Just over a quarter of the 2018-19 season remains. So just as we did around around the 25-game mark, The Ringer’s NBA staff paused to take stock of where we stand through just about 60 games. Each contributor was given a simple (and difficult task): rank the 25 best players in the league based solely off of what’s happened this season Some notables—including All-Stars LaMarcus Aldridge and D’Angelo Russell, and recent Sixers imports Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris—just missed the cut. The results, based on average ranking, are as follows.
25. Kyle Lowry
Guard, Toronto Raptors | Previously: 13
14.3 points, 9.2 assists, 4.5 rebounds, 1.4 steals, 51.2 eFG%, 10 net rating
Justin Verrier: Lowry’s raw numbers look his age, but the 32-year-old somehow seems more essential than ever. With Kawhi Leonard occupying a large chunk of possessions, Lowry has played more pass-first than he has in years and has the league’s second-highest assist average to show for it. His individual success isn’t simply the product of dumping it off to a top-five talent, either; Lowry’s net rating and assist ratio both jump when Kawhi takes a seat. Lowry is the stabilizer—a role particularly important given Leonard’s checkered injury history and a new 255-pound mouth to feed. He may not have appreciated some of the recent changes to the roster, but he’s certainly making the most of them.
24. Klay Thompson
Guard, Golden State Warriors | Previously: N/A
21.9 points, 4 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.1 steals, 55.1 eFG%, 5.5 net rating
Danny Chau: One of the greatest shooters in basketball history is having his worst season from behind the arc. Should Thompson’s accuracy through 56 games hold, it’ll be the first time he’s shot below 40 percent from 3 since his junior season at Washington State, and yet 98 percent of the league would kill for his conversion rate. That Klay has managed to keep his percentages hovering around 40 percent despite two dreadful slumps is a testament to his natural ability, but that might not be the most impressive part of his season. He’s been the primary defender against forces of nature like Russell Westbrook; off-ball ballistic missiles like Buddy Hield; nu-classical guards like Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, and Donovan Mitchell; and shot-creating bully wings like Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, and Luka Doncic. And he’s held most of them under 40 percent shooting. Thompson may not have the same opportunities as most players on this list, but he wrings every drop out of the role he does have. Even on a star-studded Warriors team, Thompson’s reliability is a wildly valuable commodity.
23. Nikola Vucevic
Center, Orlando Magic | Previously: 22
20.5 points, 12.1 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.1 blocks, 55.5 eFG%, 3 net rating
Verrier: There’s nothing exciting about a post-up big man. As evidence, I present to you Vucevic’s two nicknames on file at Basketball-Reference: “Vooch” and “Nik.” But the Orlando center’s production this season it too impressive to ignore, by coaches (who tabbed Vucevic for his first All-Star Game) and our panelists. Only five players are averaging 20 points and 12 rebounds this season, and that list includes three perennial MVP candidates; one player with the pedigree to one day be a perennial MVP candidate; and our guy Vooch. Not trading Vucevic, a pending free agent, ahead of the trade deadline may not have been a wise move by a team now five games under .500, but we get why the Magic did it.
22. Khris Middleton
Forward, Milwaukee Bucks | previously: 24
17.1 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.1 steals, 51.7 eFG%, 11.3 net rating
Chau: On certain days, when the mood is right, Jonathan Tjarks might try to make the case for Middleton being a top-10 player in the NBA. I wouldn’t go that far, but his utility as a jumbo wing with pick-and-roll playmaking capability, excellent 3-point shooting, and the size to defend across nearly every position would improve the viability of any team. It just so happens that the team he does play for has the best record in the league. He is, in a way, the ultimate example of a Mike Budenholzer star in the mold of Al Horford and Paul Millsap: malleable in all phases of the game, and brutally efficient without any discernible on-court style. Middleton’s game has the physical charisma of a prune, but real ones know how important he is.
21. Luka Doncic
Guard/Forward, Dallas Mavericks | Previously: N/A
20.7 points, 7.2 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 1 steal, 50.6 eFG%, minus-0.9 net rating
Chris Ryan: It can be tough to properly evaluate rookies because so much of what they do in the present is being projected against what they might do in the future. We don’t have to wait for Luka. With Pistol Pete’s brain and Buzz from Home Alone’s body, the Mavericks’ maestro has broken through the rookie wall, and thrown the team on his back. Dallas traded away pretty much all of Luka’s useful teammates in the Kristaps Porzingis swap, and it’s only made him stronger. Since the beginning of 2019, Doncic’s usage rate is in the top 10 of the league, rivaling that of his Lone Star peer James Harden. During that period, he’s had signature performances against Toronto and Portland, and brought a kind of effervescent joy for the sport to almost every floor he’s played on. Enjoy him now. In the future, you will fear him.
