clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Top 25 Players of the First 25ish Games

A modest ranking of the best in the league more than a quarter of the way through the 2019-20 NBA season

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Every team is either at or around 25 games played in the 2019-20 NBA season, which means it’s time for an annual tradition: The Top 25 Players of the First 25ish Games. Just like the past two years, The Ringer’s NBA staff was given a simple task: Rank the 25 best players in the league based solely off of what’s happened this season. Unlike in years past, completing the task proved very challenging. Most panelists agreed on the top five, in some particular order, and every panelist included the top 12 somewhere on their list. But with Top 25 mainstays like Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson out for likely the entire season, and All-Stars like Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving missing large portions of the early season, ballots went in all sorts of directions after the top 12; in total, 46 different players received at least one vote. The full results, based on average ranking, are as follows.


25. Andre Drummond, Pistons

Highest rank: 16th
Lowest rank: NR
17.5 points, 3 assists, 16.7 rebounds, 1.9 blocks, 53.8 eFG%, 1.2 net rating

Shaker Samman: Few things have gone right for the Pistons this season: Blake Griffin is still getting up to speed after missing time early with injury, starting point guard Reggie Jackson has logged only 36 total minutes with a setback of his own, and the team has limped out to a 10-14 start. But among all the disappointment stands Drummond. The eight-year veteran, still only 26, is putting together the most complete season of his career. Drummond leads the league in rebounding for the fourth time in five years, is shooting better from the field than he has since his second campaign, and is shooting a career-best 63.9 percent from the free throw line. It took some time, but the Big Penguin (God, what a strange nickname) looks like he’s reached his potential. The Pistons have been stuck on the treadmill of mediocrity for some time and face a tough summer, when Drummond can decline his $28.8 million option. Giving a second max contract to a player who has to sit during crunch time is a hard pill to swallow, but the alternative is watching another team pay him, and Detroit doesn’t have much of a choice.

24. Bam Adebayo, Heat

Highest rank: 17th
Lowest rank: NR
15.3 points, 4.4 assists, 10.5 rebounds, 1.2 blocks, 59.3 eFG%, 7.5 net rating

Zach Kram: Weighing all-around performance is an extraordinary challenge in an exercise like this. It’s easy to see a star guard’s point total and push him up the list, but how does a player like Adebayo compare? It’s not as if his stats suffer, exactly: Among centers, only Nikola Jokic and Karl-Anthony Towns record more assists than Adebayo, and the third-year Miami big is averaging better than one block and steal per game. But it’s the spaces between the stats in which he has excelled this season—the shots he deters with his defensive dexterity, the openings he creates with his gallops in transition. On a team stocked with shooters, Adebayo provides a little bit of everything to complement his teammates’ abilities.

23. Jayson Tatum, Celtics

Highest rank: 15th
Lowest rank: NR
21.1 points, 2.8 assists, 7.2 rebounds, 1.5 steals, 48.3 eFG%, 14.8 net rating

J. Kyle Mann: When Uncle Drew skipped town and Al Horford decided to join the Giannis Wall in Philly, a path seemed to be clearing for Tatum to shoulder a heavier load for the Celtics and potentially leap into another strata of the NBA. The Celtics clearly trusted him to take the load, and he’s answered the bell by becoming critical for them, both offensively and defensively. It’s a number with some caveats, but Cleaning the Glass rates Tatum as one of the most important on/off players in the NBA, and the eye test seems to match that. He’s one of the best young scorers at his position, and he’s become an exceptional overall defender.

After Tatum’s revelatory performance in the 2018 playoffs, many of us had to take a look at our developmental clipboards and wonder whether he was better than we all thought. Even though 2018-19 was a bit of a head-scratcher, Tatum’s still on a promising track: He’s the third youngest player on this list, sitting behind only Luka and Trae Young (who’s only 200 days younger than him), and aside from questions about his scoring efficiency, he’s gradually climbing in nearly every statistical category. I’d hang on tightly to that Tatum stock.

