With the 2020-21 season drawing to a close, the Ringer staff has reconvened to rank the best players in the NBA—with a few new wrinkles to the usual process. Like in years past, voters were given a simple/painful task: Rank the best 25 players in the NBA today. Only this year, we limited the panel to our pool of regular analysts: Dan Devine, J. Kyle Mann, Rob Mahoney, and Kevin O’Connor. Resident stats wizard Zach Kram also chipped in “By the numbers” analysis for each player of the list, and a video debating the top spot will drop in the coming weeks. Without further ado, the results, based on average ranking, are as follows. (All stats through Sunday; all records through Monday.)
25. Karl-Anthony Towns
Team: Timberwolves (20-45) | Position: Big
24.8 points, 10.9 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.3 blocks, 55.7 eFG%, -2.8 net rating, 43 GP
J. Kyle Mann: If we were simply asking “Who’s the best player on the planet?” I think KAT is low. He might be the best volume shooting center in the history of basketball, and although he’s diverged from the track that we expected for him initially, we shouldn’t let that distract us from the significance of that accolade. We’ve had 59 instances of a center posting a season with at least 200 3-point attempts, and Karl owns five of the top seven most efficient seasons, 2020-21 being one of them.
Overall—nah, this isn’t exactly the mind-boggling prime output season that we might want from one of our foremost offensive frontcourt talents, but he’s still critical to Minnesota’s ... is “success” the word? We’ll call it “relative stability.” The Wolves are plus-9.9 points per 100 possessions with Towns on the court. This roster would be lost in the timber without him.
We often think of Towns as a stiff-hipped pull-up shooter or a back-you-down-and-baby-hook-you post scorer (a.k.a. “The Kenny Payne Special”), but I don’t think KAT gets enough credit for the things he does in the spaces between, specifically his footwork when navigating traffic and getting to the rim. New coach Chris Finch has Towns operating away from the basket, which allows KAT to attack the basket and create more than ever, and is it possible that we’ve also underrated his creativity as a passer?
Towns has been a productive kite in a hurricane for the past few seasons, but with the growth of Anthony Edwards, the thrilling surprise of Jaden McDaniels, and D’Angelo Russell’s early success playing next to KAT, the Wolves quietly seem like they’re a piece away from at least being interesting.
By the numbers: There are just five seasons in NBA history in which a player averaged double-digit rebounds and at least 2.5 3-pointers per game. Two of them belong to Towns: last season and this season.
24. Jrue Holiday
Team: Bucks (40-24) | Position: Guard
17.3 points, 4.5 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.7 steals, 56.9 eFG%, 9.2 net rating, 52 GP
Dan Devine: The price Milwaukee paid for Holiday—in terms of both the players and draft picks they sent to New Orleans during the offseason, and the nine-figure extension they gave him last month—was mighty steep. But it’s hard to argue that he hasn’t been worth the money thus far, given both how beautifully he’s fit alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton … and how brilliantly he performed without Giannis when the two-time MVP was out nursing a knee injury.
With Giannis in and out of the lineup for a 13-game stretch starting on March 22, Holiday averaged 25.7 points, 8.2 assists, and 5.9 rebounds per 36 minutes of non-Giannis floor time. His usage spiked in those non-Giannis minutes, and his shooting exploded from “most efficient of his career” to “absolutely scorching.” It was a small sample born out of necessity, but when needed, he produced—a 27 percent usage rate, 34 percent assist rate, 65.4 true shooting—like one of the most devastating offensive forces in the league.
We tend to think of Jrue as an all-world defender and complementary playmaker; we don’t think of him like that. Seeing it in action, though, made me appreciate why so many people have for so long described Holiday as the most underrated player in the league—and helped make it crystal clear why the Bucks both forked over a king’s ransom to get him and backed up the Brink’s truck to keep him.
By the numbers: When Holiday was injured midseason, the Bucks lost five games in a row. With Holiday on the court, the Bucks haven’t lost more than two in a row all season.
23. Bam Adebayo
Team: Heat (35-30) | Position: Big
19.1 points, 9.1 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.1 blocks, 57.0 eFG%, 1.1 net rating, 58 GP
Devine: Time and again, guards work switches against Miami’s defense, drawing Adebayo out into deep water in isolation, thinking they’re going to torch him like they do to the plodding bigs plugging the middle elsewhere in the NBA. And time and again, they learn what Couper Moorhead of Heat.com calls “the Lesson”—that Bam ain’t those other plodding bigs, and that trying to attack him one-on-one isn’t a mismatch ... at least, not in the way that they thought.