20. Russell Westbrook
Guard, Oklahoma City Thunder | Previously: 25
21.7 points, 11.2 rebounds, 11.2 assists, 2.2 steals, 44.7 eFG%, 7.4 net rating
Verrier: Let’s get this out of the way early: Yes, the shooting has been putrid. Only two other players have ever shot this poorly from the field (41.7 percent) and from 3 (24.9) at this volume (19.7 FGA): Washed Wizards Jordan and Latrell Sprewell in the 14 games before he was suspended for choking out his head coach. But Westbrook is padding the rest of the stat sheet like never before—his assist, rebound, and steal averages are all career marks—and OKC is thriving like it’s the good ole days. Still not convinced? Think of it this way: Westbrook is far outproducing Ben Simmons on a per-36-minute basis, but is indulging in all the ill-advised attempts away from the basket that Simmons is too afraid to take.
19. Bradley Beal
Guard, Washington Wizards | Previously: N/A
25.1 points, 5.4 assists, 5.1 rebounds, 1.4 steals, 53.6 eFG%, minus-3.1 net rating
Paolo Uggetti: Beal is the captain now. The Wizards are his team, and it’s showing. In January, the team’s first full month without John Wall, Beal posted a usage rate above 30 percent—which is higher than his already career-high usage rate on the season as a whole (28.3). Beal is averaging 27.7 points, 6.4 assists, 5.4 rebounds, and two steals per game since Wall played his last contest of the season at the end of December. Wall’s absence has created a perfect platform for Beal to showcase more than just his shooting prowess. He may be one of the few remaining true shooting guards left, but he can also be an aggressive playmaker, if need be. Sitting three games behind a playoff spot in the East isn’t exactly something to be proud of, but even those measured successes, after a tumultuous season thus far, are something that’s possible only because of Beal’s play.
18. Karl-Anthony Towns
Center, Minnesota Timberwolves | Previously: N/A
23.1 points, 12 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.8 blocks, 56.6 eFG%, 3.4 net rating
Verrier: I don’t know what to make of Towns anymore. He’s a 20-and-10 guy for the third season in a row, he hasn’t missed a game in his entire NBA career, and the surgical removal of Jimmy Butler from his butthole has diverted the spotlight away from his lacking defense and back on his significant offensive game. And yet, the broad outlook on Towns is still colored by disappointment. Call it the burden of being the no. 1 pick if you want, but topping out at Nikola Vucevic Extra isn’t what you’re hoping for from a 23-year-old former five-tool prospect.
17. Ben Simmons
Guard, Philadelphia 76ers | Previously: N/A
16.8 points, 9 rebounds, 7.9 assists, 1.3 steals, 57.1 eFG%, 2.8 net rating
Ryan: We’re a little more focused on what Simmons can’t do than what he does, so let’s reset the table for a second. Ben Simmons can’t shoot and he can’t beat Boston, but other than that he is perfect. He was the best player on the floor in the Sixers’ late-January win over the Warriors at Oracle, which was the kind of signature win his ever-changing Sixers team had been craving this season. He’s essentially played on three different teams this season (pre-Jimmy, post-Jimmy, post-Tobias), and has remained remarkably consistent throughout all the upheaval. A lot of the players on this list are here for how perfectly they play the modern style. Simmons is playing his own game. Basketball is stretching horizontally, as offenses drag defenses out to the far corners of the floor with shooting. He is stretching the game vertically. Offensive sets begin off the rebound, with Simmons capable of throwing cross-court passes or traversing the length of the floor in a few strides, and yamming on whoever had the poor luck to get back in transition.
