NBA

Ranking the Top 15 Players in the NBA

Sep 26, 2020; Lake Buena Vista, Florida, USA; Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) is fouled by Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) during the third quarter in game five of the Western Conference Finals of the 2020 NBA Playoffs at AdventHealth Arena.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

A lot of weird things have happened this season. Be it all the games canceled due to COVID, all the injuries to the league’s top players, or the number of ridiculous blowouts. This regular season won’t go down as one of the best in history. It’s always fun to watch basketball, but this whole season has just felt different. So as the season winds down and we prepare for what will hopefully be a great playoff, I decided to do something normal. Something that allows us NBA fans to do what we do best: argue. I’m going to rank the top 15 players in the NBA.

Criteria

Before I have fans from all 30 teams yelling about how their favorite player is way too low, or some other player is way too high, I have to set some rules. These guidelines will give you a better idea of my rankings and hopefully result in less anger. Just a little bit less.

First off, the present is most important. When you see young guys on this list, don’t get mad and point to their short resumes. I know they’re young, but some of the young guys in the league right now are just way too good to be ignored. I’m just ranking based on who the best players in the world are right now, so accolades won’t play a huge role (but don’t quote me on that).

Also, I’m not going to worry too much about missed time. LeBron won’t drop in the rankings because he missed time this year, and Jokic won’t rise because he hasn’t missed many games. Kevin Durant may be slightly impacted because of all the injuries he’s sustained recently, but he won’t drop considerably despite not playing much over the last 2 years. This isn’t the MVP race or anything. Missing a few games won’t be the end for anybody.

#15 Jayson Tatum

Apr 30, 2021; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) reacts after defeating the San Antonio Spurs in overtime at TD Garden.
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The lower part of this list was a lot harder to formulate compared to the upper section. As you’ll see, there are guys with completely different skillsets and at completely different points in their career. With that said, Jayson Tatum just squeaks in at #15.

It’s tempting to let the disappointment of the Celtics as a team drop Tatum off the list. Originally I was considering somebody else for this spot (namely Zion or Paul George), but Tatum is really deserving of it. He proved that last year in the bubble. He averaged 26 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 assists per game in the playoffs last year. Those are just ridiculous numbers. The Celtics were an outstanding team last year, but in the playoffs, they were missing Gordon Hayward, and Kemba Walker was not his normal self, to say the least. Tatum was the reason they made the conference finals that year.

He’s following up last year’s playoffs with an amazing season this year, averaging 26 points, 7 rebounds, and 4.5 assists. His improved playmaking has been the most impressive part of his game and elevates him to one of the top 15 players in the NBA. He’s improved his assist percentage every year of his career, reaching 20% this year. If that number continues to grow, his game will continue to open up, and the sky is the limit.

#14 Rudy Gobert

May 8, 2021; Salt Lake City, Utah, USA; Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) dunks the ball against the Houston Rockets in the third quarter at Vivint Arena.
 Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

A lot of people might think I’m crazy to have Gobert on this list. Many don’t even consider him to be the best player on the Utah Jazz. He isn’t the flashiest player in the league, but he’s the absolute best at what he does. There shouldn’t be any debate over the defensive player of the year award this year, and there shouldn’t be any debate over who the best defender in the league is. That’s how good Rudy is. The Jazz are real contenders for the first time in a while, and he’s the biggest part of this team.

Utah has the 3rd best defensive rating in the league and allows opponents the 2nd lowest FG%. That’s all thanks to Rudy. He’s second in the league in blocks per game and second in opponent shots contested. There’s all kind of stats that show Gobert’s defensive impact, but the bottom line is he is an amazing defender. One of the all-time great defenders at that. Unfortunately, it’s much harder to quantify defense, so he goes underappreciated. The impact that he has defensively alone makes him one of the best players in the NBA, and that’s without going into his skill as a roll man.