This is a very loud way for Devin Booker to learn #TheLesson. pic.twitter.com/pzdyWlM8Ig— Couper Moorhead (@CoupNBA) April 14, 2021
Adebayo switches on screens more often than any other player in the league, and more than holds his own, even against the league’s best guards. Even while shouldering a larger-than-ever share of the offensive burden in Miami this season, Bam hasn’t lost the defensive tenacity and malleability that made the Heat fall in love with him coming out of Kentucky. If anything, he’s gotten even better on that end, cementing his reputation as one of the game’s most complete stoppers with every new lesson he teaches.
By the numbers: After splitting time between power forward and center in the 2019-20 regular season, Adebayo moved fully to center for the Heat’s playoff run. He’s stayed there in 2020-21, spending 99 percent of his minutes at the 5, per Cleaning the Glass.
22. Donovan Mitchell
Team: Jazz (47-18) | Position: Guard
26.4 points, 4.4 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.0 steals, 52.0 eFG%, 7.9 net rating, 53 GP
Rob Mahoney: There’s something a bit tragic about the defender who feels he’s done enough—after watching film, digesting the scouting report, and zeroing in with complete focus—only to find himself deep in a stance on the perimeter, waiting for Mitchell to make the first move. So much of what Mitchell creates begins this way, with the Jazz guard theoretically well covered by what are often bigger, longer defenders. Then the theory breaks. Mitchell stutter steps by or slams his defender into a screen. Maybe he just dribbles right past by attacking a half-beat earlier than expected. Where he distinguishes himself is through literal separation; high-level playoff defenses might challenge Mitchell to make split-second reads against layers of evolving coverage, but even those schemes operate under the assumption that the first layer is pretty much toast.
Only four players in the league this season have scored more unassisted points than Mitchell, according to data from PBP Stats—notable not only for its sheer volume, but the contrast between that sort of iso scoring and the way Utah runs its offense more broadly. The Jazz sustain themselves through the patience of their ball movement, but in moments of desperation, they simplify their attack to beat the clock or minimize risk. It’s Mitchell who allows them to change gears as needed, merging the ideals of Utah’s system with the practicalities of an NBA game through the pressure he applies with a live dribble.
By the numbers: Mitchell is the fourth Jazz player to reach 25 points per game in a season. The other three—Karl Malone, Adrian Dantley, and Pete Maravich—are all in the Hall of Fame.
21. Julius Randle
Team: Knicks (37-28) | Position: Big
24.2 points, 10.3 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 0.3 blocks, 52.6 eFG%, 3.7 net rating, 63 GP
Kevin O’Connor: An open mind has changed Randle’s career. After six seasons of mixed returns, Randle altered his tendencies in a way that has dramatically improved his game. No longer is he an unreliable defender who loses focus and lets his intensity waver. This season, Randle became one of the NBA’s most impactful and versatile defenders. He stays focused and hustles—habits that have even improved throughout the season. In the past, Randle was a black hole whenever he got an offensive touch. It disgusted fans whenever he’d barrel into a crowded paint instead of finding an open teammate. Now, he’s a playmaking hub for the Knicks, and he’s even becoming a go-to scorer because of his improved shot.
Randle is now one of the best players in the NBA, and that’s all due to his mindset and the work he put in to find a new version of himself. There’s a lesson in there for all of us.
By the numbers: Randle isn’t just scoring and shooting and passing better than ever before. He’s also played 113 minutes more than any other player—basically the equivalent of three extra games.
20. Devin Booker
Team: Suns (46-18) | Position: Wing
25.6 points, 4.1 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 0.9 steals, 53.7 eFG%,7.6 net rating, 60 GP
Mahoney: There are scorers with a signature, and then there are scorers like Booker—comfortable in so many spaces and actions that it can be a challenge to decide how to even defend them. Booker can beat you by curling into midrange jumpers; he can exploit matchups by posting smaller guards; he can make longer wings chase him around screens, only to change directions and attack the basket once they catch up. Playing with Chris Paul helps him to leverage all of those threats in phases throughout the course of a game, but only because Booker’s breadth of ability is the skeleton key.
There’s proof of that in the Suns’ minutes without Paul, when Booker runs even more pick-and-roll and keeps the offense absolutely sizzling. It doesn’t really matter whether he’s surrounded by starters or reserves; there’s always a way for Booker to get going, to improvise a bucket through relentless creativity. As a genuine three-level scorer, his power comes from possession. Defenders don’t have much choice but to take every hesitation and shot fake seriously. The next one could be the pull-up that puts the game away.
