B/R Staff Predicts Top 50 NBA Players for 2021-22 Season

Bleacher Report NBA StaffFeatured ColumnistOctober 12, 2021

B/R Staff Predicts Top 50 NBA Players for 2021-22 Season

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    Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images)

    Forget the legacies and the name power. Forget everything you know about NBA reputations and yesterday's GOATs.

    Who are the top 50 NBA players right now?

    Here were the instructions to our expert NBA analysts and talent evaluators: Rank the top players you expect to have the most impact during this upcoming season and playoffs. How much weight a voter gives regular season vs. playoffs was to be considered subjective, and once we had an average for everyone ranked, we narrowed it down to our official, collective top 50 players. 

    More specifically, rankings are based on statistical trends—career track record, factoring in trends from last season, NBA or otherwise; rookies are eligible—and who writers expect to impact positive results the most this season. Like any GM worth their salt, we're valuing players who drive winning better than their league-average counterparts. 

    These rankings also account for age, health and track records of "availability." In other words, can we expect the player to participate in enough games to be eligible for a postseason award? If yes, he's eligible.

    To limit skewed results from ambiguous injuries, we listed the following players as ineligible due to anticipated significant absences: Klay Thompson, Jamal Murray, Jonathan Isaac, TJ Warren, Kawhi Leonard.

    **Additional editor's disclaimer**: This list was voted on and tallied before the Brooklyn Nets decided against allowing Kyrie Irving to participate in games due to his vaccination status. 

        

    Shouts to the following for their participation in this project: Andy BaileyEric PincusGrant HughesGreg SwartzSean HighkinZach BuckleyA. Sherrod BlakelyFarbod Esnaashari, Joey Akeley, Ben Rosenthal, Sam Evers, Matt Velazquez, Chris Trenchard

Nos. 50-46

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    Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press

    50. Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves

    Highest Rank: 35

    Lowest Rank: 75

    The 2020 No. 1 pick immediately established himself as one of the NBA's most singular, quotable characters, but the on-court part took a bit of time to come around. Edwards became a different player midseason when Chris Finch took over as head coach and his role changed. In Year 2, he's only going to get better.

    —Highkin
      

    49. Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics

    Highest Rank: 43

    Lowest Rank: 66

    Smart averaged a career-high 13.1 points last season, but he would like to further add to his playmaking skills. He averaged a career-high 5.7 assists per game last year, and with new coach Ime Udoka wanting the ball in his hands even more this year, Smart's expected role in the team's success has clearly expanded. 

    —Blakely

    48. Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors

    Highest Rank: 35

    Lowest Rank: 60

    VanVleet upped his usage rate (23.9 percent) and scoring average (19.6 points per game) to career highs this past season, but he sacrificed efficiency as his role expanded. Though no player made a larger positive impact on  Toronto's net rating, the team was still outscored in the minutes VanVleet played without Kyle Lowry last season. Goran Dragic is aboard in Lowry's place for now, but this is a sneaky prove-it year for FVV as he assumes lead-guard status.

    —Hughes

    47. DeMar DeRozan, Chicago Bulls

    Highest Rank: 38

    Lowest Rank: 66

    Three seasons in San Antonio saw DeRozan's assists spike to a career-high 6.9 per game in 2020-21. His willingness to share the rock should serve him well in Chicago, where he and Nikola Vucevic will play supporting roles alongside Zach LaVine.

    —Buckley

    46. John Collins, Atlanta Hawks

    Highest Rank: 40

    Lowest Rank: 62

    Collins proved his numbers could translate to wins last year, and a new five-year, $125 million contract keeps him in a familiar role with the Hawks for the foreseeable future. One of the most athletic floor-spacing bigs in the NBA, Collins only recently turned 23 and should continue to improve as Atlanta becomes a force in the East.

    —Swartz

Nos. 45-41

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    Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

    45. Tobias Harris, Philadelphia 76ers

    Highest Rank: 41

    Lowest Rank: 52

    Harris is ranked in the top 50, but he has the 13th-highest salary in the NBA this season at $36 million (more a reflection on the Philadelphia 76ers' decision-making). While he's nearly a 20-point scorer who shoots almost 40 percent from three-point range, Harris needs to do more this year, especially with the uncertainty surrounding Ben Simmons' future in Philadelphia. 

    —Pincus

    44. Mike Conley, Utah Jazz

    Highest Rank: 33

    Lowest Rank: 63

    With Conley's steady hand at the wheel, the Utah Jazz had the point differential of a 74-win team last season, according to Cleaning the Glass (yes, you read that right). But he's entering his age-34 season and has missed an average of 23 games per year since joining Utah.

