With the quarter mark of the season in the rearview and Christmas, the unofficial opening day for the casual NBA fan, fast approaching, we asked 11 of The Ringer’s biggest NBA obsessives (i.e., nerds) to rank the 25 best players thus far. While it’s tough to fully erase past performances from your brain, the prestigious voting panel was asked to focus almost exclusively on this season (sorry, Kawhi). Some notables—including Chris Paul, Karl-Anthony Towns, C.J. McCollum, and anyone from Toronto—just missed the cut. The final results, based on average ranking, are as follows:
25. Bradley Beal
23.8 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.1 SPG, 52.5 eFG%, 4.7 net rating
John Gonzalez: When John Wall first went down, Beal tried to do everything for the Wizards, which had the opposite of the intended effect. He wasn’t very good as the fill-in facilitator. In the first five games without Wall, he was a minus-8.8 and shot 35.6 percent from the floor. “I’ve been thinking way too much,” Beal said.
That changed against Portland. Beal remembered that he’s Beal, not Wall, and had a career-high 51 points (on 37 shots) in a road win over the Blazers. It was marvelous.
A hearty huzzah for thinking less and shooting more. That’s good advice in basketball—and life, too.
24. Kemba Walker
22.7 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 6.2 APG, 0.8 SPG, 50.9 eFG%, 7.0 net rating
Justin Verrier: At times, it feels like the only thing keeping the Hornets from complete collapse is Kemba pedal-powering a generator over on the bench. Steve Clifford has taken a leave of absence because of a health issue. Cody Zeller is back on the mend. Michael Carter-Williams is playing. All told, the Hornets have sunk to 20th in the league on offense, and middle of the pack on defense. But if Walker played all 48 minutes, they would rank in the top 10 in both. Dwight Howard has thrived in a(nother) new setting—and, more importantly, stayed healthy—but Walker is very much the one in Charlotte putting food on the table and making sure the hot water bill is paid.
23. Nikola Jokic
15.5 PPG, 10.6 RPG, 4.6 APG, 1.4 SPG, 56.8 eFG%, 5.2 net rating
Danny Chau: Jokic’s season has ebbed and flowed in strange ways. He can look nondescript one night and completely dominant the next; he is the exemplar of Denver’s system but is still learning the ins and outs of leadership. He is a fat point guard (his words) on a team that seems to have eschewed the position entirely because of Jokic’s very specific talents. He’s still figuring it out (a process made trickier by Paul Millsap’s absence), which is astonishing considering how he’s already setting the table for a legitimate playoff contender.
22. Victor Oladipo
23.3 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 3.9 APG, 1.9 SPG, 55.4 eFG%, 5.5 net rating
Jonathan Tjarks: It feels like Oladipo has been around forever. He’s on his third act as an NBA player even though he’s only 25 years old. There have been a lot of factors behind his renaissance in Indiana, but the biggest might be that he’s moving into his prime. Oladipo is older and wiser, and he has a better feel for how to balance looking for his own shot and playing within the offense. Even if his 3-point shooting cools off from a career-high 43.7 percent, Oladipo looks like a player the Pacers can build around. It just took a little longer than everyone thought it would.
21. John Wall
20.3 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 9.2 APG, 1.1 SPG, 47.1 eFG%, 7.3 net rating
Paolo Uggetti: If we analyzed point guards on entertainment value alone, maybe Wall would finally get some respect. Besides Russell Westbrook, there is no one more compelling to watch as he careens toward the rim with blazing speed on a night-to-night basis. The NBA has been a little less fun the past two weeks without Wall, who suffered a left knee injury in late November that required a PRP injection.
Wall started this season on a mission. Had he not gotten hurt, the Wizards would be a better team, and he’d not only be ranked higher here, but he also could be in the MVP discussion.
20. Klay Thompson
20.6 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 2.5 APG, 0.7 SPG, 62.0 eFG%, 12.8 net rating
Kevin O’Connor: There appears to have been a critical error. Thompson is posting career-best shooting numbers (including 47.6 percent from 3), has flashed improvements as a passer and post scorer, and is still one of the NBA’s elite wing defenders. There are players ahead of him having breakout seasons (Andre Drummond), bounce-back seasons (LaMarcus Aldridge), and better raw scoring seasons (Damian Lillard). But 20th seems low considering Thompson is on top of his game.
