NBA

The Lead’s Top 50 for 2021

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The past few days, the NBA universe has been taken by storm with yet another rendition of ESPN’s player rankings. Not only did they stir the pot with the intent of maximizing uproar, they did so while pay-walling the very content that is supposed to start a nuanced conversation.

Here at The Lead, we don’t want our player hierarchy to be a cesspool of profit-seeking clickbait. Rather, we want to spark a conversation regarding player value, contribution to team success, and future potential.

Here are a few things to keep in mind. Our top 50 represents an average of a panel of 21 of our analysts–while each writer carries their own biases, the composite ranking eliminates many of these biases. Secondly, these are projections for the upcoming season, meaning our best cumulative guesses to the future performance of players. There was no individual metric used to evaluate players for the upcoming season, but past performances were weighted heavily in our analyst’s projections. We hope this transparent will allow for some civil discourse among fanbases in what should be an incredibly competitive season.

With that being said, let the arguing begin.

Close, but no cigar:

 

Malcolm Brogdon, Pacers

In his first year in Indiana, and first opportunity as a full-time starting point guard, Malcolm Brogdon led the Pacers to the #4 seed in the East despite Victor Oladipo being injured for most of the season. Brogdon opened the season with four straight double-doubles, posted career-highs in points (16.5) and assists (7.1) and facilitated career-high scoring averages from T.J. Warren and Domantas Sabonis. Brogdon has increased his scoring average in each of his first four seasons. He barely missed our Top-50 list, but is still an improving and versatile two-way player who effectively utilizes his 6’5’’ frame and high basketball IQ. Brogdon studied film of Isiah Thomas last offseason and it showed through his physicality, playmaking and leadership. His 34-point, 14-assist and 7-rebound performance in Game 3 against the Heat should be a sign of more big things to come from the 2017 Rookie of the Year. 

-Jon Jacobson

Marcus Smart, Celtics

He may not be a top 50 player, but there’s no denying Smart’s value. He plays with a relentlessness and savviness that any team would want in their sixth man, and that value is heightened by the talented group of players around him. He’s the perfect complement for the franchise’s centerpieces, Tatum and Brown. Smart also brings an elite level defensive presence that would work on any team. It’s worth noting Smart now holds the all-time record for threes in a game by any Celtic with 11. His shooting has been largely criticized despite the improvement he’s made in recent seasons.

-Patrick Foster

Caris LeVert, Nets

Despite only playing 45 of Brooklyn’s 72 pre-bubble contests, Levert made the largest jump in his career, averaging nearly 19ppg at a 43% clip from the field, 36% from three along with 4.5 apg. Granted, with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving both sidelined for the season, it made sense that Kenny Atkinson and Jacque Vaughn would continue to put the ball in Levert’s hands to best prepare him for this upcoming season. Expect Levert’s point totals to drop as Durant and Irving return, but expect his efficiency and playmaking to both improve.

Patrick Foster

John Collins, Hawks

Keep an eye on John Collins. He might be about to prove himself.

The Atlanta Hawks made some big moves this offseason, bringing in Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic on substantial contracts in free agency, while also selecting USC big Onyeka Okongwu in the draft. With young players Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter, and recently-acquired center Clint Capela also on the roster, that frontcourt starts to look a little crowded. Don’t let that fool you; Collins is still one of the team’s brightest talents. After serving his suspension last year, he made his presence felt, averaging 21.6 points and 10.1 rebounds per game and shooting 40.1% from 3 on 3.6 attempts. He was a key part of three of Atlanta’s five most frequent lineups. Oh, and he’s only 23 and likely to get even better. If he doesn’t start, he’ll be gunning for it.

-Bryan Rollofson

Draymond Green, Warriors

In the imperfect science (or dare I say pseudoscience) that is player evaluation, perhaps no player is more polarizing than Draymond Green. If a player’s value is inexorably tied to the presence of other All-Star teammates, how do we evaluate this player in the absence of essential cogs in the machine? While the absence of Klay Thompson will force Draymond to take on more of an offensive role, it shouldn’t hinder the 3x All-Star’s ability to produce stops on the other end. The question is not if Draymond’s individual defensive prowess is in decline, but rather if he can lead a competitive defense with a rookie center and Andrew Wiggins in the starting lineup.

Logan Collien

50. LaMarcus Aldridge, Spurs 

LaMarcus Aldridge is 35 and going into the last year of his contract. San Antonio just missed the playoffs for the first time in a generation, and LMA’s decline has been the Spurs’ decline. His numbers have continued to dip, including a career-low number of games played this year (53; previous low of 69). That dip, however, hasn’t exactly been a nosedive, and Aldridge might have a few new tricks up his sleeve. For one, he quietly shot 38.9% from 3 on 3.0 attempts per game this season, a significant (if sustainable) uptick in volume. Aldridge has slid from the 4 to the 5 as he’s aged, could his shot from behind the arc give him some real value and make him a solid spacing option on a playoff team? One thing feels certain: with the West tougher than ever, that team probably won’t be the Spurs.