By the numbers: Booker is one of eight players in NBA history with 9,000 career points through their age-24 season. The others? LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Anthony Davis, and Shaquille O’Neal.
19. Bradley Beal
Team: Wizards (30-35) | Position: Guard
31.0 points, 4.7 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.2 steals, 53.1 eFG%, -1.1 net rating, 55 GP
Mann: Some time ago my wife and I went to a Mexican restaurant on a random weeknight to snag a bite, and we (luckily) wandered into what appeared to be the saddest karaoke night of all time. At one point a middle-aged guy resembling George R.R. Martin got up, quietly ambled across the brightly colored room to hand his CD to the DJ, and waited silently on stage for his instrumental cue. The track was immediately recognizable. It was “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” I was elated, because I expected something epically terrible and wildly entertaining. Joke was on me—it was amazing. He was obviously technically gifted, but this guy also fucking performed. The thing that really struck me, aside from his brilliance, was that his dazzling talent seemed totally out of place in this ordinary restaurant that barely clapped when he was finished.
I feel like that sometimes when I’m watching Bradley Beal. I’m not saying Wizards fans don’t appreciate Beal—they adore him—and the second half of April has been fun for them, whipping up on some of the younger teams. It’s just that there are nights on League Pass when I see Beal, now hitting his absolute prime at 27 years old, on a team that’s 30-35, and think, we’ve got to get this guy in an environment where meaningful basketball is being played. To quote Colin Powell: A prime is a terrible thing to waste. OK, he didn’t actually say that, but the point stands. Beal’s 31.0 PPG (on 59.4 percent TS)—second behind Steph Curry in scoring—and his 3.3 BPM is a career high.
It’s important to fully digest how dynamic Beal is. This is not a guy who you just run a weak-side pindown for or have him stand on the wing and hope he’s hitting shots off the catch. He can kill you that way, but Beal’s off-the-bounce footwork and economy of movement are among the best in the league. He’s deceptively fast on his first and second steps, and his head-and-shoulder hesitation bag is deep and lethal. He’s like a chess player who knows how many moves it’ll take to bring you down, and he refuses to stray from that design.
Beal has also blossomed into a productive pick-and-roll scorer (.984 PPP, 79th percentile, per Synergy) in the decline and subsequent departure of John Wall. His reps in that area have surged in the past two seasons, and he’s been particularly productive in high ball screens, where he’s one of the most efficient players in the league at attacking the basket and getting to the line consistently. The Wizards fans I know seem content: They’ve enjoyed this guy, but moving on is understandable at this point. He’s a special prize who, if they move him, will hopefully yield a special return.
By the numbers: Beal is the 12th player in NBA history to score 30-plus points per game in consecutive seasons. The first 11 comprise 10 Hall of Famers and James Harden.
18. Rudy Gobert
Team: Jazz (47-18) | Position: Big
14.4 points, 13.4 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 2.8 blocks, 67.9 eFG%, 15.4 net rating, 64 GP
O’Connor: When you think about Gobert, what’s the first thing that pops into your mind? For some people, it’s Curry putting him in the spin cycle. Or maybe more recently, it’s him leaving D’Angelo Russell wide open to win a game. These lowlights go viral, while his moments of brilliance so rarely get noticed. Gobert induces fear into opponents when he’s lurking around the rim. The Jazz allow only 0.85 points per pick-and-roll when Gobert is defending the screen, which Second Spectrum says is the league’s highest mark of players to log at least 400 plays. It’s his presence that makes Utah third best in defensive rating this season.
On offense, the threat of him flushing an alley-oop causes defenses to collapse into the paint and free up shooters. He might not shoot 3s, but he’s the reason teammates are able to get so many wide-open looks from behind the arc. The focus is often on what Gobert doesn’t do instead of what he does, which is unfortunate. But Gobert will keep on producing, even if no one is noticing.
By the numbers: On shots within 6 feet of the basket, opposing players are shooting 14 percentage points worse than expected with Gobert as the closest defender, per NBA.com—the greatest differential for any player who’s defended at least 250 shots.
17. Jayson Tatum
Team: Celtics (34-31) | Position: Wing
26.5 points, 7.4 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.1 steals, 53.1 eFG%, 2.9 net rating, 58 GP
Mahoney: What a strange season it’s been for Tatum, who tested positive for COVID back in January, returned to one of the most turbulent Celtics seasons in recent memory, and then moved his game forward while managing lingering, long-haul symptoms. Just a few weeks ago, Tatum revealed that he’s been using an inhaler before games to help with his breathing. You wouldn’t know he needed it by the way he’s cutting, posting, and breaking down defenders—especially as his production hit season-high marks in April.
