Bleacher Report's Top 100 Player Rankings from the 2019-20 NBA Season
At long last, the moment (we hope) you've been waiting for has finally arrived: Our officially official ranking of the top 100 NBA players for the 2019-20 season is officially here. Officially.
Before you journey down this rabbit hole with us, be sure to check out the position-by-position installments of our top-100 series if you haven't already:
Players are being evaluated relative to their performance for this season only. Benefit of the doubt is awarded to stars with limited appearances, but only if they've delivered at a high level during their time on the floor or seem likely to pick up steam in Disney World or during the potential Chicago bubble.
Anyone who hasn't logged at least 500 minutes is not eligible for inclusion. This makes for some tough cuts—Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Victor Oladipo, Klay Thompson, etc.—but this is, in essence, a 2019-20 retrospective. Sample size has to matter.
Disagreements are inevitable. Which is fine. Friends argue sometimes. Just know that we didn't assemble this pecking order to upset you. Any villainy you detect is unintentional*.
*For the most part.
If not for injuries that limited their availability or cost them the entire season, each of these players would've received top-100 consideration:
- Marvin Bagley III (334 minutes)
- DeMarcus Cousins (out for season)
- Stephen Curry (139 minutes)
- Kevin Durant (out for season)
- Blake Griffin (played more than 500 minutes but was seriously hampered by his left knee)
- Luke Kennard (cleared minutes threshold but needed more than 28 appearances to crack this list)
- Victor Oladipo (337 minutes)
- Klay Thompson (out for season)
- John Wall (out for season)
Cheer up, sadz-havers. And angry-pants-wearers.
Steph is a top-five player in any normal season. KD will default to no lower than a top-10 player post-Achilles injury until proven otherwise. And pretty much everyone else on this list, with the exception of Bagley and Kennard, are 2020-21 preseason top-100 shoo-ins, barring any setbacks.
Just Missed the Cut
These players were tough to leave off, and we very much hate ourselves:
- Harrison Barnes
- Mikal Bridges
- Brandon Clarke
- Goran Dragic
- Dorian Finney-Smith
- Joe Harris
- George Hill
- Richaun Holmes
- Royce O'Neale
- Norman Powell
- Julius Randle
- JJ Redick
- Josh Richardson
- Collin Sexton
- Tristan Thompson
100-96: DiVincenzo, Warren, White, Robinson, Anunoby
100. Donte DiVincenzo, Milwaukee Bucks
Donte DiVincenzo's basic numbers won't burn up your screen, but his impact on the powerhouse Milwaukee Bucks is clear.
The reason for that uptick is DiVincenzo's gap-filling game. He does a little bit of everything, as evidenced by his 7.3 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 2.0 steals per 75 possessions.
99. T.J. Warren, Indiana Pacers
In his first season with the Indiana Pacers, T.J. Warren has quickly established himself as perhaps the team's best scorer. In the rawest sense, his team-leading 18.7 points per game would suggest as much, though Domantas Sabonis' 18.5 aren't far behind. They're within a point of each other in the percentage of makes that are assisted, as well.
What sets Warren apart, though, is his ability to both spread the floor (37.5 percent on 3.0 three-point attempts per game) and run some pick-and-roll. Nearly a fifth of his possessions come as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, and he's scoring at an above-average clip out of that play type.
He still leaves plenty to be desired on the defensive end, but for a team that has been missing Victor Oladipo for most of the season, that from-scratch offense is valuable.
98. Derrick White, San Antonio Spurs
Lineup politics have capped Derrick White's crack at appreciable progress. Dejounte Murray's return has relegated him to the bench, and San Antonio's quasi-refusal to play the two together comes at the expense of his minutes.
White is not blameless in this dilemma. Like Murray and DeMar DeRozan, he is a limited weapon from distance. Playing all three at the same time is a non-option for an offense that already traffics in cluttered floor spacing. White has, however, shown the set touch necessary to warrant minutes beside Murray on an alternative, DeRozan-less version of the Spurs.
More than 20 percent of his looks come as catch-and-fire threes, on which he's shooting 37.5 percent. Defenses are slightly less inclined to go under him in pick-and-rolls than they are Murray, and he's canning more than 50 percent of his twos despite seeing his efficiency drop around the rim.
Even the most marginal offensive upticks moving forward would prove massive for White. He plays a brand of defense you feel while watching. His stands against superstar guards and wings are enviable—a tutorial in staying ahead of ball-handlers and not biting on fakes—and he blocks way more shots than any guard standing 6'4" with unimpressive length should.
97. Duncan Robinson, Miami Heat
The easiest gripe to make about Duncan Robinson is that he doesn't do much at a high level beyond shoot. Well, when you shoot like this, that's not much of a gripe.
Stephen Curry (2015-16) and Steve Novak (2011-12) are the only players in league history who have matched or exceeded Robinson's 2019-20 marks for volume (10.2 attempts per 75 possessions) and efficiency (44.8 percent) from three.
Among players who have taken at least 500 shots from anywhere in a season, Robinson's otherworldly 66.5 effective field-goal percentage trails only a bunch of All-Star centers and 2014-15 Kyle Korver.
He's been a flamethrower this season, and the Miami Heat have legitimately fallen apart when he isn't out there spacing the floor. They've been plus-8.8 points per 100 possessions when he's played and minus-4.9 when he sits, giving him a 13.7 net rating swing that ranks in the 99th percentile.
Even if he doesn't dish out a ton of dimes or lock down the opposition's best player, the impact driven by his shooting is immense.
96. OG Anunoby, Toronto Raptors
On the other end of the equation is Toronto Raptors wing OG Anunoby, a solid offensive player who contributes the bulk of his value on the defensive end.
All season, Anunoby has been willing and able to spend time on the opposition's top offensive players. And Toronto's defense ranks in the 84th percentile when he's on the floor. His length, athleticism and switchability are reminiscent of some of the game's top defenders, which makes sense given his standout habits.
"Ron Artest, Scottie Pippen, Kawhi [Leonard], guys like that," Anunoby told reporters when asked who he patterns his defense after earlier this season. "Draymond [Green]."
Those are ambitious targets, but Anunoby possesses the tools to get there, at least on the defensive end.
Whether he can carry a bigger load offensively remains to be seen, but simply maintaining his three-point shooting from this season (38.1 percent on 3.4 attempts per game) would make him a prototypical three-and-D specialist.
95-91: LeVert, Bertans, Green, Morris, Robinson
95. Caris LeVert, Brooklyn Nets
Continued on-again, off-again availability is not the lone anchor holding down Caris LeVert. A right thumb kept him sidelined for two months, which doesn't help, but his elevated usage has coincided with a steep drop in efficiency.
LeVert is shooting under 43 percent inside the arc while both reaching and finishing at the rim on a lower clip. Mid-range jumpers account for a larger share of his shot attempts, and he's not hitting nearly enough of them (35 percent) to justify the outsized share.
The context of LeVert's role is his saving grace. Brooklyn's free-agency coup last summer has not translated to a tinier workload. Kevin Durant hasn't yet debuted for the Nets, and Kyrie Irving has missed most of the year. LeVert is still charged with a healthy amount of from-scratch creation, and he's holding his own.
His effective field-goal percentage on pull-up jumpers (50.8) is higher than that from Jayson Tatum (50.3). His efficiency on unassisted threes is absurd. Among everyone launching at least three pull-up triples per game, no one touches LeVert's 41.5 percent success rate.
That he's officially a trusted decision-maker out of the pick-and-roll props up his argument even more. He is one of six non-point guards clearing 17 points and four assists per game while draining more than 38 percent of his threes—evidence not of a breakout season but of his potential as a No. 3 on what the Nets hope will soon be a really good team.
94. Davis Bertans, Washington Wizards
Davis Bertans doesn't do a whole lot on offense besides catch the basketball and shoot it. But when you're as good at that one thing (which happens to be the most important skill in basketball) as Bertans is, you don't need to do much more.
Unleashed after three seasons in a much smaller role with the San Antonio Spurs, Bertans is averaging 15.4 points and 3.7 threes this season while shooting 42.4 percent from deep. Stephen Curry is the only player in league history who has matched or exceeded all three marks for a season (and he has done so twice).
Those threes aren't garden-variety catch-and-shoots, either. His 45 makes from 28 feet and out trail only Damian Lillard, Trae Young and James Harden. And his percentage from that range (49.5) comfortably tops those three.
Extend the range to 30-plus feet and Bertans trails only Lillard and Young. But here's the real kicker: He is an outrageous 18-of-26 (69.2 percent) on those shots.
When defenses have to pay attention to a big that far from the hoop, it expands the floor for everyone else. On the season, the Washington Wizards have scored 121.7 points per 100 possessions (99th percentile) when Bertans shares the floor with Bradley Beal. They have scored 106.2 points per 100 possessions (19th percentile) when Beal is on the floor without Bertans.
93. Danny Green, Los Angeles Lakers
Though he hasn't been quite the impact juggernaut he was in 2018-19 when the Toronto Raptors' net rating was 17.4 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor, Danny Green has still been a clear positive for the Los Angeles Lakers.
And of course, that impact once again comes from far more than scoring. Among the 147 players in NBA history with a 2.0-plus box plus/minus, Green is 136th in points per possession.
In 2019-20, he's done all the same things that have carried that value throughout his career. He spreads the floor, hits threes at an above-average rate and is capable of bothering the top perimeter option from about any opponent.
92. Marcus Morris Sr., Los Angeles Clippers
Marcus Morris Sr.'s final placement is a tale of two seasons. Free rein with the New York Knicks gave him a certain je ne sais quoi. The numbers were pretty, but they came on a bad team, in a role he would never hold with a better squad.
Joining the Clippers, a real title contender, may be a more accurate gauge of his value. That doesn't bode well for him if the season is over. He's shooting 28.3 percent from beyond the arc and has seen his usage rate crater amid a much more talented offensive hierarchy.
Judge his season in its totality and Morris still comes out on top. He's downing 38.3 percent of his pull-up treys and averaging a personal-best 19.9 points per 36 minutes on the second-highest true shooting percentage of his career.
The question, as ever, is whether his offensive utility can spill over to a niche role in which he's predominantly a spot-up guy and only situationally tasked with creating off the dribble. His usefulness waxed and waned under similar circumstances in Boston last season, and nothing has changed in Los Angeles, where 75 percent of his made buckets are coming off assists.
91. Mitchell Robinson, New York Knicks
Mitchell Robinson is a lean, mean, shot-blocking and rim-running machine who may be on track to becoming a more athletic Tyson Chandler.
He's one of three players in NBA history to start his career with a 9.0-plus block percentage through his first two seasons, and his true shooting percentage is over 20 points higher than the other two.
Sure, he's occasionally caught out of position and sometimes chases blocks at the expense of the scheme or a rebound, but he just turned 22. There is plenty of time for him to learn the nuance of NBA defense.
At this age, the absurd production—14.1 points, 11.2 rebounds and 3.7 blocks per 75 possessions for his career—deserves far more credit than the shortcomings.
90-86: Gasol, Capela, Drummond, Whiteside, Williams
90. Marc Gasol, Toronto Raptors
Marc Gasol has posted career-low averages in points (7.6), rebounds (6.3), blocks (0.9) and two-point percentage (44.0) this season, but his impact has been an overwhelming plus because of the way he has embraced his new role on the defending champion Toronto Raptors.
Over half (53.8 percent, to be exact) of Gasol's attempts have been threes this season, a mark that is over 20 points higher than his previous career high of 31.4 percent from 2018-19. And he's converted 40.2 percent of those attempts.
Having a 5 who forces the opposition's bigs to leave the paint does wonders for players like Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam, who still do plenty of damage as slashers.
And though his raw block numbers are down, Gasol remains an effective deterrent inside. The Raptors have surrendered 6.8 fewer points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor. What he's lost in athleticism, Gasol mostly makes up for with IQ. His rotations are always on point, and he's game for whatever scheme head coach Nick Nurse wants to deploy.
His more focused three-and-D role has led to a plus-7.5 net rating swing that leads Toronto in 2019-20.
89. Clint Capela, Atlanta Hawks
It's hard to blame the Houston Rockets for moving on from Clint Capela. Two non-shooters in that offensive system just wasn't sustainable, and the investment the team made to get Russell Westbrook meant he wasn't going anywhere.
So, Clint Capela was dealt, and the Rockets went all-in on micro-ball.
We haven't gotten a chance to see how Capela will fit on the Atlanta Hawks with Trae Young and John Collins, but there's reason to believe it will work.
Capela is an elite roller and lob finisher who has still averaged 13.9 points, 13.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in 32.8 minutes per game this season. And Young is already one of the game's best pick-and-roll passers. Capela should continue to get plenty of wide-open dunks set up by his point man.
The only sticking point on offense is that Collins already does a lot of that. His expanding perimeter game could loosen things up, but there's some potential for crowding.
88. Andre Drummond Cleveland Cavaliers
Nothing crystallized Andre Drummond's decline quite like the trade the Detroit Pistons brokered to unload him this season.
They sent him to the Cleveland Cavaliers for John Henson and Brandon Knight (neither of whom were staples of Cleveland's rotation), as well as a second-round pick.
"They dumped him," The Action Network's Matt Moore wrote at the time. "They straight up dumped Andre Drummond. They put Drummond out there like you did with your futon when you were moving out of your college apartment after graduation."
The ability to avoid Drummond's next contract appears to be the motivating factor of the deal. He's shown better passing chops in recent years, but he's still way behind the curve in terms of the skills expected of bigs these days.
Still, Drummond is one of the greatest rebounders in NBA history. And just last season, he posted a plus-11.4 net rating swing. If the passing is here to stay, he can still be helpful. But it will be interesting to see how teams gauge his value this offseason (assuming he opts out).
87. Hassan Whiteside, Portland Trail Blazers
The change of scenery has revitalized Hassan Whiteside. He has registered his best box plus/minus since 2015-16, as well as career highs in both offensive box plus/minus and true shooting percentage.
His plus-10.5 net rating swing is, by far, the best he's ever posted. Now, some will quickly point out how many minutes Whiteside has spent with Damian Lillard, and that's fair. But Whiteside has helped the superstar point guard, too.
In addition to his 16.3 points, 14.2 rebounds and league-leading 3.1 blocks in just 31.3 minutes per game, Portland has outscored opponents by 3.6 points per 100 possessions when Whiteside has been on the floor with Lillard. When Lillard has been on the floor without Whiteside, the Blazers have been outscored by 3.2 points per 100 possessions.
86. Lou Williams, Los Angeles Clippers
Human bucket Lou Williams will be torching twine long after he files for social security. The aesthetics of his offense are timeless: Give him room and watch him barbecue defenders with an endless array of fakes, wide crossovers, scoop layups, nonchalant-looking pull-up jumpers and floaters.
Little about Williams changes from year to year, including this one. His game wants for a smidgen more efficiency, and he still gives zero Fs about playing defense, but his pick-and-roll and scoring artistry dazzle in perpetuity.
Lowering his rank relative to the preseason is mostly a matter of splitting hairs. The margin of separation is so, so very thin outside the top 35.
Williams' slight reduction in prominence accounts for the difference. As the talent around him has increased, his scoring output per 36 minutes and crunch-time usage have fallen from last year's watermarks. Los Angeles' offense is likewise less of a powerhouse when Williams runs the show without another primary option on the court—a stark departure from last year's performance.
85-81: Allen, Covington, Oubre, Turner, Horford
85. Jarrett Allen, Brooklyn Nets
DeAndre Jordan's arrival never portended anything good for Jarrett Allen. Could he improve and endear himself to the long-term future of the Nets with a Kevin Durant- and Kyrie Irving-approved addition behind him?
The answer is, predictably, complicated.
Allen's minutes are down, and Jordan was immediately inserted into the starting five following head coach Kenny Atkinson's departure. This development is troubling for obvious reasons. Allen's strengths are Jordan's strengths—screen-setting, rim-running, paint protection—only he's younger and better in a few, if not all, of their shared areas of expertise.
More troubling, though, is Allen's lack of development elsewhere. His three-point experiment is done, and he doesn't have any self-sustenance to his arsenal. After converting 44.9 percent of his hook shots last season, he's down to 40.9 percent now.
Jordan doesn't have a broader reach, but he is the better passer. And whereas Allen can vanish on occasion, Jordan is more of an offensive constant.
This doesn't make DJ the superior player overall. He doesn't crack our top 100 for a reason. Allen is the far more portable defender of the two. He may get outmuscled down low, but he has the side-to-side amble to neutralize threats in space. All of that said, Allen is clinging to top-100 status himself. That won't change unless he improves in the areas he has control over—specifically the depth of his offensive bag.
84. Robert Covington, Houston Rockets
Last year's right knee injury may have stolen a morsel of Robert Covington's defensive inevitability, but that's it. He is still one of the league's most versatile and committed stoppers with an approach that exists in service of the entire team.
