Ranking Career Resumes of the NBA's Top 10 Stars
Ranking the NBA's best players is a been-there, done-that, unintentionally-angered-everyone-already mental workout. Why not rank the career resumes of these preexisting ranks instead—an alternative ranking of the incumbent rankings, if you will?
The first step entails coming up with a present-day base of top-10 players. That's fairly easy. I've plucked most of the names from Bleacher Report's most recent NBA 100, which served as a look back at the 2019-20 regular season.
Because this process is more macro, though, I've allowed for some new entries. Anyone who didn't play enough to make the 2019-20 cut (Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant) or saw his standing significantly impacted by availability (Joel Embiid, Paul George, Kyrie Irving) was eligible to jump into the top 10.
After much consideration, Curry and Durant received the nods. They join, in alphabetical order: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Luka Doncic, James Harden, LeBron James, Nikola Jokic, Kawhi Leonard and Damian Lillard.
For what it's worth, Embiid was the toughest exclusion. Bumping anyone else just feels wrong.
Curry and Durant deserve the benefit of the doubt as top-10 mainstays. Doncic is just 21 years old but fully deserving of top-10 status. Embiid might be a more impactful player than Jokic or Lillard at his absolute peak, but that's debatable, and his shaky availability works against him. Jokic has appeared in more than two additional regular seasons' worth of games despite both big men hailing from the same 2014 draft class.
Alrighty, so that's the pool of players. Now comes the hard part: Reordering them based on their career resumes.
Initially, I thought about approaching this from a more scientific perspective in which I'd assign specific weights to particular feats such as All-NBA selections, league MVPs, Finals MVPs, championships, etc. But that came to feel more like subjectivity disguised as objectivity.
Zooming out to take stock of everything each player has accomplished to date and then attempting to contextualize it seems like the better call. It allows for more anecdotal arguments in addition to every formal accolade under the sun, including year-end awards, titles, career averages and sample sizes.
In the end, this ranking seeks to work in service of the following question: Given their entire NBA catalog, both individually and on a collective team scale, which player's career arc to this point is most preferable?
10. Luka Doncic
Career Averages: 24.7 points, 8.5 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.0 steals, 56.6 true shooting percentage
Highest MVP Ballot Finish: Zero top-10 finishes (which is about to change)
Other Resume Vitals: 2018-19 Rookie of the Year; One-time All-Star
Luka Doncic's placement isn't really debatable—unless you take issue with his being a top-10 player right now, which, er, you should not.
Limited experience prevents him from rising any higher. He only just wrapped up his sophomore campaign, and climbing this ladder entails surpassing Nikola Jokic, Damian Lillard or Anthony Davis. That's...not happening.
Doncic's career is shaping up to be an all-timer. He is already a borderline top-five player and the face of a fringe contender that just posted the highest regular-season offensive rating of all time. His first trip to the postseason was a rousing success. The Dallas Mavericks pushed the Los Angeles Clippers to six games despite an injury to—and Game 1 ejection from—Kristaps Porzingis, all on the back of otherworldly play from Doncic (and a supporting cast that wouldn't quit).
Juicier accolades feel inevitable. Doncic will get his first top-10 finish on the MVP ballot this season and seems like a lock to win more than one Maurice Podoloff Trophy before he hangs it up. If there's someone who might run the table in the best-player-alive discourse the way LeBron James did for many years, it'll be him or Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Not that this is all a matter of the theoretical. Doncic doesn't have the sample to float a better finish here, but he has the results to justify unchecked imagination.
Only five others have posted a higher value over replacement player (VORP) through their first two seasons, and they all turned out alright: LeBron James, Larry Bird, Shaquille O'Neal, Chris Paul and David Robinson. The players directly behind Doncic, at Nos. 7 and 8, were pretty good, too. They're those Michael Jordan and Tim Duncan fellows.
9. Nikola Jokic
Career Averages: 17.0 points, 9.6 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.7 blocks, 60.4 true shooting percentage
Highest Finish on MVP Ballot: No. 4 (2018-19)
Other Resume Vitals: One-time All-NBA; Two-time All-Star
Spicier takemasters will consider putting Luka Doncic over Nikola Jokic. That's too scalding for me. If you're talking about the better player in a vacuum, sure, Doncic has a case. Resume-for-resume, he doesn't yet have the oomph to leapfrog anyone on this list.
