Ranking the Top 30 NBA Players in Orlando
Regular-season basketball is back! And we're so excited that we could rank the top 30 players present for the Disney World restart.
So we will.
This pecking order comes directly on the heels of Bleacher Report's NBA 100, but the final order will be different. For one, plenty of our top-100 inclusions hailed from teams that didn't make the Disney-campus cut. Their absences give way to shake-ups.
Building that chain of command was also a reflective process—a measure of impact prior to the league closing its doors. This exercise takes into account the regular season to date but is also predictive, seeking primarily to identify those who will add the most value through the playoffs. This opens the door for those previously restrained by more limited samples. (Joel Embiid, Paul George, Zion Williamson, etc.)
Players will not be penalized if they're on teams unlikely or not guaranteed to crack the postseason. But the length of their stay does matter, since it directly relates to the amount of time they'll have to leave their imprint. In the instance of close calls, priority will be given to those assured of playoff spin.
Anyone with unclear availability is ineligible for consideration. Montrezl Harrell is still not with the Los Angeles Clippers after leaving to deal with a family matter. Victor Oladipo has appeared in scrimmages but isn't yet considered a go. They'd both have a stronger case if working on more certain timelines.
30. De'Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings
A surprise return from a left ankle injury paved the way for De'Aaron Fox to make the cut, an arrival that serves dual purpose: prioritizing recognition for a player who went overlooked prior to the league's closure, and settling a migraine-inducing tossup between Fox, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kristaps Porzingis.
It matters that the Sacramento Kings could wind up playing meaningless games while the Oklahoma City Thunder and Dallas Mavericks are assured postseason spin. To what extent, though, is open for interpretation.
Fox's leg-up over Gilgeous-Alexander and Porzingis comes courtesy of his role. He is the vessel through which the Kings run their offense. They don't have someone who puts consistent pressure on the rim without him—only four players are averaging more drives per game—and his constant probing is mission critical to the team's outside shooting.
That same left ankle hobbled Fox to start the season, but he was all the way back long before the hiatus. He's averaging 22.3 points and 6.8 assists while nailing 52.7 percent of his twos since Jan. 1—production he pieced together despite the Kings taking so long to play at a faster pace.
Shooting remains his swing skill. He's hitting only 30.7 percent of his threes after converting 37.1 percent last year and barely knocking down 40 percent of his pull-up jumpers inside the arc. Sacramento needs more bankable shooting from him at the charity stripe as well (70.3 percent) since it seems like he's going to live there.
Already, though, Fox has proved himself worthy of directing an offense. His place in the league is not contingent upon improving his outside touch. That's more of a bells-and-whistles situation—the difference between him planting himself near the top 25 and inside All-NBA territory.
Honorable Mentions: Steven Adams; Deandre Ayton; Lonzo Ball; Malcolm Brogdon; Shai Gilgeous-Alexander; Eric Bledsoe; Danilo Gallinari; Marc Gasol; Montrezl Harrell; Tobias Harris; Gordon Hayward; Jonathan Isaac; Brook Lopez; Paul Millsap; Jamal Murray; Victor Oladipo; Kristaps Porzingis; Marcus Smart; Nikola Vucevic; Fred VanVleet.
29. CJ McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers
Regular Season NBA 100 Rank: 33
CJ McCollum can only be appreciated in full after accepting what he's not.
He's not a high-level finisher at the rim. He's not going to frequent the foul line. He's not a natural playmaker even when he's governing lineups without a primary creator. (He's done more of that this season.)
This could be problematic if he were the springboard for a team's rebuild. He's not that, either. His ideal role is the one he holds with the Portland Trail Blazers: that of a No. 2 scorer—emphasis on scorer—whose focus is confined to plying every tool in his box, of which there are many.
Other players might struggle to scuttle defenses with a shot distribution that stalls out before the rim. McCollum does not. The in-between game is his bread and butter. He is shooting 47 percent from mid-range overall (89th percentile) and disarms defenders with a fusion of fakes, floaters, pull-ups and changes of pace and takeoff points.
Portland would be better if he could pour in more off-the-dribble threes or if he offered more size on defense. But unflappable scoring is hard to find—he's cleared 20 points per game in each of the past five years—and McCollum's has already passed the postseason test. He's averaging 23.2 points over the Blazers' past four playoff trips on efficiency that mirrors what he gives them each and every regular season.
28. Bam Adebayo, MIami Heat
Regular Season NBA 100 Rank: 26
Bam Adebayo is filling the box score from every imaginable angle. Only six other players have turned in seasons averaging at least 15 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, one steal and one block: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Kevin Garnett and Chris Webber.
I repeat: Whoa.
Adebayo basically typifies the big-man revolution. He doesn't have three-point range (yet), but he is positionless. He has the foot speed to defend guards and wings and the build to tussle with bigs. He might be the Eastern Conference player best suited to go up against Antetokounmpo, depending on how you feel about OG Anunoby and pretty much the Philadelphia 76ers' entire frontline.
The Miami Heat also have Adebayo initiating their offense—not just leading fast breaks, but actually launching it. He will pull back and set up things in the half-court; facilitate from the post; throw passes off the dribble and with both hands; drop off to teammates orbiting the three-point arc; find shooters out of double-teams; and toss pinpoint leads to cutters.
Displacing Adebayo from his mid-hiatus rank is not a mea culpa. It is more of an admittance that there may have been a rush to coronate. His defensive portability is undeniable, but using him at center alongside a smaller 4 comes at the expense of rim protection. And for all he can do as an initiator, he can't yet reliably create for himself or command lineups on his own. Almost 72 percent of his made baskets come off assists, and Miami offensive rating ranks inside the 34th percentile when he plays without Jimmy Butler.
27. Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics
Regular Season NBA 100 Rank: 30
Jaylen Brown's choppy 2018-19 campaign feels like forever ago—and not solely because we've somehow lived through a decade-and-a-half since then. Rather, he's played so well that the distance between who he is now versus then outstrips the amount of time that has actually passed.
Hierarchical clarity has helped him as much as anything. The Boston Celtics remade themselves over the offseason, a semi-involuntarily reshuffling that simplified their pecking order and empowered the two players who mean the most to the their future.
Most of the attention has drifted toward Jayson Tatum and his superstar epiphany. Brown's ascent, while not as glittery, is no less paramount. He has turned a better health bill, more minutes and higher usage into offensive steadiness. He's averaging 20.4 points and canning 38.1 percent of his threes, making him one of just five players to reach those benchmarks. The beauty of his scoring is that it's almost entirely complementary, though this might also be an indicator of his limitations.
More than half of his offensive possessions come in transition or as spot-ups, and nearly 90 percent of his threes are assisted. That distribution is translatable across every lineup but doesn't say much for his secondary creation. He can attack closeouts and bully smaller guards and wings with the occasional post-up, but his additional time on-ball, specifically as a pick-and-roll initiator, has not unlocked a more proven playmaker.