    —Bailey

    43. LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets

    Highest Rank: 33

    Lowest Rank: 52

    Sometimes you have to remember Ball was a rookie last year, because he's been a household name for close to five years. He lived up to the hype as a generational playmaker in his first season in the NBA, bringing some much-needed basketball buzz back to Charlotte.

    —Highkin

    42. Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets

    Highest Rank: 23

    Lowest Rank: 61

    Stephen Curry is the only player in NBA history to match or exceed both of Porter's marks for threes per game (2.0) and three-point percentage (43.9) through his first two seasons. And with Jamal Murray out for most or all of the season, MPJ's in line for a lot more shots as Nikola Jokic's clear No. 2.

    —Bailey

    41. Nikola Vucevic, Chicago Bulls

    Highest Rank: 27

    Lowest Rank: 55

    Given the amount of talent Chicago added this offseason with DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso, Vucevic's numbers likely won't reach the 23.4 points, 11.7 rebounds and 3.8 assists he posted last year between the Orlando Magic and the Bulls. Still, this is one of the most offensively gifted centers in the NBA, one who broke through with a 40.0 percent mark from three on a healthy 6.3 attempts per game.

    —Swartz

Nos. 40-36

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    40. Kyle Lowry, Miami Heat

    Highest Rank: 21

    Lowest Rank: 52

    Lowry just wrapped a seven-year run with the Raptors, but his toughness and tenacity already bear the markings of a #HeatLifer. His approach will quickly endear him to Miami fans, but his ability to thrive on or off the ball will be what fits best with Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo.

    —Buckley

    39. Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors

    Highest Rank: 21

    Lowest Rank: 57

    Unfortunately for Siakam, he’s been ranked significantly lower compared to last season. Much of that has to do with the decline of the Toronto Raptors as a whole. Siakam has only slightly dropped off as a player from last season to now, but the Raptors went from a potential conference finals team to a 27-45 record while playing all of last season in Tampa. By the end of 2020, many were comparing him to Paul George. Now, not so much.

    —Esnaashari

    38. De'Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings

    Highest Rank: 31

    Lowest Rank: 53

    Fox’s lethal speed and top-end foul-drawing give him a high production floor for 2021-22, making last year’s 25.2 points per game eminently toppable. The Sacramento Kings scored the second-most points per transition play in the league last year, no surprise with the lightning-fast Fox at the helm.

    —Hughes

    37. Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns

    Highest Rank: 26

    Lowest Rank: 59

    Ayton proved that sometimes a drop in stats means an increase in impact. He averaged a career-low 14.4 points last season, but those points came in a much more efficient manner (he shot a career-high 62.6 percent), which the Suns will need to see more of if they are to build off this past season’s success.

    —Blakely

    36. Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors

    Highest Rank: 27

    Lowest Rank: 52

    Despite the worst three-point shooting figures (27.0 percent on 2.0 attempts per game) since his rookie year, Green found ways to be a positive force offensively. He averaged a career-best 8.9 assists per game and was instrumental in setting up Stephen Curry for his second career scoring title. Green finished third in DPOY voting and remains perhaps the most valuable postseason defender in the NBA.

    —Hughes

Nos. 35-31

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    Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

    35. CJ McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers

    Highest Rank: 29

    Lowest Rank: 57

    The Portland Trail Blazers underperformed last year, but McCollum was sidelined for an extended period with a foot injury. The Blazers need a strong (and healthy) season from McCollum—one of the NBA's most gifted scorers.

    —Pincus

    34. Domantas Sabonis, Indiana Pacers

    Highest Rank: 25

    Lowest Rank: 43

    Sabonis was last season's only player to average 20 points and 12 rebounds, and his 6.7 assists were the 10th-most ever tossed out by a player 6'11" or taller. If he adds a three-ball to his arsenal—he attempted more triples than ever before in 2020-21—he'll make the short list of the league's hardest players to handle.

    —Buckley

    33. Russell Westbrook, Los Angeles Lakers

    Highest Rank: 21

    Lowest Rank: 44

    The past couple of years have been tumultuous for Westbrook, moving from the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Houston Rockets followed by a season with the Washington Wizards. Neither team was a contender (though the Wizards made a significant jump with the veteran point guard), but now Westbrook will have the opportunity to remind the world how talented he is alongside LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Los Angeles Lakers.

