2021 B/R NBA Player Rankings: Predicting Top 25 Wings This Season
Who had the order of 25 wings?
Now that all the terribly bad jokes are out of the way, let's keep Bleacher Report's NBA 100 train rolling. If you need a refresher on why we've ditched single-position designations, please refer to the guards installment. Also, you know, just go check out our top 25 guards, period:
Friendly reminder: Players were ranked based on where we think they'll finish the season. Their bodies of work were fair game. This included injuries. Anyone who isn't slated to play this year didn't make an appearance, and placements were impacted by injuries, major setbacks in the rearview and, in some cases, potential regression due to age.
Rookies were also excluded. It is too hard to gauge the value of players without NBA samples. 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 Anthony Edwards, there you go.
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 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.
To the top 25 wings!
25-21: Crowder, Harris, Richardson, Porter, Bridges
25. Jae Crowder, Phoenix Suns
Jae Crowder tantalizes more in concept than practice. He is among the coveted wing prototypes, as someone capable of defending the 2-3-4 spots and raining triples, but his impact is not always 100 percent non-detrimental. His three-point splits are all over the place—he's at 34 percent shooting from deep for his career—and there can be a Wesley Matthews-eque trade-off to having him on the floor; a couple of possessions will seemingly always end in his attempting to do something inexplicable off the dribble.
In the aggregate, though, Crowder is worth whatever obstacles he self-imposes. Lineup diversification is probably his crowning strength. Defensive perception also tends to outstrip reality in those instances, but he is often the vessel through which teams achieve four- or five-out combinations without nuking their stopping power.
Crowder-at-the-4 arrangements have generally proved effective with the Boston Celtics, Utah Jazz and Miami Heat. The Suns have the personnel around him to suggest they'll get similar results. It's likewise possible he picks up where he left off from beyond the arc with the Heat (44.5 percent clip). Because, for all his turbulence, blisteringly hot outside shooting is also part of the Jae Crowder experience.
24. Joe Harris, Brooklyn Nets
Everything Joe Harris does is scalable. His reputation revolves around his three-point shooting—and not without cause. The 43 percent clip he's posted from downtown since 2016-17 leads all players who have launched at least 1,300 long-range attempts.
Harris' utility doesn't end there. Not even close. He has leveraged the chaos his outside touch induces into a more well-rounded bag. He can put the ball on the deck not just in wide-open spaces but also to navigate traffic. His vision on the move has improved each year, to the point he's now in the habit of throwing nifty passes. And his defensive effort, though not lock-down, holds up well enough for him to try to guard 3s.
Certain non-stars can be tough to differentiate from their situations. Harris isn't one of them. He hasn't created the situation with Brooklyn, but his is a skill set that can subsist anywhere, alongside anyone.
23. Josh Richardson, Dallas Mavericks
The idea of Josh Richardson is way more valuable than his placement lets on. He plays exhaustive, in-your-jersey defense across roughly four positions, wields operable three-point touch and provides a dash of self-creation. That is not the description of a barely top-100 player. It's more like top-50.
But Richardson is coming off a down year. Whether that drop-off was owed to lingering hamstring issues, a clumsy team fit or actual regression we can't be sure. It might be some combination of all three.
Landing with Dallas ensured Richardson will have the chance to show last year was but an anomalous blip. His offensive game shines brightest within optimal spacing. He needs room to maneuver coming out of pick-and-rolls and breathing room when getting his shot off. The Philadelphia 76ers didn't have it—not enough of it, anyway. The Mavericks promise a more friendly environment, one in which Richardson will have the airspace to maximize self-creation and properly weaponize his spot-up jumpers.
22. Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets
Defense may dictate Michael Porter Jr.'s opportunities in his sophomore campaign. Cobbling together closing units would become a much easier process if he's doing everything his tools suggest he can, namely using his speed to contain on the perimeter and rotate toward the basket. His playing time stands to continue waxing and waning if his execution and engagement do, too.