Bryan Rollofson

49. Jaren Jackson Jr., Grizzlies

With the length of KD and the physicality of Giannis, Jaren Jackson Jr. is one of the most promising young players in the league – and also one of the most underrated. Jackson and Ja Morant are a combo most rebuilding teams only dream of. With career splits of 48/38/75 and 17.5 PPG last season, JJJ is already one of the most lethal offensive weapons at the center position. With all this being said, you’d assume he would be higher, but he’s going to be sitting out the first portion of the season recovering from a torn meniscus. The injury could severely hamper not only his scoring ability, but his already lackluster defense as well. JJJ should have no problem blocking shots, but keeping up with smaller attackers will be an issue for him heading into the 2020-21 season. Should the Grizzlies make the play-in tournament, keep an eye on JJJ… you might be looking at one of the future greats. 

Isaac Hinson

48. Blake Griffin, Pistons

Griffin falls so low because of injury history. However, outside of a lackluster 18 game stint in ‘19-‘20 that saw Griffin sidelined after a knee surgery, he’s actually continued to expand his game since his Lob City days. Griffin had his best scoring season in ‘18-‘19, putting up 24.5 ppg on 46% FG and 36% from beyond the arc on seven attempts from deep per game. We’ve also seen his ball-handling and shot-creating abilities take a massive leap in recent years. In 2010, I never expected to see Griffin bring the ball up and get an offense in motion. I never expected to watch Griffin operate in isolation and knock down deep/mid-range pull-up jump shots over long defenders. We have seen him do BOTH over the past season and a fifth with Detroit.

Patrick Foster

47. Fred VanVleet, Raptors

Toronto’s player development continues to pay dividends, as Fred Van Vleet can attest. His new 4-year, $85,000,000 contract with the Raptors is the largest ever signed by an undrafted player, and his performance in the bubble suggests he’s worth it. While stuffing the playoff box score with 19.6 points, 6.9 assists, 4.4 rebounds, and 1.6 steals per game, he also shot 39.1 % from 3 on 10 attempts a game. That’s not anomalous for Van Vleet, either; he shot 39% for the regular season too. Those numbers reflect at least a star-adjacent starter, which is the role he played, starting at the 2 for every playoff game after playing backup point guard to Kyle Lowry during the Raptors’ 2019 championship run. That’s not a guy you let walk away, especially as Lowry heads toward decline and/or retirement. If the Raptors are walking into the future with Pascal Siakam and Van Vleet as their franchise pillars, the rumors of Toronto’s demise may have been greatly exaggerated.

Bryan Rollofson

46. Victor Oladipo, Pacers

Starting SG for the Miami Hea… for the Boston Celt…. He’s still on the Pacers? Oh. Well, good for Pacers fans. 

Victor Oladipo is a tricky situation. Just two years ago he was one of the league’s elite and premier guard talents. Now, he’s barely holding onto his starting spot in the Pacers rotation. There’s no other way to say it, he looked like garbage in the few games he did play last season. He posted 39/31/81 splits and 14.5 points per game, numbers that are on par with Terrence Ross. Oladipo’s placement in the top 50 is based purely on the notion that he can get relatively close to the player we saw in his first year in Indiana. I think he can get there, but it’s not going to be an easy path as constant trade rumors are already souring Dipo’s locker-room presence with his teammates. 

-Isaac Hinson

45. DeAndre Ayton, Suns

Year number three is a big year for the former first overall pick. After an All-Rookie season, Ayton was suspended 25 games last season for testing positive for a banned substance. He only played in 38 games as a result, but played well, averaging 18.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks per game. Now, with Chris Paul in town, expectations in Phoenix are higher for the team and Ayton. He will be expected to win matchups against the NBA’s top bigs every night. His potential ascension to All-Star status this season could be the difference between ending the Suns’ 10-year playoff drought and another long offseason.

Avi Carr-Gloth

44. D’Angelo Russell, Timberwolves

Finally in a place that wants him, D-Lo teams up with his good friend Karl-Anthony Towns to form a very fun PG/C combo. Averaging 23 and 6.3 assists last season (21.7 and 6.6 assists in his 12 games with the Wolves), Russell can score with the best of them, and has improved as a playmaker over the years. He will be tasked with running the offense next to explosive rookie Anthony Edwards, thus his leadership will have to continue to grow. He has the weapons beside him to increase his assists numbers past his career high of 7 from 2018, while continuing to be a 20+ per game scorer.