Transitioning into a full-time power forward who moonlights at center (since arriving in Houston) has looked good on him. His rebounding is up to the task, and the Rockets are at their stingiest when he partners with P.J. Tucker on the frontline.
Finite offense will always prevent Covington from being viewed in a more esteemed light. What few shots he takes inside the arc tend to come at the rim, an ideal profile for someone who works exclusively without the ball.
But when your value is so soundly married to your floor-spacing, a below-average long-range clip—34.9 percent for the year; 35.7 percent in Houston—doesn't quite wow. And though Covington makes up some of that gap in transition, his offense is overdue for another postseason test before he can vault closer to top-50 territory.
83. Kelly Oubre Jr., Phoenix Suns
The 2019-20 campaign has marked a breakout for 24-year-old Kelly Oubre Jr. He's raised his scoring average in each of his five NBA seasons, peaking at 18.7 with the Phoenix Suns.
His three-point percentage (35.2) is just shy of the league average on a steady diet of 5.5 attempts per game.
And even with those marks on the offensive side of the floor, Oubre's greatest value may be derived from his defensive ability. His length and athleticism allow him to cover multiple positions. His tenacity leads to being second on the team in rebounds per game (6.4) and first in total rebounds.
Overall, the Suns' defensive rating has been 2.8 points per 100 possessions better when he's on the floor, though the team still defends at a below-average level. When he shares the floor with another switchy wing in Mikal Bridges, though, Phoenix's defensive rating jumps to the 67th percentile.
82. Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers
Indiana underutilizes Myles Turner at the offensive end. He has the mobile handle to attack from face-up sets and is crafty enough in the post but is instead consigned to role-player duty. More than half of his shots are coming on spot-up jumpers, and his touches are way down from last season even though he's playing more minutes.
That role simplification is equally necessary and unideal. Everyone has wanted Turner to up his three-point volume for the sake of easing the fit with Domantas Sabonis. He's done that; a career-high 44.3 percent of his attempts are coming from beyond the arc.
But he's downing those looks, many of which are wide-open, at a 33.6 percent clip, and his timing without the ball needs work. Too many possessions end with him aimlessly occupying the same(ish) space as Sabonis.
On the bright side, Turner's defensive captaincy is steadfast. He doesn't match up pound-for-pound with hulkier bigs, but he's a pesky helper and rim deterrent. And while his workload on the perimeter varies by opponent, he has the twitchy bendiness to make dynamic creators sweat on switches.
81. Al Horford, Philadelphia 76ers
For years, the notion that Al Horford was playing out of position as a center for the Atlanta Hawks just sort of floated around the ether of NBA fandom. When finally moved to power forward, it became abundantly clear that he is indeed a 5.
This experiment may have made a bit more sense three or four years ago, but Horford's age (34) and the continuing evolution toward positionless basketball have simply made him too slow and interior-oriented to play power forward.
Yes, Horford has shown an ability to hit threes, though he's at just 33.7 percent this season, but he still has a propensity to work inside. And it's fair to wonder if his career-high volume from three has contributed to the decline in efficiency.
When he's been on the floor with Embiid and Ben Simmons, it's simply been too congested inside the three-point line.
He has played nearly 1,000 minutes at the 5, though, and he's looked more like his old self there. In those alignments, he's averaged 17.7 points, 8.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks per 75 possessions.
80-76: Hardaway, Fournier, Green, Ingles, Jackson
80. Tim Hardaway Jr, Dallas Mavericks
Hardaway isn't the only reason for that difference, but an elite floor-spacer, which is exactly what his 40.7 three-point percentage says he is this season, is what Dallas should surround Luka with.
All year, when Luka has kicked it out or around the perimeter, Hardaway has been keyed in and ready to cast off. He's fifth in total catch-and-shoot points and has a 63.7 effective field-goal percentage on those shots.
79. Evan Fournier, Orlando Magic
For a team that has a bottom-10 offense, Evan Fournier has been a life preserver. He and Nikola Vucevic are the only Orlando Magic players with above-average offensive box plus/minuses. He's second on the team in scoring (18.8) and first in threes per game (2.7).
And Fournier isn't just a catch-and-shoot option, either. He's done plenty of damage off the dribble. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Khris Middleton, Kemba Walker, James Harden, Damian Lillard and Chris Paul are the only players in the league who have matched or exceeded his field-goal attempts (352) and effective field-goal percentage (50.6) on pull-up attempts this season.
78. Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
The 2019-20 season has undoubtedly been a downturn for Draymond Green. His per-game averages of 8.0 points, 6.2 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 1.4 steals and 0.8 blocks still present a picture of a versatile point forward, but his efficiency has been abysmal.
He's shooting 46.5 percent from two-point range and 27.9 percent from three. His woeful 48.9 true shooting percentage is the worst mark he's posted since his rookie campaign in 2012-13.
Turns out, it helps to have Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson around.
Still, Green's all-around game has been a boon on a roster that has featured plenty of contributors who might have been in the G League under normal circumstances.
When he's been on the floor, the Golden State Warriors' net rating has been 4.2 points per 100 possessions better. Their effective field-goal percentage has gone up two points, which is a credit to his playmaking because his shooting certainly hasn't provided that bump.
And most impressive, the defense has actually been average and surrendered 5.8 fewer points per 100 possessions when Green has been on the floor.
77. Joe Ingles, Utah Jazz
He may be categorized as a small forward, but Joe Ingles has functionally been the point guard of the Utah Jazz's Quin Snyder era.
That's tied largely to the fact that he's been with the team as long as Snyder, but during this partnership, Ingles' 1,695 assists almost double No. 2 on the list. His assist percentage over the same span trails only Ricky Rubio and Trey Burke among all Jazz players.
He's gotten plenty of credit as a shooter over the course of his career, but Ingles' passing and feel for the game out of pick-and-rolls really drive his value.
He's generally been a solid perimeter defender, as well. He doesn't possess the same vertical and lateral athleticism as other wings, but he has solid size (6'7", 226 lbs), competes and is almost always in the right place on his rotations.
Put it all together and it should be relatively easy to see why Ingles is having another high-impact season despite averaging just 9.8 points. On the season, the Jazz have been plus-5.9 points per 100 possessions with Ingles on the floor and minus-1.2 with him off.
76. Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies
You're in no way alone if Jaren Jackson Jr.'s sophomore effort hasn't blown you away. His fouling and rebounding remain issues, and for all the positionless tools he sports, he doesn't yet look the part of someone who can lock horns with opposing centers. Memphis allows 113.4 points per 100 possessions (34th percentile) and struggles to keep offenses away from the rim with him at the 5.
Still, the Grizzlies have far worse outcomes than a version of Jackson that can't sponge up heavy minutes at center. He has the lateral mobility to hang with contemporary 4s; this isn't the San Antonio Spurs trying to prolong LaMarcus Aldridge's time at power forward.
It makes more sense to trumpet Jackson's offensive progress. His three-point-attempt rate has more than doubled from his rookie season while his efficiency spiked by nearly four percentage points. Only six other players who have logged at least 500 minutes are shooting as well from deep (39.7 percent) on eight-plus attempts per 36 minutes: Davis Bertans, Cameron Johnson, Danilo Gallinari, Paul George, Georges Niang and Karl-Anthony Towns.
Jackson's range and volume are supreme luxuries on the frontline. Letting so many threes rip is a sure-fire way to ensure he has no trouble playing power forward, and it opens up the floor for his guards. Concern for his defensive progress is fine, but his long-range touch—which he couples with a fair-weather ability to put the ball on the floor, albeit in slow motion—gives way to a matchup-proof quality that cannot be undersold.
75-71: Isaac, Tucker, Gordon, Wood, Beverley
75. Jonathan Isaac, Orlando Magic
Jonathan Isaac would've earned much higher placement if not for a left knee injury that might end his season. Thirty-two appearances isn't a lot, but it's enough to reinforce that he—not Aaron Gordon, nor Markelle Fulz, nor Mo Bamba—is Orlando's future.
One-man defensive systems have that effect. Isaac is a hellfire draw for any big or wing. His length is ubiquitous in passing lanes, and he can simultaneously guard the big and ball-handler in pick-and-rolls.
Getting off jumpers with him in the vicinity is a chore. He ranks in the top seven of both short and long mid-range shots despite missing more than half the season, according to PBP Stats. His length is equally imposing closer to the basket. Opponents are shooting 51.4 percent against him at the rim, a top-11 mark among 67 players challenging at least four point-blank looks per games.
Future Defensive Player of the Year candidacy is absolutely in play, if not inevitable, for Isaac. The Magic need only be concerned about his offense. The odds of him developing a serviceable floor game are slim, and he doesn't yet have enough spacing around him to get more bites as the roll man. If he doesn't hone his three-point shot, then Isaac, like Orlando itself, will be up against an artificial ceiling.
74. PJ Tucker, Houston Rockets
Has PJ Tucker ever missed a corner three? Asking for a friend.
Tucker is the player every contender—and wannabe contender—lusts after: a low-usage shooter and defensive tryhard with positional range that contradicts his size. It isn't enough that he was already the Rockets' most valuable individual stopper on the wings. In the aftermath of Clint Capela's injury and eventual departure, they've made Tucker their de facto center.
Living up to that job description isn't easy, period. It is an even more unreasonable ask for a 6'5" 35-year-old who has made a career out of absorbing the toll attached to playing consistent, unyielding physical defense.
And Tucker, for the record, is not some panacea in the middle. Houston's defense ranks in the 34th percentile of points allowed per 100 possessions when he's manning the middle. Sticking him next to Robert Covington has helped quite a bit, but there will always be a functional trade-off to playing sooo small, and it'll usually manifest most on the glass.
Nevertheless, Tucker's value isn't exclusively tied to defensive returns. It is more so grounded in the freedom he provides the Rockets. They are the best version of themselves because he can switch from chasing wings to rumbling with bigs. Russell Westbrook, in particular, probably never completes his midseason turnaround without Houston diving into microball—an option the team only ever had because of Tucker.
73. Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic
Aaron Gordon's offensive arc has unfolded like a career-long identity crisis. Is he a big? A wing? Can he shoot? Handle the ball?
Definitive answers have yet to be provided—not flattering ones, anyway. Gordon's role has varied. And while he's still most likely best suited as a finisher out of the pick-and-roll and in transition, the Magic have steered him closer to the wing end of the spectrum. They have few alternatives and, thus, no choice.
This isn't always the best look for anyone involved. Gordon isn't efficient on drives or when pulling up off the bounce. But he has started to find his way as a playmaker. Head coach Steve Clifford recently saddled him with more pick-and-roll initiation, and he's responded by averaging 5.0 assists—and 8.3 potential assists—over his past 25 games.
The Magic won't soon trot out Gordon without another setup man. But his improving feel for facilitation diversifies an otherwise humdrum offense. And if his standstill three-point clip holds—39.3 percent over this 25-game stretch—Orlando will have one of the league's hotter commodities on its hands: a playmaking defensive difference-maker with usable outside touch.
72. Christian Wood, Detroit Pistons
The temptation to vault Christian Wood higher is real real. He epitomizes the in vogue center, someone who is a presence on the glass, swats the occasional shot, strokes triples and even puts the ball on the floor. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Serge Ibaka and Kristaps Porzingis are the only other players clearing 20 points, 10 rebounds, one block and one three-point make per 36 minutes.
Sample size takes something away from Wood's year in review, but not much. It isn't his fault that Pistons head coach Dwane Casey stuck with Thon Maker for so long, or that he didn't enter the starting lineup until after the Andre Drummond trade. That Wood's per-game numbers since getting more burn have closely reflected his per-minute output is a big deal.
Detroit will need to worry about its defense if he's the man in the middle, though. Wood, an Early Bird free agent after this year, can cover a lot of ground, but he's easily led astray off the ball, and opponents are unafraid to attack the basket when he's jumping center.
Offensive variety is still enough to get him by even if he doesn't shore up his defense. He is at home squaring up for set triples, running into quick catch-and-launch looks, slipping to the baskets off screens, beating closeouts off the dribble and driving baseline. He has even flashed more advanced playmaking chops, increasing the frequency with which he finds shooters while on the move.
71. Patrick Beverley, Los Angeles Clippers
Patrick Beverley continues to be the gold standard for superstar cohorts. Few players are as universally translatable. Even fewer are point guards.
Would it be nice if Beverley could negotiate half-court defenses with an off-the-dribble jumper? Or protect the ball better out of the pick-and-roll? Or finish a little more consistently, and frequently, at the rim? Without question. But there is serious value in someone who has lasted at a ball-dominating position by doing just the opposite.
Over half of his field-goal attempts come as spot-up threes, which he's converting at a nearly 40 percent clip. He can wreak a little havoc when attacking downhill but doesn't command a predetermined number of touches or shots. He plays offense without ego.
It is quite the contrary at the other end.
Beverley is a defensive workaholic, and he knows it. And he will let you know it, too. His reputation as a star-stopper neighbors on myth, but someone so emotionally invested in the outcome of every possession, whose motor will never be the least bit tied to his offensive usage, provides inestimable value.
70-66: Murray, Hield, Schroder, Valanciunas, Graham
70. Dejounte Murray, San Antonio Spurs
Dejounte Murray's return from a torn right ACL that cost him all of last season has not exactly unfurled according to plan. His strengths are as sturdy as ever. He is a terrifyingly talented rebounder for a guard and hasn't lost a step on defense. The nights he does get torched are evidence only of the difficult assignments he draws.
Things aren't as rosy on the offensive end. Murray seems more comfortable putting up jumpers and is shooting well on long twos (47.0 percent) and threes (37.8 percent). But these looks come neither in volume nor haste. He needs time to get them off and still hasn't aggressively plumbed his off-the-dribble jumper.
San Antonio's offense remains solvable when Murray is on the court. Defenses go under him, and he doesn't have the speed to make them pay off the bounce or the nerve to uncork enough jumpers. He complicates matters with spotty playmaking. He has a tough time capitalizing on pick-and-roll coverage and turns the ball over a ton in transition.
To what end Murray's limited offensive growth falls on him is debatable. The Spurs' spacing is far from pristine, and DeMar DeRozan's usage caps the influence he has over the team, both as a scorer and table-setter—not to mention his exposure to Derrick White.
For now, at least, San Antonio can count his return as a win. Murray's defensive nose remains intact, and better efficiency from the perimeter, even at minimal volume, isn't nothing.
69. Buddy Hield, Sacramento Kings
Prior to this season, Stephen Curry (four times) and Steve Novak were the only players in league history with seasons in which they matched or exceeded Buddy Hield's 2019-20 marks for threes per 75 possessions (4.4) and three-point percentage (39.5).
Even in today's three-happy game, that kind of volume and efficiency generally isn't found in the same player. Hield may be making a habit of it.
On a roster as young as the Sacramento Kings', Hield has been a steady source of offense, particularly from behind the arc. The next step is getting to the line a bit more. But in the meantime, his shooting out of any situation makes him a dangerous weapon.
68. Dennis Schroder, Oklahoma City Thunder
Dennis Schroder is having perhaps the best season of his career in 2019-20. He's just a shade under his career-best box plus/minus, but he's easily cleared his career highs in effective field-goal percentage and threes per 75 possessions.
He's also been a key component in one of the game's best lineups. When the Oklahoma City Thunder have fielded their three-guard attack of Schroder, Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, they have outscored opponents by an eye-popping 31.4 points per 100 possessions, a net rating that ranks in the 100th percentile.
And we're not dealing with some minuscule sample here. That group has shared the floor for 850 possessions.
They have managed to dominate opponents by exploiting a part of the floor many now ignore. CP3, Schroder and SGA are first, 12th and 24th, respectively, in two-pointers made from 10 feet and out. And all three are shooting at least 44.8 percent from that range (CP3 and SGA are both over 50 percent).
Schroder's ability to beat his initial defender off the bounce and hit pull-ups before meeting the rim protector has done wonders for his efficiency, and his 6'8" wingspan has allowed him to defend multiple positions in those guard-heavy lineups.
67. Jonas Valanciunas, Memphis Grizzlies
Jonas Valanciunas is navigating center's new world order just fine. The three-point shot he's tested over the past few seasons is a big part of it. He's hitting 36.7 percent of his triples on a career-high 1.7 attempts per 36 minutes, allowing Memphis to leverage him as both a roller and popper.
Barreling his way toward the hoop remains one of Valanciunas' greatest strengths. His screens stop players dead in their tracks, and he's averaging a whopping 1.24 points per possession as the roll man (74th percentile).
Defenders are still liable to look like puny humans when he goes to work down low. He is both hefty and handy: light on his feet, heavy with his shoulders. He's one of 10 players shooting better than 50 percent on at least three post-ups per game.
