Predicting the Top 100 Players for the 2020-21 NBA Season

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistDecember 21, 2020

Predicting the Top 100 Players for the 2020-21 NBA Season

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Not so long ago, in a galaxy not so far away, it was decided that the eve of the 2020-21 NBA regular season would be the perfect time to drop Bleacher Report's ranking of the top 100 players.

    And so, here we are.

    Before we get started, if you haven't pored over our previous three installments, check them out now:

    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.

    Preseason performances did not hold any bearing in the results. Rookies are 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, say, LaMelo Ball, there you go.

    Please, please, pretty please remember that making the top 100 at all is a gargantuan feat and that the margins between non-stars are astoundingly thin. Any exclusions or unpopular finishes are not declarations of war. Triple-double promise.

    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 sentiments that incite teeth-gnashing, wall-punching, curse-word-cascading rage are mine, these results are ours.

    Let's rank.

         

    Note: Rankings from after the first leg of the 2019-20 regular season (pre-bubble) are provided for context, but that panel was substantially smaller, so there will be a greater variance of outcomes in many instances.

Notable Exclusions

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    If not for injuries that figure to limit their availability or cost them the entire season, each of these players would've received top-100 consideration:

    • Jonathan Isaac
    • Jeremy Lamb
    • Klay Thompson

    Apologies to the NBA rookies for giving them the boot. To kind-of, sort-of, not-really make up for it, here are a few new kids on the block who have feasible paths into the top 100 this year:

    • LaMelo Ball
    • Anthony Edwards
    • Tyrese Haliburton
    • Isaac Okoro
    • Patrick Williams
    • James Wiseman

    Just for kicks, here are some second- and third-year cases who weren't strongly considered but are worth keeping an eye on:

    • Marvin Bagley III
    • Donte DiVincenzo
    • Cameron Johnson
    • Kevin Porter Jr.
    • Cam Reddish
    • Landry Shamet
    • Gary Trent Jr.
    • P.J. Washington
    • Coby White

Just Missed the Cut

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    These players all wound up outside the top 100 but finished within striking distance of the final cut:

    • Harrison Barnes
    • Will Barton
    • Aron Baynes
    • Patrick Beverley
    • Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
    • Seth Curry
    • Derrick Favors
    • Evan Fournier
    • Marc Gasol
    • Danny Green
    • Tim Hardaway Jr.
    • Montrezl Harrell
    • Gary Harris
    • Luke Kennard
    • Paul Millsap
    • Marcus Morris Sr.
    • Kelly Oubre Jr.
    • Norman Powell
    • JJ Redick
    • Duncan Robinson
    • Derrick Rose
    • Ricky Rubio
    • Dennis Schroder
    • Lou Williams
    • Ivica Zubac

100-96: Sexton, Ball, Bledsoe, Valanciunas, Horford

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    100. Collin Sexton, Cleveland Cavaliers

    Pre-Bubble Rank: Unranked

    Fully appreciating Collin Sexton demands the proper perspective. Judge him against the baseline for floor generals and you'll leave unimpressed, if not completely disenchanted. Accepting him for what he actually is—a combo guard who errs on the side of off-guard—allows everything to change.

    Sexton's scoring impact is real.

    Only five other players cleared 20 points per game and matched or exceeded his efficiency on twos (50.1 percent) and threes (38.0 percent) while attempting as many treys (255): Jaylen Brown, Brandon Ingram, Damian Lillard, Khris Middleton and Karl-Anthony Towns.

    Sexton still needs to throw more meaningful passes—he did better when dribbling inside the arc—and provide a trace of defensive resistance. That's fine. Young players are allowed to be imperfect, he doesn't turn 22 until January, and most of all, his present is promising enough to bet on his future.

         

    99. Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 56

    Lonzo Ball has long been a source of division. It is fitting, then, that he returned some of the most variant rankings from our panel.

    Separating Ball from his lamentable performance during the bubble isn't difficult. Tougher to reconcile is the sustainability of last year's overall shooting (career-high 37.5 percent from three) and how even the best version of himself can be optimized.

