With NBA preseason now underway, fans around the league have high hopes for their teams. Some teams made a splash with off-season trades and signings (Lakers, Warriors, Rockets, Thunder), while others will rely on internal growth and health of their players (Jazz, Sixers, Celtics, Nuggets). Last year’s doormats will hope that their shiny, new draft picks will infuse life into their franchises. While the NBA has seen many changes this season, the league’s best players have remained relatively unchanged, with a couple of new comers joining the ranks of the NBA’s elite. Here is the NBA player rankings for this upcoming season.
Players 26-40 (alphabetical order): Bradley Beal, Devin Booker, Clint Capella, DeMarcus Cousins, Marc Gasol, Blake Griffin, Al Horford, Kevin Love, Kyle Lowry, CJ McCollum, Paul Millsap, Kristaps Porzingis, Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, John Wall
A season ago Hayward was in the discussion of a top 15 place, but coming off of a gruesome ankle injury, this might feel a little high. That said, Hayward finishes ahead of teammate Jayson Tatum by a hair because of his all-around game that will blend in perfectly with the Celtics’ deep roster. Hayward will remind people this season why he was last season’s free-agent prize.
24-LaMarcus Aldridge, Spurs
Aldridge may have been the league’s most underrated player last year. Without Kawhi Leonard, Aldridge led the Spurs in scoring and rebounding and back to the Playoffs. His 25.0 Player Efficiency Rating ranked 8th in the NBA last season, largely helped by his 51 percent shooting from the floor.
23-DeMar DeRozan, Spurs
DeMar moves from Toronto to San Antonio after signing a long-term deal with the Raptors. You better believe he’ll play like he has something to prove. DeRozan is a volume scorer who has struggled with efficiency. His effective field goal percentage was down to 48.8 percent last year, but his assists were up to a career-high 5.2. In San Antonio’s egalitarian system his numbers may take a hit, but his ultimate measurement will be whether he can be efficient and can keep San Antonio relevant in the hyper-competitive West.
22-Nikola Jokic, Nuggets
It’s Jokic’s offensive efficiency that got him paid this off-season. As the focal-point of the Nuggets offense, Jokic brings scoring, passing, playmaking, and rebounding at a level that few Centers can. If he can increase his free throw percentage by five percent, he would join Dirk Nowitzki as the only seven footers in the elite 40/50/90 club. That is not an easy feat. And if he can improve his defense, the Nuggets might be able to make some noise in the West Playoffs.
21-Draymond Green, Warriors
Draymond’s statistics has been negatively impacted by Kevin Durant’s arrival in Oakland more than any other Warrior. His three-point shooting is down to 30 percent, making him a fringe “stretch” option on offense, but his all-around play on both sides of the floor is still invaluable to the juggernaut Warriors as they go for their fourth championship in the last five seasons. When one team has four top 20 players, that team is easy to pick as your champion. That will be true so long as the Warriors big four are together.
20-Ben Simmons, 76ers
If this list was off pure potential, I would have to rank Simmons higher, but the lack of a jump shot was glaringly obvious in the Playoffs against the Celtics. Watch teams use that strategy as a blueprint on how to stop Simmons until he can prove he has a consistent jump shot. With the court vision and passing ability and his ability to guard multiple positions, it is only his shooting ability that will keep him out of the top 10 for years to come.
19-Jimmy Butler, Timberwolves (at least for now)
Named to the All-NBA 3rd Team last year despite playing in only 59 games is a tribute to just how good Jimmy Buckets is. He shot a career-high 51.2 effective Field Goal percentage last year and was also named to the All-Defensive 2nd Team. His team fell apart while he was injured which illustrated just how important he is the Timberwolves. Yet, his trade demand and the ensuing franchise drama, the question isn’t whether he’ll leave Minny, but when and to where.
18-Karl-Anthony Towns, Timberwolves
KAT has the potential to move up this list even more based on his offensive versatility and efficiency, but his commitment to improving his defense has been spotty at best. KAT was historically good last season posting a shooting slash of 54.5/42.1/85.8. We haven’t seen a 7-footer post shooting numbers like that since Dirk Nowitzki in his prime. His scoring was down last season, after taking a little bit of a backseat to Jimmy Butler, but Towns was as efficient as you can get. He’ll also need to improve upon his less than stellar Playoff performance last season if he wants to move into the top 15.
17-Chris Paul, Rockets
CP3 and Lebron are now indisputably the elder statesmen of the NBA and the most influential players in the league. Paul still has something in the tank, though no longer a top 15 player. His minutes are down to just above 30 per game and his assists are lower than they have been since his rookie year (largely due to sharing play-making duties with James Harden), but the Rockets were just a Chris Paul injury away from the NBA Finals last season. His mid-range jumper is the best in the league and he is still devastating in the pick-and-roll. He is also among the smartest players in the league and he knows how to take advantage of younger, weaker players, even if his quickness is not what it once was.
