2021 B/R NBA Player Rankings: Predicting Top 25 Guards This Season

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistDecember 14, 2020

2021 B/R NBA Player Rankings: Predicting Top 25 Guards This Season

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Another NBA regular season is upon us, and by law, so too is an updated look at the league's top 100 players.

    This year's prelude to the final NBA 100 is indulging a new spin. With the Association continuously blurring and deemphasizing positional roles, we're pivoting to more general and more accurate designations: guards, wings and bigs. This structure does not eradicate all debates, but there should be less quibbling over how players are assigned to the rankings before The Rankings.

    Guards are first to go under the microscope.

    Quite fittingly, we ran into some headaches right away: What is LeBron James? And Luka Doncic? And Ben Simmons? Matchup data didn't provide (too) much clarity on this matter, so we defaulted to where they were eligible for All-Star and All-NBA honors. The end result: Doncic and Simmons are being classified as guards. LeBron is partying with wings. (Sorry.) So is DeMar DeRozan.

    Nearly everything else about this exercise remains the same. Players are ranked based on where we think they'll finish the season. Their entire body of work is fair game. This includes injuries. Anyone who isn't slated to play this year won't make an appearance, and placements were impacted by current injuries, major setbacks in the rearview and, in some cases, potential regression due to age.

    Rookies are also excluded. It is too hard to gauge the value of players without an NBA sample. The 2020 draft class doesn't have a bound-to-be-top-100-from-the-jump player, so this shouldn't ruffle too many feathers. But in case you're looking for LaMelo Ball, there you go.

    Just a friendly reminder that making this list at all is a huge deal, regardless of the spot. The league has 60 starting backcourt slots and many talented guards coming off the bench. Try not to interpret a lower-than-expected top-25 finish or exclusion as a declaration of war. It's not that personal. Promise.

    Finally, and perhaps most importantly, yours truly did not journey solo down this rabbit hole. Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal, Sean Highkin, Grant Hughes, Bryant Knox, Greg Swartz and Bryan Toporek were all kind enough to score every player you see here. So while any words that incite head-splitting, teeth-gnashing, skin-tearing, wall-punching, curse-word-cascading rage are mine, these rankings are ours.

25-21: Brogdon, Russell, VanVleet, LaVine, Oladipo

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    Matt Marton/Associated Press

    25. Malcolm Brogdon, Indiana Pacers

    Going from Milwaukee to Indiana drastically altered the conditions of Malcolm Brogdon's usage. The move was not just a matter of volume but functional difficulty. And it didn't quite suit him.

    Injuries didn't help. Brogdon battled back, hand, neck, hamstring and quad issues to varying degrees. A cleaner health bill should bump up his overall shot-making, especially when going downhill. But his dip in efficiency had more to do with his role than body.

    In Milwaukee, Brogdon was inoculated against too much defensive attention and capitalized on a steady diet of spot-up threes and wide-open lanes. In Indiana, he enjoyed no such cover, an issue exacerbated by Victor Oladipo's own lack of availability. Pull-up jumpers accounted for nearly half his shot attempts, up from sub-16 percent during his final season with the Bucks. Gone were the unimpeded lanes. He instead drew the defensive wrath reserved for primary options, forcing him to navigate more clutter.

    Indiana likewise saddled him with more floor-general responsibilities than even he could've foreseen—and help isn't necessarily on the way. As Indy Cornrows' Caitlin Cooper wrote:

    "Granted, as a former point guard himself, Nate McMillan's offense was largely built around having his point guards dribble a whole bunch mostly out of one-dimensional, standstill pick-and-roll. In the playoffs, the only player who finished with a higher time of possession than Brogdon in the first round was offensive maestro Luka Doncic, and in the absence of Domantas Sabonis, only Denver's Nikola Jokic's bested him in passes per game. That's an unrealistic workload, which should hopefully be reduced by the improved health of Sabonis and Victor Oladipo as well as the expected emphasis on connecting one action to the next with free-flowing, egalitarian ball and player movement. However, until proven otherwise by Oladipo's sloppy handle, Brogdon is still the most reliable primary ball-handler on a team lacking in elite perimeter playmaking, which means he needs to be able to hit off-the-dribbles threes with improved accuracy to thin out traffic at the nail and avoid being prioritized as a driver, especially now that teams have written the book on forcing him to his weak-hand."

    No player stands to benefit more than Brogdon should Oladipo return to form. He remains a serviceable player amid the offensive strain—his 16.5 points and 7.1 assists per game and defensive work ethic don't grow on trees—but he's much less effective when deployed more like an All-Star than an All-Star's complement.

      

    24. D'Angelo Russell, Minnesota Timberwolves

    D'Angelo Russell may have finally found a spot conducive to his brand of stardom. Anyone who scores 20-plus points per game, hits off-the-dribble threes, works defenses into collective disjointedness, finds shooters out of the pick-and-roll and occasionally passes his teammates open has significant value. Until now, though, Russell's skill set has not translated to an essential impact.