Perhaps that changes in time. It doesn't have to. Brown toes the line of stardom as is, in no small part because he's the second-most valuable stopper for the league's fourth-best defense. He has the bounce and athleticism to hang with first-option wings and is both long and strong enough to match up against some bigs.
If the Celtics need more from Brown to cement their place among contenders, it isn't much. He is more fringe star than specialist—much closer to third-best-player-on-a-championship-team material than not.
26. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies
Regular Season NBA 100 Rank: 34
Ja Morant's place among the stars could be more volatile than it was before. The Memphis Grizzlies are not playoff locks, and more than that, the postseason can be a trying time for veterans who haven't yet been, let alone rookies who are still getting a feel for the NBA game at large.
This doesn't seem like it quite applies to Morant. His entire season is an exercise in redefining the rookie experience. From his NBA 100 writeup:
"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."
Memphis can already trust Morant's feel for the game. Highlight-hunting does not sustain him. He wants to defer, an inclination that manifests in a dedication to throwing less-obvious passes coming around screens.
His exploratory vision is not without hiccups, but misfires are the price of budding craft. His turnover rate will drop in time. It's more important that he look the part of a player seasoned beyond his actual experience—and he does. Oscar Robertson and Trae Young are the only other rookies to clear 20 points and eight assists per 36 minutes, and Morant joins this club while posting a true shooting percentage above the current league average.
25. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
Regular Season NBA 100 Rank: 33
Life was supposed to get easier for Donovan Mitchell following the acquisitions of Bojan Bogdanovic and Mike Conley. It never did.
Clearing 24 points and four assists per game while shooting 50.1 percent on twos and a career-best 36.4 percent from deep is big-time but, for him, hasn't constituted a leap. The questions are the same: Can he get to the rim more? And the foul line more? Leverage a dependable off-the-dribble three?
Conley's hamstring issues and protracted struggles excuse some of Mitchell's plateaus, but not all of them. (The increase in long twos is inexplicable.) He had Bogdanovic for most of the season, a demonstrative upgrade over the complementary scoring around him last year, non-Rudy Gobert division (Jae Crowder, Ricky Rubio, even Joe Ingles).
Mitchell's outlook isn't any rosier at Disney. Bogdanovic is done for the year after having surgery on his right wrist. Utah's offense has so far imploded when Mitchell plays without him. That won't change over the longer haul unless Conley inches closer to the player he was last season.
To Mitchell's credit, he's been the primary focus of defenses since his rookie season, a squeeze that's hit him hardest during the playoffs. This attention he commands continues to, deservedly, carry him in front of peers like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (who placed ahead of him in the regular-season ranking). Mitchell's role is more complicated as the leading option.
That affords him only so much leeway. He's in Year 3 and speeding toward a max extension. Explaining away Utah's constraints with him as its No. 1 doesn't cut it anymore. How he fares during this next postseason push, without Bogdanovic, will speak volumes about the extent of his stardom.
24. Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans
Regular Season NBA 100 Rank: 29
Twenty games of Zion Williamson isn't a lot to go on. It also feels like just enough. He'd be even higher if the New Orleans Pelicans were assured a playoff berth or guaranteed to use him for more than small bursts at a time.
Zion's numbers bend the brain. He's averaging 28.6 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.6 assists per 36 minutes while finding nylon on nearly 60 percent of his twos. The Pelicans are just 10-10 in the games he's played but are annihilating opponents during his time on the court.
Skimpy samples are often noisy and an enemy of perspective. Zion's influence seems real. He plays so fast that everything he does appears to come within the flow of the offense. He doesn't dilly dally when catching the ball in the half court, and his post-ups, on which he's shooting better than 50 percent, unfold at warp speed. Of the 58 players averaging between 30 and 40 frontcourt touches per game, only Marc Gasol and Joe Harris maintain possession for less time.
Stardom can be disruptive. It has a way of mandating rather than dovetailing. Zion could eventually force the Pelicans to retrofit their roster around him with a stretchier center and a supporting cast more conducive to giving him methodical touches.
Right now, he's dominating without dictating, and New Orleans, even after a Thursday night loss to Utah, is more terrifying for it.
23. Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans
Regular Season NBA 100 Ranking: 28
Brandon Ingram has always found ways to reach his spots. The thing is, so have his defenders.
Sharpening his three-point touch has opened up the floor. He's shooting 38.4 percent from deep on 6.4 attempts per game, efficiency and volume defenses must respect. That range also renders him a cozier fit as part of a larger dynamic, a huge development for a Pelicans squad with so many players worthy of significant touches.
Fitting him and Zion Williamson together isn't the rickety proposition it projected to be. Ingram's shooting percentages take a bath during their runs together, but New Orleans plays so damn fast in those minutes the drop-off is tenable.
His 41.8 percent clip on spot-up threes likewise gives him a long-term blueprint to coexist with Zion, Lonzo Ball and Jrue Holiday. Ditto for his quick second passes and one-handed kick-outs. This foursome has outscored opponents by 121 points in just 267 minutes. I mean...wow.
Putting Ingram this high doesn't yet represent the majority opinion. Skepticism is available in heavy supply, perhaps because he teased so much only to never fully deliver in Los Angeles. (Related: Can he plead surrounding unrest and injuries?) The Pelicans also aren't markedly better on offense or defense with him in the game.
Let's agree to not overthink this. Ingram is averaging 24.2 points and 4.2 assists on 58.8 percent true shooting and has the runway to get better. He should have more to offer as a facilitator given all the attention he commands on the move. His partnership with Zion will be even cleaner if the Pelicans can find a floor-spacing 5. And he has the length to be more disruptive on defense, though he might first need to see less time on bigger, stronger 4s.
Granted, this is looking a little too far ahead. Ingram's next leap, assuming he has one in him, probably isn't coming at Disney. That's fine. He's already made enough strides to warrant top-25 status relative to his competition during the restart—and, potentially, overall.
22. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
Regular Season NBA 100 Rank: 27
Finite opportunity hamstrings Devin Booker's potential peak for the rest of the season. The Phoenix Suns are not making the playoffs, and their eventual elimination could prompt them to sit their franchise star before long.
Still, sticking him any lower feels wrong given his performance so far. Consider this from his NBA 100 writeup:
"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), Lillard and Isaiah Thomas."
Better personnel around him has helped Booker's efficiency, but his season is not the byproduct of a higher-quality supporting cast. He is the engine powering the Suns offense, as both a scorer and facilitator. They're pumping in 12.6 points per 100 possessions more with him on the court—the third-biggest swing among everyone who's played at least 500 minutes.
This year has served as a clarification of Booker's value. Referring to him as an empty-calories scorer is outdated and for the uninformed. Endorsing his offense no longer amounts to stepping out on a limb. It is just a fact.
Devin Booker is really good. Period. End of story. His stay at Disney, however brief, should only reinforce as much.
21. Kemba Walker, Boston Celtics
Regular Season NBA 100 Ranking: 24
Kemba Walker's left knee threatens to make this look too ambitious. He didn't get much playing time during the Celtics' scrimmages and will be on a minutes cap to begin the regular-season reboot.