22. Malcolm Brogdon, Pacers

Highest rank: 13th
Lowest rank: NR
19.1 points, 7.5 assists, 4.7 rebounds, 1 steal, 52.4 eFG%, 6.8 net rating

Matt Dollinger: It’s rare for the NBA to underestimate the long-term potential of a Rookie of the Year recipient, but Brogdon has exceeded even the highest of expectations since arriving in Indiana. Brogdon proved he was a more-than-capable option in Milwaukee, delivering in both the regular season and the playoffs in a number of complementary capacities. But he’s proved he can be the option with the Pacers this season, taking on a new level of responsibility and barely missing a beat with his stellar efficiency numbers. He’s posting career-high averages in points (19.1), assists (7.5), rebounds (4.7), and made 3-pointers (4.4) while maintaining a true shooting percentage on par with his career average. He won’t replicate his 50-40-90 splits from last season, but he won’t be far off, either. Brogdon’s role with the Pacers will change slightly once Victor Oladipo returns, and his name could even slip off this list, but the fourth-year guard has made it clear that he was worth the investment from Indy—and that his former team is going to miss him.

21. Brandon Ingram, Pelicans

Highest rank: 16th
Lowest rank: NR
24.9 points, 4 assists, 7 rebounds, 0.8 steals, 55.8 eFG%, -6.4 net rating

Justin Verrier: Whatever forward momentum the Pelicans had coming into their first season in seven years without Anthony Davis evaporated when Zion Williamson took Davis’s spot on the team’s injury report—virtually every player on the roster has been banged up, and after a 10th straight loss on Wednesday, the 6-19 Pels are probably in too deep of a hole for even a transformative prospect like Zion to dig them out of. But if there’s a silver lining—beyond the extra time Williamson got to shop for this elite puppy—it’s Ingram’s long-awaited emergence. After struggling for three seasons—with his shot, with his role, with his health—Ingram is finally starting to reach the expectations some had for him coming out of Duke. Ingram’s 3-point shot has finally translated to the pros (42 percent on 5.5 attempts per game), and the confidence from it, plus the green light from the coaching staff, has allowed him to develop into a legitimate go-to scorer; in many crucial possessions (too many, one might argue), the Pelicans offense becomes “Do something, Brandon.” And though the on-off numbers don’t show it, Ingram has been able to flash some defensive versatility by putting his long limbs to work against 5-men. The question now is whether Ingram can maintain this level when Williamson gets back on his feet.

20. Donovan Mitchell, Jazz

Highest rank: 13th
Lowest rank: NR
24.7 points, 3.6 assists, 4.8 rebounds, 1.3 steals, 49.2 eFG%, 0.8 net rating

Haley O’Shaughnessy: I remain hopeful that one of these days, Mitchell will be able to catch his breath. Utah’s summer additions were supposed to take the load off their premier shooting guard, and while Bojan Bogdanovic has been the offensive contributor that was promised, Mitchell’s had to step up once again for the Jazz to survive. He’s improved defensively while also averaging career highs in points, rebounds, free throw attempts, the rate at which those free throws go in (83.9 percent), and overall shooting percentage (... 43.8 percent—I know, I know, still not great). Though it’s easier to forgive Mitchell for his poor shot selection when Mike Conley and Joe Ingles are struggling to find their perimeter shooting. What’s an exhausted man to do but pull up for the occasional long 2?

19. Rudy Gobert, Jazz

Highest rank: 12th
Lowest rank: NR
14.4 points, 1.4 assists, 13.5 rebounds, 1.8 blocks, 68 eFG%, 3.8 net rating

Paolo Uggetti: There isn’t a lot of luster to Gobert’s game; it’s better suited for film breakdowns than highlight reels. But he is once again doing what he does best: scoring near the basket and protecting the rim. He’s taking and making more shots within 3 feet—his 68 effective field goal percentage is no. 1 in the league—and defending the rim slightly better than he did last season. It hasn’t fully translated to team success—the Jazz are 2-6 over their past eight—and Gobert hasn’t been shy about saying he needs the ball more in an offense still working in Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic; Conley has never played with a player like Gobert and it’s evident they’re still feeling one another out. Gobert’s numbers were down at the beginning of the season, but in the past 15 games he’s averaging 16 points, 14 rebounds, and two blocks a game. It’s a long season, and once (if?) the Jazz settle in, Gobert will be a big reason for their success.