    The Brooklyn Nets were more efficient with him off the court during his breakout 2017-18. The Golden State Warriors were plus-0.4 points per 100 possessions with him in the game, but their offense still placed in the 11th percentile through those stretches.

    It was the same story upon arriving in Minnesota. The Timberwolves' offensive rating jumped by 5.7 points per 100 possessions when he played, but they were working off a wildly low floor following Karl-Anthony Towns' fractured left wrist. Their DLo minutes still resulted in 25 percentile placement.

    Working in tandem with a better player should bloat his impact. He didn't get that opportunity in Golden State, where he logged just 172 possessions with Stephen Curry. Nor did he receive it after his trade to Minnesota. He and Towns tallied only 61 possessions together. Their like-a-glove fit should help Russell leave more of an overall imprint, which is at once a reassuring notion and an explanation for why he's so far behind other offensive engines.

        

    23. Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors

    Smaller guards are rarely considered three-and-D prototypes. Meet one of the exceptions.

    Fred VanVleet averaged 17.6 points last season while hitting 39.0 percent of his threes on 6.9 attempts per game—benchmarks matched only by Bojan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari, Paul George, Buddy Hield, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, Jayson Tatum and Karl-Anthony Towns. He partnered this offensive efficiency with a defensive workload that usually included guarding the opposition's best backcourt scorer and disrupting plays away from the ball. His 4.2 deflections per game led the league.

    Following one career year with another is on the table. VanVleet is still pretty young at 26, and the departures of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka have left offensive volume to spare. He could feasibly go for over 20 points and seven assists per game, assuming Toronto's playmaking hierarchy doesn't undergo a midseason face-lift or lean too heavily on Pascal Siakam.

    How much wiggle room VanVleet has from here is questionable. He has to reach another gear at the offensive end. He may never hit off-the-bounce threes at a higher clip or finish better and more often the rim, but his passing out of the pick-and-roll needs to improve—particularly if he's going to buy the Raptors time without both Siakam and Kyle Lowry on the floor.

      

    22. Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls

    Pinning down Zach LaVine's utility is a mental tug-of-war. It is simultaneously overthought and oversimplified, a push and pull between valuing how much he scores and how he does it and what said scoring actually does for his team.

    LaVine is a caps-lock, italics BUCKET. That much is indisputable.

    He averaged 25.5 points last season while splashing in 38.0 percent of his triples, a huge chunk of which he engineered from scratch. His affinity for long twos still drags down his overall efficiency, but he exchanged some of those looks, along with many of his twos outside the restricted area, for more shots beyond the arc—additional volume that predominantly features less dribbling.

    It no longer seems just to argue LaVine is being stretched beyond his means. The Bulls are too reliant on him to manufacture shots for others, and he's more tantalizing as a No. 2 or No. 3 option who puts his catch-and-shoot three (42.6 percent) to more use, but his current role persists through no fault of his own. Chicago's roster isn't yet constructed to diminish its dependence on him unless Coby White is a revelatory setup man.

    The impact LaVine's production has on the offense is tougher to reconcile. The Bulls have averaged significantly more points per 100 possessions with him on the floor in each of the past two seasons, but their overall offensive efficiency has failed to crack the 30th percentile during those stints. Much of that can be explained away by looking at the talent on the depth chart (and injuries suffered).

    Still, players in the tier LaVine is ostensibly trying to enter are supposed to elevate even the most bare-bones circumstances. He hasn't yet done that.

      

    21. Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers

    Victor Oladipo's range of outcomes is almost too wide to comprehend.

    There is the player he was in 2017-18 when he averaged 23.1 points, 4.3 assists and a league-leading 2.4 steals, maintained enviable efficiency on his off-the-bounce jumper and made third-team All-NBA and first-team All-Defensive.

    There is the player he was in 2018-19 before suffering his ruptured right quad tendon, a version that didn't perfectly align with his prior year's performance but hovered around an All-Star level while he attempted to labor through a banged-up right knee.

    There is the player he was upon his initial return last season, which spanned 13 games before the league closed its doors and saw him gain offensive momentum over his final few outings and navigate the floor effectively relative to the amount of time he missed.

    And then there is the player he was at Disney, the one who opted out of the restart, only to then opt in, and who couldn't move nearly as well on defense or take part in the offense without seemingly hijacking it.

    This season, ahead of his free agency, is about identifying the real Oladipo. Expecting him to regain 2017-18 form officially feels too ambitious, but bracing for a year-long Disney-like letdown is just as extreme. His median outcome likely lies somewhere in between, which would still render him a significantly worse player compared to his All-NBA climb but keep him in the All-Star discussion.

    Interpreting this recalibrated bar is harder than setting it. Oladipo's next phase might call for more of an offensive co-opt with Malcolm Brogdon, Domantas Sabonis and T.J. Warren. That's a divergence from how he played pre-quad injury, and the jury is still out on whether he can thrive amid—or even accept—a role that exists in stark contrast to the one he earned before.