Or maybe not. The Nuggets are heavily invested in him. Jrue Holiday or, perhaps, Bradley Beal would be on the roster if they weren't married to his outlook. They can't afford to not play him, particularly after bidding farewell to Torrey Craig and Jerami Grant.
Which, to be clear, is far from a bad thing. Porter has the look and feel of a transcendent scorer. He is super quick, can let 'er rip over the top of just about anyone and has no bones about stroking spot-up jumpers. Only five other players have averaged more than 20 points per 36 minutes on a true shooting percentage above 60 before their age-22 seasons: John Collins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Nikola Jokic, Kevin Durant and Shaquille O'Neal. Porter played by far the lowest-volume role of the bunch, but this still attests to the upside on which Denver is counting.
21. Mikal Bridges, Phoenix Suns
Mikal Bridges is already on the All-Defense track. He scraps to get over screens, and opponents struggle to elude his forever arms. His closeouts are essentially teleportation, and they're emblematic of the energy with which he plays. He alone can tie together certain wing combinations that might otherwise prove ineffective, if not disastrous.
Offensive consistency is the vehicle Bridges will use to take his next step. He has so far teased a greater impact in glimmers and glints and sometimes prolonged stretches, but it never sticks. He invariably retreats into the backdrop, previously at the expense of playing time.
Something appeared to give by the end of last season. After entering Phoenix's starting lineup for good, he averaged 12.0 points and 2.4 assists per game while banging in 40 percent of his threes and upping his threat level on the move. He broke out the occasional pull-up triple, improved his decision-making when dribbling into traffic, kept the ball moving and continued to find cracks in the defense away from the ball. It was a breakthrough stretch, and it lasted long enough to portend a breakthrough year.
20-16: Covington, Ingles, Grant, Bog. Bogdanovic, Warren
20. Robert Covington, Portland Trail Blazers
Robert Covington is a finishing touch actualized, the player teams pine for when they plan to be really good, because he only ever nudges them further in that direction.
Four-position defense always has curb appeal, but Covington provides more than optionality. His impact is comprehensive. He's more likely to bust up a play away from the ball or erase a teammate's mistake than shut down any singular assignment.
Covington's offensive value is more elemental, though no less important. His low usage is indicative of his maintenance. He will help as much as his catch-and-shoot touch allows him. That correlation didn't bode so well last year. He converted just 33 percent of his spot-up threes while splitting time with Minnesota and Houston. But that doesn't seem like a red flag so much as temporary deviation. He hit 39.4 percent of those looks in 2018-9 and 37.9 percent in 2017-18, and wings have a way of discovering their range when they're next to Damian Lillard.
19. Joe Ingles, Utah Jazz
Age would be a bigger concern for Joe Ingles if he didn't play a style so suited for it. His defensive impact has never been tied to north-south burst or lateral athleticism. Space and anticipation are his calling cards. It helps that he usually has Rudy Gobert behind him, but he also stymies the possessions of those quicker and stronger by ensuring he's almost never out of place.
Some semblance of defensive regression may still be unavoidable. Ingles is 33, and the 2020 postseason wasn't his finest hour at the less glamorous end. On the bright side: If he does fall off, he can still hang his hat on offense.
Shooting tends to age well, and he's among the most efficient outside marksmen. Among every player to attempt at least 1,000 triples over the past four seasons, only Joe Harris, Kyle Korver, JJ Redick, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are hitting theirs at a higher clip. Ingles diversifies his portfolio with a playmaker's touch. He tosses quick passes on the catch, and defenders seem to get lulled into a trance by the slow to moderate speed at which he operates inside the arc.
18. Jerami Grant, Detroit Pistons
Jerami Grant is betting he has the tools to climb up this list. He left Denver for Detroit in search of a larger offensive role after spending his career working predominantly away from the ball, as a spot-up option, cutter and transition threat. The Pistons will presumably give him the opportunity to create for himself, perhaps even for others.