19. Paul George
20.7 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 3.3 APG, 2.5 SPG, 50.4 eFG%, 1.8 net rating
Uggetti: I hate how this season has gone for George. It legitimately pains me every time I see him open in the corner, calling for the ball, only to see Westbrook pull up for a contested shot or Melo try to force a midrange jumper.
This is a four-time All-Star, three-time All-Defensive team member, and three-time All-NBA team player we’re talking about, yet the Russ-centered Thunder offense is treating George like a glorified spacer. George isn’t as shot-hungry as Melo, which doesn’t help. But given the Thunder are 11-12, maybe he should try to be.
George should be higher than no. 19, but OKC has suppressed his value a bit. It would be great if the Thunder would just give him the ball and watch him go to work. Or, if they don’t, they may watch him waltz to L.A. next season.
18. Andre Drummond
14.7 PPG, 15.3 RPG, 4.0 APG, 1.2 BPG, 55.6 eFG%, 1.8 net rating
Haley O’Shaughnessy: Drummond predicted that he was going to have a comeback season. He finally had surgery on a deviated septum that had been bothering him since college, and felt like he was finally going to be able to sleep well, work out better, and excel.
To everyone’s surprise (except maybe Drummond’s), he is surpassing expectations, as are the Pistons. Drummond is doing it by following the same blueprint that made him a star—elite rebounding (currently at a career high) and rim running—while also learning new tricks, like how to shoot a damn free throw. (At least enough to ward off the Hack-A-community.)
17. Jimmy Butler
18.9 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 4.8 APG, 1.8 SPG, 49.2 eFG%, 5.8 net rating
O’Shaughnessy: Of all of Minnesota’s offseason additions and excelling young’uns, Butler is the guy keeping his team’s preseason expectations alive. He’s what was missing last season—a threat that defenders can’t ignore, someone to create room for Andrew Wiggins to flourish, and a veteran presence. Butler’s ballhandling, selfless approach, and intensity fuel the Wolves’ offense when it forgoes set plays and dissolves into isolation.
Defense also bumped Butler to this ranking. Without him, Minnesota’s 26th-ranked unit would be truly miserable.
16. LaMarcus Aldridge
22.6 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 2.2 APG, 1.2 BPG, 52.2 eFG%, 6.7 net rating
Shea Serrano: Nearly every single one of Aldridge’s numbers is better this season than it was last season. He’s scoring more points per game this season than he did last season. He’s grabbing more rebounds this season than he did last season. He’s handing out more assists this season than he did last season. He’s shooting more free throws this season than he did last season, and also he’s hitting a higher percentage of those free throws this season than he did last season. It’s all very good news. He’s very good news. He’s the 16th-best player in the entire NBA, which is remarkable when you consider that he wasn’t even the 16th-best player in the Spurs-Warriors series last postseason.
15. Damian Lillard
25.7 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 6.3 APG, 1.0 SPG, 48.8 eFG%, 3.1 net rating
Gonzalez: This is the part of the list where I take my leave. How is Lillard not higher? Russell Westbrook is the reigning MVP, and when the Ringer civil war starts, the ranks of the pro-Russ army will be strong. Fine. I get it. But it should be noted that Lillard’s team is having a better season than expected while Westbrook’s team most certainly is not. Lillard also has an edge on him in PER, TS percentage, and win shares. But again, fine. He’s Russ. Putting Al Horford ahead of Lillard? That’s just cruel. Horford isn’t even the best player on his own team (and if Gordon Hayward hadn’t gotten hurt, he wouldn’t be second best, either).
My man Dame Dolla once said: “Keep it low, the world ain’t gotta know you really ballin’ / They at your door, and you home alone like Macaulay Culkin.”
He should be higher for those lyrics alone.
14. Ben Simmons
17.7 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 7.5 APG, 2.2 SPG, 50.0 eFG%, 3.2 net rating
O’Connor: There’s a 19-minute YouTube video of every Tom Cruise run from his career, which is as silly and as awesome as it sounds. Cruise is a perfect runner on the silver screen. Simmons is the perfect runner on the hardwood. The world deserves a video of all his coast-to-coast sprints after ripping down a rebound. Other than LeBron James, there aren’t many players in league history that big, that strong, and that fast. Defenders can’t stay in front of him, no matter what they do. It’s amazing what Simmons can do without a shot or a reliable left hand. If he learns to shoot, it’s over.