Denver Nuggets v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

18. Nikola Jokic, Nuggets

Highest rank: 11th
Lowest rank: NR
16 points, 6.3 assists, 10 rebounds, 0.6 blocks, 50 eFG%, 6.9 net rating

John Gonzalez: Everything is relative. Compared to a year ago, when Jokic and the Nuggets got off to a hot start, this season probably didn’t begin as well as the player or the team hoped. Unsurprisingly, that led people to wonder what changed, or what was preventing this season’s version of Jokic from immediately playing as well as last season’s version. Some critics landed on Jokic’s “conditioning,” which was a genteel placeholder for saying he looked doughy and slow at times. For his part, Jokic gave an endearing if sleepy-eyed on-camera interview in which he said he doesn’t care about the people knocking his physique and doesn’t “read anything anymore.” In fairness, though, it should be noted that Jokic is still putting up excellent numbers. Yes, his points per game and shooting efficiency have dipped, but he’s still averaging a double-double, and he remains one of the best passing big men of his or any era. Jokic is having a fine season by anyone else’s standards—it’s just that we judge him by his, and those are higher than most.

17. Ben Simmons, 76ers

Highest rank: 11th
Lowest rank: NR
14 points, 8.4 assists, 7 rebounds, 2.3 steals, 57.4 eFG%, 7.2 net rating

Dan Devine: I get why Brett Brown wants at least one 3-point attempt a game. I get why a version of Simmons who shoots—even if he doesn’t do it all that well, even if he only does it a Giannissian few times a game while missing more than two-thirds of them—might help decongest the Philadelphia offense, ease Al Horford’s introduction into the Sixers’ unique offensive ecosystem, and afford Joel Embiid more space to relocate his snarling best self. I’m just kind of sick of talking about it. Or, more to the point, sick of how talking almost exclusively about that elides so much of what’s special about Simmons. Six-foot-10 dudes who can guard all five positions at an All-Defensive Team level, bust opponents apart in transition, shoot nearly 70 percent at the rim, and lead an offense that for all the hemming and hawing ranks just outside the top 10 in efficiency (and that scores at a brisker clip with him on the court than off it, so long as he’s sharing the floor with only one center rather than two) are rare beasts. Even if they’re not unicorns.

16. Trae Young, Hawks

Highest rank: 7
Lowest rank: NR
28.4 points, 8.4 assists, 4.1 rebounds, 1.2 steals, 54.3 eFG%, -7.7 net rating

Kevin O’Connor: Young is a pick-and-roll prodigy. As a rookie, he established himself as one of the game’s best playmakers by conning opponents with his tight handle and using the separation to throw bull’s-eye passes. Now as a sophomore, Young is showing his high-powered scoring upside. Of Young’s 28.4 points per game, 14.5 come as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll, according to Synergy Sports. He’s scoring with excellent efficiency at high volume, in part because of one move that he’s mastered: the right-to-left crossover.

Young rejects screens by crossing the ball over to his left more than anyone else in the NBA. In total, he’s dribbled away from the pick 73 times this season, per Synergy; he did so 96 times in 81 games last season. The closest player to that total this season is Lou Williams, with 55. It’s a new trick in Young’s book that’s helped make him one of the game’s best point guards at just 21 years old. You can bet he’ll keep adding more and more in the years to come.

