probably won't play this season, and the Nets bench is otherwise vacant of shot creation. Brooklyn needs another self-sufficient scorer and playmaker.
Dinwiddie is that player. And he will be the player before LeVert on some nights.
He finished last season averaging 16.8 points and 4.6 assists while finishing in the 86th percentile of pick-and-roll efficiency and the 85th percentile of isolation scoring. He isn't the most reliable finisher at the rim and can be haphazard about dribbling into traffic, but he gets to the line. No other non-big in Brooklyn reached the charity stripe more often on a per-shot basis.
Irving is similar to D'Angelo Russell in that way. Neither gets to the rim or the line especially often. Dinwiddie filled that role season while facing bench- and starter-heavy lineups. Brooklyn will give him the chance to do it again this year.
85-81: Green, Dedmon, Bogdanovic, Harrell, Ayton
85. Danny Green, Los Angeles Lakers
Danny Green, 32, has aged into the "should we expect a decline?" portion of his career. For this season at least, it doesn't matter.
Three-and-D specialists have a way of aging well, and Green's livelihood doesn't depend on anything supernatural. If he's taking on-ball reps or tasked with attacking the basket, his team has failed. Perhaps his transition defense will drop off, but someone less than one of the best transition defenders ever is still plenty useful.
Switching teams doesn't change Green's outlook. Last season, his first and only with the Toronto Raptors, gauged the depth of his plug-and-playness. He passed with flying colors, and he'll do the same on the Lakers, if only because his offense is for everyone.
Close to 60 percent of his shot attempts last year were standstill three-pointers, which he converted at a 47.4 percent clip. Nearly 80 percent of his total looks came without more than a single dribble. Arming LeBron James with this kind of offensive accessory should be illegal.
Green's lows can be infuriating—he looked unplayable by the end of the Eastern Conference Finals—but he's a proven shot-maker and defender at the game's highest levels.
84. Dewayne Dedmon, Sacramento Kings
Seeing Dewayne Dedmon here may catch those who reside outside Atlanta off guard. Rest assured, he belongs.
Dedmond is the frontcourt diamond who hides in plain sight. He does a little of everything squads need most from their non-superstar bigs: finish on dives to the basket, shoot, rebound, protect the rim and outlast possessions in space.
Tabbing him as a defensive lifeline goes overboard. He isn't Rudy Gobert or Joel Embiid. He can get overpowered. But he's a good enough cushion for teams running out liabilities (John Collins) or inexperienced try-hards (Marvin Bagley III) at the 4 spots. Atlanta's defensive rating skyrocketed from 110.3 when he played with Collins to 118.4 when the then-sophomore shared the frontline with anyone else.
Fitting Dedmon into an offense is painless. He has never needed the ball. He's content to set screens and run the floor, and his shooting is for real. Nearly 40 percent of his field-goal attempts last season came as catch-and-fire threes, of which he converted 38.1 percent. And these weren't corner bunnies. Most of his three-balls came from above the break.
"Disarmingly good" is the best way to describe Dedmon. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the only player from last season who rivaled his defensive rebound, steal and block percentages while making at least 25 three-pointers.
Syncing up with Sacramento does not cripple Dedmon's stock. He will, however, incur somewhat of a hit. The Kings are crowded up front, and he'll be among the odd men out if they commit major fourth-quarter and crunch-time minutes to Bagley-Harrison Barnes frontcourts.
83. Bojan Bogdanovic, Utah Jazz
Victor Oladipo's quad injury thrust Bojan Bogdanovic to into a makeshift-alpha's role last year. He delivered.
Bogdanovic shot 51.7 percent on drives, put in 30 of his 85 pull-up three-point attempts (35.3 percent) and upped his pick-and-roll initiation over the second half of the season. During the time he spent on the court without Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, the Indiana Pacers offense hovered close to the 50th percentile in efficiency—an unequivocal win when looking at the most-used lineups in those situations.
Bearing a No. 1's burden caught up to Bogdanovic in the playoffs. That is one of the least surprising things ever. He pumped in 18 points per game on 61.3 percent true shooting during the regular season, but he's best suited for sidekick duty.
The Jazz allow him to reenter his wheelhouse. They have Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell to float the offense from the top, not to mention a first-rate secondary playmaker in Joe Ingles.
Translation: Bogdanovic should eat. Utah will let him flex his on-ball muscles in drips and drabs but also get him going downhill and spoon-feed him spot-ups from the outside. This is deeply disturbing for defenses. Bogdanovic ranked in the 74th percentile of scoring efficiency on cuts and found the net on 44.9 percent of his standstill threes last season.
New digs can be awkward, but this feels like an obvious match. If Bogdanovic suffers a big-time drop-off, it's because Utah favors lineups with Ingles and Royce O'Neale at the 3 and 4, respectively.
82. Montrezl Harrell, Los Angeles Clippers
Montrezl Harrell's motor is permanently set to light speed. Watching him is exhausting in a refreshing way, and it counts as a form of cardio.
Next-level pick-and-roll chemistry with Lou Williams boosts his value but does not define it. He used around three post-ups per game last year, binge-bucketed on second-chance opportunities, got better at throwing purposeful passes and sheer-forced his way to foul-line trips.
Scan Harrell's per-minute efficiency, and there will be an inkling to put him higher. It isn't unwarranted. Only three other players averaged more than 20 points per 36 minutes last season while matching his true shooting percentage: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry and Boban Marjanovic.
That is incredible, and Harrell's best-case scenario is absolutely higher than the low 80s. But endless energy cannot carry him on defense the way it does on offense. Everyday centers need to grab more boards, and he is not immune to size. He will work—he's always working—but he can get kicked around by larger bigs.
That didn't have an impact on his playing time last year, but it might now. Paul George and Kawhi Leonard give the Clippers more than enough offense. Head coach Doc Rivers may be inclined to ride JaMychal Green and Ivica Zubac over Harrell for longer—and especially when it matters most.
81. Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns
Deandre Ayton looks the part on offense. So much of what he does comes within the flow of what's happening, which is saying something when considering the roster he played on as a rookie.
He is frisky when moving off the ball and makes quick decisions on the catch. The league has craftier post operators, but he doesn't need to overload his possessions with tricks and gimmicks. He works in a nice mix of hooks and fades.
Phoenix needs to plumb Ayton's range a little bit more. Green-lighting him from distance is the easy call. If they're not going to do that—and they didn't during the preseason—then he should at least be empowered to face up from the top of the key or further and attack the basket.
It is way too early to make a call about Ayton's defense. That's a good thing. He was a train wreck at the beginning of the year but statistically fared better protecting the rim after the All-Star break and showed the moxie to make some plays in space.
Luka Doncic, Trae Young and Jared Jackson Jr. commandeered most of last season's rookie spotlight. Ayton's introduction to the league, while perhaps not as impressive, was no less encouraging. He's the only newbie in league history to clear 16 points and 10 rebounds with a true shooting percentage above 60.
80-76: Valanciunas, Bagley, Ingram, Gordon, Tucker
80. Jonas Valanciunas, Memphis Grizzlies
Jonas Valanciunas is best suited on a veteran team that won't potentially cap his usage in favor of quirkier small-ball lineups or younger frontcourt combinations. His standing in Memphis is obscured by the Grizzlies' rebuild. He will start upon return from his foot surgery, but to what extent will they feature him with Brandon Clarke and Jackson in the fold?
Take Valanciunas' time with the Grizzlies last season as a harbinger of what's to come, and role reduction isn't an issue. He absolutely feasted during his 17 games in Memphis, averaging 19.9 points, 10.7 rebounds and 2.2 assists while burying 56.3 percent of his two-pointers.
A fuzzy chain of command should afford Valanciunas more freedom. Memphis doesn't have a born playmaker after escapist-dribble extraordinaire Ja Morant. Kyle Anderson is probably their second-best passer.
Feeding Valanciunas helps the Grizzlies to work around that iffiness. The Toronto Raptors used him as more of a roll man in recent years, but he retains his bullishness and touch around the block. He averaged more than 1.11 points per post-up possession last season.
79. Marvin Bagley III, Sacramento Kings
Instant scoring was the base of Marvin Bagley III's draft-day resume, but he surprised even by those standards. His goodie bag is both deeper and more polished than it has a right to be entering an age-20 season.
Bagley wasn't the most efficient post worker last year, but can we let him plead "being a rookie?" He has all of the necessary tools to make low-block touches worthwhile possessions. His comfort level on turnaround jumpers is off the charts, and he sports good touch on his hook shot. Relatedly, he sank 54.2 percent of his hook shots and 51.6 percent of his turnaround hooks.
It'll take some time before Bagley is a sure thing off the dribble, but he's close. He can scoot around defenders on face-ups and has shown on occasion that he's capable of bringing the ball up. He will get more efficient on transition.
Defenses are in major trouble if Bagley's late-year shooting holds and he sprinkles in more playmaking. He drilled 40 percent of his threes on 2.1 attempts per game after the trade deadline, and he flashed better speed moving without the ball and improved touch on catch-and-shoot opportunities inside the arc.
Back in August, I took some heat for calling him a willing passer. Maybe "able passer" is better phrasing. Either way, this is me standing by it. The assist numbers aren't yet there, but Bagley tosses some nifty dimes to cutters out of the post and is adept at moving the ball to Sacramento's shooters off face-ups.
Sacramento still needs a defensive life jacket next to him up front (Dewayne Dedmon is perfect), but not because he's hopeless. His activity is good. He can over-help and be straight overzealous in general. Whatever. Overreactions from kiddies are better than rampant underreactions and daydreamy sequences—doubly so if, like Bagley, they aren't fouling in droves.
78. Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans
Stubbornness fuels Brandon Ingram's NBA 100 inclusion. I remain bullish on his future, just like last year, in a way not always supported by what's happening on the floor. Maybe this isn't fair to members of the field, but Ingram, who only turned 22 in September, remains young enough to gamble on potential.
Each of his past two years has unfolded like two separate seasons in one: The hype train rolls in at full steam, he disappoints, he starts finding himself, he finishes the year strong but prematurely due to injury, and the process starts all over again.
Between Jan. 13 and March 2 last season, a span of 20 games, he averaged 21.5 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.6 assists while drilling 36.8 percent of his three-pointers. And then blood-clot issues in his right arm forced him out of action. Clockwork.
Watching Ingram is liable to stir up a mental tug-of-war. He looks so smooth with the ball and can get to his spots. You just don't always like his spots. He hits a high enough percentage of his threes for a long enough stretch to tempt you into stanning. But then you realize this efficiency comes on negligible volume, and that he's still prone to passing up or dribbling out of wide-open treys.
His length is disruptive on defense, even at the 4. But is he strong enough for that to hold in more than smaller spurts?
New Orleans has every reason to test out Ingram's team offense. He is one of the many centerpieces they received in the Anthony Davis trade and is set for restricted free agency next summer.
Whether the Pelicans have the patience to weather Ingram's inconsistency is another matter. Zion Williamson so thoroughly dominated the preseason, as did Nickeil Alexander-Walker, that the team could stumble into a more immediate timeline. Ingram's leash might not be all that long.
77. Eric Gordon, Houston Rockets
Eric Gordon's four-year, $75.6 million extension (three years, $54.6 million guaranteed) will look like an overpay to anyone who peruses his staple numbers. He has shot no better than 36 percent from three over the past two seasons and doesn't have the leeway (or track record) to launch off-the-dribble treys.
Context overrides any lingering qualms.
The tail end of Gordon's deal admittedly could be rough. But the Rockets don't ask him to create from square one in volume, even though he can. He may not go supernova on off-the-bounce triples, but he hit 46.5 percent of his two-pointers after using two or more dribbles.
For the types of looks he traffics in, Gordon's outside clip gets the job done. He buried 38.3 percent of his spot-up triples last year, which accounted for almost half his attempts, and only two players converted more threes from 27 feet or deeper: Stephen Curry and James Harden.
Gordon's average shot distance alone is a blessing, and it has never been more critical. Houston needs to open up the floor as best it can whenever Russell Westbrook is in the game. Gordon nails enough of those superlong threes (35.3 percent) to coax defenders beyond the arc.
And though he isn't an airtight defender, he does grant the Rockets options. They used him to cover the most dangerous guards last season when Chris Paul wasn't on the floor, and he held his own in the playoffs despite drawing more than a handful of wing assignments.
76. PJ Tucker, Houston Rockets
PJ Tucker is the lifeblood of Houston's defense. This is not a shot at Clint Capela, who has more lateral amble than most traditional bigs and is important to what the Rockets do. But unlike him, Tucker cannot be small-balled off the floor.
By the end of the postseason, it was clear the Rockets were better off with the 34-year-old absorbing center minutes. He tallied 179 possessions at the 5, during which time they posted a 111.6 defensive rating. That isn't an elite mark, but it's good enough when taking Houston's second-round loss to the Golden State Warriors into consideration, and when factoring in the offensive cost of playing Capela without leaning as heavily on spread pick-and-rolls.
Westbrook's arrival may deter the Rockets from using Tucker at the 5 as often. He needs pick-and-rolls to exist, and Capela has more gravity as the rim-runner. That isn't a deal-breaker for Tucker's leaguewide finish.
Houston should test out a frontline pairing of Tucker and Thabo Sefolosha, but the rotation doesn't otherwise have the power forward equity to guarantee stingy showings in smaller lineups. It was the same story before the playoffs last year. The Rockets coughed up 117 points per 100 possessions when Tucker sponged up reps at the 5.
Luckily for them, he doesn't need to play center as much as they should want him to play center. He has the timing and strength to wage battle at all three wing spots, and his offensive production isn't tied to mismatches. Houston tees him up for corner trey after corner trey—shots he's been hitting at a 39.5 percent clip since 2016-17.
75-71: Beverley, Redick, Jackson Jr., Markkanen, Randle
75. Patrick Beverley, Los Angeles Clippers
What Patrick Beverley does translates across all 30 teams, but it hits hardest on a contender crammed with star power and ball-handlers.
Offenses do not have to fit around him. He fits into them. He doesn't hijack possessions or demand a certain number of touches, and his unremitting defensive efforts are not the slightest bit affected by his shot volume or scoring output.
More than 44 percent of his total field-goal attempts in 2018-19 came as spot-up threes, of which he converted 41 percent. He does not have the cleanest handle, but he can do more if it pleases the offense. Running a functional pick-and-roll now and then is not outside his purview, and he can flip up shots over defenders in the lane after coming around screens. He shot 50 percent on driving floaters last year (22-of-44).
But yeah...the defense. Beverley doesn't play like someone who's 6'1". The Clippers have zero issue pulling him off a guard assignment to stick him on wings and fringe bigs such as Kevin Durant.
The end result isn't always a victory, but the mere fact someone so pint-sized provides almost-positionless optionality while contending for All-Defensive teams defies reason.
74. JJ Redick, New Orleans Pelicans
Multiple colleagues talked me down on JJ Redick. He's entering his age-35 season and is playing for an enviably deep Pelicans squad that won't have the incentive to keep him on the floor as much if they aren't contending for a playoff spot. (Then again, they might.)
Presuming Redick regresses is out of bounds. Bracing for it is another story. Yet even that feels dirty.
To say Redick's game has aged well would be a distortion of the facts. His bag has actually broadened with time.
Redick finished inside the 96th and 95th percentiles of pick-and-roll efficiency during his two seasons with the Philadelphia 76ers. They didn't run a ton of pick-and-rolls as a team, but those plays accounted for 10 percent of Redick's offensive possessions last year. That isn't nothing.
His pull-up volume has also increased since he left the Clippers, and he's added a step-back jumper, too. More ball screens in Philly translated to higher assist totals.
