We’re already more than a quarter of the way through this NBA season. So as we did around this time last year, The Ringer’s NBA staff paused to take stock of where we stand thus far. Each contributor was given a simple (and incredibly difficult task): rank the 25 best players in the league based solely off of what’s happened in 2018-19. Some notables—including Mavs wunderkind Luka Doncic, Jazz goliath Rudy Gobert, and Kings firecracker De’Aaron Fox—just missed the cut. The full results, based on average ranking, are as follows.
25. Russell Westbrook
Guard, Oklahoma City Thunder
22.8 points, 9.2 assists, 9.6 rebounds, 2 steals, 49.6 eFG%, 12.4 net rating
Chris Ryan: This seems punitive, but what are you going to do? Part of this low ranking is due to missing half the season with various injuries, but what you’re seeing here is a telling look at how a lot of people perceive Westbrook, post-Durant. Winning the 2017 MVP ironically ruined his rep. His critics don’t think he deserved it, and his supporters can’t convincingly argue against the hard data and the playoff failures. Every triple-double is stat-padding; every loss is an example of his hubris. The funny thing is, this season, Westbrook is starting to play more like the player the modern NBA demands he become, and because of that he seems to be falling out of the conversation. I wonder where he’d be if he were still pulling Wolvie-berserker 42-point, 29-shot performances. Would he be higher? Would he have made the list at all?
24. Khris Middleton
Forward, Milwaukee Bucks
18.5 points, 4 assists, 5.5 rebounds, 1.3 steals, 55.4 eFG%, 11.1 net rating
Kevin O’Connor: I was surprised to find out that Middleton made our list (and finished ahead of Westbrook?); there were so many other strong candidates, like Luka Doncic, Clint Capela, Domantas Sabonis, and Rudy Gobert. But Middleton has his merits. It looked like he was cooked after a torn hamstring sidelined him for most of the 2016-17 season. But he’s back playing an important role for the Bucks, spacing the floor for Giannis Antetokounmpo, serving as a secondary playmaker, and defending at a solid level. Middleton did his best Jabari Parker impression earlier this month, which earned him a fourth-quarter benching, but it’s one of the few warts on what potentially could be his first All-Star season.
23. Ben Simmons
Guard/Forward, Philadelphia 76ers
15.5 points, 7.9 assists, 8.8 rebounds, 1.4 steals, 56.3 eFG%, 1.5 net rating
Haley O’Shaughnessy: If these rankings reflected only the past two weeks, Simmons wouldn’t be on the verge of falling out of them. He entered the season with his hype slightly deflated after an embarrassing playoff series against Boston, during which his play was littered with turnovers and he refused to shoot the 3-ball. A few games alongside Jimmy Butler, however, and Simmons once again has become the accelerant for the Sixers. His individual numbers haven’t changed much with Jimmy in the lineup, and his lack of shooting still must be accounted for when Brett Brown draws up his rotations, but the team as a whole operates more effectively when he’s on the floor. Since Butler’s first game, Simmons has the Sixers’ third-best offensive rating (113.6) and fourth-best net rating (6.4), and the team as a whole is 8-3. He continues to shine by refusing to think outside the box (or, um, the arc). Simmons thinks so creatively inside it that it’s sometimes easy to forget he needs to develop a shot.
22. Nikola Vucevic
Center, Orlando Magic
20.9 points, 3.8 assists, 11.3 rebounds, 1 block, 59 eFG%, 5.2 net rating
Danny Chau: All the change the NBA has seen in the past four years has instilled an adapt-or-perish imperative on its constituents, and no players have seen the effects of the league’s talent purge quite like traditional centers. But it hasn’t all been bad news! Like a handful of other bigs pushing back against extinction, Vucevic has embraced his ability to shoot from deep, and it’s helped facilitate his sturdy post game, his playmaking ability, and a new career trajectory.
The Big Montenegrin is on pace to join exclusive company. Prior to this season, only 12 qualifying players in NBA history have averaged 20 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, 40 percent from 3, and 80 percent from the free throw line. Should his hot shooting from behind the arc hold (and there hasn’t been any indication that it won’t), he’ll join the ranks of Steph Curry, Larry Bird, Drazen Petrovic, and, maybe more importantly, Kevin Durant, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Dirk Nowitzki as a true sharpshooting, volume-scoring giant.