At the moment, it's tough to see the outline of the player Grant wants to be. He's never looked especially comfortable on-ball. Soaking up more responsibility could feasibly, if not likely, prove to be an overextension. Or maybe it's the springboard into effective expansion. His ranking here is more reflective of a median outcome: little to no change in either direction.
Grant is one of the league's preeminent three-and-D weapons. He's shooting 39.1 percent from deep over the past two seasons, and though his rebounding leaves much to be desired, he can switch across nearly every position and be thrown at bigger wings. If he can't develop into the more well-rounded offensive option he's trying to be, the Pistons can at least hold out hope he remains the same player he was with the Nuggets and Oklahoma City Thunder: a pretty damn good one.
17. Bogdan Bogdanovic, Atlanta Hawks
Bogdan Bogdanovic can be easy to miss. His impact is hardly kept in secret, but it's not spectacle, either. He generates offense as a form of alleviation, the guy next to the guy.
This is not to say Bogdanovic's workload is effortless or even opportunistic. He separates himself from other second and third wheels with an air of self-creation. Not every non-star can score at all three levels. Even fewer can do it as efficiently. Just take a gander at his profile from last season:
- At rim: 61 percent (49th percentile)
- Short mid-range: 48 percent (86th percentile)
- Long mid-range: 52 percent (91st percentile)
- All mid-range: 50 percent (90th percentile)
- All threes: 37 percent (58th percentile)
Moving to Atlanta should only increase Bogdanovic's chances to exploit cursory defensive focus. Trae Young has immeasurable pull with the ball in his hands, and the floor games of Danilo Gallinari and John Collins will draw attention all their own.
16. T.J. Warren, Indiana Pacers
T.J. Warren's 2019-20 campaign was far more than his supernova performance during the Disney restart. To be sure, that scoring barrage matters. How could it not? He averaged 31.0 points per game while slashing 58/52/89. The Indiana offense should not reconstruct its hierarchy with him at the tippy top, but the extra on-ball reps he shouldered are proof of a safety net. The Pacers can survive at something less than full strength because he's capable of moonlighting as someone more than a third or fourth option.
Granted, any role Warren assumes will include buckets. He is programmed to look for his shot. His improved three-point touch has only made it easier to fill the box score within the flow of an offense. He's hitting 41.4 percent of his treys over the past two seasons, and even with his bubble masterpiece factored in, nearly two-thirds of his made baskets last season came on assists.
That his first year with Indiana included a more consistent defensive motor only heightened his utility. In the span of just a couple of seasons, he's gone from one dimensional to, potentially, one size fits all.
15-11: Boj. Bogdanovic, Harris, Anunoby, DeRozan, LeVert
15. Bojan Bogdanovic, Utah Jazz
Bojan Bogdanovic is the consummate secondary scorer. He offers glimpses of more complicated shot-making but is both content and positively lethal working off ball-dominant playmakers.
Joining the Jazz has resulted in a simpler role than he held with Indiana, but the change is symbiotic: He isn't burdened with the same from-scratch volume, and in exchange, they have gotten one of the league's most efficient sidekicks. Only three other players last season averaged at least 20 points while shooting better than 40 percent from deep on as many three-point attempts per game: Paul George, Jayson Tatum and Karl-Anthony Towns.
14. Tobias Harris, Philadelphia 76ers
Tobias Harris' stock rose by virtue of a potential return to his roots. "First thing, we've gotta get him back to being is a quick-decision player," Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said, per CBS Sports' Michael Kaskey-Blomain. "I told him I saw him dribbling way too much. Tobias is so darn skilled going downhill left and right. We need to get back to taking advantage of that."
Philly slashed Harris' pick-and-roll usage last season to keep in theme with its style. Putting him in more of those situations, perhaps at the expense of elbow touches, would assure Harris more of an opportunity to make decisions on the move rather than from a standstill. That's where he's at his best: pulling up for threes after coming around screens or subtly punishing bigs on switches (even if he tends to bail out before getting to the basket).