20-16: Walker, Gilgeous-Alexander, McCollum, Fox, Irving

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    20. Kemba Walker, Boston Celtics

    Left knee problems are extracting a toll from Kemba Walker, both on the court and in this space. His burst was visibly compromised by the end of the playoffs, and he's slated to miss the start of this season after receiving a stem cell injection that will sideline him through at least the first week of January.

    What he looks like upon his return, and whether he can remain on the court long enough for it to matter, means just about everything to the Celtics. They have their top-10ish player in Jayson Tatum, but Walker's shot creation and playmaking are more pivotal than ever following Gordon Hayward's departure. Boston rated in the 20th percentile of offensive efficiency last season without both players.

    Tatum's enhanced passing feel can bridge some of the gap, and the Celtics made it to the Eastern Conference Finals sans Hayward, but this team isn't built to make up the whole difference unless Jaylen Brown can run some of the show or one of the young guards explodes.

    This all speaks to the importance and impact of Walker. He is stardom to scale. Lineups can treat him like the kitchen sink thanks to his off-the-dribble three and ability to get around defenders from above the break, with or without a screen, but he's also fit to play nice with others. He cuts backdoor, slips screens and flies around picks. Boston upped his spot-up three-point-attempt rate last season, and he responded by shooting 42 percent on those looks.

    Fully healthy, Walker is a top-10-to-12 guard and overall top-25 player. His peak is not in question. The chances of him returning to it aren't even necessarily up for debate. The amount of time he'll actually spend on the floor this season is a different story.

      

    19. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder

    The limits of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander's game are about to be tested. He spent the first two seasons of his career basking in secondary stardom—dabbling in it as a rookie, then cannonballing into it as a sophomore. Oklahoma City is now betting he can transition to a franchise tent pole after unmaking last year's roster.

    It feels like a good bet. Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 19 points per game last season on more self-sustaining usage. His three-point efficiency dropped but did so amid a higher degree of difficulty. Under 10 percent of his made deep balls went unassisted in 2018-19. That share skyrocketed to 46 percent in 2019-20, and he now looks at home launching off-the-bounce treys.

    His in-between game has come along quite nicely. He has added more shifts in pace and in-and-out dribbles to his toolbox and seems more comfortable finishing through contact even though his accuracy around the rim dipped. Another free-throw spike feels inevitable given the body and ball control on his sudden changes in direction.

    Whether Gilgeous-Alexander can power an offense as both scorer and facilitator remains to be seen. The Thunder ranked in the 9th percentile of points scored per 100 possessions during the time he logged without Chris Paul, and those minutes are now both the status quo and harder to navigate.

    The calm he displays out of the pick-and-roll bodes well, but Oklahoma City needs him to increase the frequency with which he table-sets out of traffic. If he partners that with a healthier clip on pull-up threes, all while shouldering tougher defensive assignments this year, the Thunder will have an All-NBA linchpin on their hands.

      

    18. CJ McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers

    CJ McCollum is still liable to get taken for granted. Too much attention is paid to what he's not, even relative to the everyday hyper-focus on player imperfections. With him, for some reason, it is easier to fall into the trap of if.

    If only he were a more natural table-setter. If only he generated more trips to the foul line. If only he got to the basket more. If only he were a better defender. If only he were slightly bigger.

    Highlighting flaws is a part of this racket, but criticism shouldn't flirt with undermining routinely fringe-All-Star impact. McCollum averages 20-plus points on above-average outside efficiency like clockwork. His in-between game is heaven-sent. He disarms defenders with a smooth flurry of fakes, floaters, pull-ups and changes of pace.

    What some might see as an overreliance on mid-range looks is part of McCollum's charm. So many defenses are designed to give up the shot he wants to take, and he's not one to waste opportunity. He hit nearly 50 percent of his mid-range attempts and canned more than 50 percent of his pull-up two-pointers last year.

    His shot selection is justified further by his plug-and-playness off the ball. He doesn't shrink the floor by camping out inside the arc, and defenses will pay when he's left open to the tune of a 46 percent success rate on catch-and-shoot threes.

      

    17. De'Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings

    De'Aaron Fox's third season looked like it might fall off the rails after the Kings began the year deemphasizing pace and he suffered a sprained left ankle that cost him more than a month. It didn't. He finished 2019-20 on a tear, through the Disney bubble and all, before a left shoulder injury bounced him from the rotation for Sacramento's final two games.

    From Jan. 1 onward, Fox averaged 23.0 and 6.9 assists while converting 54.2 percent of his twos and racking up 7.1 free-throw attempts per game. The speed at which he plays can only be described as controlled chaos. He is a human blur but, somehow, even-keeled amid self-imposed whirlwinds.

    Important still, Fox knows more than one gear. He can set up different modes of attack in the half court and make savvy decisions independent of his burst. And though his swing skill is the same as ever—the outside jumper—his trajectory is not tied to functional epiphany.