    —Pincus

    32. Julius Randle, New York Knicks

    Highest Rank: 30

    Lowest Rank: 47

    Randle's game doesn't look much like Larry Bird's, but his stat line of 24.1 points, 10.2 rebounds and 6.0 assists sure did. This season, he'll have more offensive help from Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier, which should give him more off-ball opportunities and a bit better efficiency.

    —Bailey 

    31. Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans

    Highest Rank: 23

    Lowest Rank: 46

    Brandon Ingram has been stuck in a familiar situation for the past two seasons. He's never quite been a top-20 player, but he's almost there. His numbers have been almost identical the past two seasons, though Ingram lost his All-Star standing during the 2020-21 season after getting an All-Star nod the year prior.

    —Esnaashari

Nos. 30-26

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    Garett Fisbeck/Associated Press

    30. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder

    Highest Rank: 22

    Lowest Rank: 37

    When he was on the floor in his third season, Gilgeous-Alexander flashed the star potential that made him the coveted centerpiece of 2019's Paul George trade. However, he was sidelined for half the season by plantar fasciitis (and the Thunder's desire for a better draft pick).

    Despite his extended absence, the Thunder value him highly enough to sign him to a five-year, $172 million max extension over the summer. Whenever the Thunder are ready to actually compete, Gilgeous-Alexander is going to be at the forefront.

    —Highkin

    29. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies

    Highest Rank: 15

    Lowest Rank: 43

    Morant's second-year leap was slowed by injuries, but the 22-year-old should be an All-Star as early as this year given his talent level. One of the most athletic players in the entire NBA, Morant is already an accomplished passer who should crack the 20-point-per game mark for the first time in his career.

    After averaging 30.2 points, 4.8 rebounds and 8.2 assists against the Utah Jazz in his first postseason series, it's only a matter of time before Morant becomes one of the best point guards in the league. Playing next to a healthy Jaren Jackson Jr. for an entire season should only help his growth.

    —Swartz

      

    28. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

    Highest Rank: 21

    Lowest Rank: 37

    It's easy to focus on what a player doesn't do well instead of recognizing their inherent gifts. Simmons is a polarizing player, given his reluctance to shoot a three-pointer, shaky free-throw reliability and a passed-up potential dunk late in a playoff game with the Philadelphia 76ers. But he's also a 25-year-old, 6'11" dynamic playmaker and defender. In the right situation, Simmons could certainly climb this list in future years.

    Unfortunately, what he brings to the court (warts and all) doesn't matter if he's not actually on the court. The Sixers and Simmons remain in a stalemate, as the multi-positional three-time All-Star has demanded a trade. Will he sit out the season if Philadelphia doesn't oblige? Will Simmons land in a better situation? And will he ever learn to reliably shoot a jump shot?

    —Pincus

    27. Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls

    Highest Rank: 20

    Lowest Rank: 39

    LaVine arrived as a true offensive star during a 2020-21 season that saw him average 27.4 points per game on 63.4 percent true shooting (a combo only nine players have ever managed in a season). A dangerous cutter who also thrives in isolation and hit threes at a 48.6 percent clip off the catch, LaVine can still improve by embracing the dirtier work of defense.

    LaVine is still among the league's most electrifying aerialists, but he's honed a balanced and skill-based game over the years. If he puts down a few more free throws, the 26-year-old could easily join the 50-40-90 club while posting over 25.0 points per game. That almost never happens.

    —Hughes

    26. Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics

    Highest Rank: 24

    Lowest Rank: 31

    The concerns about Brown's surgically repaired left wrist aren't as problematic as some thought they would be heading into the season. The bigger concern with Brown is related to him testing positive for COVID-19. Team officials say he's asymptomatic, which is a good omen that it won't have as adverse an impact on him as it did teammate Jayson Tatum, who at one point upon his return to play needed to use an inhaler.

    Brown will be looking to average 20 or more points for a third straight season. He was especially impactful from three-point range, shooting a shade under 40 percent (39.7, actually). Brown's ability to stretch the floor makes him an extremely tough cover because of his strength in getting to the rim off the dribble. With head coach Ime Udoka aiming to use Brown more as a facilitator this year, Brown's ability to impact the game becomes even greater.

    —Blakely

Nos. 25-21

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    Matthew Hinton/Associated Press

    25. Jrue Holiday, Milwaukee Bucks

    Highest Rank: 19

    Lowest Rank: 35

    The Bucks gave up a ton of future picks for Holiday, and he did exactly what they brought him in to do—be a lockdown perimeter defender and third star to play alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton as they pursued a championship. That pursuit was ultimately successful, and for an encore Holiday (and Middleton) won gold in Tokyo.