#13 Chris Paul

May 11, 2021; San Francisco, California, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul (3) shoots the basketball against Golden State Warriors guard Mychal Mulder (15) during the second quarter at Chase Center.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Paul suffers a similar problem to Gobert, he doesn’t have eye-popping scoring stats, and his impact can be hard to see when watching the game. But the degree to which he’s elevating this Suns team is borderline insane. They have been everything but a playoff team for a long time now. But CP3 came in and changed that immediately.

His understanding of the game is really second to none. He might be the best in the league at creating good shots for his team. Whether he’s toying with a big man in the pick and roll or making the right read to get his teammate open, his teams always have good looks. That skill can’t be understated, and its impact is immediately seen on this year’s Suns and the Thunder last year.

Neither had horrible rosters, and neither were expected to be bottom feeders. But in both scenarios, the Chris Paul effect helped them vastly exceed expectations. That’s what makes Paul one of the league’s best players.

#12 Damian Lillard

May 10, 2021; Portland, Oregon, USA; Houston Rockets forward Khyri Thomas (20) defends Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) during the second half at Moda Center. The Trail Blazers won the game 140-129.
Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Dame is the sole reason this Blazers team will make the playoffs this year. Nurkic and McCollum have both been injured for long stretches of the season, but Dame helped his team weather the storm. The Blazers’ strategy for most of this year has been keeping the game close, then let Dame Time happen.

The Blazers have the 4th highest winning percentage in the clutch this year, thanks to Dame. He’s scoring 4.7 points per game in the clutch, on 50/40/96 shooting. If we extend his clutch averages to per 36, we get an otherworldly stat line: 46.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 7.2 assists. When I first looked at those numbers on the NBA stats website, I thought something was wrong; that is just so ridiculous. But hey, it’s called Dame Time for a reason.

Of course, Damian Lillard isn’t just a great player in the clutch. He’s amazing all game long, and that’s what makes him great. But he’s the best in the world in crunch time; that’s what elevates him to special.

#11 Anthony Davis

May 11, 2021; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis (3) goes to the basket as New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) and forward Reggie Bullock (25) look on during the first quarter at Staples Center.
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Anthony Davis isn’t having the greatest season, which hasn’t been helped by the Achilles injury that kept him out for a significant time. But everybody knows that when he’s on, he’s one of the best.

AD is one of the league’s premier two-way players. He might be the most versatile defender in the league, as he’s able to defend 1-5 extremely well. In last year’s playoffs, he showcased this when he switched onto players such as Damian Lillard, Jamal Murray, Jimmy Butler, and others. In this situation, we would hope most big men can make life difficult for them, but AD does so much more. It’s unfair to him to call this a “mismatch” because it isn’t. He defends guards with ease, just as well as some of the best guard defenders in the league.

On the offensive side of things, it feels like he can get a bucket whenever he wants. He has the handle of a guard but the size to shoot over most defenders. This makes him a huge matchup problem on the offensive side of the floor. When AD plays his best basketball, he’s probably a top 5 player in the league, but this year he hasn’t done that yet. If and when he does, he immediately flies up these rankings.

#10 Jimmy Butler

May 11, 2021; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) shoots against Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) in the first quarter at TD Garden.
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

We can’t ignore that Jimmy had one of the greatest games in NBA finals history last year. We can’t ignore how he controls games with this Heat team. Jimmy is a legitimate superstar.

His game is at a level now where he does what his team needs. He has these games where he might have 4 points with 2 shots at halftime, but the Heat are up by 10, and he has his handprints all over the game. Then the game might get close in the second half, so he starts to score more. Finally, we get to the late 4th, where he hits some tough shots to put the game out of reach.

It’s similar to how Chris Paul controls games. These guys know what’s needed at given points in the game. When to pass and when to shoot. Don’t forget; Jimmy is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league as well. Similar to Anthony Davis, Jimmy is an elite two-way player and one of the top 15 players in the NBA.

