With the 2021-22 NBA season nearly underway, it’s time for an annual NBA tradition: counting down the league’s best players. LeBron James has held down the title of the best […]
With the 2021-22 NBA season nearly underway, it’s time for an annual NBA tradition: counting down the league’s best players. LeBron James has held down the title of the best basketball player in the world for the past decade, but as he turns 37 this season, he may be past his physical prime. Luckily, the league is in good hands with a 33-year old Kevin Durant and a 26-year old Giannis Antetokounmpo coming off his first NBA championship. How do the best three players in the league stack up against each other?
After those three dynamic two-way forwards, there’s plenty of talent in the rest of the Top Ten. For some of these players, you don’t have to look much further than James’ and Durant’s All-Star teammates. Other players, like Luka Doncic, Nikola Jokic, and Damian Lillard, hold their teams down without the need for a second Top Ten player in their starting lineup.
Who are the top players in the league this season? How do veterans like Steph Curry and James Harden stack up against rising stars like Luka Doncic and Devin Booker? Is Russell Westbrook still an elite NBA player? For all the answers and more, here are my selections for the ten best players in the league heading in to the 2021-22 NBA season.
2021-22 NBA Season Preview
- Eastern Conference Predictions, Western Conference Predictions
- Playoffs and NBA Finals Prediction
- Top Ten Players Heading Into the 2021-22 NBA Season
- Devin Booker, Guard, Phoenix Suns: After leading the Phoenix Suns to an NBA Finals appearance, earning back-to-back All-Star selections, and averaging over 22.0 PPG for the last five seasons, Devin Booker is right up there with the most talented players in the league. Still, Booker lands just outside the Top 10 in a league full of talented two-way players who can score the basketball. Booker finished 13th in the league with 25.6 points per game last season on 48% field goal shooting and 34% three-point shooting.
- Kyrie Irving, Guard, Brooklyn Nets: No one knows if Kyrie Irving will play this season, with Irving ineligible to play home games due to his vaccination status and the Brooklyn Nets unwilling to accommodate a player to only play in road games. Irving already had availability issues last season, and some fans are seemingly forgetting just how good Irving is when he’s on the court. Irving finished 9th in points per game last season with 26.9, despite having to share the rock with Kevin Durant and James Harden. The seven-time All-Star also finished 11th in the league in PER (24.4) and 19th in the league in win shares (7.4.)
- Donovan Mitchell, Guard, Utah Jazz: Fifth-year Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell has been steadily evolving in to a Top Ten player in the league, and may get there sooner rather than later. Mitchell earned his second consecutive trip to the All-Star Game last season, and posted a career-highs with 26.4 points points per game, 5.2 assists per game, and a 39% success rate from three-point territory. Mitchell is also a tantalizing defender, and helped Utah earn the best record in the league last season.
- Russell Westbrook, Guard, Los Angeles Lakers: Russell Westbrook is one of the most polarizing players in the league, somehow capable of averaging a triple double in a relatively quiet season. Westbrook spent last season with the Washington Wizards, averaging 22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, and a league-high 11.7 assists per game. The new Los Angeles Lakers point guard misses the Top 10 due to a lagging efficiency (19.5 PER, 44% FG) and a slew of turnovers (2.9 per game) but like or not, is still one of the best players the NBA has to offer.
- Jimmy Butler, Forward, Miami Heat: I ranked Jimmy Butler 9th last season, and in many ways, his second season with the Miami Heat was better than his first. Butler increased his scoring, to 21.5 points per game, led the league in steals, with 2.1 per game, and shot a career-high 50% from the field. With a well-rounded offensive game, the 5th-best PER (26.5) in the league, and knack for stingy defense, Butler just barely misses the cut, and while these honorable mentions aren’t in any particular order, Butler would definitely be #11 on a longer list.
- Kawhi Leonard, Forward, Los Angeles Clippers: Kawhi Leonard belongs right near the top of this list, but as he’s unlikely to play this season after tearing his ACL, I’ve decided to leave him off the list of the ten best players in the league right now. Leonard was as good as ever last season, averaging 24.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 5.2 assists per game on stellar 51% shooting and a 26.0 PER, the 7th-best in the league, all while remaining one of the most feared defensive players in the NBA.
10. Anthony Davis, Forward/Center, Los Angeles Lakers
Last Year’s Rank: 4
At his best, Anthony Davis is one of the most dominant two-way big men in the league. Points in the paint, mid-range, rebounding, blocking; Davis does everything you need a star big man to do. However, like many of the league’s most powerful forces in the paint, Davis often has to deal with injuries that limit his availability on the court.