"I've been going through this pretty much most of the season, even before this bubble stuff," he told reporters. "So, it's been something that's been nagging for a little bit now. Unfortunately it's still bothering me even after I’ve put in a lot of work and did the necessary things to try to get it right."
That...doesn't sound too reassuring. On the bright side, head coach Brad Stevens thinks Walker is ahead of schedule. The Celtics need him to be right.
Jayson Tatum's superstar ascension has not diminished their dependence on Walker. He remains their primary pick-and-roll initiator and still leads them in crunch-time usage. His fit alongside everyone else is comfier than Kyrie Irving's because he doesn't work in isolation as much, but his off-the-bounce jumper is an offensive life preserver. He's connecting on 36.4 percent of his pull-up threes, which he attempts more frequently than everyone in the league aside from Luka Doncic, James Harden, Damian Lillard and Trae Young.
Boston's postseason attack will be substantively weaker if Walker is not himself. Having two stars who can create something out of nothing is essentially a championship prerequisite, and the supporting cast isn't equipped to offset the loss or neutralization of one—not even with Jaylen Brown playing through a career year, Marcus Smart splashing in 40.4 percent of his own pull-up triples and Gordon Hayward reaching a fringe-star medium.
Buying time without Walker has proved tough. He owns the highest offensive-rating swing on the Celtics among everyday players. The 109.3 points per 100 possessions they're posting with him on the bench rates in the 38th percentile.
Every second he's not on the floor, and every game he isn't himself, is a huge loss for Boston. That's at once unsettling and a re-affirmation of his standing among fellow stars. And while his playoff track record stretches just 11 games, his off-the-dribble shot-making is ready-made for the postseason crucible—especially when, unlike his days in Charlotte, he accounts for half of a genuine one-two punch.
20. Jrue Holiday, New Orleans Pelicans
Regular Season NBA 100 Rank: 25
Jrue Holiday's stardom remains subtle. Enough people celebrate him that he's no longer the reflexive pick for the NBA's most underrated player, but his recognition is hardly on par with his contributions.
Pecking-order politics are part of the mild-to-modest appreciation shown for him. He went from ceding status to Anthony Davis to co-headlining a reinvention alongside a new All-Star (Brandon Ingram), bigger brand name (Lonzo Ball) and the most electric prospect since Davis, if not LeBron James, himself (Zion Williamson).
Approval ratings also tend to be more reserved for those who hang their hats on defense. That is both unfair and a misrepresentation of what Holiday brings.
Oh, yes, he defends his butt off. He's 6'3" with the coverage range of someone standing 6'8". He can neither be blown by nor gone through and spares his teammates from tackling the very toughest perimeter assignments. Among all players who have amassed at least 1,000 minutes, only Bruce Brown, Dorian Finney-Smith, Ben Simmons, Royce O'Neale and Terrance Ferguson have spent more time chasing around No. 1 options, according to data compiled by Nylon Calculus' Krishna Narsu.
But Holiday, somehow, also bears a star's burden on offense. His downtick in usage has not coincided with a an easier role. He is still charged with half-court initiation and extensive self-creation. Luka Doncic, James Harden, LeBron James, Nikola Jokic, Damian Lillard, Kyle Lowry, Russell Westbrook and Trae Young are the only players averaging as many points (19.6) and assists (6.9).
Nothing is on the verge of changing. The Pelicans aren't suddenly less reliant on Holiday's offense. If he surrenders any control over the offense to Ball and Ingram, they'll need him to put down more catch-and-shoot jumpers. And his defense will never not be a lifeline. They don't have a pure wing to spell him, and he'll only become more irreplaceable if they lean into Zion-at-the-5 arrangements.
19. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Regular Season NBA 100 Rank: 18
The league continues to pivot away from rim-running bigs in favor of non-traditional archetypes, most notably smaller lineups and centers who stretch defenses, boast a floor game and/or move like guards. That focus on innovation has marginalized more conventional 5s, if threatened them with extinction.
Rudy Gobert is not in danger of meeting that fate.
Sure, he doesn't generate his own offense, jack threes or pass out of the post. And yes, he is more susceptible to matchup problems if teams go small enough. But the path to turning him into a liability doesn't exist. Not yet. And if it does, it currently runs through only one team: the Houston Rockets.
Even that's a stretch. The Rockets gave him fits during the first round of last year's playoffs but didn't run him off the floor. They're smaller and zippier now, but Gobert is a dominant enough force at the rim that having him sit back and contest Russell Westbrook posterization attempts counts as a viable strategy.
Pulling him outside the paint also isn't a death knell for his value. As ESPN's Zach Lowe wrote: "Gobert is a one-man defensive architecture, and is a little faster and more comfortable scrambling with opposing ball handlers on the perimeter. One data point: Opponents averaged an embarrassing 0.688 points on 177 isolations against Gobert, the lowest figure in the league among all defenders who faced at least 100 isos, per Second Spectrum."
Defensive Player of the Year will probably go to Giannis Antetokounmpo, a decision that has less to do with voter fatigue and more with the reigning MVP's everywhereness. But Gobert's body of work might now be underrated.
Utah's fall to 10th in points allowed per 100 possessions is not on him. The frequency with which opponents reach the rim still takes a nosedive with him on the floor, no small feat given how many ball-handlers are actively funneled toward him, and the Jazz's defensive rating places in the 77th percentile when he's jumping center, compared to the 23rd percentile during his stays on the bench.
This impact cannot be overstated. Utah veered away from defense over the offseason by letting Ricky Rubio walk, trading Jae Crowder and bringing in Bojan Bogdanovic. Mike Conley's injury-plagued campaign hasn't helped. That Gobert is still able to anchor a formidable defense during his minutes amid increasing pressure is unreal. He will never have measurable influence over the offense and doesn't jibe with the revolution happening at center, but he doesn't need to change or conform. Generational defense is his innovation.
18. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
Regular Season NBA 100 Rank: 20
Each attempt at ranking Kyle Lowry creates a division that runs counter to his practicality. You're either too high or too low on him, never perfectly valuing him. There should be more of a consensus, or so you'd think, for a player who fits everywhere.
Maybe Lowry's penchant for irritation grates on those with no investment in what he's doing, the consummate "You'd love him if he were on your team" player. He hunts for charges, embracing collision without remorse. He is in your jersey when on-ball. He will jockey with bigs for rebounds when close enough to the basket.
Maybe it's his knack for modest lines. He isn't quite the Al Horford of guards, but who cares about 20 points and eight assists on above-average true shooting when someone else is scoring more? And fitting into the larger dynamic isn't sexy. So what if he can play off others and amplify opportunities on the break but also ignite the half-court offense from scratch? And set up multiple shots for teammates on the same possession without dominating the ball?
Or maybe it's because Lowry is a both a player and philosophy, making him a unique case study. His hustle is comprehensive, and it informs the Raptors' identity at both ends. He is the through line connecting every iteration of Toronto over the past seven-plus years—and there have been many.