#9 Luka Doncic

May 9, 2021; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) grabs a loose ball in front of Cleveland Cavaliers guard Collin Sexton (2) during the second quarter at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Putting Luka at #9 on this list made me realize just how talented the NBA is right now. When I’m sitting down watching games and see Luka, I think of him as a top 5 player. So when I put him at #9, I felt like something was wrong, but going through in my head, I realized there are probably 10 or 11 guys that I think of as top 5 in the league. What I’m trying to say by that is Luka is really, really good. But he’s also the 9th best player in the league right now.

Luka is just special; his nickname: Luka Magic, really fits his game. He’s just so fun to watch, and in only his third year in the league, he’s leading the Mavericks to the playoffs. Actually, he also did that last year, his second in the league. His mixture of scoring ability and playmaking is so lethal on the offensive end. He’s a herculean task for opposing defenses.

The next step for him will be improving his 3-point shooting. He’s shooting 35% from three this season, which is already much better than 31% last season. If he can get that number close to 40%, I genuinely don’t know how teams will be able to defend him.

#8 James Harden

Mar 31, 2021; Brooklyn, New York, USA; Brooklyn Nets shooting guard James Harden (13) dribbles the ball against Houston Rockets shooting guard Kevin Porter Jr. (3) during the first quarter at Barclays Center.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

I definitely wasn’t a fan of how James Harden forced his way out of Houston to start the season, but his talent is undeniable. His time with the Brooklyn Nets this year has demonstrated it perfectly.

We’re at the point on this list where I don’t need to explain what makes these guys good; it’s time to justify the order I have them in. Putting Harden above Luka is actually a really good place to start. I mentioned that Luka’s game would really open up if he can improve his three-point shot; well, Harden is a quite similar player to Luka – with the elite three-point shooting. Both of them aren’t the most athletic players but make use of quickness and acceleration to beat their defenders. They’re both phenomenal passers, meaning you can’t send a double at either.

Harden beats out Luka in his lethal shooting. Everybody knows Harden’s step-back 3. But because he’s such a good passer, you can’t double him; you can only watch as he sinks your team with step-back after step-back. The knocks on Harden are his playoff and defensive struggles. So far in his career, he’s let his teams down in the playoffs and hasn’t won a title. This could all change this year with the Nets, but that remains to be seen. His poor defense can be overblown at times, but all of the players above him are either elite two-way players or game-changing talents.

#7 Giannis Antetokounmpo

May 11, 2021; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) controls the ball against Orlando Magic center Wendell Carter Jr. (34) during the second quarter at Fiserv Forum.
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Similar to Harden, Giannis’ big knock is his playoff struggles and always will be until he proves otherwise. His game doesn’t translate to the playoffs or late-game situations. Until he can improve at creating shots for himself, he’ll be on the outside looking in when it comes to the league’s best.

In every other way, he’s the ultimate swiss army knife. Similar to Anthony Davis, he can guard anybody on the court, and he’s an elite rim protector. He’s one of the best players in the world in transition; he seems to be two steps from the rim anywhere in the offensive half of the court. Giannis is such an intriguing player because he’s impossible to defend at times, but when teams really game plan for him or lockdown in important scenarios, he seems easy to defend.

What we have to remember is his age. He’s still young at just 26 years old. There’s a good chance that 3-4 years down the line, he is a much, much-improved player. Eventually, the work he puts in on his jumper will affect, and if that occurs, the league better be on notice.

#6 Kevin Durant

May 11, 2021; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Chicago Bulls forward Garrett Temple (17) defends against Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant (7) during the second half at United Center.
Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

This is a weird one. I know that KD should probably be higher, but it’s just so hard to judge him because he didn’t play last year and hasn’t played much this year. When he plays, he’s been ridiculous. He’s averaging 28 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists this year.

Filtering out lower usage players, Durant is 1st in the league this year in true shooting percentage (67.4%) and third in effective field goal percentage (61.7%). His efficiency is off the charts this year, but looking back, that shouldn’t be a surprise. In recent years he and Stephen Curry are the only ones who continue to pop up in the top 5 of those metrics league-wide. KD has the 10th best true shooting percentage in NBA history (61.5%), and other than Curry and Adrian Dantley, everybody above him on that list is a center.