Merging the traditional with the neoteric wouldn't mean much if Valanciunas couldn't hang on defense. He can. He's not matchup-proof, but his rotations around the basket are on point enough that he's a net-plus back-line stopper when playing beside rangier 4s. Memphis has maintained an above-average defense in the time he's spent next to Brandon Clarke or Jaren Jackson Jr.—nothing if not a ringing endorsement of Valanciunas' capacity to survive the ongoing frontcourt revolution.
66. Devonte' Graham, Charlotte Hornets
Devonte' Graham is mission-critical to what the Hornets do. His off-the-dribble volume is the point of origin for everyone else's opportunities. Charlotte's offense opens up at all because defenses respect his pull-up jumper and the burst he shows going left.
Efficiency is the cost of that import.
Graham is shooting under 40 percent on twos overall and below 50 percent at the rim (11th percentile). His three-point clip has suffered after a strong start; he's at 33.3 percent from beyond the arc since the middle of December. It is clear, often painfully so, that he's being overstretched in his role. His is a game best deployed as a potent complement to an actual star. Charlotte has him running the whole damn show.
Forgiving Graham's struggles is relatively easy under these circumstances. His shots serve a purpose. The Hornets' offensive rating improves by 11.3 points per 100 possessions, and their effective field-goal percentage jumps by 4.3 points with him on the floor—impressively huge swings that both rank in the top six among all players who have cleared at least 500 minutes.
65-61: Rose, Bogdanovic, Harris, Barton, Rubio
65. Derrick Rose, Detroit Pistons
Injuries have once again put a damper on Derrick Rose's season—hip and ankle issues are the culprits this time—but not before he reestablished himself as one of the NBA's most potent offensive weapons.
Only seven players are averaging more downhill attacks per game, a feat made all the more impressive knowing he sees substantially fewer minutes than all of them. He will never draw fouls like he did at the beginning of his career—his takeoff origins are too inconsistent and often angling away from contact—but he's shooting 64 percent around the rim (76th percentile).
Most important of all, defenses are reacting to the results: 18.1 points and 5.6 assists per game.
His three-point shot remains a wart, but his finishing at the basket and mid-range game command respect. The disorder he creates on the move is Detroit's shot-quality lifeline. Luka Doncic, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook are the only players who have assisted on more corner threes, per PBP Stats, and the Pistons' offensive rating improves by 4.3 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor (83rd percentile).
64. Bojan Bogdanovic, Utah Jazz
Joining the Utah Jazz has uncomplicated Bojan Bogdanovic's offensive utility. They have him run the occasional pick-and-roll and mix in an iso here and there, but he otherwise exists to open up the floor and alleviate the burden placed upon Donovan Mitchell.
Well, mission accomplished.
Bogdanovic is one of six non-bigs averaging more than 20 points per game with a true shooting percentage above 60. His company: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Devin Booker, James Harden, Damian Lillard and Khris Middleton.
Last year's Indiana Pacers team leaned on Bogdanovic for from-scratch offense in the aftermath of Victor Oladipo's ruptured right quad. Though he tackled the task admirably, that was always an overextension of his skill set. He is more in his wheelhouse with the Jazz as a play-finisher.
More than 20 percent of his offensive possessions come as spot-ups, on which he owns an effective field-goal percentage of 58.4—a top-10 mark among everyone who has gotten off at least 200 field-goal attempts in these situations. He's also shooting a rock-solid 45.4 percent on 9.1 drives per game.
Occasional returns to self-creation separate Bogdanovic from other accessory scorers. He shouldn't really be the focal point of any lineup, but he can get to his desired spots coming around screens and is putting in 39.4 percent of his pull-up three-pointers.
Utah's playoff stock now needs Mike Conley to be Mike Conley more than ever. Bogdanovic underwent season-ending surgery to repair a right wrist injury, and without him, the Jazz are in the same predicament they found themselves in last year: absent a decided No. 2.
63. Tobias Harris, Philadelphia 76ers
Evaluating Tobias Harris' season against the five-year, $180 million max deal he signed over the offseason would be unfair to him. He isn't playing up to that contract, but the Sixers aren't paying him to. Last year's market gave him leverage. Philly's still-mysterious breakup with Jimmy Butler gave him more.
Harris actually has performed up to snuff following a rocky start to the year. He's averaging 20.0 points and 3.1 points while swishing 39.1 percent of his threes since Nov. 15.
For all the Sixers' offensive clumpiness, they've fared quite well when Harris sets up shop at power forward—lineup combinations they have at the same time fielded more than you think and not nearly enough. (Translation: What is Al Horford doing in Philly?) His defense has also been pleasantly solid, even relative to the less-squirmy assignments he pulls by seeing so much time between some combination of Josh Richardson, Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle.
If Harris is guilty of anything, it's of not being Jimmy Butler. He doesn't foment the same defensive discord when working off the dribble and, by extension, cannot lug the burden of an entire half-court offense for long stretches or during crunch time. His job is made that much harder by the Sixers' wonky roster construction. That he's not higher is on his limitations as a three-level scorer, and on Philly for not putting him in a better spot.
62. Will Barton, Denver Nuggets
Kitchen-sink metrics are love, love, loving Will Barton's season. He grades out as a fringe top-50 player when looking at his average rank across six catch-alls. That clearly overestimates his impact, but it also isn't flat-out egregious.
Lineup composition accounts for some of Barton's advanced-stat good fortune, particularly as it pertains to his defense.
He keeps his fouls in check, and opponents have shot just 14-of-37 against him in isolation (38.0 percent), but Gary Harris usually spares him from covering the toughest wing assignment. And more than that, he's constantly on the floor with the rest of the Denver Nuggets' best players. As Jared Dubin wrote for FiveThirtyEight in December:
"Barton contributes at a considerably above-average level across a wide variety of categories on both offense and defense, and crucially, he’s doing so almost exclusively in the context of really good lineups. He’s been on the floor for 1,778 possessions this season, per PBPStats.com, and of those possessions, he has had at least three of Denver’s four other regular starters alongside him for 1,402 of them—a rate of 78.9 percent. That may not make Barton the eighth-'best' player in the NBA, but it does shed light on why a plus-minus statistic like RAPTOR thinks so highly of his contributions this season."
The statistical dap Barton keeps receiving isn't all due to convenience. He's been huge for the Nuggets. After a right hip injury bilked much of his offensive mojo last season, he's back to capitalizing on life as the third wheel to Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray.
Way more of Barton's looks are coming at the rim (35 percent) relative to 2018-19 (28 percent). His finishing around the basket isn't great (41st percentile), and he doesn't draw a ton of shooting fouls, but he's a reliable playmaker off the ball. His 1.22 points per spot-up possession rank in the 90th percentile, and he's converted 86.8 percent of his scoring opportunities off cuts (33-of-38). Denver can largely count on him to make the right pass when attacking closeouts.
Doing a little in a lot of different areas adds up. Gordon Hayward, Brandon Ingram, Kevin Love, Khris Middleton and Karl-Anthony Towns are the only other players averaging over 15 points, three assists and six rebounds while knocking down at least 37 percent of their threes.
61. Ricky Rubio, Phoenix Suns
Ricky Rubio has lent a sense of two-way steadiness to the oft-wayward Suns. His inclination to push the ball keeps teammates hustling in transition, he's one of the league's best set passers, and Phoenix's rollers and cutters work that much harder knowing he'll find them. That he promises a measure of consistent backcourt defense is no less indispensable.
Like always, though, Rubio's limitations come back to haunt him. His three-point clip is actually benefiting from a late-season boom, but he remains a non-threat to score off the dribble.
Dubious range and passive shot volume make it difficult for him to headline lineups without another primary option. Plopping him beside a cast of players with finite floor games themselves during those minutes only exacerbates the issue. The Suns are finding out firsthand. They rank in the 2nd percentile of points scored per 100 possessions when he plays without Devin Booker.
60-56: Favors, Harrell, Lopez, Adams, Ball
60. Derrick Favors, New Orleans Pelicans
Derrick Favors is easy to miss among bigs with more bedecked offensive tricks. His three-point volume and efficiency never took off, and mid-range jumpers have been almost entirely weeded out of his arsenal over the past two seasons. Playing him can come at an opportunity cost if the offense doesn't have the spacing to milk his rolls to the basket or the flexibility to let him hunt second-chance points.
New Orleans has done a nice job of establishing his fit, even when he plays with Zion Williamson at the 4. The team's guards ceaselessly push the ball in transition, and putting pressure on the rim is of the utmost importance. And it works.
The Pelicans are fortunate it does. They can't afford not to play Favors. The same was true for the Utah Jazz. It would remain true if he were part of another team. His defensive presence is tone-setting. He is a back-line quarterback, and what he lacks in the fast-twitch department, he makes up for with court awareness.
Targeting Favors on switches is seldom an effective ploy. He stays in front of ball-handlers, won't bite on head-fakes and has the lateral gait to remain attached at the hip when they do put their heads down.
It is no accident New Orleans went from 26th in defensive efficiency through its first 25 games while Favors was dealing with injuries to eighth since. Other players face tougher assignments—mainly on the wings—but he is the backbone that keeps the half-court integrity intact.
59. Montrezl Harrell, Los Angeles Clippers
Relentless is the word that best encapsulates Montrezl Harrell's court presence. He is neither an exceptional rebounder nor rim protector, but his game knows only one gear: light speed.
Harrell will out-talent few of his opponents. He'll outwork almost all of them. His pick-and-roll synergy with Lou Williams is well-documented, but his finishing has more layers than that two-man connection. He will bruise his way to buckets in the post on one possession and then finagle his way to the basket, off the dribble, on the next.
Someone who checks in at 6'7" shouldn't be so apt at getting through and over bigger opponents. Harrell merges force with finesse in a way defenses can't quite contain. And the surety with which he carries himself—he isn't shy about finishing plays while logging time beside superstars and primary ball-handlers galore—has secured his transition from a per-minute superhero to a higher-volume, per-game weapon.
To wit: Antetokounmpo and Jokic are the only other players averaging more than 18 points while shooting better than 59 percent on twos. Harrell's scoring opportunities are more elementary than theirs in the macro but no less overwhelming.
58. Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks
Brook Lopez is so much more than his missed wide-open threes. And make no mistake: He's missing a bunch of wide-open threes. Among 126 players who have attempted at least 100 triples with a defender six or more feet away, his 29.2 percent clip ranks...124th.
Volume and reputation help Lopez's floor-spacing value. He has made threes at a higher rate in the past and takes enough of them that defenses are drawn outside the paint. He mitigates his shaky shooting even further by peppering in some nifty drives. He has the handle to get around opposing bigs without an up-fake, and the in-between touch to put down looks on the move.
Post-ups also remain a reliable part of his bag. He's averaging 1.08 points per possession in these situations (87th percentile). Functionally, then, he's still a threat from all over the floor.
Lopez's defensive utility takes care of the rest. If he's not matchup-proof, he's pretty damn close. Where many of the switchiest bigs depend on side-to-side burst, he uses wide, low-to-the-ground stances.
Smaller, quicker ball-handlers are hard-pressed to get around his length, and he is a case-specific virtuoso. The amount of space he leaves between face-up scorers varies by a player's strength—his speed, his outside touch, his willingness to pull up off the dribble, etc.
When being challenged by Lopez at the rim, opponents are shooting 46.9 percent—a top-three mark among 67 players who defend at least four such looks per game. Rival offenses are getting to the basket less and taking more of their shots from mid-range with him on the floor, a direct result of his capability in space.
Demanding he receive Defensive Player of the Year consideration goes a touch too far, but over the past two seasons, Lopez has indeed entrenched himself as one of the league's most impactful defenders.
57. Steven Adams, Oklahoma City Thunder
Steven Adams doesn't get the usage of old-school bigs, but everything else about him screams throwback.
He's resisted the three-point revolution. He's a banger on the boards. And he doesn't need credit for team success, even though the Oklahoma City Thunder's net rating is 2.7 points better when he's on the floor.
His 10.9 points, 9.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.1 blocks and 0.9 steals per game might sound modest, but that has at least a little to do with his playing time. Per 75 possessions, he has produced 14.8 points, 12.7 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.5 blocks and 1.2 steals. His 3.2 box plus/minus ranks 25th in the NBA, regardless of position.
This is where advanced numbers come in handy. Adams, despite his lack of a jump shot and highlight-reel handles, has an impact on games as wide as his shoulders. He does a bit of everything. And his basketball IQ makes him an ideal gap-filler.
"I [don't] think people know how smart he is," former teammate Enes Kanter said of Adams, per Forbes' Nick Crain. "I think he is one of the most influential, educated and smart people. He is probably the smartest basketball player I have ever played with or against."
Adams always appears to be in the right place on the defensive end. He's a good roller in half-court sets, with a points-per-possession average that ranks in the 79th percentile on those plays, even without the top-of-the-backboard athleticism of players like Jarrett Allen or a prime DeAndre Jordan.
He isn't likely to threaten for an All-Star selection, but Adams may be this position's quintessential glue guy.
56. Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans
Putting Lonzo Ball outside the top 50 feels wrong—not indefensible, but a little off. He turned a corner at the end of December and hasn't looked back. His averages across that 31-game stretch: 14.2 points, 7.3 rebounds, 8.5 assists and 1.6 steals, which he's amassing while downing 41.0 percent of his threes.
And yet, what Ball does for the Pelicans goes way beyond his numbers.
He is their offensive intercessor, the playmaker most adept at negotiating everyone's fit next to one another. New Orleans needs someone who defaults to pass-first alongside so many ball-handlers and questionable shooters. Ball keeps the transition attack humming and everyone else's time of possession in proportion to the rest of the lineup.
His significance is perhaps most telltale in the partnership he's forged with Zion Williamson. Forget that Ball has assisted on almost one-third of the rookie's baskets. The Pelicans seldom dare to play Zion without him. More than 73 percent of the possessions he's logged have come beside Ball, the ideal intermediary for anyone who, as of now, isn't in the business of creating his own shots beyond putbacks.
55-51: Ibaka, Smart, DeRozan, Millsap, Love
55. Serge Ibaka, Toronto Raptors
The evolution of Serge Ibaka probably tracks pretty close to that of the center position, generally. Over his first three seasons, he attempted just six threes. Over his first six seasons, he averaged 0.7 three-point attempts and a league-leading 2.6 blocks.
In 2019-20, Ibaka is averaging a career-high 16.0 points and hitting 39.8 percent of 3.3 three-point attempts per game. For the first time in his career, he has produced less than a block per game.
Ibaka is a completely different player than he was at the outset of his career. And his ability to space the floor from the 5 opens up the paint for slashing from players like Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam.
When all three are on the floor, the Raptors outscore opponents by 8.8 points per 100 possessions and post a defensive rating that ranks in the 92nd percentile.
Ibaka is a more offensively oriented player than he was early in his career, but that doesn't mean he can't still defend. In those aforementioned lineups, he and Siakam are both able to cover the inside or switch onto smaller players on the perimeter. Their combined length helps to make up for the lack of size from a backcourt that includes the 6'0" Lowry and 6'1" Fred VanVleet.
54. Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics
Few players embody the argument for advanced stats better than Marcus Smart. For the fifth time in six NBA seasons, he's posting a below-average effective field-goal percentage. He's putting up a career high in scoring, but 13.5 isn't a number that leaps off the screen. Across the board, his basic numbers look relatively modest.
But when you watch the Boston Celtics play, it's abundantly clear that Smart is one of those "does all the little things" guys. He can reliably guard four positions (sometimes five, depending on the opponent). He never takes a play off. He makes smart reads as a playmaker. And he doesn't demand a ton of touches on offense.
That's all been true in 2019-20. Boston's net rating is 0.5 points per 100 possessions better with Smart on the floor.
53. DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs
DeMar DeRozan's net impact is under siege, even more so than it was last summer. His is a distressed value. He does everything deemed most important—initiating offense for both himself and others—but the terms of his engagement are so outmoded that they leave an imprint only under specific circumstances.
The good remains really good. DeRozan is an intuitive scorer and passer out of the pick-and-roll. He can still manipulate defenses with his change of pace, and teams usually fawn over No. 1 options forever under control.
Just seven other players are averaging more than 20 points and five assists while matching DeRozan's true shooting percentage, a list that mostly reads like a who's who of top-25 stars: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Devin Booker, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Nikola Jokic, Damian Lillard and Trae Young.
Not all efficient offense is created equal, though. DeRozan is getting to the rim more often and ranks inside the 99th percentile of shooting foul percentage, but he's still a blemish on his team's spacing.
Almost two-thirds of his field-goal attempts come from mid-range, and the San Antonio Spurs don't even bother having him shoot threes.
Star scorers deserve certain liberties. The mid-range isn't dead so much as readily available only to a select few, DeRozan among them. He creates enough of his own shots and, this season, hits enough of his in-between looks to let them fly.