Kyle Turner

43. Shai-Gilgeous Alexander, Thunder

The Oklahoma City Thunder is now officially Shai Gilgeous Alexander’s team. After a year of invaluable mentoring by Chris Paul, SGA is in a great spot to make a huge leap next season. Last season he averaged 19.0 PPG and 5.9 RPG, despite ranking third on his team in usage rate. This year, he’s going to have the ball in his hands a lot more, which will give him a chance to improve those numbers significantly. Another aspect of his game he will look to better is his playmaking. He showed flashes last year but with no pressure on his team to succeed, expect him to considerably develop his offensive arsenal throughout the year.

Eshan Arya

42. Nikola Vucevic, Magic

Vucevic is a bit of an anomaly: he was a first-time All-Star last season at age 29, averaged a double-double of 19.6 points and 10.9 rebounds per game for the regular season this year while shooting 33.9% from 3 on a career-high 4.7 attempts per game. He somehow then ELEVATED his game in the playoffs, where he put up the following stat line: 28.0 points, 11.0 rebounds, and 4.0 assists while shooting 40.9% from 3 on 8.8 ATTEMPTS per game! His PER was 22.9, the 13th-highest in the playoffs, higher than players like Bam Adebayo, Chris Paul, Jayson Tatum, and Rudy Gobert. Yet, Vucevic’s future remains a mystery. With the Hawks, Wizards, and (maybe?) Hornets all gearing up for playoff contention, the Magic feel like the most likely team to lose their seat at the table. if Orlando senses that, do they trade in on Vucevic now and focus on their young core? If not, Vucevic is their guy, and how that makes you feel says a lot about your confidence in a 30-year-old center leading a team beyond the first round in today’s league.

-Bryan Rollofson

41. De’Aaron Fox, Kings

De’Aaron Fox is a top-5 player in the league this season.

Wait, we have to be realistic in these? Fine…

De’Aaron Fox is a top-5 speedster point guard in the league this season. During the 2018-2019 season (Fox’s second year, what I like to call the Year of the Joerger-Blitz), Fox’s speed was on full display as the Kings sprinted their way to one of the fastest paces in the league and nearly made the playoffs. Last season saw Fox and the team slip a little, in large part due to injuries to much of the team, including Fox, who played a mere 51 games. His 3-point percentage dipped below 30% for the first time in his career. While he averaged 21.1 points per game, drew more fouls, and got to the line with incredible frequency (6.7 FTA per game), his FT% (70.5%) and a dip in his assists per game kept him from taking the next step in his ascent to franchise player and future All-Star. Most signs point to Fox trending in the right direction, and if he can push his free-throw percentage and recover his range, he might have what it takes to be a top player yet. At 22 and now on a max contract, he has all the time in the world.

Bryan Rollofson

40. Zach LaVine, Bulls

LaVine enters 2020-21 as the face of the franchise that’s starting over again, and possibly as its greatest trade piece. LaVine will start the season as the focal point of the Bulls’ offense once again. The high-scoring guard averaged 25 points on 45% shooting from the field, 38% from behind the arc, along with 4 assists and 4 rebounds in 19-20. He started to find cohesion with Coby White as a potential high-scoring backcourt, however his seasoned was shortened with an injury before White’s first start in the final game of the season. How those two will play alongside one another will be an important storyline for the Bulls’ new front office.

Kyle Turner

39. DeMar DeRozan, Spurs

DeRozan is still one of the better offensive weapons in the league, as last season he averaged 22.1 ppg, 5.6 apg, and 5.5 rpg shooting 53.1 % from the field, making him the most efficient shooter at the guard position behind Ben Simmons. In San Antonio, he slowly has become one of the more underrated players in the league but make no mistake, DeRozan is one of the more lethal late game options the league has to offer due to his superb vision and elite ability to create whatever shot he wants in the halfcourt. He got to line with the best of them, averaging 6.6 free throws per game, good for 16th in the league. He still hasn’t expanded his range to the 3-point line, but under Gregg Popovich he sticks to what he’s good at and creates 3’s with his passing. If DeRozan finds his way onto a contender, he could shift his perception to a winning player, similar to his former teammate Kyle Lowry did back in 2019. 

Jeff Moran

38. Domantas Sabonis, Pacers

Domantas Sabonis could be on the verge of a Joker Year.

Consider the following: during their age-23 season, the two were very nearly identical in several metrics, especially points per game and effective field goal percentage. Sabonis took the edge in rebounds per game while Jokic claimed similar dominance in assists and threes. Sabonis, however, put up these numbers while splitting his minutes between the 4 and 5 (53% and 47% of his minutes respectively), often playing beside Myles Turner, another gifted young big, while Jokic has almost exclusively played at center. He is low on the list this year, but if Sabonis breaks out the way Jokic did this past season, he could be near the top of next year’s.

