This final group of players was so hard to rank that, after losing nights of sleep over it, my dad suggested that I go back to my original criteria for ranking players: “If you dropped this player onto any NBA team at random, by how much would they improve that team’s odds of winning the title?” I set up a spreadsheet with each of the remaining players as the columns and all the playoff teams as the rows, and I tried to estimate (as best I could) the increase in championship odds if each player were to be magically placed onto each team’s roster. The results were laughably inconclusive. For the players ranked 5 through 7, I estimated that their average increase in championship odds would be 17.26%, 17.21%, and 17.15%, respectively. RIP. The Top 7 in the NBA right now is as stacked as it’s been since the early 1990s, and we should all be thankful that we get to watch these brilliant players’ primes overlap.
Note: Box score stats are written out as Points-Assists-Rebounds. Percentages are written out as FieldGoal%-3Point%-FreeThrow%. eFG% means effective field goal percentage, which is simply field goal percentage after adjusting for the extra value of making threes. RPM stands for Real Plus Minus, which is a statistic calculated by ESPN that estimates a player’s impact on his team’s net point differential per 100 possessions.
7. Anthony Davis
26-4-12, 1.6 steals, 2.4 blocks, 54% eFG, 79% FT, 6.1 FT makes (4th in the league), 6th in RPM, 31-2-13 on 54% eFG with 1.8 steals and 2.5 blocks over postseason career
Reasons he’s not lower:
– He’s so versatile. He’ll have 40 point nights during which he scores off a post-up, a pick-and-roll, a spot-up jumper, a pull-up three, an isolation drive, a fastbreak, and a tip-in, all within ten minutes. This versatility makes him incredibly compatible with co-superstars.
Reasons he’s not higher:
– He wore a shirt reading “That’s all folks!” to his last game of the season, despite his being under contract with the Pelicans for another full year, and then claimed that he has no control over what he wears — someone just lays out his clothes for him and he puts them on. Anthony Davis is a straight-up liar. I refuse to believe that if he woke up in the morning to find a spiderman costume in his room, he would just put that s*** on and wear it to the Pelicans’ game.
– His lack of team success over seven seasons in the league is startling. While it’s true that New Orleans’s bench is filled with a hoard of unremarkable and unmemorable players (who, fittingly, have the most boring, unmemorable names: Darius Miller, Solomon Hill, Ian Clark, Frank Jackson), if your top four to start the season are Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday, Nikola Mirotic, and Julius Randle and you end the season tanking, something’s wrong.
6. Kawhi Leonard
27-3-7, 1.8 steals (7th in the league), 55% eFG, 85% FT, 6.1 FT makes (4th in the league), 29th in RPM, Top 5 in RPM each season from 2015-2017, 28-5-8 on 59% eFG and 93% FT in 2017 Postseason
Reasons he’s not lower:
– He’s the #1 guy in the league I want guarding LeBron in the playoffs.
– He’s underrated offensively… one of only nine guys in NBA history to have multiple seasons scoring at least 27 points per 36 minutes on a true shooting percentage of at least 60%, and one of only eight guys in NBA history to accomplish that over a single postseason (minimum 10 games). I can’t think of a single player in the league other than Kevin Durant with an offensive attack more balanced across various areas of the court, and the analytics I’ve looked at back up this intuition.
– His scoring averages have increased from regular season to postseason every single year of his career.
– He was low-key top 3 in MVP voting for two straight seasons (Shaq, Duncan, Garnett, Kobe, Nash, Nowitzki, LeBron, Durant and Harden are the only other guys to have done that in the 21st century. Wow).
Reasons he’s not higher:
– He only played 60 games this season, and he’s never played more than 74 in any season.
– The Raptors have arguably suffered more without Lowry than without Leonard this year.
– I keep coming back to Gregg Popovich’s comments about how Kawhi wasn’t a leader for the Spurs. Learning that Kawhi isn’t great at the social aspect of being a great NBA player is least surprising given this video. His laugh, which you should not watch if you have any desire to fall asleep tonight, sounds like the combination of the brainwashed black guy from Get Out trying to fit in at a suburban party and a robot whose programmers messed up the laughing function.
5. Giannis Antetokounmpo
28-6-13 (3rd in the league in scoring, 6th in rebounds), 1.3 steals, 1.5 blocks, 58-26-73%, 6.9 FT makes (3rd in the league), 3.7 turnovers, 3rd in RPM, 26-6-10 on 59% eFG in 2018 Postseason
Reasons he’s not lower:
– He’s the new Shaquille O’Neal, except on drives instead of post-ups. Giannis shot 63.3% on drives, an unprecedented percentage for his volume. If you play up on him, he’s quick enough to blow by you, arguably travel, and get to the rim. If you give him space to gain momentum, then basically all you can do is foul. He scored 17.5 points per game in the paint, which is the most since Shaq (who surpassed that number seven straight seasons, led the league for 11 straight years, posted an unthinkable 22.5 points per game one season, and was possibly an alien).