Durant is simply one of the best and most efficient scorers in NBA history. Watching him go against your team is just painful. You see him go to his crossover into a pull-up 3 and know it’s going in. He’ll go down in history as not only one of the great scorers but one of the greatest players in the game. That efficiency as a scorer and ability to create his own shot puts him above guys like Harden and Giannis.

#5 Kawhi Leonard

May 4, 2021; Los Angeles, California, USA; LA Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard (2) is defendedd by Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam (43) during the third quarter at Staples Center.
 Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Here it is. Officially (according to me) the top 5 players in the NBA, and we’re kicking it off with Kawhi. Once again, Kawhi has quietly had a great season. He’s a lock for 1st team All-NBA (albeit due to injuries sustained by other players), and he’s the best player on one of the best teams in the league.

What puts him above Durant is his defense. He’s the only player to win the defensive player of the year that isn’t a big man since Ron Artest. That was in 2004. The DPOY award is essentially a big man’s club at this point, and Kawhi is the only one to crack the ranks. Having a wing defender like Kawhi is so important in the modern NBA. As the league leans towards do-it-all wings, every team with aspirations has to have a way to slow those players down. That makes Kawhi one of the biggest luxuries in the league. Combine that with his scoring ability and much-improved playmaking, and you get a top 5 player.

#4 Stephen Curry

May 11, 2021; San Francisco, California, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) shoots the basketball against Phoenix Suns forward Jae Crowder (99) during the fourth quarter at Chase Center.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

OK, I lied. The top part of the list was way harder than the bottom part, despite what I said earlier. These top 4 were especially hard to rank. I considered them all for the top spot, in fact, and could honestly consider all for the 4th spot; it’s that close. The top 15 players in the NBA are all amazing, but these guys are in a tier of their own.

We start with Steph. His season and his whole career, in fact, speak for themselves. So why is he #4? Firstly, his defense. Not that he’s a bad defender, but he doesn’t really impact the game on that end of the floor. He’s neutral on defense. Offensively he’s one of the best, but there’s one aspect that puts him the smallest notch below the next three players.

You can slow down Steph with double teams and aggressive defensive schemes. We’ve seen the Raptors do it with a box-and-one. We’ve seen other teams blitz him off the pick and roll. He can definitely, kind of, just a little bit, be stopped. When he has guys like Klay or KD around him, that becomes a lot harder, of course, but when you can focus on him, it’s doable.

Now don’t take this the wrong way; he still belongs in the “impossible to guard” tier of offensive players. He’s demonstrated that all season long. But the guys above him are just a little more impossible to guard.

#3 Joel Embiid

May 8, 2021; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) looks on during a break in action against the Detroit Pistons at Wells Fargo Center.
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Joel Embiid might be the most frustrating player to defend in the league, and he’s emphasizing it this season. He has the best post-up game in the league right now. More impressive than that, he’s dominating the modern NBA by posting up a league that is built around everything but that.

He leads the league in post-up possessions per game at 9.5 and post-up points at 10.4. Jokic is in second with 5.8 possessions and 6 points. Among players who post up at least 3 times a game, he’s 2nd in scoring frequency, 5th in and-one frequency, and third in points per possession. So many players are “dominant” in this league. But more than anybody else, Embiid embodies the word.

He’s become much better at passing out of double teams, so you can’t do that. You can’t sag off him because he’ll hit a jumper. If you get too close, he’ll drive right by you. The last option is to send an excellent defender at him and hope for the best. Even then, he’s probably gonna cook that defender or get fouled.

Beyond that, he’s one of the best rim protectors in the league and is just quick enough to survive a switch onto a wing player. The only knock on him is he’s never been available for more than 65 games in a season, and he doesn’t have the passing talent of the two players above him.