As always, it’s the balance that impresses most. Tatum is the kind of star who keeps every option open, allowing teammates to be their best selves and Celtics coach Brad Stevens to troubleshoot as needed. If it’s easiest for Tatum to go to work from the midpost or top of the arc, he can—but his game is no less effective if he’s moved around the floor, across positions, or between defensive matchups. Any two-way player of Tatum’s size is an incredible strategic luxury, but his technical prowess has made him indispensable. The only reason Boston’s season feels underwhelming is because Tatum is good enough to raise expectations.
By the numbers: Tatum has more than doubled his assist rate from two seasons ago, from 10 percent of teammates’ baskets to 21 this season.
16. Kyrie Irving
Team: Nets (43-22) | Position: Guard
26.8 points, 5.0 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.3 steals, 56.4 eFG%, 5.4 net rating, 48 GP
Mann: Irving’s enigmatic existence as a hoops star is bizarre and somewhat unprecedented, to the point that it’s difficult to have a conversation purely about him as a basketball player. But the fact remains that Irving is still one of the most impactful offensive players on the planet.
His multifaceted scoring—driven by his command of misdirection and his ability to decelerate hard in the middle portion of the floor—makes him extremely difficult to cover on an island, in open space. With heavy-load scorers next to him, his versatility is especially hard to take away. It’s been typical volume and typical efficiency from Irving, but he’s as active as ever getting downhill. He’s scored more points in the paint than ever before, and among jump shooters who’ve put up 400-plus attempts, Irving is seventh in the league in field goal percentage. He’s also fifth in isolation points per chance at 1.138.
What Brooklyn as a whole has done this season is equally bizarre and unprecedented—not since Wynton Marsalis and Willie Nelson teamed up (just go with it) have we had megastars come together on a big stage with virtually no rehearsal time, but that’s what KD, Kyrie, and the Beard are doing. This trio has played a whopping 186 minutes together in only seven games, and yet the Nets are second in the East at 43-22, and Irving is the most consistent producer throughout that time. It speaks to the talent and experience of these three stars that the general assumption is that they’ll still be extremely difficult to stop from reaching the Finals.
By the numbers: Evidence of the lethality of Irving’s shooting: He’s at 38.1 percent from 3 this season, which is comfortably above average in the NBA … yet his worst 3-point percentage in half a decade.
15. Jimmy Butler
Team: Heat (35-30) | Position: Wing
21.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 2.1 steals, 50.7 eFG%, 4.6 net rating, 48 GP
Devine: Jimmy entered the bubble last summer as a five-time All-Star widely regarded as one of the finest two-way players in the sport. Inside, he became something more, fully embracing the odd-as-hell circumstances, fueling Miami’s thrilling run to the Finals, and authoring a pair of unforgettable performances against the Lakers before bowing out. The Heat, on the whole, have struggled in fits and starts this season to try to recapture the magic they found in Disney World.
Butler, though? He’s been playing like he never left:
Jimmy’s Still in the Bubble
|Stats via Basketball-Reference.com.|
Injury, illness, and inconsistency have left holes all over the Heat’s roster this season. Butler has stretched his game to try to fill them, scoring and facilitating efficiently in a larger offensive role while continuing to act as an All-Defensive Team–caliber stopper on opponents’ top options. I’m not sure the Heat will find enough answers by the play-in games to replicate last season’s run. I am sure, though, that I would want nothing to do with a win-or-go-home game against Jimmy, who showed in the bubble he’s good enough to be the best player on any floor he steps on, and who’s spent this season proving that wasn’t a fluke.
By the numbers: Butler is shooting just 20.4 percent on 3-pointers, yet he’s still averaging 21.5 points per game. That’s the worst long-range accuracy for any of the 30 qualified players this season averaging at least 20 points.
14. Paul George
Team: Clippers (43-22) | Position: Wing
23.7 points, 6.6 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.2 steals, 56.0 eFG%, 10.5 net rating, 49 GP
Mahoney: As a public figure, George can be rather bumbling—tripping through odd sound bites, needless excuses, and one inexplicable beef after another. As a player, he’s just smooth as hell. The second act of George’s career began when he really cleaned up his handle, and ever since, he’s shown how easy scoring 20 points a night can be. This is his most efficient season yet. Whether he’s handling the ball or angling to get open, George moves at a glide, slinking around defenders and through traffic. His game is just smooth enough to be occasionally frustrating. If you can get anywhere you want on the floor, why not get to the rim? It’s an easy criticism, and given the way George produces and defends, a largely irrelevant one. Plus, if your jumper looked this good, you might just fall in love with it, too.
