The NBA season is just around the corner, and with it comes a new ranking of the best players in the league. This season’s top 10 includes superstars such as LeBron James and Kevin Durant, but also young stars like Jayson Tatum and Ben Simmons.
For the 11th year in a row, our NBArank countdown is back. We’ve finally reached the top five after revealing players Nos. 100-51, Nos. 50-26, and Nos. 25-6 throughout the week.
We’ve previously covered each superstar’s case, but who was chosen the league’s greatest player?
Will LeBron James be able to keep his title? Will Giannis Antetokounmpo add the title of MVP to his resume? Could Luka Doncic, a 22-year-old Serbian, catch up to them all? The top players for the 2021-22 season are listed below.
We asked our expert panel to vote on pairs of players to determine the final NBArank prediction: Kevin Durant vs. James Harden, Luka vs. Zion Williamson, Giannis vs. Stephen Curry, LeBron vs. Nikola Jokic, and so on.
“Which player will be better in 2021-22?” we wondered. Voters had to forecast what they thought each player would do during the season.
Note: The LA Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard and the Denver Nuggets’ Jamal Murray were left out of this season’s rankings due to knee injuries that will keep them out for the most of the 2021-22 season.
MORE: LeBron’s place in the NBA and the greatest NBArank shocks
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NBArank: No. 8 Golden State Warriors | PG 2020
Whatever happens this season, Curry and the Warriors believe they can return to the top of the Western Conference if he has another MVP-like season and Klay Thompson returns to form. Curry, as is customary, has no bounds.
One major issue is if Curry can return to his MVP form. Last season, the two-time MVP topped the league in scoring with 32.0 points per game. Outside of Curry’s brilliance, he did everything for a Warriors team that was without Klay Thompson and struggled to establish consistent offense. Curry thinks he can extend his peak a bit further, but he’ll be 34 in March and has remained largely healthy apart from a freak tailbone injury. Even with Thompson likely to return, Curry will need another big season if the Warriors are to return to the top of the Western Conference.
For the 11th year, ESPN’s list of the league’s best 100 players is back. What celebrities made the cut?
Curry is generally recognized as the best shooter of all time by many of his contemporaries and former teammates. He has a lifetime 33.3 percent 3-point shooting percentage and last season shot 48.2 percent from the field. If he puts it up, there’s a good chance it’ll go in, and his sheer presence on the floor lends gravitas to his teammates’ performances.
One thing to keep an eye on: Curry is just 141 3-pointers behind Ray Allen for first place on the all-time record. Curry is on pace to surpass Allen before the All-Star break, having hit 337 three-pointers last season.
Nick Friedell’s remark
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NBArank: No. 4 Dallas Mavericks | PG 2020
Doncic has already established himself as one of the NBA’s top players at the age of 22. He’s earned a first-team All-NBA pick each of the past two seasons, an accomplishment that only Kevin Durant has achieved since the ABA-NBA merger at such a young age. It seems like the only question is when — and how many times — Doncic will be named MVP. In the past two MVP voting, he came in fourth and sixth, respectively.
One distinction Doncic despises: according to ESPN Stats & Information research, he has the most career playoff points (436) of any player without a series win.
One major issue is whether Doncic will be able to lead the Mavs to playoff success. It would be unfair to hold Doncic responsible for the Mavs’ inability to advance beyond the first round, given that he has averaged 33.5 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 9.5 assists per game in two first-round losses to the Clippers. However, Doncic slowed down in the fourth quarters of last season’s series, shooting 34.9 percent from the field and committing almost as many turnovers (9) as assists (12) in the last seven minutes. The Mavs tried to acquire another playmaker this offseason in part because of his stratospheric usage rate (40.4 percent, the most in the playoffs).
Last season, Doncic established himself as the NBA’s most dominating driver. Doncic topped the league in points off drives (804) and was third in assists, according to Second Spectrum monitoring (150). In such instances, he shot 59.2 percent from the field, tied for second with Giannis Antetokounmpo among the 48 players with at least 600 drives. Doncic isn’t a spectacular leaper, but his unique mix of height, power, and intelligence make him an excellent finisher — and he’s perfected a pivot into a one-legged fadeaway for those times when he can’t get all the way to the basket. Doncic should have more driving lanes this season thanks to the Mavs’ offseason acquisitions of shooters.
One thing to keep an eye on: By his 23rd birthday on Feb. 28, Doncic is likely to be in the top ten all-time in triple-doubles. Doncic had 36 triple-doubles this season (plus three more in the playoffs), tying him with Fat Lever for 10th most in NBA history. (With two more triple-doubles before turning 23, Doncic would pass Oscar Robertson for the most triple-doubles.) In 17 of those triple-doubles, Doncic has scored at least 30 points. Only seven players had as many as seven 30-point triple-doubles, according to ESPN Stats & Information: Robertson, Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, James Harden, Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson.