Keeping this up as he exits his mid-30s isn't a given, and he's already a defensive liability. But to bank on Redick falling off? Nah. Even if doesn't have the breathing room to playmake for himself and others as much in New Orleans, his touch will endure. The simplest version of himself—an assassin on catch-and-shoots and coming off screens—is still somebody everyone wants.
73. Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies
Foul sprees and low rebounding totals infer a certain rawness to Jaren Jackson Jr.'s game. That isn't inaccurate, nor is it a throwaway concern. Jackson's foul rate did not come down in the preseason. (His rebounding is up.)
This is nowhere near enough to cast doubt upon his future. Jackson is on cornerstone watch because it doesn't take much to see the outline of one. He may foul in excess, but his foot speed is ridiculous. Once he figures out how to properly leverage his length and hold his ground against burlier bigs inside, he'll be able to switch across at least four positions.
Jackson's offensive outcome is slightly murkier. He has shown some craft with the ball in his hands, but he doesn't have the Anthony Davis-like athleticism to blow by defenders. Watching him attack off the dribble is like seeing the moment unfold in slow motion.
Big whoop. Jackson doesn't need to be an explosive one-on-one threat to leave his mark. As the Daily Memphian's Chris Herrington said on the Dunc'd On podcast (51:58 mark):
"I think he's a guy who can spot up, spread the floor, hit trail threes. He can finish on the break. He can finish off pick-and-roll. He's got a point guard now that can deliver him the ball. I think he's a guy who, with the minutes he's going to get, he's a guy who can get you 20 a game just in the flow, without really running anything for him."
If the Grizzlies are dead set on grooming Jackson to create for himself, upping his post volume is the way to go. He showed nice spins, fades, shoulder control and touch from the block as a rookie. So even if he never follows the face-up arc of Davis or Al Horford, Jackson will soon wind up entrenching himself as one of the NBA's most complete players.
72. Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls
Lauri Markkanen's sophomore season should not be remembered as a total letdown. All things considered, he made a yearlong tumult.
A sprained right elbow sidelined him until December, at which point he struggled to recapture his offensive form. But then he hit his stride more often. From Dec. 21 to March 1, a span covering 31 appearances, he averaged 21.2 points and 9.9 rebounds on 59.1 percent true shooting.
This minitear culminated with a 31-point performance in a four-overtime slugfest against the Atlanta Hawks, after which Markkanen tailed off. Chicago shut him down because of fatigue before April.
It should be easier for Markkanen to stand out this year. Better point guard play might help him more than anyone on the roster. Too many of his possessions last season seemed to end in late-shot-clock post-ups to nowhere. Having Coby White and Tomas Satoransky to push the pace and manage the clock should spare him from similar misuse.
Granted, Markkanen still has to to expand his game. The Bulls aren't exactly working from a position of strength at point guard just yet. They need him to be more of a passing threat on his drives, and it'd go a long way if he could get comfortable with taking more jumpers off the bounce.
71. Julius Randle, New York Knicks
Julius Randle's defensive struggles are tough to overlook. He has sufficient moments in one-on-one situations, but he fouls like it's his job and is a near-nonexistent helper.
Running Randle out at the 5 is akin to throwing a parade at the rim. It is that hole that most warps his value, lending itself to an absence of definition: You can't hope to use him as a defender at the 5, but is he really fit to play the 4?
The answer after last season is a resounding yes. Randle has always been a wrecking ball with dancer's feet, but he's exerted better control over the outcome of his possessions. He can lead the charge on fast breaks, barrel through defenders in the half court, spin through traffic, cross over lumbering bigs, hit the occasional step-back and annihilate the rim.
Working through so much variety is a magnet for inefficiency, but Randle is exempt. He's shot better than 68 percent at the rim in each of the past two seasons while subjecting himself to difficult finishes over sky-scraping bigs. Last year was the first time he fully dipped his feet into the three-point pool, and it went well. He hit 34.4 percent of his long balls on 2.7 attempts per game and was even better off the catch (35.8 percent).
Watching Randle is still a roller-coaster ride. He is both savant and saboteur. But he's a legitimate offensive stud—the type of player who can stat-stuff his way to All-Star consideration in the East.
To wit: Randle was one of just seven players last season who cleared 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.
70-66: Gordon, Hayward, Sabonis, Capela, LaVine
70. Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic
Orlando does not have the rotation equity for Aaron Gordon to settle into the role he was ostensibly born to play: that of a floor-running, lob-catching finisher who wreaks defensive havoc on assignments from the inside out. With so many bigs and so few playmakers, the Magic need him to be more of a point forward, even if it comes at a cost.
Mind you, it does.
Gordon isn't yet suited to a steady volume of pull-up jumpers or spot pick-and-roll duty. But the threat of attacking off the dribble puts pressure on defenses in ways the Magic's other wings—aside from Terrence Ross—do not. They can only hope Gordon becomes more efficient in those situations over time, and entering Year 6, he doesn't have much left before the he-is-what-he-is default prevails.
To his credit, Gordon has not wilted in the face of being (potentially) miscast. He is a semi-reliable set shooter from beyond the arc—he's hitting 37.8 percent of his spot-up treys over the past two years—and his defensive difference-making has not been muted by spending so much time covering wings on the perimeter.
69. Gordon Hayward, Boston Celtics
Gordon Hayward has the chance to blow this finish out of the water. His closing kick to last season suggests he will. Isolate his per-36 splits after the trade deadline and his output was more closely aligned with his 2016-17 self:
- Hayward per 36 minutes in 2016-17: 22.9 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 6.1 free-throw attempts, 47.1/39.8/84.4 shooting slash
- Hayward per 36 minutes post-2019 trade deadline: 17.9 points, 5.9 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 4.6 free-throw attempts, 56.0/39.3/81.9 shooting slash
Granting Hayward a one-year reprieve following his recovery from a devastating ankle injury is perfectly fine. And hey, this season's placement may be overcompensating for last fall, when he checked in at—gulp—No. 22 on our list.
Cautious optimism still feels like the correct default mode. Hayward has never relied upon explosion, getting to the rim with inordinately high frequency or hitting acrobatic jumpers. He was as complementary as then-potential-top-25 players came. But his long-term outlook could still be compromised.
Will he ever get to the line at the same clip? Or look the same attacking switches in space? Will he be consistently available for 30-plus minutes per game? What does his fit look like within an offense that, even without Al Horford and Kyrie Irving, remains on the crowded side?
These questions persist. Until they don't, this year, unlike last year, must be about waiting and seeing and, yes, hedging.
68. Domantas Sabonis, Indiana Pacers
Domantas Sabonis played well enough to curry favor over Myles Turner for half of last season. He was—and still is—someone the offense can run through. His play around the basket is a mixture of physicality and grace, he works the hell out of dribble handoffs, and he's a pinpoint passer on the move and out of traffic.
That player is only so valuable at power forward if he's not shooting threes. And so far, the Pacers haven't put him in that position. He needs a spacing buffer to be at his most effective—in addition to a primary ball-handler. Indiana's offensive rating dropped to the 38th percentile last season when he played without Victor Oladipo.
Criticism of Sabonis' defense is overdramatic. He moved around well last season, and he's looking svelte this year. The combination of his playing power forward and losing Thaddeus Young hurts, but Sabonis is more than capable of anchoring the back line in bench-heavy units. Indiana scraped together impressive minutes with him in the middle and Young on the bench last season.
Something else must give for Sabonis to be worth the money he is seeking and will probably get in his next deal. Playoff-proofing himself by uncorking more threes is a good place to start—if head coach Nate McMillan allows it.
67. Clint Capela, Houston Rockets
Clint Capela is taking a dive relative to last season's list. You'll be forgiven if that doesn't quite track. He's coming off a year in which he averaged career highs in minutes (33.7), points (16.6), rebounds (12.7) and even free-throw shooting (63.6 percent).
There is unsung value in a player who understands his role, takes ownership of it and, just as importantly, doesn't try to play outside it. That's Capela. But a little more variance would be nice. As SI.com's Rob Mahoney wrote:
"Yet the fact that Capela can be played off the floor—even if in rather extreme situations—does diminish his value relative to other wings and guards. Every big in today's game needs a way to leverage their size against smaller players. Capela is still finding his, particularly when the smaller opponents in question can deny him clean rolls to the rim."
Matchup problems aren't as abundant this side of the Golden State Warriors' dissolution. They still exist. Beyond that, it is fair to wonder whether, given the confines in which he plays, Capela has maxed out his potential.
66. Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls
Zach LaVine's spot is not meant to divide and rankle, but it will. He averaged 23.7 points while downing 37.4 percent of his threes and turning in a more huggable shot profile last season. With the Eastern Conference starved for (healthy) A-listers, and with Chicago now employing no fewer than two capable point guards, he's a good bet to make the All-Star cut.
Placing him in the mid-60s is not a punishment for his defense, or for his reaction to the Bulls asking him to take fewer mid-range jumpers. (Read Cleaning the Glass' Ben Falk for a better hold on the ladder topic.) It isn't an insult at all. Finishing here, give or take a few spots, is pretty darn good!
But we still need to see more.
LaVine notched a career-best free-throw-rate last season while getting to the rim more often than ever. Will those improvements hold for a consecutive season? The same goes for his shooting. He's always been a reliable marksman, but he drilled more than 39 percent of his contested triples last year. Is that sustainable? Can he get easier shots?
It is likewise worth noting that despite all he did, the Bulls offense was still blah with him on the court. The Bulls didn't arm him with much help, but that's something to consider for anyone who wants him juiced up to Kemba Walker territory. LaVine has a better supporting cast now. Let's see how it goes.
And yeah, defense weights into his finish. LaVine claims he's ready to get better. Maybe he will. But his off-ball lapses are the stuff of legend, and he fails to afford the Bulls the most basic form of flexibility. Think: Malik Beasley being able to sometimes stay with 3s or Landry Shamet defending down.
Welcome to the problem with this exercise in a nutshell. The onus of justifications leads to an accentuation of flaws and the inverse of the argument really trying to be made. Although LaVine lacks the completeness shared by other high-wattage names, he has turned into one of the NBA's best scorers.
65-61: Gilgeous-Alexander, Lopez, Smart, Brown, Williams
65. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder
Anybody worried that getting traded to Oklahoma City might slow down Shai Gilgeous-Alexander's meteoric development can rest easy. It won't. He averaged 18.8 points while downing 62.2 percent of his two-pointers and getting to the foul line at a respectable clip in the preseason.
Four exhibition games isn't substantive, and Gilgeous-Alexander does have his warts. His jumper isn't fully weaponized, and it remains to be seen when he can steer the offense for protracted stretches on his own.
Counting on him to figure it all out this season is a big ask. Chris Paul will be driving the offense for as long as he's in Oklahoma City, and the Thunder don't have the shooters necessary for Gilgeous-Alexander to dribble into high-quality jumpers.
That doesn't make him an offensive project. He scored relatively efficiently coming out of the pick-and-roll last year, and he'll make noise if he's getting to the rim and hitting floaters. He's also one of the Thunder's more reliable set shooters. That's not saying much, but still: He hit 37.1 percent of his spot-up threes with the Los Angeles Clippers, albeit on negligible volume.
In the end, a choppy offensive showing from Gilgeous-Alexander wouldn't severely dent his stock. His three-position defense tantalizes most. He even soaked up spot duty versus power forwards last year, according to data from Nylon Calculus' Krishna Narsu.
Rookies seldom have a positive impact on defense. That renders Gilgeous-Alexander an anomaly. His length is disruptive in passing lanes and occasionally around the rim. If he gets stronger, he'll be one of the league's best one-on-one defenders. Hell, he may already be that.
64. Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks
Slower-footed bigs should look to Brook Lopez for the blueprint to thrive in today's NBA. He has withstood the march toward positionless basketball by jacking threes, protecting the rim and perfecting his defensive stances when getting switched onto guards.
Lopez canned a career-best 36.5 percent of his treys last year. And yet, it isn't just that he hit them. It is how often he was taking them, and where he was launching them from. He attempted 6.3 threes per game, a large portion of which came from 27 feet and beyond.
That looong distance isn't just a luxury for the Bucks. It is a necessity. Lopez is removing both himself and, because he's an actual outside threat, the opposing big from the paint. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Eric Bledsoe don't have as much room to maneuver without him letting loose from way downtown.
Nor does Milwaukee click as easily if Lopez isn't willing to work almost exclusively without the ball. Almost 80 percent of his buckets came off assists in 2018-19. That number was under 60 percent not terribly long ago, in 2015-16. Lopez has a featured option's background, so this evolution cannot be minimized. (He can still get a bucket on the block.)
Pairing plug-and-play offense with stout rim protection completes his transition into the ideal non-star big. No other player has ever averaged more than two blocks and two made threes per game. Just the Milwaukee version of him.
63. Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics
Smart has a chance to be more than the Boston Celtics' resident defensive bloodhound.
Oh, without question, he's still that. Small ball will have to be a part of the Celtics' DNA after swapping out Al Horford with Enes Kanter, and Smart's defensive range will be paramount to those combinations standing ground at the less glamorous end. He matched up with bigger wings—Luka Doncic, Paul George, Khris Middleton—to varying volume last year, and Boston hasn't shied from using him to guard in the post.
Smart's offense has always prevented him from shedding the "specialist" label—or from completely avoiding the "liability" designation. He at least began to overturn the non-shooting knock last year. He buried 36.4 percent of his three-pointers and was even more effective off the catch (38.7 percent).
That doesn't make Smart a proven shooter. He does not wield a jumper off the dribble, and defenses will live with the 6-12 points he steals from beyond the arc if it allows them to wall off the lanes for others. But he'll garner more attention, however minimal, if he keeps swishing threes with league-average touch. That alone diversifies his offensive portfolio.
Boston may even have the bandwidth to explore more of Smart's half-court initiation. Carsen Edwards or Brad Wanamaker will be the only option at backup point guard if Gordon Hayward rejoins the starting lineup. Smart is the safer choice to spell Kemba Walker, even if his turnover rate is much too high relative to his usage.
62. Lou Williams, Los Angeles Clippers
Lou Williams is best suited when his volume goes ungoverned. He has parlayed the league's ninth-highest usage mark over the past two seasons (minimum five appearances) into consecutive career years.
During that time, he owns the fourth-best free-throw-attempt rate among guards to tally at least 2,000 total minutes and has established himself as a viable pick-and-roll facilitator. His combined averages of 21.3 points, 5.3 assists and 56.5 true shooting are matched by only nine other players, and they're all stars: Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Damian Lillard, Blake Griffin and Devin Booker. Just, wow.
Circumstances may dictate Williams retreat into a less prominent role behind Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. Or maybe not. The Clippers don't have a conventional floor general on the roster. They'll need Williams to make sweet pick-and-roll magic with not only Montrezl Harrell but also the rest of their frontcourt rotation.
Lowering expectations is still the correct course. Williams turns 33 later this month, and the Clippers are deep in a way that suggests he won't need to close as many games or shoulder anywhere near the same wire-to-wire usage.
61. Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics
Ranker's remorse is in full effect following Jaylen Brown's preseason. Even last year, he quietly salvaged what was considered a dispiriting third season. He started slow, battled back issues and earned a demotion to the bench, but he averaged 13.9 points over his final 45 games while banging in 54.5 percent of his twos and 39.4 percent of his threes. After regaining his starting spot, he was one of the Boston Celtics' more valuable shooters during their ill-fated playoff run.
The concern is that Brown, 22, may have peaked—on offense, anyway. He has untapped levels of defense. Team USA rolled him out up a position or two, and the returns, at times, looked pretty good. Boston will be able to scrape by with Kemba Walker-plus-all-wing lineups if Brown and Marcus Smart effectively defend up.
Views of Brown's offense are less hopeful. Someone with his athleticism should get to the rim and, in turn, the charity stripe more often. But Brown has seen the percentage of his attempts inside three feet and his free-throw-attempt rate decline each season.