21. DeMar DeRozan
Guard, San Antonio Spurs
24 points, 6 assists, 5.6 rebounds, 1 steal, 49 eFG%, -4.1 net rating
John Gonzalez: DeRozan really did not want to go to San Antonio. Or, more accurately, he really did not want to leave Toronto. You might have heard.
Starting over is never easy for anyone, and it certainly wasn’t for DeRozan. But while San Antonio isn’t playing nearly as well as Toronto this season, DeRozan has been excellent for his new team. That’s good news for Gregg Popovich and the franchise, because they need him. The Spurs uncommonly rank second-to-last in the West, but are 10th in offensive rating this season; a lot of that has to do with DeRozan, who is 12th in the NBA in points per game and has settled right back into the midrange groove that he’s always loved (92.7 percent of his field goal attempts have come on 2s, according to NBA.com). Maybe DeRozan never expected to be in San Antonio, but he already looks right at home.
20. Tobias Harris
Forward, Los Angeles Clippers
21.6 points, 2.3 assists, 8.4 rebounds, 0.5 blocks, 58.3 eFG%, 6.7 net rating
Jonathan Tjarks: The plan for the Clippers this season was for their depth to overcome their lack of star power. As it turned out, they had both. Harris, an athletic 6-foot-9 combo forward with the ability to dribble and shoot, has always had talent. The difference this season is that he’s shooting lights-out, with career highs on 2-pointers (56.2 percent) and 3-pointers (42.2 percent). That’s all it takes for a good player to become a star. Maybe his shooting numbers will regress. Or maybe this is just who he is now. He’s on his fourth different team in his eighth season in the NBA, but he’s still only 26. It’s the perfect age to make a leap.
19. Mike Conley
Guard, Memphis Grizzlies
21.1 points, 6.6 assists, 3.4 rebounds, 1.1 steals, 48.6 eFG%, 4.8 net rating
Paolo Uggetti: Conley’s game may seem ordinary in a league where James Harden and Russell Westbrook technically play the same position, but the veteran point guard is proving the value of being traditional this season. Finally healthy after three seasons marred by injury, Conley is averaging career highs in points and assists. The timing of his scoring bursts have been key, too—he has scored most of his points in the second halves of games, helping push Memphis over the top and to a 14-9 record. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s effective.
18. Jimmy Butler
Guard/Forward, Philadelphia 76ers
19.7 points, 3.6 assists, 5 rebounds, 2.2 steals, 52.9 eFG%, -1.6 net rating
Justin Verrier: I nearly disqualified Butler from my ballot for sandbagging the Minnesota Timberwolves for more than a month. But the raw production is too good to ignore: Butler’s numbers are about as good as usual, and he’s achieving them through career-high efficiency, including his first-ever above-40 3-point percentage. Maybe his long-range shooting will regress to the mean, and maybe some of his last-second miracle heaves won’t fall, but his effect on Philly has been noticeable. Since Jimmy arrived, the Sixers are 8-3, sixth in offensive rating, bonding over accessories, and playing with a swagger again. The Wolves’ own revival (8-3) since extracting Butler in early November also bears monitoring, especially their skyrocketing defensive rating (100.4). But lifting a team back into title contention is a convincing argument. Meek Mill agrees.
17. Victor Oladipo
Guard, Indiana Pacers
21.4 points, 4.7 assists, 6.6 rebounds, 1.6 steals, 50.5 eFG%, 4.3 net rating
O’Shaughnessy: Minus a slight dip in scoring, the NBA’s reigning Most Improved Player picked up right where he left off last season: leading the Pacers to the pearly gates of Relevance. Dipo’s sixth season in the league (and his second season as a first option) has been interrupted by a sore right knee, which has kept him from Indiana’s past eight games. If it weren’t obvious enough already, the Pacers’ 4-4 record without Oladipo shows their dependence on him and proves how valuable he is. However, it’s also clear that the guard alone won’t be enough to take the Pacers to the next level. As good as Indy has been on defense (third in the NBA), its offense has tapered off. Yet Oladipo’s crushed expectations before, and, at 26, he’s only entering his prime.
16. Blake Griffin
Forward, Detroit Pistons
24.6 points, 5 assists, 9.2 rebounds, 0.5 blocks, 52.3 eFG%, 1.6 net rating
Gonzalez: You know who I thought would really hate Detroit? Blake Griffin. You know who evidently does not hate Detroit? Same dude. Griffin has crowed about how much he likes the town and the team, and with good reason. He is thriving under new head coach Dwane Casey. Griffin is still a killer playmaker, and now he’s shooting the 3 better and more frequently (2.2 makes on 6.2 attempts per game are both career highs) than he ever has before. All of which has helped make the previously underachieving Pistons a pleasant surprise in the Eastern Conference. His play so far has served as our annual reminder of something that’s been true since he entered the NBA: When Griffin is healthy, Griffin is good.