Though Davis missed 36 games in last year’s 72-game regular season, this list doesn’t really deduct points for being injury-prone. Davis falls down in these rankings from last year due to a slightly quieter season in 2020-21, at least for the nine-time All-Star’s standards. Davis averaged 21.8 points per game in his second year with the Los Angeles Lakers: down 4.3 PPG from last season and the lowest mark of his career since his second season in the league. Davis also tied a career-low with 49% shooting from the field, and hit a new career-low with a 74% free throw rate.
If it sounds like I’m being overly critical of Davis, it’s because I’m justifying why he’s so low on this list. I hardly need to make the case for why Davis is a Top 10 player, but rather, why I only have him at #10 after ranking him #4 heading in to last season.
When healthy, there are few players and even less big men that can impose their will on both ends of the court like Davis.
9. Damian Lillard, Guard, Portland Trailblazers
Last Year’s Rank: 8
Damian Lillard put in work night in and night out last season for the Portland Trailblazers en route to his sixth All-Star selection. Lillard was named to the All-NBA 2nd team as a guard, his fourth straight year being placed on the 2nd team or higher, and also finished 7th in 2020-21 NBA MVP voting.
Lillard has been one of the best players in the league for a few years now, and it’s a shame the Trailblazers haven’t been able to make deeper playoff runs. That’s by no fault of Lillard though, as he poured in 34.3 points and 10.2 assists per game in a first round loss to the Denver Nuggets last postseason.
In the regular season, Lillard appeared in 67 of 72 games, averaging 28.8 points, 7.5 assists, and 4.2 rebounds per game. Lillard shot 45% from the field, 39% from three-point range, and a lethal 93% (a career-high) from the free throw line in 2020-21. His 25.6 PER ranked 8th in the NBA, while his 10.4 win shares were the 3rd-most in the league.
Lillard is the heart and soul of the Trailblazers, with a deadly offensive arsenal and more than capable defensive abilities.
8. Joel Embiid, Center, Philadelphia 76ers
Last Year’s Rank: Honorable Mention
Making the leap from honorable mention on last year’s list to #8 heading in to this season, the fact Joel Embiid is still getting better is a scary prospect for opposing teams. The 7-foot Cameroonian center for the Philadelphia 76ers is an absolute monster on both offense and defense, and was recognized by finishing 2nd in MVP voting last season.
Embiid posted a career-high 28.5 points per game last season alongside 10.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.0 steals, and 1.4 blocks per game over 51 games. Like Davis, Embiid can have struggles staying healthy, but that doesn’t dimish his ranking on this list.
Embiid’s 28.5 points per game were the fourth-most in the league last season, in a category usually dominated by more dynamic offensive players, aka not centers. His 10.6 rebounds per game were the 10th-best average in the league, and he also blocked the 10th-most shots per game.
Perhaps most impressive was Embiid’s 30.3 PER, second only to the only player who finished ahead of Embiid in MVP voting: Nikola Jokic (more on him later.)
With one of the most efficient scoring rates in the league and the size to bully opposing players on both ends of the court, watching a healthy Embiid play for the 76ers is truly something special.
7. James Harden, Guard, Brooklyn Nets
Last Year’s Rank: 6
James Harden has played in just 36 regular season games for the Brooklyn Nets, where he plays something of a second fiddle to Kevin Durant, and somehow people are quick to forget that Harden was one of the best offensive players in NBA history over the last three seasons with the Houston Rockets.
After leading the league in assists (11.2 per game) in 2016-17, Harden led the league in scoring three straight seasons, topping out at an insane 36.1 points per game in 2018-19. But that required him to chuck up 24.5 field goal attempts per game, something that hasn’t been possible with the Nets offense.
But where Harden has fallen back in volume, he’s made up for with efficiency. Over 44 games between the Nets and Rockets last season, Harden shot a career-high 47% from the field and a solid 36% from three-point territory. Harden averaged 24.6 points per game, his least in the past ten seasons, but it just goes to show he was willing to adjust to his role in Brooklyn. Harden continues to dish out assists, as he’s been doing since his 2016-17 run at point guard, with 10.8 per game last season.
While Harden has gained notoriety for less-than-stellar defense at times, he’s still no scrub, finishing in the Top 20 in defensive win shares five times in his career. After three straight years at either #1 or #2, Harden finished 10th in PER last season at 24.5.
Love him or hate him, Harden is one of the most gifted offensive players the league as ever seen, and remains one of the league’s best players even if he’s Kevin Durant’s sidekick once again.
6. Luka Dončić, Guard, Dallas Mavericks
Last Year’s Rank: 7
In just three years in the NBA, still months away from his 23rd birthday, Slovenian point guard Luka Doncic has sprung on to the scene as one of the best players in the NBA. Not one of the best young players, or players with most promising futures, but right here, right now, Doncic is better than all but five players in the league.