    That he canned 46.6 percent of his pull-up jumpers inside the arc after the turn of calendar is encouraging but not everything. He doesn't have the inclination to fire at will off the dribble, in spite of his percentages, like Russell Westbrook or pre-Achilles-injury John Wall. He plays almost exclusively within the confines of his strengths, and both he and the Kings are much better for it.

      

    16. Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets

    Looping Kyrie Irving outside the league's overall top 25, let alone the top 15 guards, is awfully debatable and overwhelmingly awkward. The NBA has star guards galore, but pessimism appears to be running amuck here.

    That isn't without cause. He has more downside than many of those who come after him. Injuries have followed him everywhere, including his first season in Brooklyn. Right knee and right shoulder issues limited him to just 20 appearances, and the Nets went 27-25 without him compared to 8-12 when he played.

    His value is further complicated by what will be a crowded offensive ecosystem. He isn't only trying to blend his game beside Kevin Durant but in concert with Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert.

    To what end any of this matters will be decided in time. Irving has the outside touch to play off others in theory and effectively coexisted on the court with LeBron James, who owns more of a possession monopoly than Durant. Brooklyn's roster construction shouldn't overshadow or manipulate his game so much as work within its context.

    And make no mistake: On many nights, that context is divine. Irving is a magician with the ball in his hands. His escapism spans both north and south. He has the on-a-dime jumper to keep defenses on tilt, and his trips inside the arc are drenched in sorcery and detours, both of which he employs seemingly for sport, as if shirking those in front of him would be too easy without increasing the complexity by his own hand.

    Any given season can end with Irving hovering inside or on the fringes of the overall top-10 discussion. Last year might've ended the same way if he remained healthy. He cleared 27 points and six assists while burying 38.6 percent of his pull-up triples, placing in the 90th percentile of pick-and-roll efficiency and drastically improving the Nets' offensive rating when in the lineup.

    All of which is to say: This ranking will age extremely poorly if he counts availability as a skill this season, and if Brooklyn's surplus of creators proves to be more of a coup than a conundrum.

15-11: Westbrook, Holiday, Morant, Murray, Lowry

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    15. Russell Westbrook, Washington Wizards

    Plenty of people will push back against Russell Westbrook falling outside the top-10-guard discussion and tumbling beyond the top 25 players overall. That's fair. So are souring expectations.

    Westbrook exploded in Houston last year after Clint Capela left the rotation for good, averaging 31.6 points and 5.9 assists on 57.8 percent true shooting through 14 appearances prior to the league's play stoppage. It was some of the most efficient basketball he'd ever played, right down to his curbed three-point volume, fueled by the Rockets' decision to surround him with four shooters.

    That version of Westbrook can be replicated elsewhere, including in Washington, where the Wizards have the personnel to follow the four-out model. But stars who dictate a particular set of circumstances must provide an equally specific payoff. James Harden is worth catering to because he guarantees a lofty peak. The same cannot be said of Westbrook.

    Affording him carte blanche over the offense is a recipe for floor-raising, but the ceiling is more of an inconstant. Giving him complete control, even amid pristine spacing, still invites wild-card moments. His rim assaults can be lethal, but his off-the-dribble jumper has become harmful. Among 51 players to average at least five pull-up attempts per game last year, his effective field-goal percentage ranked 49th.

    Equally problematic: Westbrook's style is not conducive to seamless partnerships. It lacks the wiggle room for sacrifice, which is to say, a bankable threat level off the ball. He is knocking down just 31.6 percent of his spot-up treys since 2017-18. Concessions must instead come from those around him, rendering Westbrook's impact a knotty amalgam of potent and complicated.

      

    14. Jrue Holiday, Milwaukee Bucks

    Almost no one worked as hard as Jrue Holiday at both ends of the floor last season. The burden of guarding primary options was almost always his to bear, and he logged considerable time as the New Orleans Pelicans' own No. 1. Ben Simmons is the only player who closed 2019-20 with higher two-way usage, according to data from BBall Index's Krishna Narsu.

    Playing beside Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton may come at the expense of offensive production, but his placement is not predicated on putting up nearly 20 points and seven assists per game. Any volume he surrenders at that end will be repurposed on the other side, where he is one of the scant few who can go from guarding Chris Paul and Donovan Mitchell, to Luka Doncic and James Harden, to Paul George and even LeBron James.

    Operating alongside better top-end talent doesn't assure Holiday takes on a purely complementary offensive role, either. Eric Bledsoe still mustered the same time of possession last season as Devin Booker. Holiday will get his reps; he might even get more now that the Bucks rotation no longer stretches roughly 80 playable bodies.

    Toeing the line between primary ball-handler and second or third wheel is not a task with which Holiday will struggle. He has spent much of his career merging two schools of play. He drilled a good-not-great 34.7 percent of his pull-up threes last year while draining 36.4 percent of his catch-and-shoot triples—marks that should improve within Milwaukee's spacing.