13. Al Horford
14.3 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 5.4 APG, 1.1 BPG, 62.2 eFG%, 11.5 net rating
Jason Concepcion: Quietly, almost silently, Horford gets the job done. What’s the job? Basically everything. Scoring in myriad ways. Greasing the offense and moving the ball. D-ing up whoever he has to, wherever he has to on the floor. He's a close second on the Celtics in net rating; the team is 12 points better with him on the floor. Boston has the best record in the league and Horford is its most indispensable player. And he knows what shape the earth is.
12. Draymond Green
10.4 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 7.1 APG, 1.5 SPG, 54.0 eFG%, 14.6 net rating
Chau: The numbers have never told the full story of Green’s impact on the Warriors, and while his stat line appears to have stagnated compared to last season, he’s been about as good as he’s ever been for Golden State. Orchestrating the defense has always been where Green holds all-time value, and his supercomputer timing on deflections and blocks remains a hop and a jump ahead of his opponent. In addition to quarterbacking, he’s taken up coordinating; he’s enabled his frontcourt partner, Kevin Durant, on defense. Phase 2 of this Warriors era seems like something out of Pacific Rim. And Durant is the Jaeger that Green is copiloting.
11. Russell Westbrook
22.9 PPG, 9.2 RPG, 9.7 APG, 2.0 SPG, 45.0 eFG%, 4.1 net rating
Tjarks: Watching Westbrook play basketball has always been exhausting, but this season it has become almost unbearable. Every game he plays is now a referendum on his career, his style of play, and his ability to lead a team.
Oklahoma City has too much talent to be a .500 team, and you can feel the pressure mounting on him with every loss. No amount of triple-doubles can paper over this situation. His stats don’t matter anymore. Westbrook is going to be judged on wins and losses, and right now he is coming up wanting.
10. Joel Embiid
23.5 PPG, 11.1 RPG, 3.2 APG, 2.0 BPG, 50.7 eFG%, 6.7 net rating
Chris Ryan: Sixers fans may hold their breath every time Embiid hits the deck—years of back, knee, and foot injuries will put you on edge—but Embiid’s not sweating it. The Per-36 God is no longer a what-if. This is an almost-every-night affair, whatever Drummond might say. Embiid has played in 21 of the Sixers’ 23 games, and he brings it almost every night—putting up eye-popping numbers on a daily basis. It’s amazing how ready he is to be on this list. Embiid thinks of himself as one of the best players in the game, and plays accordingly. He trash-talks his opponents, steps up in big situations, anchors the defense (the team has a 100.5 defensive rating with him on the court), and plays like the monster offspring of Kevin Garnett and Hakeem Olajuwon on offense. His game against the Lakers in November was the best individual performance of the season, and it wasn’t just because of the numbers (which were historic and profane).
Joel Embiid is putting on a SHOW on ESPN!— NBA (@NBA) November 16, 2017
44 PTS / 14 REB / 7 AST / 7 BLK pic.twitter.com/AdQY8OOstg
It was because he understood the size of the moment. He knew he was the best player on the court (in the city, for that matter), and he played like it.
9. Kristaps Porzingis
25.4 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 1.1 APG, 2.1 BPG, 51.6 eFG%, 4.7 net rating
Concepcion: Over/unders are more art than science, but they’re useful representations of overall confidence in a team. Before the season, the Knicks were slated at 30.5 wins. They’re sitting at 12-12 through a quarter of the season, which means they're nearly halfway there. And that’s largely due to Kristaps Porzingis, the vape lord of New York. Long may he reign.
8. Anthony Davis
25.2 PPG, 11.0 RPG, 2.6 APG, 1.7 BPG, 59.3 eFG%, 5.0 net rating
Chau: The best case for Davis as a top-five player so far this season might be his no. 8 ranking on this survey. Boogie has gotten most of the shine this season, and rightfully so: He’s in big kid’s paradise right now, regularly creating from behind the 3-point line and in pick-and-rolls. Davis, an elder statesman of the Unicorn Age, has been the Pelicans’ most exemplary player on both ends of the floor, but he simply isn’t as visually striking as a 270-pound man barreling downhill for a coast-to-coast layup. Davis has instead channeled his immense versatility into being everything that DeMarcus Cousins isn’t, and doing everything that Boogie won’t. He may not be what’s capturing the public imagination of this team, but up to this point, AD has been the infrastructure that’s allowed a unique vision of basketball to blossom.