#2 LeBron James

May 2, 2021; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) moves the ball against Toronto Raptors forward Stanley Johnson (5) during the first half at Staples Center.
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

I know, I know. Go ahead, yell at me, get mad, do what you gotta do. But LeBron is second for me, and let me explain why.

First off, I totally expect LeBron to go off in the playoffs and be the best player in the whole damn thing. That doesn’t change my opinion. To be the best, you can’t just be the best sometimes. You have to be the best all the time. LeBron will probably be the best player in the playoffs for the next 100 years or something. But I value the fact that the guy above him is good in both the playoffs and the whole season.

Now I have to add to this point. LeBron had an amazing regular season this year. One of his best in a while, in fact. I’m not using the age-old “LeBron rests in the regular-season” point. Because he clearly didn’t this year. But it’s starting to feel like he can’t play a full season anymore. Since playing 82 games in the 2017-18 season, he’s appeared in 175 of a possible 222 regular-season games. That’s 79%, which isn’t bad but isn’t great.

If it feels like I’m grasping at straws here, it’s because I am. The top four are just so close that it’s hard to differentiate between them—time for the end of the top 15 players in the NBA.

#1 Nikola Jokic

May 11, 2021; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) takes a free throw against the Charlotte Hornets during the second quarter at the Spectrum Center
Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Jokic has been absolutely phenomenal this year. He was fantastic all of last year as well. He’s deserving of the top spot on this list, and I don’t care what anybody says.

I love how every time I watch a Nuggets game when Richard Jefferson is on the call, he makes the point that Jokic isn’t only one of the best passing centers. He’s one of the best passers of all time in general. He says that every time he calls a Nuggets game, and I’m very glad that he does. That message needs to be spread more. The passes this guy makes are unreal. They are out of this galaxy. He combines two rare skills: The ability to throw amazing passes and the vision and feel for the game to see passing angles everywhere.

The passing is the obvious draw with Jokic, but he’s also a great scorer. He’s shooting nearly 40% from three this year which adds depth to his game. He’s an incredible post-up scorer, which came up earlier when talking about Embiid. The other important addition is he’s not a terrible defender anymore. He’s become an average defender, which is more important than it sounds. It allows him to stay on the floor at all times. The team doesn’t have to worry about him getting exposed anymore.

Jokic is just so fun. That’s the great thing about the NBA; all these guys are enjoyable to watch. All of the top 15 players in the NBA are unique in their own ways, as are all the players below them. It’s hard to differentiate between them, but this is how I see it, based on what I value in a player.

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8 responses to “Ranking the Top 15 Players in the NBA”

  1. […] In recent years, supernova talents have willed their teams to victory. Over the last nine seasons, one of Lebron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Steph Curry has won the championship. Star power rightfully gets most of the glory. But one could make the case that there are ten […]

  2. […] the NBA. Lately, supernova skills have willed their groups to victory. During the last 9 seasons, one in all Lebron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Steph Curry has gained the championship. Star energy rightfully will get a lot of the glory. However one might make the case that there are […]

  3. […] nobody in the league office should be very upset with this outcome. It’s two of the best players in the league going head to head. You can’t ask for much more than this. It’s not certain it […]

  4. […] that said, nobody in the league office should be very upset with this outcome. It’s two of the best players in the league going head to head. You can’t ask for much more than this. It’s not certain it will be a great […]

  5. […] the league workplace needs to be very upset with this consequence. It’s two of the finest gamers within the league going face to face. You’ll be able to’t ask for rather more than this. It’s […]

  6. […] with any NBA list, there will be players that don’t make the list who are phenomenal. Also, it is important to note that this isn’t the “best players” in the NBA. It’s which NBA players played best in clutch situations this […]

  7. […] with all current players, Harden is tough to rank. He’s one of the best players in the league currently, and there is definitely ample evidence supporting a higher ranking for him. When his career is all […]

  8. […] with all current players, Harden is tough to rank. He’s one of the best players in the league currently, and there is definitely ample evidence supporting a higher ranking for him. When his career is all […]

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