Jokic helps make this particular decision easy. His official credentials are beginning to align with those from an entrenched top-10 star.
He is bound to net his second All-NBA nod this year, routinely hovers around the peripherals of the MVP conversation and has tacked on a few game-winners to his legend over the past two seasons. While his Denver Nuggets have, at times, the look and feel of a paper tiger in the larger championship discussion, he's now been the best player on a top-three Western Conference playoff seed in consecutive campaigns.
It might be worth wondering whether Jokic belongs a tick higher, perhaps at the expense of Anthony Davis. Might be. He has more influence over his offense as its primary playmaker. Declaring him the best passing big man of all time is no longer remotely controversial.
Really, it's more matter of fact than even slightly debatable. He has the triple-doubles to prove it. His 13 this season tied LeBron James for the second most, and he's now fourth among active players in career triple-doubles, trailing only LeBron, James Harden and Russell Westbrook.
And for all the wetwork that falls on Jamal Murray's shoulders during crunch time, Jokic has shown he can get to the basket off the dribble enough to thrive as a traditional No. 1 down the stretch. Nobody this season buried more buckets in the clutch than Jokic. Crunch-time samples have a lot to do with that volume, but still: whoa.
8. Damian Lillard
Career Averages: 24.2 points, 4.2 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 1.0 steals, 57.9 true shooting percentage
Highest MVP Ballot Finish: No. 4 (2017-18)
Other Resume Vitals: 2012-13 Rookie of the Year; 2019-20 Player of the Seeding Games; Four-time All-NBA; Five-time All-Star
Seventh and eighth place quickly became a battle between Damian Lillard and Anthony Davis. Even after polling a few people, I don't feel great about the end result.
Davis always ranks ahead of Lillard on an annual basis—and, usually, rightfully so. Looking at just their resumes makes it harder to render the same verdict.
Lillard has far more playoff reps to his name, including a conference finals appearance and two of the biggest shots in postseason history: series-winners against the Houston Rockets (2014) and Oklahoma City Thunder (2019). And like many others, he has inherently more control over his team's offense. He is the Portland Trail Blazers' lifeline. Davis was seldom that even during his time with the New Orleans Pelicans.
Taking into account Lillard's ridiculous range doesn't make this call any easier. Defenses now have to worry about his firing away as soon as he crosses the timeline. Stephen Curry will always bend coverages more because of all he can do away from the ball, but Lillard is the NBA's closest approximation to the baby-faced assassin.
Just for kicks: Lillard is third among active players in 50-point games (11), behind only James Harden (23) and LeBron James (12), a standing that speaks to both his indispensability to Portland and his general, almost ethereal incandescence.
7. Anthony Davis
Career Averages: 24.0 points, 10.4 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.4 steals, 2.4 blocks, 58.8 true shooting percentage
Highest MVP Ballot Finish: No. 3 (2017-18)
Other Resume Vitals: Three-time All-NBA; Three-time All-Defensive; Three-time blocks leader; Seven-time All-Star
Slightly more comprehensive regular-season accolades juuust give Anthony Davis' resume the boost it needs to stave off Damian Lillard.
He has made one fewer All-NBA team but more than offsets the gap with his trio of All-Defensive selections. Edging out Lillard in All-Star appearances is sort of whatever, but Davis has two top-five MVP finishes compared to Lillard's one.
Related: The latter margin could go either way this season once the ballots are released. Both Davis and Lillard have top-five cases. One of them might make the cut. Or neither of them.
Davis' credentials take a hit if you're counting appearances. Lillard has an 87-game advantage in the regular season and, at this writing, a 37-game lead in the playoffs. Davis has battled more injuries and received DNPs for tanking and botched trade requests, but he and Lillard are both members of the 2012 draft class. Their difference in availability (and postseason stays) is significant.
Symbolically, perhaps, Davis and Lillard are neck and neck in some counting catch-all metrics. They rank sixth and seventh, respectively, in win shares since entering the league. They are seventh and eighth, respectively, in VORP during that same time.
Ordering them isn't entirely a matter of taste. Davis wouldn't be getting the nod if it were. He is the more impactful player end-to-end.
