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

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistDecember 18, 2020

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

0 of 13

    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Breaking: This penultimate installment of Bleacher Report's NBA 100 is big. (Puts away dad-joke thesaurus.) And this isn't just because it's about the bigs. It's because of who's among the bigs: many, many, stars.

    If you're new around these parts, well, where have you been? Also, be sure to check out our top 25 guards and forwards, the former of which explains why position installments have been cast aside (in a nutshell, the league has outgrown them):

    Your usual friendly reminder: Players are ranked based on where we think they'll finish the season. Their entire bodies of work are fair game. This includes injuries. Anyone who isn't slated to play this year won't make an appearance, and final placements are impacted by injuries, major setbacks in the rearview and, wherever necessary, potential regression due to age.

    Rookies are excluded as well. 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 James Wiseman, there you go.

    Finally, and perhaps most importantly, yours truly is not journeying 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 teeth-gnashing, wall-punching, curse-word-cascading rage are mine, these rankings are ours. 

25-21: Drummond, Ibaka, Carter, Love, Aldridge

1 of 13

    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    25. Andre Drummond, Cleveland Cavaliers

    Grabbing boards remains essential to Andre Drummond's value, and he does it better than almost anyone in league history. He owns the absolute highest rebounding rate among every player who has made at least 15 career appearances. That's not insignificant. It is also harder to pinpoint his value beyond that.

    Drummond's pick-and-roll finishing is less efficient than you'd think. Playing him is an implicit commitment to posting up with uncomfortable volume. Shoddy ball containment on the perimeter in Detroit muted some of his impact at the other end, but he is not going to be the foothold of an elite defensive unit. Somebody has to crash the glass though, and he has refined his playmaking outside the post. He may be clinging to top-100 value, but he's still here. That's not insignificant, either.


    24. Serge Ibaka, Los Angeles Clippers

    Serge Ibaka is a more complete and consistent player after spending three-plus years with the Toronto Raptors. Last season was arguably the best of his career, a rarity for an age-30 big who used to rely a great deal on his athleticism.

    Ibaka averaged 15.0 points per game while nailing 38.5 percent of his threes and 45 percent of his mid-range jumpers. He is clearly a center on defense these days, but that's only a problem if you can't give him enough space to rebound. His assist totals will never show it, but he's a more capable passer on the move.

    What becomes of Ibaka if he's not afforded 12 to 14 shots per game? It's a fair question. His influence stalls out if he's not scoring. That may not be an issue on the Clippers, as they're not used to rolling out a floor-spacing 5. If nothing else, Ibaka's threat level from beyond the arc will put extra strain on defenses.


    23. Wendell Carter Jr., Chicago Bulls

    Including Wendell Carter Jr. among the top 100 players, let alone just the top 25 bigs, might be the biggest risk of the entire process. He has been neither healthy nor productive enough to base this decision off his previous body of work.

    Consider this the Billy Donovan bump. Former Bulls head coach Jim Boylen oversaw a drastic decline in confidence from his young big. There were nights where it felt like Carter passed up more shots than he actually took. His preseason numbers aren't pretty, but he's more willing to fire away.

    Failing a major offensive jump—he should have the chance to facilitate more under Donovan—defensive effort still gives Carter a plausible path into the top 100. He is super shifty in space, and his rim protection will improve in a less aggressive scheme that doesn't call for him to chase as many 4s (which he's fully capable of doing).


    22. Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers

    Kevin Love retains all of his appeal from previous years. The rebounding, the half-court playmaking, the outlet passing, the shooting—it's all intact. It just isn't as assured of being put to use in larger doses.

    Cleveland remains in the infancy of a rebuild, and while the frontcourt rotation isn't crowded enough to instinctively eat up his minutes, the Cavs have minimal incentive to rely on him as more than a safety net for their youngsters.

    Showcasing him probably doesn't make his contract that much easier to move. Three years is a long time, and $91.5 million is a lot of money. No contract is immovable, least of all his, but exactly zero teams appear one Kevin Love away from a title. This year feels more about maintenance: play him enough to keep him involved, but not so much his remaining value is neutered by the growing pains of the kiddies or a potential injury.