The Sixers now have the requisite shooting near the top of the roster to unlock that Tobias Harris, and they'll reap even more of the benefits following the Al Horford trade. Harris held up well against opposing wings last season, but he is most dangerous at power forward. And while many of his minutes came there in 2019-20, the stage is now set for him to be more of a full-time mismatch.
13. OG Anunoby, Toronto Raptors
OG Anunoby is now synonymous with the NBA's best three-and-D specialists. And yet, that attempt at flattery has inadvertently become a pigeonhole. Looping him under the three-and-D umbrella implies his ceiling tops out as a knockdown standstill shooter and the league's best on-ball defender. That projection was fine 18 months ago, maybe even generous. It sells him short now.
There is more to Anunoby on offense than spot-up threes—which, by the way, he drilled at a 38.2 percent clip. He is more inclined to dribble in open space and set his sights on finishing at the rim. Defenses still appear disarmed when he puts the ball on the floor, but his downhill attacks are an actual thing.
How much more he has to offer will be decided in due course. Self-exploration beckons with Toronto, where there is at least a moderate offensive vacuum following the departures of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. Anunoby will be tasked with replacing some of the volume and the artistic liberties that go with it. He may not suddenly dribble into jumpers or drum up his half-court creation. On the other hand, he might. And if he does, he would go from secondary building block to possible, if not probable, All-Star.
12. DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs
Assessments of DeMar DeRozan are veering too far into unreason. Players are more than their shot profile, and he remains a highly effective initiator when granted the freedom to work within his wheelhouse. San Antonio hasn't always done the best job of accentuating his strengths but remedied its position last season by having LaMarcus Aldridge restretch his game beyond the three-point line.
DeRozan feasted from that moment onward, leveraging four-out spacing into not more mid-range jumpers but looks inside the paint. He finished the season as one of just five players averaging more than 22 points and five assists with a true shooting percentage above 60. His company: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Devin Booker, James Harden and Damian Lillard.
On-court impact isn't binary, but that's not an invitation to overthink. Players who can jump-start the offense, get to their spots and draw fouls in spades are valuable. DeRozan is valuable. Living and dying by his hand is just an increasingly fragile existence.
11. Caris LeVert, Brooklyn Nets
Caris LeVert is best deployed without restraint. His highest highs with the Nets have come when he was given unbounded agency—creative license he has held on numerous occasions, albeit not steadily, and won't carry now. Playing with a healthy Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving means surrendering touches and status, a concession that will gauge the malleability of his skill set.
Finding the right balance might be a matter of joining the second unit or getting drastically staggered from Brooklyn's two superstars. LeVert is not the most consistent finisher and settles for mid-range jumpers too often, but he's wired to drive an offense. His vision is underrated; teammates glean open shots through his changes in direction. And among every player to average at least three pull-up triples per game last season, only Paul George, Damian Lillard and Jayson Tatum hit theirs at a higher clip.
Invariably, though, LeVert's standing boils down to his capacity for integration. He has converted more than 33.3 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes only once in his four years (2017-18) and doesn't have much experience navigating off-ball traffic. That'll have to change if he's going to close games—and stick with the Nets.
10. Gordon Hayward, Charlotte Hornets
No one should have trouble evaluating Gordon Hayward independent of the four-year, $120 million contract he signed with the Charlotte Hornets. The injuries he suffered with the Boston Celtics demanded the lens through which he's viewed be recalibrated.
Holding him to the same standard as an All-NBA building block is a blueprint for disappointment. He was barely on that plane in the first place, and the devastating left leg and ankle injuries he suffered in 2017, along with all the other issues he's dealt with since, have inherently lowered his bar. He doesn't have the same zip in space and is even less of a threat to put consistent pressure on the rim and draw shooting fouls.
Still, Hayward's return is by and large a success story.