15. Paul George, Clippers

Highest rank: 6th
Lowest rank: NR
23.9 points, 3.6 assists, 6.4 rebounds, 1.4 steals, 56.4 eFG%, 12.4 net rating

Rob Mahoney: Some teams find their edge in systemic nuance. The Clippers win by flooding the court with more two-way talent than most can muster, and then dominate off of basic setup and devastating improvisation. It’s George who really puts them over the top. If it weren’t enough to contend with Kawhi Leonard creating from the elbows, Montrezl Harrell blowing by traditional centers, and Lou Williams duping defenders of all kinds, opponents now have to contend with one of the smoothest scorers in the league slotting in wherever the Clippers need him. If that means playing off the ball, no problem; George is hitting 39.5 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s this season, and is far too evasive to be contained by a simple closeout. Then, when Doc Rivers needs something more, he can funnel the offense through George, putting the weight of the whole thing on his surgically repaired shoulders. George’s circumstances don’t require that he stretch his game to its limits. Instead, he has found a near-perfect balance for his do-it-all game: enough usage to make a huge impact and the discretion needed to make this the most efficient season of his career.

14. Devin Booker, Suns

Highest rank: 11th
Lowest rank: NR
25.5 points, 6.3 assists, 3.9 rebounds, 0.6 steals, 58.1 eFG%, 2.7 net rating

Kram: Booker is touching the ball fewer times this season than last (61 times per game, versus 76) with a real point guard in Ricky Rubio sharing the backcourt, but he’s traded that extra responsibility for greater efficiency as a scorer. Among players with a 25 percent usage rate this season, only Towns has a better true shooting percentage than Booker, who is one spot ahead of James Harden. Rubio is funneling his Phoenix teammate better shots—more than half of Booker’s made field goals have been assisted, versus 36 percent last season—and Booker is taking advantage, while retaining plenty of creative oomph, too. He still averages north of six assists per game as Phoenix has climbed from the bottom half of the league to first in team assist rate.

13. Bradley Beal, Wizards

Highest rank: 8th
Lowest rank: NR
27.4 points, 7 assists, 4.5 rebounds, 0.9 steals, 50.7 eFG%, -6.5 net rating

Jonathan Tjarks: With John Wall out of the picture in Washington for the time being, Beal has made the transition from off-ball threat to primary ball handler. He no longer gets to pick and choose when to attack. He’s running the show on every possession, and he’s doing it as well as any point guard in the league. Beal is averaging 27 points and seven assists per game while directing a top-five offense whose second-best player is ... rookie Rui Hachimura? A rejuvenated Isaiah Thomas? The great Latvian gunslinger Davis Bertans? Beal surprised many when he agreed to an extension with the Wizards. Now the question is whether their new front office can put a team around him that is worthy of his talents.

Boston Celtics v Indiana Pacers Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

12. Kemba Walker, Celtics

Highest rank: 10th
Lowest rank: 22nd
21.8 points, 5.1 assists, 4.4 rebounds, 1 steal, 52.5 eFG%, 9.8 net rating

Dollinger: If you’re a Kyrie hater, the first quarter of this season has likely made you insufferable to be around. You used the Jackie MacMullan story as instant ammunition. You likely celebrated the Nets’ lopsided 4-7 start with Kyrie and probably doubled down as Brooklyn has gone 9-3 with him on the sideline. You went apoplectic when a shoulder injury forced him to miss his first game back in Boston, and you said good riddance when he posted a vintage rambling Instagram post in response right after. You’ve been throwing stones from your Celtic green and ivory tower since October—and you all have Kemba Walker to thank. Where Kyrie has struggled, Kemba has thrived in every facet. He’s stepped in perfectly as a lead scorer while also embracing his talented teammates and sharing the rock. In suit, the Celtics are off to a 17-5 start and rank fourth in net rating, seventh in offensive rating, and third on defense, proving that Walker isn’t just a more-than-adequate replacement for Kyrie—he’s actually a better fit overall. While Celtics fans struggled to ever fully embrace Kyrie, they already consider Kemba one of their own. And for good reason—he’s been anything but flat. Kyrie might be the greater talent, but Walker has proved to be the better player in Boston.