    Giving Ball the keys makes too much sense on the run. He is a visionary in transition. His utility is more suspect when things slow down and the offense needs someone to get through the teeth of set defenses. He shot 33.9 percent on drives last year—worst among 130 players to average five or more per game—and New Orleans' half-court efficiency dropped substantially during his minutes on the floor.

    Without honing his threat level off the dribble, there is only so much he can do for everyone else when the pace grinds to a slog.

         

    98. Eric Bledsoe, New Orleans Pelicans

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 40

    Playoff basketball may be a small sample, but it is also the entire reason teams navigate the regular season. Someone can flop only so many times on the most important stage before it catches up to them.

    It is catching up with Eric Bledsoe now. He is coming off three consecutive postseasons in which he severely hamstrung the Milwaukee Bucks offense, albeit not entirely on his own. All-Defensive impacts are hard to find, but his no longer overshadows an increasingly problematic fit at the other end.

    Whatever thrust he plays with on-ball is offset by the issues he poses off it. He shot 26.4 percent on catch-and-shoot threes last season and didn't covert nearly enough of his wide-open looks (34.1 percent) to make defenses pay. It seems like only a matter of time before what ails him in the playoffs infects his entire body of work.

        

    97. Jonas Valanciunas, Memphis Grizzlies

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 67

    Jonas Valanciunas has merged the throwback with the contemporary better than many of the league's other traditional big men. Feasting inside, and on punier humans, is still his foremost strength. He is both hefty and handy: light on his feet, heavy with his shoulders. He closed 2019-20 as one of just nine players shooting 50 percent while using at least three post-ups per game.

    Screening and rim-running have always acted as sort of a middle ground for conventional bigs, and Valanciunas continues to rank among the best finishers in those situations. His 1.24 points per possession as the roll man last season placed in the 76th percentile, and he has ranked lower than the 75h percentile just once since 2015-16 (2017-18).

    Broadening his range beyond the three-point line has now ensured those parts of his game will never be closed off. He has shot better than 35 percent from deep in two of the past three seasons while averaging at least one attempt per game. Everything he does isn't quite matchup-proof, but he has never been harder to marginalize.

        

    96. Al Horford, Oklahoma City Thunder

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 81

    Al Horford's nosedive to the fringes of the top 100 is not a given. Injuries and clumpy spacing played a huge part in last season's decline.

    Age and an undefined opportunity with the rebuilding Oklahoma City Thunder could mean the regression continues. Just as likely, though, is a renaissance.

    Horford helped anchor super-efficient lineups in Philadelphia whenever he played without Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons. His half-court mobility wasn't up to par from years past, but the crux of his offensive game shouldn't be upended by a dip in speed.

    Rebooting his stock may really be as simple as letting him work down low without someone else trying to occupy the same space and committing to letting him shoot and attack out of pick-and-pop situations.

95-91: Crowder, Graham, Harris, Hield, Robinson

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    Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

    95. Jae Crowder, Phoenix Suns

    Pre-Bubble Rank: Unranked

    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.

        

    94. Devonte' Graham, Charlotte Hornets

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 66

    Abandoning ship on Devonte' Graham by the end of last season was always a cringe-worthy decision. Kemba Walker's departure left him to power Charlotte's entire offense, the lone off-the-bounce hub among a roster of players who depended on him to generate space and shot opportunities.

    Traditional efficiency was the cost of that purpose. He shot under 40 percent inside the arc and below 50 percent at the rim (10th percentile). There should be no penalty for involuntarily operating beyond your means. Graham is overtaxed as a No. 1, but he had no choice. And he still canned 34.4 percent of his pull-up triples despite a midseason drop-off.

    LaMelo Ball and Gordon Hayward will allow Graham to settle into a more natural role. He is Terry Rozier-esque in catch-and-shoot spots, and his off-the-bounce attacks will carry even more weight when he's not facing the full fury of the defense. Just as important is knowing that in the absence of Ball, Hayward or both, the Hornets have a secondary creator with the chops to raise up the offense on his own.