16-Victor Oladipo, Pacers
Breaking out last season, the NBA’s reigning Most Improved Player was named to his first All-Star team, All-NBA Team, All-Defensive Team, and was the NBA’s Steals Leader. Olapido had a career year by virtually every measure and thrust himself into the discussion as one of the best two-way guards in the league. He is also the undisputed leader of an Eastern Playoff team poised to make some noise this season.
15-Rudy Gobert, Jazz
If you believe that the defensive side of the ball is as important as the offensive side, Gobert should probably be ranked higher. He may impact the game defensively as much as Steph Curry affects the game offensively. Last year’s Defensive Player of the Year won the award after playing the fewest games of any DPOY winner ever (56 games). he did so by posting his fourth straight season with a Defensive Rating of 99 or better. Any shot close to Gobert he swats or affects, but offensively he has improved every year as well, with an effective Field Goal percentage north of 62 percent last season. After being a liability at the line his first few seasons, Gobert is now pushing 70 percent from the stripe, making him immune to the Hack-a-Shaq strategy.
I have Mitchell higher than Sports Illustrated and ESPN. I believe this is because the others are looking at Mitchell’s full rookie season and looking at his rookie season stats, rather than looking at Mitchell’s growth trajectory. It looks like Mitchell could be a 25-point per game scorer this year. Considering how he was taking over games in the Playoffs against the other teams’ best defenders with coaches game planning for him, Mitchell still averaged 24.4 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 4.2 assists per game with Paul George, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, and Trevor Ariza guarding him. After that experience, along with an off-season to work on his off-the-dribble three and a floater (not to mention some side work with Dwyane Wade) and Mitchell will be pushing a 25-5-5 season.
13-Kyrie Irving, Celtics
Kyrie will be looking to come off yet another injury. How is it that Kyrie somehow dodges the “injury-prone” label? In his 8 NBA seasons he has played in 60 games or more only four times and averages just 55 games per season. Hard to count on a guy that finishes the season in street clothes half the time. When Kyrie does play, he is elite. Everyone knows about his world-class handle and finishing below the rim, but last year in Boston he set career-highs in PER, effective field goal percentage, and defensive rating. The Celtics system is making him more efficient, which is bad news for the rest of the league.
12-Paul George, Thunder
You are pretty good when you average 22 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, and 2 steals per game, were named to the All-NBA 3rd Team, and people think you had an “off-year.” George still shot better than 40 percent from three and better than 50 percent effective Field Goal percentage. With Carmelo out of the mix, George and Westbrook should have the chance to gel better and improve upon what the Thunder did last season.
11-Klay Thompson, Warriors
Some may think I have Klay too high (ESPN has him at 19 and SI has him at 22), but Klay is one of the premier “3 and D” wings in the league. He consistently draws the toughest defensive assignments and rises to the challenge and then is one of the most explosive and accurate shooters in league history. Curry and Durant get the lion’s share of the credit and for good reason, but Klay makes the Warriors simply indefensible. He holds the NBA record for points in a quarter and, without needing the ball in his hands, shoots an effective field goal percentage of 58.5% on over 16 shots per game. Try to help off Klay to double Curry or Durant and it’s lights out. If Klay were to ever leave Golden State the world might see just how much he could score. If he stays where he is, he may retire with six or seven rings on his fingers and is a sure fire Hall of Famer.
10-Joel Embiid, 76ers
Not only is Embiid one of the best Twitter follows, but Embiid has become every rebuilding team’s inspiration and hope in their own “process.” Embiid has been as good as the Sixers hoped he would be. He can score inside, outside, back to the basket and even off the dribble. He is also a superior rim protector that figures to factor into the DPOY discussion for the next decade.
9-Damian Lillard, Blazers
I have Dame higher than SI (who has him at 15) for one reason: Lillard’s killer instinct. With averages of 26.9/6.6/4.5 numbers tell only part of the story. The Blazers rely on Lillard as much as any team relies on any one player. Any time the Blazers need a big bucket, everyone in the building knows the ball is going to Dame and there is a good chance the ball is going in. That’s the mark of a top ten player.
8- Russell Westbrook, Thunder
We all know what Westbrook is. He is spectacular, a ferocious competitor, and a dynamic scorer. He is also prone to poor decision making in the clutch and he is sometimes difficult for his teammates to play with. You can never question his effort or production. You can question his shot selection and shooting touch. An 8 spot is no knock on Westbrook, who will continue to be one of the most exciting players in the league to watch.