Doncic burst in to the NBA in 2018-19 at 19 years old with a cool 21.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 6.0 assists per game, and hes’s only gotten better since. Last season, Doncic put up 27.7 points, 8.6 assists, and 8.0 rebounds per game. It’s no small comparison to make, but those are LeBron James numbers. Doncic effortlessly integrates himself into the Dallas Mavericks offense, and whether he’s scoring, assisting, setting a screen, or making a hustle play, Doncics fingerprints are all over the box score.
While Doncic scored slightly more points per game (28.8) in 2019-20, he’s doing so at more efficient rates now. Doncic shot 48% from the field and 35% from three-point range over 66 games last season: both career-highs.
If I’m building a team for the next 10 seasons, Doncic is my first selection, and even if I’m building a team for right now, there’s few players I’d take ahead of him.
Doncic finished 2020-21 with a 25.3 PER, the 9th-best mark in the league, as well as 7.7 win shares, the 17th-most in the league. The Mavericks have been bounced by the Los Angeles Clippers in each of the last two postseasons, but Doncic has put up monster numbers in the playoffs: 33.5 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 9.5 assists per game over the first 13 games of his playoff career. The future is bright for Doncic but heck, so is the now.
5. Nikola Jokic, Center, Denver Nuggets
Last Year’s Rank: Honorable Mention
Nikola Jokic’s rise to NBA stardom may not have been expected when he entered the league, but it’s sure been a fun ride. The Serbian center first made a leap in his fourth season, earning an All-Star nod an an All-NBA 1st team selection. The Denver Nuggets star has only gotten better since then, and was selected as the 2020-21 NBA MVP after an incredible campaign.
Appearing in all 72 regular season games (remember what we said about big men and availability issues? Not Jokic,) the NBA MVP averaged a career-high 26.4 points per game, tied a career-high with 10.8 rebounds per game, and dished out 8.3 assists per game, another career-high. Jokic did all this on 57% shooting, his best mark in five years, 39% three-point shooting, an important aspect of his arsenal, and 87% free-throw shooting, would you look at that, a career-high.
Jokic finished with a 31.3 PER, easily the best mark in the league, and 15.6 win shares, also the league leader. As the most efficient player in the league who contributed to his team’s wins more than anyone else in the league, Jokic’s MVP selection was a no-brainer.
Jokic isn’t a perfect player, as for a for a center who stands at 6-fott-11, he could have a bit more of a defensive presence. But Jokic’s unique skill set, dishing out assists and nailing three-pointers from the center position, has made him one of the league’s best players.
4. Steph Curry, Guard, Golden State Warriors
Last Year’s Rank: 5
After being sidelined for the majority of the 2019-20 season, Steph Curry picked up right where he left off in 2020-21: and then some. Curry lead the league in scoring for the second-time with a career-high 32.0 points per game lat season, connecting on 48% of his shot attempts, 42% of his three-pointers, and 92% of his free throws. Simply but, Curry is one of the best offensive players in the league, and a threat to score from anywhere on the court.
On his way to his 7th All-Star appearance, the Golden State Warriors guard also dished out 5.8 assists per game and grabbed 5.5 rebounds per game, a career-high for the 6-foot-3 point guard.
There’s not much to say about Curry that hasn’t already been said. He’s one of the most lethal shooters in NBA history, and has an incredible array of moves to create open shots for himself. When Curry gets hot, it’s almost impossible to stop the two-time MVP from putting the ball in the basket.
Besides leading the NBA in points per game, Curry also nailed the most three-pointers, had the 6th-highest PER (26.3,) and posted the 7th-most win shares (9.0) in the league last season.
The Warriors may have missed the playoffs after losing a play-in game to the Memphis Grizzlies, but Curry still remains one of the most valuable players in the league.
3. LeBron James, Forward, Los Angeles Lakers
Last Year’s Rank: 1
For the first time in over a decade, LeBron James may not be the best player in the NBA. Heading into his 19th season and turning 37 in December, it’s honestly an anomaly that James still ranks so high, with younger and more athletic players entering the league every season. But James is cut from a different cloth, and even if he’s lost a half-step since his prime, you’d never notice it on the stat sheet. James is constantly evolving and finding more ways to impact the game for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Last season was the lowest-scoring output, 25.0 points per game, of James’ career since his rookie season in 2003-04. But with a 51% field goal percentage and 37% success rate on three-pointers, James can still score at will, he just picks and chooses when the most appropriate times are. James averaged 7.7 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game last season, and led the league in assists at 10.2 per game two seasons ago.