    Holiday was absolutely instrumental in the Bucks' title run, scoring 27 points in Game 5 of the Finals and making key defensive plays throughout the playoffs. If they repeat, he's going to be a big part of that, too.

    —Highkin

    24. Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans

    Highest Rank: 16

    Lowest Rank: 43

    It's too early to set this in stone, but Williamson is on track to be an all-time great scorer. Right now, Michael Jordan (30.1) and Joel Embiid (29.3) are the only players who average more points per 75 possessions than Zion (28.9). Assuming he stays healthy, it's tough to imagine him slowing down. Few (if any) players across history possessed his combination of size, explosiveness and knack for knowing exactly when to cut.

    Now, if he's given a full season to play "Point Zion," the New Orleans Pelicans should have one of the game's more dynamic attacks. Surrounded by shooting from Brandon Ingram, Devonte' Graham, Tomas Satoransky and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Zion should be able power through plenty of driving lanes for buckets and kickouts.

    —Bailey 

    23. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves

    Highest Rank: 18

    Lowest Rank: 37

    Towns has been a very good player for six season, though he's never quite been a great player.The true stars of the NBA routinely crack the top-20 positions and are annual All-Stars. Towns has been an All-Star twice, but that's it.

    Similar to Brandon Ingram, there's plenty of reasons to believe in Towns' potential. He's a big man averaging 25/10/4 on 48/39/86 shooting splits—there isn't really much more you can ask for. Despite all of that potential and performance, the Minnesota Timberwolves have consistently underperformed. Unfortunately for Towns, that usually gets reflected on a team's best player.

    —Esnaashari

    22. Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat

    Highest Rank: 14

    Lowest Rank: 28

    Adebayo has an argument for the title of the NBA's best defender. His combination of length, agility and athleticism allow him to offer full paint-to-perimeter coverage, and he can snap possessions to a finish with steals or blocks (one of two players with 150-plus of each since the start of 2019-20).

    His individual offense is still maturing (related: he turned 24 in July), but few bigs can match his blend of playmaking and finishing. Expanding his range could take his game to another level, and his career-high 79.9 free-throw percentage last season was a promising step in that direction.

    —Buckley

    21. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

    Highest Rank: 12

    Lowest Rank: 30

    Traditional numbers and notions about stardom have always struggled to fully capture Gobert's impact. "You have to take into account a lot of things that don't happen," former Jazz executive vice president Dennis Lindsey told Bleacher Report in May. All the actions prevented simply by Gobert's presence are part of why his team's net rating has been 10.7 points better when he plays over the past five seasons.

    However, that impact has been muted, at least to some degree, in the playoffs. Gobert was unfairly maligned when the Los Angeles Clippers went small in the 2020 postseason and abused Utah's perimeter defenders, but he has to be able to punish those lineups on the other end.

    —Bailey

20. Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Justin Casterline/Associated Press

    Highest Rank: 14

    Lowest Rank: 30

    Middleton came into the NBA with the reputation of being a really good shooter, and thus far, the two-time All-Star has not disappointed. But as time moved on, we began to see there are different levels to Middleton’s ability to impact games. 

    The nine-year veteran has gone from an occasional rebounder to someone who has averaged at least five rebounds per game in each of the past five seasons. 

    But the true area of growth we saw last season—one that certainly factored into the Bucks winning it all—was his playmaking. Middleton averaged a career-high 6.0 assists per game last season, often being the primary ball-handler bringing the ball up the court and initiating the offense in half-court sets. The scoring ability isn’t going anywhere. But his continued growth as a passer gives Milwaukee a chance to do what so few believe is possible, which is to make a second successive title run.

    —Blakely

19. Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    Highest Rank: 14

    Lowest Rank: 25

    The most polarizing player in the NBA. Regardless of what anyone thinks of him, Irving is a phenomenal individual basketball player. Last season, he averaged 26.9 points, 6.0 assists, and 4.8 rebounds on 50/40/92 shooting splits. That needs repeating—Irving is in the 50/40/90 club on nearly 27 points a game. Those are some impressive, historic numbers.

    The thing is, Kyrie has been a killer his entire career. Many forget he averaged 25.2 points on 47/44/87 shooting splits in the year  the Cleveland Cavaliers won the title. Irving has been a consistently great player who is playing at his peak right now. What has held him back the most, though, has been injuries.

    The best ability is availability, which is something Irving has struggled with. He only played in nine of Brooklyn's 14 games in the 2021 playoffs because of an ankle sprain, and he missed most of the 2019-2020 season, including all of the playoffs, with various injuries. If that wasn't enough, the ambiguity of his availability this season leaves even more questions regarding how much he can help the Nets in their pursuit of a championship.