Limited opportunity is at least partially responsible. Brown's freedom within the offense and playing time suffered from Year 2 to Year 3 as the Celtics tried, and failed, to accommodate him, Gordon Hayward, Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum all at once. Steadier volume may culminate in a more balanced game.
"I definitely will have more opportunities this year than I did last year, obviously with the loaded roster that we had last year," Brown said, per Celtics.com's Marc D'Amico. "This year, I think I have some responsibility—I have to be accountable; I have some responsibility to make sure that I come out and perform for my teammates."
Predicting more prominent production from Brown requires a leap of faith. Boston has Hayward, Tatum and Walker, and he hasn't yet ditched the drives to nowhere that directly stunt his value as a playmaker. He may just be more three-and-D specialist than All-Star. That's still a darn good basketball player but pales in comparison to what it seemed he might be following his sophomore boom.
60-56: Covington, Richardson, LeVert, Bledsoe, Harris
60. Robert Covington, Minnesota Timberwolves
All-NBA defenders who toe the line of being positionless and hit threes at above-average clips are a rotation's dream. They do not always work in an offense without a star, but part of their appeal is they fit alongside every star.
Robert Covington is one of those players: a billboard for three-and-D specialists who make more than a niche impact.
He isn't a deadly shooter in the conventional sense. Pin-balling around screens isn't his thing. He needs more time to get his shot off than a Danny Green or JJ Redick. But he's hitting 37.2 percent of his treys over the past two seasons, mostly on zero-dribble shots that hint at an understanding of his limitations. What he lacks as a ball-handling option and lights-out finisher he makes up for with hard-run beelines toward the basket.
Covington's wheelhouse is broader at the other end. Defensive impact is not solely measured by steals and blocks, but he has a knack for amassing both. Over the past three seasons, no other non-big has matched Covington's steal and block percentages in comparable playing time.
On or off the ball, he's always in the middle of breaking up possessions. His willingness to help around the rim is uncommon for a wing. The way he guards is surgical. It is the kind of defense that makes the team better. Minnesota ranked in the 86th percentile of points allowed per 100 possessions with him on the court.
A right knee injury looms over everything. Covington made just 35 combined appearances with Philadelphia and Minnesota and underwent surgery in April. This is the same knee in which Covington tore his meniscus at the end of the 2016-17 season.
Expressing concern is fair. So, too, is Covington's placement. If he's anywhere near normal this season, the Timberwolves have a contender-friendly core piece on their hands.
59. Josh Richardson, Philadelphia 76ers
Josh Richardson's stock dropped slightly last season amid the Miami Heat's need for more. Out of necessity, they needed him to work off the dribble. Situationally, that can work. But Richardson's pick-and-roll frequency skyrocketed from 2017-18 to 2018-19.
Philly does not need to overextend him. It may want to lean on him more in crunch time, when face-up options are king, but the majority of his damage should come off the catch or on quick-fire possessions. And while he can't replace JJ Redick's pinball motions, he does have the chops to be Joel Embiid's dribble-hand-off outlet.
That the Sixers now have Richardson to pester point guards is patently unfair. He spares Ben Simmons from that wear and tear but can also blanket opponents up to the 3 spot—and sometimes the 4. Finding the right defensive matchup for Tobias Harris will be effortless.
Jimmy Butler's exit will not be painless. Philly will feel it, most notably on offense. But snagging Richardson was huge. The Sixers didn't just land on their feet; they acquired a seamless star complement who can flirt with an All-Defensive selection while hitting 37-plus percent of his threes.
58. Caris LeVert, Brooklyn Nets
Heading into mid-November, Caris LeVert was the Brooklyn Net generating the most buzz. Not until a dislocated right ankle derailed the heart of his season did D'Angelo Russell begin his climb.
LeVert regained much of his flair by year's end. He averaged 16.0 points and 4.3 assists while draining 45.2 percent of his threes over Brooklyn's final eight games. Small samples are the enemy of meaningful conclusions, but that momentum leaked into the postseason. He carried the Nets offense in five games against the Sixers, averaging 21.0 points and 3.0 assists with a 49.3/46.2/72.4 shooting slash.
Kevin Durant's recovery from a torn Achilles leaves the door wide open for LeVert's rise into fringe or flat-out stardom to continue.
He will be the No. 2 option on most nights and has shown a flair for making more complicated passing reads and shots. The trick for him is embracing volume. Having a Sixth Man of the Year candidate in Spencer Dinwiddie to take on No. 2 duties for spurts is a luxury, but LeVert plays more reserved at times than someone with his first step and improved feel for the game should.
57. Eric Bledsoe, Milwaukee Bucks
Eric Bledsoe, who may begin the season on the shelf with a rib injury, should be riding the wave of last year's All-Defense campaign. Instead, nearly everyone is left wondering if he'll disappear for a third straight playoff run, and whether his vanishing act might extend to a regular season in which Milwaukee won't have Malcolm Brogdon for reinforcement.
Abandoning Bledsoe's ship is overkill. He is an asset within the Bucks system. Checking the league's best floor generals takes a toll, but he answers the call to arms (almost) every night. His shooting is so-so at its best, but that's more of a postseason problem.
Milwaukee affords Bledsoe plenty of room to scramble inside the arc. Among the 68 players who averaged at least eight drives per game last year, only Antetokounmpo converted a higher percentage of his field-goal attempts.
But playoff basketball counts, and Bledsoe's limitations on the perimeter add a layer of predictability to the offense. His defense isn't enough to live with that trade-off when the games matter most. And the Bucks can't do much more to make his life easier. They already minimize the time he logs without Antetokounmpo and Middleton, an approach that could be in jeopardy without Brogdon.
56. Gary Harris, Denver Nuggets
Gary Harris did not invite much faith in the first season of his four-year, $84 million extension. Hip and hamstring injuries dogged him almost end to end, and his 33.9 percent clip from three was the second-lowest of his career.
Rejoining the starting five after a seven-game absence and brief stint on the bench appeared to do him some good. He shot 40.3 percent from deep over his final 21 appearances. But that efficiency came on modest volume and didn't actually hold. He converted just 16 percent of his treys through Denver's final seven games.
Transitioning into the postseason didn't make him any more predictable. His outside shooting normalized early on, but he went 4-of-22 (18.2 percent) from deep in Games 2 through 7 against the Portland Trail Blazers. Harris' darts to the basket and subsequent finishes rarely seemed the same.
Betting on redemption is still the call. Better health will serve Harris well, and his 2018-19 campaign was not a complete downer. He assumed the assignments the Nuggets' wing rotation wasn't fit to handle. Their preferred starting five—Harris, Will Barton, Jamal Murray, Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokic—doesn't survive on defense without him. His life will get noticeably easier with the arrival of Jerami Grant.
55-51: Ingles, Hield, Porter, Brogdon, Gasol
55. Joe Ingles, Utah Jazz
Joe Ingles is finally part of a roster that only needs him to follow his normal instincts. Over the past couple of years, as the Utah Jazz navigated shot-creation deficits, they've needed him to impersonate a No. 2 or third wheel. That all changes with the acquisitions of Bojan Bogdanovic and Mike Conley.
Donovan Mitchell is the only member of the Jazz who might benefit more from their arrivals. Ingles no longer needs to be a scorer or primary playmaker in most lineups. The ones in which he does should be Ingles-plus-another-starter-and-bench units.
That still frees him up to focus on his playmaking. Having no fewer than one superior outlet around him at all times should help limit his turnovers on the move. He coughed up the ball on 28 percent of his pick-and-roll possessions last season, the worst mark in the league by a humongous margin.
Pretty much everything else Ingles does is beyond critique.
He didn't shoot well in last year's playoffs, but he's routinely among the most accurate snipers every season. Stephen Curry, Buddy Hield, Kyle Korver, CJ McCollum, JJ Redick and Klay Thomspon are the only other players who have hit as many threes since 2015-16 while shooting at least 40 percent from beyond the arc. Ingles has even shown he can dribble into some triples if given enough space.
Bake in multiposition defense and his case as one of the NBA's premier glue guys writes itself. What he lacks in speed he makes up for with discreetness. He knows how to use space and Rudy Gobert to his advantage, and he's so rarely out of place that it's as if he has a Rolodex of player and team tendencies ingrained into his brain.
54. Buddy Hield, Sacramento Kings
More than a few players behind Buddy Hield have a higher ceiling. This is not a birthday joke. Looking at off-guards alone, Gary Harris, Caris LeVert, Josh Richardson, Jaylen Brown and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, among others, all have arguments to rank ahead of him.
What gives, exactly? Hield's defining skill: shooting. His touch from long range is one of the league's most sought commodities, and he has been among the top snipers for longer than most realize—like, ya know, since he entered the NBA.
This marriage of volume and efficiency cannot be oversold. Nor is it hyperbole to dub Hield the NBA's third-best shooter overall, ceding ground only to the Splash Brothers. This is not someone with a slow release capitalizing on the easiest shots. He is not out there exclusively swishing standstill bombs.
Spot-up threes accounted for nearly 62 percent of Hield's attempts from downtown, but he has layers to his range, and the Sacramento Kings leverage his touch in many forms.
He averaged more points per possession in transition last season than Curry, Thompson, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, LeBron James...the list goes on. And Hield didn't stand out on the back of low volume. Only five players finished more possessions on the break—the Kings were caps-lock FAST—and he didn't shy from spraying treys in those situations.
Hield also rated in the 84th percentile of scoring efficiency off screens and the 81st percentile on handoffs. He has some stop-and-pop flair. He banged in a combined 40.8 percent of his one- and two-dribble threes and put down 37.4 percent of his pull-up triples overall.
Setting up others is Hield's next frontier—if he has one. He looks uncomfortable on the occasions Sacramento puts him in the pick-and-roll and passes without much purpose when driving toward the basket. He could stand to attack the rim more in general, even if only to try generating more trips to the charity stripe.
In the meantime, Hield's shooting is elite across many of the most important areas, the sum of which render him more than just a shooter and one of the NBA's most underrated players.
53. Otto Porter Jr., Chicago Bulls
Breakout seasons from seventh-year players are uncommon, and that's putting it generously. Otto Porter Jr. has a real opportunity to challenge the norm.
Getting traded from the Washington Wizards to the Chicago Bulls has already proved to be a blessing of volume. Gone is the niche—and therefore prohibitive—role he assumed behind Bradley Beal and John Wall. Chicago has given him a license to discover.
Through 15 appearances for the Bulls last season, Porter averaged 5.2 possessions as the pick-and-roll ball-handler and 6.5 pull-up jumpers per game, up from 1.6 and 3.4, respectively, with the Wizards.
To be clear, he has a long way to go before he's a secondary hub. His assist totals didn't spike enough relative to his increase in pick-and-roll usage, and he was far from the most efficient scorer off the dribble.
But this is hardly cause for concern.
Porter spent the first five-plus seasons of his career capitulating to bigger names. He's not going to master a functional facelift over a few weeks or months. A steep learning curve is the rule. It matters more that the Bulls seem prepared to let him work through the motions. They're facing slightly higher expectations this year, but they're far from playoffs-or-bust, and Porter's preseason usage hints at a similar amount of leeway.
Should he develop into a secondary playmaker, Chicago will have an imitation Khris Middleton on its hands. Porter doesn't project as the same scorer, but the two-way flexibility he'd provide on the wing would be eerily similar to the little bit of everything the Milwaukee Bucks get from their No. 2.
52. Malcolm Brogdon, Indiana Pacers
Malcolm Brogdon is a fit for all 30 teams. He has three-position range on defense, and his offense is not contingent upon shot volume or ball-handling. He exists to blend into the bigger picture.
Do not confuse this with functional apathy. Brogdon has a meaner streak. He finishes at the rim and in transition more than it actually seems, and he can co-manage an offense. Indiana will look to extract even more from him. It has no choice. He is the best option to direct the offense until Victor Oladipo returns—or unless Aaron Holiday is preparing for a breakout.
Playing with Domantas Sabonis will help, but Brogdon has yet to leverage an off-the-dribble jumper and hasn't needed to steer an offense on his own. Milwaukee lost the minutes he played without Antetokounmpo, Bledsoe and Khris Middleton last season. The sample wasn't huge (446 possessions), but Brogdon won't even have a Bledsoe-caliber shot-creator next to him in Indiana without Oladipo. This year will be a referendum on whether he has more to offer an offense.
51. Marc Gasol, Toronto Raptors
Marc Gasol is a cornerstone in micro. This is not to say he's small. He's actually quite large. Rather, it's a nod to his value as a centerpiece in spurts.
Entering his age-35 season, Gasol is not fit to be the most important player on a postseason squad. But he can carry lineups begging for a playmaker, and his defense hits nicely within collective efforts. (The Eastern Conference Semifinals, anyone?)
Toronto won the minutes Gasol played without Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry last season. His passing and, when he's aggressive, shooting can float bench-heavy units going up against other second-stringers.
The Raptors need this to hold over a larger sample this year. Lowry and Pascal Siakam will be on the bench together at some point, and the offense is stocked with fewer shooters. Gasol is Toronto's only hope of navigating those minutes—and one of the most important pieces when it comes to the larger task of softening the blow from Leonard's departure.
50. Steven Adams, Oklahoma City Thunder
Often lost amid Russell Westbrook's triple-doubles and the Oklahoma City Thunder's superstar headcount was that Steven Adams became one of the NBA's best players. His role is confining, perhaps even restrictive, but he owns it.
Rim runs, putbacks and a rock-solid, if unspectacular, post game make up the bulk of his offense. He has a sneaky floater that he's busted out with increasing frequency as well. He's shooting 59 percent (69-of-117) on floating jumpers since 2015-16.
Adams' screens are no less valuable without Westbrook. On the contrary, Chris Paul needs them more. Ever light on knockdown shooters, the Thunder in general need them just as much to dredge up daylight on the perimeter. Adams finished 16th in screen assists last year. It won't be a surprise if he jumps into the top 10 this season—you know, provided Oklahoma City doesn't plan on turning him into a fast-break-leading floor-spacer.
Preserving Adams on defense has to be more of a priority. The Thunder's hyperaggressive approach last year took a toll on everyone. Their defensive standing barely held after the All-Star break against a tougher schedule.
Head coach Billy Donovan is aware, and Oklahoma City is now incorporating a variant scheme that includes more drops toward the rim, per The Oklahoman's Erik Horne.
That should help Adams retain his value. He can still close up lanes from a distance, but hanging closer to the basket should, theoretically, spare him from a little wear and tear—not to mention put him in better position to grab all those extra boards that are now available following Westbrook's exit.
49. John Collins, Atlanta Hawks
John Collins' offensive game is so much more than rim runs and putbacks. Atlanta has him shooting threes—he hit 49 percent from the corners last year—and he looks more comfortable while making plays with the ball in his hands.
Don't be surprised if he's given more responsibility off the dribble this year. The Hawks seem to be pushing him in the direction of Blake Griffin. He may be tasked with running a few pick-and-rolls.
Atlanta might find out this is an overextension. That's OK. Collins is still a useful offensive player if he's not jump-starting pick-and-rolls and dribbling into above-the-break triples. His ceiling will be more impacted by what he becomes on the defensive end. As Early Bird Rights' Jeff Siegel said on the Hardwood Knocks podcast (14:23 mark):
"There was like a six-week stretch right after the [All-Star] break until the end of the season, where all of a sudden he was making rotations and being vertical at the rim. All of those basic rim-protection things at the 4, where you're sort of the weak-side shot-blocker, none of those things were in his game for the first year-and-a-half of his NBA career.
"Things are starting to turn around, but if he doesn't continue to make massive improvements defensively, there's going to be a real question of whether he is a part of this team's long-term contending future. You can get away with having one bad defender on a high-end, contending playoff team, and that's gonna be Trae Young ... But if you also have to scheme around a bad power forward on defense, that's not going to work long term."