16. Jrue Holiday
Guard, New Orleans Pelicans | Previously: N/A
21.1 points, 7.9 assists, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 steals, 51.8 eFG%, 4.5 net rating
Jrue, how excited are you for the All-Star break? pic.twitter.com/CJErLPmKk8— Karen Loftus (@kcloftus) February 15, 2019
This isn’t the case of a guy rising higher off Ewing Theory fumes, either; Holiday has been killing it on both sides of the ball for a second consecutive season. His point, rebound, assist, and steal averages this season are all at or around career highs, and he has quietly emerged as the best wing defender in the league outside of Paul George and maybe Robert Covington. In fact, the Pelicans have been worse when Holiday is off the floor (minus-10.9 net rating) than when Davis is (minus-4.1). The Pelicans may have to trade Holiday too if the plan is to start over from scratch, but there are worse ways to reboot than with a top-20 player in his prime.
15. Kemba Walker
Guard, Charlotte Hornets | Previously: 7
24.9 points, 5.6 assists, 4.4 rebounds, 1.3 steals, 51.3 eFG%, 0.6 net rating
Verrier: Walker, the East Coast’s favorite smol scorer, was among the league’s breakout performers at the time of our last list; at 26.5 points per game at that point, he looked like a good bet to outpace the rest of the league the rest of the way. His scoring average is still a career best, but he’s slipped to 12th in the league, and his Hornets aren’t doing any better in the standings (seventh in the East, just a game ahead of the 10th-place Magic). The All-Star starting spot, in his adopted home of Charlotte, was a nice gesture, but here’s hoping the extended time alongside the league’s best will only increase his itch to finally get out of dodge this summer and play with a worthy teammate or two.
14. Rudy Gobert
Center, Utah Jazz | Previously: N/A
15.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 2.1 blocks, 65.4 eFG%, 6.4 net rating
Uggetti: It’s always been difficult to quantify defensive impact, but Gobert transcends those limitations. Even the eye test shows us what an elite defender he is. And yet, even though Gobert’s defense should have been enough to get him an All-Star spot in the West, it’s his offense that has helped the Jazz turn into a playoff team again after their rough start to the season. In the 18 games in which Gobert has scored 18 points or more this season, Utah has gone 15-3—that’s about half of their total wins. Gobert is also posting career-best offensive numbers across the board: He’s averaging 15.2 points per game on 65.4 percent shooting from the field, the latter of which leads the league among players with at least 300 field goal attempts. Oh yeah, and he’s also adding a career-high 12.9 rebounds and 2.1 blocks a game to go along with that.
13. Blake Griffin
Forward, Detroit Pistons | Previously: 16
26.3 points, 8.1 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 0.7 steals, 54.6 eFG%, minus-0.2 net rating
Chau: How much of Griffin’s season, if not entire career, can be boiled down to the burden of sustainability? At first it was, yeah, he can dunk over people, but how long can that last? Then, it was, OK, he’s a well-rounded power forward, but can he even stay on the court? But even that didn’t factor in the fact that Griffin has become an above-average 3-point shooter with more attempts from behind the arc per game than Khris Middleton, or the fact that he’s operating in the pick-and-roll at the top of the circle with the poise and comfort of a classic point guard, or the fact that Griffin is on pace to play more games this season than he has since 2013-14. The Pistons will be hamstrung with bloated contracts for one more season, and their roster’s inability to properly accent Griffin’s exploding gifts almost serves as a perfect canvas for the All-Star’s renaissance. How much longer can that last?
12. Damian Lillard
Guard, Portland Trail Blazers | Previously: 11
26.3 points, 6.4 assists, 4.5 rebounds, 1.2 steals, 52.5 eFG%, 6.1 net rating
Verrier: Whether it’s his size or the fact that he’s older than you’d think for a 2012 draftee, you assume Lillard, 28, will top out at some point, but his encore to the first All-NBA first team nod of his career has been virtually the same production at career-high efficiency. The only hurdle left is team success. Though the Trail Blazers didn’t swing the blockbuster trade we’ve been waiting on for the past, like, five years, they’re back in the mix for home-court advantage in Round 1 and starting to show signs of becoming a snarly foil for the Warriors. Maybe the Blazers are the new Bad Boys after all.
11. Kyrie Irving
Guard, Boston Celtics | Previously: 15
23.6 points, 6.9 assists, 4.9 rebounds, 1.6 steals, 56.9 eFG%, 8.9 net rating
Verrier: [side-eye emoji]
Kyrie’s Boston run was fun while it lasted—expect for all of the metal going in and out of his leg and the denial of science and the recent ham-fisted motivational tactics. It’s hard not to read deeply into the Celtics’ recent, Irvingless trouncing of the Sixers’ souped-up lineup. Objectively, they are at their worst when he’s not out there. Subjectively, things just seem to fit better when he’s not out there. So even though Irving’s individual game may be hitting a peak—his assist, rebound, and shooting numbers are all career highs—he won’t get top-10 credit until it coalesces with similar jumps from Boston’s deep bench of young talent. In other words, he’ll be a perfect Knick.