        

    93. Joe Harris, Brooklyn Nets

    Pre-Bubble Rank: Unranked

    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.

         

    92. Buddy Hield, Sacramento Kings

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 69

    Kings head coach Luke Walton elected to explore the limits of Buddy Hield's game last year. He found them pretty quickly. Hield is not someone who should be tasked with initiating the offense. His value is rooted in his range and the number of situations in which it holds up.

    Coming around screens, in transition, on the catch, off the dribble—it doesn't matter. Hield's shooting just translates. It also endures. Even the worst application of his skill set cannot stunt his touch. Look at last year as the case in point. He still recovered in time to shoot 39.4 percent from long range.

    Wider discussions such as this one can work against him. Rankings tend to value from-scratch creation or all-encompassing imprints most. Hield doesn't fit into either box. He doesn't need to. If you're not going to define how a team plays, fitting into whichever way it does is the next best thing.

         

    91. Mitchell Robinson, New York Knicks

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 91

    Mitchell Robinson defends with chaotic energy, a disorderly aplomb that is both the core of his upside and undoing.

    Not many bigs can cover such an immense amount of ground. This is not a direct comp—repeat: This is not a direct comp—but Robinson has an Anthony Davis-like feel to his half-court presence. He can be everywhere without neglecting anywhere, someone just as capable of erasing jumpers and containing ball-handlers in space as he is of swallowing shots at the rim.

    New York's defensive rating improved by 4.3 points per 100 possessions with him on the court last season, and it was no accident. His activity can elevate an entire lineup. But availability is a skill, and Robinson has yet to show the restraint and consistency to stay on the floor.

    From allowing players too wide a berth in space and overaggressive contests to puzzling decisions off the ball and outright frustration fouls, he remains his own worst enemy. If and when that changes, his value relative to the rest of the league will, too.

90-86: White, Markkanen, Tucker, Bertans, Capela

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    90. Derrick White, San Antonio Spurs

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 98

    Derrick White has already shown enough to drift in and out of fringe stardom. His defense spans both guard spots and most wings, and he has effectively played the part of game manager and occasional shot-maker at the other end. Left unchanged, with a good bill of health, he will have a long, impactful career.

    Offensive aggression is his ticket to something more. Can he make defenses suffer for dropping so far beneath him? Can he get to the rim more? And finish at a higher clip once he does?

    White's performance during the Disney restart suggests he can. He was less inclined to pass up shot opportunities from the perimeter, and he shot 66.7 percent inside the restricted area, up from 57.8 percent pre-bubble. Seven games is not a lot to go on. White is still up against the burden of proof. But the question of whether he has this type of leap in him no longer exists.

         

    89. Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 94

    Lauri Markkanen's finish is very much conditional. He will not deserve a top-100 spot if he closes this season like he did last year. Injuries have not helped his cause, but he has yet to sustain the multilevel shot-making required to provide the offensive boon on which his appeal is grounded.

    Chicago's coaching change might benefit him more than anyone—save for maybe Wendell Carter Jr. Too much of Markkanen's shot variance seemed to originate as last-ditch, late-clock grenades under head coach Jim Boylen. That, coupled with worse-than-you-think three-point shooting—35.3 percent over the past two seasons—threatens to capsize his value. He just barely qualifies as a floor-spacer.

    Glimpses into a more assertive and overall together player prevent Markkanen from falling outside these predictive exercises. For now, anyway.

    Hitting his threes at a higher clip should open up the rest of his game—specifically his chances to get past defenders who overplay his outside touch. Even if he cannot capitalize on those moments with an in-between jumper, the prospect of better outside shooting and more volume at the rim makes a world of difference.

        

    88. P.J. Tucker, Houston Rockets

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 74

    The context in which the Rockets used P.J. Tucker for much of last season, as a de facto center, eventually became his identity. He turned into this exemplar for microball, most valued for defensive stamina and range that contradicts his size.