For now, especially in the Eastern Conference, Collins' combination of pogo-stick offense and floor-spacing puts him right at the cusp of being a top-50 player. Without turning into Detroit Pistons Griffin 2.0 or a close-to-average defender, he doesn't have the headway to climb much higher.
48. Paul Millsap, Denver Nuggets
Paul Millsap's value lies with his capacity to complement. Not all aging stars are so skilled at fitting the needs and identity of their team over time.
On the Denver Nuggets, this has meant offensive concessions. The 34-year-old did look to deviate in 2017-18, but he was new to the team and plagued by injuries. His usage drop has since come without damaging his utility.
Millsap looked more comfortable with roaming around the half court without the ball last season, and his usually below-board outside touch has inched closer to above average. He's shooting a combined 37.4 percent on spot-up treys since he signed with Denver.
When he needs to, Millsap can create on his own. He will cook in the post and, on most nights, remains a mismatch off the dribble at his position. Bigs attacking the basket on closeouts is standard, but Millsap has a little side-to-side pizzazz. He can effectively navigate traffic and is usually good at finding shooters on kick-outs off drives and out of double-teams.
Much of Millsap's offensive impact will go overlooked. He doesn't have the runway for extra volume alongside Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and healthy Will Barton.
This is fine. Millsap's importance is not tied explicitly to offensive opportunity. For all he can do, he's more indispensable at the less glamorous end. He is among the few bigs who can serve as the back line of defense without planting himself in the paint, and he has a way of filling the gaps in the process.
Denver hemorrhaged points last year with Jokic at center when Millsap was on the bench, and Andre Drummond and Draymond Green were the only players to match his defensive rebounding, steal and block rates in as many minutes.
47. Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic
Nikola Vucevic deserves a special award for the job he did last season within the Orlando Magic offense.
Absent a starting-level playmaker (DJ Augustin came close) and high-end shot creators, he became their guiding force. You better believe it showed. Vucevic posted the highest usage rate of his career, and the Magic offense cratered by 9.1 points per 100 possessions when he sat.
Shocker: This didn't work out in the playoffs. Marc Gasol stole Vucevic's lunch money and then forced him to take a line of credit so he could steal even more. It was predictable. Offenses hubbed by bigs not of the Anthony Davis or Karl-Anthony Towns variety aren't postseason-proof. Al Horford himself couldn't have carried the Magic any further.
This does not take away from Vucevic's All-Star campaign. His well-roundedness can get them by during the regular season. He officially has battle-tested three-point range, can set himself up in the post and makes slick passes from standstill positions and on the go.
Piece it all together, and Vucevic wound up clearing 24 points, four assists and one made three per 36 minutes. That's no joke. In fact, only one other big man has ever met those benchmarks before: 2016-17 DeMarcus Cousins.
Drastic changes do not await Vucevic this season—so long as the Magic remain playoff hopefuls. They will try to groom Markelle Fultz and incorporate Mo Bamba, but Vucevic is one of the roster's only offensive guarantees.
46. Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks
Trae Young never challenged Luka Doncic's claim to Rookie of the Year. Not really. But his late-season tear served as a more meaningful referendum: clear, conclusive proof of his All-Star arc.
From Jan. 1 on, a stretch spanning more than half the season, Young averaged 21.9 points and 8.6 assists with a 43.3/35.3/85.4 shooting slash. He was even better after the All-Star break. His three-point efficiency never quite took off, but the Hawks weren't—and still aren't—built for him to be the most accurate scorer. Out of the 423 players who appeared in at least 20 games last year, only four had a greater share of their made triples go unassisted.
Rookies don't usually carry such an extensive burden. Young proved up to his. The Hawks offense, while not great, was much better with him on the floor. He didn't have a huge problem navigating traffic or making plays around the rim, and his vision off the bounce belied his experience.
Young would be set to keep climbing the individual ranks without making noticeable change. Except, well, he spent part of the summer working with Steve Nash. That's deeply terrifying.
45. D'Angelo Russell, Golden State Warriors
Reasonable minds can disagree on D'Angelo Russell, and they often do. Division is a constant in conversations about his 2018-19 breakout, as well as the larger discussions about where he stands relative to the league's elite.
Proof of this disconnect is never far away: ESPN's panel put him at No. 26 in their top 100, comfortably ahead of fellow marquee guards Devin Booker (No. 30), Jrue Holiday (No. 31) and Chris Paul (No. 32). Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney slotted him at No. 44, behind the aging Marc Gasol (No. 42) and Paul Millsap (No. 43).
Rankings are not an exact science. Opinions vary on every player. But the D'Angelo Russell dichotomy is larger than most—massive, even. A friendly medium does not exist.
Did he deserve to be an All-Star last season or was Eric Bledsoe snubbed as an injury replacement? Does it matter that Caris LeVert was the Brooklyn Nets' best player before he suffered a dislocated foot? Or that Russell spent some time at the beginning of the year on the bench down the stretch of close games? Or that Brooklyn always seemed destined to move on from him, with or without two new stars, after his career year?
Diving too far down the rabbit hole amounts to an undue devaluation of Russell. Star or not, he appears to have turned a corner. Last season's detonation may run counter to his previous three, but the level of difficulty ascribed to his offensive role cannot be dismissed.
Russell jump-started more pick-and-rolls per game than anyone except Kemba Walker, and just six players launched more pull-up threes, which he hit at a respectable 34.9 percent clip. His volume on longer twos shows poorly if he's not knocking them down, but he shot 46.9 percent between 10 and 22 feet. He's not the league's crowning playmaker, but he threw nifty passes on the move and averaged 7.0 assists per game.
True to form, Russell's outlook in 2019-20 is a high-variance one.
On one hand, his fit beside Stephen Curry tantalizes. They are two of the only three players in NBA history who have cleared 25 points, eight assists and three made triples per 36 minutes for an entire year. Both are talented enough shooters to play off the other, and the Golden State Warriors are no stranger to accommodating mid-range volume.
On the other hand, Russell didn't break out in Brooklyn until he had absolute freedom. He won't have as much latitude next to Curry and Draymond Green. Carrying lineups without them will be harder. The Warriors don't have the supporting cast. Joe Harris would be their best non-star.
Putting Russell here attempts to hedge against both extremes. It is neither a full-fledged endorsement nor an insult. It is instead an admission that, yes, Russell's breakout last year was probably a little fluky, but he's also still a standout player in a league overrun with them.
44. Danilo Gallinari, Oklahoma City Thunder
Few players are as useful on the offensive end as Danilo Gallinari. He is seldom confused with a star but blurs the line between primary scorer and sidekick. His shot profile is inclusive: heavy on spot-up opportunities but dotted with fairly reliable self-creation and a penchant for drawing fouls.
Gallinari's offense has never tilted closer to full-blown stardom than it did last season. With respect to Lou Williams, Gallinari was the Los Angeles Clippers' best player, both before and after the Feb. 6 Tobias Harris trade. He drilled 44.4 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes and 36.4 percent of his pull-up triples with a mixed bag of range he leveraged into off-the-bounce attacks that demonstrated his combination of force and finesse.
Among the 96 players who churned through 400 or more drives last year, Gallinari ranked second in drawn-foul frequency, behind only Blake Griffin and just in front of Giannis Antetokounmpo. And while he isn't the same playmaking threat as his counterparts, he did defer enough to steal time as a secondary pick-and-roll triggerman.
Such a balancing act could, in theory, lend itself to an identity crisis. Gallinari's does not. He is plug-and-play, with the serviceability of a fringe star. In any given year, he can rank much higher on the NBA's individual ladder. That includes this season. We just can't bank on it.
Approximating last year's performance is not a given. Gallinari should have no trouble with playing off Chris Paul, but the Oklahoma City Thunder will struggle to cobble together lineups that feature three shooters. Someone like Gallinari needs space to shoot and attack.
Availability is also a constant concern. Last year was just the third time in Gallinari's career he missed fewer than 15 games—and the first time since 2012-13.
Even if we ignore his injury history, he faces the same uncertainty in Oklahoma City as Paul. His expiring contract is an attractive trade asset, and failing a midseason relocation, the Thunder could always shut him down if they fall far enough outside the playoff picture. Slightly tempering expectations is smart.
43. Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers
Myles Turner is working off the career year he almost desperately needed.
It was not entirely clear entering last season whether he held more value to the Indiana Pacers' long-term future than Domantas Sabonis. It might still be a debate for some people. Footing the bill for both Sabonis (extension-eligible) and Turner will be tough, and the Pacers have a floor-spacing 5 in Goga Bitadze.
Supporting that position is harder now, assuming it even still exists.
Sabonis is the craftier offensive player, but Turner has proved himself a viable defensive linchpin. He erased nearly every shot in sight last year, even when he was trailing plays. His 8.4 block rate was absurd. Only Mitchell Robinson posted a higher mark, and he didn't clear 1,400 minutes. Turner is just the seventh player in league history to post a block rate above eight in over 2,000 minutes.
Swats alone, though, did not make his year. Turner extended his defensive range. He came out more often to guard pick-and-rolls and didn't have trouble doubling back to the hoop when pulled outside the paint. His defensive portability is among the two biggest keys to a successful frontcourt partnership with Sabonis.
Thaddeus Young's departure will put Turner in more compromising positions. The former is one of the NBA's best help defenders, and the Pacers will want for a similar safety net unless TJ Warren's interest in getting stops is real and, most critically, applicable. But they wouldn't have assembled the roster as they did if not for Turner. They maintained a defensive rating last season in the 87th percentile when he played without Young and Victor Oladipo.
Unlocking Turner's offense is the more pressing concern. His 38.8 percent clip from deep is great for someone who doesn't toil away on the block, but the Pacers need more. If it isn't going to be a post game, then it needs to be an operable face-up jumper or some form of off-the-bounce finishing.
42. Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers
Victor Oladipo's fall from the greater top-20-player discussion is twofold. His recovery from a torn right quad is part of the reservation. He's not expected back until December or January, and we don't have a good frame of reference for what he might look like upon return. He may need more than a half-season to get right.
Pinpointing where he belongs is complicated further by last year's regression. His efficiency plunged almost across the board. He reached the rim and foul line less often, and his hit rate on pull-up threes dropped to 29.7 percent, a distant cry from the 35.6 percent he notched in 2017-18.
To be fair, Oladipo was battling the injury bug before suffering a ruptured right quad tendon. He missed 11 games in November and December with a right knee issue and didn't look right upon rejoining the rotation.
As far as reassurances go, this isn't very encouraging.
The Pacers need 2017-18 Oladipo to unlock their offense. Otherwise, Malcolm Brogdon, Aaron Holiday and Domantas Sabonis become their primary playmakers. And his wing defense remains critical if Indiana is going to get away with dual-big lineups—or even TJ Warren-at-the-4 arrangements.
Best-case scenario: Oladipo comes back, works through the rust and is close to right in time for the playoffs. Even then, his season will be confined to a smaller sample. When factoring in the incumbent risk associated with his return and what it might do to his explosion, it makes sense to hedge.
41. Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors
Klay Thompson would rank much higher if not for his torn left ACL. The Golden State Warriors don't plan on bringing him back until after the All-Star break, which leaves him out of the rotation for at least 55 games, per The Athletic's Anthony Slater.
Finding the right spot for Thompson is then a matter of both his recovery and abbreviated availability. He is Golden State's most important perimeter defender, now more so than ever following the departures of Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala. Any mobility he loses, even if only for the interim, endangers his standing—not to mention the Warriors' place in the West.
On the sort-of-bright side, Thompson isn't coming back from an Achilles tear or a ruptured quad. Baron Davis and Kyle Lowry suffered ACL injuries before entering the NBA. Jamal Crawford tore his ACL before his sophomore season. Al Jefferson and David West dealt with similar injuries in the middle of their careers and continued to play at high levels.
Derrick Rose's career arc is a fair rebuke to rosier outlooks, but Thompson's offense isn't built upon explosion. More than half his shot attempts last season came without taking a dribble, and he's more likely to post up than attack in isolation.
Thompson's off-ball motion might suffer, but the Warriors may not need him to make as many sharp cuts. They have to indulge more pick-and-roll sets after landing D'Angelo Russell, a tactical pivot that would allow shooters to remain more stationary. Thompson's touch isn't going anywhere. That alone makes it worthwhile to step out on a limb.
And if he returns to the form he flashed during Game 6 of the Finals, in which he swished more off-the-dribble jumpers, he'll have no trouble outdoing what are, for now, restrained expectations.
40. Tobias Harris, Philadelphia 76ers
Tobias Harris looked out of sorts for long stretches after he joined the Philadelphia 76ers. They're betting $180 million it wasn't a fluke.
That isn't a ridiculous wager to make. Harris is not max-contract material in a vacuum, but the free-agency market dictated his price point. Other teams would have peddled a four-year windfall. The Sixers' only real advantage was that fifth season—offering 8 percent raises compared to 5 percent doesn't tilt the playing field—so they gave it to him.
Teams have done far worse than overinvest in a player like Harris.
He will only be 31 when his deal concludes, and making the Eastern Conference All-Star pool is not out of the question. Harris still wound up shooting 39.7 percent from three and averaging nearly 1.2 points per spot-up possession for the entire season. He is wired to play off Philly's main squeezes, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
Still, it may take Harris time to get there—more than a training camp and preseason. The Sixers are adding another big, Al Horford, into the equation. Space will be tighter if two of him, Embiid and Simmons aren't making threes at above-average clips.
Philly must also consider working in more pick-and-rolls if Harris is going to find his comfort zone. Only the Warriors ran fewer pick-and-rolls last season. Meanwhile, more than one-quarter of his offensive possessions with the Los Angeles Clippers came as pick-and-roll ball-handler, compared to 18.8 percent with the Sixers.
This all adds up, and it amounts to a complicated relationship.
Philly can forge a happy medium by pigeonholing Harris into the third or fourth option, but that risks crunch-time rhythm. With Jimmy Butler gone, it needs another face-up threat on the perimeter. Harris is the natural alternative but an uncertain fit, particularly if he's not empowered to work off the dribble in volume for most of the game.
39. Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers
Toe surgery, coupled with some back and shoulder issues, annihilated Kevin Love's season, costing him the chance to feast while playing on a team without another worthwhile focal point. The Cleveland Cavaliers are not so stranded now.
Collin Sexton's three-point shooting has glittered up his value, and the Cavaliers enter 2019-20 with three rookies to groom: Darius Garland, Kevin Porter Jr. and the injured Dylan Windler (leg). Cedi Osman is not an afterthought.
Love will not be lost in the shuffle. He is Cleveland's best player. He will shoot better than 41.2 percent on twos in a season free from injury and doesn't need superstar minutes to clear double-digit rebounding totals.
Also, playing time won't be an issue. The Cavaliers are light on frontcourt prospects, and Love won't single-handedly corner the team into mediocrity. They were outscored by 4.2 points per 100 possessions with him on the court last year. That's a far better mark than their minus-11.1 net rating without him but a rebuilding team's differential all the same.
That's sort of the point. Floor-spacing bigs will always have utility; stretch 4s are no longer anomalies. Love is a more of a mismatch at the 5, but lineups with him in the middle have little hope of evading defensive disaster.
Yes, his passing is still remarkable, and he's a threat out of the post. But "remember the last time he was a focal point?" was a question for last year, when the Cavaliers had neither a prayer of winning nor a youthful base to develop. And even then, it was fair to wonder whether the absence of proven setup men would drag him down. That concern remains.
Really good players get theirs on bad teams. And make no mistake: Love is really good. A midseason trade to the right team might even improve his case. His offensive fit is universal. But the difficulty of placing him isn't about his supporting cast or team outlook. It is a more uncomfortable issue. What do we make of a star whose best stuff has been almost standardized?
38. Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons
Rebounds are essential to everything Andre Drummond is.
They are, quite literally, how he pads his statistical resume. He has led the league in offensive rebounding rate four times, including last season; defensive rebounding rate twice; and overall rebounding rate three times. Dennis Rodman is the only player in league history that has more seasons with a total rebounding rate above 25.
Boards are also a primary source of scoring for Drummond. Putback opportunities accounted for 25.8 percent of his offensive possessions last year, the fourth-largest share of anyone who appeared in at least 50 games.
Defensive rebounds, meanwhile, are part of Drummond's cover from unfavorable critiques on that side of the court. His motor may wax and wane, but ending possessions has value.
To be sure, rebounding is not Drummond's lone defensive bright spot. Not even close. He is pretty nimble for someone so broadly built and knows how to leverage his massive wingspan in space. Consistency wasn't nearly as much of a problem for him last year. So many of his miscues can be traced back to a less-than-stellar guard and wing rotation hanging him out to dry on screens.
Can he be the foothold for an elite defense? Probably not. He isn't Rudy Gobert, and his limitations at both ends are something the Detroit Pistons must weigh into his next contract (player option for 2020-21). But the notion that Drummond isn't among the stars at his position blows his faults of proportion. He is one of the NBA's best centers.
37. DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs
DeMar DeRozan is an expert in the difficult. He pours in 20-plus points per game like clockwork, but he does so on an imbalanced diet of mid-range jumpers and without tapping into any three-point volume. He averaged a career-high 6.2 assists during his first season with the San Antonio Spurs, but the offense tallied more points per 100 possessions when he was on the bench.
Getting hung up on DeRozan's long-range volume is petty. He has never hit on 34 percent of his outside attempts for an entire season. Expecting it to suddenly become a meaningful part of his bag is unreasonable.
Worrying about his overall shot selection is an entirely separate and acceptable matter. Over 40 percent of his looks came from mid-range last year, of which he hit just 40.5 percent. Offenses can get only so far when their go-to scorer's trademark shot yields roughly 0.81 points per attempt (not including and-1 opportunities).
None of this makes DeRozan a net negative. The Spurs bench was deep enough to explain last year's on/off splits, and his stop-and-start tempo out of the pick-and-roll is a nightmare even for set defenses.
It is more accurate to say DeRozan isn't the clearest positive. That's a legitimate qualm.
His is a skill set that surrenders impact when he doesn't have the ball. That's somewhat fine when offenses can be tailored around him. The Spurs are no longer in that position. LaMarcus Aldridge is still in tow, Derrick White is on the rise, and, most notably, Dejounte Murray is back in the fold.
This could be the season DeRozan's limitations hurt him most.
36. Kristaps Porzingis, Dallas Mavericks
Ranking players who are on their way back from serious injury is always awkward. It is particularly uncomfortable when dealing with All-Stars. Giving benefit of the doubt to their immediate return risks looking foolish for not taking a grace period into account. Exuding doubt is seen as a rejection of their track record.
Identifying the right spot for Kristaps Porzingis is no less of a chore.
Defaulting to "he'll resume his trek into the top 20 to 25 players" is tempting. Torn ACLs are no joke, but they are more standard and he does not play especially taxing offense.
Someone standing 7'3" can get a shot off over anyone. As devastating as he can be when given a wide berth toward the rim, beating defenders off the dribble is not the crux of his game.
Almost 45 percent of his looks were off catch-and-shoot opportunities in 2017-18. Nearly 80 percent of his attempts came after one dribble or fewer.
And that was all as the No. 1 option on a New York Knicks squad without much incentive to do anything other than feature him. Playing next to Luka Doncic should only tilt Porzingis further into that recovery-friendly shot distribution.
Steering right into the business-as-usual forecast still undersells what the Dallas Mavericks and their unicorn are up against. Porzingis hasn't appeared in a regular-season game since Feb. 6, 2018—close to 21 months ago. Torn ACLs may not be the end of the world, but he was far from injury-free before now. And many of his issues, like the latest one, came on the left side of his body.
If preseason is any indication, it will take Porzingis some time to gather his bearings. His touch has been off outside the arc, although it's more important that he's uncorking threes without hesitation. How long will it take him to be more than a pick-and-pop option? Will his rim protection have the same oomph? How many games will he lose to scheduled rest?
These questions may be temporary, but they're still cautionary. Expecting Porzingis to immediately recapture form is to expect too much.
35. Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets
Jamal Murray's five-year, $169.7 million extension is bound to distort how he's viewed. It doesn't kick in until 2020-21, but max-money commitments to players still on their rookie deals are supposed to be superstar signals. Potential alone doesn't cut it anymore. Murray is now obligated to take that kind of step forward.
Expecting him to is not an overshot. He has teased All-Star offense before.
After a 4-of-19 stinker versus the San Antonio Spurs on Dec. 26, he finished the season averaging 18.9 points and 4.8 assists per game while slashing 45.2/41.8/83.9 and hitting 38.9 percent of his pull-up threes. His brand of shot-making can carry an offense, both in crunch time and without a safety net. Denver lost the minutes he played without Nikola Jokic, but not by a hopeless margin. That the offense rated in the 60th percentile of efficiency during those stretches is more informative.
Consistency is all that stands between Murray and an ascent to stardom. Denver needs him to be its second-best player all the time. Through this lens, his postseason was equal parts encouraging and maddening. He was the player who saved the offense on occasion and who disappeared by his own yielding or at the hands of Derrick White, Rodney Hood or Maurice Harkless. He can't be both.
The Nuggets revolve around Jokic, but they're at their best when Murray understands how to play inside that blueprint without shrinking into the backdrop.
34. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
Jayson Tatum's sophomore backslide continues to be overblown. He did not spend the year on an archaic-shot bender. His mid-range spree was a real thing at the beginning, but he mostly evened out his distribution by the end of the season.
Long twos accounted for 22 percent of his total looks—same as his rookie season. He attempted more mid-range jumpers overall, but not by much. They made up 39 percent of his shots, up from 35 percent in 2017-18.
Preliminary concern is fine. Tatum bails out on too many drives and settles with uncomfortable frequency in the half court. Fewer of his looks came at the rim last year, and his free-throw-attempt rate dropped by nearly 9 percentage points. That isn't normal.
It also isn't cause for panic. Tatum was saddled with more responsibility amid the Boston Celtics' jumbled pecking order. He went from finishing 27.3 percent of his offensive possessions on spot-ups as a rookie to just 18.2 percent as a sophomore. Drops in efficiency should be the expectation when young players are tasked with creating more of their own shots.
Time is on Tatum's side. He doesn't turn 22 until March, and his second-year production was still better than ordinary. The list of sophomores to match his 15.7 points per game and three-point volume and efficiency is more standout than not: Jamal Murray, Bradley Beal, Damian Lillard, Klay Thompson, Stephen Curry, Wesley Matthews, O.J. Mayo, Ben Gordon, Steve Francis, Jason Terry, Michael Dickerson and Dirk Nowitzki.
Going from Kyrie Irving to Kemba Walker at point guard should help Tatum and everyone else in Boston. The Celtics aren't a more talented team, but their hierarchy is easier to parse. Tatum will have the opportunity to improve his playmaking, aggressiveness on drives and his pull-up jumper. If he doesn't, this exact version of him is still pretty good. Secondary scorers with proven three-point touch who can be shifted around on the defensive end are not disappointments.
33. CJ McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers
CJ McCollum's standing among the NBA's biggest names deserves to be relitigated following last year's postseason explosion, but to what end?
ESPN's top-100 panel ranked him 13th overall, a vote of confidence so ambitious it seems to undermine its intent. Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney put him 32nd in his top-100 hierarchy, a finish far easier to get behind.
Maybe McCollum winds up outstripping "safer" projections. Postseason dependability comes at a premium, and his scoring translates to the pressure cooker. He's averaging 24.8 points over the Portland Trail Blazers' past two playoff stays (a 20-game sample) while knocking down nearly 40 percent of his three-point attempts. His finishing around the rim has typically improved in these smaller samples.
Working next to Damian Lillard has its advantages, but McCollum's volume isn't propped up by freebies. His scoring is not predicated on getting to the line, and he made more pull-up three-pointers in the regular season than Kevin Durant over fewer appearances. That says more about Portland's reliance on its two guards than anything, but it doesn't render the feat insignificant.
Assuming he doesn't own another defensive gear, McCollum has the most room for growth in the playmaking department.
The Blazers predominantly punted on using him without Lillard last season, but this year's depth chart, by all appearances, will necessitate more solo minutes. If he ups his assist total while keeping the offense afloat during whatever Dame-less stints he sees, his placement here will be remembered as a tad too cautious.
32. LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs
LaMarcus Aldridge is entering his age-34 season. Now, it seems, would be a good time to forecast regression. Except the same held true last year, and even the season before that.
Said drop-off has yet to come. Aldridge slogged through the beginning of last year, but it didn't take long for him to regain control of the wheel. He turned in a 33-point, 14-rebound, 14-of-25 shooting performance against the Indiana Pacers on Nov. 23 and continued to cook from there. His averages over that 63-game span: 22.2 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.4 assists on 60.5 true shooting.
Fretting over his shot quality is worthy pushback. More than 61 percent of his total looks came as contested or very contested two-pointers. That reads like a precarious offensive diet—one overdue for a reality check.
Only, well, taking and making tough shots is Aldridge's reality. He drained 53.9 percent of those tight two-pointers last season, which is, ahem, actually down from 56.3 percent in 2017-18.
Running an offense through Aldridge has a ceiling, especially when DeMar DeRozan is his co-star, but it's more soft than hard. The San Antonio Spurs ranked fifth in points scored per 100 possessions last season—the bench played a big part in that—and neither they nor Aldridge were reduced to smithereens in their seven-game first-round loss to the Denver Nuggets.
Dejounte Murray's return and Derrick White's rise might intrude upon Aldridge's value this year. Together with DeRozan, they represent a certain number of touches and, for now, lackluster spacing. The Spurs will complicate matters if they lean too heavily on a dual-big frontcourt featuring Jakob Poeltl at the 5.
But even with those concerns, counting on substantially less from Aldridge feels wrong. He has made a living off buckets in cramped spaces. Write him off, or put him lower, at your own risk.
31. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
Two underwhelming postseason performances, coupled with a slow start to last year, have turned Donovan Mitchell into a big-time target. To consider him overrated is trendy (maybe even a majority opinion), not unlike Jayson Tatum or, to a slightly lesser degree, Ben Simmons.
Taking a lower-rung position on Mitchell toes the line of irrational. It'd be flat-out unacceptable if not for the aggressive hype-up campaigns he's enjoyed. Adidas didn't make him any fans outside Utah by trolling Simmons during their rookie campaigns, and the comparisons to a prime Dwyane Wade have, understandably, invited inflammatory rebuttals.
Remove yourself from the legislative avalanche and it gets easier to appreciate Mitchell's outlook. Last season's struggles were blown out of proportion. Mitchell returned to form by Christmas, averaging 26.0 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.7 assists on league-average(ish) true shooting over his final 47 appearances.
Dwelling on his playoff troubles disregards both the circumstances under which they came and his inexperience. Joe Ingles and Ricky Rubio finished second on the Jazz in field-goal attempts during the 2018 and 2019 postseasons, respectively. That Mitchell was so instrumental to a quasi-contender as a rookie and sophomore is more telling.
Utah does need more from its lead guard to be better than a fringe championship hopeful. Mitchell has to reach the rim and get to the foul line more consistently, and his pull-up jumpers must start falling at higher clips if he's going to continue taking them.
Cynics are free to hold him more accountable beginning now. The additions of Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic alleviate his shot-creation strain while affording him more room to operate when he is on the ball. Given Mitchell's body of work without this many offensive buffers, the prevailing assumption should be the most efficient version has yet to come.
30. Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks
Khris Middleton's greatest sin is not of his own production. The Milwaukee Bucks have cast—and paid—him to be the No. 2 on what, for the sake of Giannis Antetokounmpo's future, needs to be a championship team. And as has been pointed out ad nauseam, Middleton is not a to-the-letter co-star.
He doesn't have that ready-made ability to create separation and assault the rim, and his playmaking isn't fully translatable to lineups he anchors on his own. The Bucks allocated more time last season to Malcolm Brogdon in combinations that didn't include Antetokounmpo, Bledsoe or Middleton (1,067 possessions) than they gave to arrangements featuring Middleton alone (324 possessions).
Stephen Curry, Paul George and Kyrie Irving were the only other players last season who cleared 18 points, four assists and one steal per game while matching Middleton's three-point clip. He may not be the quintessential from-scratch scorer, but his game is by no means rooted in dependence. He rated in the 92nd percentile of isolation efficiency and knocked down 36.7 percent of his pull-up treys in 2018-19.
Dominance in any specific area is typical of stars. Middleton doesn't quite meet that bar. He is a long and versatile defender but not a lockdown one. His offense is not made for entire-game takeovers, although his 2018 postseason performance begs to differ.
Perhaps this proves something. Maybe it means nothing. Perhaps Brogdon's exit will force Middleton to unlock another gear. He cold-turkeyed long twos last year. He's not beyond change. Or maybe he is.
Either way, if Middleton isn't a true No. 2, he's the next best thing: a highly efficient mix of secondary scoring and passing with the bandwidth to play and defend three positions.
29. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
The pull to have Kyle Lowry higher is real. His game is so moldable. The Toronto Raptors aren't as successful incorporating Kawhi Leonard and upping Pascal Siakam's usage last season without Lowry emphasizing deference. Over half of his made baskets came off assists for the first time in his career, and his 8.7 dimes per game were a personal best by a mile.
Lowry will have to take on more scoring responsibility this year. He has called Siakam the offense's go-to option, but the Raptors just lost a top-five player (Leonard) and their best shooter (Danny Green). Siakam and Marc Gasol can only offset so much.
Toronto is once again Lowry's team, even if he isn't its best player. Really, this represents more of a return to the status quo. Catch-all metrics pegged him as the Raptors MVP during the DeMar DeRozan era. This year's setup is something similar. And though Lowry's off-the-bounce jumper didn't serve him well last season, he can still be a lineup anchor.
In the 808 possessions he played without Green and Leonard last season, Toronto posted a plus-6.6 net rating. The going will get tougher. The Raptors offense didn't set the world on fire during Lowry's solo minutes, and their spacing is even skimpier now. His shot quality might drop, and he will almost certainly find it harder to power his way toward the rim.
It may take Lowry a minute to get rolling as he works his way back from left thumb surgery. He might even get traded if the Raptors opt for a midseason reset. (That seems less likely after his one-year extension.) But the impact he has on those around him should remain crystal clear.
Strong game managers who more than occasionally wear a primary scorer's hat are rare. Lowry is still that guy.
28. Mike Conley, Utah Jazz
Undersized point guards with a not-unsubstantial injury history have no business coming off a career year entering their age-32 season. And yet, here is Mike Conley.
Memphis began last season in limbo before committing to start over. It was a yearlong state of restless transition that demanded more from Conley, and he delivered. His 21.1 points per game were a career best, his 6.4 assists were his most since 2011-12, and he posted the second-highest true shooting of his career while churning through watermark usage.
Matching that output with the Utah Jazz won't be necessary. Donovan Mitchell is one of the best shot creators Conley has ever played beside, and the offense is littered with secondary ball-handlers (Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles). The Jazz will still aim to overwhelm by committee.
Coming in as the finishing touch suits Conley. His natural role is game manager. He will put pressure on defenses to the gain of everyone around him, and his role can be tweaked as needed. He has the touch to fire off standstill jumpers around attacks from Mitchell and Bogdanovic (39.8 percent on spot-up threes last year), and when the Jazz need an extra layer of from-scratch creation, he can play that part too. Through all the turnover and turmoil last season, the 33-win Grizzlies still posted a positive point differential with Conley on the floor.