Bryan Rollofson

37. Kristaps Porzingis, Mavericks

Finally jumping off the Titanic that is the New York Knicks, Porzingis had his best season to date. Nicknamed the Unicorn for his 7’3 height and ability to stretch the floor, Porzingis found his stroke in 2020 with averages of 20.4 points and 9.5 boards a game. His best play came in the bubble when he averaged 28.2 points a game and was selected to the All-Bubble second team. The biggest concern for Porzingis relates to his lingering knee issues, as he’s missing the start of the 2020-2021 season. A fully healthy Porzingis is likely to be higher on this list.

Hunter Wilson

36. CJ McCollum, Blazers 

Half of Portland’s lethal backcourt tandem, McCollum will need another great season if the Blazers want to make a deep playoff run. He has averaged over 20 points a night while shooting at least 37% on threes in each of the last five seasons. While his remarkably consistent numbers put him on this list, it’s his defense that needs to improve in order to get Portland more wins. With the amount of minutes McCollum plays, he’ll need to impact the game in other ways besides being the team’s secondary scorer.

Avi Carr-Gloth

35. Jaylen Brown, Celtics

Jaylen Brown is coming off of his best season in the NBA. At 20.3 PPG, he was one of three Boston Celtics players to average over 20 points per game. With Gordon Hayward moving on, Brown can expect more shots this year and his scoring is almost certain to improve. He’s shown multiple times he can be an important player for Boston, especially down the stretch. All Celtics fans will remember his incredible three pointer to send last season’s game against the Rockets at TD Garden to overtime. There might not be an All-Star game this season, but Brown will definitely be in the running when the festivities return.

-Eshan Arya

34. Ja Morant, Grizzlies  

The sky is the limit for the second overall pick in the 2019 draft. Morant averaged 17.8 points, 7.3 assists and 4 rebounds per game on the way to winning Rookie Of The Year honors. The young point guard shot 48% from the field, 34% from beyond the arc and 78% from the free throw line.  

Dave Andrade

33. Kemba Walker 

Despite a rather underwhelming first post-season as a Celtic, Walker still ranks amongst the best point guards in the NBA. A solid pre-bubble campaign saw Walker score over 20ppg at a healthy 43% clip along with around five assists as the (debatably) third option for Boston’s offense. all while giving Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown space to continue to develop. There are serious health concerns for Walker heading into this season, though. The 30 year-old point guard, who largely relies on quickness, craftiness and agility, missed 14 games last season before the pandemic with a few different injuries, most prominently a left knee injury, which will now keep him out for the start of the ‘20-‘21 season.

Patrick Foster

32. Zion Williamson, Pelicans

Williamson is a unique physical specimen at 6’6″, 285 pounds, with the speed and leaping ability of a cheetah. Despite a late start last year, he showed the remarkable upside that made him the #1 pick in the 2019 draft. In just 24 games, he averaged 22.5 points and 6.3 rebounds per game while shooting 58% from the field and 43% on 3’s. Williamson will take the next step this year if he can stay healthy, improve his 64% free throw shooting, and work on his defense. He averaged only .4 blocks and .7 steals per game as a rookie.

Dave Andrade

31. Jrue Holiday, Bucks

After being named to back-to-back All-Defensive teams, Jrue Holiday is firmly established as one of the NBA’s best defensive guards and two-way players. The 30-year-old Holiday was one of the most coveted players in trade talks this offseason before being sent from New Orleans to Milwaukee in a four-team deal. Now playing alongside two All-Stars in Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, Holiday will facilitate a high-powered Bucks offense that led the league in scoring (117.8), scoring margin (+9.0) and win percentage (.767) last season. With career averages of 15.9 points, 6.4 assists, 3.9 rebounds and 1.5 steals, the reigning Twyman-Stokes Teammate of the Year should be a perfect fit in Milwaukee. Holiday could return to All-Star status for the first time since 2013 as he attempts to help boost the Bucks to their first NBA Finals appearance since 1974.

-Jon Jacobson

30. Khris Middleton, Bucks

Khris Middleton finished his 2019-20 campaign just .1% shy of the famed 50-40-90 club. Even more impressive is the fact that he averaged nearly 21 points a game while maintaining these near-unprecedented levels of efficiency. Here’s the elite company Middleton joined, that is players that averaged 20 a game on equal or higher efficiency: Steph Curry, Larry Bird, Dirk Nowitzki, and Kevin Durant. With the addition of Jrue Holiday as a secondary playmaker next to Giannis, expect Khris to sustain hyper-efficient output on what should be one of the best offenses in basketball. 