11. Joel Embiid, 76ers

Highest rank: 9th
Lowest rank: 20th
22 points, 3.1 assists, 12.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 49.2 eFG%, 8.3 net rating

O’Shaughnessy: Let’s begin with the negatives: Embiid’s numbers have dipped, his scoring has been wildly inconsistent, and his affection for the 3 is still much, much too strong. Yet he’s the second-highest true center on this list because of the advantage his physicality gives him in any matchup. It’s often the difference-maker for Philadelphia, even with his offense lagging. Take the Sixers’ most recent game against the Nuggets: Embiid won the battle against Jokic, despite his ridiculously inefficient (albeit team-high) 22 points on 18 shots. Philadelphia has cooled since its 5-0 start to the season; Brown’s offense has been exposed multiple times since then. But the Sixers are one win away from the second spot in the East; for a team figuring it out as it goes along, that level of success wouldn’t be possible without Embiid’s defense and team-best 22 points a night.

10. Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers

Highest rank: 7th
Lowest rank: 13th
26.9 points, 7.3 assists, 4.5 rebounds, 1 steal, 53.9 eFG%, 3.2 net rating

Samman: Dame Dolla is, for all intents and purposes, a superstar. He hits buzzer-beaters so stunning they force opposing franchises to radically rethink their futures, drops 60 in regulation, and has bars so good they leave Shaq shook. Lillard is as good as he’s ever been after leading the Blazers to the Western Conference finals last season. The All-NBA guard is seventh in scoring and 10th in assists, and though Portland has started the season slow, it’s hard to point the finger at him. This season’s seen four players—all of whom appear later on this list—command the conversation surrounding the MVP race. Lillard is just behind them, as he’s seemingly been his whole career. At 10-15, Portland is on the outside of the playoff hunt, thanks to injuries to [checks notes] pretty much every player taller than 6-foot-5 to ever set foot in Oregon. For the Blazers to sniff the heights they reached last postseason, they’ll need Lillard to continue to play like one of the best players in the world. It would be a fool’s errand to bet against him.

9. Pascal Siakam, Raptors

Highest rank: 8th
Lowest rank: 13th
24.5 points, 3.6 assists, 8.4 rebounds, 0.9 steals, 51.4 eFG%, 10.2 net rating

Uggetti: The Siakam development track hit hyperspeed this season. A confluence of events—Kawhi Leonard’s departure, Kyle Lowry’s injury, Siakam’s continued work in the offseason—has led to the fourth-year forward leaping from rotation cog to superstar in just two seasons. What could’ve been a Raptors regression this season has instead become another campaign among the Eastern Conference’s upper crust, and Siakam is a big reason. Siakam has taken on greater responsibilities—more shots, more minutes, more ballhandling—yet he’s been more effective than ever. He’s surpassed even the high expectations everyone else placed on him and turned himself into a go-to player who will no doubt make the All-Star team this season. At this rate, who knows what could be next?

Atlanta Hawks v Miami Heat Photo by Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

8. Jimmy Butler, Heat

Highest rank: 5th
Lowest rank: 18th
20.6 points, 7 assists, 6.9 rebounds, 2.1 steals, 46.9 eFG%, 11.2 net rating

Gonzalez: Fit matters. There was a time, barely a year ago, when it felt like Philadelphia was the perfect spot for the mercurial wing. As it turned out, Butler wasn’t the cure-all for the Sixers, and the Sixers—who have never been a pick-and-roll-heavy team under head coach Brett Brown, which is a system Butler thrives in—maybe weren’t the right partner for Butler, either. The sample size is still small, but Butler and Miami seem like a solid union. His usage rate has climbed a bit from his time in Philly (25.2 this season, compared to 22.1 with the Sixers), and his counting stats have improved accordingly. Butler is averaging more points, rebounds, assists, and steals per game than he did with the Sixers. He’s also tying a career high in free throws made per game (7.7) and averaging a new career high in free throw attempts per game (9.3). As a result, Butler has helped the Heat exceed all reasonable expectations in the standings. (FiveThirtyEight had them down as a .500 team before the season began, but as of Wednesday now predicts the Heat will win 48 games.) Butler once invoked the old cliché about how all he wants to do is help his team win—something that irked Sixers fans when he signaled his desire to leave for Miami—but so far that’s exactly what he’s doing with the Heat.