7-Kawhi Leonard, Raptors
This ranking is largely based on what Kawhi has showed us so far in the preseason. It appears that he can still play basketball and he wants to play basketball. Over the summer, we didn’t see him. There weren’t leaked gym workouts of him. We didn’t hear an interview of him where he shares how his quad (and his ego) was feeling. So we were left to assume a lot. We don’t have to assume anymore. When he is on his game and healthy, there are few players on planet Earth as good.
6-Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
The fact that a player of this caliber ranks only 6th is a great indicator of the health of the league. A seven-footer that averaged 27/10/5/1.5/1.5 justifies the name of Greek Freak. He was Second Team All-NBA last season and could the third-best wing player in the world behind Lebron James and Kevin Durant. If Giannis can dial in his three-point shot, he may be the one to finally knock Lebron off his perch. A big factor will be whether Giannis can lead his Bucks to postseason success and the Bucks currently project as a first-round exit. If Giannis can be any more freakish, he may be able to pull it off.
5-James Harden, Rockets
The reigning MVP and scoring champ checks in at number five. He enjoyed his best season as a pro and enjoyed much team success (best regular season record and one win from a trip to the Finals). You might ask what Harden would need to do to be ranked higher. Many of the MVP voters felt like it was Harden’s turn to win MVP for his stellar play and great team success. Harden shot just 44 of 109 (40.4 percent) from the floor and 13 of 44 (29.5 percent) from three against the Jazz in the second round of the Playoffs and then 68 of 164 (41.5 percent) from the floor and 19 of 78 (23.4 percent) from three against the Warriors in the West Finals. With Playoff performances like it’ll be tough for Harden to crack that top three or four, no matter how good he is in the regular season.
4-Anthony Davis, Pelicans
Davis is in the same boat as Antetokounmpo. How is it that he is still only 25 years old? Statistically, few players contribute more to his team than Davis does to the Pelicans. Not only did Davis average a career-high 28.1 points on a career-best 55.2 effective field goal percentage, but he also avoided major injury for the second straight season. With another year of growth, Davis has a chance to win MVP this season, but for that to happen Davis, like Antetokounmpo, would need to lead his team to more than a first round exit in the Playoffs.
3-Kevin Durant, Warriors
Whether you put Durant or Curry second, there seems to be a consensus that these two are the second and third best players in the league. I’ll take Curry by the slimmest of margins, which puts Durant and his otherworldly scoring ability in the 3 spot. Durant is the only player other than Lebron who stands a chance to finish in the top 5 on the all-time scoring list. To do so, Durant must remain healthy. Over the last four seasons, Durant has averaged just 57 games played. When he is on the floor, it’s just not fair what Durant can do in shooting over the top of would-be defenders. With improved defense, Durant has become an above average rim protector which is just one more reason why as long as the Warriors sport Durant, Curry, Thompson, and Green on their roster, the Warriors will NEVER lose a 7-game series. You read that right, NEVER.
2-Steph Curry, Warriors
Some might call ranking Curry over Durant a mild surprise, but consider this, Curry shot 49.5/42.3/92.1 last season and the Warriors were 41-10 in games that he played. They were just 17-14 without him. Durant is great, but it’s Curry that brings a completely unique skill-set to the game that helps his team (more than Durant’s skill set) win games. When Durant is on the floor, the Warriors play like everyone else. When Curry is on the floor, the Warriors are virtually unbeatable and I don’t expect that to change this season. As deserving of praise as Durant is gets for his efficiency (effective Field Goal Percentage of 58.6 percent) at his unbelievable volume (26.4 points per game), Curry averaged the same number of points on an eye-popping 61.8 percent effective field goal percentage. The way defenses have to completely abandon defensive strategies that work against every other team because Steph Curry is on the floor, makes him an unstoppable force and the number one reason the Warriors have won three of the last four titles.
Entering his 16th NBA season and coming off a season where he played all 82 games and led the NBA in Minutes Played (find another guy who did that in their 15th season), Lebron still reigns as the best player on the planet. He now joins the West on a non-playoff team. If Lebron leads the Lakers back to the Playoffs after a franchise-high five-year absence, Lebron will be in line for his fifth MVP award. How last year’s 27.5/9.1/8.6 on 52.6 percent shooting while leading the Cavs back to the Finals wasn’t enough to win MVP last year is beyond me. Somehow Lebron has been so good for the last 15 years, that it’s easy to forget that offensive genius, James Harden shot an effective field goal percentage of 54.1, Lebron shot 59.0 percent last season, while averaging more assists, rebounds, and fewer turnovers. If you don’t think matching MJ’s MVP total matters to Lebron, you are sorely mistaken. Enjoy Lebron while he last, his extended peak will have to end eventually and we won’t see another this great for a long time.