Logan Collien

29. Brandon Ingram, Pelicans

Brandon Ingram is coming off the best year of his young career. Winning the Most Improved Player and making his first All-Star appearance, Ingram showed off why he was the #2 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. Averaging 23.8 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 4.2 assists in the 2019-2020 season, Ingram looks to form one of the best young duos with Zion Williamson this year. If the Pelicans make the playoffs, it will likely be because Ingram took another step towards perennial All-Star status. 

Justin Huntsman

28. Kyle Lowry, Raptors 

To understand Lowry’s place in the league, I always look back to the 2020 All-Star game. In a game that displays the league’s best talents, Lowry was one of the 10 players on the floor when it was nut-crunching time. The 6 foot bulldog treated the exhibition game as a playoff battle, taking charges and drawing fouls to help his team seal a victory. Lowry is always willing to put his body on the line and has established himself as a well-respected leader. With the departure of Kawhi Leonard last offseason, Lowry upped his scoring from 14.2 ppg to 19.4 ppg in 2020, while still remaining one of the league’s leading assist men (7.5 apg, 9th in the NBA). Even though Lowry turns 35 during the regular season, he and the Raptors can still remain a legitimate threat out East.

Jeff Moran

27. Rudy Gobert, Jazz

It seems like another lifetime when Rudy Gobert made fun of the oncoming COVID-19 restrictions, only to almost immediately test positive for the virus himself. His diagnosis came coupled with rumors of unrest between the center and star guard Donovan Mitchell, but that didn’t stop the duo from almost (almost) getting past the comeback Nuggets. Gobert did well in the series (16.9 points, 64.9 FG%, 11.4 rebounds including 8 defensive boards, and 1.4 blocks per game), though his numbers, except for points, were all down from the regular season. After years of defensive prowess and no All-Star appearances, Gobert finally ended his drought this season, but what happens next year when Gobert can enter free agency and Mitchell’s max contract kicks in? Gobert is a central part of the Jazz’s defensive identity. If they hope to keep him, don’t be surprised if he looks to get paid before the season ends, lest the Jazz take a gamble with a potentially loaded 2021 free agent class. Antics aside, there’s a reason he’s this high on the list; now to see if he can stay here.

-Bryan Rollofson

26. Pascal Siakam, Raptors 

The 2019 Most Improved Player was a candidate to win the award again last season, finishing 7th in MIP voting while posting career-highs in points (22.9), rebounds (7.3), assists (3.5), steals (1.0), blocks (0.9), free throw attempts (5.1) and FT% (.792). Hard work and dedication has paid off for Siakam, who flourished in an expanded role as Toronto’s leading scorer while the Raptors maintained their status as one of the NBA’s best teams. Siakam has terrific quickness, footwork, and court vision for a 6’9’’ power forward. Few players can match his rare blend of size, speed and physical strength. The 26-year-old Cameroon native has blossomed into one of the league’s most dynamic big men, earning All-Star starter and All-NBA recognitions last season. Spicy P will likely post new career-highs across the board this season as he further develops his game as a first-option scorer and playmaker for Nick Nurse’s explosive offense.

Jon Jacobson

25. Trae Young, Hawks 

Only the fifth player in history to average 29 points and 9 assists in a season, Trae Young has been the star Atlanta has needed. Now that the Hawks are now doing everything they can to optimize his talents, things can start getting scary in the ATL. Having more scoring weapons like Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari in the line-up with him will open the floor even more for his shooting and playmaking to shine, while rim-running big Clint Capela will make for fun PnR situations. With championship-caliber mentorship from Rajon Rondo, Trae Young will be in a great position to lead the Hawks to the playoffs.

Kyle Turner

24. Jamal Murray, Nuggets

Murray was one of the breakout stars of the 2020 playoffs between his epic duels with Donovan Mitchell and leading the Nuggets to a 3-1 comeback over the Clippers. He averaged 26.5 points and 6.6 assists per game while shooting 45.3% on threes in 19 playoff games against three of the league’s top defenses. Now the Canadian will need to carry that offensive spark that made him must-see TV into this season. Between him and Nikola Jokic, Denver has the offensive firepower to hang with anybody. They lost some key defensive pieces, though, which puts a heavier burden on Murray to be more consistent than in the past.

Avi Carr-Gloth

23. Bam Adebayo, Heat 

Adebayo made the leap in 2020 from a starter to a franchise-altering talent. He earned his 5 year, $163 million extension after his instrumental role in the Heat’s playoff success. His biggest highlight came in the Eastern Conference Finals with a game-sealing block against Jayson Tatum. Bam had his best season in 2020 with averages of 15.9 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 5.1 assists a game. He is the perfect complement to Jimmy Butler, matching Butler’s trademark intensity and hustle every possession.