– Giannis can also post-up, though. His 53% shooting in the post ranked fifth among the 28 players with at least 250 post-ups.
– Despite having no other players in my top 25, the Bucks had by far the best net rating in the league, and an exceptional record against the other top teams.
Reasons he’s not higher:
– He’s also the new Shaquille O’Neal in the sense that he’s a totally ineffective scorer other than right at the basket. He shot 32% from outside of 3 feet. Even Shaq, who had a baseline fadeaway and a push-shot going to the middle in his arsenal, almost always shot a significantly higher percentage from 3-10 feet than Giannis did this year.
– Under coach Mike Budenholzer, the Bucks implemented an offense with an emphasis on spacing, made possible largely due to the ability of their big men to stretch the floor. They’ve outscored opponents by a hefty 13.2 points per 100 possessions when Giannis and three-point shooting seven-footer Brook Lopez play together, and that number skyrockets to an unfathomable +30.3 points per 100 possessions across 344 possessions when Giannis and Lopez share the court with either Nikola Mirotic or Ersan Ilyasova. Would Giannis be just as effective without three-point shooting bigs allowing him space to drive? I can’t say definitely enough to move him higher than this.
4. James Harden
36-8-7 (most points per game since Michael Jordan), 2.0 steals, 54% eFG, 88% FT, 9.7 FT makes (leads the league), 5.0 turnovers, 2nd in RPM, 2nd in RPM in 2018, 28-8-5 on 49% eFG and 89% FT over last four postseasons
Reasons he’s not lower:
– There really isn’t a lot to be said about Harden that hasn’t already been said (I enjoyed this article very much), but here are a few stats that demonstrate the extent to which he carries the Rockets on offense:
- He scored 57.7% of Houston’s crunch time points this season, an absurd number that has been surpassed in the last 20 years by only Russell Westbrook in 2017.
- He led the league in shots during the last four seconds of shot clock by a margin of more than one attempt per game (he shot 306), and yet he shoots 46% eFG on them, the second highest mark among the most frequent 30 shooters of that type of shot.
- He attempted more field goals after at least 7 consecutive dribbles than all but three other teams.
- He ranked 241st in the league in wide open three-point attempts per game (for which the closest defender is at least six feet away), despite leading the league in overall three-point attempts.
- On 1280 isolation plays this season (the player with the next most was Russell Westbrook with 353) Harden scored 1.11 points per possession, the highest mark of any of the 108 players who tallied at least 40 isolation possessions, and the only one to exceed the league-wide average of 1.10 points per possession across all types of offensive plays by all teams. In plain English, James Harden attempting to score all by himself is more successful than the average group of five NBA players attempting to score as an entire team, and he is the only person in the world for which that statement is true.
– Right now Harden can pick up the ball, play a game of hopscotch, and then attempt a three point shot without being called for traveling. Pretty soon he might just be allowed to time travel and then shoot without getting called for traveling.
– Before he averaged 42-7-8 over a 26 game span between Christmas and the All Star break, I had Harden a few spots lower, questioning his ability to adapt his style to a team built on a more balanced scoring attack and ball movement. My brother, though, countered by arguing that if Harden were inserted onto the Toronto Raptors, for example, they would just start playing Rockets style basketball, only with Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard spacing the court for Harden’s theatrics, rather than Austin Rivers and Danuel House. They could be the Rockets, only way better.
Reasons he’s not higher:
– His defensive RPM this season was the second lowest out of all players in my top 20, even though he has improved on that end slightly.
– He shot fewer catch-and-shoot threes this year than Derrick Favors, only two more than Channing Frye (who’s still in the league?), only three more than Giannis, and only 19 more than Carmelo Anthony jacked up in just 10 games. He did shoot 41% on those threes, so this is a nitpick, but if he were to play on a less isolation-oriented team, he would need to adjust to a shot distribution that included more catch-and-shoot.
– His playoff shooting percentages decline a bit more than the next three guys.
3. Kevin Durant
26-6-6, 1.1 blocks, 52-35-89%, 11th in RPM, >25 points per game on >55% eFG for seven consecutive seasons, 29-4-8 on 57% eFG and 90% FT over last two postseasons, 32-5-8 on 61% eFG and 91% FT over Finals career
Reason he’s not lower:
– Basically my argument for Kyrie Irving being a top ten player, except on steroids. You need to score in the playoffs to win in the playoffs, and Durant can do that. Exhibit A: Game 6 against the Clippers
Reason he’s not higher:
– The Warriors are 27-18 with Durant and without Curry since the start of the 2016-17 season, and they’re 29-4 with Curry and without Durant over that same time span. Both are all-time greats. I think Curry is marginally more valuable to the team.