He has held steady at the fringe-star level, and that holds immense value. Hayward, specifically, papers over gaps in his game by dabbling across the board. He can still create his own shot, finish at the rim when he gets there, serve as the pick-and-roll maestro and streamline his fit beside other ball-handlers by knocking down set threes.
In many ways, Hayward is the ideal get for a Hornets squad trying to bring along what they hope is a franchise cornerstone in LaMelo Ball. He alleviates—to the tune of 17.5 points and 4.1 assists last season—without overwhelming. That's not worth superstar money, but teams can do worse than overpay 6'7" playmaking wings who won't govern their direction one way or the other.
9. Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans
Skepticism becomes restraint in the case of Brandon Ingram. Last season's jump was so gargantuan it raises the issue of sustainability.
This doubt doesn't permeate the entirety of his Most Improved Player performance. The improved standstill shooting feels legit. He has hit more than 40 percent of his catch-and-fire threes before (2017-18), and although a 17.4-point jump in free-throw percentage is wild, it's not beyond the realm of possibility for someone who has flashed competent set shooting from longer distances.
Some of Ingram's off-the-dribble work is less certain. Can he continue to be proficient in isolation, as both a live-ball scorer and foul-drawer? How does that translate to a New Orleans Pelicans squad that may struggle to surround him with three above-average floor-spacers? And how is his game at large impacted by spending more time next to Zion Williamson?
The latter is, clearly, the most important question. Ingram's elevated three-point-attempt rate suggests he'll work well when displaced from the ball, but his effective field-goal percentage dipped by more than 3.2 points last season in the time he spent beside Zion.
Maybe this becomes a non-issue over the longer haul. Maybe the Jrue Holiday trade leaves the Pelicans even more inclined to give Ingram free rein in units that include neither Zion nor Lonzo Ball. Maybe every single step of this process is being overthought.
Regardless, Ingram deserves the benefit of the doubt. His breakout season wasn't just about statistical explosion. It was proof that his offensive game runs deeper and is more adaptable, in which case the new-look Pelicans should not derail a potential encore, and his path up the ladder is more tied to defensive improvement than the prospect of any offensive regression.
8. Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics
Jaylen Brown is coming off a monster season in which his offense found its happy medium. He averaged a career-high 20.3 points per game while hitting 38.2 percent of his threes and taking his free-throw clip from the mid-60s to 72.4.
The manner in which he scores is team-friendly. He feasts in transition and spot-ups, and over 88 percent of his made threes came off assists. At the same time, he can put pressure on defenses going downhill, and while secondary playmaking very much remains a work in progress, he saw his pick-and-roll frequency more than double from 2018-19.
Increasing his exposure to those situations and establishing himself as more of a table-setter overall is both the next natural progression and, for the time being, mission critical. The Boston Celtics won't have Kemba Walker to start the season while he recovers from a stem cell injection in his left knee, and they don't have an obvious next-in-line option to fill the ball-handling and playmaking void he leaves behind following the departure of Gordon Hayward.
Jayson Tatum will take on more of the load, as will Marcus Smart and Jeff Teague. At least one of Boston's young guards may become integral depending on how much time Walker misses and what he looks like upon return. But Brown is the most interesting alternative because of what he can already do. Any passing punch he provides broadens the scope of someone who's already among the league's most impactful three-and-D guys.
Nudging Brown in that direction guarantees nothing. He can still get tunnel vision on his drives, though he does seem more patient and aware when using ball screens. It might sting in the interim if he cannot pick up a fraction of the playmaking slack. Over the long haul, though, it isn't make or break. If last season is his ceiling, he's still an eventual All-Star.
7. Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks
Anyone who entered the 2020 postseason in the "Khris Middleton isn't a legitimate No. 2 on a championship team" camp probably wasn't swayed by his performance. He turned up the volume during the second round, in part because of Giannis Antetokounmpo's right ankle injury, but averaging 25.6 points and 6.8 assists on a 42/33/93 shooting slash over a five-game series loss isn't going to solicit mass praise.