      

    13. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies

    Safer projections will put Ja Morant a few ticks lower. Sophomores are so seldom top-30 players, and the league's player landscape is such that he's outstripping more proven stars like Jrue Holiday, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker and Russell Westbrook, among others.

    Availability warts drag down some of Morant's competition. Walker is dealing with a left knee issue, and Irving is a virtual lock to miss between 15 and 20 games per season, if not more. At just 21, Morant also shouldn't be beholden to the same amount of load management as select peers.

    For the most part, though, this is about a 2019-20 performance worth believing in. Morant didn't just run away with Rookie of the Year honors while Zion Williamson recovered from right knee surgery. He married volume and efficiency in a way presumed off-limits to newbies.

    Just six other first-year players have ever matched his usage rate (25.9) and true shooting percentage (55.6): Terry Cummings, Walter Davis, Tim Duncan, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal and David Robinson. That Morant is the sole lead guard of the bunch should not be overlooked. He is not on the same MVP fast-track being traveled by Luka Doncic, but if his off-the-bounce three becomes a more dependable weapon in Year 2, he'll find himself on the path adjacent.

      

    12. Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets

    Consistency remains critical to Jamal Murray's overarching value. He spits fire with the unrelenting ferocity of a megastar on any given night; he just needs to have more of those nights—or at least embark on fewer disappearing acts.

    Murray's 19-game postseason romp suggests he has achieved a level of sustainability. Fatigue definitely became a factor by the end of the Western Conference Finals. Erasing two 3-1 series deficits can have that effect.

    But Murray never once faded into the backdrop. Nor did he merely hover closer to the center of everything Denver did. He was at the very heart of it, averaging 26.5 points and 6.6 assists while both attacking the teeth of set defenses more frequently and swishing 43.2 percent of his pull-up triples.

    This exact performance may not be Murray's new normal. It probably won't be. It doesn't need to be. This is more so a blueprint of how he can play, perhaps in smaller doses: as not only a devastatingly accurate shooter but also as someone physical enough to move guys in the pick-and-roll, strong enough to reach the rim more regularly and decisive enough to set up his teammates as the lead playmaker.

      

    11. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors

    Going on 35 this March, Kyle Lowry's individual stock could take a bigger hit. The aging curve for six-foot guards isn't the greatest, and the Raptors didn't do anything over the offseason to diminish their dependence on him.

    On some level, though, Lowry isn't actually operating on borrowed time. He didn't begin exploring his career apex until after arriving in Toronto, at which point he had already played the better part of a decade.

    His influence is also built to age. The off-the-bounce jumper might wobble, but he has the frame to body his way toward the rim and at-large outside touch to rain spot-up threes. More than that, so much of what he does isn't measured in scoring.

    Undersized guards aren't supposed to be so physical or effective when setting screens. He somehow creates shots for others without ever touching the ball. The bulldoggedness with which he plays defense isn't going anywhere. Maybe his body screams loud enough for him to stop hunting charges—don't bet on it—but he can still be immovable on-ball.

    That end-to-end hustle is the through-line connecting every iteration of Toronto since 2012 and continues to inform the team's identity today. Though his stat lines may mount in modesty—assuming 19.4 points and 7.5 assists per game on plenty of functional shooting is within miles of modesty—his impact on those around him figures to remain anything but.

10. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

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    Mike Erhmann/Associated Press

    Failure to adequately conquer playoff basketball was the barrier blocking Donovan Mitchell from full-on stardom entering last year. His trip to the 2019 postseason resulted in a heap of discouraging performances without irrefutable excuses. Maybe he was too young and overtaxed by Utah's lack of secondary shot creation. Or perhaps the franchise-cornerstone status he earned had been misapplied.

    It was the former.

    Mitchell came of status during the Jazz's most recent playoff push despite their first-round collapse against the Denver Nuggets. Through seven games, he averaged 36.3 points and 4.9 assists on a scorching 69.6 percent true shooting, all while living up to the biggest moments.

    And though Mike Conley and Jordan Clarkson gave him a lift he didn't have in 2018 or 2019, this wasn't a fluke or a detonation owed entirely to the collective. The Jazz were not at full strength with Bojan Bogdanovic recovering from a right wrist injury, and Mitchell went toe-to-toe, almost nightly, with a lava-hot Jamal Murray.

    Utah probably still gives him a max extension if he doesn't go boom. But is it a five-year max? With a player option after the fifth season? Maybe, if almost definitely.

    There is still no overstating the importance of his postseason eruption. It cemented his entry into stardom—not the fringe kind earned by outperforming expectations earlier in his career, but the type that suggests he can power the offense of a contending team.

9. Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns

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    Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press

    About that Chris Paul decline...

    It never started. The doubt that followed him out of Houston over the 2019 offseason was a gross misinterpretation of both the player and circumstances.

    Injuries hampered his availability with the Rockets but never really crippled them. Their 2018 loss to the Golden State Warriors goes down as a missed opportunity, but they were the only team billed as genuine threats to a dynasty, in large part because of him. Houston did his stock no favors by treating him as the clearly inferior asset in the Russell Westbrook trade.