    But the bandwidth to play (way) up represents only one of his many layers. So few are as adept at reading the tea leaves; he is more positionless than undersized because his defense is tied to decision-making and timing.

    Strip away his minutes at center, and even at the 4, and he will be comparably effective shadowing pure wings or cutting off guards. This is optionality at its most absolute. For as much as Tucker is built to revolutionize, he's also wired to fit anywhere, period.

        

    87. Davis Bertans, Washington Wizards

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 94

    Historically ridiculous three-point shooting is incredibly valuable. Who knew?

    Davis Bertans fits into a player archetype that can be confused for one-dimensional. He isn't moving the defensive needle in the right direction and doesn't have a vast array of counters if his outside shot isn't falling or his volume gets bottled up.

    That's not the same as inflexible. Bertans hasn't just perfected his greatest skill; he has broadened it. He makes threes of all stripes: from standstill positions, off motion, outside 27 feet, even within ultra-tight spaces.

    Nearly a quarter of Bertans' triples last season qualified as contested (defender between two and four feet). His 40.4 percent clip on these looks ranked second among every player to launch at least 100 such triples, trailing only Duncan Robinson (who, by the way, is probably our panel's biggest snub).

    This isn't one-dimensional shooting. It is functional shooting that forces defense to contort—not just on plays he finishes, but on every single possession.

         

    86. Clint Capela, Atlanta Hawks

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 89

    Like so many other non-shooting bigs, Clint Capela is frequently judged primarily on his limitations. Screen-setting, rim-running, paint-protecting rebounders are considered more replaceable than ever, and his reputation took a blow when the Rockets treated Robert Covington, rather than Capela himself, as the best asset in a four-team trade with Atlanta, Denver and Minnesota.

    The latter is not telltale of anything. Houston at the time was a perfect storm of extremes. Capela became a stylistic hindrance because the team acquired a more expensive one in Russell Westbrook.

    More credit should be given to Capela for mastering the role he has to play. Offenses needn't deviate to keep him happy, and his rebounding is otherworldly for someone with a frame that can theoretically be displaced by brawnier bigs. And while he isn't matchup-proof, it is not by chance that many of the defenses he has spearheaded enjoyed above-average finishes.

    He isn't going to rescue four net negatives on his own, but he can patrol the area around the rim with minimal emergency provisions.

    Putting him so far outside the top 75—though still higher than he ended last season—is a necessary hedge. He is still working his way back from a right heel injury and on an Atlanta team that has ample alternatives at center.

    Playing time isn't always a barometer for usefulness, but given John Collins' iffy defensive fit versus true bigs and Onyeka Okongwu's inexperience, Capela's volume will be directly reflective of both his own specific value and the importance of the style he plays.

85-81: Allen, Richardson, Porter, Bridges, Covington

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    85. Jarrett Allen, Brooklyn Nets

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 85

    Including Jarrett Allen at all counts as relentless optimism. Opportunity is part of the evaluation process, and his is not assured. DeAndre Jordan ended last year as the starter and isn't going anywhere, and Nets head coach Steve Nash has said Kevin Durant will play some 5. Allen is not in danger of falling out of the rotation, but his 26.5 minutes per game could suddenly become closer to 20 or less.

    More troubling than any friendship politics, though, is last season's lack of development. Allen's three-point experiment ended, and he didn't add any self-sustenance to his arsenal. After converting 44.9 percent of his hook shots in 2018-19, his hit rate on those looks dropped to 40.4 percent. Jordan doesn't have a much deeper toolbox, but he is the better passer.

    This doesn't render DJ the superior player overall. He doesn't crack our top 100 for a reason. Allen is the more switchable defender. He may get overpowered on occasion, but he has the side-to-side amble to neutralize threats in space.

    All of that said, Allen is clinging to top-100 status himself.

        

    84. Josh Richardson, Dallas Mavericks

    Pre-Bubble Rank: Unranked

    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.

         

    83. Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets

    Pre-Bubble Rank: Unranked

    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.