Going from the lifeblood of a team teetering on the brink to a co-star for a deep contender has a way of cutting into production. More modest numbers won't fool anyone, as Conley's impact is too apparent even when he's not scoring a ton. He is a defensive downgrade from Ricky Rubio on most nights, but not by terribly much. Leveraging him at both ends should be a boon for Mitchell's development and, above all, Utah's championship aspirations.
27. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
Devin Booker finally getting help should be a bigger development.
Ricky Rubio tilts too far toward the ball-dominant end of the spectrum, but he is an upgrade over the table-setters the Phoenix Suns have been trotting out. Tyler Johnson and rookie Ty Jerome are secondary ball-handling outlets themselves, and smaller measures of help should come from Kelly Oubre Jr. and sophomore-year Mikal Bridges.
Everything Booker has done without so much as a single safety net informs what's to come. No more than 43.7 percent of his made buckets have been assisted since 2016-17, and he ranked third in contested shot attempts per game last season, trailing only Donovan Mitchell and James Harden.
That his three-point clip didn't duck below 33 percent before 2018-19 is borderline impressive. And even with that 32.6 percent success rate from distance, his true shooting sniffed the league average.
Extra off-ball possessions should be a spike for Booker's overall efficiency. He canned 37.6 percent of his spot-up threes last year. Those opportunities just didn't account for enough of his volume. Under 14 percent of his looks came as standstill treys. Kemba Walker, a fellow overtaxed No. 1 option, launched catch-and-shoot threes far more often.
Fronting lineups as the de facto point guard still needs to be part of Booker's routine. Trial by fire has helped him develop a solid feel out of the pick-and-roll, and this season, Phoenix has stocked the rotation with actual shooters. Lineups featuring Booker at the 1 with a small-ball 4 put up points in bunches last year. They have even more value now, regardless of how much defensive ground they relinquish.
With better circumstances come greater expectations. Booker isn't quite out of excuses—the Suns aren't contenders—but he's on the best roster of his career. Results, in some form, are non-negotiable. Will he be more attentive on defense? Get to the rim more often? Drain more of his off-the-bounce jumpers?
Answering in the affirmative is not unreasonable—at least on offense. Only three other players have matched his scoring and assist output per 36 minutes, true shooting percentage and total court time through their first four seasons: Walter Davis, Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson.
For all the knocks against Booker, Phoenix's penchant for disappointment isn't shared by him. He's closer to deserving the benefit of the doubt than not.
26. Jrue Holiday, New Orleans Pelicans
Jrue Holiday has fortified his place among the stars with a defensive motor that knows no single position. He's listed at 6'4", but he sports the strength and speed for the New Orleans Pelicans to stick him on almost any wing player without overextending the controlled aggressiveness that makes him so effective.
Other teams would kill for that kind of versatility in their backcourt. Defensive gameplans are easier to build when the question of who will guard the opposition's most dangerous perimeter player isn't a question at all. Holiday will continue to draw the Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving, James Harden, etc. assignments.
When the most dangerous outside scorer is a borderline big, the Pelicans won't always care. He saw ample time on Kevin Durant last season.
Despite a defensive reputation that has swelled over the past two seasons, Holiday still struggles to grab traditional star recognition. Playing in Anthony Davis' shadow in no way helped, but his offensive profile lacks a cliche aesthetic.
Off-the-dribble shooters win over masses. That isn't Holiday's game. Last season, he hit a so-so 35.4 percent of his catch-and-fire treys while converting just 30.9 percent of his pull-up triples. He's also not someone synonymous with going it alone. That, in fact, is a curse of playing with Davis, and it isn't entirely fair.
The Pelicans' previous regime didn't exactly do a bang-up job of fleshing out their supporting cast. They were outscored by 2.7 points per 100 possessions last season when Holiday logged time without Davis, and it should have been worse. Their most-used lineup on the year under those circumstances: Holiday, Frank Jackson, Kenrich Williams, Darius Miller and Jahlil Okafor.
At the risk of oversimplifying Holiday's value, he averaged close to 20 points and eight assists last year. He may not be the first choice to headline an offense, but he's not supposed to be.
25. Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors
Pascal Siakam will be viewed in less flattering terms for those who believe last season's megaleap was owed to Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry and the Toronto Raptors' overall depth. The different ways in which he scored starkly reject this premise.
Relative to his career-high but still moderate usage, Siakam showed plenty of independence in his third year. He averaged about as many drives as Lowry, Kevin Durant and Khris Middleton and was second on the Raptors in iso volume.
Toronto even experimented with Siakam at the helm of the pick-and-roll, and it worked. Among 199 players who initiated at least 50 pick-and-rolls, he placed third in points scored per possession, trailing only Giannis Antetokounmpo and Klay Thompson. Siakam's reps weren't extensive, but wow.
Building upon his Most Improved Player campaign won't be easy. Lowry has said Siakam will be the offense's go-to option, but the Raptors replaced Leonard and Danny Green with mostly non-shooters. There won't be as much space to work with.
Even so, forecasting a downturn makes little sense. The Raptors are so sold on Siakam's shooting (36.9 percent on threes last year), ball-handling and defensive optionality that head coach Nick Nurse has considered using him at small forward.
Uncharted territory is always scary. Siakam will need to hit more off-the-dribble jumpers if he's going to be a No. 1 or spend real time on the wings, and any regression from 33-year-old Lowry and 34-year-old Marc Gasol makes his job that much harder. Still, the Raptors won the minutes they played without Green and Leonard last season when Siakam was on the floor. Ranking him this high is far from an overestimation.
24. Chris Paul, Oklahoma City Thunder
Putting Chris Paul so "low" feels wrong. Sticking him any higher is equally unsettling.
Actual basketball has little to do with Paul's stock. He is still a cerebral playmaker and low-gamble, high-nuisance defender. If his efficiency turned heads last season, it was for the wrong reasons. He shot under 36 percent from deep for the first time since 2012-13 and below 60 percent at the rim for the first time since he was a sophomore.
Still, the context of his role matters. He wasn't coasting on James Harden's coattails. Almost 75 percent of his three-point makes went unassisted, the second-highest mark among 423 players to appear in at least 20 games. The one person in front of him? Harden.
Select areas of Paul's game feel on the decline. His attacks on bigger, slower defenders in space don't look the same. It is fair to wonder whether he can carry an offense. The Houston Rockets outscored opponents last season by 8.1 points per 100 possessions when he played without Harden, but their offensive rating ranked in the 53rd percentile.
Paul isn't getting an easier gig with the Oklahoma City Thunder. They are skimpier on spacing and heavier on unproven and wild-card prospects. Can Paul plus a suboptimal supporting cast still amount to an average offense?
Beyond that, will he even finish the season in Oklahoma City? Will he play out the entire year even if he does? Or will he miss 20-something games, like he has each of the past three seasons? Will the Thunder shut him down if it becomes clear they're not a playoff team?
A 34-year-old Chris Paul is still damn good. It's just hard to estimate his availability, opportunity and, yes, the jersey he'll be wearing in February.
23. De'Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings
Slotting De'Aaron Fox so high reeks of a controversy in the making. It shouldn't. Last year's performance was something more than convincing. It stood entirely on its own.
No one else cleared 17 points and seven assists per game while dropping in at least 37 percent of his threes. Fox is just the third player to hit these benchmarks before his third season, period, joining Tim Hardaway and Damon Stoudamire. He was the heartbeat of a frantically fast Sacramento Kings offense, all while defending the opposition's No. 1 option more often than anyone in the league, according to true usage data culled by Nylon Calculus' Krishna Narsu.
Skeptics will nitpick and quibble. He didn't shoot that many threes! He needs to reach the rim more often! Who else on the Kings last season was going to defend players of consequence? Did you really put him in front of Chris Paul? You must be a casual.
Some of the (inevitable) pushback is fair. But critiques of younger players are pliable. They're not finished products. Yes, the next leap is infinitely harder for him to make. He's working off a Most Improved Player-worthy season this time, not a rookie campaign that didn't much resonate on a national scale.
Fox is young enough to ignore the risk—or at least embrace it. He doesn't turn 22 until December. Better basketball is coming. He needs to increase his three-point volume, but he also just drilled more pull-up triples than Tobias Harris. Getting to the rim more often, and perhaps incorporating a floater, would be nice. He might do both now that the Kings have easy access to five-out lineups. He's going to make an All-Defensive team at some point. The tools are all there, even if his first-option volume was artificially inflated by offensives actively trying to go after him.
Last season was no accident. Players don't marry Fox's blend of speed, control and IQ by chance. His brand of basketball is both the calm and the storm, and Sacramento's offseason additions in no way warp the influence he'll have over the offense. He has a real shot at staking his claim as a top-25 player.
22. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
Nothing speaks more highly of Luka Doncic's rookie season than the question it spawns: How much better can he reasonably get as a sophomore?
Only 14 other players have ever cleared 20 points and six assists per game while making as many threes (168). None of them were rookies. He is already one of the five to 10 best passers in the league. What would a leap even include?
Doncic began his career in a veteran's role. He ranked ninth in pick-and-rolls initiated per game and fourth in pull-up attempts from beyond the arc. He averaged more shots per 36 minutes of crunch time than Stephen Curry, Blake Griffin and Russell Westbrook, and he hit more step-back threes than anyone except James Harden.
Doncic will add new tricks to his arsenal. Running pick-and-pops with Kristaps Porzingis will open new means of production, and his offseason conditioning might help him get by more defenders and finish more shots at the rim. Maybe he'll consistently defend 4s in smaller lineups.
For the most part, though, Doncic's path upward runs through stamina and maintenance. His shooting percentages plummeted over the second half of 2018-19. He slashed 41.9/28.0/69.0 overall and posted an effective field-goal rate of 39.8 on pull-up jumpers.
Trae Young never loosely joins the Rookie of the Year conversation if Doncic doesn't hit that first-year wall. He had a legitimate All-Star case before then. If his shot-making doesn't tail off, Doncic will do what few sophomores before him have done: enter the top-15-player debate.
21. Al Horford, Philadelhia 76ers
Al Horford is 33 and entering his 13th season. Ergo, he is not new. Yet, somehow, he's not entirely known. The impact he has on his team is eternally underrated and underappreciated. The mere suggestion that he's a top-25 player is met with varying levels of irritation and ire, followed by box-score retellings.
Basketball Twitter may deserve some blame. So many players turn into folk heroes, and the word "superstar" is tossed around with cavalier abandon. Almost everyone is guilty of speaking in hyperbole at points, including myself, which makes it harder for some to accept what isn't a consensus.
But this isn't an excuse for rejecting Horford's star claim. He's been one of the league's most valuable players long enough for this not to be an overstatement. He isn't an in-your-face superstar, but his do-everything, dominate-nothing style is part of his charm.
As SI.com's Rob Mahoney wrote:
"Everything about Horford is complementary. In a locker room, Horford is the kind of show-don't-tell leader that keeps a team on track without them ever really knowing it. Teammates adore him. Coaches sing his praises. It's very easy to like someone who does so much for the sake of the team and so little for himself. Out on the floor, Horford is the eyes of the offense and the mouthpiece of the defense. You could do worse than to literally run sets around Horford: put him in the high post, cycle cutters around the floor, and enjoy as Horford sets up an easy score just when the defense breaks. In a jam, that same playmaking becomes a team's best way out of trouble. Reading the floor isn't all that challenging for seasoned pros. Reading it quickly enough to keep an offense on the fly is a different bag—one that Horford has been carrying with ease his entire career."
Putting Horford this high is riskier than in years past. He's older, and while he defends well in space and transition, the Philadelphia 76ers are dubbing him a full-time power forward next to Joel Embiid. He'll need to hit more threes to keep defenses honest, and he won't face ideal matchups in Philly.
Still, Horford has made a name for himself as one of the better options against Giannis Antetokounmpo, not to mention Embiid himself. Defensive assignments don't get any tougher.
From there, everything else Horford does adds up—not always in the traditional box score, but as part of the bigger picture. He owned the Boston Celtics' second-highest net-rating swing last season and was first in that same category in 2017-18.
20. Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
Draymond Green is already one of the best defensive players ever and is among the NBA's top playmaking bigs. This season, the Golden State Warriors need him to be so much more.
Losing Kevin Durant to free agency, Klay Thompson to an ACL injury and Andre Iguodala to D'Angelo Russell-related bookkeeping has left the defense vulnerable, if not completely naked. Green has his work cut out for him if he's going to spearhead even a near-average D. He and Kevon Looney are the roster's only two (healthy) plus-stoppers.
Entire defenses cannot survive on the back of a single player. But Green is almost an entire system unto himself. He is seemingly wherever a play needs to be made.
Nobody is better at short-circuiting possessions away from the ball, and his rotations around the rim are not of this world. Even when he's behind a play, he's never out of it. He is long with great hands and able to strip the ball from bizarre angles. Open jumpers turn into lightless looks when he's closing. It seems like he is everywhere.
Golden State will need peak Green to hold its own next season. He's already resumed his playoff diet in anticipation of that—the same diet he credits with helping him lose 23 pounds in six weeks before last year's postseason, through which he was mostly spectacular.
Lean-and-mean Draymond won't spare the Warriors defense from transition pains. They will feel this offseason's overhaul. Lineups with him at center thrived last year before they sputtered in the playoffs—but will be difficult to get back to now. Peak Green is still good enough to limit the fallout.
The same holds true on offense. He averaged a career-best 8.5 assists per game in the postseason and will have even more influence this year. The Warriors are not bereft of shooting, so his downhill sprints retain their value, and he'll be right at home if they're incorporating more pick-and-rolls for Russell and Stephen Curry.
Convincing him to score more will be the bigger issue. Shooting is not his first inclination. He can get to the rim, but his struggles from the perimeter are well-established.
Remove his outlier accuracy in 2015-16 from the equation, and he's a career 30.9 percent three-point shooter who has fared even worse than that over the past three years (30 percent). And yet, his playmaking alone is worth all the trouble. He has the vision to feasibly anchor one-star units. For all this year definitely won't be, it should be a reminder of how important Green remains to every aspect of the Warriors' identity.
19. Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
Harping on All-NBA snubs is mostly bad form. Slights are too frequently bemoaned without suggestions for who among the chosen should be excluded.
Bradley Beal's absence from last season's All-NBA ballot isn't as hollow. He belonged on it. Identifying who didn't is not thoughtlessly easy, but neither Kemba Walker nor Russell Westbrook seemed to have an airtight case over Beal. His exclusion felt more like an indictment of the 32-win Washington Wizards.
Citing "good player, bad team" is not adequate enough cover. Walker's Charlotte Hornets tallied 39 victories.
Beal averaged 25.6 points, 5.0 rebounds and 5.5 assists on 58.1 percent true shooting. Only nine other players in league history have hit those same-season benchmarks. That the Wizards played opponents to a draw with Beal on the court after the trade deadline, when they didn't have Otto Porter Jr. or John Wall, is worth a gasp or two.
Longevity is all that separated him from his direct competition, and the story hasn't changed. Beal is a reputable All-Star, but he has seldom needed to ferry the well-being of an entire offense on his own. Walker's solo act became his norm. In that way, Beal still totes the burden of proof.
This isn't meant to imply he's deliberately held back. Last season elevated his profile into the overall top-20 discourse. He has the runway to climb higher if he delivers an encore. But too much in Washington remains unsettled to grant Beal the dare-to-dream treatment.
This year's roster is weaker than last year's. Shot quality will be an issue. Beal cleared 3,000 minutes last season. The Wizards might curb his usage this year after penning him to a two-year extension—if not out of the gate, then almost assuredly once they fade far enough from the postseason picture.