15. Kyrie Irving
Guard, Boston Celtics
22.2 points, 6.4 assists, 4.8 rebounds, 1.7 steals, 55.4 eFG%, 6 net rating
Chau: Six games in, it looked like Irving was cooked. Perhaps all the gross complications with his knee had finally caught up to him. Nope! Since that early lull, Irving has been as efficient as ever. His scoring numbers are right in line with his best seasons, and, with so many mouths to feed, his usage rate has dipped to a four-year low and his assist average has risen to a new personal high. Irving has been the ultimate insulator—from roster tensions, from unmet expectations, from a head coach who, for the first time in his NBA career, seems a bit out of his element. The Celtics, for all the surrounding schadenfreude, are only 2.5 games out of the 2-seed in the East. They’re fine. Irving keeping the offense afloat while the dust settles has been the biggest reason.
14. Paul George
Guard/Forward, Oklahoma City Thunder
23.2 points, 4.3 assists, 7.8 rebounds, 2.2 steals, 49.6 eFG%, 10.3 net rating
Uggetti: In the eight games that Westbrook sat this season, George kept the Thunder afloat. Now, with Westbrook back in the lineup, the swingman is helping them thrive. George’s efficiency is down in his second season in Oklahoma City, but Westbrook would be proud of his raw production: His points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks are all near or above his previous career highs. And his defense—99.8 defensive rating, by far the best among players who also shoulder a heavy offensive burden—has helped push the Thunder to the top of the defensive leaderboards, even without Andre Roberson. George’s future isn’t hanging over OKC this season, and it seems to have freed him up as a result.
13. Kyle Lowry
Guard, Toronto Raptors
15 points, 10.3 assists, 4.4 rebounds, 1.3 steals, 54.3 eFG%, 12.2 net rating
Chau: Time heals all wounds, and so does winning at a league-leading rate. Lowry is no longer co-headlining the show with DeRozan, and while there is still resentment being harbored toward president Masai Ujiri, Lowry’s job on the floor has never looked easier or more enjoyable. His scoring has dropped off even from last season’s precipitous decline, but neither Lowry nor the Raptors look worse for it. Lowry’s leading the league in assists for the first time in his career, with an assist rate that’s more than 9 percentage points higher than last season’s. Toronto is the deepest, most balanced team in the NBA, and its point guard has adjusted accordingly. The Raptors have seen new stars enter the spotlight, but Lowry is still the one holding it all together.
12. Nikola Jokic
Center, Denver Nuggets
16.7 points, 7.5 assists, 9.7 rebounds, 1.7 blocks, 52.2 eFG%, 7.6 net rating
O’Connor: Strap me down and clamp open my eyes in front of a screen looping Jokic passing highlights, just like in A Clockwork Orange. His playmaking would make the pain worth it. The 7-foot, 250-pound vanilla-glazed doughnut can make passes that few players can, from all areas of the floor, in all situations.
Jokic was a great passer overseas, but most of his dimes came from the post and outlet passes in transition. The Nuggets empowered Jokic by running their offense through him more and more each season. They had no choice: Jokic kept getting better. In particular, the 23-year-old has been more dynamic handling the ball, which has heightened his creativity.
11. Damian Lillard
Guard, Portland Trail Blazers
27.3 points, 6.3 assists, 5.1 rebounds, 0.8 steals, 51.1 eFG%, 2.4 net rating
Uggetti: Lillard keeps adding an extra level of refinement each season, and, as a result, his game has upgraded from a reliable four-door sedan to a high-powered sports car. His numbers this season are only slightly better than those of last season, when he earned his first spot on the All-NBA first team, but the little things—hesitation moves, footwork—all seem sharper. The Trail Blazers have struggled recently, dropping six of their past seven after a 12-5 start, but it’s not because of Lillard, who could find himself in the MVP conversation if Portland can get back near the top of the West standings.