The truth is that George does so much more to paper over the Clippers’ limitations than he’s given credit for, starting with the way he’s shared playmaking duties for one of the highest-achieving offenses in the league. His all-around game gives a weird, somewhat flawed roster the credentials of a serious contender.
By the numbers: Out of 28 players this season attempting at least seven 3-pointers per game, Steph Curry is naturally first in accuracy. George is second.
13. Zion Williamson
Team: Pelicans (29-36) | Position: Point Big
27.0 points, 7.1 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 0.6 blocks, 62.1 eFG%, 1.8 net rating, 59 GP
O’Connor: What a privilege it is to watch this man hoop. Only 20 years old and averaging a Shaq-like stat line of 27 points on 62 percent from the field. He’s a dominant force who keeps getting better. This season, we’ve seen Zion morph into a playmaker who brings the ball up the court and runs pick-and-roll. Amazingly, he still has so much untapped upside to be unleashed—as long as he continues to develop his ball handling and jumper, and the pieces around him improve.
By the numbers: Williamson is taking 13.3 shots per game in the restricted area. That’s 2.2 more attempts than anyone else in any season in the play-by-play era (dating back to 1996-97).
12. Chris Paul
Team: Suns (46-18) | Position: Guard
16.2 points, 4.5 rebounds, 8.8 assists, 1.4 steals, 55.2 eFG%, 6.5 net rating, 63 GP
Devine: The bubble gave us our first indicator that Phoenix would be good. The second, more telling one, though, was that Chris Paul wanted to go there.
CP3 doesn’t waste time. He’s here to optimize every second, whether it’s walking the dog to try to preserve possessions late in the game, or dramatically changing his diet to try to recover the step he seemed to be losing as he aged. He proved in a surprising All-NBA turn in Oklahoma City last season that he remains a Chopped grand champion, still capable of taking whatever’s in the cupboard and elevating it, and he looked at a Phoenix roster that already featured Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, and Mikal Bridges and said, “Yeah, I can work with this.”
And work he has, turning in one of the most productive seasons ever by a guard on the wrong side of 35 while serving as the straw that stirs the drink for a dynamite team that has blown away even the most optimistic preseason expectations. Booker’s the headliner, but the Suns operate like a classic CP3 team: slow-paced and careful with the ball, elite in the half court, disciplined on defense, excellent in crunch time. He augments both Phoenix’s poise and its snarl.
Bringing in Paul to replace Ricky Rubio promised to raise Phoenix’s floor. But Paul continuing to play at this level also vaults the Suns’ ceiling, all the way up to the rarefied air reserved for title contenders.
By the numbers: Paul is taking 63 percent of his shots from the midrange, per Cleaning the Glass—tied for the largest portion in the league. And he’s making 53 percent of them, which ranks in the 95th percentile.
11. Damian Lillard
Team: Trail Blazers (36-29) | Position: Guard
28.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, 7.6 assists, 0.9 steals, 53.6 eFG%, 3.1 net rating, 59 GP
Mahoney: Forgive me for belaboring the Dame Time of it all, but how is it even possible that a 6-foot-2 guard could be so good in the highest-leverage situations as to completely bail out an otherwise one-sided team? The break-even Blazers are one of the NBA’s best outfits in the clutch, owed mostly to Lillard’s daring and shot-making with the game on the line. We really can’t overstate the value of that—especially when Lillard’s late-game performance could be the difference between Portland finishing the season as a play-in team and disastrously sliding out of the picture entirely.
The one shot, game on the line conversation can be a bit reductive, but it’s also revealing to see how opponents react to that premise. Lillard can push a playoff-level team to full-on crisis. Panic switches, flailing miscommunications, out-of-character traps—anything and everything is possible when Dame has the ball in his hands late in a close game, and the Blazers rightly trust him not just to hit shots, but to make the best possible decisions. In that capacity, Lillard delivers for the full 48. He manages the game, he investigates the coverage, and when the bell finally tolls, he rips out an opponent’s still-beating heart.
By the numbers: Lillard has scored 149 points in clutch situations this season, per NBA.com. That’s 20 more than anyone else.