Playing next to one of the top two or three players in the world both helps and hurts him. It is a decided advantage but also a means of attributing his standing to someone else. Related: Middleton is not here on the coattails of Antetokounmpo.
Self-creation is part of his game. He runs pick-and-rolls into pull-up jumpers. He shoots over mismatches in isolation and from the post. Tough fadeaways are business as usual. His off-the-dribble three is deployed in small doses but effectively. He provides the passing required to anchor lineups on his own. A shallower roster will test the limits of his playmaking in bench-heavy units this season, but the Milwaukee Bucks just pumped out an offensive rating in the 98th percentile during the time he logged without Antetokounmpo, Eric Bledsoe or George Hill.
To be sure, Middleton has his flaws. He's more of a two-level scorer than three. A career-low 15 percent of his looks came at the rim last season, a contributing factor to a lackluster shooting-foul rate and finite capacity to truly take over.
Someone who leans so heavily on jumpers also lives in a constant state of high variance. Middleton has erupted in the playoffs before, but putting so little pressure on the rim provides a roadmap to neutralization.
How much he should be penalized for that is in the eyes of the beholder. It shouldn't be a defining flaw. The same can be said about Antetokounmpo. His lack of counters to playoff defenses that prevent him from wining and dining at the rim is restrictive. It might even be the root cause of Middleton's struggles. Containing Antetokounmpo shrinks the floor for everyone.
Moral of the story: If Middleton isn't second-option-on-a-contender material, he's the next best thing—someone closer to an offensive hub than not.
6. Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers
The social media reaction to Paul George's four-year extension with the Los Angeles Clippers was the quintessential "Jokes > Facts" moment. Though deliberately over the top, it stressed just how much perception of him has changed. He closed 2018-19 third on the MVP ballot. He ended 2019-20 as a meme.
George hasn't exactly done himself many favors. He exited the postseason with a whimper of a performance, and certain comments since have not portrayed him in the best light, even when he's acknowledging he has to get better.
It speaks to the bar set for George that last season, playoffs collapse aside, is considered a disappointment. Right shoulder and left hamstring issues limited his availability; the former cost him the chance to get needed training-camp reps with his new team. He still averaged 21.9 points and 3.9 assists while canning 41.2 percent of his threes, including 40.6 percent of his pull-up triples, second to only JJ Redick among everyone who launched at least 100 attempts.
Postseason basketball wasn't nearly as kind to George. His efficiency plunged. But if last year is the floor, it is less some harbinger of permanent doom and more a testament to his ceiling.
Peak George melds the line of a No. 1 and No. 2. He can run pick-and-rolls and drop in off-the-dribble threes, but his shot-making is translatable. Catch-and-fire threes accounted for close to 27 percent of his attempts, and almost half of his buckets came on assists. What's more, George will straddle these two offensive profiles while defending premier guards and some bigger wings.
His entire package strikes an almost unexampled balance: that of a star who, on the court, fits alongside any other star.
5. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat
Jimmy Butler's shaky jumper could culminate in a precipitous fall among his fellow superstars. His three-point volume dipped significantly last season, and he posted a 33.4 effective field-goal percentage on pull-up attempts—the absolute lowest mark among 76 players to average at least four such shots per game.
Relentless rim pressure powers Butler's game more than ever, and it works. (He also upped his three-point and pull-up efficiency in the postseason.) A ridiculous 43 percent of his shot attempts last season came at the basket, and only 12 players averaged more drives per game.
The havoc he wreaks going downhill is almost indescribable. His attacks pose problems that don't have a solution. He is too quick going around screens to rely on man coverage. Switching begs him to cook bigs. Collapsing allows him to find one of the Miami Heat's cutters or shooters. And in the event he's covered perfectly, however it's done, he's strong enough to barrel onward and finish through the contact.
Miami's floor balance helps, but Butler is effectively a system by himself. The frequency with which he reached the line is unprecedented for a non-big. Shaquille O'Neal himself only twice matched Butler's .693 free-throw-attempt rate from last year.