Hunter Wilson

22. Russell Westbrook, Wizards

After a subpar playoffs last season, it would be easy to think Russell Westbrook is at the beginning of his decline. However, he was playing through injury and one thing that shouldn’t be doubted is his pure basketball talent. Last season, he averaged a ‘quiet’ 27.2 PPG, 7.9 RPG and 7.0 APG. His shooting splits didn’t always make for pretty reading but post All-Star break he improved to 50.4% from the field and 37.5% from three. Now part of an exciting backcourt tandem in Washington, next to Bradley Beal, he will definitely put up All-Star numbers once again and could even find himself in the running for an All-NBA team. As long as he can stay healthy, Westbrook will be a spectacle to watch on a nightly basis. 

Eshan Arya

21. Karl-Anthony Towns, Timberwolves

Karl-Anthony Towns finally got his wish: a team of his own. After trading Andrew Wiggins to the Warriors for D’Angelo Russell, the Timberwolves have no excuses heading into the 2020-21 NBA season. KAT is one of the best offensive bigs in the league, and his passing and court vision are underrated facets of his game. Unfortunately for KAT, his individual ability is often overlooked due to the Timberwolves’ lack of success. In the 2019-20 NBA season, Towns averaged 26.5 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Hunter Wilson

20. Paul George, Clippers 

While Jimmy Butler upped his stature in the league this past season, Paul George did the opposite. After an injury-plagued season, PG averaged the lowest points per game since his third year in the league. He seemed to be an awkward fit alongside Kawhi Leonard, but the Clippers were still the heavy favorite to capture their first championship in franchise history. They didn’t. As a matter of fact, they blew a 3-1 lead to the underdog Denver Nuggets. In the crucial Game 7, PG13 mustered a mere 10 points on 4/16 shooting, including missing a clutch three off the side of the backboard late in the game. Despite his postseason woes, George remains one of the premier two-way wings in a league where that skillset is gold.

Ahmed Warfa

19. Chris Paul, Suns

Chris Paul looks to lead another young team to the playoffs this year. Going from Oklahoma City to Phoenix, Paul will try to make the Suns relevant again with the help of Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton. Paul has lost a step, but he’s still one of the best pure point guards in the game. Pairing him with one of the brightest young stars in Devin Booker in the bubble is going to be must see TV.

Justin Huntsman

18. Ben Simmons, 76ers

Despite the consistent criticism regarding Simmons’ shooting ability (or lack thereof), it was still a career year for the 6’10’ guard. He made his second All-Star appearance, was selected 1st team All-Defense, and honored with his first All-NBA selection (third team). The Australian swiss-army knife is a destructive force on the defensive end, effectively defending 1 through 4. In his third season, Simmons averaged 16.4 ppg, 8.0 apg, 7.8 rpg and a league-leading 2.1 steals per game, while shooting 58% from the field. Reminiscent of Magic with the Showtime Lakers, Simmons is a special talent in the open court with his elite size and athleticism and exceptional passing ability. Some minor tweaks to his game in the half-court and an improved willingness to attack the basket to get fouled should solidify him as a top-15 player in the NBA.

Jeff Moran

17. Bradley Beal, Wizards

It’s official. Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook will form arguably the best backcourt in the NBA after the Wizards flipped John Wall for the former MVP. Beal is coming off a historic season. How historic? The only other players to average 30 points and 6 assists on 57% true shooting are James Harden, Michael Jordan, and Oscar Robinson. Pair Beal with the dynamic Westbrook and expect the lowly Wizards of last season to be competing for the 8th seed in the play-in tournament.

Ahmed Warfa

16. Donovan Mitchell, Jazz

The 13th pick in the 2017 draft, Mitchell is one of the most athletic players in the NBA (many people forget he won the 2018 NBA Slam Dunk Contest). Mitchell can play both the point and off the ball in the backcourt. He’s averaged 22.7 points a game in his 3 seasons in the NBA while shooting .439% from the field and .355% from deep. Mitchell plays hard at both ends of the floor, averaging 4.1 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.3 steals per game for his career.    

Dave Andrade

15. Devin Booker, Suns

Devin Booker shocked the world in the NBA restart, leading the Suns to a perfect 8-0 record in the bubble. Most memorably, Booker sank a turnaround game-winning mid-range jumper over Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Booker is one of the league’s best scorers, and the only active player to score at least 70 points in a game. In 2020, he earned his first All-Star appearance with averages of 26.6 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 6.5 assists. With a recent acquisition of Chris Paul, does Booker now have the pieces to lead the Suns to a long-overdue playoff appearance in a loaded Western Conference?