        

    82. Mikal Bridges, Phoenix Suns

    Pre-Bubble Rank: Unranked

    Mikal Bridges is already on the All-Defensive 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.

         

    81. Robert Covington, Portland Trail Blazers

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 84

    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.

80-76: Ingles, Wall, Adams, Herro, Dragic

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    80. Joe Ingles, Utah Jazz

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 77

    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.

      

    79. John Wall, Houston Rockets

    Pre-Bubble Rank: Unranked

    Nobody in this entire field is harder to project than John Wall. Figuring out how anyone will perform following a major injury is tough enough, but he's coming back from a ruptured left Achilles, and he is only now getting his first exposure to organized basketball since December 2018.

    That he has always been reliant on speed and athleticism only fans the flames of confusion. Post-Achilles-injury Kevin Durant at least has the option of shooting over everyone. Wall doesn't have that luxury. Nor has he shown the touch to exploit it even if he did.

    His preseason performance, though not considered here, suggests he won't suffer this drastic drop-off in burst. That would be huge. But the NBA season is long, and three outings do not allow for too much extrapolation.

    Perhaps this is still too pessimistic. Wall is more than this athleticism. His playmaking is more feel and vision than a physical tool, and he's converting 38.7 percent of his catch-and-fire triples since 2015-16. He has a roadmap to success even if he isn't entirely his former self.

         

    78. Steven Adams, New Orleans Pelicans

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 57

    Opinions vary on Steven Adams' value, but his diligence is beyond approach.

    In the absence of outside range on offense, he pairs his screening and finishing on rolls with a nifty floater. His post game isn't worth extensive exploration, but he has shown he can punish mismatches and take advantage of lineups that afford him the space to operate.

    Adams is more of a seamless fit at the other end of the floor.

    He's not the most laterally quick big, but his brawn and IQ make him a human eclipse. He can cover a lot of east-and-west ground without needing an explosive side-to-side gait. And while his rim-protection numbers don't scream impenetrable anchor, he is a functional deterrent. Opponents have taken noticeably fewer shots at the basket with him on the floor in all but one of his seven seasons.

         

    77. Tyler Herro, Miami Heat

    Pre-Bubble Rank: Unranked

    Tyler Herro's spot should not be viewed as hyperbole or as an overreaction to his postseason explosions during Miami's romp to the Finals. It is an investment in the depth of his shot-making.

    Plug-and-go touch has limitless use. Herro promises plenty of it after just one season. He put down 44.2 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes in the regular season and 41.6 percent during the playoffs. But the Heat also empowered him to attack off the dribble, and even as he launched some questionable looks and struggled to remain efficient, his comfort level shined through.

    Herro likewise showed a knack for putting more pressure on the basket. His shot selection can still stall out before the cup, but he increased his volume inside three feet during the playoffs, over which time he also busted out a wide range of twitchy, mega-difficult finishes.

    Putting this much faith in a second-year jump is never the safest venture, but unless the Heat acquire another shot creator, Herro will have the requisite opportunity to continue his offensive upturn.

        

    76. Goran Dragic, Miami Heat

    Pre-Bubble Rank: Unranked

    Goran Dragic was excellent during the regular season and brought it up a notch in the playoffs, averaging 19.1 points while dropping in 50.9 percent of his two-pointers. There were stretches during the Heat's push to the Finals in which he was their most important offensive player—no small feat when playing beside Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo.

    Positioning him so close to the top 75 carries some risk going into his age-34 campaign given his injury history and that he's coming back from a left plantar fascia issue.

    But the Heat exited the Finals needing another shot creator even when factoring in his likely return. They didn't add one. That lack of a contingency to Butler and Adebayo guarantees Dragic volume, and his mix of passing flair and on-the-move shot-making will forever keep defenses on tilt.

75-71: Smart, Gordon, Wood, Lopez, Grant

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    75. Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 54

    Marcus Smart plays with the cadence of a Fast & Furious movie. There is no preamble, no subtlety. There is only parachuting cars out of planes and strapping Pontiac Fieros to rocket engines. It is a style that lends itself to extreme variance—the highest highs and the lowest lows.