10. LeBron James
Forward, Los Angeles Lakers | Previously: 4
26.8 points, 8.6 rebounds, 7.6 assists, 1.3 steals, 56.7 eFG%, 2.5 net rating
Chau: Are we supposed to grade the greatest player of the past two generations on a curve? Judged by raw statistics alone, he’s been operating at the level you would expect from the King. And yet, there is a pervasive sense of complacency in his body language, intensity, and words and actions off the court. If there is nothing left for James to prove, then what, exactly, is the right criteria to judge his performance? He has long coasted on an air of inevitability, which, to his credit, he’s almost always made good on. But that veneer is slipping with old age and a Lakers team that has been through more psychological rings of fire in half a season than some players go through their entire careers. We could not have, in good conscience, dropped LeBron out of the top 10. But your guess as to which LeBron we’ll see over this final stretch is as good as mine.
9. Anthony Davis
Center, New Orleans Pelicans(?) | Previously: 5
28.1 points, 12.9 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 2.5 blocks, 53.1 eFG%, 4.7 net rating
Verrier: On production alone, Davis would probably make it back into the top five. In addition to an offensive body of work bested by only prime Kareem, his defensive metrics rank among the NBA’s best, irrespective of position. The problem is everything in between. Davis has struggled to keep the Pelicans above .500 even when he plays (22-23), and his frustrations over the franchise’s perpetual mediocrity have led to very ugly and very public divorce proceedings. Whether Davis ditched the second half of New Orleans’s final game before the All-Star break to get an MRI or to catch an early flight to Charlotte probably doesn’t matter as much as the fact that Pels ownership fired the team’s GM the day after because of his actions. I dropped Davis all the way to 12th on my ballot as a result. Not writing him off completely, like most voters did for his brother in angst, Jimmy Butler, is a testament to how incredible AD is when he bothers to show up.
8. Kawhi Leonard
Forward, Toronto Raptors | Previously: 6
27 points, 7.7 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.9 steals, 54 eFG%, 5.5 net rating
Verrier: I’m at Zuckerberg’s razor with Kawhi: If you were a brand name, then you’d be a brand name. Instead, we have the Air Lawnmowers:
But he’s still really good at the basketball side of things. Remember when Leonard probably should have won MVP two seasons ago with averages of 25.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.8 steals on 54 eFG% for a 61-win Spurs team? He’s basically doing that again, but for a Raptors team projected for 60 wins. The only thing stopping him from vaulting back into the conversation is the missed games. He already has 16 absences and more likely to come as the Raps continue to carefully manage his minutes.
7. Nikola Jokic
Center, Denver Nuggets | Previously: 12
20.4 points, 10.6 rebounds, 7.7 assists, 1.4 steals, 54.1 eFG%, 7.3 net rating
Chau: The more film we get of Jokic, the more I’m convinced he is one of the most impressive basketball players in history. He is a dough ball of contradictions. He plods with the bloated, defeated disposition of a man who just completed a beer mile, yet, because of his photographic memory and almost supernatural ball placement on outlet passes, he can create a scoring possession quicker than just about anyone. He might look out of place athletically in most eras, but he has managed to thrive in this one, when players are fitter, happier, and more productive. There is no one like Jokic in the world, and the Nuggets organization deserves a ton of credit for not only finding him, but finding out exactly how to build around him.
6. Joel Embiid
Center, Philadelphia 76ers | Previously: 2
27.3 points, 13.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.9 blocks, 51.4 eFG%, 8.2 net rating
Uggetti: In any other season, Joel Embiid would be a top-three MVP candidate. One might argue that a 7-footer who can affect the game on both ends of the floor—and average 27.3 points and 13.5 rebounds a game—should be in that conversation regardless. But alas, we have to settle for watching Embiid wreak havoc inside the paint, shoot fadeaway turnaround jumpers, and fool defenders with a shot fake that looks like the Statue of Liberty.