7. Karl-Anthony Towns, Timberwolves

Highest rank: 6th
Lowest rank: 15th
26.1 points, 4.5 assists, 11.7 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 61.9 eFG%, -0.9 net rating

Verrier: Of all the wild fantasies that you could have dreamt up about Towns’s unicorn skill set, a 6-foot-11 Steph Curry probably wasn’t one of them. But that’s exactly what the Wolves center has become in his breakthrough fifth season: Curry is shooting 43.5 percent on 8.2 attempts from 3 per game over his career; this season, Towns is shooting 42.4 percent on 8.4 attempts. The only other player in NBA history to attempt eight or more 3s a game at 6-foot-10 or taller is Davis Bertans this season; as the kids say, what a time. The problem is Minnesota doesn’t have enough around Towns to take advantage of all the space his historic shooting provides, which is why a once-promising playoff push has all of a sudden become reliant on Andrew Wiggins playing point guard. This won’t be the season Towns breaks into the MVP discussion, but it won’t be Towns’s fault if the Wolves miss the playoffs for the fourth time since drafting him first in 2015.

6. Kawhi Leonard, Clippers

Highest rank: 6th
Lowest rank: 11th
25.1 points, 5.2 assists, 7.9 rebounds, 1.9 steals, 48.9 eFG%, 12.4 net rating

Mann: You’d be in your right mind to argue that Kawhi at no. 6 is a smidge high, considering how fantastic Towns and Butler have been, but it’s possible that he’s getting a defensible team-success bump. The Clippers are sitting at second in the West, and given some of their impressive stand-alone performances (wins over Boston, Dallas, Toronto, Houston, and that other L.A. team) and the fact that their roster is getting comfortable and healthy in some of its critical areas, it’s terrifying to think about where they might be in two or three months.

For all of the griping about Kawhi’s load management, in the 18 games that he’s played, he’s still been one of the best high-impact two-way players in the league. He’s second in FiveThirtyEight’s catch-all defensive metric, RAPTOR, and is averaging 25.1 points per game. Granted, he’s shot the ball poorly and often (career low in TS%), but that’s been alleviated a bit by a fascinating development: He’s somehow passing the ball dramatically better. We joke about Kawhi receiving software updates, but his 13.7-point jump in assist percentage and career high in assist-to-usage is too dramatic to overlook. The machine continues to learn, and the Clippers continue to look like a real threat to give him his third title with a different team.

5. Anthony Davis, Lakers

Highest rank: 2nd
Lowest rank: 7th
27.7 points, 3.3 assists, 9 rebounds, 2.7 blocks, 53.5 eFG%, 8 net rating

Tjarks: It was obvious that Davis was a transcendent talent in New Orleans, but he never really got to show it while playing for a franchise that couldn’t get out of its own way. It has been fun to watch him in Los Angeles, where he’s paired up with LeBron James to steamroll the league. There might not be a better two-way player in the NBA outside of Milwaukee than Davis, who is averaging 28 points on 51 percent shooting while spearheading a top-tier defense. It still feels like he has another level to reach, too. The Lakers have barely used lineups with AD at the 5, which seems almost inevitable when the playoffs begin.

4. Luka Doncic, Mavericks

Highest rank: 2nd
Lowest rank: 5th
30 points, 9.2 assists, 9.8 rebounds, 1.3 steals, 55.2 eFG%, 7.8 net rating

Kram: Doncic has a reasonable argument to rank even higher on this list—an outrageous thought by itself, given he’s only a 20-year-old second-year player. He leads advanced stat leaderboards like box plus-minus and VORP. He helms the Mavericks’ league-best offense while handling the ball more than any other player in the league. He nearly averages a triple-double even in his worst games. However, his defense rates the worst of any player at the top of this list—Dallas allows 9.1 more points per 100 possessions with Doncic on the court than off—so that small sliver of downside bumps him behind the top trio. Still, no Ringer staffer could find reason to rank Doncic outside the top five. He’s played fewer than 100 career games and we all think he’s a top-five player. What a future he has ahead of him—and what a present in the meantime.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Katharine Lotze/Getty Images