That is difficult to fully quantify yet no less a matter of fact. Any doubt about his importance, particularly in postseasons past, was put to bed during last year's title run. But the way Lowry has helped the Raptors negotiate Kawhi Leonard's departure, Pascal Siakam's rise and a myriad of injuries might be his best work yet.
17. Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors
Regular Season NBA 100 Rank: 17
Drops in efficiency have become a focus of Pascal Siakam's season, not as a means of invalidating his performance, but as a way of, earlier on, puncturing tributary MVP love, a repeat bid for Most Improved Player and his place relative to Jayson Tatum.
There is nothing factually incorrect about that conversation. Siakam's true shooting percentage has dipped by nearly seven points, from 62.8 last year to 55.9 now. His accuracy from beyond the arc has waned over his past 25 games or so, and last season's 60.2 percent clip on twos has plunged to 50.6.
Spotlighting this as a major concern, though, is skepticism for the sake of pageantry.
Siakam's role has yet again undergone a drastic shift. His usage rate has jumped by 7.7 points, compared to his 5.1-point spike between 2017-18 and 2018-19. And where last year's change was more about taking on additional responsibility, this year's transition is a matter of both volume and transformation. As Yasmin from the Dishes & Dimes podcast and The Neon Playbook unpacked on an episode of Hardwood Knocks (34:24):
"[Raptors head coach] Nick Nurse, he's spoken about this a lot, where he likes making players uncomfortable as a means of development. For Pascal in particular, he is an excellent straight-line driver; he can get straight to the rim. He's an excellent cutter. He has several post-up moves that are very high efficiency. But we're seeing him being forced to dribble, handle the ball into crowds, collapse defenses and then pass out to shooters. They're trying to build him as a system."
Awkwardness is the expectation for striking expansion. The frequency with which Siakam finishes possessions as the pick-and-roll ball-handler has almost tripled, going from 5.3 percent in 2018-19 to 14.1 this year. The time he spends in isolation has almost doubled relative to last season. He's gone from attempting fewer than one pull-up-jumper per game to five. (He's hitting an acceptable 34.3 percent of his pull-up threes, by the way.)
Toronto should count itself lucky that Siakam's efficiency hasn't fallen further, and that he still has the energy to defend at all. Every team in the league would take his 23.6 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.6 assists on average-adjacent true shooting under the circumstances. And though his season has never once been spun as a step back, it wants for more appreciation of what he's actually doing: confirming his superstardom and securing the Raptors' future.
16. Russell Westbrook, Houston Rockets
Regular Season NBA 100 Rank: 22
Russell Westbrook's mid-hiatus finish didn't go over too well with a bunch of people—including Russell Westbrook. Vaulting him closer to the top 15 won't satisfy everyone, least of all him, but it still represents a significant uptick.
It's easier to boost his standing when looking forward rather than at the season in totality. Westbrook A.C. (After Centers) is the only version of him we'll see at Disney. The Rockets are no longer built to play any other way.
Just as well, because no one benefits more from their shift to microball. Westbrook has been on a tear since the beginning of January but done his best work without a big man in sight. Since Clint Capela's heel injury (and eventual trade), he's averaging 31.0 points and 5.8 assists with a 57.5 true shooting percentage. Around 56 percent of his field-goal attempts are coming inside five feet during this time, compared to 46.3 percent prior.
Wide-open lanes are doing wonders for Westbrook. Who could've known? (Aside from everyone.)
On what grounds Westbrook might reenter the top-10 discussion is unclear. There's an unceasing dispeace to his impact, one as relentless as the man himself. The force with which he plays can both sustain an entire team and add to its combustibility, a variance that lends itself to a particular unease.
Can he continue taking and making the right shots? Is he part of the solution to Houston's transition defense? And most critically, can he consistently carry the Rockets during Harden's (brief) stays on the bench? They are winning the minutes he plays on his own since the turn of the calendar but a net minus, again, since Capela left the rotation.
15. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
Regular Season NBA 100 Rank: 15
Players who place significant constraints upon their team's mode of operation are seldom granted unambiguous entry into stardom. Ben Simmons is not merely an exception; he's the exception.
Envisioning him in a Giannis Antetokounmpo-like role doesn't quite do his functional strictures justice. The limitations he subjects the Philadelphia 76ers to are far greater than those with which the Milwaukee Bucks must grapple. Antetokounmpo is at least willing to fire up threes. Almost 90 percent of Simmons' looks come inside eight feet, and he has, to date, resisted head coach Brett Brown's pleas to let 'em rip from deep.
Reading too much into Philly's scrimmages at Disney World is a recipe for disappointment. Simmons was more willing to launch threes, but exhibitions are grounds for experimentation. It'll be a genuine shock if that open-mindedness carries over to games that matter.
To what end Simmons' finite range should weigh him down is debatable. The Sixers have moved Al Horford to the bench and inserted Shake Milton into the starting lineup to better serve the Simmons-Joel Embiid partnership. That's inconvenient given how much Horford is owed (three years, $81 million, with $69 million guaranteed) but not a tweak to hold against Simmons (or Embiid). Teams are supposed to tailor rosters to the strengths of their stars.
Simmons is exactly that. He's still in the 93rd percentile of finishing around the rim despite his inability to leverage even a floater, and his kick-outs are among the league's most productive. Nobody has assisted on more three-pointers, according to PBP Stats. That Philly's offense hums when he plays with only one of Embiid and Horford bodes well for his top-10 case. (Also: Can we just appreciate someone who churns out 17 points and eight assists per game while hitting nearly 59 percent of twos?)
The breadth of Simmons' defensive responsibilities takes care of the rest. No one else is moved around more. He has spent at least 17 percent of his time guarding every position on the floor except for center, according to Nylon Calculus' Krishna Narsu. And these aren't gimme assignments. He's pestering stars and No. 1 options. The list of players he's seen the most time against includes Jimmy Butler, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Morris Sr., Pascal Siakam, Spencer Dinwiddie, Bradley Beal, Khris Middleton, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Malcolm Brogdon and, er, Darius Garland.
Philly has Simmons powering its offense while anchoring its perimeter defense. That role isn't for everyone. Quite literally, it isn't for anyone.
Two-way primary usage, a metric developed by 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. Nobody this season has a higher two-way workload than Simmons, something that makes total sense yet is patently silly.
14. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
Regular Season NBA 100 Rank: 11
Too many have fallen into the habit of boiling Jayson Tatum's ascension down to an abbreviated span. His is not an inauthentic superstar leap founded around a monthlong performance. His climb up the league ranks is more gradual than meteoric.
Since Dec. 1, a stretch covering 41 games, Tatum is averaging 24.9 points, 3.1 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks. His overall efficiency gets dragged—he's posting a true shooting percentage for the season (56.2) below the league mean—but he's banging in 41.2 percent of his threes over this extended span while notching a 58.4 true shooting percentage.
