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The Lead’s Top 25 for 2021-22

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It’s that time of the year again.

The leaves are falling, the temperature is dropping, and NBA player rankings are back. These rankings are always a point of great controversy across the NBA sphere, but they feel particularly contentious this season– and for good reason. Giannis just won his first championship, KD is fully healthy for the first time since 2018-19, and LeBron no longer holds unquestioned claim to the “best player in the league” throne. We have stars in new cities, stars coming back from injuries, and stars on the verge of part-time-player status. As the relentless media machine is gearing up its narratives before the regular season even kicks off, these lists tend to add even more fuel to the fire. At The Lead, our goal is not to stir the pot, but rather to spark nuanced conversation regarding player value, contribution to team success, and future potential.

Here are a few things to keep in mind. Our top 25 represents the average ranking of 15 of our analysts. While each writer carries their own inherent biases, the composite ranking attempts to eliminate 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 transparency will allow for some engaging conversation among fanbases in what should be an incredibly entertaining season.

With that being said, let the inevitable arguing begin.

 

JUST MISSED THE CUT

Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies 

Ja Morant is nothing short of special. With the eighth-best odds at landing the first pick in the 2019 draft lottery, the Grizzlies struck gold when landing the second overall pick – which ultimately became Morant. Watching Morant drive to the rim is like observing a grown lion charge after a wounded antelope. It’s electric. It’s scary. It’s anything but peaceful. Ja is the ultimate athlete and young point guard to have on your team. When fighting against Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors in the play-in tournament last season, Ja scored 35 points shooting 50% from 3-point range (on 10 attempts), and dished out six assists while scoring the season-saving basket with four seconds remaining. Team leaders shine in their team’s most important moments and Ja didn’t hold back from leading Memphis to their first playoff appearance since 2015. – Rex Foster

 

Jrue Holiday, Milwaukee Bucks

Jrue Holiday had one of the best defensive postseasons we’ve seen from a guard in recent memory. He lived up to his true billing that his superstar peers have also spoken to about publicly. We witnessed glimpses of what he can be for the Bucks when Giannis went down in the playoffs against the Atlanta Hawks. Look for Jrue to have a breakout type of season in 2021-22. He may very well have a similar type of awakening that Mike Conley had in season 2 with the Jazz. Being accustomed to the offense and learning where his opportunities are will be big going into this season. I predict that he will mimic the efficiency similar to Mike Conley in year 2 with a new roster, new system, and personnel. Championships usually take players to another level. The Bucks let PJ Tucker walk, but expect Holiday to pick up the pieces for one of the best defenses in the NBA. – Michael Tolliver

 

Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz 

Only with Rudy Gobert could you have a team with 0-1 above-average wing defenders and still field an elite defense. The Jazz can go over screens and play aggressively up top because he cleans up everything down low. Yes, you’d like a little more offensive game. The ability to punish size mismatches would help. Every elite player has flaws to nit-pick, but Rudy is a walking double-double who could make a top fifteen defense out of a team of LA Fitness hoopers.

The inability to play out on the perimeter is an issue every playoffs, but he can’t clean up everything. Do you give up the rim or the three? Because if he’s not there to protect the rim, everybody else is getting driven and scored on. Utah has structural issues that shine a spotlight on the few flaws in his game, but only Rudy allows you to put anyone on the court and have an elite defense. This is a team with several gunners. Their wing stopper is 6’4 and their best guard defender is 34. Rudy turned that into a top-5 defense; give me Gobert every day of the week and twice on Sundays. Expect his usual double-double and a top ten Jazz defense. Treye Seabrook-Fields

 

Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics 

Jaylen Brown continued his ascension up the player list rankings after turning in another career year. He took a leap from borderline all-star to legit all-star, as he averaged 24.7 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 3.4 assists per game. To put into perspective just how good he was last season, Brown was one of five players to average at least 24 points, six rebounds, three assists and one steal a game while shooting at least 48 percent from the field. 

With Kemba Walker in New York, Brown comes into the season as the undisputed number two option in Boston. Already known as one of the better two-way players in the league, he has also quietly become one of the most potent three-level scorers in the league as well. It will be fascinating to see just how much JB improves this season. – Mason Urban

 

Russell Westbrook, Los Angeles Lakers

Westbrook headlines the off-season retooling campaign for the Los Angeles Lakers. It’s been well-publicized just how old this Lakers team is. But age is just a number, and Russ excels at those. Love him or hate him, Westbrook is still an all-world player when it comes to accruing counting stats. Last season, Westbrook averaged another triple-double, making it the 4th time in the last five years. Putting up a career-high 11.7 assists last year, Westbrook now joins forces with one of the best passers of all time. Although he has experience playing alongside another primary ball-handler (Harden in Houston), the jury is still out on how the playmaking duties will be divvied up between Brodie and Bron.