Building an entire offense around someone who plays this way is still tough. Like three-pointers, mid-range jumpers are high-variance, but with a lower payoff. Living on them is a fragile existence. It is even more tenuous when a team doesn't generate the spacing necessary to ensure those looks are of the best possible quality.
DeRozan wrestled with the slimmest of margins until LaMarcus Aldridge started bombing more threes. And even since then, the Spurs have been 3.7 points per 100 possessions better with him off the floor. (His defense is a problem.)
Certain teams have the requisite shooting to optimize DeRozan. But to what end? Tailoring rosters around floor-raisers is always a nebulous venture, and as the gap between what DeRozan does best and what the league values most continues to widen, his ability to lift up a postseason contender will only wane.
52. Paul Millsap, Denver Nuggets
Paul Millsap's role is nowhere near what it was during his All-Star campaigns with the Atlanta Hawks. He's 35 years old and playing 24.4 minutes per game (his lowest average since 2007-08). He is fifth among Denver Nuggets with 500-plus minutes in usage percentage.
There's no question he's entered a role-player phase of his career, but he's undoubtedly making the most of the playing time he gets.
On the season, Denver is plus-11.1 points per 100 possessions with Millsap on the floor and minus-1.4 with him off, giving him a 12.5-point net rating swing that ranked in the 98th percentile.
He remains a Swiss Army knife of a defender who can bother multiple positions and rebound at a solid rate. And even alongside Nikola Jokic, he posts a solid assist rate for a big.
Put everything together, and Millsap once again finds himself in a small club. Only five players match or exceed his marks for rebounding percentage, assist percentage, block percentage and steal percentage in 2019-20.
Of course, those are rate stats, though. If anything is starting to go for Millsap, it's durability. He only played 38 games in his first season in Denver. And he has had a difficult time staying on the floor this season.
"The biggest mark against him is the missed time," Ryan Blackburn wrote for Denver Stiffs. "The starting power forward only played 41 of a possible 65 games, missing 21 on the season and 16 in a row at one point. That’s difficult for any team to overcome, and in a shortened season, missing roughly one out of every three games makes life difficult on the rest of the team."
The Nuggets have played like legitimate title contenders when Millsap has been on the floor this season. He is the perfect gap filler in lineups with stars like Jokic and Jamal Murray. They just need him to fill those gaps in a few more games.
51. Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers
The 2019-20 campaign has been something of a renaissance for Kevin Love. Last season, he appeared in just 22 games and posted his lowest box plus/minus since 2012-13.
This season, he is averaging 17.6 points, 9.8 rebounds, 3.2 assists and a career-high 2.6 threes in just 31.8 minutes per game. Adjust those numbers for pace and playing time and they jump up to 20.2 points, 11.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 3.0 threes per 75 possessions.
And he has posted those numbers on a team generally dominated by guard play. Collin Sexton leads the team in usage, and Darius Garland and Kevin Porter are above 20 percent. Cleveland were 22nd in potential assists when the season was suspended.
That led to viral moments of frustration like this one, wherein he threw his arms up at Sexton during a possession, demanded the ball, then two-hand chucked it Cedi Osman before stomping toward halfcourt.
In January, though, Love expressed remorse over this and other moments from a difficult season.
"I wasn't acting like a 31-year-old, I was acting like a 13-year-old," Love told reporters. "That was not me."
It remains to be seen whether that was enough to reinvigorate his trade value. Love's current deal takes him through 2022-23, which will be his age-34 season. He's set to make a whopping $91.5 million over those three years.
That's a huge commitment, but a team that fancies itself "one piece away" may look at the last few weeks of Love's 2019-20 and think he's the floor-spacing, solid-passing big who'll put it over the top.
50. LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs
After two decades of dominance, it's been a rough couple of years for the San Antonio Spurs. But as long as LaMarcus Aldridge is on the floor, they still score.
Since the start of the 2018-19 campaign, San Antonio has put up 116.3 points and outscored opponents by 2.0 points per 100 possessions when Aldridge plays without DeMar DeRozan (the Spurs score 112.3 points per 100 possessions and are a minus-1.2 when both share the floor).
When Aldridge is the focal point, the offense generally hums. And that especially became true after he fully embraced the three for the first time in his career.
From Dec. 23 to the start of the hiatus, Aldridge averaged 4.2 three-point attempts per game and shot 41.6 percent from deep. Over the same stretch, the Spurs scored 115.4 points per 100 possessions with Aldridge on the floor and 111.3 with him off.
Becoming a full-blown stretch 5 could add years to Aldridge's career. In the right situation, this newfound willingness to spread the floor could make things easier for the rest of a lineup.
Defensively, Aldridge is posting a career-high 1.6 blocks per game, but the Spurs are terrible on that end when he plays, regardless of whether he's with DeRozan.
Still, if he were surrounded by better perimeter defenders, there's a world in which Aldridge is a very impactful modern 5.
49. Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns
Being the No. 1 pick in a 2018 draft class that included Luka Doncic and Trae Young is a tough hand to be dealt. The chances that Deandre Ayton ever tops the hype surrounding either, especially Doncic, are slim. But if you just judge Ayton on his merits, he's off to a heck of a start.
After a 25-game suspension, he averaged 19.0 points, 12.0 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in 33.2 minutes per game before the hiatus. On the season, the Suns are plus-0.7 points per 100 possessions with Ayton on the floor and minus-2.9 with him off.
His 57.1 true shooting percentage eclipsed the league average, but not by much. That's likely the next frontier for Ayton. More trips to the line would help. A player with his size (6'11", 250 lbs) and athleticism shouldn't be averse to contact.
He could use some work on defense, as well, but the Suns' defensive rating is better when he plays. And the nearly two blocks per game is nothing to sneeze at. Ayton is already a sturdier anchor than many projected he'd be by his second year, but he doesn't strike fear into opposing slashers.
Of course, for a sophomore, this is almost nitpicky. What Ayton's done with the start of his career is unusual. Tim Duncan, Blake Griffin, Shaquille O'Neal and Towns are the only players in league history to match or exceed his career averages for points (17.1) and rebounds (10.8) through an age-21 season.
48. Malcolm Brogdon, Indiana Pacers
Malcolm Brogdon's first season with the Indiana Pacers began with a wave of exceeded expectations. The dribble penetration that shone so bright with the Milwaukee Bucks was in full bloom, only it looked much more impressive coming amid skimpier spacing and at higher volume. He was hitting threes, unloading a spruced-up off-the-dribble two and dropping dimes to teammates against defenses he himself scrambled.
Some of these good vibes have persisted.
He's hitting 50.3 percent of his pull-up twos for the season, and even as the speed at which he probes has gone down, his dribble drives continue to create opportunities for orbiting shooters and those hovering closer to the basket. But injuries have given way to inconsistency, and it can be tough to watch. As Indy Cornrows' Caitlin Cooper noted on the Hardwood Knocks podcast:
"His drives dropped quite a bit. His free-throw attempts bottomed out. His free-throw percentage dropped by a pretty big margin as well. And you noticed that he didn't really look like he was moving super well on either end of the floor. He's not a great point of attack to defender to begin with, but even when he was off the ball and had to help to the nail, he just looked stiff and brittle. Maybe this [quad] injury that he has, I don't know if that was something that was bothering him before, or what was going on.
"But obviously, his three-point shot hasn't necessarily carried over from Milwaukee either. He's down in the low 30s overall, and he's taking tougher threes—more pull-up threes and more contested threes as a product of no longer being a spot-up guy next to Giannis [Antetokounmpo] anymore. And [Victor] Oladipo isn't really there to generate that type of gravity."
Writing off Brogdon's midseason spiral as the offshoot of injury woes is fair. Whiffing on contested, off-the-bounce three-pointers is one thing. Missing higher-quality looks is more problematic. Brogdon is finding nylon on just 31.7 percent of his catch-and-shoot triples and hitting only 28.8 percent of his wide-open long balls—the second-worst mark among 126 players who have attempted at least 100 uncontested threebies.
Indiana needs him to knock down those looks to facilitate the fit with Oladipo. Brogdon's hot start, responsibility within the Pacers offense and raw numbers (16.3 points 7.1 assists per game) are enough to float top-50 placement for now, but he's primed for a decline if a cleaner bill of health doesn't render him more of a constant.
47. Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets
Jamal Murray is at the same time an offensive standout and a source of concern for the Denver Nuggets.
Twenty-three-year-old point guards can play with his level of bravado, but few in his age bracket can parlay that bluster into substance. That Murray can transition so effectively from playing off Nikola Jokic to breaking down defenses in the half court is a functional virtue, and he has already shown he can turn the tides of a playoff game.
The importance of his off-the-dribble jumper increases tenfold versus the stingiest defenses and during crunch time in general.
Handing him the offensive keys without Jokic is still touch-and-go. The Nuggets place in the 46th percentile of points scored per 100 possessions when he runs solo—neither terrible nor average. This might say more about the lineups in which he plays during these stretches. Suboptimal spacing is a problem in many of the ancillary combinations.
Denver needn't place too much stock in these Jokic-less returns...yet. Maintaining an average offense without one of the game's seven best offensive engines on the court is supposed to be a chore...for now. But these safety-net caveats won't last forever.
After signing a five-year max extension last July, Murray is about to be paid like a star. The Nuggets don't have clear access to sustained title contention if he doesn't turn into a comparable sidekick for Jokic. Murray has his moments, but those displays aren't yet stasis. He too often disappears in the backdrop. At the very least, he hasn't made an appreciable leap.
Check out his per-36 splits over the past three seasons:
- 2017-18: 19.0 points, 3.8 assists, 57.6 true shooting percentage
- 2018-19: 20.1 points, 5.3 assists, 53.8 true shooting percentage
- 2019-20: 20.6 points, 5.3 assists, 55.9 true shooting percentage
Right down to his shot distribution, Murray looks eerily similar to the player of the past three seasons. And while that's still good enough to scrap for a top-50 billing, a top-50 billing isn't good enough for what Denver's paying him to be.
46. Spencer Dinwiddie, Brooklyn Nets
Spencer Dinwiddie's field-goal percentage, three-point percentage and free-throw percentage have seen fairly significant declines this season. Who knew that D'Angelo Russell was such a safety net?
Still, the Brooklyn Nets muster just 102.5 points per 100 possessions when Dinwiddie is off the floor. For context's sake, the Golden State Warriors' league-worst offense scores 104.9 points per 100 possessions.
When Dinwiddie is in the game, that number has jumped to 111.8, giving him an offensive rating swing that ranks in the 97th percentile.
Despite the inefficiency on his own shots, Dinwiddie's presence on the floor makes things easier for everyone else. He has commanded plenty of defensive attention as the No. 1 option for all but the 20 games Kyrie Irving played and is a willing passer when that attention overwhelms. His career-high 6.8 assists lead the team.
45. D'Angelo Russell, Minnesota Timberwolves
Stephen Curry and James Harden are the only players in NBA history with seasons in which they've matched or exceeded D'Angelo Russell's 2019-20 averages for assists (7.0) and threes (3.9) per 75 possessions.
His ability to drag defenders well outside the three-point line opens things up for teammates with both the Warriors and Minnesota Timberwolves. But it still feels like we've yet to see the fully realized Russell.
Perhaps the pick-and-roll (or, more likely, pick-and-pop) game with he and Karl-Anthony Towns will do the trick. Sure, that same duo is a likely target for opponents on the other end of the floor, but it'll be a nightmare to cover.
Russell has a sub-50 effective field-goal percentage on shots off the dribble this season, but defenses aren't able to load up on him when Towns is the one setting ball screens. And if the guard has his matchup on an island, he'll do plenty of damage.
44. Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls
Zach LaVine's place relative to the rest of the league remains in flux. Someone who clears 25 points per game while nailing nearly 50 percent of his twos and 38 percent of his threes is clearly good, but the degree to which he can impact winning isn't yet known.
Billing him as an empty-calories scorer is more than a touch too bold. LaVine's numbers are not solely the offshoot of unchecked volume. He has meaningful layers to his game.
Anyone who can reliably find nylon on off-the-bounce threes is an asset, and LaVine has drilled 36.4 percent of his pull-up triples on top-15 volume. Junky twos aren't as prevalent in his offensive armory anymore, and he has appreciably increased his point-blank frequency over the past two seasons.
Figuring out whether LaVine's production elevates those around him is where things get tricky. He is fine as a complementary playmaker but overstretched as anything more. And his off-the-bounce triples, while impressive, often seem less necessary and more the result of over-dribbling.
This wouldn't matter if the Chicago Bulls were winning, or if LaVine guaranteed an average offense. They're not, and he doesn't.
Chicago scores nearly four points more per 100 possessions with him on the court (80th percentile), but that jump is still only good for an offensive rating in the 28th percentile. LaVine isn't Devin Booker or Trae Young, two lifelines on losing teams who redefine their offense's ceiling. He's more of a floor-preserver—the kind of player who'd be a lot better off as the Bulls' No. 2.
43. Gordon Hayward, Boston Celtics
Gordon Hayward has finally settled into a new normal following the devastating compound left leg fracture and dislocated left ankle he suffered on opening night of the 2017-18 season. He is both better and more consistent than he was last year, his comfort level perhaps most evident in the ease and frequency with which he dribbles into turnarounds and fadeways that require him to spin or stop on a dime.
At the same time, Hayward is visibly different.
This is not the might-be All-NBA candidate the Boston Celtics signed in 2017. He has never put a ton of pressure on the rim, but he's at least slightly more reserved when attacking from advantageous positions in space. His presence at the foul line was on the modest end to begin with and has since been slashed. He's averaging a career-low 2.7 free throws per 36 minutes.
Moving beyond what Hayward was versus what he is now isn't particularly hard. Boston has been unable to buy time on offense when he plays without Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker, and he's on the books for superstar money, but his shift in status post-injury isn't dire. He's still an effective, efficient player.
Hayward is shooting a remarkable 55.3 percent inside the arc, including 53.6 percent on pull-up two-pointers. He ranks in the 91st percentile of efficiency on spot-up possessions, which account for nearly 20 percent of his offense. When he does get to the rim, he's converting at a 69.0 percent clip (89th percentile).
The Celtics can't expect him to carry entire lineups, but they can count on his two-man game with Daniel Theis, tidy drop-offs to shooters and wicked-fast post entry passes.
Viewed in its totality, Hayward's contribution falls well shy of stardom. His numbers—17.3 points and 4.1 assists per game with a 59.3 true shooting percentage—put him in esteemed company, but neither his responsibility nor volume is the same. It may never be.
That's fine. Because if stardom is off the table, Hayward has already shown he can be the next best thing: high-end support for a championship contender.
42. Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors
Fred VanVleet became a full-time starter this season, and he hasn't disappointed. Beyond the career-high 17.6 points he'saveraging, he shot 38.8 percent from three on 7.0 attempts per game. His 6.6 assists per contest have made him one of the game's top secondary creators as part of the Toronto Raptors' two-point-guard attack.
But what really sets VanVleet apart from the point guards detailed above is his defense. Despite a listed height of just 6'0", he manages to make life difficult for opposing 1s by seemingly setting up shop right under their dribble. It's almost like the undersized boxer is working way inside the range of his taller opponent.
When he's on the floor, Toronto allows 105.9 points per 100 possessions, a mark that ranks in the 87th percentile. His in-your-face defense on opposing creators is a big reason why.
41. John Collins, Atlanta Hawks
Trae Young understandably gets the most attention of the young Atlanta Hawks, but it's his budding partnership with John Collins that has the potential to make him a winning player.
A big who can score from the inside and the three-point line is borderline essential in today's NBA. And Collins is exactly that. Whether Young is quarterbacking a pick-and-roll or isolating, Collins is an ideal receiver.
His points per possession as a roll man ranks in the 84th percentile this season. And he is shooting 42.5 percent on 3.3 catch-and-shoot three-point attempts per game.
Collins is much more than the 21.6 points, 10.1 rebounds and highlight-reel dunks you've seen of him. He has the potential to be a thoroughly modern 5 and half of one of the league's best offensive duos.
On the other end, Collins certainly isn't bad, but he's not the kind of dominant defender that can cover for the deficiencies of Young. Clint Capela may be that, and Collins is nimble enough to play the 4, but the ideal configuration may be Young, Collins and three switchy wing/forwards.
However those lineups are aligned, Atlanta should feel confident that it already has the box checked for a big man with All-Star potential.
40. Eric Bledsoe, Milwaukee Bucks
Eric Bledsoe is one of the league's best among point guards. After making first-team All-Defense in 2019, there is no slippage from him in 2019-20.
On the season, the Milwaukee Bucks allow an era-defying 95.3 points per 100 possessions when Bledsoe shares the floor with Giannis Antetokounmpo. Their overall defense, which ranks first in the league by a wide margin, allows 102.3 points per 100 possessions.
Like VanVleet, Bledsoe is undersized (6'1") but unafraid to play in close quarters. With his lateral quickness, he can play a more aggressive brand of defense than most.