This level of accuracy should be commended given the degree of difficulty on Tatum's looks. More than 56 percent of his two-pointers go unassisted, and he's developed into one of the preeminent escape-dribble jump-shooters. Among everyone attempting three or more pull-up triples per game, only Caris LeVert and Damian Lillard are burying theirs at a higher clip.
Boston's mounting reliance on Tatum needs no defense. He has earned it. But the transition hasn't been perfect. Saddling him with more half-court initiation has not culminated in a playmaking leap. He has the lowest assist rate for someone with his usage.
That does little, if nothing, to downplay his top-15 case—previously a top-10 case when regular-season availability was more of a factor. It only means he has more room to grow. And the Celtics might need that mini jump to come now.
Kemba Walker's left knee is among the restart's biggest wild cards. Boston doesn't get to be the league's most efficient pull-up-shooting team without him. Its very dependence on those looks—only Houston attempts more pull-up threes—goes from acceptable to harrowing if he's in any way limited. This says nothing of the table-setting void he'd leave.
Lineups captained by Tatum without Walker, while defensive stalwarts, have hovered around league average on offense. That's borderline encouraging...if the Celtics' half-court attack doesn't fall off a cliff in those minutes...which it does.
Tatum's defense might still bridge the crevice separating him from the top 10 on its own. Though he's usually spared from the toughest assignments by Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart, he's a dynamite helper and off-ball disruptor. But he'll have a much stronger case if he more effectively carries the offense without another high-level playmaker beside him. Taking on those responsibilities, even if only in spurts, is his next frontier.
13. Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks
Regular Season NBA 100 Rank: 10
Putting Khris Middleton in the No. 10 spot after the season halted caused an itty-bitty stir. The response was hardly unfair. So much about these exercises is debatable and a matter of taste. But that's exactly what Middleton's most recent finish should be considered: debatable. Not egregious, not indisputable, but arguable.
Much of his case was rooted in opportunity. He doesn't add top-10 value in a normal season. This year is anything but. Never mind the coronavirus pandemic that forced an unprecedented closure. Stephen Curry (five games) and Kyrie Irving (20) didn't play enough to take up their usual spots. Kevin Durant didn't play at all. Limited availability from Joel Embiid (44 games), Paul George (42) and Karl-Anthony Towns (35) opened the door even more.
Many of the strings attached to Middleton's standing are being cut here. The restart brings with it a blankish slate and chance to project rather than reflect, and he cedes ground to select names he edged out before.
But it isn't much ground. And this isn't too high. Middleton is having that kind of season. He's averaging 21.7 points and 4.1 assists on what can only be interpreted as unreal efficiency, as The Step Back's Jackson Frank noted:
- 0 to three feet: 69 percent
- three to 10 feet: 46 percent
- 10 to 16 feet: 52 percent
- 16 feet three-point range: 54 percent
- three-point range: 42 percent
- 62 true shooting percentage (.499/.418/.908 split)
- 93rd percentile on catch-and-shoots
- 87th percentile off the dribble
Middleton still has a chance to crack the exclusive club of players to clear 20 points per game on a 50/40/90 shooting slash—company that would include Curry, Durant, Larry Bird and Dirk Nowitzki. As it stands, Curry is the only other one to average more than 20 points while matching Middleton's efficiency on threes, free throws and twos (54.7 percent).
Playing next to Giannis Antetokounmpo does not dilute these statistical feats. Middleton is his own scorer—more than half his buckets go unassisted—and can prop up lineups as the No. 1 option. He has logged more than 750 possessions without Antetokounmpo and Eric Bledsoe, through which the Milwaukee Bucks have an offensive rating in the 99th percentile. It was a similar story last season.
Beating up on bench units is different from going it alone versus mostly starters. And Middleton's shot selection is predisposed to stall out before the rim. That doesn't make him an unfit No. 2 or non-star.
The same goes for his struggles against Toronto in last year's Eastern Conference Finals. He still totes the burden of proof as it pertains to a consensus top-15 finish, and his standing might (i.e. probably will) fall next season as bigger names get healthier. For now, putting him here is neither bold nor misinformed, just a reflection of the year he's having and expectations he's capable of shouldering into the playoffs.
12. Chris Paul, Oklahoma City Thunder
Regular Season NBA 100 Ranking: 13
Chris Paul is in the middle of a monster season, and a four-plus-month break should only help his 35-year-old body sustain what will be, in all likelihood, a second-team All-NBA selection.
Piloting the Thunder's offense has looked good on him. He has more agency without being overtaxed. Defenses have invited him to let it fly from mid-range, so he has. He's downing 53 percent of those looks (96th percentile) on volume that dwarfs his two-year stint in Houston.
Those mid-range Js are a huge part of Paul's crunch-time success. And "success" probably puts it too lightly. He leads the league in clutch buckets while slashing 53.5/36.0/93.8, and his individual plus-109 during those minutes is the Association's third-best. (Teammates Dennis Schroder and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander are in front of him.) That should be illegal.
Professional ring counters are quick to cite the limited postseason success of Paul's teams. His Los Angeles Clippers suffered a couple of bad collapses, both due to injuries and performance farts. (The 2015 conference semifinals, anyone?) It is likewise fair to question the playoff viability of the Thunder. They're a great story, but they're top-heavy, with a mishmash wing rotation and 9-17 record versus squads above .500.
What Paul brings to the table, though, isn't up for debate. He's averaging north of 20 points and eights assists for his playoff career on 57.9 true shooting and ranks 21st all-time during the postseason in NBA Math's total points added.
Forecasting an age-related decline would be fine...if Paul's past 63 appearances didn't happen. The Thunder have kept his playing time in check, but that hasn't rendered him any less of a superstar lifeline. They're net rating improves by 13.4 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor—the second-largest swing among all players who have logged at least 1,000 minutes.
11. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat
Regular Season NBA 100 Rank: 9
"Picture how good he'd be if he could shoot!" is almost always an empty platitude. Shooting is a central part of the game. Longstanding struggles with something so fundamental is not the reversible lapse offhanded statements paint it to be.
Every so often we stumble across a Jimmy Butler: someone who has shown he's a much better shooter than he is now.
No, he was never on the level of a Damian Lillard or Paul George. But this season's outside efficiency represents an infernal departure from his mean. Butler is drilling just 24.8 percent of his threes and a wildly low 37.8 percent of his two-point jumpers. Catch-and-shoot opportunities have not done much to improve his splits, and his 33.8 effective field-goal percentage on pull-up attempts ranks 110th out of 111 players churning through three or more such looks per game.
Butler's top-10ish stock lives on anyway. He has managed to remain a net positive on offense despite his outside strife. His 6.1 assists per game are a career high, and a mind-melting 43 percent of his attempts are coming at the rim, his largest share since he was a sophomore.
Subsisting on that much point-blank volume can make for a shaky dynamic, but his style is built to endure the test of playoff basketball. He changes his pace inside the arc effectively enough to anatomize set defenses and is an expert at powering through contact.
Working in the more-than-occasional cut and slipped screen also ensures adequate volume near the basket. His entire offensive approach, in turn, guarantees he won't want for trips to the free-throw line. He rates in the 100th percentile of shooting fouls drawn this season.