    Bumps and wrinkles are all part of the Marcus Smart experience. In the end, the successes almost always outweigh the failures. His ill-advised heat checks can be aggravating, but are they really, actually, totally ill-advised when he's draining 40.1 percent of his pull-up threes?

    Either way, you live with the results. Smart is worth the occasional opportunity lost on offense when he's so impossibly good at the other end.

    He defends like a typhoon that can think for itself, selectively determining just how much hell to unleash, and his 6'3" frame knows no bounds. If the NBA has its first guard win Defensive Player of the Year since Gary Payton in 1995-96 anytime soon, the most likely recipient is no mystery. Smart alone is capable of ending the drought.

        

    74. Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 73

    It seems like Aaron Gordon is used differently, and inexpertly, on offense every single year. The calls for him to operate exclusively as a play-finisher in transition and on lobs have continuously gone unanswered. Out of necessity or stubbornness—or some combination of both—his offensive profile has mirrored that of an inefficient wing player.

    Time is running out for Gordon to overturn that designation. He is entering his seventh season. At some point, his usage has to reflect his skill set. Whether that will ever include a more serviceable floor game remains to be seen. He shot under 41 percent on drives and posted an effective field-goal percentage of 32.7 on pull-up jumpers last season.

    All hope still isn't lost. The Magic tapped into his playmaking by the end of 2019-20 and seem prepared to do so again. Gordon is making reads from the block and has flashed better passing feel and flair out of the pick-and-roll even if he's not a bona fide scoring threat in those situations.

    His shot distribution and overall efficiency still suggest he's been miscast, but 6'8" players who can facilitate and defend every frontcourt spot are going to leave their mark. Gordon has shown that, and he's a consistent set three-pointer away from proving much more.

         

    73. Christian Wood, Houston Rockets

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 72

    Small samples are the enemies of surety, which means Christian Wood's breakout 2019-20 campaign is best digested with a metric ton of salt. He averaged 22.8 points, 9.9 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.0 blocks while converting 40.0 percent of his threes after Detroit traded Andre Drummond, but that tear spanned all of 13 games. It isn't yet clear how his production will hold up in a larger role over a longer term.

    Watch him, though, and the offense feels real.

    Wood is comfortable squaring up for standstill triples, fanning out behind the rainbow, running into quick catch-and-fire opportunities, slipping to the basket off screens, beating closeouts off the dribble and even driving baseline, through traffic, and creating his own looks at the rim. He has shown some slightly more advanced decision-making as a passer. He can throw dimes from set perimeter positions to teammates cutting toward the basket and exhibited, in spurts, a knack for finding shooters while on the move.

    Defense will have plenty of say in how high Wood climbs. He covers a lot of ground, but it's ungoverned, shimmying between levels of helpful, innocuous and detrimental. Still, the extent to which he can score already solidifies him as one of the league's most dynamic bigs.

         

    72. Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 58

    Brook Lopez is coming off a season in which he thrived despite declining in the most obvious part of his game: outside shooting.

    He converted 40.0 percent of his threes over his final 19 regular-season appearances and buried 39.6 percent of his triples in the playoffs, but he still finished the year hitting just 31.2 percent of his wide-open treys—second-worst in the league among 88 players who fired up at least 125 long-range looks with a defender six or more feet away. (Giannis Antetokounmpo was the only person to down them at a lower clip.)

    Volume has value independent of outcome. Lopez re-sculpts the shape of the floor just by planting himself beyond the arc, sometimes from super-deep distance. But this is less about the concerns attached to his uneven shooting last year (though they're fair) and more about how he stayed so imperative amid it.

    Lopez did not stumble by chance or mistake into his second-team All-Defensive selection. Where many of the switchiest bigs depend on side-to-side burst, he uses wide, low-to-the-ground stances. Smaller, quicker ball-handlers are hard-pressed to get around his length, and he is a case-specific virtuoso.