3. LeBron James, Lakers

Highest rank: 1st
Lowest rank: 5th
25.9 points, 10.8 assists, 6.8 rebounds, 1.3 steals, 55.6 eFG%, 13 net rating

Mahoney: Something rang a bit hollow about LeBron’s debut season in Los Angeles—marred by injury, largely defenseless, and lacking in any playoff validation—if only because of his own lofty standard. It also came with the kind of production that only two other players in history had ever touched. This is how the conversation around James became so distorted that he would declare war on eggheaded Twitter trolls and strawmen everywhere. Everything feels like a slight when you can really only be compared to yourself. No matter the source of his motivation, James entered this season with a palpably different energy. This is the LeBron of discovery—a brilliant player who, after 16 seasons in the league, has been treated to the thrill of something new. James has never played with a big like Davis; we see that reflected in the way LeBron runs the offense and the career-best assist numbers that result. It has charged his participation in one of the NBA’s best defenses. The thought of pairing James and Davis together was enough to make the Lakers a team of interest in the title discussion. It was seeing LeBron in action that removed all doubt.

2. James Harden, Rockets

Highest rank: 2nd
Lowest rank: 4th
38 points, 7.5 assists, 6 rebounds, 2 steals, 52.8 eFG%, 8.9 net rating

O’Connor: Tastes are different. I love coming-of-age films; it’s fine if you don’t. I dislike soda, but it’s fine if you’re drinking a Coke as you read this. I also love watching James Harden play basketball, and it’s fine if you don’t. But it’s not fine when subjective feelings about style taint objective facts. Because Harden is objectively one of the most dominant scorers in NBA history.

This will be Harden’s third consecutive season averaging at least 30 points—something only eight Hall of Famers and one future Hall of Famer (Kobe Bryant) have accomplished, per Basketball-Reference. And he’s doing it with great efficiency despite relying largely on himself: Harden is finishing 17.3 possessions per game using an isolation, per Synergy. Only Harden (three times), Kobe (four times), Carmelo Anthony (twice), and LeBron James (once) have logged at least 10 isolations per game in Synergy’s database, which goes back to the 2004-05 season. Of those players, Harden has the three most efficient seasons utilizing isolations. In other words, Harden is the game’s best scorer since Michael Jordan. Even if you don’t like the way it looks.

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

Highest rank: 1st
Lowest rank: 2nd
30.9 points, 5.5 assists, 13.2 rebounds, 1.3 blocks, 60.2 eFG%, 15.6 net rating

Devine: The FreeDarko collective’s Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History includes a chapter on Wilt Chamberlain. The accompanying art by Jacob Weinstein casts a young Wilt against a mushroom cloud, simultaneously evoking the destructive impact of his game, the transformative nature of his presence, and the looming question of how the fallout from his arrival might eventually affect whatever it touches. I love that image. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, because more than anything out of Space Jam or ancient mythology, that’s what flashes across my mind’s eye when I think about Giannis.

Giannis isn’t Wilt; Wilt was singular, a break in history. But his combination of physical dominance and alarming grace, his penchant for consistently eye-popping production on both ends of the court, the way he just seems to take games by sheer brute force—it all feels like a contemporary echo of how Chamberlain bent reality more than a half-century ago. This is a 6-foot-11, 242-pound point center who puts up 31-13-6 every night, scores with spreadsheet-melting efficiency, invokes pulse-pounding defensive terror no matter where he is on the court, consistently plays like his hair’s on fire, and, at just 25 years old, keeps getting better. I don’t know whether he’ll become just the 12th-ever repeat MVP or win his first championship, and neither do you. But that doesn’t mean we can’t see the future. To do that, all we have to do is turn on a Bucks game. It’s right there, in living color, announcing itself with every bulldozed defender, menacing mean mug, and comfortable Bucks win.

Stats through Tuesday’s games.

Sports Cards Nonsense

Which NFL Injuries Will Impact Card Prices?

Real Ones

Kyrie Irving Would Simply Retire If the Nets Were to Trade Him

Sports Cards Nonsense

NFL Cards to Watch in Week 2, NBA Bounce-Back Candidates, and Mailbag Questions

View all stories in NBA