    —Esnaashari

18. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Highest Rank: 14

    Lowest Rank: 28

    Mitchell’s regular-season numbers would be enough to justify his rise into the top 20, but it’s his playoff performances that could have him threatening the next tier before long.

    After putting up 32.3 points in the 2021 postseason, Mitchell is up to fifth in NBA history in career playoff scoring average. Yes, fifth. Michael Jordan (33.5), Allen Iverson (29.7), Kevin Durant (29.5) and Jerry West (29.1) are the only players ahead of Mitchell (28.9).

    Beyond his explosiveness, three-level scoring and developing playmaking ability, Mitchell has a flair for the dramatic. In Utah’s highest-leverage moments, he almost always seems to find another level.

    —Bailey

17. Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Highest Rank: 13

    Lowest Rank: 30

    Beal has become one of the most dominant scorers in the NBA, barely losing out to Stephen Curry for the 2021 scoring title in the final game of the regular season. With Russell Westbrook now traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, Beal is B/R's projected scoring champion for the 2021-22 season.

    After sharing the spotlight with John Wall and Westbrook, Beal is the official (and lone) face of the Wizards franchise, one he's been fiercely loyal to for the past nine years. Now in the prime of his career at age 28, we should see yet another 30-plus point-per-game season, a fourth All-Star appearance and second All-NBA team for Beal.

    Even with Spencer Dinwiddie taking over point guard duties, we should also see some increased playmaking responsibilities for Beal with Westbrook gone. He assisted on a career-high 29.5 percent of his teammates' baskets (6.1 assists per game) two years ago, a figure that fell to 21.3 percent (4.4 assists per game) last season.

    —Swartz

16. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns

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    Kevin C. Cox/Associated Press

    Highest Rank: 12

    Lowest Rank: 21

    Booker is instant offense. Before this past season, many around the league viewed the 24-year-old guard as an empty-calorie scorer. But then the Phoenix Suns advanced to the NBA Finals, and Booker reframed that narrative.

    How much credit should go to veteran point guard Chris Paul? A lot, but not at Booker's expense. The Suns have one of the best cores in the NBA, including Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges. Paul fought through various ailments through the playoffs, and Booker took center stage for his team as needed.

    If there's an area Booker could improve upon, it's his three-point shooting. He shot just 34 percent, which is relatively low (peaked at 38.3 percent in 2017-18). If Booker can improve from the outside, his 25.6 points per game could quickly jump to close to 30 a night.

    —Pincus

15. Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    Highest Rank: 7

    Lowest Rank: 21

    Young's gifts as a scorer were obvious from the moment he was drafted, but he earned a new level of respect around the league during the Hawks' unlikely Eastern Conference Finals run. He's gotten better at every aspect of the game on the offensive end, and in the playoffs his embrace of being the villain at Madison Square Garden was one of the most welcome and exciting storylines.

    Now, Young isn't up-and-coming anymore—he's a bona fide star with a brand-new max extension leading a team with real expectations. Like Devin Booker, he showed in last season's playoffs—the first meaningful games of his career—that he raises his level of play when the stakes are higher.

    Outside of Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard, there are few players in the NBA opponents are more worried about when it comes to pulling up from just across halfcourt and actually making the shot. Combine that with an ability to get to the rim and as strong of passing vision as anyone in the league and you have one of the game's most complete all-around offensive threats.

    —Highkin

14. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat

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    Michael Wyke/Associated Press

    Highest Rank: 10

    Lowest Rank: 34

    Butler ascended to superstar status in the bubble in 2020. Some will say he regressed during the 2020-21 regular season, but advanced analytics disagree. He slotted fifth in both player efficiency rating and win shares and ranked fourth in box plus/minus.

    Watching him, it's easy to see why he's a former favorite of Tom Thibodeau and the present prized pupil under Erik Spoelstra. Butler understands that playing hard is a skill, and he has mastered it. Last season, he was one of four players—and the only non-point guard—to tally 60 loose-ball recoveries, 175 deflections and 200 contested shots.

    His three-point shot is dying a slow death, but he brings so much as a distributor, attacker and finisher that it doesn't really matter. Teams can't keep him off the scoreboard or the free-throw line.

    —Buckley

13. Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns

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    Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Highest Rank: 10

    Lowest Rank: 22

    Say this for Chris Paul as he ages into his late 30s: He's only gotten better at finding the cracks in a defense. Despite most of the league agreeing mid-range looks are inefficient and, therefore, to be avoided, Paul built his offense around that ill-favored area of the floor. He ranked in the 100th percentile (for the second successive season) in mid-range attempt frequency and made an elite 53 percent of those shots. If he gets to the right elbow, it's basically a layup.