And his offense isn't too shabby, either. In fact, after a few years alongside the MVP-caliber Giannis, Bledsoe might be a bit underrated on that end. This season, he's averaging 25.4 points and 7.4 assists per 75 possessions with a 58.3 true shooting percentage when Giannis is off the floor.
39. Kristaps Porzingis, Dallas Mavericks
It took him some time to find his basketball legs again, but once he did, Kristaps Porzingis has looked like the ideal big-man complement to Luka Doncic.
He had averages of 19.2 points, a career-high 9.5 rebounds and a career-high 2.5 threes when the season was put on hiatus, but his 54.0 true shooting percentage was over two points below the league average.
After sitting out all of 2018-19 while recovering from a torn ACL, we probably should've expected the slow start, but even when the shots aren't falling, you can see the stylistic fit.
"He's throwing some really cool lob passes to [Dwight] Powell," coach Rick Carlisle told reporters in December. "I mean, you've got a 7'3" guy throwing to a 6'10" guy on a lob? That's pretty [expletive] cool if you ask me. Let's get off of all this stuff that KP needs to go in the post. He doesn't. He doesn't. I'm OK with him going in there once in a while, but we don't post anybody."
Porzingis as a key cog in Dallas' Luka-run offense has worked wonders. The 116.7 points per 100 possessions the Mavericks have scored is an all-time high.
But the bigger impact from KP may come on defense. His offensive rating swing is a near-neutral plus-0.1. But opponents score 5.0 fewer points per 100 possessions when he is on the floor. He has a top-10 block percentage this season and leads all Mavs with at least 500 minutes in defensive rebounding rate.
If he maintains that sort of defensive impact next season, while playing like he did in the first few months of 2020 on offense, the Mavericks will have one of the game's top duos (if they don't already).
38. Danilo Gallinari, Oklahoma City Thunder
Danilo Gallinari is still better than people realize. He is in his third season of posting a 60-plus true shooting percentage, a 35-plus free-throw-attempt rate and a 40-plus three-point-attempt rate, and he's top 70 all time in career offensive box plus/minus. James Harden and Chauncey Billups are the only players with more such seasons.
This distinctly modern game has been a staple for Gallinari for years, but it has been particularly effective alongside Chris Paul with the Oklahoma City Thunder. When the two vets share the floor, OKC score at a blistering rate of 120.1 points per 100 possessions (99th percentile).
And while CP3 rightfully gets most of the praise for the Thunder's better-than-expected attack—even Gallo said, "I think he's the best leader that I've played with."—the Italian forward deserves plenty of credit.
Paul spreads the ball around more than most floor generals, but Gallinari is still his top assist target. And when CP3 plays without Gallo, that offense plummets to a below-average 109.3 points per 100 possessions.
That impact has a lot to do with the shooting that forced defenders to watch him outside, but Gallinari brings a lot more offense to the table. His pump-fake-and-go game is top-tier. And he's one of the game's best at identifying disadvantaged defenses and actually moving into a drive before the catch. He's not the most explosive athlete, so even those plays didn't often end with wide-open layups, but he draws plenty of fouls that way. His uber-efficient attack is a critical part of the Thunder's success.
On the other end of the floor, he has a harder time overcoming his weaknesses. He's often caught flat-footed on the perimeter. And he doesn't rebound a ton, despite being 6'10". Both contributed to opponents scoring 8.0 more points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor, a defensive rating swing that ranks in the fifth percentile.
But even with that deep of a hole dug defensively, Gallinari's plus-6.6 net rating swing still ranks in the 85th percentile. That's how much of an impact his offense makes.
37. Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic
Giannis Antetokounmpo is the only player who matches or exceeds Nikola Vucevic's averages for points (20.3), rebounds (11.6) and assists (3.8) over the last two seasons.
Yes, that Antetokounmpo. The reigning MVP with a good shot to join Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon as the only players in league history to win MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season.
Of course, Antetokounmpo blows away the thresholds set by Vucevic, but the production is plenty impressive nonetheless.
Like others on this list, Vucevic has improved his standing in the league by embracing the three-point shot and facilitating from the post. For the first six years of his career, he averaged 2.0 assists and 0.3 three-point attempts per game. Over the last three, those numbers are up to 3.7 and 3.6.
And his more evolved game has made him, by far, the most important player on the Orlando Magic.
Since the start of the 2017-18 campaign, Orlando is plus-1.3 points per 100 possessions with Vucevic on the floor and minus-5.3 with him off. The offensive rating takes a 6.2-point tumble when he sits.
When he's on the floor, Vooch commands defensive attention whether in the post or surveying the floor from up top. This, of course, makes things easier for teammates who've struggled to carry offensive responsibility throughout their careers.
On the other end of the floor, Vucevic isn't likely to threaten for Defensive Player of the Year anytime soon, but he's done a solid job of piling up counting stats as a member of the Magic. There are only seven players who match or exceed his totals for blocks and steals since he went to Orlando in 2012. And he's had an above-average defensive-rating swing in three of his last four seasons.
36. De'Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings
One of the key differences between Bledsoe and De'Aaron Fox is that the former has the luxury of playing over two-thirds of his total minutes alongside an MVP. His burden is significantly lighter than Fox's, a third-year guard tasked with engineering the offense of a team without an All-Star.
Even with the heavy load and an early-season injury that cost him 17 straight games, though, Fox has maintained his career's upward trajectory. He's averaging 20.4 points and 6.8 assists in just 31.7 minutes per game, and he's scored at an above-average rate in isolation and as a pick-and-roll ball-handler.
As (or if) Sacramento fills out the roster around Fox with more reliable offensive players, and defenses can afford less focus on the point guard, Fox's ability to attack one-on-one will yield even better overall numbers.
35. Domantas Sabonis, Indiana Pacers
Domantas Sabonis' first All-Star campaign has been a doozy.
And his basic averages of 18.5 points, 12.4 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 0.8 steals might not even do his production justice.
Let's take a look at a pace- and playing time-adjusted comparison to 2013-14 Kevin Love, who finished second in the league in box plus/minus:
- 2019-20 Sabonis (23 years old): 19.4 points, 13.0 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 0.8 steals per 75 possessions, plus-2.2 relative true shooting percentage, plus-6.4 net rating swing
- 2013-14 Love (25 years old): 26.6 points, 12.7 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 0.5 steals per 75 possessions, plus-5.0 relative true shooting percentage, plus-9.8 net rating swing
The key differences, of course, were Love's scoring and the fact that he was hitting threes, but the statistical similarities are unavoidable.
The Indiana Pacers have a superstar talent on their team who can score around the rim and from the mid-range. His passing unlocks opportunities for teammates like T.J. Warren, Malcolm Brogdon and Victor Oladipo.
And he's almost certainly better defensively than the 25-year-old Love.
The Pacers allow 4.8 fewer points per 100 possessions with Sabonis on the floor this season. And that isn't exclusively a function of the time spent with Myles Turner (though it helps). Indiana still defends at an above-average level when Sabonis plays without Turner.
He's not a lockdown defender on the perimeter or a lights-out rim protector, but he generally does a decent job of just being in the way. Sometimes, that's enough from a big man. That and his ability to dominate the defensive glass makes Sabonis a plus on that end.
34. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies
Treating Ja Morant as a top-10 point guard and top-30ish player overall is not a rush to coronation. He's earned it.
Rookies seldom ferry his workload while sustaining above-average efficiency. Walter Davis, Tim Duncan, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal and David Robinson are the only other first-year players who have matched his usage (26) and true shooting percentage (56.8).
Morant's game is essentially the marriage of flash and substance. His off-the-dribble escapism bends defenses and renders traditional bigs forced to switch or rotate on to him a special kind of helpless. Every dunk attempt is an event—even the missed ones. And though his takeoffs may, on some level, be for the 'gram, they change the way teams must guard him inside the free-throw line.
Tremendous downhill touch only complicates the pickle in which Morant puts defenses. He complements his explosion with split-second finesse. Could-be rim assaults are also potential scoop shots. He's hitting 51.3 percent of his floaters.
That Morant partners this touch with on-a-whim vision is unfair. He's more of an equal opportunity scorer and facilitator than a points-first engine. His improvisation on the move belies his experience. He might possibly lead the league in assists thrown after leaving his feet.
Knowing that Morant has room to improve is scary. Fewer of his passes will go haywire as he gains more reps, and his occasional off-the-dribble three could turn into a moderate- or high-volume staple.
Left alone, though, Morant already holds his own against the NBA's best offensive players, and his first season is almost beyond comparison to others. Oscar Robertson and Trae Young are the only other rookies to clear 20 points and eight assists per 36 minutes.
33. CJ McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers
CJ McCollum leaves a lot to be desired when viewing his game through the lens of conventional stardom.
He doesn't get to the rim or foul line at a high clip and is a coin-toss finisher when he does attack the basket. He has great chemistry with bigs out of the pick-and-roll, can spot shooters while going downhill and boasts great ball control but is overtaxed as the primary setup man.
The Portland Trail Blazers offense when he plays without Damian Lillard has only ranked higher than the 38th percentile once over the past five seasons (2015-16).
By those measures, McCollum could be overrated, now more so than ever after he signed a three-year, $100 million extension over the summer. But his standing is only compromised insofar as you're still expecting him to be someone else.
Portland isn't paying him to be a situational No. 1. He is meant to be the team's No. 2 through and through, a certified buckets-getter who can moonlight as a playmaker but earns his keep by providing cornerstone offense as Lillard's second in command.
McCollum has seldom failed to hold up his end of this bargain. He is one of the smoothest scorers alive. It'd be nice if he could swish more off-the-dribble threes, but he doesn't need to lean on outside volume when he wields an automatic in-between game. He is shooting 47 percent from mid-range overall (89th percentile) and keeps defenses guessing with a mix of deadly accurate floaters (45.7 percent) and stop-and-pop twos (50.0 percent).
What separates McCollum from, say, Zach LaVine isn't just a matter of opportunity. He's in the ideal role for his skill set, but he's also shown everything he does translates to the playoff pressure cooker. He can still get to his spots in cramped spaces and doesn't receive nearly enough credit for his tough-shot making.
That he also collects his 20-plus points per game without significantly eating into the usage of those around him—he's downing 47.1 percent of his catch-and-fire threes—is very on-brand. He's made a career out of effectively straddling the line between star and complement.
32. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
Struggling through consecutive postseasons did little to slow Donovan Mitchell's hype train. Anyone would be overburdened as his team's sole from-scratch scorer. Every star must have a viable No. 2. The Utah Jazz needed to get Mitchell his.
And then they did. Sort of.
The Mike Conley acquisition hasn't panned out, but Bojan Bogdanovic and Jordan Clarkson adequately stock Utah's roster with shot-makers, even if they're not letter-of-the-law sidekicks. The offense should be more equipped to handle the postseason crucible because of them, albeit less so following Bogdanovic's season-ending wrist injury. The idea of Conley can still be an asset, too.
But Mitchell's numbers aren't yet reflective of the Jazz's sturdier offensive depth. Though his scoring is almost identical to last season's (25.4 points per 36 minutes) and coming on better efficiency, his true shooting percentage (56.0) remains below the league average (56.4). Long twos are, somehow, an even bigger part of his game, and they're coming at the expense of his volume around the rim.
Taking fewer shots at the basket has cut into Mitchell's foul-line trips, and he wasn't an especially frequent customer at the charity stripe in the first place. Among the 40 players with a usage rate of 25 or higher, his free-throw-attempt rate ranks 33rd.
Keeping his three-point clip above 36 percent is a win, but only a minor one. He's still not knocking down deep balls off the dribble; he's converting just 31.6 percent of his pull-up triples.
Age and role ensure Mitchell will remain the Jazz's most important building block. That's different from their most valuable player. Rudy Gobert still holds that honor, and Mitchell hasn't made enough of a jump to suggest that's about to change.
Utah is getting slaughtered whenever he plays without the Stifle Tower while posting a crummy offensive rating. This doesn't mean Mitchell is bad. He's not. It does mean he has a long way to go before the Jazz can comfortably declare him the face of the future.
31. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder
All the tricks Shai Gilgeous-Alexander flashed as a rookie have proved to be but a prelude. He is no longer a young prospect ahead of schedule. He's one of the NBA's most underrated scorers.
Gilgeous-Alexander has made great use of the extra license the Oklahoma City Thunder have bestowed upon him. His three-point clip is down, but he's stayed above 35 percent while creating more of his own opportunities. Under 10 percent of his made treys came without assists last year. That number has soared up to over 43 percent this season.
Exchanging looks at the rim for longer twos is often frowned upon, but the in-between game suits Gilgeous-Alexander. He's knocking down 45.0 percent of his mid-range jumpers (83rd percentile) and splashing in 45.9 percent of his floaters.
Endorsing his shot distribution is even easier when it comes with a rising free-throw-attempt rate. He has added more changes in pace and in-and-out dribbles to his repository and is much better at finishing through contact from outside the restricted area.
Others will be lower on Gilgeous-Alexander until he brings more oomph as a playmaker. His opportunity is finite beside both Chris Paul and Dennis Schroder, but he continues to look more like a hybrid wing than a combo guard. Oklahoma City's offense has sputtered whenever he plays without Paul, and he's tallied just 109 possessions as the official point guard.
As is, though, Gilgeous-Alexander can be the second-best offensive player on a ridiculously good team. And he doesn't necessarily need to approximate floor-general value when he's so darn useful at the other end. He can make life hell on both guard spots and even wing-sized whatevers. The Thunder haven't shied from using him on Ben Simmons- and Brandon Ingram-types.
His All-Star peak isn't just in play. It feels inevitable.
30. Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics
Somewhat lost amid Jayson Tatum's climb into superstar territory is the humdinger of a season Jaylen Brown has pieced together. He's averaging a career-high 20.4 points per game while downing 38.1 percent of his threes and a gaga 55.2 percent of his twos. After three years of hovering in the mid-60s, his free-throw conversion rate sits at 73.6 percent—on a personal-best 4.6 attempts per 36 minutes, no less.
Brown's progress is palpable enough that he generated some All-Star buzz. His failure to make the cut shouldn't be spun into anything too profound, but it does nod to a certain lagging. He's still stereotyped into more of a specialist's box rather than formal stardom.
Whether that's unfair is in the eye of the beholder. The Boston Celtics don't yet know if they can win a title with Brown as their third-best player, and he'll always pale in comparison to most of his would-be peers on the offensive end. His is a role rooted more in finishing plays than creating them.
Over half of his possessions come as transition or spot-up opportunities, and close to 90 percent of his made threes are assisted. His volume as the pick-and-roll ball-handler has more than doubled from last season, but he doesn't pass enough for the offense to actually run through him, and his handle can get unglued when he's tasked with doing more than attacking decongested lanes.
Without a semi-sizable shift in focus, this caps Brown's apex much like it does for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander—in that it's marginally prohibitive but mostly doesn't matter because of the heavy lifting he does at the other end.
Boston's three-wing lineups wouldn't be so effective without Brown's defensive bandwidth. He rumbles with power forwards more than Tatum or Gordon Hayward, and only Marcus Smart sees more reps against No. 1 options, according to data from Nylon Calculus' Krishna Narsu. Brown's presence on the glass is likewise paramount to the Celtics using the good-but-undersized Daniel Theis so freely at the 5.
Elite three-and-D specialists have fringe-star value. Brown is more than that. He has a broader offensive responsibility than catch-and-shoot connoisseurs, and his combination of volume and efficiency verges on anomalous. Giannis Antetokounmpo, DeMar DeRozan, Khris Middleton and Brandon Ingram are the only wings who match his scoring, usage and true shooting percentage.
29. Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans
If you're thinking this placement is over-ambitious for a 19-year-old rookie who has only played 565 minutes, you're not alone. Even the writers behind this project struggled with the idea of Zion Williamson already being a top-four power forward.
But his numbers leap off the screen about as explosively as the player himself leaves the hardwood.
The New Orleans Pelicans' net points per 100 possessions is 12.2 points better with Zion on the floor, a swing that ranks in the 97th percentile and adds an estimated 29 wins to the team's expectancy over an 82-game slate.
His 27.5 points per 75 possessions is the second-highest mark for a rookie since 1973-74 (as far back as per-possession data goes), just behind Joel Embiid in 2016-17 and just ahead of 1984-85 Michael Jordan.
Zion's 62.4 true shooting percentage ranks first among rookies who logged a 25-plus usage percentage over the same span. Arvydas Sabonis (who was 31 during his rookie season) and David Robinson (24) wind up the top three.
As far as scoring and impact go, Williamson pretty clearly justifies his position on this list. His feel in both fast breaks and halfcourt sets is way beyond his years. He knows exactly when to cut and sees lanes opening up seemingly ahead of time. His second jump is absurd, maybe even on par with a prime Shawn Marion, whose playing weight was 60-plus pounds lighter.