    Paul used his lone season with the Oklahoma City Thunder to deliver the ultimate reality check. His 17.6 points and 6.7 assists per game didn't leap off the page, but he's never exclusively trafficked in mind-melting lines. His impact was more profound.

    He shot a career-high 52.0 percent from mid-range, drilled 35.8 percent of his pull-up threes and rarely missed in crunch time. And the latter note is just partial hyperbole. Joel Embiid was the only other player to post a usage rate in the clutch of 30 or higher and a true shooting percentage above 65.

    Someone coming off a worthy second-team All-NBA performance shouldn't rank outside the top seven guards—or a hair outside the overall top 20. Oklahoma City's offense improved by 13.7 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor for crying out loud, the second-largest swing in the league among all players who cleared 500 minutes.

    Letting him drop implies regression is on the horizon. That might be at play here; he's entering his age-35 season and missed just two games last year. Really, this is more about role simplification.

    Devin Booker is better than any teammate Paul partnered with last season. Religiously staggering their minutes will grant him extra control over the offense, and he's more equipped to move Paul off the ball when they play together than Year 2 Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

    Viewed through that lens, Paul's slide down the league's pecking order is almost voluntary. He is outside the overall top 20 because he's no longer on a team that needs him to be within it.

8. Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Player rankings are inherently subject to inconsistent thought. The goal is to evaluate each player independent of his team's exact ecosystem, so as not to reward or penalize them for the talent around them. This logic, while sensible, is far from Teflon. Roster construction inevitably creeps its way into the discussion and, oftentimes, affects the value ascribed to certain names.

    Bradley Beal's placement might be suffering from those constraints. They definitely account for last season's lukewarm All-NBA support. The Washington Wizards weren't good, and his case suffered as a result. Fair? Not fair? Who the hell knows. Gauging player value based on team success is an inexact science.

    This issue persists for Beal following the Wizards' acquisition of Russell Westbrook. He is no stranger to playing alongside ball-dominant floor generals; he has spent a large chunk of his career operating in tandem with John Wall. But Wall has not played since 2018, and Westbrook is more of an offensive monopoly. He doesn't have the same off-ball value on catch-and-shoot looks or the same inclination to pass.

    Beal's stardom is built to navigate this storm. Even last year, while leading the Wizards with 6.1 dimes per game and notching the league's fifth-highest usage rate, exactly 45 percent of his made baskets came off assists.

    Playing with a co-star, any co-star, will only tweak the manner in which his offense comes rather than his actual impact. And whatever volume he does surrender has the chance to be repurposed on the defensive end, where he is big enough and strong enough to guard either wing spot when not exhausted beyond the point of engagement.

7. Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks

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    John Amis/Associated Press

    Trae Young's potential to be the league's worst defender on any given night, if not a lion's share of the nights, will forever cap his peak in these debates. Much less concerning is the notion that his numbers receive a superficial boost from playing more like James Harden than Stephen Curry—and that he'll suffer upon transitioning into a role that calls for fewer than, roughly, all the on-ball reps.

    The Atlanta Hawks' roster thus far has defined Young's terms of engagement, not the other way around. They haven't afforded him the requisite secondary scorers or playmakers to get him moving without the ball—or off the ball in general. That slightly more than 20 percent of his made buckets came off assists last season is a minor miracle.

    Playing with Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari (and perhaps Rajon Rondo) will shift the context of Young's role for the better. He canned 46.6 percent of his spot-up threes last season. Moving him off the ball, for whatever portion of his touches, should wear down defenses.

    Leveraging catch-and-shoot touch alongside ultra-deep off-the-dribble jumpers, a rock-solid floater and open-floor passing will only expand Young's impact. He just averaged 29.6 points and 9.3 assists as a sophomore while ferrying a suboptimal supporting cast to offensive respectability during his minutes.

    Imagine what he can do on a roster built to make his life easier.

6. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns

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    Kevin C. Cox/Associated Press

    Devin Booker's trajectory has officially—and completely—flipped. Long gone are the empty-calorie considerations that, admittedly, always seemed to underestimate his inexperience and the quality of players around him. They are now replaced by the most optimistic outlook of his career—and deservedly so.

    Sticking Booker ahead of Trae Young, Bradley Beal, his new teammate Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and a few others will invariably rub some the wrong way. And it is indeed ambitious. Paul, Young and Westbrook, specifically, are all seemingly better suited to prop up entire offenses. They play more immersive, if domineering, styles.

    Force of will isn't everything, though. Booker is similar to Beal—and, to a lesser extent, Paul—in that his offense straddles two lines. He is both a North Star and a ready-made sidekick. The makeup of the Phoenix Suns has generally dictated he tilt toward the former, but he has thrived when granted respite.

    This past year, as part of a roster with more NBA talent, Booker shot 39.3 percent on spot-up threes and averaged 1.59 points per possession on cuts (95th percentile). Those parts of his game will be accentuated by Paul's arrival, even if the Suns are committed to staggering the two. (They will be.)