    CP3 averaged 16.4 points and 8.9 assists at age 35 last season, practically unprecedented numbers for a player his age. Based on his placement just outside the top 10, the voting committee seems to believe Paul's smarts and command of the floor will still be accompanied by great production in his upcoming age-36 campaign.

    Considering he shot the lights out and averaged 21.8 points per game in the Finals, that's not the worst bet in the world.

    —Hughes

12. Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    Highest Rank: 11

    Lowest Rank: 24

    George started the 2020-21 NBA season on an absolute tear. As the season progressed, George started falling into normalcy, finishing with 23.3 points per game while shooting 46.7 percent from the field and 41.1 percent on triples. Over the past two seasons, George has demonstrated he is capable of playing like a top-10 player on many nights, but he doesn't do it every night.

    George would have likely finished the season as a top-10 player if it weren't for a bone edema injury he suffered in February. His shooting splits dropped significantly in the 34 regular season games he played while playing through the injury. While he wasn't playing at the MVP-Caliber level he once showed with Oklahoma City, but it was the closest he's ever come to it.

    After struggling through injury, George showcased some of his best play during the playoffs. George did his best at carrying the L.A. Clippers when Kawhi Leonard went down with an ACL injury in the second round, helping them defeat the Utah Jazz to advance to their first Western Conference Finals in franchise history.

    In the eight games George played without Leonard, he averaged 29.6 points, 11.0 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 1.4 steals on 44/30/80 shooting splits. George may have had some unfortunate luck at the free-throw line that prevented the Clippers from potentially playing in the NBA Finals, but he absolutely played like a top-10 NBA player without Leonard during the playoffs. L.A. will need more of that this season with Leonard still recovering from his injury.

    —Esnaashari

11. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Highest Rank: 10

    Lowest Rank: 16

    There may not be another player more appropriately ranked in our survey than Tatum. His play, particularly last season, puts him squarely on the close-but-not-quite-there class right outside the top-10 superstars in the NBA. 

    Getting to the free-throw line more last year than he had in any previous NBA season was instrumental in Tatum averaging a career-high 26.5 points per game. For him to continue to ascend as a player and show that he is indeed a top-10 talent in this league, he’ll need to manage even more free-throw attempts than the 5.3 he took last season. 

    Tatum fashions his game after his basketball idol, the late Kobe Bryant. Bryant was one of the best at getting to the line as he finished his career averaging 7.4 free-throw attempts per game. If Tatum can manage to get to the line that often, it'll put him among the league leaders in that category and, maybe just as significant, elevate his game to the level of a top-10 player. 

    —Blakely

10. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Highest Rank: 6

    Lowest Rank: 14

    Davis cracks B/R's top-10 list, just beating out players like Jayson Tatum, Paul George and Chris Paul.

    While LeBron James will forever dominate the headlines on whatever team he's on and so much attention will be paid to Russell Westbrook's integration, Davis is perhaps the only Laker in the prime of his career and the most important defender on the roster. 

    His impact can be even greater this season at center, where he's expected to start with only Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan on the depth chart behind him.

    "There was expectations and that was discussed, and I expect to play center," Davis said during media day, per Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times. "I'm not sure what's going to happen. Me and Frank talked about it a couple of times and that's the plan right now. Nothing is set in stone. But we want to see what that looks like. And I'm comfortable with that."

    Davis has primarily been a power forward throughout his career, but will now anchor the middle of the defense for Los Angeles. He's already a three-time blocked shots leader and a member of four All-Defensive teams, yet has never won a Defensive Player of the Year award.

    If Davis can keep the Lakers at the top of the league defensively as well as average his usual 20-plus points and high rebounding level, L.A. will once again be one of the title favorites.

    —Swartz 

9. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

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    Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

    Highest Rank: 6

    Lowest Rank: 11

    All the talk about Lillard over the past few months has centered around a thus-far hypothetical scenario in which he may or may not ask for a trade at some point in the future. That storyline has obscured just how good Lillard has been and continues to be going into his 10th season as a pro.

    Lillard was in and out of the MVP conversation throughout the year, and his numbers—28.8 points, 4.2 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game and a 39.1 percent accuracy rate on 10.5 three-point attempts per game—speak for themselves. He singlehandedly kept the Blazers in the playoff mix despite long-term injuries to second-leading scorer CJ McCollum and starting center Jusuf Nurkic, and he got a second team All-NBA selection to show for it.