A lot of people questioned fit this off-season, and if Russ blends with the Lakers roster. It’s a fair question. Russ only averaged 31.5% from 3 with the Wizards last season, and his TS% sat at an ugly .509. For a team that desperately needed shooting, Russ doesn’t excel in that category. With all of that said, focusing on what he CAN bring to the table versus what he can’t has always separated those who love Westbrook, and those who don’t. This season, there’s a real chance LeBron James can help unlock a more polished version of Russell Westbrook, and as a result, a larger audience realizing what Russ CAN do night in and night out. – Adrian Walker

 

The Top 25:

 

25. Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls

If you didn’t watch the Bulls last year– I don’t blame you. They were fun/athletic at best and sloppy/unwatchable at worst. But swept up in the cloud of Chicago’s disarray was LaVine’s significant improvements on both ends of the court. He averaged career-highs in nearly every statistical category, including PPG (27.4), RPG (5.0), APG (4.9), FG% (51%), 3P% (42%), and FT% (85%). But counting stats only tell half of the story. LaVine, for perhaps the first time in his career, was a catalyst for winning games. He made the right reads, improved his shot selection, and served as a facilitator for a team with some major holes at the PG position. 

With the addition of Lonzo Ball, Demar DeRozan, and Alex Caruso, LaVine will be playing on a mature offense for the first time in his career. While his per-game metrics might deflate, expect LaVine to continue his hyperefficient offensive output as the defensive pressure and double teams on him decline. This is the year that LaVine can become more than the “empty stats guy” and play a vital role for an organization in desperate need of a winning basketball team. So as box score watchers and establishment media naysayers attempt to downplay his progression — don’t buy into the false narratives. LaVine is a star. And he’s only getting better. – Logan Collien 

 

24. Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks

Khris Middleton’s player label has been scattered everywhere for the past three seasons. Does he deserve to be on an All-NBA team? An All-Star team? Even the second-best option on a title-contending team? The NBA community has debated these questions since the beginning of Giannis’s rise to superstardom. But, to be fair, rightfully so and we’ll never truly know as long as he’s not paired with Giannis in Milwaukee. With a player like Giannis, who presents unprecedented gravity when driving into the paint, the other four players tend to find themselves open on the perimeter for an open three-point shot. Middleton, who is as good of a shooter as there is, benefits from this strategy significantly. Shooting 41.4% from the 3-point line last year (while converting 65% of 3’s assisted), Middleton has been a crucial piece for Milwaukee these handful of couple years. Even without Giannis’s presence, Middleton deserves all the accolades he has rightfully earned. With a strong basketball IQ, savvy shooting touch, and sturdy defense, Khris Middleton is coming into this upcoming season as one of the NBA’s top 25 players. – Rex Foster

 

23. Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat

Bam Adebayo is simply the epitome of basketball evolution. Coming out of Kentucky, Bam had just about every knock against him as any undersized rim-running big could have. He couldn’t shoot, had no feel, no playmaking skills, etc. Those critiques have been eviscerated the last 2 seasons, as a Finals appearance and Olympic gold medal serve as a testament to his drastic improvement as a player.

He’s improved his scoring and assists every year of his career and is coming off a season where, for a large part, carried the load offensively. Adebayo posted a career-high 18.7 points per game for a Heat team that was missing All-Star forward Jimmy Butler most of the year. That’s not even to mention what Adebayo means to the Heat defensively, anchoring the backline of top-five defense with his versatility on switches and ability to protect the rim. Coming into the 2021-2022 after bringing home gold at the Olympics, it’s safe to assume Adebayo will be in a position to have a breakout season that could push the boundaries of Miami’s title-contending ambitions. – Jordan Latimore

 

22. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves

Having KAT as the third center on our list just feels so…right. He showed with his character and his play that he is one of the preeminent fixtures in this league. Going into his age 26 season, Towns is an offensive dynamo who sets the bar for shooting bigs in the league. He’s developed his playmaking, rebounding, and rim-protecting skills along the way to reinforce the elite scoring contribution. What’s unfortunate compared to other centers on this list is the situation around him.