5. Kevin Durant
Forward, Golden State Warriors | Previously: 5
27.6 points, 7 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.1 blocks, 56.5 eFG%, 11.5 net rating
Ryan: This guy. The 2018-19 campaign has seen the steadiness of Kevin Durant’s on-court game juxtaposed with the increasingly loud carnival noises off of it. When the Warriors needed Durant to carry the team during Steph Curry’s lost November, he did so ably. The stronger Golden State has gotten, the more Durant seems to have disappeared into the slipstream of their pursuit of a fourth title in five years. It’s been an average season for KD (it’s his best scoring season in the Bay, and he has the second-best offensive rating in the league, but some of his advanced numbers—win shares, VORP—have dipped a bit), but KD’s average is historically good. Durant’s placement on this list isn’t punitive; it’s a testament to the reality of his Warriors tenure: For as long as he shares the court with Steph, Klay, and Dray, his pristine game will be greeted with shrugs. And no one understands this better than he does.
4. Stephen Curry
Guard, Golden State Warriors | Previously: 8
28.6 points, 5.2 assists, 5.1 rebounds, 1.2 steals, 61.9 eFG%, 13.1 net rating
Verrier: Curry and Durant tied in our final tabulations, but Curry comes out on top when you remove the highest and lowest votes for each. There’s some irony there, given that Durant is the more consistent of the two (he hasn’t missed a game, and has just four games under 20 points this season; Curry has missed 11 games and has eight games under 20) whereas Curry’s peaks are higher (seven games of 40 points or more; Durant has four). But the sideshow surrounding Durant’s inevitable departure has only further entrenched Steph as the baby face of the franchise, and thus the poster boy of all of their exploits.
3. Paul George
Guard, Oklahoma City Thunder | Previously: 14
28.7 points, 8 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 2.3 steals, 54.6 eFG%, 10.4 net rating
Ryan: Right now, the Thunder wing is the best basketball player on the planet. I’m sure everyone—coaches, players, media—needed the All-Star break, but I find it deeply annoying that Paul George’s February was interrupted for an exhibition game. Giannis has the narrative, and Harden has the heroism, but no player on this list has a game with fewer caveats than George. He’s missed one game this season. He plays both ends of the floor with equal brilliance, leading the league’s third-best defense, sinking the third-most 3s in the NBA, and managing to lead all players in real plus-minus and win shares. Over the last two and a half weeks, he has laid waste to the NBA, scoring 43 in Miami, 37 against Boston, 39 against the Magic, and consecutive 40-plus nights against Houston and Portland. As Dan Devine wrote last week, he is the perfect 2019 player, and what we’re seeing is the perfect marriage of person and moment.
2. James Harden
Guard, Houston Rockets | Previously: 9
36.6 points, 7.7 assists, 6.7 rebounds, 2.2 steals, 54.6 eFG%, 3.2 net rating
Chau: Imagine Atlas, with the celestial spheres on his shoulders, deciding that the perfect solution to his eternal nightmare was to take one step forward and two steps back, forever. And then imagine that counterintuitive thought process being the best decision of his life. This is where we are with Harden, who has crafted his latest and greatest perversion of the game and exploited it to bend the sport to his will. The Rockets have played 31 games in the past two months, and Harden has averaged 41.5 points over that span, scoring no fewer than 30 points in any single game. The Beard now has the second-longest consecutive streak of 30-point performances, trailing only Wilt Chamberlain, who made history with 65 straight games 57 years ago. Legacy is often a fraught thing to consider while an athlete is still active, but Harden’s performances are rewriting history in real time. We can already feel the way he’s changing the game.
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo
Unicorn, Milwaukee Bucks | Previously: 1
27.2 points, 12.7 rebounds, 6 assists, 1.4 blocks, 59.7 eFG%, 13.7 net rating
Verrier: Only a Herculean effort could keep Harden from an MVP repeat; luckily, Giannis is familiar with his work. The only smudge on the point-guard-forward-center’s comprehensive statistical résumé is his outside shot, and even that’s begun to come around (35 percent from 3 over his past 15 games). If that holds, and he continues to push one of his 10 makes from the field a game behind the 3-point line, Giannis could become the first 30-12 player since Moses Malone in 1981-82. And he’s doing it all for a team that, according to both win percentage and point differential, is better than one of the best teams in history. Pick your favorite definition for MVP—best statistics, the more general “best player,” best player on the best team; Giannis is the answer to all of them.