    Booker's from-scratch creation, meanwhile, isn't going anywhere. He has morphed into one of the better decision-makers out of the pick-and-roll and when attacking downhill. And it isn't just the scoring.

    Defenses flock toward him when he's on the move, and he's now an expert at making them pay. He doesn't have the same level of flash on his passes as Young or James Harden, but the 6.5 assists he's averaging are an accurate snapshot of his importance: The threat of his scoring engineers shot opportunities for others that wouldn't exist without him.

    Striking this functional balance amid superstar usage has earned Booker the benefit of the doubt. He was, quite literally, one of last season's most-efficient high-volume players. Among everyone with a usage rate above 25, only Harden, Damian Lillard and Khris Middleton owned a higher true shooting percentage.

5. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Ben Simmons' place among the league's top stars is too frequently boiled down to what he doesn't do: shoot threes—or, for that matter, take jumpers at all. Yawn.

    Dissecting the impact his finite range has on his team is certainly fair game. Ball-dominant stars seldom used as screeners who just shot barely over 33 percent outside the restricted area leave little margin for error when fleshing out the rest of the roster. The floor shrinks exponentially with each other below-average shooter they place beside him—especially during the playoffs.

    This cannot be used as a license to diminish everything Simmons brings with him. Accounting for the limitations he places on his team must be done in balance with the value he adds as a playmaker and defender.

    Living at the basket has done only so much to crimp the pressure he puts on defenses. They are still inclined to react when he gets moving downhill, and he is a whiz at reaching his spots. The rotations he forces set up looks from distance that wouldn't otherwise exist. Only Luka Doncic and LeBron James assisted on more three-pointers last season, per PBP Stats.

    Simmons is virtually unimpeachable at the other end, a positionless disruptor capable of shouldering immense burdens. Among every player who logged at least 1,000 possessions last season, only three posted a higher versatility rating, according to data from BBall Index's Krishna Narsu. And out of everyone who saw at least 1,000 minutes, only two spent more time guarding No. 1 options.

4. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

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    Kim Klement/Associated Press

    Superstardom is to some extent measured in moments. The best players should shine at the most critical times. The ones who don't are subject to more turbulent perception.

    Damian Lillard's resume is as mythic-looking as they come for players without a championship ring. Not only does he have two postseason series-winners under his belt, but when the Portland Trail Blazers needed an 11th-hour push to make the playoffs last year, amid unprecedented circumstances and after four-plus months offs, he went volcanic inside the Disney bubble.

    Eight games is a tiny sample in the grand scheme, but the 37.6 points and 9.6 assists he averaged on 67.7 percent true shooting will be committed to memory.

    Insofar as a clutch gene exists, Lillard has it.

    Yet where anecdotes may have once fueled his place within these exercises, they're now more like sweeteners. He has spent the last half-decade not endearing himself to, but entrenching himself in the top-10-player discussion on the back of annual and incremental improvement, covetable durability and absurdly lethal off-the-bounce three-point shooting.

    Aside from Stephen Curry and James Harden, no player attracts more defensive attention once they cross the timeline. It has become cliche to note he's the league's closest approximation to the former, but that doesn't make it any less true. Lillard may not have the same magnetic pull away from the ball, but he instills a similar sense of urgency on it.

    There is nothing overly gradual about how he gets his shots off. Defenses aren't drawn to half-court solely to prevent what he'll do going downhill—though, that's part of it—but because he's in scoring range as soon as he wakes up every morning.

    Absolutely no one attempted more shots from 30-plus feet last season. And Lillard downed those looks at a 41.9 percent clip, a conversion rate that warps both defenses and the brain, and that was the life raft Portland used to stay afloat through injuries.

    Pair this system-unto-himself offense with the culture he has authored inside the Blazers locker room—Carmelo Anthony's return doesn't work just anywhere—and Lillard's top-10-player case becomes something surer than airtight.

3. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Stephen Curry's place among the NBA's best has lived under siege since his first MVP—and most certainly since his second, when he became the league's first-ever unanimous selection. Welcoming Kevin Durant to the Golden State Warriors in 2016 prompted even more convoluted discussions. Never mind whether Curry belonged on the same plane of stardom as LeBron James.

    In the eyes of many, he spent three years of his prime as the second-best player on his own team.

    That Durant was so often identified as the Warriors' top star must still be part of the Curry conversation now. For one, he has played in just five games since KD left Golden State for Brooklyn. Mostly, it speaks to a fundamental misunderstanding of what he brings to the table.

    Evaluating Curry cannot purely be a matter of measuring his ultra-deep off-the-dribble threes, circus finishes, nifty floaters and escapism handles and passing. They are all parts of the package but don't fully underscore how he amplifies everyone around him, stars and role players alike.