Critics give him some flak for not anchoring offenses on his own and, this season specifically, his wacky on-off splits. But he's the rare scorer who can dominate almost entirely within the flow of an offense—even if his post-ups and fadeaways and long twos and threes aren't falling—and few players can sustain lineups that include three or four sub-average defenders.
Demand a do-over if you must. Campaign for Lillard in this spot if you'd like. The margin here, on their resumes only, is that freaking thin—so narrow and puny a wrong answer doesn't necessarily exist.
6. James Harden
Career Averages: 25.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.5 blocks, 61.1 true shooting percentage
League MVPs: One
Other Resume Vitals: 2011-12 Sixth Man of the Year; Six-time All-NBA; Three-time scoring champion; One-time assists leader; Eight-time All-Star
James Harden's enormity is such that putting his resume sixth will seem criminal. And honestly, I'm not here to argue, just rationalize. This is hard from top to bottom, but organizing second through sixth place is a special genre of impossibly hellish.
Jokes about Harden's limited playoff success are standard and fair game—as are over-the-top reactions for his post-MVP-race MVP campaigns. On the flip side, his workload has been so stark since 2012-13, while basically only growing, that it's not exactly unfair to attribute at times waning postseason efficiency to fatigue. The immensity of his responsibility in Houston is almost unfathomable.
As for his sentiments on not winning MVP every year: big whoop. They're not unsolicited. Professional athletes are confident. They have to be. Not all of them will defer when they're so close to that mountaintop. And Harden has been that close. He has three second-place finishes on the MVP ballot over the past six years to go along with his 2017-18 victory.
Maybe his style isn't the most aesthetically pleasing. (It's not.) But it works. And the degree to which it has worked shouldn't be undersold. Harden's output makes some uncomfortable. His unprecedented marriage of volume and efficiency is so often packaged as a hack of the system.
It is actually innovation. If Stephen Curry reinvented perception of basketball, Harden broke it.
The results speak for themselves, and they say a great deal. He's averaging 29.6 points and 7.7 assists on 61.3 true shooting since joining the Houston Rockets, during which time he leads the league in VORP. Tiny Archibald, LeBron James, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and Russell Westbrook are the only other players with both scoring and assist crowns to their name—and Harden is now working off three straight points-per-game titles.
Invariably, the high variance caked into Harden's style works against him. It has to account for at least some of his previous playoff cold streaks. That's the nature of depending not just on threes or unassisted threes, but ridiculously difficult step-back threes. Had he bagged another MVP or one more conference finals appearance, he'd have a more consensus top-five resume. For now, he's left plenty of room to argue.
5. Giannis Antetokounmpo
Career Averages: 20.1 points, 8.9 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.3 blocks, 59.5 true shooting percentage
League MVPs: One
Other Resume Vitals: 2016-17 Most Improved Player; One-time Defensive Player of the Year; Three-time All-NBA; Two-time All-Defensive; Four-time All-Star
Some crystal-balling is in the works here.
Giannis Antetokounmpo just nabbed Defensive Player of the Year honors, making him one of five players to have that and a league MVP to his name. His company: Kevin Garnett, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson. If, as expected, he's yet again named MVP, Antetokounmpo will join MJ (1987-88) and the Dream (1993-94) as the only players to win both awards in the same season.
Making that kind of history is absurd and worth a top-five resume in this discussion on its own. Antetokounmpo bolsters his credentials with a host of other honors, most notably last year's MVP. His second Maurice Podoloff Trophy, assuming he gets it, will be the ultimate harbinger of his NBA takeover.
Repeat MVPs are not accidents, and his finishes are not buoyed by convenience. It doesn't matter that Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant weren't around to impede his course. He put together another season that indiscriminately lords over the field.
This isn't about one year, though.
Antetokounmpo is dominant on an unprecedented, almost fictive scale. His numbers over the past four years—26.5 points, 11.1 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.5 blocks per game—are all his own. Except for him, no one has hit all those benchmarks together in a single season. And while many harp on his inefficient jump shooting, he's still found romping his way toward the rim and maintaining a true shooting percentage above or around 60.