    21. LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs

    Age has to catch up with LaMarcus Aldridge at some point, and it might be now. At 35, he's entering his 15th season and coming off right shoulder surgery that prevented him from joining San Antonio inside the Disney bubble. That alone doesn't spell a drastic decline, but it could. And if it doesn't, the Spurs' timeline might.

    They're currently trying to blend development for the future with a return to the playoffs, but the Western Conference is not built to reward teams that aim for the middle. The Oklahoma City Thunder and maaaybe the Sacramento Kings are the only teams that have willingly removed themselves from the postseason. More teams will follow, involuntarily or by choice, and the Spurs could be one of them, in which case playing Aldridge less or trading his expiring contract elsewhere is eminently possible, if not likely.

    In the event he continues getting 30-plus minutes every night, he'll have a real chance to outperform our panel's expectations—particularly if he continues to bomb threes. After upping his outside volume just before Christmas, he averaged 19.2 points while downing 41.2 percent of those treys. Will he continue to fire away? And is he happy to do so at the expense of his turnaround jumpers? The lack of certainty in San Antonio is grounds for toning down expectations.

20-16: Griffin, Gallinari, Nurkic, Turner, Green

2 of 13

    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    20. Blake Griffin, Detroit Pistons

    Blake Griffin lost nearly all of last season to a left knee injury. That time away from the court, extended by the coronavirus pandemic, is either a basis for writing him out of star territory or a much-needed break that will allow him to re-explore his 2018-19 All-NBA heights.

    Somewhere in the middle probably lies the truth. Presuming Griffin returns to jump-starting pick-and-rolls and burying a bunch of pull-up threes while ferrying Detroit toward the postseason (or play-in) is too optimistic. Even if he remains healthy enough to have that kind of year, the Pistons are, we think, firing up a rebuild. A prospective return to All-Star form is cause for Griffin to play less or get shipped elsewhere.


    19. Danilo Gallinari, Atlanta Hawks

    Danilo Gallinari's offense takes no singular recurring form, which is part of what makes it so adaptable. His shooting translates across all actions—standstill, off-the-dribble or otherwise—and he is so effective at drawing contact he can be used as a situational pick-and-roll maestro.

    Injuries have dogged him throughout his career, and he turned 32 this past August, but neither age nor availability has imperiled the way he plays. Getting true wing minutes from him is more of a chore; he is now a pure 4 and should see reps as a small-ball 5 before sponging up time at the 3. But that's hardly a dilemma when his floor game continues to be a mismatch at both spots.

    Anyway, jumping through some positional hoops is invariably worth the rewards reaped. Gallinari is averaging 18.8 points per game on a 47.3 free-throw-attempt rate and a 60.8 percent true shooting percentage since 2015-16. James Harden is the only other player doing the same across as many minutes


    18. Jusuf Nurkic, Portland Trail Blazers

    After missing most of last season while recovering from compound fractures in his left leg, this should be a year of rediscovery for Jusuf Nurkic. Except, well, it doesn't look like he needs to find himself. He didn't miss a beat while playing inside the Disney bubble. He was moving well on defense, making the same plays on offense and averaged over 30 minutes per game.

    Expectations needn't be adjusted for him this season. Portland has put more defense in front of him on the wings and is adequately stocked with players who can optimize his vision on short rolls. This placement will wind up selling him short if he works a league-average-ish three-pointer into his repertoire—he chucked triples at Disney—or the Blazers defense creeps into the top 15 riding the coattails of his drop coverage and heightened ability to stay in front of opposing 5s who put the ball on the deck.


    17. Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers

    Coaxing more out of a player is almost never as simple as it seems. In the case of Myles Turner, it might be.

    He is already closer to a defensive hybrid than not. His rim protection is hard to come by against the volume of shots he faces, and he's better suited to getting stops in space than a good chunk of 4s, not to mention his frontcourt partner (and fellow center) Domantas Sabonis.