    The amount of space he leaves between face-up scorers varies by a player's strength—his speed, his outside touch, his willingness to pull up off the dribble, etc. His rim protection remains big-time, but so, too, does his deterrence. His presence changes the way offenses attack. Milwaukee's opponents reached the rim noticeably less often and attempted more mid-range jumpers with him on the floor.

    If he's not matchup-proof, he's pretty damn close.

    Baking in some regression is not unwarranted. Lopez is 32, and again, his three-point clip for most of the year failed to impress. But the Bucks can go to him in the post when his outside looks aren't falling, and his defensive impact is predicated upon corporeal tools—length, size and stance—that don't dwindle with age. He is well-positioned to prove similarly indispensable.

         

    71. Jerami Grant, Detroit Pistons

    Pre-Bubble Rank: Unranked

    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.

70-66: Drummond, Ibaka, Dinwiddie, Conley, Carter

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    Paul Beaty/Associated Press

    70. Andre Drummond, Cleveland Cavaliers

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 88

    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.

        

    69. Serge Ibaka, Los Angeles Clippers

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 55

    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.

        

    68. Spencer Dinwiddie, Brooklyn Nets

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 46

    Spencer Dinwiddie's raw efficiency can be a turnoff. He has shot lower than 34 percent from deep in each of the past three years and hit just 27.7 percent of his pull-up treys last season. That certainly matters, though it isn't nearly as concerning if he keeps finding the net on 37-plus percent of his spot-up threebies.

    Regardless, the direct, unceasing pressure he puts on the basket is more paramount. He is not the most efficient finisher, but the ruin he wreaks upon the defense spurs trips to the line and higher-quality opportunities for those around him. And while he works with some changes in pace, his attacks are more streamlined than spectacle. He isn't trying to dance with the ball and hunt for broken ankles; he's unsettling the larger defensive picture, rather than just his man, and acting on it.

    Coexisting with Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Caris LeVert may abbreviate the most valuable part of Dinwiddie's game. But it won't devolve, totally, in significance. His specific brand of creation, in fact, may be the one best suited to tie lineups that feature three to all four of them together.

         

    67. Mike Conley, Utah Jazz

    Pre-Bubble Rank: Unranked

    Left hamstring and right knee issues limited Mike Conley to 47 appearances last year (the latter of which hit him just before the playoffs), and he wasn't himself for a good chunk of them.

    Working through rust always takes time, but his initial struggles had more to do with his change of scenery. Utah was not Memphis, and it took Conley a while to adapt. Simply going from playing with a lifetime's worth of bigs who popped to a premier roll man required alterations.

    Conley was back on his well-balanced grind by the end of the year. He averaged 17.0 points and 4.9 assists while dropping in 41.9 percent of his treys over the final quarter of the regular season and then rediscovered more of his off-the-bounce shot-making inside the bubble. He buried 50 percent of his pull-up treys (11-of-22) through five playoff appearances.

    Expectations can be adjusted for Conley ahead of his age-33 season, but the player he finished 2019-20 as is who the Jazz thought they were trading for in the first place. He is hardwired to negotiate roles, the rare point guard who can put pressure on the defense to the gain of everyone around him and has a magnetic pull away from the ball.

    His fit with the Jazz is only more defined now. Donovan Mitchell-as-point guard arrangements are a thing, which frees a healthier, more acclimated Conley to do what he struggled to last year: pump up lineups heavy on second-stringers that don't include his backcourt co-star.

    Only now it seems fated to work.

        

    66. Wendell Carter Jr., Chicago Bulls

    Pre-Bubble Rank: Unranked

    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).

65-61: Warren, Bogdanovic, Bogdanovic, Murray, Love

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    65. T.J. Warren, Indiana Pacers

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 99

    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.

        

    64. Bogdan Bogdanovic, Sacramento Kings

    Pre-Bubble Rank: Unranked

    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.

        

    63. Bojan Bogdanovic, Utah Jazz

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 64

    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.