Tim MacMahon (Tim MacMahon)
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Los Angeles Lakers | San Francisco 49ers | 2020 NBA Ranking: No. 1
Since coming in Los Angeles, James has suffered a significant injury in two of the past three seasons, sabotaging his and the Lakers’ prospects. In the other, James came in second place in MVP voting and led the Lakers to the NBA title. In 2021-22, will it be victory or tribulation?
One major issue is whether James can help a Lakers team with ten new faces gel into a championship squad right away. James already has four championships under his belt and has established himself as one of the all-time greats in the game, but a ring at the age of 37 would definitely help him in his pursuit for global GOAT status.
Last season, James made a career-high 2.3 3-pointers per game and shot 36.5 percent from outside the arc, giving him his fourth most accurate season from beyond the arc. It’ll be fascinating to see whether James’ aim can benefit from the kind of looks he normally creates for others now that Russell Westbrook has been added to the mix as another playmaker.
One thing to keep an eye on this season: James is just 1,562 points away from overtaking Karl Malone for second place on the NBA’s all-time scoring record. If James maintains his 25-point per-game average from last season and plays in every game, he will be in position to overtake Malone in the 63rd game of the season (which just so happens to be a primetime ABC matchup against Curry and the Warriors).
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Milwaukee Bucks | PF 2020 NBArank: No. 3 Milwaukee Bucks | PF 2020 NBArank: No. 3
What can you do to surpass Antetokounmpo’s amazing NBA Finals-winning effort from last year? The simple solution is to repeat. The true solution — and one that should be terrifying to the rest of the NBA — is for Antetokounmpo to concentrate on the few aspects of his game that he can still improve. He’s still just 26 years old, so Antetokounmpo’s peak years are likely still ahead of him. He’ll go in with the assurance of a two-time MVP and NBA champion.
One major question: Antetokounmpo’s 50-point performance in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, which sealed his first title and named him Finals MVP, will go down in history. The 50-piece Chik Fil-A he purchased thereafter will be remembered forever on social media. But it was Game 6’s 17-for-19 free throw shooting performance that truly stood out. During the Finals, Giannis was so unstoppable that fouling him and forcing him to make free throws (he only made 54 percent of them in the three away games) looked like the best method to stop him. Giannis has a lifetime free throw percentage of 71.7 percent, but it has dropped to 63.3 percent in 2019-20 and 68.5 percent last season.
Antetokounmpo was the first player in NBA history to average 20 points and shoot 65 percent in the playoffs. He was more more deadly in the paint in the Finals, shooting 75%. Simply stated, once he’s inside, he’s almost difficult to stop. However, if he focuses on his back-to-the-basket post plays like LeBron James did at a comparable point in his career, he can improve there as well.
One thing to keep an eye on: Antetokounmpo has already passed Glenn Robinson for second place on the Bucks’ all-time scoring record. This year, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (14,211 points as a Buck) is in the mix. To become Milwaukee’s all-time top scorer, Antetokounmpo (12,319 points) needs 1,892 points this season. He’s averaged 1,895 points in the previous four seasons (the last two were cut short to 72 games), so he’ll easily overtake Kareem in April.
Ramona Shelburne (Ramona Shelburne)
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NBArank: No. 6 Brooklyn Nets | SF 2020
While NBA events are susceptible for exaggeration, there’s a solid argument to be made for the championship coming down to Durant’s toe in 2021. That game-winning turnaround jumper against the Bucks in Game 7 — the thundering left-foot pivot and lightning-quick rise-and-release over P.J. Tucker is legendary — was nearly on the list of NBA’s greatest shots. Instead, it was the longest 2-pointer in NBA history, capping off an amazing playoff series, that confirmed Durant’s full return from a ruptured Achilles. Then, by the way, he wrecked havoc in the Olympics, leading the Americans to victory. Yeah, 2021-22, be on the lookout.
One major concern: Because Durant’s skill is almost impenetrable, the real question is whether everyone will remain on the court. During the truncated season, Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden all had significant injuries, which, when coupled with Irving’s leave of absence, the Spencer Dinwiddie injury, and the transition following the Harden trade, made last season a disaster for Brooklyn. It’s easy to understand why the Nets are the preseason championship favorites if they can remove even half of those occurrences.
Swing skill: It’s probably ridiculous to claim that anybody is the “best” at anything these days, so let’s avoid it. Let’s just put it this way: Durant is one of the most talented basketball players ever, and his height, release, and accuracy make him one of the most unstoppable players in history. It’s surprising that Durant doesn’t shoot every time he comes down the floor, since it would nearly always be deemed a good shot regardless of the circumstances.
One thing to keep an eye on: Last season, the Nets did all they could to preserve Durant, who played his fewest minutes per game during the regular season and missed several back-to-backs. The temptation will be to protect Durant even more coming season, with the team deeper after adding a slew of veterans. It’s possible that the inactive list is the only thing that can stop him. As the year progresses, it will be interesting to see how this affects the MVP race.
Brian Windhorst (Brian Windhorst)