    Defenses bend at the mere idea of Curry. They will travel cosmic lengths just to prevent him from getting the ball. No other superstar has that gravity, a pull so strong it changes the scope and shape of the court. It is no coincidence Golden State's effective field-goal percentage swing with Curry on the floor has rated inside the 95th percentile through eight of his 11 seasons, including all three of the Durant years.

    There might be something to the idea that he is easier to neutralize in the playoffs than other superstars. But that is a matter of frame and build. Physical defenses can more readily derail the motion of a 6'3" guard when given the leeway (read: whistle) to do so, and Curry, like nearly every other player in the league, doesn't have the size necessary to shoot over everyone.

    This infers little, if anything. The absence of a Finals MVP should be viewed in the same vein. Curry is averaging 27.2 points and 5.9 assists on 61.6 percent true shooting in the playoffs since 2015. Neither he nor his game, both on- and off-ball, is eminently solvable.

    Age and health are bigger concerns than any wannabe evidence that Curry's value is unjustly inflated.

    He turns 33 in March and missed pretty much all of 2019-20. But he's not returning from a chronic injury (fractured left hand). Last season was more of a rest year than an actual setback. And if he remains healthy now, the degree to which he uplifts those around him will never be more apparent.

    Durant is gone, Klay Thompson is out for another year (torn right Achilles), and the Warriors are Curry's to carry—just like they've always been, only on more noticeable terms.

2. James Harden, Houston Rockets

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    There is a particular endurance to James Harden's value, a unique stamina that withstands his own polarity, both on and off the court.

    No one incites more division with how they play. To say Harden lives in isolation and vacations at the foul line would be an understatement. Churning through more one-on-one possessions than entire teams has become his norm. The extent to which the Houston Rockets have (so far) tethered their livelihood to him, even as they tinkered around Russell Westbrook last season, is seen as either ingenuity or basketball stripped down, with little to no in-between.

    The data allows for hardly any wiggle room. Harden is averaging 32.4 points and 8.8 assists on 61.8 percent true shooting through the past four seasons, over which time he's finished no lower than third on the MVP ballot. Houston has ranked outside the top three in offensive efficiency just once and never played at worse than a 50-win pace during this span (2019-20).

    Skeptics will claim Harden's current style isn't nearly as effective in the postseason. That seems fair. It is also dramatized. He didn't injure Chris Paul's hamstring or miss all 27 of the Rockets' threes in 2018, and he's averaging 29.5 points and 7.3 assists on 57.8 percent true shooting in the playoffs since 2017—numbers that don't perfectly match his regular-season output but hardly pale in comparison.

    At the same time, the criticism isn't entirely unwarranted. Harden's resume includes legitimate missed opportunities and tough-to-excuse letdowns. Attributing select failures to monstrous regular-season usage works in some cases (like versus San Antonio in 2017). Less explainable is his role, however prominent or accessory, in bungled star partnerships with Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and, most recently, Russell Westbrook.

    It begs the question: Does Harden come with too much baggage? Superstardom isn't meant to exist in each player's own individual vacuum. His exact play style is difficult to squeeze in just anywhere, next to anybody, complicating his list of prospective trade suitors considerably. Acquiring this version of Harden isn't just a commitment to reinvention but to absolutist extremes.

    Then again, maybe not. Harden hasn't proved incapable of playing a different way; he just hasn't needed to in quite some time. More than that, so few players are walking 50-win seasons on their own. Failing a complete implosion of skill and durability as he tries to orchestrate his departure from Houston, he remains one of them.

1. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

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    Kevin C. Cox/Associated Press

    Putting Luka Doncic ahead of Stephen Curry, James Harden and Damian Lillard is not a rush to coronate, even if it doesn't yet look right. Predictive measures allow for some imagination, and it is hardly outlandish to argue he has inserted himself into the top-three-player discussion.

    Last season served as his megastar initiation. He averaged 28.8 points and 8.8 assists on 58.5 percent true shooting, all appreciable upticks from his rookie year. His efficiency from beyond the arc can engender eye rolls; parades aren't thrown for knocking down 31.6 percent of your threes. But the degree of difficulty on his attempts, coupled with the defensive attention he demands from everywhere on the floor with the ball in his hands, balances out the raw percentages.

    So, too, does Doncic's finishing. He leverages both a floater and the body strength to convert at the rim through contact. T.J. Warren and Ben Simmons were the only non-bigs last year to shoot better on twos than Doncic (57.4 percent) while attempting at least 500 such shots.

    Sticking him (much) lower writes off almost any potential improvement, an implication that Doncic has broached his absolute peak. That would be absurd.

    He doesn't turn 22 until February, and this will be just his third NBA season. His career arc has far from topped out. He could turn in more even crunch-time performances. He could shoot a higher clip from the foul stripe. He could drop in more of his uber-difficult threes, just as he did in the playoffs.

    This room for growth is at once undeniable and terrifying. Having him is already akin to a playoff ticket, and he just became the first player in league history to secure a top-five finish on the MVP ballot before his age-21 season. If the best really has yet to come, whatever still awaits is impossibly hard to fathom.

              

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Adam Fromal.