10. Luka Doncic
Team: Mavericks (36-28) | Position: Guard
28.6 points, 8.0 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 1.0 steals, 55.6 eFG%, 3.8 net rating, 58 GP
O’Connor: Luka placed fourth in MVP voting in 2020 at age 20, in only his second season. It was the greatest sophomore season anyone has ever had, except arguably LeBron when he averaged 27-7-7 in 2004-05. LeBron placed sixth in MVP voting that season and wouldn’t win his first until 2009. Luka won’t win his first in the 2020-21 season, but he belongs in the top-five conversation again because he’s even better than he was last season. He’s better at shooting. He’s better at defense. He’s better at leading a team through adversity. He has carried the Mavericks through Kristaps Porzingis’s absences, a constantly changing rotation due to injuries, and the second-most games missed due to the COVID-19 health and safety protocols. Dallas is competing for a top-six seed in the playoffs largely because of another leap by Luka.
By the numbers: Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are the only players in NBA history with multiple All-NBA appearances through their age-21 seasons. Doncic will join them this season.
9. Anthony Davis
Team: Lakers (37-28) | Position: Big
21.3 points, 8.0 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.8 blocks, 52.6 eFG%, 4.6 net rating, 29 GP
Mann: It’s true that Davis has barely played this season. He missed 30 games starting in mid-February, but he’s still in the conversation for most versatile, utterly dominant two-way frontcourt player in the world. I actually had him ranked much higher.
Offensively, it’s been an unremarkable season by Brow’s standards: He’s less active at the rim and he’s leaned heavily on his face-up game. Maybe that’s to avoid risk of injury, but I think that’s eaten into his overall efficiency.
Defensively, he’s still a force. AD’s recovery speed, positional intelligence, and general disruptiveness make him one of the most impactful and skilled defenders in the NBA. At full health and fully humming, I don’t think there’s anyone better. It’s a simple calculus: He gives a ton and takes a ton away. Last season, among defenders who logged at least 1,000 possessions guarding screens, Davis had the lowest points per chance allowed in the league at .877. He was only put in position to defend screens 20.04 times per 100 possessions, the second-lowest amount among that sample. In other words, it was a fool’s errand to go at him.
His incredible catch radius on the offensive end also allows him to bother or stifle passing activity in and around the paint, and everybody in the league knows it. Driving in Davis’s general direction is enough to create indecision or hesitation. Back in the mid-2000s, Bravo ran a special about the scariest movie moments. In it, panelists described what made watching Jaws so terrifying—after encountering that terror, you were never swimming in open water with a clear mind again. That’s what it’s like to attempt to create offense around Anthony Davis. He lingers in the back of your mind.
His efficiencies in this area are down from last season, but the glimpses indicate that he’s still got the ability to flip the switch on in the playoffs. Watch Doncic punt on challenging him initially on this drive, kick it to Kleber, who fakes and drives at Davis and also decides not to attack him. Davis basically makes this a no-fly zone, challenging this skip pass to Luka to the point where its float time allows him to recover and heavily contest the shot. He’s a monster.
By the numbers: Davis is struggling with his 3-point percentage in a small sample—but he’s converting at a career-best clip from both the restricted area and the midrange.
8. James Harden
Team: Nets (43-22) | Position: Guard
25.4 points, 8.7 rebounds, 11 assists, 1.3 steals, 54.5 eFG%, 2.7 net rating, 34 GP
Devine: “I don’t know, man. It’s been, like, three years of almost nothing but isolation. Can Harden even play regular basketball anymore?”
As it turns out: yep.
“All right, sure, he can run actual plays and stuff, and he’s willing to cut his usage damn near in half when he plays with KD and Kyrie. But what about when they’re not on the floor? Is he going to be able to carry this team like he did in Houston?”
“Wait: So when he’s flanked by Hall of Famers, he lays back and runs the offense like Magic, and when he’s not, he snaps right back to being a do-everything MVP type?”
“... Shit, that’s pretty impressive.”
By the numbers: Harden leads the league in isolation possessions since moving to Brooklyn, but he’s averaging only eight isos per game—about half of his average in his last two full seasons in Houston. He also ranks in the 86th percentile in isolation efficiency.
7. Giannis Antetokounmpo
Team: Bucks (40-24) | Position: Big
28.4 points, 11.1 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.3 blocks, 59.9 eFG%, 10.5 net rating, 54 GP
Mahoney: Tempting as it may be to think of offense and defense as discrete from one another, every push in transition blurs the line between them. Giannis absolutely dominates these sorts of gray areas. If a smaller opponent has to pick him up in transition, he dunks. If a like-sized defender sprints in his path but meets Giannis too late, he dunks. If the Bucks set a drag screen for Giannis and the defense is forced to switch, he dunks. Overreact in his direction at any time, and a knock-down shooter will get target practice from beyond the arc. You can apply this same sort of no-win logic to many of the game’s in-between spaces, or any scenario that would force a less-than-optimal defender to contend with a titan.