    In the playoffs, Lillard was otherworldly, scoring 55 points in a double-overtime Game 5 loss to the Denver Nuggets in a series Portland ultimately lost. He followed that up by winning a gold medal in Tokyo with the U.S. Olympic team.

    On the short list of sure-thing franchise superstars in the NBA, Lillard has been a constant. The organization hopes new coach Chauncey Billups will unlock a deeper playoff run in Portland. Lillard has to hope he isn't forced to carry the Blazers by himself again, but he's shown he's capable of it time after time.

    —Highkin

8. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Highest Rank: 7

    Lowest Rank: 13

    Coming off a top-five finish for the MVP award last season, Joel Embiid has cemented his place among the top-shelf talents in the league. With his size and strength, he on many nights is a near-impossible cover in this small-ball, positionless era. 

    But if there's an area of Embiid's game he would like to replicate or improve upon, it's his shot-making. Despite his dominant size, Embiid hadn't shot better than 50 percent from the field until last season when he made 51.3 percent of his shots from the field, including connecting on 37.7 percent of his three-pointers—also a career-best mark. 

    Being a more efficient scorer seemed to open up all parts of Embiid's game as well as opportunities for his teammates. Those two factors weighed heavily in the Sixers finishing last season with the best record in the East. Embiid replicating—or building upon—last season will go far in helping Philadelphia take another step in its quest to reach the NBA Finals for the first time since 2001.

    —Blakely

7. James Harden, Brooklyn Nets

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Highest Rank: 4

    Lowest Rank: 12

    While his role changed significantly upon arriving in Brooklyn, Harden is still the NBA's best shooting guard, even if he'll be functioning as more of a floor general. The 32-year-old fits in flawlessly alongside Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving following his trade from the Houston Rockets, as his scoring nearly dropped a full 10 points (34.3 to 24.6) from the season before.

    While Harden may be the most unstoppable offensive force in the NBA, it's his passing that could be the most beneficial skill for a loaded Nets team.

    The 2018 MVP finished last year second in assists per game (10.8), potential assists (18.8) and points created off assists (26.8), with only Russell Westbrook ranking ahead of him. With Westbrook now sharing playmaking duties with LeBron James on the Los Angeles Lakers, Harden is B/R's projected winner of the 2021-22 assists title, an award he already won in 2016-17 with Houston.

    If Irving misses home games because of his vaccination status, we could also see a bump in scoring from Harden, who should make his 10th All-Star Game and eighth All-NBA team this season.

    —Swartz

6. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

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    Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Highest Rank: 3

    Lowest Rank: 9

    Doncic is a monster. For two years straight, Playoff Luka has terrified the NBA, specifically the Clippers during first-round playoff series. A member of the all-NBA first team each of the past two seasons, one could easily have him ranked in the top-5 of the league.

    His 2020-21 regular season averages dropped slightly compared to the season before, but they’re still terrifying for a third-year NBA player at 27.7 points, 8.6 assists and 8.0 rebounds. And he's still only 21 years old. Doncic proving himself to be a once-in-a-generation player who is on pace to eventually be the face of the NBA.

    He took his game to a higher level during the 2021 playoffs, averaging 35.7 points, 10.3 assists and 7.9 rebounds on 49.0/40.8/52.9 shooting splits. Doncic controlled nearly every aspect of the game offensively, and his intelligence has evolved in such a way that he can exploit his matchups in a way no one in the NBA can.

    For as great as Doncic is, there are some small caveats to his game. He was hunted on the defensive end by Kawhi Leonard nonstop during the Mavs-Clippers series, and he often lets his frustration get to him, which resulted in 17 technical fouls last season alone. Doncic tried to do so much throughout the playoff series against the Clippers that he would inevitably and consistently tire during fourth quarters.

    When Doncic and the Mavs start advancing further in the playoffs, he will easily become a unanimous top-5 player in the NBA.

    —Esnaashari

5. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Highest Rank: 2

    Lowest Rank: 8

    Jokic is the best passing big of all time, a three-level scorer who can dominate a game without shooting and is third all-time in both regular-season and playoff box plus/minus. In both cases, Michael Jordan and LeBron James are the only players ahead of him. And yet, the reigning MVP finds himself hovering around fifth in every major publication's preseason player rankings.

    The lingering skepticism that has followed Jokic throughout his career is based on a number of factors, including lowlight-worthy perimeter defense and the ridiculous amount of talent at the top of the league right now.