10. Marc Gasol
Center, Memphis Grizzlies
18 points, 4 assists, 9.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 54.2 eFG%, 6 net rating
Tjarks: Gasol and the Grizzlies have pulled off a delicate balancing act, modernizing some aspects of their game while staying true to who they are. Gasol is taking a career-high number of 3s (4.6 per game), but he’s still scoring out of the post, taking care of the ball, and setting up his teammates. His style of play fits perfectly with what Memphis wants to do under J.B. Bickerstaff, who’s in his first season as the full-time head coach. The Grizzlies are walking the ball up the floor, grinding out possessions on defense, and counting on Gasol and Mike Conley to out-execute opponents in the half court. We are living in the pace-and-space era of the NBA, but there are still ways to build around a big man in his mid-30s.
9. James Harden
Guard, Houston Rockets
30.6 points, 8.7 assists, 5.6 rebounds, 2.3 steals, 54.5 eFG%, 1.8 net rating
Verrier: Things that Harden is better at than Kemba Walker this season, on a per-36-minute basis: scoring, shooting 2-pointers, shooting 3-pointers, assisting, rebounding, stealing the ball, blocking the ball, getting to the free throw line, and shooting at the free throw line.
Things that Walker is better at than Harden this season, on a per-36-minutes basis: playing three more games.
Harden and Walker are following the same arc—they’re score-first combo guards being forced to outscore their opponents to make up for lacking supporting casts. The only difference is that Walker’s surge is shiny and new. (It’s not the defense, either; neither player is making much of an impact there.) The order of these two will almost certainly be flipped another 25 games from now. And if Houston can rejigger its roster before the trade deadline, Harden can easily work his way back onto the MVP ballot.
8. Stephen Curry
Guard, Golden State Warriors
29.4 points, 5.6 assists, 4.9 rebounds, 1.1 steals, 64.5 eFG%, 13 net rating
Uggetti: In a world without injuries, Curry would be first on this list. In 14 games, Curry has posted a preposterous 51-49-93 shooting line. That doesn’t seem real, but neither do the off-balance 30-footers he drills. Yet the missed-games caveat is unavoidable—he has played about eight fewer than most players in the league. Curry looked like he was going to make a run for his third regular-season MVP early on, but durability is an inextricable part of any MVP case. If he keeps playing at the level he started the season with—and playing, full stop—he may still have a chance.
7. Kemba Walker
Guard, Charlotte Hornets
26.5 points, 6.2 assists, 4.3 rebounds, 1.3 steals, 52.5 eFG%, 4.2 net rating
O’Shaughnessy: There are no set benchmarks one must pass to elevate from star to superstar, but Walker is inarguably making that transition this season. Only so many players can single-handedly power their way to a win. Walker, at 28, is becoming that player for Charlotte. Even he’s been taken aback by his leap. “I never saw myself playing at this level,” he told ESPN, “and shooting the ball like this.” Throughout the past couple of seasons, and even entering this one, there have been sporadic rumors that the Hornets were considering trading Walker, who will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. Yet right off the bat he sent the message that it would be a mistake: Walker kicked off the season with a 41-point game and has hit the 30-point mark seven times through Charlotte’s first 23 games (including an eye-opening, I’m here to stay 60-point spectacle against the Sixers). Coming into 2018-19, the most 30-point games he’s had in a single season was 15 games (2016-17); he’s already nearly halfway to topping it.
6. Kawhi Leonard
Forward, Toronto Raptors
25.6 points, 3 assists, 8.5 rebounds, 1.6 steals, 52.8 eFG%, 10.2 net rating
Ryan: We are ranking Kawhi Leonard sixth. Here’s a brief list of people this should terrify: Sixers fans, Celtics fans, Spurs fans, Bucks fans, DeMar DeRozan–Kyle Lowry shippers, Clippers fans … hell, Dubs fans might want to get a little shook. Why? Because this guy is still just revving his engine after sitting in the garage for most of last season. What will happen when he finally tunes his game all the way up?
We’re not seeing a ton of above-the-rim theatrics, but Kawhi stole some one-legged Tim Duncan old-man moves out of the Alamo gift shop and is still getting pretty much whatever shot he wants, just in slower motion. Toronto’s prudent management of his minutes—no back-to-backs just yet—has paid off when they need him most (wins over Philly, Boston and Golden State). If this is what he looks like now, imagine how high he’s going to rank heading into the postseason.