Quibbles over the length of his peak are worth reflection. He didn't go kaboom kaboom until 2016-17, a mere four years ago. But he's about to (probably) rack up two MVPs, a DPOY, four All-NBA bids and three All-Defensive selections during that time. His dominance might be so far truncated; the distinctions it has earned him are a career's worth.
He pales in comparison to no one—at least not anybody who, like himself, remains without a title.
4. Kawhi Leonard
Career Averages: 18.7 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.7 blocks, 59.7 true shooting percentage
Highest MVP Ballot Finish: No. 2 (2015-16)
Other Resume Vitals: Two-time Defensive Player of the Year; Three-time All-NBA; Five-time All-Defensive; Two-time Finals MVP; Four-time All-Star
Kawhi Leonard's window of dominance is thus far condensed compared to his closest competition. He began his career as a complement to the San Antonio Spurs' Big Three of Tim Ducan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. Through his first three years, he ranked no higher than ninth on the team in usage, and it wasn't until 2015-16, his fifth season, that he registered as an alpha offensive option.
Complicated still, he has surrendered league-MVP sway even after making the transition into full-fledged superstardom.
A right quad injury limited him to nine appearances in 2017-18—while accelerating the end to his time with the Spurs—and he's remained on a maintenance program ever since. He missed 22 games during his only season with the Toronto Raptors and 15 during his inaugural go-round with the Clippers. Neither instance hampered his overall superstar standing, but both definitely cost him ground and outright consideration in the MVP race.
To what extent this works against him is situational. It most certainly matters if you're trying to thrust him ahead of Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. It is more like splitting hairs when pitting him against Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden.
What Leonard lacks in role longevity and regular-season availability—only Luka Doncic and Nikola Jokic have appeared in fewer games among everyone on this list—he cancels out with success at the NBA's highest level. Hardware is his great equalizer. He is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Finals MVP and champion, an incomprehensible compilation of feats given his relatively compressed peak (so far).
If that doesn't give him a definitive lead over Antetokounmpo and Harden, the pretense under which he won his most recent title and is spearheading the Clippers should. He has shown his presence amounts to championship contention in a way exclusive almost to himself.
Both Toronto and Los Angeles have given him enviable supporting casts, but the instant gratification he has delivered is anomalous. His situations with the Spurs, Raptors and Clippers have been vastly different, and yet, his value across different franchises and roster iterations has endured. This functional stamina awards his stardom a certain universality that, while fueled by his own agency, is extremely difficult to maintain.
3. Kevin Durant
Seasons: 12 (didn't play in 2019-20)
Career Averages: 27.0 points, 7.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.1 blocks, 61.3 true shooting percentage
League MVPs: One
Other Resume Vitals: 2007-08 Rookie of the Year; Two-time Finals MVP; Nine-time All-NBA; Four-time scoring champion; 10-time All-Star
Figuring out the second and third rungs on this ladder is, unequivocally, the hardest part of this whole damn process. You already know who's ahead of Kevin Durant. It might anger you, or offend you, or confound you. It may seem clickbaity, a performative take of thermonuclear proportions.
Please know Durant's placement isn't meant to be any of these things. Nor is it a subversive measure in response to his joining up with the player ahead of him. And it definitely isn't directly about anything he's failed to do. It's more so about what his competition has done.
Anyone who prefers Durant to be a tick higher won't catch heat from me. He might be the best, purest scorer the league has ever seen. Scant few players throughout history are truly matchup-proof. Durant is one of them. The best defenses can't even plan to contain him.
Making something out of nothing is his default mode. Someone standing almost seven feet tall shouldn't be able to handle the ball and pull up off the dribble so fluidly—and effectively. Take away his from-scratch creation and you're still left with one of the most lethal scorers ever.
He has the size to rise up over anyone and the touch to make all those shots count. That combination is a core reason he gets the benefit of the doubt within the top-10 conversation following his Achilles injury. He belongs here until, frankly, he's shown he doesn't.
On what grounds Durant's resume would warrant indisputable second-place consideration isn't totally clear. Select traditionalists will diminish the previous three years of his career because he joined an incumbent dynasty. That's ill-conceived. Even the most thought-out push-backs using this as a crutch are sophomoric.