This all leaves Butler more vulnerable to tighter playoff whistles than most. Over the last three years, he's averaging 1.6 fewer free-throw-attempts per 36 minutes in the postseason (5.9) compared to the regular season (7.4). Rock-bottom shooting opens him up to all kinds of problems if his trips to the charity stripe get slashed.
But even that wouldn't portend an unnavigable setback. His passing out of the pick-and-roll and drives won't suddenly disappear, and he remains an All-Defensive stopper. So many of the lineups he anchored prior to the trade deadline prove that much.
10. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
Regular Season NBA 100 Ranking: 7
Damian Lillard does not tumble down the ladder because of any specific performance metric. Everyone in front of him is merely guaranteed more time on the floor by virtue of clinched playoff bids. The Blazers, by contrast, must remain within four games of the eighth-place Grizzlies while fending off four other teams just to force a play-in tournament that mandates they win two straight over Memphis.
Impossible? No. Unlikely? It seems that way. And at the same time, any team led by Lillard demands a certain belief.
"If you have a Dame, you have a chance," Jusuf Nurkic, who recently returned from compound fractures in his left leg, told reporters. "It’s as simple as that."
Cliches are not always a measure of truth, but Nurkic isn't overstating Lillard's impact.
Somewhat lost amid Portland's record, cascade of injuries and patchwork wing rotation is an individual masterpiece. Lillard is averaging 28.9 points and 7.8 assists on 61.9 true shooting in a league-leading 36.9 minutes per game—all career highs. That his efficiency has peaked now, of all seasons, is a tribute to his improved finishing inside three feet and, equally, incomprehensible.
Lillard has no business swishing 39.4 percent of his threes, tying a career high, when considering the level of difficulty on his looks. Around 72 percent of his made triples go unassisted, the third-fattest share in the league among all rotation players, and out of everyone attempting at least three pull-up treys per game, only Caris LeVert is draining his at a higher clip.
Even while woefully short-handed, the Blazers are a completely different team when leveraging Lillard's off-the-bounce creation—which includes insta-chemistry with whatever big is setting screens for him. They have the net rating of a playoff squad with him in the lineup (plus-1.4). Their position outside the West's postseason picture is not a referendum on his play but a snapshot of their inability to survive without it. They're getting hammered to the tune of 8.9 points per 100 possessions when he's on the bench.
Expecting what's left of the regular season to reveal some reality check is not the move. This year is at once Lillard's normal and the best version of him yet. And if we could guarantee the Blazers sneak into the playoffs, or that they'll have games meaningful enough to demand he's still playing by season's end, he'd be a spot or three higher.
9. Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers
Regular Season NBA 100 Rank: 16
Second options are too often devalued for their place in the pecking order (see: Middleton, Khris). Their body of work is less impressive because they have a buffer—a superior star to streamline their role.
Let's normalize going beyond this oversimplification.
Paul George might be out of his depth as a full-on No. 1, but not by much. He is among the NBA's most efficient pull-up three-point snipers, finishes as many pick-and-roll possessions per game as Devin Booker and is exceptional at finding divers when coming off screens. He has room to throw more passes to three-point shooters but seems a tick better at working the corners both inside and outside pick-and-rolls.
Shimmying between alpha and second-wheel duties is also a skill. Not all forms of stardom are plug-and-play. George's is just that. Noticeably more than one-quarter of his shots come as catch-and-fire treys, of which he's hitting 40.4 percent, and he's placed no lower than the 74th percentile in spot-up efficiency over the past five seasons.
He complements his offensive balancing act with All-NBA-caliber defense, a virtue no less important just because he plays beside Kawhi Leonard. As Bleacher Report's Mo Dakhil wrote: "George can lock down wings and small-ball power forwards, as well as play strong help defense. His ability to be moved around from difficult one-on-one defensive assignments while staying ready to rotate over at a moment's notice makes him a truly versatile defender."
Shoulder and hamstring injuries capped George's appearances at 42 before the league shutdown, and the Clippers weren't having him log a ton of time when he did play. His 29.1 minutes per game are the second-lowest of his career in a full season, in front of only his rookie year.
That all matters when viewing his season through the lens of hindsight. It is much less of a factor entering the playoffs. His minutes are bound to increase, and the importance of his defense increases tenfold in best-of-seven slugfests. Lest we forget, Playoff P is an actual thing. George is averaging 23.7 points and 3.7 assists per 36 minutes of postseason action since 2016 while shooting 38.0 percent from beyond the arc.
8. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
Regular Season NBA 100 Ranking: 5
Luka Doncic is not being penalized for his postseason inexperience. He is no stranger to high-stakes games after spending time with Real Madrid and the Slovenian national team. This is more so a hedge against his having to do too much.
The number of players more comfortable creating from scratch can be counted on one hand. His step-back three-pointer is not a lifeline strictly because it can go in, but also because it keeps defenses off balance and unlocks his vastly improved outside-in game. He has more confidence in his floater and is better at finishing through contact. His conversion rate at the rim has jumped by 11 points, from 62 percent (58th percentile) to 73 percent (93rd percentile), and he remains strong enough for the Mavericks to hunt the occasional mismatch on the block.
Some may be inclined to zero in on his 31.8 percent clip from downtown. Try not to be one of them.
His volume—9.8 attempts per 36 minutes—is a weapon on its own, and his green light from super deep bends defenses to the benefit of everyone around him. That he has upped his true shooting percentage by nearly four points despite a climactic increase in usage is incredible and also a nod to his improved finishing and enduring presence at the foul line.
Doncic's gargantuan workload, and the predictability that comes with it, is the lone cause for concern.
Crunch-time struggles to this point might be an indicator of issues he faces in the postseason. His off-the-dribble threes have become even more of a crutch with games on the line, and he's not getting to the charity stripe at the same clip as a result. He's still putting down half his twos in these situations, but 17.1 percent shooting on threes matters more when they account for almost 54 percent of his clutch looks.
Small sample sizes are theatrical by nature, a narrow return prone to higher highs and lower lows. But the Mavericks didn't suddenly stumble into another perimeter shot-creator over the hiatus.
Maybe Kristaps Porzingis alleviates some of the from-scratch burden. Maybe. Failing that, Doncic will need to bust out more variety against what could be entire games' worth of crunch-time-esque defenses—a hilariously unfair standard to which he's capable of measuring up but has not yet been held.
7. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Regular Season NBA 100 Rank: 12
Limited availability dampened Joel Embiid's standing prior to the restart. Similar concerns are holding him back now.
Head coach Brett Brown insisted Embiid's absence over the Sixers' final one-and-a-half scrimmage games was precautionary, and he didn't consider his superstar's right calf injury to be a huge deal. That's welcome, totally believable news. Embiid's track record also speaks for itself.
This season alone has seen him miss games with right ankle, left hip, left knee, left hand and left shoulder issues. He is, forever, on a maintenance program, regardless of the stakes. Left knee soreness hindered his availability through most of the first round last year. He didn't even play in Philly's Game 3 win over Brooklyn.