Hunter Wilson

14. Kyrie Irving, Nets 

Though he is often criticized for everything from his locker-room presence to his wacky conspiracy theories, the talent is simply undeniable. Kyrie Irving is one of the premier offensive talents the league has ever seen (See his 50-point Nets debut vs the Timberwolves last season). He’s had an injury-plagued and highly controversial past couple of years, but with a fresh start in Brooklyn and Kevin Durant set to return, Irving seems primed to regain his status as one of the faces of the league. The Kyrie-KD duo seems ready to take the mantle that Irving and LeBron once held in Cleveland, as Kings of the Eastern Conference. He only played in 20 games before shoulder surgery shut him down in his first season as a Net, but he still put up the best numbers of his career: 27 points and 6 assists on 48/39/92 splits.

Ahmed Warfa

13. Joel Embiid, 76ers

Last year was a down year for the Cameroonian big man, but with a more complimentary roster assembled this offseason in Philly, Embiid should return to his dominant form. By all accounts, he is in the best shape of his life and is hungry to prove himself as the league’s most dominant big. The All-NBA snub should only add fuel to his fire, and if he puts it all together could compete for the MVP (a goal he has been vocal about in the past). Offensively Embiid has it all. Size, power, amazing footwork, soft touch, a smooth jumper, and an elite knack for drawing fouls. He’s a defensive anchor, making opposing guards think twice before attempting anything in the restricted area. In order for the Sixers to be a legitimate contender out East, the 26-year old big needs to take that step into superstardom and become this generation’s Shaq.

Jeff Moran

12. Jayson Tatum, Celtics

At just 22 years old, Tatum is already the Celtics’ best player. He took a gigantic step forward in his third season, averaging 23.4 points and 7 rebounds, and was selected as an All-Star and All-NBA third team. After signing a max extension, Tatum will try to translate his regular-season success to a deep postseason run. Now firmly entrenched as the face of the Celtics, Tatum carries the burden of a franchise that has fallen just short time and time again in recent postseaons. Boston fans should rest easy knowing they will have plenty of chances to win it all with this emerging superstar in the fold for years to come.

Avi Carr-Gloth

11. Jimmy Butler, Heat

Perhaps no player upped their value in the Bubble more so than Jimmy Butler. After departures from Chicago, Minnesota, and Philly with accusations of being a team cancer, Butler responded by leading the Miami Heat to their first NBA Finals since LeBron left in 2014. Even though the Heat lost to LeBron’s Lakers in six games, Butler matched the King nearly toe to toe. In a critical Game 3 with Miami trailing 0-2, Butler delivered an all-time great triple-double of 40 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists. With Miami trailing 3-1, Butler once again put up a LeBron-like 35 point, 12 rebound and 11 assist triple-double to force a Game 6. It seems the move to Miami, which many criticized, worked out for Jimmy G. Buckets.

Ahmed Warfa

10. Nikola Jokic, Nuggets 

Jokic has been regarded as an uber-talented player for a while now, but he earned even more respect after Denver’s magical playoff run. Back to back All-NBA selections also help his case as a bonafide superstar. The Joker is the centerpiece of one of the league’s ascending franchises who will be dangerous once again as they look to take the next step by making the Finals. From his turnaround, off-balance jumpers to no-look dimes, Jokic’s offensive arsenal is as idiosyncratic as it is effective. At just 25, he will be wreaking havoc in the West for years to come.

-Avi Carr-Gloth

9. Damian Lillard, Blazers

The Bubble MVP has received some wing help this offseason and is looking to turn Portland into a real contender. Lillard dragged Portland into the playoffs last year through spectacular performances in the Bubble but will need a better start to the 2020-21 season to put the Blazers in place for playoff success. Coming off a 30-point season, is it crazy to say Lillard can get better? Because at the moment, he’s my dark horse MVP if Portland can get a top 4 seed in the Wild Wild West.

Justin Huntsman

8. James Harden, Rockets 

After blowing off training camp to party with Lil Baby, the entire world will be watching how the former MVP performs this upcoming season. But one thing that’s a given, Harden will remain the best shooting guard in the league, a spot he’s held undisputedly since Kobe Bryant tore his Achilles tendon in 2013. The Beard has averaged at least 29 points per game the past five seasons and at least 30 in the past three seasons. He remains the best isolation player in the league, averaging 16.2 points per game in that situation. In true James Harden fashion, he draws a shooting foul on 14.4% of his isolation touches.

With many clubs closed due to the pandemic, Harden will certainly have less off-court distractions. Will this translate into more wins? That’s to be determined.