    On the first count, Jokic has often been the subject of cherry-picked clips that feature a guard blowing by him, something almost every big in the league is accustomed to. In reality, he's typically in the right spots on defense, can dominate the glass and has quick hands. Denver has allowed fewer points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor in all but one of his seasons.

    On the second count, it’s impossible to ignore the heights reached by players like Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James and Stephen Curry—all past MVPs, too. Before long, Jokic's production will force the same level of respect.

    —Bailey

4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Highest Rank: 4

    Lowest Rank: 8

    If you factor in the lack of offensive support and the resulting diet of extremely difficult shots, Curry might have been better than ever in 2020-21. When you can make that case for the only guy with a unanimous MVP on his resume, it's a big deal.

    The league's leading scorer with an average of 32.0 points per game, Curry was single-handedly responsible for keeping the Golden State Warriors' attack online, juicing the team's offensive rating by 12.4 points per 100 possessions. It was a monumental task that required nightly feats of heroic shotmaking and a marathoner's stamina. Despite facing an array of gimmicky defenses that practically ignored his teammates and focused all attention on him, Curry posted his second career season with a scoring average above 30.0 points on at least 65.0 percent true shooting. 

    He's the only guy to produce even a single year like that since 1984.

    Nothing Curry showed this past season signaled the creeping decline you'd expect from a 33-year-old point guard. He's still a five-alarm fire off the ball, still perhaps the top locker-room tone-setter in the league and still a no-questions-asked MVP candidate who can carry a team on his own.

    —Hughes

3. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Highest Rank: 1

    Lowest Rank: 8

    Let's be clear—LeBron James is "old" by basketball standards. He'll turn 37 before New Year's Eve. Because he’s an older player, it might be easier to say he's not the best player in the NBA anymore.

    But just ask Giannis Antetokounmpo, who continues to maintain, "LeBron is still the best player in the world" in a September interview with Eurohoops.net. Game recognizes game, and James still commands nearly every aspect of the court. He averaged 25.0 points, 7.8 assists and 7.7 rebounds last season while shooting a steady 36.5 percent from three-point range.

    Neither the Los Angeles Lakers nor Miami Heat could get back to the NBA Finals after their 2019-20 showing. The quick turnaround after the bubble championship was just too taxing both physically and mentally. Now that James has gotten some rest (and with the addition of Russell Westbrook and the return of a healthy Anthony Davis), look for the Lakers to dominate this season.

    If James leads the Lakers to another title, he may still not get enough respect next year on this list. He'll be another year older, but don't lose sight of how powerful a player he remains in this league.

    —Pincus

2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Highest Rank: 1

    Lowest Rank: 3

    Few players have ever enjoyed a three-year run like the one Antetokounmpo just orchestrated.

    The first two seasons were punctuated by MVP awards, with the second paired with Defensive Player of the Year honors. The latest campaign saw him steer the Deer to their second NBA title in franchise history, a Finals series Antetokounmpo closed out with a 50-point masterpiece featuring 14 rebounds, five blocks and, improbably, 17 free throws on 19 attempts.

    This is hooping at historic levels, and it might not even be Antetokounmpo at his best yet.

    That's a terrifying notion—for everyone outside of Milwaukee, at least—but there are avenues to improvement the 26-year-old can explore. He already feels unguardable, but imagine if he had better range, more success at the charity stripe or a deeper arsenal in the post. Check even one of those boxes, and he might take over the "greatest player on the planet" talks.

    —Buckley

1. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    Highest Rank: 1

    Lowest Rank: 4

    Kevin Durant's regular season wasn't good enough to warrant a position this high. He only played 35 games, received zero MVP votes and didn’t make an All-NBA team.

    But when the playoffs rolled around, KD performed at peak levels and created the consensus reflected in this No. 1 ranking. He's the purest, most defense-resistant offensive threat in the NBA. If you’re trying to win a title, there's no more valuable weapon.

    We need to be careful about prisoner-of-the-moment thinking here, and it's absolutely in bounds to worry about diminishing returns from a 33-year-old with a torn Achilles in his recent past. But it was difficult to conclude any player in the league was better than Durant when watching him come within a toenail of punting the eventual-champion Milwaukee Bucks out of the postseason. That East semifinals series saw Durant log games of 48 and 53 minutes, with a 49-point, 17-rebound, 10-assist effort in Game 5 standing out as one of the great individual playoff contests ever produced.

    That handful of postseason games weighs heavily here. While you could argue plenty of players will contribute more over the course of the 2021-22 season, no one is more dangerous than Durant in the games that matter most.

    —Hughes

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