Shortening rotations and expanding superstar workloads are typically postseason givens. The Sixers do not have the luxury of overweighting the short term with Embiid, not solely because of the potential long-haul implications, but also because of the instant risk. He cannot be rolled for 35-plus minutes, on a loop, without wondering whether that's going too far.
Philly has planned around this implicit restriction. Al Horford remains an awkward fit when viewed against the entire roster and has battled injuries himself, but he offers a safety net. Embiid-less stretches killed the Sixers during the 2019 playoffs. They were outscored by 107 points during his 242 minutes off the court. Worse, in the three minutes he didn't play during their Game 7 versus Toronto, they were a minus-12.
It is this indispensability that ferries Embiid's stock so high in the face of uncertainty. Philly's roster made more sense last season and still couldn't function without him. He is no less valuable now, even with the Sixers outpacing opponents by nearly seven points per 100 possessions when Horford and Ben Simmons play through his stints on the bench.
There may not be a more impactful defender in the league. The idea of Embiid warps offensive approaches. Opponent shot frequency at the rim plummets by 8.2 percent with him in the game—the largest drop-off among every player who has logged at least 350 minutes.
Scheming him off the floor isn't possible. Attackers have almost no chance of getting around him when he drops back, and he boasts the foot speed and length to irritate jump shooters when pulled out of the paint. With all due respect to Rudy Gobert, how many Defensive Player of the Year awards does Embiid have with better availability?
Embiid is comparably integral to the Sixers on offense. He still struggles to pass out of double-teams and commits turnovers on a better-but-not-great 11.7 percent of his post-ups, but the oomph with which he plays is Philly's life preserver.
His 1.12 points per post-up possession are the equivalent of a top-10 offense, and his willingness to shoot threes and put the ball on the floor from above the break keeps defenses scrambling. The Sixers could do without some of his confidence-drunk jumpers, but that's part of the Embiid experience—and a fair trade-off when the havoc he wreaks, right down to his free-throw-attempt rate, translates so seamlessly into crunch time.
6. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Regular Season NBA 100 Rank: 6
Leaving Nikola Jokic in the sixth spot might be a wee bit of reach—and not because the past informs a murky future.
Any doubts about how he'd fare in the postseason pressure-cooker were met with a giant middle finger last year. Jokic averaged 25.1 points, 13.0 rebounds and 8.4 assists through 14 games with a true shooting percentage of 59.6.
His offensive dominance, predictably, carried over into this season. After a slow start in which he appeared out of shape, he has put up 22.4 points and 7.1 assists per game on 63.5 percent true shooting since Dec. 6, a stretch spanning 46 games.
Catch-all metrics aren't about to paint holes in his case, either. He ranks in the top five of ESPN's real plus-minus and NBA Math's total points added and places 14th in Basketball Index's player impact plus-minus.
Tethering so much of the offense to a big who doesn't mirror the play of a face-up wing can theoretically be touch-and-go. Jokic's case is airtight there, too. He is not confined to captaining fast breaks, tossing wild outlet passes and just generally capitalizing on scrambling defenses. His vision is surgical, just as lethal in the half court as in transition, and he has absurd range as a scorer—a mixed bag of footwork, fakes, fades, force and touch from the inside out.
Perimeter half-court shot-creators are still all the crunch-time rage, but the Denver Nuggets skyscraper is a bail-out option all on his own. Only Chris Paul has converted more looks in the clutch, where Jokic is notching a true shooting percentage of almost 60, and nobody has downed more baskets inside four seconds of the shot clock.
Struggling to place Jokic is more about the unknown. How will his conditioning be after testing positive for COVID-19? (Related: Asking this question sucks.) Does his newly svelte frame amplify what he does best? Or will he be less of a bruiser on the block and the glass?
Established stars deserve the benefit of the doubt. Jokic gets it here.
5. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
Regular Season NBA 100 Rank: 8
Anthony Davis continues to take heat for the Pelicans' lack of success during his seven-year tenure. More recently, he's received flak for the Los Angeles Lakers' performance when he plays without LeBron James. Those lineups have stabilized as the season wears on, but the team is being outscored by 0.9 points per 100 possessions during Davis' solo stints with a defensive rating in the 26th percentile.
How can someone be a top-five player if he can't headline a championship contender? Or a Defensive Player of the Year candidate when his team is stingier with him off the court?
These aren't necessarily unfair questions. Davis' influence over the offense is inherently capped as a play-finisher. He has a floor game to self-sustain but isn't tasked with jump-starting opportunities for everyone else.
That balance is part of his utility. So many of his 26.7 points per game come within the flow of the offense, giving him a certain universality, but he can also be his own lifeline. Plenty of players are more efficient on traditional post-ups. Scant few bigs wield his speed and coordination off the dribble, and he at least has some step-backs and fadeaways in his armory. He has scored more points on unassisted two-pointers than Jimmy Butler, according to PBP Stats.
Explaining his wonky defensive splits doesn't take much investigation. Many of the lineups he's overseeing without LeBron are rough—fraught with heavy doses of regular-season Rajon Rondo.
Davis isn't always positioned to have a dramatic impact in any one area when he wears so many different hats. He defends at every level. He guards isolations more frequently than Ben Simmons. He's 15th in total spot-ups defended and fourth in three-pointers contested per game. His 2.9 deflections per 36 minutes rank seventh among all players 6'10" or taller to clear 1,000 minutes, and he's defended nearly twice as many pick-and-roll ball-handlers as post-ups.
The man is everywhere, including, somehow, around the rim, both as a helper and primary back-line stopper. He challenges more looks at the basket per game than Bam Adebayo, and opponents are generating fewer point-blank opportunities when he's on the court. Los Angeles doesn't come close to cobbling together a top-three defense without him, and his brand of ubiquity is matchup-proof, an omnipresence that cannot be played off the floor.
Davis doesn't yet have the reps to prove this after just 13 postseason games, but his is a play style that might peak in importance when the results matter most.
4. James Harden, Houston Rockets
Regular Season NBA 100 Rank: 4
James Harden is an offensive scheme unto himself, a blend of volume and efficiency and shot selection and gamesmanship unlike any other ever seen. He nudged the Rockets toward ditching ball screens before Clint Capela ever left. They became an intermediary that unnecessarily dressed and delayed the end result.
Houston has tried implementing more movement post-hiatus, and Russell Westbrook-plus-four-shooters adds another element to the offense that started paying dividends before the NBA closed its doors. But Harden remains the basis for everything this team does, and he continues to parlay that heliocentrism into remarkable numbers: a league-leading 34.4 points and 7.4 assists per game on 61.6 percent true shooting.
What's more, he has turned this level of production into an annual normal. Unfathomable ridiculousness has been his default since 2016-17, his first season under head coach Mike D'Antoni. It is this essentiality to the Rockets that has both elevated his profile and opened it up to more criticism.