Offensively, the next steps for Zion are probably a more consistent jump shot and a bit more playmaking for others. But even without those things, he's already a devastating offensive weapon.
He needs a lot more work on the other end. His focus there seems to come and go far too often. His block and steal rates from college haven't yet translated. And it feels like he should be gobbling up more defensive rebounds. But we have to remember that he's a rookie. And he's a 19-year-old rookie. The learning curve for NBA defenders is steep.
What's clear is that he has the physical tools to dominate defensively. His basketball IQ on offense suggests he should be able to pick up the concepts necessary to be a plus on both sides of the ball. But even if he doesn't live up to his potential as a defender and becomes, say, average on that end, his offense would still make him a mainstay at the top of lists like this.
28. Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans
Brandon Ingram has come of role this season. Beforehand, he was the silhouette of an offensive hub, but only for stretches at a time, usually toward the end of the schedule. This year, on a new team that has given him more creative agency, he's been a wire-to-wire force.
His All-Star selection speaks for itself, even though it came during a down year for Western Conference wings. His numbers say even more: 24.3 points and 4.3 assists per game with a true shooting percentage of 59.0—benchmarks that, prior to this year, have only ever been hit by one player in his age-22-or-younger season. That player's name? Michael Jordan.
Friendlier circumstances (and a cleaner health bill) aren't solely responsible for Ingram's ascent. He has both broadened and refined his game.
He's always had a knack for reaching his spots on-ball and making plays at the rim, but his finishing lagged elsewhere. He now wields a more consistent touch between 10 and 16 feet and a more willing trigger finger from beyond the arc. Both his three-point and free-throw clips have exploded relative to his career average.
What's most impressive about Ingram's arrival isn't the leap itself but its endurance. His improvement has not only spanned the entire season, but it's also survived two different iterations of the New Orleans Pelicans: pre-Zion Williamson and post-Zion Williamson.
Slightly lower usage beside Zion has not rattled Ingram. He's been money in catch-and-shoot situations (60.2 effective field-goal percentage), and his true shooting percentage has dropped without plummeting when they share the floor. Encouraging still, across a 704-possession sample, New Orleans owns a plus-14.6 net rating with Ingram and Zion manning the 3 and 4, respectively.
This is not a small development. Ingram's success as part of a larger operation, one that doesn't always default to him, was never a given. Deference can throw players off balance.
Ingram himself still has kinks to work out next to Zion, but the early returns suggest his leap is at once permanent and, just as important, generally adaptable.
27. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
Any lingering urges to loop Devin Booker into the empty-stats brigade need to be stamped out. That stance was always hyperbolic. Youth needs time to marinate, and the Phoenix Suns never put enough NBA talent around him to infer a correlation between him and their downtrodden record.
They still haven't. The Suns are much better off than they were in 2018-19 when Booker wanted for the most fundamental ball-handling support. But the core he headlines now still isn't perfectly designed to simplify his role or guarantee palatable proximity to the Western Conference playoff picture.
Adding Ricky Rubio is a start. Booker is no longer Phoenix's only primary playmaker. But he remains its most influential one. The Suns rank in the 79th percentile of points scored per 100 possessions when Booker is on the floor. That efficiency bottoms out to the 2nd percentile in the minutes Rubio plays without him. (Phoenix's offense is in the 33rd percentile when Booker runs the show on his own.)
What little relief Booker has received—mainly from Rubio, career-year Kelly Oubre Jr. and Deandre Ayton—looks awfully good on him. His efficiency has been on the come-up for most of his career, and he's reached yet another new height this season.
Among the 58 non-bigs who have played at least 1,000 minutes and are averaging at least 15 points, Booker's true shooting percentage ranks fourth, behind Damian Lillard, Khris Middleton and Davis Bertans. He's on pace to become the 10th player to clear 25 points and five assists per game with a true shooting percentage higher than 61, joining James Harden (six times), LeBron James (six times), Michael Jordan (four times), Stephen Curry (three times), Kevin Durant (three times), Larry Bird (twice), Giannis Antetokounmpo (twice), Isaiah Thomas and Lillard.
Between his continuously improving feel for jump-starting an offense, multilevel scoring and the ability to leverage touch and cutting without the ball, Booker is now, without question, one of the league's most impactful players.
26. Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat
Bam Adebayo may embody the future of the center position more than anyone on this list. He has the size (6'9", 255 pounds) to play the 5, but he can be trusted to switch onto any position, handle the ball, facilitate, finish inside and even do a little damage in the floater zone.
On the season, he's averaging a well-rounded 16.2 points, 10.5 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.3 blocks and 1.2 steals per game. The only thing left is three-point range. And that may be on the way. According to ESPN's Zach Lowe, he went 31-of-50 on corner threes in a predraft workout for the Miami Heat.
In an increasingly positionless NBA, guys who can do everything will reign.
Michael Pina wrote for SB Nation:
"When [the Heat] look at Adebayo they don't see a position, and even before they took him 14th overall in the 2017 draft they didn't see a prospect who should be boxed into a role. Adebayo is an original, one-of-one — a jittery ball of unselfish, peerlessly athletic energy whose lone hobby is discovering new ways to dismantle traditional norms on a basketball court."
On the season, 16 players have taken at least 10 shots when defended by Adebayo. They vary from point guards like Markelle Fultz, Russell Westbrook and Spencer Dinwiddie, to wings like Bradley Beal, to bigs like Joel Embiid and Nikola Vucevic. Only two of those 16 shot at least 50 percent against Bam. And Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP, was 8-of-23 (34.8 percent).
The tenacity and versatility of Adebayo makes him an ideal defensive anchor for the Heat, alongside Jimmy Butler. But his potential on the offensive end may be every bit as tantalizing.
Adebayo isn't just making run-of-the-mill kick-outs from the post for his assists. He's passing on the move, out of rolls, from the top of the key or the elbow. He's comfortable passing with either hand. And his vision may be better than any big man's, save Jokic's.
The next evolution for this position is "point center." Jokic has been doing that for a while with the Nuggets. Adebayo brings significantly more athleticism to the equation.
25. Jrue Holiday, New Orleans Pelicans
Jrue Holiday is the same as ever: damn good and underappreciated.
Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson have all taken turns overshadowing him on offense, which is to be expected. They're new and shiny, and Holiday has almost always blurred the line between primary option and complement. But his role hasn't actually changed all that much alongside the New Orleans Pelicans' most prominent additions.
Sure, his usage is slightly down. And yes, he's taking the occasional extra standstill jumper. For the most part, though, he remains New Orleans' offensive engine.
No one on the team runs more pick-and-rolls per game, and rather than ween off his self-creation, he's steered further into it. He looks more comfortable dancing with the ball in his hands and is churning through an almost identical number of pull-up jumpers compared to last season. More of his made threes are actually going unassisted (44.3 percent, up from 40.7), and he continues to bust out his step-back jumper.
Plenty of scorers shoot higher clips, but Holiday is efficient enough relative to his role. He's hitting more than 50.0 percent of his two-pointers and within striking distance of league-average accuracy from distance (35.7 percent) while putting up nearly 20 points and seven assists per game.
Demands to drop Holiday further likely don't properly value his defense. The idea that he's not as much of a neutralizer is, frankly, a little absurd—like his job description.
Just look at the six players he's spent the most time guarding: Luka Doncic, LeBron James, CJ McCollum, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Damian Lillard and Devin Booker. I mean, my goodness. Difficult assignments don't equate to good defense, but Holiday is the exhaustive ball hawk the Pelicans stick on the very best without sending him much help.
Finding another player who bears his burden at both ends is almost impossible. Two-way primary usage, a metric developed by Nylon Calculus' Krishna Narsu, measures the amount of time a player spends as the No. 1 option on offense while guarding the other team's No. 1 scorer. Ben Simmons is the only player in the league with a higher two-way workload than Holiday.
24. Kemba Walker, Boston Celtics
Sharing the offensive workload with fellow star teammates and a quality supporting cast looks good on Kemba Walker. It would look even better if left knee problems didn't cost him a chunk of the season.
Sticking him this low could come off as an insult. It isn't. It is more so a nod to the league's depth of star power—especially at point guard. Eight floor generals are in front of him, and with the exception of the top two or three, Walker has an argument to be ahead of everyone else. Welcome to the world of splitting hairs.
On the surface, Walker is not a material upgrade over Kyrie Irving for the Boston Celtics. He is scoring at a lower and less efficient clip, and their average touch time is about the same. Walker is actually controlling the ball for longer per possessions than 2018-19 Irving.
The bigger, more important difference lies in Walker's usage. He is a better complement than Irving to the rest of Boston's roster, a comfier fit who has paved the way for Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward to do more.
Fewer of Walker's buckets are coming off assists (36 percent) compared to his predecessor (37.3 percent), but he works in isolation much less. Both may be similar in how long they hold onto the ball, but Walker burns through fewer touches overall. And it is Walker who gives more consistent damns on defense.
Mind you, ceding touches to his supporting cast and status to Tatum has not dulled Walker's star quality. He is the Celtics' best pick-and-roll initiator, leading the team in crunch-time usage rate and draining 36.4 percent of his pull-up three-pointers, which he launches more often than everyone in the league except for Luka Doncic, James Harden, Damian Lillard and Trae Young.
Tatum's ascent has rendered him Boston's most valuable player, but Walker still has claim to the team's offensive crown. The Celtics are scoring a team-high 7.6 points more per 100 possessions with him on the court, during which time their perimeter-shooting efficiency skyrockets.
This steadying star power is nothing new. Spending his entire career in Charlotte may have limited his national exposure, but Walker has been this same bracing force for some time. Five-year regularized-adjusted plus-minus ranks him as the sixth-most valuable offensive player since 2015, according to NBA Shot Charts. His role may have shifted in Boston, but he's still clearly among the NBA's very best.
23. Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks
Trae Young's detractors needn't reach deep into the bag to find their rebuke: If he's this good, if he's already a top-25 player, why aren't the Atlanta Hawks better? It's a fair question. And Young's defense alone might provide the answer.
Catch-all metrics portray him as a certifiable nonfactor at the less glamorous end. He is dead-last in ESPN's defensive real plus-minus and NBA Shot Charts' luck-adjusted defensive regularized adjusted plus-minus. And he ranks third-to-last, ahead of just Bradley Beal and Darius Garland, in NBA Math's defensive points saved.
Non-defenders can be tricky cornerstones. They complicate attempts to build contenders. The breadth of Young's offense does not excuse his transgressions at the other end. But it comes pretty damn close.
Young's ultra-deep pull-up threes warp entire defenses. Planning for someone who's willing to fire away just inside the timeline is a migraine-and-a-half. Young exacerbates the defense's dilemma by actually making those shots. He's converting 35.8 percent of his looks from 29 feet and out.
A lack of size (6'1") has not hindered his capacity to make plays inside the arc. He has perfected the arc and timing of his floaters and ranks in the 92nd percentile of finishing around the rim. His 9.3 assists per game are not the byproduct of how much time he spends on the ball but an accurate reflection of his vision. He beams one-handed dimes on the move before it's even clear he's picked up his dribble, confuses defenders by telegraphing one pass but throwing another and threads the needle against double-teams he's not supposed to see over.
Atlanta's offense is not elite with Young on the floor (54th percentile), but it's subject to a monster drop-off when he sits—an 11.8-point-per-100-possessions plunge that ranks as the third-largest in the league among every player who has cleared 500 minutes.
Put a more established supporting cast around Young, and the wins and losses should take care of themselves. He's averaging 29.6 points and 9.3 assists with a 59.5 true shooting percentage as the all-everything of an offense light on polished talent. Adding another ball-handler alone would go a long way, granting him an actual chance to work as a spot-up and motion shooter.
In the meantime, he cannot be too harshly penalized for the constraints placed upon him by the circumstances under which he plays. He has outperformed the degree of difficulty attached to his role. So few players have ever balanced his volume with this efficiency—10 in league history, to be more exact: Adrian Dantley (four times); James Harden (four times); Michael Jordan (three times); Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (two times); Kevin Durant (two times); Larry Bird, Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Karl Malone and Bob McAdoo.
22. Russell Westbrook, Houston Rockets
Slotting Russell Westbrook any higher would demand selective memory.
Indeed, he turned a corner once the Houston Rockets steered into microball. He's averaging 31.0 points and 5.8 assists with a 57.5 true shooting percentage since Clint Capela left the rotation. Close to 56 percent of his field-goal attempts are coming inside five feet during this time, compared to 46.3 percent beforehand, where he's shooting 63.4 percent, up from 58.8 percent.
It would not be a stretch to say this is the best version of Westbrook ever. The Oklahoma City Thunder never afforded him so much room to maneuver, not even during the Kevin Durant years.
His downhill attacks are a different kind of terrifying—and almost impossible to stop—when he's not forced to navigate cramped spaces. He's even upped his accuracy from downtown, to 35.5 percent, while curbing his volume.
Still, the first part of the season happened. Westbrook was on course for the fourth-worst true shooting percentage of his career prior to Jan. 1 while firing up far too many threes, during which time the Rockets failed to keep their head above water whenever he played without James Harden. Opponents outscored them by 4.3 points per 100 possessions, with a sub-105 offensive rating, through his solo stints.
Westbrook deserves credit for flipping the script, even before Capela's injury and eventual departure. Since Jan. 1, Houston is pumping in 113.9 points per 100 possessions and posting a plus-3.7 net rating when he runs the show without Harden. But those returns have done yet another 180 since Jan. 29, when Capela last played for the Rockets.
This level of inconsistency is unsettling. The Rockets are significantly worse off, both now and later, if they cannot count on Westbrook to successfully spearhead units without Harden. His most recent performance is proof he still has the impact of a top-25 player, but his top-15 case is no longer airtight. His average rank across six catch-all-metrics, in fact, suggests he should be lower—closer to No. 40 overall than No. 20.
21. Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
Bradley Beal exists in a gray area of superstardom.
Merely having him doesn't assure playoff contention, which puts him outside the top-15-player conversation. And yet, he's also an offense unto himself, fully capable of crashing the All-NBA discourse in any given season. Pegging him as anything less than a top-25 player isn't an option.
And to be clear, no one should want it to be.
The Washington Wizards' hard-knocks season isn't on Beal. He's eclipsing 30 points and six assists per game with an above-average true shooting percentage, all while subsisting on a diet of difficult shots. James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Russell Westbrook are the only players tossing up more contested looks, defined as any attempt during which a defender is between two and four feet away.
Granted, even without John Wall in the fold, Beal doesn't shoulder the same from-scratch burden many of his contemporaries do. Nearly half of his made buckets are coming off assists. But what he avoids in next-level difficulty, he makes up for with sheer volume. He owns the league's fifth-highest usage rate, trailing only Trae Young, Luka Doncic, James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Attributing his numbers exclusively to that volume undermines their significance. This isn't a good-to-greatish player stat-padding on a bad-to-terribleish team. The Wizards offense is optimized through his usage. They go from scoring 114 points per 100 possessions with him on the court (81st percentile) to 106.2 with him off (18th percentile)—a wrong-direction swing that typifies his importance to a team with zero first-option alternatives.
20. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
Cue the annual "Kyle Lowry is too damn high!" pitchfork-carriers.
Every time someone tries their hand at sorting the NBA's best, his name invariably appears in front of a few others who seem to deserve more due. How is he ahead of Russell Westbrook? Or Kemba Walker? It makes no sense.
In actuality, it makes perfect sense. Lowry's value might even be underrated. He doesn't carry the largest load relative to other point guards or stars at large, but that's part of his charm. He routinely shape-shifts based on the Toronto Raptors' depth chart and lineups.
Last year, this meant deferring shots and possessions to Kawhi Leonard and the rise of Pascal Siakam. In seasons past, it meant giving DeMar DeRozan the leeway to expand his playmaking portfolio. And this year—well, this year is some of Lowry's best work yet. He has juggled taking on more of the scoring burden without inhibiting Siakam's continued ascent.
Few point guards afford teams so much wiggle room. Having the ability to splash in off-the-bounce threes, break down defenses, drill standstill jumpers and cover larger backcourt assignments while playing beside another smaller guard is different from actually doing it.
Lowry doesn't dabble so much as he balances. He is an offensive chameleon. Look no further than his shot distribution. Almost 27 percent of his field-goal attempts come as spot-up threes. Nearly 31 percent, meanwhile, come as pull-up treys. He can both dictate and accommodate the terms of how Toronto plays.
His case is only bolstered by the energy he expends on defense. He frustrates opponents in search of offensive fouls and has the stubborn strength to tussle with assignments much larger than himself (6'0").
There is likewise a Damian Lillard-esque air about the way he sets the tone, the author of both culture and identity. The Raptors defend and carry themselves like Kyle Lowry clones. He might not be Toronto's best player—though he was during the DeRozan years—but he is certainly its most important.