Ahmed Warfa

7. Luka Doncic, Mavericks 

Luka Doncic has taken the NBA by storm. The Slovenian sensation makes it look easy on the basketball court, and he’s barely old enough to buy a beer legally. The sky is the limit for the odds-on MVP favorite this season as he looks to take Dallas back to the playoffs. After almost averaging a triple-double in his sophomore season, it feels like Doncic is the next in line to achieve that feat. The “Wonderboy” will be put to his hardest test yet: leading a team with many uncertainties back to the Playoffs through a fierce Western Conference.

Justin Huntsman

6. Kawhi Leonard, Clippers

An all-around talent at both ends of the floor, Kawhi’s athleticism, size, and intelligence have made him one of the best perimeter defenders to ever touch the court.  Leonard was the Defensive Player Of The Year in 2015 and 2016, and while he still remains an elite defender, the development of his offensive game is what has allowed him to ascend to superstar status. Leonard has become an excellent shooter, averaging 49% from the field and 85% from the charity stripe over his career.  His playmaking took a step forward last year, and without a floor general at the guard spot, expect Kawhi to continue to develop his offensive role as the primary ball-handler for the Clippers this season.

-Dave Andrade

5. Steph Curry, Warriors

Steph may be the most underappreciated superstar the league has ever seen. His baby-face and slender frame make him unassuming as a top player, but the gravity he creates on the offensive side of the floor changes the dynamic of the game.

Don’t forget this is the player that had a box-and-1 deployed against him in the NBA Finals, a defensive strategy most commonly found in High School gyms as opposed to NBA arenas. If you exclude his 2019-20 campaign (5 games) Curry has never shot lower than 40% from the 3 in any season of his career. At age 32, the sniper from Davidson should still be able to position the Warriors as a playoff team out west despite the loss of his backcourt mate Klay Thompson. While also maintaining his status as the league’s most exciting offensive talent.

Jeff Moran

4. Anthony Davis, Lakers 

Consensus National Player of the Year, NCAA Champion, Olympic Gold Medalist, #1 Overall Draft Pick, 7 Time All-Star, and now NBA Champion. The 27-year-old Anthony Davis already has a Hall of Fame career. His prime basketball years are still ahead of him as he recently signed a 5 year, $190 million extension with the Los Angeles Lakers. In the 2020 NBA season, The Brow averaged 26.1 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 3.2 assists while finishing 6th in MVP voting, while finishing 2nd for DPOY. After an immensely successful offseason that saw the Lakers add some serious depth, expect Davis to once again anchor one of the best defenses in the NBA while being a matchup nightmare on a night to night basis. 

Hunter Wilson

3. Kevin Durant, Nets

Arguably already one of the all-time greats, KD is coming off an Achilles tear that caused him to miss all of last year.  Now 32 years old, Durante is still a matchup nightmare because of his height, mobility, and 7-4 wingspan.  He can handle the ball like a guard, shoot from anywhere on the floor and, hold his own on the glass. One of the most prolific scorers to ever step foot on the court (4x scoring champ), Durant finally has a team to call his own. The ball is now in KD’s court to prove to everyone that he can be THE guy on a championship team.

Dave Andrade

2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks 

If Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James had a child out of wedlock, it’d be Giannis. A 7-footer with handles of a guard and the paint presence of Shaq in 2001 sounds unguardable, but the lack of an offensive game outside the paint is the glaring weakness that has held him back in the playoffs. As the back-to-back MVP and reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Giannis should be considered the best player in the world. But after disappointing playoff exits in consecutive seaons and his contract coming to an end in 2021, the conversations surrounding the Greek Freak are instead focused on where he could play next. The whole league is on standby to see if the MVP signs an extension with the Bucks or waits it out through the December 21st deadline. If he does delay extension talks through the 21st, Milwaukee would face unprecedented pressure to get a championship ring on Giannis’ finger this season. 

Ahmed Warfa

1. LeBron James, Lakers 

It’d be easy to say LeBron is ranked No.1 because he is the reigning Finals MVP, but there’s so much more to it than just that. LeBron is coming off a season, his 17th, where he averaged 25.3 PPG, 7.8 RPG and, for the first time, led the league with 10.2 APG. He showed everyone why he is not only the most talented player in the league but also one of the smartest. He is always one step ahead of the opposition, and when he’s called upon for elite defense, he delivers. The reigning MVP and DPOY, Giannis Antentokounmpo himself, recently anointed The King as the league’s best player in an interview – high praise from a player chasing that coveted throne. LeBron is going to turn 36 years old nine days into the new season but is still showing no signs of slowing down – he truly is aging like a fine wine.

Eshan Arya

About TLSM Staff

Articles by TLSM staff.

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