2. LeBron James
27-8-9 (5th in the league in scoring, 3rd in assists), 51-34-67%, 9th in RPM, 1st in RPM in 2014, 2015, and 2017, >25 points per game on >50% eFG for 15 consecutive seasons, 29-7-9 on 54% eFG over last 10 postseasons, 34-9-9 on 60% eFG over last two postseasons, 33-9-12 on 52% eFG over last four Finals, eight consecutive Finals appearances from 2011 to 2018
I’ve heard Kevin Durant called “the best pure scorer in the game,” and I’ve heard James Harden called “the most unstoppable player in the NBA,” and LeBron is known more for his all-around dominance, not necessarily for scoring. And yet, he scores more points per game than both of those guys per game in the playoffs (more efficiently, too), and until this season was consistently neck and neck with them in terms of regular season scoring. On top of being the most complete player in the NBA, LeBron doubles as possibly its best scorer, at least when it matters most.
Now, James is not the greatest scorer of all-time, nor do I believe he is the greatest player of all-time. I’m not going to go into an in-depth argument here, because it’s a little tiresome, but I always come back to these four facts:
(1) Michael Jordan won six Finals MVPs, and no other player in NBA history has won more than three
(2) Michael Jordan started at least 70 games in 11 seasons of his career. He led the league in total scoring every single one of those seasons
(3) Michael Jordan led the league in scoring and made the NBA All-Defensive Team nine times. No other player has ever done that once
(4) LeBron James lost the 2011 Finals to a Mavericks team led by a 33-year-old Dirk Nowitzki and a 63-year-old Jason Kidd that basically nobody thought was going to get out of the first round
Still, it’s wild that, for the first time in maybe 10 years, LeBron is not the best active player in the league. After having already played the sixth most combined regular season and postseason minutes in NBA history, The King is showing some signs of mortality — just enough to drop him below…
1. Stephen Curry
27-5-5, 47-44-92%, 5.1 threes (leads the league), 4th in RPM, Top 4 in RPM each season from 2015-2018, >40% 3PT on >7 attempts per game for seven consecutive seasons, 27-6-6 on 57% eFG and 89% FT over last four postseasons, 25-6-6 on 54% eFG and 92% FT over Finals career
Steph is underrated. The fact that Curry’s assist numbers have steadily declined every season since 2014 takes attention away from the fact that he fulfills the job of a point guard in the most traditional sense — his presence on the court increases his teammates’ shooting percentages significantly more than any other star in the league (as outlined fantastically by this article, and by this Twitter thread of him creating six wide open layups for teammates in just one game, all by doing nothing that shows up in the statsheet).
His being unquestionably the greatest three-point shooter of all-time hides the fact that he’s the only guard ever other than Michael Jordan to record five seasons averaging at least 20 points per game and shooting over 52.5% on two-pointers. His lack of a Finals MVP trophy distracts us from the fact that he’s 9th all-time in playoff points per game and 12th all-time in career Finals points per game, ahead of Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, and Dwyane Wade in both categories.
The Warriors’ dominance with Durant the past two seasons has made us forget that the Warriors already had a “super team” (67-wins plus a championship, then 73-wins plus a Finals appearance) built primarily around Curry, with no other superstars. Because it’s been so long since Steph had his own team, we don’t realize that the Warriors have outscored opponents by more than 11 points per 100 possessions across 528 possessions over the past three seasons with Curry on the floor without any of Green, Thompson, and Durant in the game.
The feeling that the Warriors’ team-oriented offensive system transcends any one star prevents us from acknowledging that, since the start of their 2014-15 championship season, the Warriors have been outscored in the regular season when Stephen Curry has not been not on the court.
SOUND OF A RECORD SCREECHING TO A HALT
That’s right. The greatest dynasty of the last 20 years — a team that has won three rings, made four consecutive Finals, and was the winningest regular season team over a three year span in league history — has been a below average team without Stephen Curry in the game.
Now, that hasn’t exactly been true in the postseason, when the Warriors outscore teams by 5.7 points per 100 possessions with Curry on the bench. But with Curry on the court, they improve to +11.1 per 100 possessions. Come playoff time, he pushes Golden State over the hump from a good team to a historically great one. Even more so than players who can drag lousy teams into the playoffs, those are the types of players who win you championships.
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