The numbers support as much. He doesn't lead the Raptors in scoring. Or have their highest net rating swing. But his average rank across six catch-all metrics pegs him as the league's 21st most valuable player (and sixth-best point guard), putting him just ahead of Siakam (No. 26).
19. Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets
The benefit of the doubt has assured Kyrie Irving a relatively high finish. And yes, he deserves it.
Right shoulder and right knee issues have limited him to just 20 games. His season was deemed over before the NBA suspended play after undergoing surgery to address the former injury. This awfully small sample size cannot be discounted when assessing his value.
Plenty of people will argue that Irving should be lower, if not left out altogether. Neither would be a totally unfair claim were we discussing the bigger picture. Murky availability has been a career-long problem, and it is fair to wonder how much worse off his teams actually are without him.
Though the Brooklyn Nets have played shorthanded all season, they're still 22-22 when he sits, compared to 8-12 when he's in the lineup. And it doesn't help that the Boston Celtics have not just tread water but improved following his departure over the summer.
Now still isn't the time to relitigate Irving's cornerstone value. Brooklyn is the first team for which he has chosen to play, and sweeping conclusions cannot be drawn until he's integrated into a healthier roster. Between injuries to him, Kevin Durant and Caris LeVert, in addition to the exit of head coach Kenny Atkinson, the Nets have not exactly been a portrait of stability.
To what extent this falls on Irving isn't readily known. Atkinson's departure coupled with the usual dose of quixotic comments are, at bottom, instruments for debate. But drama and skepticism and health can only nuke Irving's stock if he fails to outstrip the collective concern on the court. That's almost never been his problem.
This season is no exception. Through his 20 appearances, Irving averaged 27.4 points and 6.4 assists on the second-highest true shooting percentage of his career. He still isn't the guy you trust to reach the rim or get to the foul line in volume, but his off-the-dribble shot-making continues to bend the brain. He has buried 38.6 percent of his pull-up threes and rates in the 91st percentile of scoring efficiency as the pick-and-roll ball-handler.
Small samples are conducive to noise, but for what it's worth, Irving has also proved to be a more consistent finisher around the basket in Brooklyn. His 65 percent clip at the hoop is a career high.
Less debatable is the overall impact he has on the Nets offense. They score 6.4 points per 100 possessions more when he's on the floor, a swing that places in the 92nd percentile and is right in line with his on-off splits through five of the past six seasons. Brooklyn nearly gives everything back on defense when Irving plays, but his offensive credentials squarely put him among the NBA's most valuable players, even amid abbreviated availability.
18. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Before the hiatus, Rudy Gobert led the NBA in ESPN's defensive real plus-minus for the fourth consecutive season.
He dominated the field in FiveThirtyEight's new catch-all, defensive RAPTOR rating, which incorporates box score numbers, on-off data and tracking data.
His value there is so immense that he ranks fifth in the NBA in RAPTOR wins above replacement, behind only James Harden, LeBron James, Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard, despite posting a negative offensive RAPTOR rating.
He doesn't seem to have the narrative on his side for a third straight DPOY, but he clearly has an argument.
Tune into any Utah Jazz game, and you'll almost certainly see multiple possessions on which a perimeter player dusts his matchup on the outside, gets to the paint and then does an abrupt U-turn upon seeing Gobert. It's a phenomenon that traditional box scores struggle to capture.
The way to neutralize that, of course, is by deploying a modern 5 who pulls Gobert from the rim. He does a decent job while playing one-on-one out there, but simply having him out of the paint can break down a Jazz defense that featured only Royce O'Neale and Joe Ingles as clear plus defenders outside.
That's probably the biggest knock against Gobert. As the Houston Rockets have shown, there are ways to game-plan around his dominance. His career postseason net-rating swing is minus-10.1.
Generally speaking, though, he remains one of the most impactful players in the league. His plus-11.0 net-rating swing this regular season ranked in the 95th percentile. He's a devastating, dedicated rim runner, even when high-usage players like Donovan Mitchell don't throw the eventual lob. Just having Gobert attack the rim out of the pick-and-roll bends defenses toward the paint.
He's also a staple on the screen-assists leaderboard, generating a league-leading 16.1 points per game off those plays.
Put it all together, and it isn't difficult to see why Gobert is still one of the game's best centers, despite not having the guard skills most others have had to develop for survival.
17. Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors
It isn't impossible to find a precedent for Pascal Siakam's career trajectory, you might just have to venture outside basketball.
Going from 4.2 points as a rookie, to 7.3 points as a sophomore, to 16.9 points and a Most Improved Player in Year 3 is wild enough. Then, Siakam made being the first back-to-back winner of that award feel like a real possibility early in the season.
Being elevated to the No. 1 option following Kawhi Leonard's departure torpedoed Siakam's true shooting percentage, but he's still 15th in the league in points per game (23.6) and is posting a slightly-above-average three-point percentage (35.9) on 6.0 attempts.
This kind of production is a far cry from the projections of Siakam back when he was a borderline first-round prospect in 2016.
"To even think that I'm in the conversation, I have an opportunity to be [in the NBA], that's crazy to me," Siakam told Bleacher Report's C.J. Moore three months before he was drafted. "For me, it's just about working hard every day and getting better. The thought of knowing that I might one day be there is amazing for me."
Four years later, Siakam is an All-Star and the leading scorer for a 46-18 team defending a championship.
And if that trajectory is any guide, he may not be done improving. The next step is merging the efficiency with which he played in a lesser role in 2018-19 with the volume he has had in 2019-20. If he does that, Toronto could remain a title contender for the foreseeable future.
As for defense, there aren't many question marks there. The 6'9" forward can ably defend multiple positions and rarely gets lost in the Raptors' scheme. For the third straight year, Toronto is surrendering fewer points per 100 possessions when Siakam is on the floor.
16. Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers
Is there a more plug-and-play superstar than Paul George?
Perhaps out of depth as the every-possession No. 1, he has dominated while working off another primary ball-handler in each of the past three seasons. That's not a given for everyone of his stature.
Better players would struggle when having less granular control over the offense. Paul's game is made for that balancing act. It is seamless.
Displacing him from the ball gives you one of the league's most dangerous standstill shooters. He has ranked no lower than the 74th percentile of spot-up efficiency through the last five seasons.
Tasking him with from-scratch creation leaves you with a viable source of offense. George's 53.2 effective field-goal percentage when shooting out of the pick-and-roll is the 10th-highest among 56 players finishing at least five such possessions per game, and his 38.2 percent success rate on pull-up triples ranks fifth out of everyone firing three or more per game.
George distinguishes himself from players who wear similar hats by virtue of his role allocation. He can spend more time as the de facto No. 1 than most other sidekicks. He is at home swishing jumpers after coming around ball screens, even if his turnover woes out of the pick-and-roll are closer to the rule than the exception.
"Playoff P" is both a laughably lame name for his alter ego and an actual thing (last year's five-game letdown against Portland notwithstanding).
Don't bother arguing that George belongs any lower after missing a bunch of time with right shoulder and left hamstring issues. This is his conservative finish. In any normal season, his context-proof offense and All-NBA defense—playing next to Kawhi Leonard hasn't spared him from pestering the best 1s and 2s—earns top-10-player consideration.
15. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
Ben Simmons' finite offensive range is problematic in that nearly 90 percent of his attempts come inside eight feet. He doesn't even have break-in-case-of-emergency touch beyond there. And yet, his limitations are far from crippling.
Simmons has the speed and size (6'10") to thrive amid his own shortcomings. He's still in the 93rd percentile of finishing around the rim, and defenses remain inclined to collapse around him when he's going downhill.
It is within this chaos that Simmons' passing IQ shines. He is a drive-and-kick whiz and has the floor awareness to hit trailing shooters and sling dimes to the corners. No one has assisted on more three-pointers than him, according to PBP Stats.
None of this is license to entirely ignore the elephant in the room. Simmons' jumper-less repertoire is an issue, and there seems to exist a clear disconnect between him and head coach Brett Brown, who so obviously wants his 23-year-old superstar to branch out.
The operative word here is "superstar." Simmons is flirting with the pinnacle of his profession while skirting one of its most sought-after skills. That speaks to everything else he does, particularly on defense. He can lock down lifelines for entire games.
Nobody in the league qualifies as a more versatile defender. Simmons has spent at least 17 percent of his time guarding every position on the floor, save for center, according to Nylon Calculus' Krishna Narsu. And among every player who has logged at least 1,000 minutes, only Terrance Ferguson and Royce O'Neale have racked up more reps against No. 1 options.
Reconciling Simmons' offensive sins is admittedly tougher this side of his five-year max extension. Superstar pay grades come with increased scrutiny and less patience. That the Philadelphia 76ers offense is slightly more efficient with him off the floor this season cannot be written off. But it can be contextualized.
Philly took an already unevenly built roster last summer and leaned into the awkwardness. Simmons' drawbacks aren't new. The Sixers knew who he was when they maxed him out and surrounded him with too little shooting and neither enough ball-handling nor spacing to explore what he can do away from the action. That he's come so far despite his team working against him in so many ways is a testament to his value.
14. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
The list of players who had a better offensive box plus/minus than Karl-Anthony Towns' 4.8 through five seasons is short (and impressive): Michael Jordan (7.9), LeBron James (6.2), Vince Carter (5.4), Chris Paul (5.3), Nikola Jokic (5.2), David Robinson (5.2), Charles Barkley (5.1) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (5.0).
He isn't quite the passer LeBron, CP3 or Jokic were right off the bat, though his career-high 4.4 assists per game this season shows progress, but Towns' hyper-efficient scoring arsenal makes him perhaps the game's premier big-man weapon.
Stephen Curry is the only player in league history who matches or exceeds Towns' career marks for points per 75 possessions (24.4) and true shooting percentage (62.2). To get that level of scoring prowess out of a 5 is likely unimaginable for other organizations.
And despite missing much of the season with injuries, Towns has shown he's still developing.
He's posting career highs in points (26.5), assists (4.4), made threes (3.3) and effective field-goal percentage (60.0). No one has ever had a season that matches Towns' 2019-20 combination of efficiency, volume and rebounding.
Progress on the defensive end seems to have stalled for Towns, though. Minnesota allows a whopping 6.2 more points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor. Opponents' effective field-goal percentage is 3.4 points higher when he plays.
His defensive rebounding and shot blocking (1.2 per game) provide value on that end, but he still loses focus far too often and is regularly caught out of position.
But there's no question his offensive contributions outweigh the defensive shortcomings. For the fifth time in five seasons, the Timberwolves' net rating is better with Towns on the floor.
13. Chris Paul, Oklahoma City Thunder
Every so often a superstar's decline is not just exaggerated but invented. It is talked about as a matter of fact when, in reality, it has yet to begin.
Such was the plight of Chris Paul entering this season. The Houston Rockets treated him as the less valuable player in their trade for Russell Westbrook, and the Oklahoma City Thunder tried to reroute him upon arrival. Some of this recurring reservation was precautionary. Paul is an undersized point guard (6'0") on the verge of turning 35 and owed $85.6 million over the next two years. Time is a friend to neither his ability nor price point.
Viewed against those concerns, Paul's situation was still overblown. Even when presented with the disclaimer that the Thunder might keep the core intact past the trade deadline, they did not begin the year as a consensus playoff contender. That aloofness is atypical of a team built around a fringe top-10 player.
Just so we're clear: Paul absolutely remains a fringe top-10 player. His 17.7 points and 6.8 assists per game don't leap off the page, but they come on tough-to-fathom efficiency. He is posting the second-highest true shooting percentage of his career and has been Kevin Durant automatic from mid-range, where he's connecting on 53 percent of his looks, another personal best.
Paul continues to take great pleasure in cooking bigs off the dribble when they switch on to him, and he is still a defensive bulldog. Even more impressive is the extent to which the Thunder thrive by leaning on him. Their offensive rating improves by 13.7 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, the second-largest such swing among anyone who has logged at least 250 minutes. (Of note: Danilo Gallinari, his teammate, is first.)
This dependence carries over to crunch time, where Paul leads Oklahoma City in usage rate by a country mile. He's slashing 53.5/36.0/93.8 in the clutch, which is just silly. Among every player with similar usage who has made at least five crunch-time appearances, only Joel Embiid owns a higher true shooting percentage, which is even sillier—and the core reason why the Thunder are 29-13 in clutch contests.
12. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
When he's engaged, Joel Embiid shows flashes of Rudy Gobert-level defense and Karl-Anthony Towns-level offense. Though probably a little shy of both comparisons, when combined, Embiid looks like he might be the best center in the game.
He's shown an ability to step out and hit threes or dominate a post-up like Towns. And his rim protection and recovery speed is elite in certain defensive possessions. But he struggles to consistently provide that level of play on both ends.
Even with ebbs and flows of effort, though, his 23.4 points, 11.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.3 blocks in 30.2 minutes per game impress.
And for the fourth straight season, the Philadelphia 76ers' net rating is better with Embiid on the floor. His defensive-rating swing ranks in the 94th percentile, which is somehow a career low.
One thing he never struggles with is an ability to get to the line. Among players with at least 5,000 career minutes, Embiid's 10.1 free-throw attempts per 75 possessions trails only Shaq's 10.4.
When Embiid gets the ball, his mind often seems already made up to attack. And officials often can't help but blow the whistle.
Getting all those scoring possessions at the line has a compound effect. Embiid's free-throw percentage yields around 1.6 points per two-shot trip to the line. And each whistle gets the opposition closer to the penalty and foul trouble.
Embiid can be a great defender, floor spacer and post player, but his most consistent, valuable contribution might be that foul-drawing ability.
Among players with at least 50 post-ups, Embiid leads the NBA with 1.12 points per post-up possession. But that's buoyed by the fact that he draws shooting fouls on nearly a quarter of those possessions. His effective field-goal percentage out of the post ranks 16th, right behind teammate Ben Simmons.
11. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
The process to get here wasn't always smooth, even after a standout rookie season in 2017-18, but Jayson Tatum is now the guiding force through which the Boston Celtics play. It is on the back of this progression that he's entered superstar territory.
Skeptics like to harp on his efficiency. His 56.2 true shooting percentage is below the league average, and he's banging in his mid-range jumpers at an unspectacular clip. Calling him erratic or unreliable still equates to misinformation.
Relative to his shot quality, Tatum has actually outperformed expectations, according to PBP Stats.
Among everyone attempting at least three pull-up triples per game, only Damian Lillard and Caris LeVert are downing theirs at a better clip. Nikola Jokic is the lone soul who has converted more looks inside four seconds of the shot clock, and Tatum's 55.7 effective field-goal percentage in these situations ranks first out of 104 players who have 50 or more relevant attempts under their belt.
Having another scorer, aside from their point guard, so comfortable creating something out of nothing is a boon for the Celtics offense. They've more than doubled his pick-and-roll volume accordingly. And in recent months, he's parlayed that additional responsibility into more volume around the hoop.
Tatum's playmaking does still trail expectations for someone in his role. He has the lowest assist rate of anyone with his usage. But the feel for throwing less obvious passes is there, and he's proved capable of carrying league-average offensive units without Kemba Walker. His assist totals should approve with repetition.
Through it all, Tatum has maintained the seamlessness of his offense. He hits a ton of self-created threes, but almost half of his overall shots come off assists. He dominates with his escape dribble and step-back three; he preserves his fit next to everyone else with his spot-up touch and opportunism in transition.
This says nothing of his defense, which is borderline All-NBA-caliber. Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart streamline his workload by chasing around the glitziest assignments, but his help around the basket and free-safety gambles are one of the Celtics' most precious defensive devices.
It is no accident Tatum owns their largest net-rating swing (plus-10.9). His two-way impact is their foremost building block.
10. Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks
The Milwaukee Bucks need a second star.
Scant few takes have become more outdated than this one. Reductive disclaimers haven't aged much better.
Khris Middleton isn't a traditional No. 2 option.
What in the what does that actually mean?
Maybe the influx of superteams and superstar free-agency pairings over the past decade has restricted the criteria for sidekicks on championship contenders. That's fair enough and perhaps a legitimate problem for the Bucks given the teams they most likely must get past in prospective Finals matchups.
Except, well, it shouldn't be considered an issue right now. If Middleton didn't qualify as a genuine star before—and that's a big if—he does this season.
Middleton is tied with Damian Lillard for the highest true shooting percentage among everyone averaging more than 25 points per 36 minutes, a list populated almost exclusively by, you guessed it, consensus superstars. But it isn't just these numbers. It's the method by which they come.
Misrepresenting Middleton's place in the league usually begins with the assumption that he's the benefactor of Giannis Antetokounmpo's world domination and the Bucks' floor balance. Who wouldn't thrive playing next to the NBA's reigning MVP, inside four- and five-out lineups? Milwaukee's environment no doubt glitters up Middleton's role, but it hasn't made him in full.
