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The Top 5 Wings in the NBA

Can any player take Kawhi’s crown? We ranked the best perimeter players in the game today.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Basketball is (maybe, hopefully) on the horizon. To help reintegrate us to a life of Giannis hammer dunks, James Harden dribbling for 24 seconds, and 76ers fans yelling at you for some reason, we’re rolling out top-five rankings in 20 different categories. All rankings were voted on by The Ringer staff unless noted.

Below is our list of the top five wings in the NBA today. For this ranking, positions are defined by Basketball-Reference’s designation for the 2019-20 season. For example, LeBron James is listed as a PG, so he’s a guard. Paul George is a SF, so he’s a wing. Giannis is a PF, so he’s a big. Injured players are also eligible. Here are the results.

5. Jayson Tatum, Celtics

The only thing more insufferable than a Boston sports fan when they are wrong is a Boston sports fan when they are right. Let’s give them credit: Tatum is just as good as advertised, if not better. For all the doubts anyone had about his potential in his first two seasons—including when he leaned a little too hard into the Mamba Mentality—the third-year forward has put them all to rest by taking a massive leap this season. Tatum is averaging a career-high 23.6 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists, and 1.4 steals, while shooting 39.8 percent on 7.1 3-point attempts per game. He’s developed into a dangerous scorer on all three levels and matured into a defensive stopper under Brad Stevens, teaming with Jaylen Brown to form one of the best wing duos in the league.

Kemba Walker has provided a steady hand at the point in place of Kyrie Irving, but the Celtics now undeniably belong to Tatum, who in February made his first All-Star team and was named the East’s Player of the Month. He’s one of just three players 21 or younger to rank in the top 20 in scoring average this season (the others are Luka Doncic and Trae Young) and he was exploding just as the season pressed pause, topping 30 points in six of his last eight games. While the rest of the players on this list are all in their 30s, Tatum is just entering his prime, making it all the more likely he’ll end up atop this sort of ranking one day.

4. Jimmy Butler, Heat

It’s rare for one of the NBA’s best players to be on his fourth team in four years, but then again, there aren’t a lot of dudes like Jimmy Butler. The mercurial wing has at long last seemingly found a perfect home with the Heat, where he’s allowed, if not encouraged, to burn the candle at both ends. The star and the franchise share the same ethos, deploying a win-at-all-costs mentality that rubs some the wrong way and leads others to victory. Minnesota and Philly were more of the former; Miami has been the latter. Butler’s arrival has turned what was a sub-.500 team last season into the East’s fourth-best squad, while leading the Heat in points (20.2), assists (6.1), steals (1.7), and gut checks (∞).

There are only two things holding Butler back from being higher on this list. For one, he’s never been to the conference finals, let alone the Finals. (Spoiler alert: The guy at no. 1 stopped him from getting there last year). Two, his 3-point shooting (24.8 percent on just 2.2 attempts per game) remains the one weakness in his otherwise flawless game. OK, that and the whole alienating teammates thing. But as a basketball player, Butler has put in the blood, sweat, and tears (not necessarily his) to become one of the league’s most well-rounded players.

3. Paul George, Clippers

It’s tough to find a more versatile player than George. Plug him into any situation and he’s likely the perfect fit. He was a leading man in Indiana, a perfect sidekick to Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City, and now an interchangeable costar with Kawhi Leonard in Los Angeles. Whether he’s tasked with taking over a game or quietly impacting it on both ends, George is a threat to do anything, anytime, anywhere on the floor. He makes Swiss army knives seem rudimentary. Not only is he one of the league’s premier defenders, capable of bodying bigs and staying in front of guards, but he’s also an elite volume scorer, dangerous off the dribble or catch. He’s averaging 25.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, 4.8 assists, and 1.6 steals per 36 minutes this season, while attempting a staggering 9.8 triples per game and hitting 39.9 percent. He may not be the biggest star on this list, but he’s undoubtedly one of the league’s most valuable players thanks to his do-everything game.

2. Kevin Durant, Nets

It’s a shame that when you hear “Kevin Durant” you think about so many things besides “arguably the greatest basketball player alive.” That’s no knock on LeBron or Giannis, but a credit to what KD can do at the height of his powers. The superteams and burner accounts have caused their share of distractions, but Durant is as gifted of a player as the league has ever seen. He’s a four-time scoring champ, two-time Finals MVP, and he’s made every All-Star Game since 2010 and been named All-NBA every year but one. His 27.02 career points per game rank sixth all time, and at age 31, even coming off an Achilles tear, he still is in the prime of his career. After sharing the ball in Golden State, will we see a more prolific version in Brooklyn? Or will we see an older, wiser, more efficient version of KD à la LeBron’s final years in Miami? Durant’s offensive game is so diverse and multifaceted that even a step back in athleticism wouldn’t keep him from being one of the league’s most cagey scorers. With Durant confirming he won’t return this season, he’ll likely have had a year and a half to rehab before debuting for the Nets in 2020-21. Here’s hoping his third act is as strong as his first two—and features more appreciation for his talents.

1. Kawhi Leonard, Clippers

Leonard was already considered “one of the NBA’s best players” before last postseason. He’d won a championship and Finals MVP with the Spurs and was named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year twice (while finishing a close third in 2017’s MVP voting). But unless your name is Uncle Dennis, there’s no way you knew just how dominant he could be. Then his first postseason with the Raptors began and we found out. After swiftly dismissing the Magic, Kawhi hit a series-winning shot that changed Toronto sports forever and downed the 76ers in Game 7. Then he outdueled the NBA’s MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, in the Eastern Conference finals. And to top it off, he dethroned Steph and KD’s superteam Warriors in the Finals, claiming his second Finals MVP along the way and finishing the postseason with an incredible stat line: 39.1 minutes, 30.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.7 steals, and 49/37/88 shooting splits. It will likely go down as the greatest one-and-done in league history. After winning Toronto a championship, Kawhi then went out and won the offseason, too, pulling off a stunning power move to the Clippers and bringing George with him.

When the NBA restarts, Kawhi and the Clips will have as good of a chance as anyone of taking home the Larry O’Brien trophy. LeBron is the King. Giannis is the MVP. But it’s still Kawhi’s league until further notice.

Other wings receiving multiple votes: Pascal Siakam, Khris Middleton