Every other true five on this list has won multiple playoff series while KAT has made one (1) brief appearance in the dance, during the similarly brief Jimmy Butler era. The Wolves as a whole have been a mess of a franchise considering they’ve had their centerpiece for the better part of a decade. Under contract for three more seasons, the new ownership has a precious window to build a winner around Towns before he inevitably decides to look for a new home. Plenty of teams would love to have a top-tier offensive center who can take any championship-hopeful roster over the top. – Charlie Cummings

21. Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns

With CP3’s placement of 21 on our list, it also puts him at the fifth best point guard in the league this year. Obviously being the oldest of the bunch, coming into his 17th year, it’s safe to say Father Time has some catching up to do, but Paul isn’t slowing up yet. 

Coming off his rebuilding tenure in Oklahoma City, many doubted his praise of what was brewing in Phoenix. Despite this, Paul was able to have one of the best seasons of his career in his new home. Achieving the second-best record in the league AND making his first career NBA Finals appearance only solidified that the ceiling is always higher for a point guard of his stature.

Paul hasn’t lost a step in his game this next chapter of his career either. Constantly running the pick and roll to perfection alongside Deandre Ayton. Craftily and consistently finding ways to manipulate defenders into fouls and getting the exact match-up he wants across the floor. All of this while just absolutely ripping up drop defenses and hitting mid range shots like they are layups. Paul is almost on another level of controlling the game these days. With newfound lob threat JaVale McGee by his side this season, defenders better start watching their heads, too. The passes are only going to get more ridiculous from the Point God.  – Cameron Prichard

 

20. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

Donovan Mitchell should have been in the MVP conversation last year. After all, he did average 26.4 PTS, 5.2 AST, 4.4 REB, and 1.0 STL per game on the best team in the league, record-wise. In fact, the Jazz being such a good team might have taken away from his case. The load was shared among multiple guys which took away from Mitchell’s brilliance somewhat. He had his best season from beyond the arc, shooting 38.6% on 8.7 attempts per game, and there’s a great chance he continues on an upward trajectory and reaches the coveted 40% mark this season.

Mitchell may have had the best season of his young career last year but, as with any young talent, there is still much room for improvement. Simple things like attacking the rim over settling for mid-rangers or taking care of the ball more in crunch time. We know he can score a bunch of points, especially when it comes to the playoffs. What he needs to focus on now is becoming a more efficient scorer when it counts and making the right plays for his team in the most crucial games. If he progresses as expected, don’t sleep on him for All-NBA contention or even sneak into the MVP race this year. – Eshan Arya

19. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat

It might feel like eons ago, but it’s been only 12 months since Jimmy Butler was dropping 40-point triple-doubles in the NBA Finals. But ever since the Big Face Coffee brand went global, Jimmy hasn’t quite been able to replicate the magic of the bonafide superstar we saw in the Bubble. That’s not to say his 2020-21 campaign wasn’t impressive, though. 

He led the league in steals per game (2.1) while setting career highs in APG (7.1), RPG (6.9), and FG% (49.7%). Butler, while battling injuries of his own, carried a young Miami squad through tumultuous stretches of a regular season riddled with positive Covid tests and injuries. However, Jimmy lost his juice in the postseason, stringing together a number of poor offensive performances, and notably getting outscored by Bryn Forbes in the first-round series against Milwaukee— a series in which Miami got swept. 

Jimmy’s Achilles heel has always been his wildly inconsistent 3 point shot. He’s shot below 25% from deep his last 2 seasons and shot 26% from behind the arc in that lackluster Bucks series. While his status as one of the better 2-way stars in the league is undeniable, he’s going to need to make some strides as a shot-maker to make his way further up this list. – Logan Collien

18. Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans

The youngest player on this list at age 21, Zion Williamson is already a force to be reckoned with. Statistically, the sophomore stud was on par with Shaquille O’Neal in terms of finishing at the rim. Last season, Williamson averaged a league-high 19.5 points in the paint, with Giannis Antetoukoumpo following with 16.9. 19.5 is the most points averaged in the paint in two decades since Shaq averaged 20.1, 20, and 19.6 respectively.

Not only is Zion destroying the paint, but he also improved everything from his rookie season. He went from 22.5 points to 27.0 while also improving his playmaking skills, going from 2.1 assists to 3.7. With all the off-season moves by New Orleans, Williamson will be tasked with carrying this young squad. He made the All-Star Game last year, and we should all expect a second straight appearance this season. Nobody is slowing down Zion, at least not yet. – Brian Vollman

 

17. Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks

Trae Young answers the question on everyone’s mind: what if a teenager-sized lollipop dropped in hair ran high pick-and-rolls until your defense collapsed? Young was arguably the story of the playoffs until stepping on a ref’s foot in the conference finals, derailing a promising challenge to the Bucks’ stampede to the championship. At only 23 years old, Ice Trae is one of the top playmakers in the league and poised to contend for the MVP in the coming seasons.