His size just makes it too easy for Milwaukee to turn the smallest momentary advantage into the highest-efficiency shots. Quality playoff teams try to minimize those vulnerabilities as best they can, but there’s only so much that can be done to stay out of defensive rotation, where Antetokounmpo can step over smaller guards and create opportunities from offensive rebounds. Any hope that opponents have of creating their own easy points in transition runs into the same massive problem: the reigning Defensive Player of the Year with the same size advantage, ready to meet them at the rim and ruin their day. Chaos is an inescapable part of the NBA game. Giannis has managed to make it his own.
By the numbers: Across his two MVP seasons, Giannis averaged 28.5 points, 13.0 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.3 blocks, and 1.1 steals per game on 63 percent true shooting. This season, he’s averaging 28.4 points, 11.1 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.3 blocks, and 1.2 steals per game on 63 percent true shooting. He’s the same player, with nearly the exact same stat line, as when he won back-to-back MVPs.
6. Kawhi Leonard
Team: Clippers (43-22) | Position: Wing
25.5 points, 6.6 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.6 steals, 57.1 eFG%, 11.5 net rating, 47 GP
O’Connor: We so often praise Kawhi for his defensive brilliance and his go-to scoring greatness. But he’s also improved over the years as a playmaker. This season, he’s averaging a career-high 5.1 assists and using the pick-and-roll to destroy defenses. Through May 1, 114 players have logged at least 400 possessions as a pick-and-roll ball handler and Leonard ranks first, leading the Clippers to score 1.12 points per chance, according to Second Spectrum. Leonard is still a score-first player, but adding a new dimension to his game has made him deadlier than ever.
By the numbers: Leonard is averaging 2.6 assists per turnover this season. The best prior ratio of his career was 1.9.
5. Kevin Durant
Team: Nets (43-22) | Position: Big
28.1 points, 6.8 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.2 blocks, 62.4 eFG%, 10.5 net rating, 28 GP
Mann: The buildup to the 2020-21 season was colored by the anxiety of whether or not Durant would be the Slim Reaper whom we’ve watched in awe for the past decade. His season has lacked rhythm in most every sense, but his return to the court has been wildly satisfying, as he’s proved that he’s still one of the world’s most elite shot-makers. He’s been especially efficient in isolation and shooting off the catch, and his effectiveness as an off-the-dribble shooter shows very little sign of having fallen off. Among players attempting at least 100 pull-up jumpers, Durant’s second in the NBA in effective field goal percentage, per Second Spectrum.
If the Nets stay healthy and ramp this thing up, they are a gravitational nightmare for opponents. That’s especially nauseating for defenses when you consider that Durant has stared the biggest moments in the sport in the face and coolly plunged the dagger.
By the numbers: The last time Durant was healthy, in 2018-19, he had the second-best offensive rating for a team that set a league record for offensive efficiency. This season, Durant is doing one better, with the best offensive rating for a team on pace to set a league record for efficiency.
4. Stephen Curry
Team: Warriors (33-32) | Position: Guard
31.3 points, 5.5 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.2 steals, 60.9 eFG%, 3.2 net rating, 56 GP
O’Connor: Despite having the worst supporting cast since Golden State’s run began, Steph is producing comparably to his unanimous MVP season in 2015-16. We are entering a turning point of Curry’s career. An identity crisis looms for the Warriors; James Wiseman has struggled as a rookie, Draymond Green lost his jumper, and Klay Thompson’s future is uncertain following two straight missed seasons. Steph is 33, and the competition in the West is steeper than it’s been … maybe ever. But Curry has proved to still be one of the few talents who can single-handedly lead his team to the playoffs. With a little more help, the Warriors could soon be back in the championship conversation.
By the numbers: Among all player-seasons in NBA history with at least a 30 percent usage rate and 1,000 minutes played, the three best true shooting percentages are, in order: Curry in 2018, Curry in 2016, and now Curry in 2021.