    Striking some semblance of offensive continuity is all that separates Turner from the titanic leap Indiana has spent years waiting on. And unlocking that consistency really does feel like a matter of spacing and volume.

    Standing in better spots—i.e. not wandering just inside the three-point line—and launching more triples is eminently replicable. It also shouldn't take much to resist dribbling into long twos. Turner remains a shot-blocking, floor-spacing 5 even if he doesn't change. Last year's three-point clip (34.4 percent) should come up regardless of how many he's jacking. The bet here is he thrives within the context of how head coach Nate Bjorkgren intends the Pacers to play.


    16. Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors

    One down year changes a lot. Draymond Green labored through most of last season, and not everyone is ready to attribute his slippage to the absence of something for which to play. After all, couldn't this be a sign of more permanent reversion?

    Eh. Green is 30, not 35. And though he appeared in 43 games, he wasn't actually healthy. Irreversible regression should not be the standard. Working off five straight Finals runs takes a toll, and it caught up with him. And yeah, the lower stakes matter.

    Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson were injured. Kevin Durant was gone (and also injured). The Warriors quickly started traveling down a path to top-three lottery odds. It was never going to be the season in which he gave—*Deadpool voice*—maximum effort.

    Mind you, Golden State still defended at a league-average level during Green's time on the floor. And that was with him playing beside G Leaguers. The Warriors have NBA players now—talent that jibes with Green's vision while running the floor, and that is good enough to deserve his exhaustive defensive engagement around which Golden State founded its dynasty.

15-11: Collins, Jackson, Sabonis, Vucevic, Porzingis

3 of 13

    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    15. John Collins, Atlanta Hawks

    Billing John Collins as a play-finisher fails to adequately encapsulate his value. His offensive imprint is more encyclopedic. Yes, he does most of his damage working off others. Almost three-quarters of his made buckets came off assists last season, and he does the brunt of his scoring as a roll man, spot-up option and put-back dunker. But that's kind of the point.

    The scope of Collins' offensive application outstrips that from most other bigs. The vast majority of non-hubs traffic in diving or shooting. Rare is the player who does both effectively. Even rarer is someone like Collins, who moves so deliberately his off-ball navigation is its own form of shot creation, and who bangs in more than 40 percent of his threes. He pairs this hybrid combo with a budding floor game. Slower bigs are his primary prey, but he can get around almost anyone, going left or right, who isn't fully set.

    Collins' ceiling continues to rest on his defense. His decision-making around the basket is timelier and much more effective, but his perimeter ball containment has to get better if he's primarily at the 4 and going to be matchup-proof. Even if he's never the latter, his offense will render him borderline indispensable. At a time when most bigs and stereotypical 4s are considered mutable, his is a skill set too special to imitate.


    14. Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies

    Though outside shooting has become standard up front, Jaren Jackson Jr.'s marriage of volume and efficiency remains novel. Only 12 other players last season shot better than 39 percent from deep on more than eight attempts per 36 minutes, the vast majority of whom were wings and guards. Jackson did not join this club by solely downing gimmes, either. His floor-spacing is functional; he has a quick release and doesn't need a ton of airspace to fire away.

    There may be no next step for Jackson on offense—no push for him to create more off the dribble or bolster his post game. That's fine. He is someone who can score 20-plus points entirely within the flow of the offense.

    Defense and availability will have a larger say in Jackson's immediate future. Can he rebound enough to play the 5? Foul less in general? Hang in space as well as he was supposed to coming out of Michigan State? The Grizzlies will have to wait for answers, as Jackson is slated to miss the start of the season while recovering from left knee surgery. What he shows on defense upon his return will dictate much about their future beyond this year.


    13. Domantas Sabonis, Indiana Pacers

    Domantas Sabonis is not a throwback to a previous era so much as he plays against the grain of this one. Post touches are a big part of his game—he ranked 10th in post-ups last season—but they do not define it. They're more of an instrument to access his vision, and the scoring borne from them is less a nod to the past than a contemporary spin on tradition. 