Fair or not, Harden's workload is considered a roadblock to postseason success, a concept that first gained steam following Game 6 of the 2017 semifinals and has since withstood a 2018 conference finals appearance. What can he reasonably have left in the tank come late April and May after ranking at or near the top of the league in usage across 35-plus minutes per game and minimal absences?
- 2016-17: minus-5.0
- 2017-18: minus-6.8
- 2018-19: minus-4.9
This doesn't definitively prove anything. Nor does noting that his free-throw-attempt rate has plummeted during the postseason in each of the past two years. Other factors go into determining whether his style of play—and Houston's dependence on a singular player—can culminate in a title. But potential fatigue is on the table.
Or at least, it was on the table.
No non-injured player benefits more from the Association's four-plus-month furlough than Harden. This is, objectively, the freshest he should be for a playoff run. And though he was laboring through a protracted slump when the league shut down, the notion that he won't have exhausted most of his stores prior to the highest-stakes games is terrifying—and increases the likelihood he leaves the postseason just as he enters it: as, perhaps, the NBA's most valuable offensive player.
3. Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers
Regular Season NBA 100 Rank: 3
Postseason detonations used to fuel best-player-alive cases are typically ephemeral. They mean everything in the moment, when the stakes are highest, but usually fade in the months between the playoffs and regular season. Kevin Durant knows this better than anyone. The pull to slot him over LeBron James has always been strongest in May and June, not October and November.
Kawhi Leonard's ascension into that very discussion has proved different. The urge to declare him the NBA's best endures, just as much of a temptation as it was last June when he spearheaded a Raptors championship and nabbed his second Finals MVP.
His defensive switch exists—and is already flipped. He spent a good chunk of the regular season squelching entire possessions, often with just the threat of his length and interest. He combines Defensive Player of the Year chops with one of the league's most self-sufficient scoring arsenals. He is shooting 46 percent from mid-range (86th percentile) on a high number of extremely difficult attempts, and fewer looks at the rim have not prevented him from drawing all the fouls.
That Leonard now pairs superstar scoring—career-high 30.0 points per 36 minutes—with floor-general orchestration is unfair. From his NBA 100 writeup:
"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."
Slotting Leonard in third place is not done lightly. Mountains must be made out of molehills in this exercise, and his reliance on off-the-dribble jumpers, while made for the postseason, feels like it could subject his offense to more fluctuations relative to those above him, both of whom bulldoze their way to the basket more frequently.
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Regular Season NBA 100 Rank: 1
Giannis Antetokounmpo surrenders his first-place finish through no new fault of his own. His case for retention writes itself.
He enters the restart averaging 29.6 points, 13.7 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.0 blocks while downing 62.2 percent of his two-pointers...all in under 30 minutes per game. That is absurd. He has a stronghold on both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year honors in a casual amount of court time. What happens if—when?—Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer breaks character and rolls him out for 35 minutes per game? Or 37? Or more?
Digging into the nitty-gritty of Antetokounmpo's performance doesn't reveal any novel downside. Docking him for his playing time or the Bucks' numbers without him verges on disingenuous. They cannot be faulted for dominating without overextending his workload, and he improves their net rating when he's on the floor by 12.1 points per 100 possessions—the fourth-biggest swing of anyone who's cleared 1,000 minutes.
Critiques of his offensive range ring similarly hollow. He is not a bona fide outside threat. Clips of his made threes still go viral because they're an event, a harbinger of the singular flaw separating him from complete, utter, irreversible world domination. And yet, on the back of volume, Antetokounmpo is bottling up what could be considered a detrimental void.
He has doubled his number of pull-up triples compared to last season and uncorked more fadeaways. Defenses may know where he's trying to go—though his stop-and-turns have added some unpredictability inside the arc—but his gait is such that it doesn't matter. He's racking up 10 free-throw attempts per game.
Still, while his limited range doesn't pose much of a dilemma during the regular season, it is a greater complication in the playoffs. As Dickinson College assistant men's basketball coach Adam Spinella said on a recent episode of the Hardwood Knocks podcast (55:29):
"It's nitpicking. He's the best player in the world right now, and I don't think that's too much up for debate. He's become such an unbelievably good individual defender. He's a terror in transition. He takes 10 free throws a game. Like, he's a nightmare to guard. But if we're talking about splitting hairs and trying to figure out exactly what teams are going to do to them in the postseason so that they minimize the impact that he has, he has to find a way to overcome that. And whether that's through playmaking and passing to others who knock down shots, or having that confidence in his jumper to take them when they dare him and make them, he needs to be the one that steps up and makes those right plays."
For all Antetokounmpo has done to repress, if erase, the issue, his postseason stock carries with it the tiniest sliver of uncertainty that will persist until, well, it doesn't.
1. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
Regular Season NBA 100 Rank: 2
Circumstances both familiar and foreign anchor what is, admittedly, a permeable best-player-in-Disney case for LeBron James.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard and a fully rested James Harden loom ever so closely. Reasonable minds might prefer any one of them over an entire regular season. And while LeBron has often subsisted on the "Which player would you choose to win a single, solitary game?" slant, his stature in that context is hardly consensus. Antetokounmpo and, more strongly, Leonard have staked claims to that title.
This year's playoffs are different. Postseason basketball is always on its own scale, but this restart exists inside unprecedented territory. Players and teams are working their way back to form after four-plus-month layoffs from competitive basketball. Certain squads are eons from whole. The variance of potential outcomes, for everyone, is incalculably greater than it would be during a normal postseason.
Operating so far from ordinary leaves few absolute constants. LeBron is among them, but he also stands alone, the consummate superstar uninterrupted. The idea that an extended pause might impact the stamina or shape of his game is laughable. Rest, in whatever form it comes, is his advantage.
There is likewise a level of opportunity in his usage not totally shared by his peers. He is averaging 42 minutes per game for his postseason career, and the Lakers aren't in a position to lean on him any less. Their secondary ball-handling ranks are desperately thin, and the wing rotation is shaky without Avery Bradley.
That difference in availability matters, particularly when splicing hairs, as we are doing here. Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer has eschewed playing Antetokounmpo much more than 30 minutes per game and kept him below the 35-minute marker during last year's playoffs. That changed in the Eastern Conference Finals as the Raptors came raging back from a 2-0 deficit, but Antetokounmpo's value is more likely to be curtailed by design.
This alone doesn't displace him—otherwise he wouldn't be the overwhelming favorite for MVP—but it carries weight when combined with the iota of solvability ingrained into his offense. And even that's barely enough for Antetokounmpo to relinquish his most recent NBA 100 crown.
But LeBron is having a season himself, the kind that puts him in contention for the No. 1 spot without a contextual bump. His 25.7 points and 10.6 assists per game come on more bankable three-point volume and efficiency (34.9 percent) and in tandem with the best defense he's played since his Miami days.
Imagine what he might do upon transitioning from 35ish minutes per game to 40 or more. That's what this spot attempts to do—not without hesitation but absent apology.
Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass and current heading into Thursday's games. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders, Early Bird Rights and Spotrac.