While James might not be the fastest player on the court anymore or have the best shot in the NBA, he’s still a total package and everything you could dream for in a basketball player. His basketball IQ and leadership skills make him a highly coveted player, and his on-court skills are still up there with the best of them.
James lagged in PER last season, finishing 14th in the league at 24.2, but his court impact could still be seen as the Lakers had a +7.5 plus/minus with James on the court, the fifth-highest mark in the league.
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Forward, Milwaukee Bucks
Last Year’s Rank: 2
Giannis Antetokounmpo has been one of the best players in the league for years, with three straight selections to the All-NBA 1st team and two All-NBA 2nd team selections before that. Depending on who you ask, Antetokounmpo might just be the best player in the league right now, and if not, he’s no lower than #2.
We’ll get into Antetokounmpo’s insane stats in a minute, but first and foremost, the “Greek Freak” did exactly what you pay NBA superstars to do last season: win a championship. Despite sustained regular season success during his tenure in Milwaukee, the Bucks had been unable to break through to the NBA Finals with a deep playoff run over the last few seasons. But last postseason, the Bucks outdueled the Nets in seven games, downed the Atlanta Hawks in the Conference Finals, and overcame the Phoenix Suns in the NBA Finals to earn their first NBA title with Antetokounmpo. While the Bucks have a talented and deep roster, the NBA Finals MVP also did so as the clear-cut superstar without having to bring in other All-Stars from around the league. Individual accolades can easily place you in the Top 10, but leading your team to championships, as opposed to just participating on a championship team, is the mark of truly great players.
Antetokounmpo did it all on the court in his 8th year in the league, earning his 5th straight All-Star honors. The two-time MVP averaged 28.1 points per game on an insane 57% shooting from the field. Antetokounmpo does most of his damage in the paint, resulting in the high percentage, but a superstar connecting on that high a percentage of their shots is uncanny. Antetokounmpo added 11.0 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game, tying a career-high in the assists category.
Most of the NBA’s best players can hold their own on defense, but Antetokounmpo is one of the league’s most feared defenders. The four-time NBA All-Defensive forward earned 1.2 steals and 1.2 blocks per game in 2020-21, and was tasked often with guarding the opposing team’s most athletic and dynamic scoring threats. Antetokounmpo can lock down guards, forwards, and centers with his 6-foot-11 size and even larger wingspan.
Antetokounmpo was the third-most efficient player in the league last season, posting a 29.2 PER after back-to-back 30.0+ seasons in which he led the league. His 10.2 win shares were the fourth-most in the NBA last season, and his +8.8 court rating was the second-best mark in the league.
If I’m building a team to win right now, there’s no one I would rather have than Giannis: except one player.
1. Kevin Durant, Forward, Brooklyn Nets
Last Year’s Rank: 2*
If I need to build a team to win this season, or on a smaller scale, just one game, I’m going with Kevin Wayne Durant.
Durant has been one of the best performing and most feared players in the league for quite some time. Back in Oklahoma City with the Thunder, Durant led the league in scoring three out of four years, topping out at 32.0 points per game in his 2013-14 MVP campaign. Durant has since joined a loaded Golden State Warriors team and most recently, the Brooklyn Nets, but scoring is still the name of the game for the 6-foot-10 forward.
Durant appeared in just 35 games last season for the Nets, but his impact was felt whenever he touched the court. Durant averaged 26.9 points per game, usually appearing alongside either Kyrie Irving or James Harden and therefore ceding some of the offensive workload. Durant shot 54% from the field, hitting over 50% of his shots for the eighth straight season. For a big man, or a player like Antetokounmpo who prefers to score close to the basket, such high rates are possible, but for Durant, who can pull up from anywhere on the court, it’s a very high mark. Durant also connected on a career-high 45% of his three-point attempts, nailing an average of 2.4 per game for the Nets last season.
Throw in an 88% free throw success rate, 7.1 rebounds per game, and 5.6 assists per game, and Durant is the complete offensive package. Defend him at the three-point line, but don’t over commit or he might blow right past you towards the basket. Load the paint with defenders and he’ll overpower your defense with his deadly mid-range game. Durant is the hardest offensive player in the game to guard.
The 11-time All-Star isn’t as defensively talented as Antetokounmpo, but if you need to guard a superstar player like LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard, few players are as up to the task as Durant. Antetokounmpo edges Durant in defense, and offensively, what the two players bring to the court is pretty close. But Durant gets the nod as the best player in the NBA due to his ability to score the basketball at will in so many different ways.
I tied Durant for #2 last season, with an asterisk, due to the unknowns surrounding his Achilles injury that sidelined him for 2019-20.
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Header Photo Credit: Getty Images via SportingNews.com
Statistics via BasketballReference.com