Ring counts are still mentioned, ad nauseam, when deliberating legacies. Durant's credentials shouldn't take a hit because he prioritized them in 2016 free agency or because he didn't win titles on preferred terms. Besides, on what may be the best team ever assembled, it was he who earned two Finals MVPs.
The Golden State Warriors would most likely have earned another championship even if he didn't sign, but his arrival elevated them, at full strength, to pure, unqualified inevitability.
2. Stephen Curry
Career Averages: 23.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 1.7 steals, 62.3 true shooting percentage
League MVPs: Two
Other Resume Vitals: Six-time All-NBA; One-time scoring champion; Six-time All-Star
Stephen Curry's silver-medal finish can be boiled down to sheer accomplishments. Kevin Durant has more scoring titles, All-NBA nods, All-Star appearances and Finals MVPs. He also spent more time rivaling LeBron James at the absolute peak of his powers than anyone else. But Curry scoots past him in more esteemed departments.
Three championships is more than two. And two league MVPs, the second of which rendered him the first unanimous selection in league history, is more than one. This is both an oversimplification and a spot-on portrayal of his No. 2 case.
Disagreements are perfectly reasonable. Packaging this as egregious is disingenuous. Attempts to paint Curry as solvable during the postseason continue to fall short. He's averaging 26.5 points and 6.3 assists on 60.9 true shooting for his playoff career—numbers that don't deviate too far in either direction from his regular-season benchmarks, as well as production that is unique to only him.
Singling out Curry's shorter peak is mostly fair. He offsets that potential discrepancy with his unanimous MVP, three titles and the fact he headlined five consecutive Finals-bound teams that needed to make it out of the infernal Western Conference. Dwelling on the talent he's played beside, meanwhile, rings hollow. As Bleacher Report's Will Gottlieb so eloquently wrote:
"Curry isn't the greatest floor-raiser of all time. Replace him with LeBron James on the 2007 Cavaliers, and he may not carry them to the Finals. He is the greatest ceiling-raiser. It's much harder to go from bad to good than good to great and even harder to go from great to the best team of all time. Discrediting Curry for playing alongside other talented players is unfair when his presence makes it all possible.
"Since 2013-14, his on/off plus-minus (the difference in net rating with and without him on the floor) has been in the 99th percentile four times, the 98th percentile and the 97th percentile.
"These stats are helpful in understanding how effective he is, but Curry has challenged what it means to have an impact in ways that aren't yet quantifiable. There are terms such as 'gravity' that try to show how much attention he draws. He's the most unselfish superstar in the game, and he puts the fear of God into opponents, but those don't tell the whole story because there has never been a team that runs its offense through a guy who doesn't have the ball."
That latter context is most salient. The mere idea of Curry breaks defenses. No one is more magnetic off the ball, and that empyrean pull he has coupled with the willingness to work away from the action is what continues to raise his profile relative to so many superstars, including the spattering of facsimiles who've cropped up since his emergence.
Put another way: Curry doesn't represent a re-engineering of the MVP mold. He is the inception of an entirely different one previously unseen. That counts for a whole lot of something, if not everything.
1. LeBron James
Career Averages: 27.1 points, 7.4 rebounds, 7.4 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.8 blocks, 58.6 true shooting percentage
League MVPs: Four
Other Resume Vitals: 2003-04 Rookie of the Year; Three-time Finals MVP; 15-time All-NBA; Six-time All-Defensive; One-time scoring champion; One-time assists leader; 16-time All-Star
This is the least debatable decision of the entire exercise.
LeBron James' resume isn't just on a different level compared to his top-10 companions. It exists in its own separate universe. Other stars have only started creeping past him in single-season rankings within the last decade—and he still has a stake in the best-player-alive conversation.
Every notch James adds to his belt these days is more about advancing his unthinkable longevity and reinforcing his place in the greatest-of-all-time debate. Nobody has logged more playoff minutes, and he's eighth in regular-season minutes. He is the only player who ranks in the top 10 all-time of both points (third) and assists (eighth).
And. He's. Still. Going.
Once more: Singular seasons are a different story. In any given year, Giannis Antetokounmpo or Stephen Curry or Kawhi Leonard or somebody else might piece together stronger credentials. Overall, though, this isn't a discussion.
LeBron has long since moved on to challenging Michael Jordan, the only peer he has left.