There’s little to speak about for Trae concerning the ugly side of the floor, but his offensive proficiency bends opposing defenses to his will. Contending with a passer, shooter, and screen manipulator of that magnitude all the way out to 30 feet is an exhausting, battering process for defenders. He showed how seven games of dealing with his skill can conquer some impressive teams. As Atlanta further amasses talent around Trae on both sides of the floor, there’s plenty of room for building on a surprise ECF run. – Charlie Cummings

16. Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards

Like many NBA fanatics, I am a big fan of Bradley Beal. Unlike many other NBA fanatics, I have bought stock in the Wizards. I’m enticed by their young assets (Rui Hachimura is a dark horse MIP candidate) and I liked their return for Westbrook. They have positioned themselves as a potential trade candidate for a superstar (if all goes well in DC–Damian Lillard I’m looking at you).

However, I’m not here to preach my excitement for this upcoming Washington team, but instead for their star guard – Bradley Beal. For a second consecutive season, Bradley Beal finished second in the league for scoring, recording 30.5 PPG in the 2019-2020 season and 31.3 PPG last season. Not to ignore that Beal led the league in shots attempted per game while shooting a solid 48.5% from the field. There’s no mistaking that Beal is one of the league’s best scorers. He is a three-level scoring threat, dynamic in the pick and roll, and savvy when on a fast break. As loyal as Beal is to his Wizards, he can end up playing in a different city if Washington doesn’t look promising. A team (per se Philadelphia or Boston) could significantly shake up the eastern conference and title race with Beal on their side. – Rex Foster

 

15. Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers

We are years removed from “that’s a bad shot”, and side of the backboard Playoff P. So let’s stop with any Paul George narrative that doesn’t paint him as an elite basketball player. Fresh off of a playoffs where he averaged 27 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 assists per game, he still has a real argument for being one of the top 3&D players in the league. Additionally, he’s had an entire summer to continue rehabbing the shoulder which has bothered him ever since his OKC days. With Kawhi Leonard out for a majority of, if not the entire season, George could make a legitimate push for the MVP ballot if he remains healthy. This will be the first season since his Indiana days where George is the primary focus for the opposing defense, so it will be interesting to watch how he deals with the pressure. At age 31 going on 32, he’s nearing the end of his prime, but there’s a chance, depending on how well he copes with the responsibility, that this could go down as his best season to date.  – Adrian Walker

 

14. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns

A scoring maestro. An efficiency aficionado. A true basketball prodigy. Going from learning the game from then NBA father Melvin Booker as a kid to becoming the real three-level scoring threat he is today, it’s safe to say Devin Booker eats, sleeps, and breathes basketball. The easier question to ask about Booker’s basketball repertoire is what he CAN’T do with the ball, but we all know that’s not as fun. So let’s just focus on the good stuff.

First things first, the art of patience Booker has in his game for only being 24 years old is unprecedented. Booker has the game of an old soul, commanding the midrange to his liking. He possesses the athletic ability to create space and pick exactly where he wants to shoot at any given time. Meanwhile, just to compliment his finesse, he also has the strength to get any tough shot off no matter what. This is what makes his game so special. It is really up to him if the shot is going to go in, defender in his face or not.

To go along with Booker’s already lethal mid-range shooting is a pull-up/off the dribble three percentage that is only going up each year, and some of the best ambidextrous finishes in the league today. Whether it be in the fast break or in the half-court, Booker is progressing to a point of nearly unstoppable with the basketball. This is all not to mention he has continued to bulk up each off-season, and his defense and playmaking have continued to make leaps and bounds these last couple years. Booker has officially reached a stage of making his teammates better by not just scoring around them, but getting them open looks as well.

Clearly, playoff basketball showed there is another level to Devin Booker’s game that can be tapped into. Scoring the most points in a debut playoff run by ANYONE 24 years old or younger, everyone should only expect to see more of what this man brings to the table in postseason play. It won’t be anything short of spectacular. – Cameron Prichard

 

13. Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets

Part-time player. The most misunderstood man in sports. The fringe conspiracy theorist. Whether it’s burning sage to ward off evil spirits pregame or perpetuating myths about the shape of the earth, Uncle Drew always seems to be making headlines. But with a sea of turmoil surrounding Kyrie the last few years, it seems like the only headlines Irving isn’t making are that of him as a basketball player. This is a crying shame, as his play lately (when he’s healthy) has been nothing short of spectacular. Whether it be the 50-bomb in his Brooklyn debut or carrying the offensive load with his star teammates sidelined, Kyrie has been dissecting NBA defenses like a skilled surgeon. 