    Seldom is Sabonis found pounding the leather off the ball with his back to the basket. His post touches are rooted in quick decision-making, usually immediate passes or series of spins and turns and dribbles that aid his attempts to put pressure on the rim.

    Beyond that, there is nothing outmoded about Sabonis leading fastbreaks and executing dribble hand-offs to perfection. His aversion to shooting threes thus far is actually the most antiquated part of his game. The space he must occupy inside the arc complicates the offense when he's playing in tandem with Myles Turner, and it calls for a certain lineup structure around him when he's at center.

    These idiosyncrasies can be restrictive when ignored or deployed in conflicting context, but they uplift when enabled. Indiana scored 116 points per 100 possessions last season when he played without Turner (90th percentile), an upswing that does little to clarify their frontcourt partnership yet supports what the eyes so clearly see: unlocking the space around Sabonis unleashes the scariest version of his team.


    12. Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic

    So few bigs are equipped to handle the offensive strain Orlando places upon Nikola Vucevic. It is not just the quantity of his production—20.3 points and 3.7 assists over the past two seasons—but the quality of operation his playing time ensures.

    The Magic have skirted shooting at almost every turn, preferring instead to emphasize discipline and length at the other end. Vucevic is not the star who transcends circumstances on his own. He does, however, make them more bearable. Orlando's effective field-goal percentage has soared whenever he's on the floor in each of the past four years thanks to his indiscriminate gravitational pull. Defenses are drawn to him both inside the arc and out, and he plays with the touch, skill and decision-making to capitalize on that attention by his own hand or moving the ball to someone else. 

    This isn't a body of responsibility that wins many games. A team that counts Vucevic as its lifeline is unfailingly capped at ceremonial playoff berths. And that's not a knock against him. On the contrary, while he can't take the Magic beyond their first-round ceiling without the acquisition of a superior player, he is the primary force that prevents them from falling through their floor.


    11. Kristaps Porzingis, Dallas Mavericks

    By archetype alone, Kristaps Porzingis is valuable beyond estimate. A 7'3" big who uncorks threes in droves and protects the rim at an All-Defense level is, conceptually, an ideal No. 2 for a championship contender with an alpha ball-handler.

    Playing in Dallas has only increased the apex and likelihood of that best-case outcome. Whether through involuntary design, a better sense of self, the presence of Luka Doncic or some combination of all three, Porzingis has exchanged post-up volume for more catch-and-shoot looks. And on those occasions when he is working from a standstill or off the dribble, he's more aware of his surroundings, and the open shooters they include.

    Fully healthy, this is not a player who counts 10 bigs better than himself, or who is clinging to top-40 status overall. But presuming his availability is no longer prudent. Porzingis has dealt with myriad issues on the left side of his body and is still recovering from the torn right meniscus he suffered at the end of last season. For as much as this falls beyond his control, availability remains part of the job description. His cannot be guaranteed, and so his long-awaited entry into sustainable stardom can't be, either.

10. Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns

4 of 13

    Kevin C. Cox/Associated Press

    Deandre Ayton's second-year jump warrants ambitious expectations independent of the Phoenix Suns' offseason talent-acquisition spree. Denying him entry into the elite-big discussion is just a lot harder now that he's playing with both Devin Booker and Chris Paul.

    Everything Ayton does best is a seamless fit for the Suns' new world order. He is a reference book on finishing out of the pick-and-roll. His timing off screens is mostly impeccable, even if he sometimes sticks too close to the ball-handler, and defenses struggle to guard against someone who can catch lobs, slip through open seams or down looks at the rim after one or two quick dribbles off the catch.

    Phoenix doesn't even need screens to put him in position. He has shown he'll slither behind the defense without them when spacing allows for it and knows how to get deep enough in the post to finish turnarounds and jump hooks that don't call for any extra dribble creation.

    Expertly scoring within the larger offensive dynamic—for the most part—might be Ayton's launching pad into the fringe-star discussion, but it's his defensive improvement that will help stick the landing. His comfort level guarding and switching in space is well-chronicled. Less acknowledged are his flashes of defensive quarterbacking. He won't always make the right read around the rim or provide the most timely or appropriate help, but he showed the decision-making needed to reach that level more frequently last season.