3. Joel Embiid
Team: 76ers (44-21) | Position: Big
29.3 points, 10.8 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.4 blocks, 54.5 eFG%, 11.3 net rating, 45 GP
Mahoney: The biggest revolution in Embiid’s game this season was a pivot. As a back-to-the-basket player, the Sixers center was a clear All-Star; as a face-up post player, he might be the most dominant player in the sport. Reorienting his game has allowed Embiid to do more of the heavy manufacturing necessary to really sustain an offense. His usage is up, far ahead of any other center. His scoring is up. His free throw attempts are up. And so long as he continues to hit midrange shots at a 47 percent clip, there’s not really a damn thing a defense can do to stop him. It’s so much harder to pressure Embiid when he’s already positioned to see double teams coming. There’s no blind side left to exploit; any attempt to force the ball out of Embiid’s hands is an invitation for a quick pass out to a wide-open 3-pointer, or a sales opportunity for Embiid to flail through his crowding defenders for yet another trip to the foul line.
Yet doubling Embiid might still be the right call—if only because there are so few defenders big enough to get a hand in his face and mobile enough to keep up with his footwork. We know Embiid has entered a rare class because the only options to try to contain him are bad ones. Playing against the Sixers these days just means learning to live with his dominance.
By the numbers: Embiid is averaging 12.7 free throw attempts per 36 minutes—breaking a league record held by Wilt Chamberlain since 1961-62, when he tallied 12.6 attempts per 36.
2. LeBron James
Team: Lakers (37-28) | Position: LeBron
25.0 points, 7.9 rebounds, 7.8 assists, 0.6 blocks, 57.8 eFG%, 9.4 net rating, 43 GP
Mann: I’ve had a fun time fleshing out this list, but I cannot in good conscience allow you people to walk away from any list where LeBron is not no. 1. And listen—I adore Nikola Jokic. I think he’s the most talented offensive center to walk the earth. At the same time, I’m trying to savor these last chances I have to appreciate LeBron, one of the truly great sports brands of all time. Unless you’re a bitter fan or you love these back-and-forth “ringz culture” pissing matches, you should do the same! Rally all of your thoughts behind this American icon!
LeBron is Brad Pitt smiling over the steering wheel in slo-mo in Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood.
LeBron is Coke using Helvetica in a full-page ad.
LeBron is one of the surest, most foundational things that we have. Don’t you crave stability and normalcy? What the hell are we doing, doubting him? After the year we’ve had, LeBron winning another title would be like the totem at the end of Inception falling to the table, revealing that we’re back from whatever awful nightmare that just was.
All that aside: At 36 years old, it remains incredible that he’s able to uphold the scale of his impact while moving less than ever.
It’s hard to blame him. LeBron is hunting rarified accolades, and at this stage of his career, with this many miles on the tires, he has to prioritize staying in the race until the end over sprinting to be clearly ahead at the third stage. He’s the baddest man alive until further notice.
By the numbers: When LeBron plays (not counting the game he was hurt early), the Lakers have 14 losses versus 28 wins. When LeBron doesn’t play (or is hurt early), the Lakers also have 14 losses—but with only eight wins.
1. Nikola Jokic
Team: Nuggets (43-22) | Position: Point Big
26.2 points, 10.9 rebounds, 8.5 assists, 0.7 blocks, 60.6 eFG%, 7.6 net rating, 64 GP
Devine: Ladies and gentlemen, we are floating in space:
That’s a tidy visualization of the degree to which Jokic has separated himself from all other players this season in a slew of advanced metrics—including estimated plus-minus, value over replacement player, box plus-minus, win shares, and FiveThirtyEight’s wins above replacement—to make the most difficult leap in the sport: from All-Star to MVP favorite.
The 26-year-old has used Denver’s invigorating run in the bubble as a springboard, coming off his curtailed offseason in the best shape of his career and translating that into one of the most impressive offensive campaigns in NBA history. That’s not hyperbole: Jokic has married scoring efficiency, playmaking volume, and sheer offensive workload to a level that only Magic Johnson, LeBron James, and James Harden have ever reached. This is where I remind you that we are talking about a 6-foot-11, 284-pound center, one I compared three months ago—lovingly and favorably!—to a Mack truck.
This year’s model of Jokic is a basketball futurist’s fever dream realized—the myth of the next Dirk Nowitzki and Arvydas Sabonis made manifest in one peerless package. Whether he can carry a wounded Nuggets team through a Western Conference littered with the kind of big-wing playmakers who have come to dominate postseason play remains to be seen; if my life depended on winning one game, I can’t swear he’d be my first pick. If I got him, though, I wouldn’t hate my chances. Because nobody—nobody—has played basketball better this season than Nikola Jokic.
By the numbers: Combining points, assists, and screen assists, Jokic has created 58 points per game this season—a whopping five ahead of second place. The only other players above 50 are Harden (53), Doncic (52), Domantas Sabonis (51), Russell Westbrook (51), and Giannis (51).