7. DeMarcus Cousins
25.9 PPG, 12.6 RPG, 5.1 APG, 1.7 BPG, 51.9 eFG%, -1.8 net rating
Uggetti: This season has been a delight for Boogie enthusiasts like myself. Cousins has thrived next to Davis in Alvin Gentry’s fast, flexible system. Now, with Davis sidelined with a groin injury, Cousins has had the green light, and has played like Peak Kings Boogie. Cousins’s 40-point, 22-rebound performance Wednesday showed how dominant he can be on any given night. That he has acquiesced to Davis and fit into his slightly lesser role is arguably even more impressive.
6. Kyrie Irving
23.5 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 5.0 APG, 1.5 SPG, 54.9 eFG%, 6.6 net rating
O’Shaughnessy: Irving asked Dan Gilbert for a change in scenery, and in doing so found a change in who he is as a player. He’s become a capable defender rather than a sedentary one, and his renewed activity is creating steals and deflections. Irving is still producing the clever finishes around the rim that made him so good over the years, but the Celtics’ system isn’t entirely dependent on him doing that.
Irving opts for isolation on 16.5 percent of his possessions now, as compared to 21.4 percent last season. It allows him to manage the offense Brad Stevens–style, giving others touches and increasing his own catch-and-shoot opportunities.
Irving might be seen less (not a mask joke) as a true force, given his slightly diminished stat line. But he’s operating in a balanced system that allows him to lead a team on a 16-win streak.
5. Kevin Durant
25.1 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 5.2 APG, 2.0 BPG, 58.5 eFG%, 13.1 net rating
Concepcion: When the Steph’s away (with an ankle injury), the Slim Reaper will play. KD had his first triple-double of the season against the Hornets on Wednesday night—35 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists, and two blocks. Add in the career-high mark for ejections (three in only 21 games) and it’s clear that Durant is, if anything, undervalued on this list. Look for him to rise in the absence of Curry.
4. Steph Curry
26.3 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 6.6 APG, 1.7 SPG, 57.5 eFG%, 16.6 net rating
Gonzalez: Before Curry suffered another unfortunate right ankle injury, his points per game, PER, and TS percentage were all up from last season. He was playing really well because he always plays really well. He is an all-time great shooter. But that’s only part of the reason he deserves to be at the top of the list. In addition to being one of the premier players in the league, Curry is also a man who pays his debts. That is an admirable quality, especially because—even under the threat of being throttled by JaVale McGee for not paying up—I’m not sure I could bring myself to leave the locker room looking like this, much less do it three times.
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo
29.6 PPG, 10.2 RPG, 4.5 APG, 1.7 BPG, 55.8 eFG%, 4.6 net rating
Ryan: This is the leap year. Like LeBron, Giannis seems to add something to his game every summer, trotting it out in the fall for the most awe-inspiring round of show-and-tell that you will find in pro sports. Last season, we got Point Giannis, a 7-footer crossing up defenses and getting from the top of the key to the cup in just one stride. Now he’s added a Mailman-esque power post game to his repertoire. He’s unguardable. Ask Aron Baynes about it.
Antetokounmpo is averaging career highs in points (second in the league behind James Harden), field goal percentage, true shooting, eFG, rebounds, and steals. He is also the channel-changer: No matter what else is on, you flip over to see him work. The scariest part? He just turned 23. What happens when he peaks?
2. James Harden
31.6 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 9.4 APG, 1.7 SPG, 56.2 eFG%, 13.1 net rating
Tjarks: Chris Paul’s injury on opening night clarified the situation in Houston. The Rockets are Harden’s team, and everyone else, even the Point God, has to find a way to complement him. Harden still holds the ball for most of the game, and he’s actually taking more shots than he did last season. He’s an offensive machine who can score at will from all over the floor, and he’s found a coach and a system that fits him perfectly. There’s not much defenses can do to stop him. Why change something that works this well?
1. LeBron James
28.2 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 8.6 APG, 1.4 SPG, 64.2 eFG%, 3.7 net rating
O’Connor: Watch LeBron this season if you want to know why he could become the greatest player of all time. Even after accomplishing everything you could want in a career, James has still managed to get better. The 33-year-old-to-be tweaked his shooting mechanics this summer, developing a higher, more compact release. The slight adjustment has resulted in a career-best 3-point percentage (43.0 percent) and a near career-best free throw percentage (76.1). His game now has no holes.
When the Cavaliers struggled out of the gate without a point guard and with a horrific defense, LeBron stepped up his playmaking responsibilities and started playing defense. It’s not a coincidence the rest of the team followed along. LeBron is still finding ways to improve, even though he’s already better than every player in today's game. Strive for greatness, indeed.