5. Anthony Davis
Center, New Orleans Pelicans
28 points, 4.8 assists, 13 rebounds, 2.7 blocks, 52.9 eFG%, 8.6 net rating
Gonzalez: Davis is doing what he always does: dominating. In addition to the usual, gaudy counting stats, AD is first in the NBA in PER and VORP, second in win shares, and third in box plus/minus, according to Basketball-Reference. By any metric he is one of the five best players in the NBA and deserves his spot near the top of this list. And yet for all of his brilliance, there is only so much he can be reasonably asked to do in the service of buoying the Pelicans’ record.
I keep thinking about what Davis said in early November. He had 17 points, 12 rebounds, and seven assists against the Warriors in Oakland. He threw in a block and a 3 for good measure, and he went 4-of-5 from the free throw line. The Pelicans still lost by 10. That rightly bothered Davis. “I got to play almost perfect every night to give us a chance to win,” Davis said. In other words, it’s another typical season in New Orleans for Davis and the Pelicans.
4. LeBron James
Forward, Los Angeles Lakers
27.8 points, 6.7 assists, 7.7 rebounds, 1.3 steals, 57.4 eFG%, 1.8 net rating
Verrier: Ever wonder what LeBron’s game would look like if he called his own number as often as Harden? That’s basically what we’ve gotten this season from James, who officially accelerated out of Chill Mode and into I’ll-Do-It-My-Damn-Self Mode by dropping 51 points on 31 shots in Miami on November 18. LeBron is making good on Magic Johnson’s master plan to turn the veteran into more of a finisher, averaging more attempts (19.6) and points since the last season of his first Cleveland stint. His assist numbers are down, and he definitely coasted to start the season, but who cares? The Lakers are winning, and defending, and James is producing like a MVP candidate in his prime about a month away from his 34th birthday.
3. Kevin Durant
Forward, Golden State Warriors
30 points, 6.2 assists, 7.7 rebounds, 0.9 steals, 55.4 eFG%, 8.5 net rating
O’Connor: Despite averaging bonkers numbers, and despite a magnificent three-game stretch last month in which he totaled 144 points, Durant can still, somehow, be better. He is shooting only 35.7 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s, compared with over 40 percent in the past three seasons. And his effort on defense has been inconsistent, to say the least. This isn’t meant as a knock; it’s more to show just how high the ceiling is for a player as good as KD.
Even at less-than-peak levels, Durant is averaging 30 points with a 63 true shooting percentage. The only other players to ever meet the 30-and-63 threshold are Adrian Dantley (1981-82 and 1983-84), Stephen Curry (2015-16), and ... Durant (2013-14), according to Basketball-Reference. Durant is unlikely to maintain his 30-point average now that Curry is back from injury, but his efficiency will rise. You can’t really blame Durant for getting angry at Draymond Green for not passing him the ball, because Durant remains the best pure scorer in the NBA.
2. Joel Embiid
Center, Philadelphia 76ers
27 points, 3.5 assists, 13.4 rebounds, 2 blocks, 50.1 eFG%, 7.2 net rating
Chau: He’s been everything anyone could have possibly dreamed of. A low-post monster. A threat from the 3-point line. A foul magnet who has no problems picking up free points at the line. A rim protector of the highest caliber. Most importantly, a player capable of carrying all the burdens of a team’s offense and defense consistently, night to night. Embiid has played more games than either James or Giannis Antetokounmpo at this point in the season, logging about the same number of minutes per game as either player, a standard of consistent, persistent, and insistent dominance that was close to a pipe dream only one season ago. And yet, there is still so much he can still improve on. Hit up KOC for the specifics; it’s hard enough just trying to keep from speaking in tongues about his play so far.
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo
Forward, Milwaukee Bucks
27.6 points, 6 assists, 13.2 rebounds, 1.5 steals, 58.6 eFG%, 13.2 net rating
Tjarks: Giannis is proof that a modern-day Shaquille O’Neal doesn’t need a 3-point shot. Antetokounmpo is dominating at the rim in ways we haven’t seen since Shaq, but he’s doing it with length and quickness instead of size and power. Instead of putting his shoulder into the chest of weaker big men and dunking through them, he’s getting around slower big men and dunking over them. There’s no way to guard Giannis anymore. He’s too long and quick for anyone to defend him one-on-one, and he’s too good a passer for teams to send help now that new head coach Mike Budenholzer has surrounded him with a phalanx of 3-point shooters. The Bucks have the best net rating in the league (plus-9.6) this season. Now it’s just a matter of seeing how their formula works in the playoffs.
All statistics are current as of Wednesday morning. Records current as of Thursday morning.