         

    62. Dejounte Murray, San Antonio Spurs

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 70

    Dejounte Murray remains something of an offensive unknown. Though he has done a better job getting the Spurs into their half-court sets and looked at home piloting more transition opportunities during the restart, his potential scoring peak remains concealed beneath lingering questions about his jumper and rim pressure.

    Yet this ambiguity skews heavily toward a silver lining after last season, during which he shot a career high from the mid-range (44 percent) and hit 36.9 percent of his threes. Most of his jumpers went completely uncontested, but that's not exactly a drawback. Defenses are going to give him those shots. Knocking them down is a massive victory for both him and the Spurs.

    Establishing more of a presence at the rim looms as Murray's offensive swing skill. His issue is not ability so much as mindset. He has enough speed to go at and scoot by defenders when driving from above the break. Reaching the rim—and improving his free-throw-attempt rate—is almost entirely a matter of maintaining his dribble rather than settling for contested baby jumpers and turnarounds.

    A version of Murray who shoots like he did last year and is committed to finishing north-south, on top of contending for All-Defensive selections, is a possible All-Star.

         

    61. Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 51

    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.

60-56: Harris, Brogdon, Russell, Anunoby, DeRozan

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    60. Tobias Harris, Philadelphia 76ers

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 63

    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.

        

    59. Malcolm Brogdon, Indiana Pacers

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 48

    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.

        

    58. D'Angelo Russell, Minnesota Timberwolves

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 45

    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.

        

    57. OG Anunoby, Toronto Raptors

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 96

    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.

        

    56. DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 53

    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.

55-51: LeVert, Aldridge, Griffin, Gallinari, Nurkic

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    55. Caris LeVert, Brooklyn Nets

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 95

    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.

        

    54. LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 50

    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.

        

    53. Blake Griffin, Detroit Pistons

    Pre-Bubble Rank: Unranked

    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.

        

    52. Danilo Gallinari, Atlanta Hawks

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 38

    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.

        

    51. Jusuf Nurkic, Portland Trail Blazers

    Pre-Bubble Rank: Unranked

    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.

50. Gordon Hayward, Charlotte Hornets

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 43

    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.

49. Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 42

    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.

48. Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 82

    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.

47. Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 78

    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.

46. Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 44

    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.

45. John Collins, Atlanta Hawks

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 41

    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.

44. Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 76

    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.

43. Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: Unranked (didn't meet minutes threshold)

    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.

42. Kemba Walker, Boston Celtics

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 24

    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.

41. Domantas Sabonis, Indiana Pacers

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 35

    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. (He attempted more threes in the preseason.)

    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.

40. Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic

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    Matt Stamey/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 37

    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.

39. Kristaps Porzingis, Dallas Mavericks

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    Kevin C. Cox/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 39

    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-Defensive 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.

38. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 31

    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.

37. Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 49

    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. 

36. CJ McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers

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    Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 33

    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.

35. De'Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings

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    Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 36

    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.

34. Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 28

    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.

33. Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 29

    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.

32. Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 30

    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.

31. Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets

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    Mary Schwalm/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 19

    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.

30. Russell Westbrook, Washington Wizards

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    Rob Carr/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 22

    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.

29. Jrue Holiday, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 34

    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.

28. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 34

    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.

27. Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 47

    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.

26. Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 10

    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.

25. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 20

    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.

24. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 32

    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.

23. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 18

    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.

22. Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 13

    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.

21. Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 21

    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.

20. Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 23

    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.

19. Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 17

    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.

18. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 14

    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.

17. Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 26

    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.

16. Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers

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    Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 16

    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.

15. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 27

    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.

14. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 15

    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.

13. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Kevin C. Cox/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 12

    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.

12. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 9

    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.

11. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 11

    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.

10. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: Unranked (injured)

    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.

9. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 7

    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.

8. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 8

    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.

7. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 6

    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.

6. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: Unranked (didn't meet minutes threshold)

    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.

5. Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers

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    Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 3

    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.

4. James Harden, Houston Rockets

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    Carmen Mandato/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 4

    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.

3. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 5

    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.

2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 1

    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.

1. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    Pre-Bubble Rank: 2

    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.

       

    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.

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