Beal's situation wants for fundamental certainties. He is talented enough to play above them, but they matter.
18. Kemba Walker, Boston Celtics
Someone so bound to difficult volume should not be riding Kemba Walker's high. Toiling away with the Charlotte Hornets these past three years should have hurt his stock. He instead parlayed his taxing workload into a near-universal uptick in appreciation.
That much became clear with his first-ever All-NBA selection last season. Bradley Beal's inclusion on the third team seemed slightly more obvious, perhaps even a smidge more deserving. But Walker's all-everything act is years old. Beal hasn't yet needed to cobble together a solo show for that long. (He's working on it now.)
Out of the 339 players who averaged at least 15 minutes per game last year, only five saw a higher percentage of their three-point makes go unassisted. Aside from James Harden, no one in the league jacked more contested treys or attempted more triples after taking seven-plus dribbles than Walker.
This is bonkers. For the types of looks Walker has been confined to, his efficiency should be so much worse. Shot quality is a luxury he's seldom enjoyed, and he doesn't have the size (6'1") to finish around the rim like many of his All-Star contemporaries. That he has hovered around the league average in true shooting these past three years is a minor miracle.
Relocating from Charlotte to Boston should only help Walker. If nothing else, it will allow him to tread water under a less taxing burden. He may need a grace period while deferring to Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward and Jayson Tatum. He may also be begging for the opportunity after his time carrying the Hornets.
Over the past three years, Charlotte's offensive rating placed, on average, in the 78th percentile when Walker was on the court. Without him, it dropped into the 20th percentile. Boston has the secondary ball-handlers to get Walker easier looks. That's never been a headlining part of his game, but he's shooting 40.4 percent on catch-and-fire treys since 2016-17. Finding himself on the Celtics won't be a problem.
17. Blake Griffin, Detroit Pistons
Don't call Blake Griffin's 2018-19 display a career revival. Injuries and a large contract are too often conflated with a decline. He never surrendered his stardom.
Last year was part of a mid-career remake. He's been building toward all-everything offense for quite some time, and that transition was accelerated when he joined the Detroit Pistons, a team in urgent need of a star who could do more than pass and finish.
By the surface numbers, Griffin's production was familiar: a career-high 24.5 points to go with 5.4 assists per game on improved three-point shooting and volume. The manner in which his offense was generated—and how he generated offense for others—was less recognizable.
Griffin ran more pick-and-rolls per game than Eric Bledsoe. He hit more pull-up threes than Trae Young. If you're not impressed by him out-voluming a rookie, he also drained more than all but seven players in the league.
He finished in isolation about as frequently as Paul George, Kyrie Irving, Zach LaVine and Damian Lillard. He assisted on a higher percentage of his team's baskets when in the game than Stephen Curry.
All that, and Griffin still found time to rank fourth in post-up possessions per game.
His first full season in Detroit was a master class in across-the-board volume, and regression shouldn't be a part of his forecast. No, he can't be expected to play in 75 games. This marked the first time he did so since 2013-14, and the every-night availability took its toll. He finished the season with a bum left knee that required surgery.
But even with the addition of Derrick Rose, the Pistons aren't built for Griffin to do less. Slowing down isn't in his cards—at least not yet.
16. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
Left alone, Ben Simmons is one of the NBA's most flawed players. He's also one of the best.
The biggest drawback to Simmons' game is the very thing that teases a limitless ceiling: the complete absence, to date, of an operable jumper. Maybe an outside shot, or a more frequent floater, becomes a part of his repertoire this season. The Philadelphia 76ers hope it does; they're flirting with even spottier floor balance after adding Al Horford to play beside Joel Embiid.
Focusing on what Simmons cannot yet do is part of the territory. He is an All-Star and the owner of a five-year max extension worth at least $170 million that could rise as high as $203.6 million if he makes first-team All-NBA. The bar for him defaults to "demanding," because it should.
At the same time, obsessing over the (admittedly gigantic) hole in his bag is a disservice to all he can actually do. Because, well, he's an All-Star and owner of a five-year max extension for a reason.
Simmons' finite range makes life difficult for the Sixers on occasion, but he's still shooting better than 70 percent at the rim through his first two seasons. And he gets to the hoop almost at will, even though defenses already know where he has to go.
Philly received relatively little pushback for signing Simmons to a finished product's max despite his limitations. That's not an accident. The only other two players to average at least 16 points, eight rebounds and seven assists per game over their rookie and sophomore campaigns are Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson.
Defensive malleability ensures even the less-than-ideal version of Simmons will continue jockeying for top-20 status in the years to come. Among every player with a positive defensive real-plus minus last year, no one guarded a wider variety of positions, according to data from Nylon Calculus' Krishna Narsu. Simmons has the physical tools to switch at all five spots, and while the Sixers prefer not to have him cover opposing point guards, he's capable of neutralizing smaller shot-creators. Ask D'Angelo Russell.
Knocking down a few jumpers and upping his free-throw efficiency is not unimportant. The Sixers need him to do both long term if they're going to consistently thrive during Embiid-less minutes. But Simmons' outside shortcomings are not a defining void. Without them, he's a top-10 player and perennial MVP contender. With them, he's still an All-NBA hopeful.
15. Russell Westbrook, Houston Rockets
Projecting player values after they've switched teams is supposed to be tough. Figuring out how Russell Westbrook fits on the Houston Rockets, alongside James Harden, is a special brand of guesswork.
Partnering this level of ball dominance is beyond atypical. Harden and Westbrook rank first and second, respectively, in usage rate since 2016-17 (minimum five appearances). Neither is accustomed to taking a backseat, but it isn't hard to imagine Harden binging on spot-up jumpers if the situation calls for it.
Then again, Houston can only tamp down Harden's on-ball work so much. He is among the three best offensive players alive. Reshaping his game doesn't make much sense. Westbrook will need to be the one making more wholesale alterations.
That figures to be a problem, if not indefinitely, then at least early on. The Rockets cannot count on him to drain standstill jumpers in volume. His shot quality should improve within their four-out setups, but he's put down just 34.2 percent of his wide-open threes since 2016-17. Houston apparently plans to get him moving off the ball and use him as a screener, which should help. We still have to see whether that flies in crunch time...or months into the season.
Established talent has a way of figuring things out, and the Harden-Westbrook duo was not formed against either's will. Staggering their minutes will minimize the overlap. That all matters.
Ultrapessimistic views of Westbrook's outlook might still have some merit. But they presuppose he's on a steep decline independent of his might-be awkward fit with Harden. That takes things too far. Westbrook remains a force of nature with the ball in his hands, and he's finally getting the opportunity to play on a team that can surround him with three to four real outside threats at all times. His superstar label isn't in danger of being stripped.
14. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Centers who don't shoot threes, create their own shots or flash unicorn switchability at the defensive end have finite utility. Or rather, they're supposed to.
Rudy Gobert exists on an entirely different plane. He isn't a poster board for big men with positionless skill sets, but he's by no means constrained to the mold of a Clint Capela archetype (particularly now that the former spends so much time hanging out in the dunker's spot).
This departure isn't totally recognizable on offense, where Gobert squeezes neatly into the screen-setting, rim-running mold. But his value isn't as typical as many others who share this alcove.
His screens and dives generate significant gravity when the Utah Jazz aren't running out multiple non-shooters. He averaged 6.7 screen assists per 36 minutes last year, the third-most among 276 players to log at least 1,000 minutes. That number could climb this season, if for no other reason than Utah's summer infusion of proven shot-makers Bojan Bogdanovic and Mike Conley.
Spoiler: Gobert has a starker impact at the other end. Consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards make this a dead giveaway. His presence on the backline instructs Utah's approach on the perimeter. He is a known fulcrum. And still, at least some of his influence is less obvious.
Bigs of Gobert's ilk usually have matchup limitations. They are schemable. He's much harder to play off the floor. Even when he seems to be teetering on the verge of a liability, he's seldom pushed past that brink. Salvaging him becomes more about reasonable tweaks, not pivoting to different lineup combinations.
Look no further than the Jazz's first-round loss to the Houston Rockets last season. Utah's drastic strategy against James Harden left Gobert a basketball-Twitter punchline. But he wasn't so easy of a target by series' end.
Gobert's onset struggles were more about coming too far away from the basket to contest shots, something he's fully capable of doing, just not when going up against one of the three best offensive players alive. He eventually adjusted, and the Jazz were better for it.
Certain teams, like the Rockets, will still pose more problems than most. The beauty of Gobert is, even then, he's not eminently solvable.
13. Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets
Kyrie Irving's tumultuous 2018-19 swan song with the Boston Celtics is not evidence enough to significantly drop him down the superstar ladder. He offered an in-depth explanation of what went wrong, and taking too much away from his poor showing during the team's nine-game postseason stay would be high comedy.
Some will still hold his slog of an exit from Boston against him. That isn't unfair. A team with Irving as its best player is subject to the same limitations met by the Celtics. He doesn't get to the foul line or rim especially often and, equally notable, has never come across as a rah-rah leader. His vision stacks up against conventional floor generals, but his actual table-setting so often seems to come out of obligation rather than instinct. He is not hardwired to surrender volume amid a crowded offensive hierarchy.
Most of this shouldn't be a problem with the Brooklyn Nets. They won't have as many mouths to feed, even when Kevin Durant returns from his Achilles injury. Caris LeVert is the closest they come to having another star in training, and three primary-ish options is easier to juggle than last year's hodgepodge in Boston.
Immediately, it helps that LeVert has already signed an extension (three years, $52.5 million). Boston's supporting cast enjoyed less security. Terry Rozier was in a contract year, Jaylen Brown was a season away from restricted free agency and Gordon Hayward was trying to reestablish himself following a serious injury. Jayson Tatum's premature coronation didn't help matters.
Which is to say, playing in Brooklyn will be a simpler transition for Irving. Lest we forget, he was on track for a career season before Boston went belly-up. He won't have to sacrifice anything this year. The Nets need him to be a ball-handling sorcerer who hangs 20-plus points on efficient three-point shooting.
When the time does come for Irving to adapt, he'll be fine. Playing alongside Durant should be easier than adjusting to LeBron James—particularly if KD isn't able to ferry the same on-ball workload post-Achilles injury. Failing that, Irving chose Brooklyn, the first such decision he's made in his career. That affords him a certain trust, both now and over the long haul.
12. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat
Between tour de forces in Minnesota and a superabundance of marquee names in Philadelphia, Jimmy Butler's spot among the stars has become tough to peg down. His numbers trailed off with the Sixers. His shooting suffered, too. He went from a hands-down top-10 player in 2017-18 to a "we're not quite sure where he ranks" last year.
Compromise is the price of wannabe superteams. Butler made it work with the Sixers anyway. By the end of the year, there was little to doubt about his essentiality. His crunch-time usage rate skyrocketed after the All-Star break, and Philly leaned on him harder in the playoffs, both as a clutch finisher and a pseudo point guard.
Joel Embiid very much misses him.
Landing with the Miami Heat clears the way for Butler to resume his 2017-18 ways, if not his swan-song performance with the Chicago Bulls in 2016-17. Head coach Erik Spoelstra won't commit to using Justise Winslow at point guard again, and a healthy Goran Dragic can play off the ball. No one is immediately above Butler in the pecking order. Nor are the Heat grooming anyone to be.
Equally important, Butler mostly remains an every-possession gnat at the other end. The league has better team defenders, but his on-ball pressure is ceaseless.
In so many ways, Butler is the dream: a proven crunch-time crutch and half-court initiator with an affinity for breaking defensive sweats. No one has the grounds to forecast regression in Miami. Butler feels like an old 30, but he's not yet ancient. The Heat way also jibes perfectly with his maniacal work ethic. This is just as much a cultural fit as a basketball one.
Absent a second star, Miami is subject to a hard ceiling. Butler on his own, though, punches a playoff ticket, which is how it tends to be for any top-10(ish) player.
11. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
Karl-Anthony Towns is slated to have more influence over the Minnesota Timberwolves offense, which makes it difficult to refrain from slotting him any higher. He is made to be the center of their universe.
Last year provided but a taste of what to expect. Towns essentially slogged through three seasons: Jimmy Butler's messy exit, the post-Butler exit and the post-Tom Thibodeau era. His best stuff, not surprisingly, came during the latter stretch. He averaged 26.8 points, 12.4 rebounds and 3.7 assists with a 54.1/42.2/83.8 shooting slash after Thibs' exit.
Saddling Towns with more playmaking responsibility makes too much sense. Head coach Ryan Saunders has made it clear his big man won't be running point—though, Minnesota should totally lean into KAT-led fast breaks—but giving him additional touches at the top of the key or deeper in the post is a natural progression. Towns has flashed the chops to find shooters off the dribble; he can certainly handle a more deliberate approach.
Nix the playmaking, and he is still the NBA's most complete big on offense. His game is both force and finesse. He will back down opponents, chase putbacks and break rims, and he also hits stop-and-pop jumpers, faces up, turns on the spin cycle and relies on touch. And he does it all so damn efficiently.
Win-loss sticklers will point out the Timberwolves have not been particularly good with Towns, and that he only made the playoffs when Butler was around. That's not on him. Minnesota won the minutes Towns played last season without Butler, Derrick Rose and Andrew Wiggins while posting a 117 offensive rating. That is bonkers given the personnel around him, even over a 582-possession sample.
Towns is very much who the Timberwolves are paying him to be: a player capable of being the No. 1 on a contender. Minnesota isn't that, but if he defends like he did during the (brief) time Robert Covington was healthy, Towns will join the top-10 ranks and, most likely, never look back.
10. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
Damian Lillard has hit a point where he's not only the closest rival to Stephen Curry at their respective position but also a mainstay in the overall top-10 discussion. What's more, he hasn't reached this apex via striking expansion. His role is, for the most part, the same as ever. His ascension is owed more to the amplification of everything he does best.
Few players in the league are as comfortable taking difficult shots. Only James Harden and Kemba Walker attempted more pull-up threes last season, and he ranked fourth in contested makes from beyond the arc, which he drilled at a respectable 34.4 percent clip. (For context, Harden converted 32.4 percent of his contested triples.)
Crunch-time lore only aids Lillard's placement. The numbers aren't always pretty, but he has the "it" gene. His Game 5 series-winner against the Oklahoma City Thunder last spring was an encapsulation of that charm. The fate of the Portland Trail Blazers just feels safe in his hands. That can't always be quantified, but having a late-game crutch who's forever under control is invaluable.
So too is Lillard's impact behind the scenes. Portland's acquisition of Hassan Whiteside was nothing less than a cultural flex knowing how he ended his tenure with the Miami Heat. Whether the Blazers are better off with him supplanting the injured Jusuf Nurkic isn't the point. Having the confidence to make this gamble nods to the locker room atmosphere Lillard has helped build.
The most noticeable change to Lillard's game has come in similarly intangible fashion. Neither his assist nor turnover rate has demonstratively improved, but he's never been a better floor general. His feel for navigating traffic is at an all-time high, and almost everything he does seems less forced.
It would be unwise to expect a measurable uptick from Lillard this season. Indeed, his offensive burden will be heavier without Nurkic and a backup point guard rotation in greater flux than usual. But he's 29, and again, his game has yet to undergo a serious overhaul.
Fortunately for he and the Blazers, it doesn't need to.
9. Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers
It doesn't sound like Paul George's recovery from a shoulder injury will keep him out of action beyond November. This counts as reassuring news after he underwent two surgeries over the offseason. It comes as even more of a relief for those who believe that, despite sentiments to the contrary, the Clippers will manage Kawhi Leonard's workload throughout the regular season.
Full-strength Paul George is one of the 10 best players in the league. Almost no one can handle guarding No. 1 options while floating a 1B's burden at the other end. George has that stamina.