That he shoulders this much offensive responsibility while playing so hard on defense is absurd. It's fair to wonder whether he can keep it up. He is 31 and facing a truncated schedule after an abbreviated offseason following a Finals run, and the Heat will not be any less reliant on his orchestration—career-high 6.0 assists per game in 2019-20—unless Tyler Herro does his best Bradley Beal-Devin Booker impression or even more of the workload is redistributed to Bam Adebayo.
Err on the side of "hell no" here. Butler is not ancient, and those who finished the previous season so firmly in the overall top-10 running cannot be bounced from that same tier on the back of vague concerns alone.
4. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
Jayson Tatum's entry into the All-NBA conversation last season could be viewed as incidental. Limited and zero availability from certain superstars opened the door for him, and others, to climb the league's individual power structure.
Mirroring that ascension will be harder this season. Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Paul George, Kyrie Irving and Karl-Anthony Towns are all healthier. Joel Embiid might miss fewer than 20 games. Ben Simmons looms. Barring the worst, the field of stars vying for top-10 status will be deeper, fiercer and, for some, inaccessible.
Tatum will be fine anyway. Last year's quantum leap is not the end of his road. Nor the middle. This is his fourth season of being 19. He doesn't turn 23 until March. This is the beginning of his upswing.
More than that, the heights at which he played last season reflect the league's most desired genre of stardom. Every team wants a 6'8" (maybe 6'10") off-the-dribble flamethrower who can initiate the offense and ranks among the most disruptive defenders away from the ball. Tatum typified that criteria in 2019-20, all while emerging as, perhaps, the league's most dangerous on-the-bounce shooter.
Among every player to attempt at least three pull-up treys per game, only Paul George found nylon at a higher clip. Tatum likewise turned out to be one of the Association's best bail-out options. Nikola Jokic is the lone player who converted more looks inside four seconds of the shot clock. And out of 117 players who finished with at least 50 such attempts, OG Anunoby (!) and Christian Wood were the only two to post a higher effective field-goal percentage.
What comes next for Tatum isn't difficult to envision. Playmaking is his next frontier. He has hinted at tossing more complicated passes, particularly as he's varied his mode of attack on drives, and Gordon Hayward's departure coupled with Kemba Walker's left knee injury positions him to seize even more control of the offense. His top-10 case, while not invulnerable, will not be unique to last season.
3. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets
Trying to figure out how the next phase of Kevin Durant's career will begin is a task that invites a maddening mix of indecision and self-loathing. Every approach is unsatisfying. Is it too optimistic? Too pessimistic? How do you know if you've found the middle ground? Does it even exist?
Achilles injuries can ruin career arcs, but there isn't a good baseline for Durant's return. Other notable players who suffered similar setbacks were either older, played completely different positions and/or simply not as good. Defaulting to Dominique Wilkins, who ruptured his Achilles tendon at 32, is useful if you're looking for temporary optimism. He averaged 29.9 points during his age-33 campaign and 26.0 points in his age-34 season before incurring a stark drop-off.
Durant seems like he'll chart his own course. There is no good comparison for his situation because he's a player beyond analogy: essentially a wing with the size of a center and the handles of a guard.
Even a severely reduced version of that star can shoot over the top of anyone, binge-scoring on pull-up and standstill jumpers. Durant could conceivably pile up 25-plus-points-per-game seasons given his efficiency. He is a 50/40/90 candidate nearly every season, and that's with an extensive reliance on self-creation. Simplifying his shot profile could theoretically give way to, gulp, a more efficient clip. He has not converted less than 40 percent of his catch-and-fire threes since 2014-15.
Conservatively, then, Durant seems like a lock to reenter the overall top-10 to top-15 discussion. But when? He hasn't played in a non-preseason game since June 2019. This is year one of his return from a devastating injury. How many minutes will he play? Will he ever suit up for both ends of a back-to-back again, let alone this season?