    Ego is really all that stands to derail Ayton's ascension at this point. And just so we're clear: that is neither a prediction nor assumption. He might be fine playing the part of offensive complement beside Booker and Paul. He could also pine for more methodical post possessions and face-up touches—usage that shouldn't be a staple unless he's captaining units populated predominantly by reserves.

    Playing within the borders of Phoenix's operation might not be an issue. Ayton is so suited for it, and any deemphasis of his self-creation will be more incidental. Having both Booker and Paul to run the offense organically lends itself to fewer post-ups and unassisted long twos. If Ayton is craving variance, he can plant himself beyond the arc instead of inside no-man's land when not directly involved in the action. Three-point shooting is no longer a determinate skill given his defensive upswing, but it would add another dimension to Phoenix's offense and Ayton's stardom-bound track.  

9. Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans

5 of 13

    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Zion Williamson is coming off a rookie season that is equal parts promising and confusing.

    The offensive dominance he displayed prior to the bubble begs for lofty expectations ahead of Year 2. He ran the floor, finished put-backs, out-jumped everyone, barrelled through open lanes with a combination of force and finesse, kept the ball moving and even shot 5-of-12 (pre-Disney) on threes. What followed during the restart was much less encouraging, though mostly on the defensive end.

    Forecasting what comes next is even trickier when measured against his incomplete sample. Twenty-four games is barely one-quarter of a regular season. Is that enough to proclaim him a top-25ish player by the end of his sophomore campaign? Should that technically be a red flag? Or is it more impressive he managed to have a positive impact at all, for any stretch of time, under the circumstances?

    Between his torn right meniscus at the beginning of the year, minutes limit upon return, the league's stoppage, his having to leave and reenter to the bubble and then his right knee acting up again by the end of everything, Zion's rookie year was a tale of nine seasons.

    Flashes mean more when they come amid topsy-turvy conditions, and Zion's highest highs were more like games-long reels than volatile glimpses. That the New Orleans Pelicans demonstratively outperformed opponents with him on the floor is both small-sample theater—and yet, the data reflects regression in Disney—and an accurate snapshot of just how overmatched defenses seemed when he took the court.

    Put another way: his best moments weren't lightning in a bottle, and not much has to change for him to make a big jump other than better availability. A viable three-point stroke and some half-court initiation would be nice. More critical, though, is him parlaying his physical tools and basketball IQ into more disciplined and disruptive off-ball defense.

8. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

6 of 13

    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Rudy Gobert checks in well off his end-of-season pace, and the skid is through no fault of his own. The star landscape is just shifting beneath his feet. Players he counts as most direction competition—such as Karl-Anthony Towns—project to make more appearances, and bigs tend to suffer most in preseason projections that predict palpable ascensions from select youngsters (his teammate Donovan Mitchell among them).

    The push to displace Gobert from the top-20 club does not extend beyond forces outside his control. His defensive demeanor waffled for a stretch last season, but the less-than-godly engagement proved fleeting. The Utah Jazz would've plunged well outside the top 10 of efficiency if not for him. Opponents scored 8.2 points per 100 possessions more while shooting a preposterously high 65.7 percent at the rim when he was on the bench.

    As ever, Gobert is a defensive system all his own, an equal deterrent and playmaker. Claims that he can be mismatched off the floor are overstated and relevant only in the most extreme instances—like while facing a version of the Houston Rockets that no longer exists.

    Other stars have glitzier offensive credentials that culminate in higher value, but Gobert owns the wheelhouse in which he operates. His screens lead to better floor-spacing and shot opportunities, and he's ranked lower than the 87th percentile in finishing out of the pick-and-roll just once over the past four years (2019-20).

    There is truth to the belief that impact centers can be approximated at a discount. Whether that applies to the majority of 5s is arguable, and more importantly, irrelevant in the case of Gobert. His defensive imprint remains generational—something that can be neither cheaply nor fractionally feigned.

7. Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors

7 of 13

    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Dips in efficiency eventually became the focus of Pascal Siakam's 2019-20 campaign. Attention then shifted to the postseason, where he shot 12.5 percent from three and was flustered to the point of implosion by the end of a second-round loss to the Boston Celtics. He looked aimless and helpless trying to navigate traffic, validating concern held all along about the Toronto Raptors offense: that it was ill-equipped to put pressure on the rim, and that he was overburdened as a primary ball-handler.

    This is no excuse to cast skepticism all over Siakam's longer-term outlook. His postseason performance is more representative of how far the Raptors are pushing his limits than some big-picture omen. As Yasmin Duale from the Dishes & Dimes podcast and The Neon Playbook explained during an episode of Hardwood Knocks prior to the restart:

    "[Raptors head coach] Nick Nurse, he's spoken about this a lot, where he likes making players uncomfortable as a means of development. For Pascal in particular, he is an excellent straight-line driver; he can get straight to the rim. He's an excellent cutter. He has several post-up moves that are very high efficiency. But we're seeing him being forced to dribble, handle the ball into crowds, collapse defenses and then pass out to shooters. They're trying to build him as a system."

    These sentiments carry even more truth now. Growing pains are the price of functional expansion, and by letting Siakam go through the motions even when it visibly hurt their shot at advancing back to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Raptors paid dues on their future.

    It is actually more impressive that Siakam didn't wilt earlier. Toronto's ask was—and remains—that big. The frequency with which he finished possessions as the pick-and-roll ball-handler almost tripled, going from 5.3 percent in 2018-19 to 14.2 last year. The time he spent in isolation almost doubled, going from 9.9 percent to 17.6. And he went from attempting fewer than one pull-up jumper per game to almost five. He still turned in 23.6 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game on average-adjacent true shooting.

    Given the rate at which Siakam has improved since entering league, now is not the time to assert that he's reached his peak. It's a time to bet on him doing what he's always done: return noticeably better than he was the season before.

6. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves

8 of 13

    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Lackluster finishes from the Minnesota Timberwolves continue to undermine Karl-Anthony Towns' place among active greats. Stars must be held responsible when their teams flounder, because they will be the first to receive credit if and when the tide turns, but it is also important to separate talent from the environment that fails it.

    The Timberwolves were not built to win last season, not even after the D'Angelo Russell trade. And while they lost the minutes Towns played, he alone represented the difference between respectable and intolerable. It is likewise worth noting that they won the time he spent on the floor in 2018-19, despite their entire direction coming undone by Jimmy Butler's exit.

    Rewarding Towns for raising up what would be unwatchable shouldn't be considered controversial or generous. His defensive lapses render him an easy target, but they do not negate the magnitude of his offense.

    No other big in the league spaces the floor like him. He has swished at least 40 percent of his threes in each of the past three seasons, and Brook Lopez is the only center who has hit more triples since he entered the league...while appearing in 13 more games.

    Towns partners his flamethrowing with legitimate rim pressure that takes different forms. He can bully or craft his way to buckets in the post and finesse his way to finishes at the cup off rolls. Defenses are so scared of his jumper at every level that he can pump-fake his way into dribble drives he caps with ferocious slams.

    Left alone, Towns was already one of the most dynamic offensive bigs to ever play the game. If last season is any indication, that's not enough for him. He added another layer of playmaking to his arsenal, improving his decision-making out of double-teams and flashing the ability to make less obvious finds when given time to survey the floor.

    The end result: Giannis Antetokounmpo and Charles Barkley are the only players to clear 25 points, 10 rebounds and four assists per game for an entire season with a higher true shooting percentage. (Note: Towns made just 35 appearances in 2019-20.) And Towns reached those benchmarks not only on higher three-point volume but also while anchoring lineups in which no more than two other players would have started or closed games for other teams.

    Plop some of his contemporaries into that situation, including a few in front of him here, and they're not guaranteed to do the same. What Towns does is not empty of substance. It already translated across many different iterations of the Timberwolves, and in every instance, without fail, his has been an impact that uplifts everyone else around him.

5. Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat

9 of 13

    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Bam Adebayo typifies the NBA's shift toward positionless basketball as much as anyone. Yes, he is a big, but only because he must be considered something. It does not speak to his actual craft.

    Everything he does coalesces into a player package beyond definition. He doesn't have three-point range or, really, a dependable jumper, but his mid-range form forces a disclaimer: He doesn't have three-point range or a dependable jumper yet. And even if he never gets them, his playmaking almost negates their absence.

    Bigs aren't supposed to be so similar to point guards. Adebayo doesn't just lead fast breaks. He can launch the half-court offense, be it by pulling back above the break, facilitating from the post or throwing passes off the dribble with either hand.

    Adebayo diverges even further from the big-man model on defense. He can be a back-line anchor, but he is more effective mucking up possessions from outside the restricted area than rumbling with true bigs. His feet move at warp speed, and he decides which passing lanes do and don't exist. There may be nobody better suited to guard Giannis Antetokounmpo.

    Finding a comparison for Adebayo, past or present, is futile. Antetokounmpo and Kevin Garnett are the only players who matched his assist, steal and block rates from last season, and though he borrows elements from either, he is exceedingly similar to neither.

    He may operate in even starker contrast this year. The Miami Heat should need him to shoulder more of the playmaking responsibility, even if Goran Dragic remains healthy and Tyler Herro makes a leap, and especially when Jimmy Butler is catching a breather.

    Lineups in which Adebayo went at alone last season hovered just below league average on offense. That doesn't feel like it will stick. And if he begins to prop up the offense on his own, his ceiling will go the way of how he's deployed: without limitation.

4. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

10 of 13

    Kim Klement/Associated Press

    It isn't often a player so dominant has plausible grounds to get much better. Top-15 stars are viewed as finished products—or at least something close to them.

    Joel Embiid exists on a different plane, at once among the league's most unstoppable players and without a fully formed peak.

    Availability accounts for some of the wiggle room. He may never be the equivalent of a 75-games-per-year player, but what if he's closer to 67 or 70 than 60? Applying his impact across another 10 to 15 games is a harrowing concept—boundlessly so on defense, where he thwarts entire offenses by virtue of putting on a jersey. Opponents saw their share of shots at the rim last season drop by 8.1 percent with Embiid on the floor, the largest swing among any player who logged at least 500 minutes.

    But better availability is not the only avenue through which his stock might mushroom. It may actually be the least realistic one. The Philadelphia 76ers cannot afford to push his regular-season limits given his checkered injury history without risking postseason crisis.

    This is more about getting more from Embiid in areas he's already exploring. What if he shot closer to league average from three? Or was more efficient, as both a popper and finisher, in pick-and-roll situations? (And what if Philly just generally used him more in the pick-and-roll?) What if he passed more out of post-ups? Or on drives to the basket? These are not unreasonable asks—certainly not after the Sixers have improved the spacing around him. Nor is he incapable of change. His ball protection on post-ups is appreciably better relative to a couple of seasons ago.

    Long-term health concerns aside, Embiid is a generational talent, the kind of star on whom you bet everything. That he's reached this level without also unbottling the most complete version of himself is perhaps his most impressive feat of all.

3. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers

11 of 13

    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Anthony Davis will never be entirely eclipsed by the NBA's other top big men or inside the overarching superstar discussion, but his resume at times gets downplayed, usually by way of stylistic discrepancies. He will never have the type of influence over an offense shared by Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic or even some combination of Bam Adebayo, Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns. His skill set is less conducive to from-scratch shot creation and doesn't include a consistent ability to orchestrate for others.

    Personal preference will always determine how much this matters. Interpretations of what's most important or levies a bigger impact vary by person. But Davis comes close to universally nullifying whatever gap might exist.

    The responsibility others shoulder on offense is equal to the burden Davis shoulders on defense. Only one or two other players in the league can be in so many different places, simultaneously, without compromising proximity to their primary assignment.

