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The Top 5 Great Players in Bad Situations

An ode to the players doing their best despite being on some of the league’s worst teams

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.

5. De’Aaron Fox, Kings

You’ll notice a theme for this list: dynamic young guards with scoring and passing chops but little organizational support or history of success. At the moment, Fox plays for the best team of the group. Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic join him in a talented—if expensive and unproven—backcourt, and the Kings have a realistic shot at the 8 vs. 9 play-in round this summer in Orlando.

The Kings haven’t made the playoffs or finished with a winning record since 2005-06, when Fox was in elementary school.

Fox will almost certainly be the point guard for the next Sacramento squad to reach the postseason. In just his third season, the lefty has continued to improve as an all-around player after a disastrous rookie showing. His jump shot is still streaky (31 percent from 3 this season, same as when he was a rookie, after jumping to 37 percent last season), but Fox checks off all the other boxes as a lead guard, with solid distribution numbers and increased aggression at the rim. Theoretically, he should grow even more as a player alongside Sacramento’s other youths—but that’s easier said than done for the moribund Kings.

4. Trae Young, Hawks

Here is the best argument for Trae Young as a great player stuck in a bad situation:

  • Hawks’ offensive rating with Young: 111.2 points per 100 possessions; would rank 13th in the league
  • Hawks’ offensive rating without Young: 95.7 points per 100 possessions; would rank last by nearly 10 points

Young plays for a young (sorry) team nearly devoid of scoring options, yet that environment hasn’t limited his offensive genius. Oscar Robertson is the only other player in NBA history with Young’s point and assist averages (29.6 and 9.3, respectively) in his first two seasons, and Young isn’t just a long-range gunner: James Harden is the only player with more made free throws this season than Young, who adds a cool eight points to his nightly total from the line.

Young isn’t Steph Curry—that comparison has always been unfair—but he’ll post All-Star-level numbers for the next decade. On the other hand, here is the worst argument for Trae Young as an overall player and one who contributes to his bad situation:

  • Hawks’ defensive rating without Young: 107.9 points per 100 possessions; would rank eighth in the league
  • Hawks’ defensive rating with Young: 116.1 points per 100 possessions; would rank last

3. Devin Booker, Suns

Five seasons into his career, it still feels as if Booker hasn’t fulfilled his potential. That sense starts with his team performance: The Suns have 17 fewer wins than any other team in that span, and even in an improved 2019-20 season they were on pace for only 33 wins before the postponement. But Booker isn’t blameless either. He rates terribly by advanced defensive metrics—FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR stat, for instance, ranks him 237th out of 250 qualifying players in defensive value—and his middling 3-point accuracy, which sits at 36 percent for both the season and his career, doesn’t match the aesthetics of his smooth shooting stroke.

Yet Booker has also averaged 26-plus points and six-plus assists in each of the last two seasons. Harden is the only other player to match that feat, and every other player who’s done it even once is an All-Star. This season in particular, Booker has seemed to take a step forward in his understanding of and feel for the game. The Suns finally have a positive point differential with him on the floor, after seasons of subpar play.

Playing next to a real point guard in Ricky Rubio, Booker has been better able to pick his spots, meaning similar overall production on greater efficiency. And as one of the youngest players in his draft class, Booker is still just 23 years old, with ample room for continued maturation if his surrounding talent can ever make an accompanying leap.

2. Karl-Anthony Towns, Timberwolves

Towns is an unprecedented player in NBA history. I’ve used a version of this chart before, and it’s no less astounding with another year of statistics added. Here are the 21 players in NBA history to average 20-plus points and 11-plus rebounds through their age-24 seasons, sorted by made 3-pointers.

20+ Points and 11+ Rebounds Per Game Through Age 24

Player Seasons PPG RPG 3-Pointers 3-Point %
Player Seasons PPG RPG 3-Pointers 3-Point %
Karl-Anthony Towns 2016-20 22.7 11.8 507 39.6%
Joel Embiid 2017-19 24.3 11.4 181 31.5%
Charles Barkley 1985-88 21.2 11.9 83 24.3%
Tim Duncan 1998-2001 22.1 12.0 9 16.4%
Shaquille O'Neal 1993-97 27.0 12.5 1 6.7%
Hakeem Olajuwon 1985-87 22.4 11.6 1 20.0%
David Robinson 1990 24.3 12.0 0 0.0%
Moses Malone 1977-80 20.9 15.1 0 0.0%
Larry Kenon 1977 21.9 11.3 0 n/a
Maurice Lucas 1977 20.2 11.4 0 n/a
Bob McAdoo 1973-76 28.5 12.6 0 n/a
Spencer Haywood 1971-74 25.6 12.9 0 n/a
Bob Lanier 1971-73 21.7 12.4 0 n/a
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 1970-72 31.8 15.7 0 n/a
Elvin Hayes 1969-70 27.9 17.0 0 n/a
Walt Bellamy 1962-64 28.8 17.4 0 n/a
Oscar Robertson 1961-63 29.8 11.0 0 n/a
Wilt Chamberlain 1960-61 38.0 27.1 0 n/a
Bailey Howell 1960-61 20.7 12.5 0 n/a
Elgin Baylor 1959 24.9 15.0 0 n/a
Bob Pettit 1955-57 23.6 14.9 0 n/a

Nobody else in NBA history has combined Towns’s talents for traditional big-man play and perimeter scoring—and he showcased new volume in the latter category this season, canning 41 percent of his 7.9 3-point attempts per game. Like the other players on this list, Towns has never proved he can anchor a capable defense, and in his case as a center, that’s a greater concern. But there’s seemingly no limits on his physical abilities or feel for the game, and now that he finally has a friend at his side in D’Angelo Russell, Towns has his best—and perhaps last—chance to make matters work in Minnesota.

1. Bradley Beal, Wizards

Hey look, here’s another player on this list who ranks just behind Harden in a particular category. In this case, it’s the simplest stat of all: Beal’s 30.5 points per game this season place him second in the league. And the Wizards guard had been on an even more torrid pace before the season’s postponement, with 33.8 points per game after returning from injury in mid-January.

There’s a reason so many contenders have been connected to a potential Beal trade. Even as his defensive interest has waned on a ghastly Wizards unit—this season, Beal actually rates worse than both Booker and Young by FiveThirtyEight’s defensive accounting, and his team has the worst defense in the league—Beal has blossomed with added responsibilities on the other end. His assist rate has increased four seasons in a row, and especially with John Wall injured, he has become the lead scorer and distributor for a surprisingly peppy Wizards offense. If Beal can look like a star playing alongside Rui Hachimura and Moe Wagner, imagine what he could do with LeBron James and Anthony Davis, or Nikola Jokic, or [insert any other set of stars here].

And unlike the other players on this list, Beal has tasted the joy of playoff victory earlier in his career. He’s won three series and boasts healthy postseason numbers. It’s just a shame, for his sake, that he chose to stick with a roster with such a narrow path to any chance of long-term success.

Also receiving multiple votes: Blake Griffin, Ben Simmons, Kevin Love, Nikola Vucevic