Last season in Oklahoma City, he pushed the bill further, carrying effective units without Russell Westbrook. Even when the two played together, George had the carte blanche of a first option. He initiated about the same number of pick-and-rolls per game as Westbrook and shot 38.6 percent from deep on a steady stream of difficult attempts. Close to 33 percent of his made treys went unassisted, up from 19.7 percent in 2017-18.
George rode that role expansion to a career-high 28 points per game.
His fit beside Leonard is more seamless because he should get the best of both worlds. Leonard profiles as the No. 1, but the Clippers don't employ another ball-dominant playmaker aside from Lou Williams. George will have a comparable amount of shot-creation duties without the attention of a traditional No. 1 or the bare-bones spacing he played through in Oklahoma City.
8. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Defending Joel Embiid is an act of futility. He has his limitations—tunnel vision, situational sloppiness, outside shooting—but they don't always matter. He keeps coming, all 240 to 260 pounds of him, and overwhelms with both power and craft.
The greatest compliment that can be paid to Embiid's bruising balletics: The Philadelphia 76ers haven't yet figured out how to play without him.
Jimmy Butler's arrival helped mask their dependence, but not when it mattered most. Philly posted a net rating of minus-18.9 in the 195 possessions both he and Ben Simmons logged without Embiid in the playoffs. As ESPN's Zach Lowe wrote:
"A stat that blows me away four-plus months later: The Sixers outscored Toronto by 90 points in 237 minutes with Embiid on the floor during the conference semifinals...and lost the remaining 99 non-Embiid minutes by 109 points. I mean...what? Yeah, that's a small sample size. Whatever. A high-end playoff team losing one subset of minutes against one opponent by a Washington Generals margin is crazy—and indicative of an issue that has dogged Philly for years now."
Al Horford will help the Sixers better survive stretches without Embiid, but the point stands. It hits even harder when looking at their chain of command in crunch time. Butler's departure leaves Philly with a face-up-scoring void. Will Tobias Harris begin to replace it? Or maybe Josh Richardson?
Embiid sounds prepared to take more off-the-dribble jumpers. That's scary, in part for the wrong reasons. Those looks haven't made up a huge chunk of his offensive diet, and he shot 27.7 percent from three last season when firing off the dribble (13-of-47).
Devil's advocate: Embiid isn't chasing an unattainable leap. He is already comfortable moving with the ball, cut down his turnovers in the post and boasts the foot speed to be matchup-proof at the defensive end. He has the physical tools to sprinkle in more off-the-bounce jumpers.
If he starts hitting those, or even just shooting league average from deep, the NBA at large won't have an answer.
7. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Nikola Jokic's standing has entered a sort of sanctuary. Player rankings never include unanimity, but up until last season, deeming him a star meant submitting yourself to a war of reaction.
Arguments will still be had, but the conversation has changed. Calling him one of the league's most valuable players is no longer a controversy. Jokic vs. Joel Embiid vs. Karl-Anthony Towns vs. Anthony Davis is a more standard debate.
That says the world about the season Jokic turned in last year: 20.1 points, 10.8 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game on 58.9 true shooting. This output doesn't seem real, and it almost isn't. Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson are the only other players to post similar lines.
Last season also marked a defensive turn for Jokic. His unflattering reputation has always been a little overblown—crashing the glass has value—but 2018-19 was a banner year for his consistency. Length and IQ allow him to bust up plays off the ball, and last season specifically he showed quicker reaction time and better positioning on more aggressive stances.
Of course, no part of Jokic's game will ever catch up to his passing. His vision is inconceivable. Playmaking pushed him into the national spotlight, and somehow, years later, what he's doing still doesn't feel normal.
Jokic's bag of tricks is bottomless: He throws ridiculous outlets. Leads fast breaks. Tosses kick-outs while falling away from the basket. Flings no-lookers to the corners while on the move. Feigns handoffs before finding cutters. Turns the NBA's most pronounced pump fake into someone else's wide-open jumper. At least once a game, he drops a pass you have to watch on replay to believe.
Sticking Jokic ahead of Embiid is not a no-brainer. These two will jockey for "best center" honors in real time. Davis will as well, if he sees enough reps at the 5. Towns is coming too. But the decision to roll with Jokic is not a reach.
6. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
Players are usually ripped when they show an aversion to taking up the mantle at their best position. And indeed, Anthony Davis has taken flak for his attachment to playing power forward.
In the grand scheme of things, though, his preference is inconsequential. Sure, the Los Angeles Lakers likely wouldn't have Dwight Howard if Davis were more in love with playing center. But he will close games there anyway, and more critically, time spent at 4 does nothing to depress his value.
Many other bigs would labor through some sort of defensive trade-off. Power forwards are verging on wings nowadays. With a move from the 5 to the 4, the physical grind is so often replaced by a mobility deficit. Davis is immune to this trade-off. He can fly around the half court like a borderline wing and use atypical length and speed to still help out, or anchor the defense, at the rim. He is more of a positional stopper than anyone who's 6'10" is supposed to be.
Davis' role on offense as a power forward can be approached with similar indifference. His drives to the rim won't be as decongested next to Howard or JaVale McGee, but he's so quick, it doesn't matter. He can slip by defenders and through crevices, and his long arms allow him to finish at odd angles farther away from the basket.
Three-point shooting is a sticking point, albeit not a big one. Power forwards are expected to fire away from beyond the arc. Davis isn't what you'd call a shooter, but he's not a non-shooter. He's put in 33.6 percent of his deep balls over the past two seasons on 2.3 attempts per game. Last year, through 56 appearances with the New Orleans Pelicans, he splashed in 37.7 percent of his spot-up triples.
If Davis stays on the wrong side of league-average efficiency from three, then so be it. He's honed his off-the-dribble work enough to offset a lack of range. He used to seem recklessly under control when facing up. He now has an element of finesse to his handles. His initial burst is tough to contain, and he can stop on a dime.
This comfort with working off the bounce farther from the hoop has opened up his game. He averaged a personal-best 3.9 assists per contest while notching the third-highest free-throw-attempt rate of his career last season, to go with 25.9 points, 12.0 rebounds, 1.6 steals, 2.4 blocks and 59.7 true shooting.
That LeBron James has said the Lakers will play through Davis is revealing. It may be another preseason ruse, but the sentiment itself is not without merit. For as much as Davis' departure from New Orleans and his lack of playoff success have soured certain perceptions of him, he is the kind of superstar who could scale up James' deference.
5. James Harden, Houston Rockets
It is impossible to adequately contextualize James Harden's performance the past two seasons. Make that four seasons. He's averaging 31.1 points and 8.7 assists since 2015-16 on 61.2 percent true shooting.
Even Harden's staunchest critics cannot write off his blend of volume and efficiency. The exaggerated contact, might-be-but-aren't travels, unguardable step-backs and, now, one-legged three-pointers all seem gimmicky. They irritate even more when they're coming off seven-plus dribbles and during a half-court possession on which it doesn't seem like anyone other than Clint Capela moved an iota.
Harden's approach looks and feels inorganic, more hack than strategy.
Here's the thing: NBA players don't get points for style. Baskets register on the scoreboard, and Harden gets buckets. How he's reaching the foul line or attempting his threes doesn't take away from the results. And the results are, most of the time, incomprehensible.
Harden's efficiency defies the sheer enormity of his role. He accounted for over 45 percent of the Houston Rockets' total offense last season when combining his scoring with the points he generated off assists. His 40.5 usage rate stands as the second-highest in league history, behind now-teammate-again Russell Westbrook.
Therein lies the sole complication of Harden's outlook. His fit with Westbrook is not a sure thing. Harden's game will be the least impacted of the two, but his partnership with a high-usage non-shooter is still part of the calculus.
Evaluating him outside Houston's roster framework helps neutralize some of the "but there's only one ball!" bias that creeps in. He bends defenses more than anyone save for Stephen Curry. Aggressive pick-and-roll coverages are rendered futile by his nifty pocket passes.
Select superstar peers remain above Harden, though he can be the best player in any given season. Top-five stars have that ceiling.
But he's more of a defensive chess piece in the wrong way than Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard and even LeBron James. The "Harden is good at defense" crowd has a leg to stand on when the Rockets can switch liberally and monitor one-on-one assignments. That stance will be tested during the presumably long stretches he spends next to Westbrook.
4. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
Little else is more terrifying than the idea of a well-rested LeBron James with a grudge. He is coming off his first extended offseason since 2005 and might be annoyed by so many stripping him of his "best player" throne.
It has been a while since we've seen a LeBron James revenge season. This should be fun. His regular-season cruise control isn't going anywhere, but he turned in yet another 27-point, eight-rebound, eight-assist campaign last year while missing time with a groin injury and playing for a Los Angeles Lakers squad fast-tracked to nowhere after Christmas. His phone-in jobs are half-baked masterpieces.
James may even have a reinvention in him.
He spent the early portion of 2018-19 downing step-back threes and has openly declared the Lakers offense will run through Anthony Davis. The concept of him in a quasi-secondary role has long tantalized—and eluded.
It is very much wait-and-see, but James is going on 35 and playing with a top-seven superstar nearly a decade younger. If there were ever a time he'd settle into even more of a pass-first mode, throw up more set jumpers and, just maybe, focus on moving without the ball, it would be now.
Buying fully into Vengeful LeBron and Co-Star LeBron, at the same time, takes a certain willful ignorance. We've heard the "LeBron will play off the ball more" schtick before, and it never lasts. And why should it? He's LeBron friggin' James, an offense unto himself.
Greater exception is taken with the possible chip on his shoulders. He's too self-aware to completely revamp his regular-season approach. He knows his GOAT case now lives and dies with championships. Courting majority opinion in the regular season doesn't do anything for him.
Ignore all of that and, well, James is still turning 35 in December and coming off the most serious injury of his career. Scheduled rest, however infrequent, seems inevitable. And he won't suddenly stop taking plays off.
If nothing else, James' tiny tumble down the individual ladder can be spun into a matter of choice and circumstance. He doesn't need the No. 1 spot, and the list of players who can lord over the NBA is deeper than it has ever been during his reign.
3. Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers
Kawhi Leonard's return to the floor last season after a mostly lost 2017-18 left many clamoring for him to enter the "best player alive" discussion. And, well, he's in it.
Regular-season load management served him well.
The 22 games he missed took a backseat to his career-high 26.6 points per game on 60.6 percent true shooting. His legend only grew in the playoffs. From his 30.5 points per game on even better efficiency to his Game 7 series-winner against the Philadelphia 76ers and takedown of the (short-handed) Golden State Warriors, the pull to crown him best player alive has never been stronger.
Changing teams for the second time in two years does not weaken his claim. Fitting into the Los Angeles Clippers offense will be a basic transition. He began his career conceding touches and status to stars in San Antonio and has not lost that plug-and-play air. With the exception of his nine-game performance in 2017-18, he has never shot below 38 percent on spot-up threes.
Standstill jumpers have become a smaller part of his game in recent years—but for the better. Leonard has evolved into one of the league's most dangerous hubs. He finished in the 84th percentile of isolation scoring efficiency last year and put down 45.2 percent of his pull-up twos.
It will, at times, seem like Leonard is working outside the rest of his team. That is not a problem. His mid-range jumper isn't the shot you live with; it is the shot you game-plan around, insofar as you even can. He found nylon on a combined 54.4 percent of his contested and heavily contested twos last year.
Integrating Leonard should end up being an easier adjustment for the Clippers than it was for the Toronto Raptors. They do not have a point guard of Kyle Lowry's caliber, and Paul George is best suited as the No. 2 or 1B. The ball will default to Leonard's hands. Anyone waiting on his Kevin Durant-assist-number leap might now get it.
Defense is not about to erode Leonard's best-player case, either. He is less of an every-possession attacker, but his selective blanketing both covers more plays than 95 percent of the league and is good for his long-term viability.
Leonard's prospective maintenance program is all that compromises his position. He has said he plans on playing the entire season, but the Clippers are not an upstart with happy-to-be-here aspirations. They want to win the whole damn thing. Running out Leonard for 75-plus games before the playoffs is at best unnecessary and at worst self-sabotage.
Toronto rested Leonard for 22 games last year. He still exited the NBA Finals with a left knee injury, potentially as the result of overcompensating for his right quad throughout the year. Caution is necessary. That doesn't break his "best player" case, but it is dampened in comparison to others who will see more time, either by choice or necessity.
2. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Stephen Curry's reign as the NBA's best point guard does not face an immediate or, for that matter, imminent challenger. What that says about his standing among all superstars is less of a consensus.
Pivotal aspects of his could-be MVP case are already written. Change has shaken the Golden State Warriors' dynasty. Kevin Durant is gone. Andre Iguodala too. Klay Thompson isn't expected to return from his torn ACL before the All-Star break.
Golden State has alternative branches of star power in Draymond Green and D'Angelo Russell, but the latter's trajectory is as divisive as his potential fit. The Warriors need to adjust their offensive style to accommodate his pick-and-roll volume, and they don't have the supporting cast to offset the resulting deficit in the event they can't.
Curry alone is positioned to save what's no longer considered a postseason lock, let alone championship favorite and benchmark powerhouse. Whether a lone-megastar act will grate on him is up for debate. His inevitable optimization of the Warriors is not. He is the rare cornerstone who can complement any iteration of his team without conceding ownership of its identity.
This coming year is not a matter of Curry returning to his 2015-16, unanimous-MVP heights. That implies he vacated the mountaintop. That version of him has endured the past three years. It was deployed in lesser, tamer doses, but he bends defenses to his presence as much as ever.
Curry is averaging 26.3 points and 6.0 assists per game on 64.3 true shooting since 2016-17. And while the Warriors failed in last year's bid for a three-peat, their postseason push was peppered with encouraging reminders of what he can do when he doesn't have a fellow top-five player on which to lean.
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Last year's MVP is last year's MVP, so don't call Giannis Antetokounmpo the MVP. He doesn't plan to talk about his 2021 free agency, supermax eligibility next summer or general future with the Milwaukee Bucks. He believes he can win the title without a three-ball, but he wants to develop one to make life easier on his teammates, whose lives on the court are already made infinitely easier by his transition romps and ability to reach the rim on command.
For almost anyone else, this could all be written off as athlete-speak. With Antetokounmpo, it is something different, and you can sense that difference in how he carries himself on the court.
Every play, on both ends of the floor, is Antetokounmpo's will in miniature. His averages of 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.5 blocks per game last season made up the first line of its kind—which makes sense. Unprecedented is Antetokounmpo's normal.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the one player who has come closest to matching his 2018-19 output. And yet, he was a big man, a center. The 6'11" Antetokounmpo is big, but he's not a big man positionally. Nor is he a guard. Or a forward. He straddles the margins between all three, the hybrid of hybrid.
Finding fault with his range has become reductive. He really may not need a jumper. Among 211 players who completed at least 150 drives last season, no one shot a higher percentage than Antetokounmpo (63.6). He seems solvable on some nights, specifically during playoff series, but defenses couldn't stop him from shooting a career-high 76.9 percent at the rim or from posting one of the league's five best free-throw-attempt rates. These numbers held mostly strong in the playoffs. It takes entire team efforts to slow him. (See: Raptors, Toronto.)
Antetokounmpo's dominance is such that, if he shot close to average from three on modest volume, the "best player alive" discourse would feel pointless. That could still happen. He shot 33 percent on 3.5 attempts per game over his final 30 appearances last year. That isn't efficient enough to scare opponents silly, but it's reasonable enough to coax some attention out of individual defenders.
Encouraging still, almost two-thirds of his three-point attempts last season came as pull-up jumpers. He's comfortable, albeit not efficient, with putting up deepies off the dribble. Not that it particularly matters. Antetokounmpo's placement isn't conditional upon his developing an outside shot.
With or without it, he's the best the NBA has to offer.