    That ubiquity is not just beneficial or essential. It is transcendent. It is also hard to appraise in the most tangible terms. Davis' on-off splits last season were often cited to poke holes in his Defensive Player of the Year candidacy, but deeper dives revealed a simple yet salient explanation: He was tasked with anchoring lineups that had almost no business existing even with him.

    Singularly sparing four-player combinations from disaster is not something just anyone can do. Davis is a defensive aberration the way Jokic is an offensive anomaly. And if there was ever a time to make a case for him over Jokic and Embiid, it would be now, when he's coming off a championship run during which he drained 38.3 percent of his triples and morphed into Kevin Durant from mid-range.

2. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

12 of 13

    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    The book on Nikola Jokic no longer includes a chapter explaining why he deserves to be mentioned among the league's elite. His spot within the megastar clique is debatable, but his actual superstardom is so far beyond argument it's now reflexive.

    Little about Jokic is now misunderstood. No other big man is remotely capable of running an offense in the same bent. His vision is clairvoyant; he doesn't pass players open so much as sees into the future. The nonchalance with which he finds cutters, launches outlets, throws one-handed dimes, keeps track of shooters, et al. has to be emotionally and physically draining for defenses.

    Yet, while Jokic's highlight passes are what most keep him in the spotlight, he has somewhat quietly established himself as one of the league's clutchest scorers.

    Over the past two seasons, he is shooting a combined 87-of-174 (50 percent) during the final five minutes of games in which the Nuggets neither trail nor lead by more than five points. Nobody converted more looks in crunch time last season. He even led the league in made field goals within the final four seconds of the shot clock.

    Jokic is no less likely to meet the occasion in the playoffs. He is shooting 41.6 percent on threes through his two postseason trips, and last year, he went 10-of-16 from the floor down the stretch of close games.

    As an off-the-bounce face-up scorer, Jamal Murray gives the Denver Nuggets a more traditional closing option. But Jokic's pull over the offense isn't situational. Evidence of his capacity to carry a team is linear: just as available in the final five minutes as the first 43.

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

13 of 13

    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Giannis Antetokounmpo's floor among the league's best players needs no expansive explanation. To put him lower than third, maybe fifth, would be willful ignorance. He is not the two-time reigning MVP and most recent Defensive Player of the Year by chance. Any given season can end with him lording over every single other superstar.

    Last year was his largest middle finger in the face of logic to date. Everything from the ground he covers on-ball to the possessions he upends on defense to the lines he posts are hypnotizing, but they're also years-old. It can be difficult to disarm when never-before-seen is the threshold against which you're judged. Antetokounmpo managed to push boundaries anyway, averaging 29.5 points, 13.6 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.0 blocks in barely 30 minutes of run, his fewest since he was a mystery-box rookie.

    Somehow, compiling two outings' worth of stats in one game isn't sufficiently reflective of the motor with which he plays. Effort can be sensationalized and impossible to quantify, but he seemingly treats every possession like his last possession. Prolonged superstardom has a way of cultivating selective exertion. Antetokounmpo alone is the top-five player who opts against choosing his spots.

    Tenured superstardom also breeds fatigue. The longer you spend at or near the top, the more attention is paid to what you can't do. Antetokounmpo has reached that point, and he might've reached it sooner if so many rival fanbases weren't flagrantly lusting after his services in advance of 2021 free agency, which he will no longer enter.

    Playoff defenses cannot necessarily solve him, but they can temper his dominance. His ebbing free-throw percentage—career-low 63.3 percent last season—only exacerbates his limitations. Though he has developed a comfort level dribbling into super-wide-open threes and installed more spins and fades when he picks up his dribble before reaching the rim, these not-always-efficient additives have yet to rescue him in the postseason.

    Perhaps they never do. It won't be the end of Antetokounmpo's annual MVP contention if that's the case. He has already reached indescribable heights amid his strictures. Even so, his hold on the best-player-in-the-league honor is worth rethinking until—or unless—he implements counters that don't fail him when it matters most.


    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.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.