Self-creation is ingrained into his game. He runs pick-and-rolls into pull-up jumpers. He shoots over mismatches in isolation and from the post. Tough fadeaways are business as usual. His off-the-dribble three is deployed in small doses but remains effective. He is the secondary playmaker everyone's waiting for Jayson Tatum to be (which, for now, gives him a clear, albeit slight, edge over Boston's fast-rising linchpin).
In fairness to his critics, Middleton lacks a certain preponderance. His game still stalls out inside the arc, where he's neither strong nor explosive enough to live at the basket. A career-low 15 percent of his looks are coming at the rim this season (7th percentile).
Beyond that, Middleton has all the trimmings of an offensive nerve center. The Bucks aren't the Bucks without their capacity to navigate minutes sans Antetokounmpo. Middleton is central to that independence. Milwaukee outscores opponents by 8.1 points per 100 possessions during his solo stints with an offensive rating that ranks in the 94th percentile.
9. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat
Ebbing offensive efficiency is a threat to Jimmy Butler's place in this exercise. His 24.8 percent clip from three is the second-lowest of his career, and among 111 players attempting at least three pull-up jumpers per game, his 33.8 effective field-goal percentage ranks...110th.
To his credit, Butler has supplemented struggles from the perimeter with relentless assaults on the basket. A staggering 43 percent of his looks are coming at the rim, his highest share since 2012-13. Defenses are still inclined to overreact when he gets going downhill, and he is an expert at both creating and finishing through contact. He ranks in the 100th percentile of shooting foul percentage.
Butler has further counteracted his spiraling outside clips with additional playmaking. His 6.1 dimes per game are a career high, and he places inside the top 25 of potential assists. The Miami Heat are at their scariest when he's captaining fast breaks.
Even in a down shooting season—his crunch-time splits aren't pretty—Butler has proved to be more than essential. The Heat need every ounce of the pressure he puts on defenses off the dribble. Goran Dragic and Kendrick Nunn are the closest they come to face-up alternatives, which won't cut it. Miami's offensive rating takes a nosedive whenever Butler is on the bench.
And more so than anyone else, Butler deserves credit for keeping the Heat afloat on defense.
They started fizzling by December but have stayed above board when he's in the game—no small ask given how much time he spent in lineups with three negative defenders prior to the trade deadline. Playing beside Bam Adebayo, Mr. Happy Feet himself, barely qualifies as a luxury under those circumstances.
This season was always going to be a test of Butler's stardom—of whether he, at age 30 and independent of another top-25 player (Adebayo isn't there...yet), guaranteed his team a playoff spot. It turns out he does.
8. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
Year 1 as a Los Angeles Laker couldn't have gone much better for Anthony Davis so far.
His per-game numbers of 26.7 points, 9.4 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 2.4 blocks and 1.5 steals, in concert with L.A.'s Western Conference-leading 49-14 record, has AD all the way up to fourth in Basketball Reference's 2019-20 MVP Tracker.
The chemistry between him and LeBron James—who trails only Giannis Antetokounmpo in that tracker—seems instantaneous.
The Lakers are plus-10.4 points per 100 possessions (95th percentile) when AD and LeBron share the floor. LeBron passing to AD is the most prolific assist combo in the league. And the three-time champion has had no issue deferring to Davis when both are in the game.
The knock against Davis, of course, is that the Lakers are minus-0.9 points per 100 possessions when he is on the floor without LeBron. And the defense is dreadful for those possessions.
That may be a bit nitpicky, though, as his time in New Orleans probably taught us he's not the kind of player who can singlehandedly carry a team to above-average play.
Instead, he may be the absolute best No. 2 (he still trails LeBron in usage) in the NBA.
7. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
Damian Lillard's superstar stock is aided by the anecdotal perhaps more so than any of his peers.
This isn't to imply he doesn't have the statistical credentials. He absolutely does. His 28.9 points and 7.8 assists per game are career highs, and they come on a personal-best true shooting percentage (61.9). Larry Bird, James Harden and Michael Jordan are the only other players to hit those benchmarks for an entire season.
Really think about it, and this is sort of absurd. Superstars in their prime reach new peaks, but the means by which Lillard has gotten there is different. He has improved incrementally almost each and every season, adding new wrinkles to his game at a stage of his career when many are settled in their ways and focused on maintenance rather than expansion.
Getting swept by the New Orleans Pelicans in the first round of the 2018 playoffs motivated him to improve his decision-making versus double-teams. This year, without a big who can flip up shots and toss passes out of short rolls, he has diversified his own pick-and-roll package. And his finishing around the rim, while still below league average, is more bankable than it has been in most other years.
All this time later, Lillard remains the NBA's closest approximation to the best version of Stephen Curry. No one is better on super-deep threes at the moment. He leads the Association in attempts from 29-plus feet, where he's shooting a bonkers 41.1 percent. And where others offer a reasonable facsimile, Lillard noticeably separates himself with an actual defensive motor and, most importantly, a certain plug-and-playness.
Someone like Trae Young doesn't yet have the luxury of a secondary playmaker who invites him to relinquish control, but you could see other megastars, such as Luka Doncic or James Harden, suffering unintended consequences if tasked with deferring too often. Lillard's style, similar to Curry's, is inoculated against that wart.
And yeah, in the grand scheme of things, his intangibles matter. He's among the players who make you believe the clutch gene exists, even when his shots aren't falling. More than that, he is the master at cultivating and preserving culture.
For most teams, bringing in both Carmelo Anthony and Hassan Whiteside would've been a notional heat check. For the Portland Trail Blazers, it was business as usual, thanks in largest part to their top-10 superstar and emotional bellwether.
6. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
What you're about to read might sound like hyperbole, but I assure you: Nikola Jokic is on track to be one of the best centers in NBA history.
Among players with at least 5,000 career minutes, Jokic ranks sixth all-time in box plus/minus, trailing only Michael Jordan Jordan, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Magic Johnson and David Robinson.
Before the league was suspended, he was averaging 20.2 points, 10.2 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 1.2 steals and 0.7 blocks in just 32.3 minutes per game.
This is his fourth season (he's only played five) with at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and six assists per 75 possessions. No one else has more than three such seasons, and Russell Westbrook, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic and Kevin Garnett are the only players in league history to have at least one.
Oscar Robertson and Magic, both of whom averaged more minutes and played in eras with a faster pace, are the only players in league history with more triple-doubles than Jokic before turning 26.
The Serbian center fills up stat sheets like few players ever have, and they're not just empty numbers. This season, his plus-9.2 net-rating swing ranks in the 93rd percentile (he's never been below the 89th percentile).
Before he was selected first-team All-NBA for 2018-19, there was a robust debate over who the game's best center was. With each passing year, Jokic makes it harder to argue against him.
Even at seven feet tall, he is functionally Denver's point guard. His vision from anywhere on the floor is unparalleled. He can lead a break or pick apart defenses in the half court. And his passing repertoire is outrageous.
He has absurd touch as a scorer, particularly on flip shots and his patented Sombor Shuffle. His footwork in the post hearkens back to the days when big men ruled the league.
Defensively, Jokic gets a bad rap because of the lowlights he finds himself in when switched on to much smaller players on the perimeter. No, he's not the most fleet of foot. But generally speaking, he's in the right spots defensively, knows how to take up space without fouling and actually has a very good steal rate, thanks to deceptively quick hands.
He is, at the very least, an above-average defender. And when you combine that with all-time great offense, you get one of the best players in the world.
5. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
Can someone knocking down under 32 percent of their threes really be one of the NBA's most valuable shooters? It turns out yes.
Luka Doncic's game is not the least bit inefficient. It is just a different brand of efficiency. His 31.8 percent clip from deep comes on absurd volume—9.8 attempts per 36 minutes—and incomprehensible difficulty. Only James Harden and Damian Lillard take a larger share of their triples after using seven or more dribbles, and he's fourth in points scored off unassisted treys, according to PBP Stats.
Both the volume and difficulty on Doncic's threes act in service of everyone else. The mere threat of his step-backs and parking-lot range invites defensive attention commanded by, maybe, seven other players. The Dallas Mavericks' league-best offense improves by 4.4 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor (83rd percentile), not by chance but by the openings his long-distance volume creates and the ridiculous on-the-move passes he flings.
Awarding Doncic top-five-player status is not an overreaction to his sophomore climb. He has amplified his game to the distress of opposing defenses. His step-back gather is more nonchalant than that of Harden, and he's gotten better at leveraging it into opportunities inside the arc. He's more effective at keeping defenders on his back hip, and he mixes changes in direction with shifts in pace to keep helpers on tilt. (It'd be nice to him mix in more of this variety during crunch-time situations.)
This variance in attack has coincided with souped-up finishing. Doncic is shooting 73 percent at the rim (94th percentile) and 57.4 percent on all-two pointers. His flip shots are deadly when he's going downhill, and he's pieced together a strong situational post game.
That he has both honed and expanded his offensive bag while shouldering even more responsibility is patently ridiculous. Dramatic upticks in volume tend to come at the price of efficiency. Doncic's true shooting percentage has actually jumped roughly four points from his rookie season even though his usage rate has spiked by 6.5.
Combine all that with almost unparalleled vision—he's already one of the league's seven best passers—and he has an ironclad case as one of the NBA's top-five players. And he hasn't even technically entered his prime.
4. James Harden, Houston Rockets
If watchability debates were a metric for value, James Harden would have no fewer than three unanimous MVP trophies sitting on his mantle.
Opinions of his game don't actually matter. The aesthetics are open for interpretation. The results are not.
Harden has unlocked an alternative means of sustaining efficient offense. He burns through more isolations than entire teams and has standardized the use of step-back threes. The Houston Rockets don't even go through the trouble of sending that many ball screens his way anymore. He doesn't need them. His 1.22 points per isolation possession are the equivalent of a league-best offense on their own.
Sitting through this brazen of an approach can be grating for those with no vested interests in Houston's well-being.
The possessions aren't always long—the Rockets are second in average possession time, per Inpredictable—but they can be monotonous and, anecdotally, seem to last forever. His search for three-shot fouls and four-point plays is frustrating, if only because both its success and failure lack a consistent baseline. The way he chases—and exaggerates—contact on drives to the basket is equally infuriating for similar reasons and because of what it does to the pace of play.
Say what you will about the look of it all, that it's gimmicky or not in the spirit of the game. The Rockets, in their eyes, have spotted a market inefficiency, and they've elected to ride it, repeatedly, to title contention. Playoff flameouts open them up to criticism, but jockeying for a top-three regular-season finish in the Western Conference every year is nothing to belittle.
None of it's possible without Harden. He has broken regular-season defenses, not unlike Stephen Curry, only on the back of harder-to-love extremes. Focusing too much on the pretense of Harden's invention risks underselling the significance of what he's doing: scoring like hell, to the tune of 34.4 points per game on unreal efficiency.
For anyone who can't appreciate that, perhaps they can at least muster affection for his playmaking. Harden has achieved absolute awareness in the half court and throws some of the league's most mind-meltingly difficult passes.
Because, obviously, scoring like hell isn't enough.
3. Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers
Kawhi Leonard's best-player-in-the-league case keeps receiving convincing bumps.
Winning a second title and Finals MVP last year was the peak of his argument. That he wound up leaving the Toronto Raptors partially added to the intrigue. This wasn't him emerging from the shadows of his Hall of Fame teammates. It was him spearheading an entire championship push in a one-off situation while playing through a left knee injury that became progressively worse as the postseason soldiered on.
Not that he needed it, but Leonard's second title legitimized him in a way 2013-14's banner year never needed to, a measuring stick for just how unfathomably far his offensive game had come. The Raptors put him at the center of their universe, and it worked.
Leonard's performance this season, on yet another new team, has amplified his cause, resetting his career peak once more. The Los Angeles Clippers opened the year leaning on him for extreme pick-and-roll usage. That volume has come down from its initial high, but it still makes up roughly one-third of Leonard's offensive possessions, by far and away the largest share of his career.
Cooking more initiation into his routine has given way to the long-anticipated playmaking surge. Leonard doesn't toss the same fancy-schmancy passes James Harden and LeBron James do, but he's successfully leveraging the chaos he inflicts into gimme opportunities for his teammates.
Defenses regress into ataxic clutter when he maneuvers inside the arc, and so many opponents are predisposed to show double-teams as soon as he catches the ball outside the rainbow. The attention he draws, verging on panic, is the turbine Los Angeles uses to power its offense. Leonard is averaging a career-high 5.6 assists per 36 minutes, and the Clippers are scoring 116.8 points per 100 possessions (93rd percentile) when he plays without Paul George and Lou Williams.
Driving an entire offense as the primary facilitator is Leonard's final frontier, the last step in his quest, be it deliberate or incidental, to become the NBA's most complete player.
His progression as a scorer already gave him a stake in that conversation before now. He swishes pull-up mid-rangers on autopilot, and his bullish drives to the basket render defenders who aren't built like houses mostly helpless. His off-the-bounce three is on the come-down, but teams still respect it, and he remains lights-out off the catch.
That someone can be so utterly assertive on offense—30.0 points per 36 minutes on 58.5 percent true shooting—while guarding at an All-NBA level is beyond comprehension. Leonard doesn't exhaust his defensive stores on every possession, thus creating negligible separation between himself and Giannis Antetokounmpo. But the engagement and resolve he's sustained for the latter half of this season are truly, totally terrifying.
2. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
LeBron James' will should be showing signs of erosion at age 35—something, anything, that suggests he is exiting his prime.
So much for that
For whatever reason—and there are many—he seems further away from his twilight than last season. Whether it's the arrival of Anthony Davis, the Los Angeles Lakers' proximity to a title, a disdain for the push to inaugurate Giannis Antetokounmpo or Kawhi Leonard as the league's best player or some combination of everything, LeBron is carrying himself with a renewed sense of purpose and swagger.
That fresh approach is most evident on the defensive end. He isn't checking fellow superstars every night, but he's openly more engaged in the half-court. His close-outs on shooters have more pep, in that he's actually closing out on shooters, and he's fighting through screens with intent, enough to help Los Angeles coax ball-handlers into long mid-range jumpers and keep them from working the corners.
Much is made of the Lakers offense in LeBron's absence, and correctly so. They are short no fewer than one ball-handler. But the defense has, statistically, suffered more when he's off the court. That's not telltale of anything groundbreaking. It also isn't purely a function of his spending so much time beside Davis and Danny Green.
On offense, meanwhile, LeBron still emits inevitability. What he wants to do gets done.
Just as he developed a post game in Miami and added a step-back three into his ammunition depot last season, he has decided that now, in Year 17, is the time to win the league's assist crown. It is this added influence over the offense that allows him to hold off the stars most closely at his heels—namely Kawhi Leonard.
Players have rarely churned out 25-point, 10-assist detonations so regularly, much less at LeBron's age. He has six years on anyone else who maintained those averages for an entire season. What he's doing now isn't natural. Yet watching him, it looks and feels organic.
In truth, that's LeBron's career arc in a nutshell. He has normalized, even numbed us to, what isn't. Someday, he'll cease contending for MVPs and best-player-alive honors. That time isn't now. What's more, it doesn't appear to be on the horizon, either.
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
This might be the easiest call of this project. Giannis isn't just the NBA's best power forward in 2019-20, he is having an all-time great campaign, regardless of position.
His 11.5 box plus/minus is the ninth-best single-season mark in NBA history. LeBron James (three times), Michael Jordan (three times), Stephen Curry and David Robinson are the only players with better seasons by that mark.
And while the per-game numbers—29.6 points, 13.7 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.0 blocks—that underlie that box plus/minus are eye-popping, they still don't do this season justice.
Like Curry and the Golden State Warriors in 2015-16, Giannis hasn't needed to play a ton of minutes for his team to put games away early. For the season, he is averaging just 30.9 minutes per game.
His per-75-possession numbers—32.9 points, 15.2 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.1 blocks—are literally unprecedented. And no one's all that close.
That seemingly impossible individual production for a 53-12 team suggests Giannis should win MVP in a landslide. The aforementioned tracker agrees.
For the reigning winner of that honor, the real prize might be Defensive Player of the Year. If he secured both awards, Giannis would join Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon as the only players in league history to pull that off.
In addition to his 12.7 defensive rebounds (first this season and third-most all time), 1.1 steals and 1.1 blocks per 75 possessions, Milwaukee allow 11.3 fewer points per 100 possessions when Giannis is on the floor, giving him a defensive rating swing that ranked in the 98th percentile.
For further context, the Bucks allow just 97.7 points per 100 possessions when Giannis plays. The league average defensive rating this season is 110.4.
Not only is Giannis one of the most nightmarish (for opponents) point forwards the league has ever seen, he's a versatile defensive anchor who can guard multiple positions.
If his still-developing jump shot ever truly arrives, it might be impossible to even imagine a 4 more perfectly suited for the modern NBA.