Reconciling all this is impossible. No decision feels right. And in the absence of longer-term clarity, it is better to focus on shorter-term feel-goods: Durant is playing basketball again. If he happens to outperform a top-10-player projection in his first year back, we all win.
2. Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers
Singular letdowns are not valid cause for relitigating superstardom—particularly failures that are dramatized.
To that end, while the Los Angeles Clippers' second-round postseason collapse is worthy of the concern it wrought, Kawhi Leonard's place on the NBA's mountaintop is no less secure. The number of players more valuable than him is concurrently arguable but can be counted on one hand.
If the Clippers' implosion against the Denver Nuggets is at all a nod toward the limitations of a franchise that has chosen Leonard as its championship compass, the revelations are more emotional than functional. He never once played them out of a 3-1 series lead. The closest he came was an uncharacteristically bad Game 7, in which he shot 6-of-22 from the floor, didn't score during the fourth quarter and made just one basket in the second half.
Writing off that performance, and the Clippers' combustion, does not suggest Leonard is unimpeachable. That bad game happened. The Clippers' demise in happened. Their lack of chemistry and closed-door warts mattered.
Everyone is culpable, no one person is entirely to blame, and the Clippers need to get their house in order. If that includes having Leonard match or exceed his pick-and-roll volume from last season, or expecting him to hit a higher percentage of his off-the-bounce threes (34.2 percent), then fine. But they didn't sign him—trade for him, really—under the guise he would buoy morale with deafening rah-rahs. They mortgaged their future to the moon and back for a player capable of entering the race for Defensive Player of the Year and MVP in the same season, and who assures a level of championship viability just by stepping on the floor.
They got him, they remain a premier title threat because of him, and for now, unless last season's acidic ending becomes a recurring theme, he doesn't have anything for which he must atone.
1. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
Benefit of the doubt sustains LeBron James' best-player-alive case in a way it didn't quite before. As he enters his age-36 season, it doesn't feel right to award anyone else what should be an unofficial distinction beyond his reach.
Others deserve to be mentioned in the same breath, and perhaps before him if this is solely a regular-season discussion. Giannis Antetokounmpo has cornered the best-player market in recent years, his availability and possession-by-possession engagement far exceeding that of, well, anyone else. James Harden has crept into that same territory, mostly thanks to the equity he holds on the MVP ballot. Kawhi Leonard commands consideration from those inclined to make this an exercise in choosing the player you most trust to win a single game.
Alternatives just all feel so, well, pointless this side of LeBron's 2020 postseason.
Sure, Antetokounmpo has a copyright on mutant stat lines and embodies the and-I-took-that-personally ethos on the defensive end. Harden is a 50-win-season and top-three-MVP-finish incarnate. Leonard has a switch he flips, seemingly on command, that takes him from stoically dominant to dispassionately devastating. Failing turns for the worst, they will all, probably, piece together a larger regular-season sample than LeBron.
To what end, though? Neither they nor anyone else uplifts a roster the way James does at full bore. Pretty much anyone who challenges him has an air of solvability. Antetokounmpo's game—and team—has so far gotten busted up in the postseason crucible. Harden has churned through almost as many star running mates (four including John Wall) as trips out of the first round (five). Leonard's Los Angeles Clippers just came undone behind the scenes, in a haze of passive aggression and collided egos, invalidating the notion his lead-in-silence approach was above suspicion.
LeBron, for his part, is not perfect. His Cleveland Cavaliers teams weren't smooth-sailing machines, and the Los Angeles Lakers' push for Anthony Davis, which James supported, was hardly above board. But the results speak for themselves. He just led the league in assists, at age 35, ostensibly because he decided to do so. Even as Davis at times outshined him during the Disney restart, the Lakers' title hopes always came back to LeBron.
After a wildly successful offseason by a pure talent measure, they still do. Remaining the heartbeat for the NBA's reigning champ and foremost 2020-21 favorites counts for something—and maybe everything.