Last season, he joined Steph Curry, Larry Bird, and teammate Kevin Durant as the ONLY PLAYERS IN NBA HISTORY to average 26+ PPG on 50/40/90 splits. He was second among starting PGs in eFG%, trailing only Steph Curry. He also led all PGs in blocks, averaging 0.7 BPG, a tremendous feat for a 6’2” guard in a league full of big guards. By all conceivable metrics, Kyrie was playing some of the best basketball of his career last season before an untimely playoff injury. However, with growing concern over his vaccination status and New York City’s mandate, 2020-21 could be the last basketball we see out of Kyrie– at least for quite some time. As one of the most entertaining players to ever take the court, I’m crossing my fingers for Kai to lace em’ up this season. – Logan Collien 

 

12. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

Jayson Tatum took the leap to superstardom that we have all been waiting for. He put up career highs in points (26.4), rebounds (7.4) and assists (4.3) last season. More impressively, he put up those numbers after a battle with COVID-19 forced him to have to use an inhaler before games for the rest of the season. In a league that has a plethora of talent, Tatum led the NBA in 50-point performances with four. These included a Play-in tournament victory over the Wizards and a game three win over the Nets where he was the best player on the court in a game that featured Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving. If Tatum continues this trajectory, he will solidify himself as a top-10 player after this season. – Mason Urban

 

11. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

Dame D.O.L.L.A. Logo Lillard. Sub Zero. Dame Time. He’s a man of many names and many talents. From sending the opposition to Cancun (multiple times) to his 55-point clinic in Game 5 of the WCS, Dame has strung together some of the most memorable playoff moments in recent history. But no amount of 40 bombs or 40 footers can overcome poor team construction. We know what Dame can do on the court, but the ball is in a different court now— the front office’s. After another early playoff exit and a lackluster free agency period, Dame’s unwavering loyalty is being put to the biggest test of his career. Will this season be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, or will Lillard put together another Herculean effort and keep the Blazers competitive in the gauntlet that is the Western Conference? – Logan Collien

 

10. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers

NBA Top 25

Anthony Davis is easily a top-five talent in the NBA today. He has all the skills necessary for that prestigious designation. He has no weaknesses in his offensive game and is one of the greatest defenders the league has ever seen. Sadly, he did not live up to expectations after his championship run with the Lakers in 2020. Coming off the shortest offseason in the history of American team sports, Davis struggled with injuries and had the worst season of his career. He appeared in a career-low 36 games and averaged the lowest points per game since his rookie year at 21.8. He also posted career lows in rebounds, blocks, field goal percentage, and free throw percentage. From his Achilles injury in February to his groin injury in the first round of the playoffs, it was obvious in his play that Davis was not the same player we saw raising the Larry O’Brien last October. If the Lakers want to hold that trophy again, they’ll need A.D. to once again play like the top-five player he’s capable of being. – Ahmed Warfa

 

9. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

NBA Top 25

It’s pretty hard to believe Joel Embiid has only played 5 seasons in the league. It feels like he’s been bullying on the block and trolling online for a decade now. Through the usual injuries and the 6’10” Australian cloud hanging over his head, Embiid poured in a career-high 28 PPG on 51/38/86 splits. His dominance in the post went against modern NBA practice, recording more post-ups than any other player with eye-popping efficiency. Embiid is still one of the premier shot-blockers in the league, forming the two-way centerpiece of a Sixers team that captured the #1 seed in a very competitive East.

Yet Embiid finds himself answering tough questions about his future, an unusual situation for a top-3 MVP candidate coming off a #1 seed. Losing in seven to the upstart Hawks in the semifinals put the crosshairs directly on Philly’s roster, one man in particular, but Embiid still finds himself with plenty to prove this upcoming season. Anything less than an ECF appearance would feel like a disappointment if the Ben Simmons situation can be resolved somewhat amicably, and it would require the hulking center to put even more on his shoulders. Luckily for Philadelphians, it’s quite the set of shoulders. – Charlie Cummings

 

8. Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers

NBA Top 25

Sadly, we won’t see the Fun Guy suit up for the majority of the upcoming season. It’s brutal timing, as the Clippers have produced more questions than answers during Kawhi’s tenure despite him maintaining the peak of his powers. Muscle injuries aside, there is little to doubt about Kawhi’s status as one of the premier overall players in the league.

Still arguably the most menacing wing defender walking (perhaps scootering while he heals), Kawhi had his most efficient offensive season to date, aging like fine wine as he crosses into his thirties. Had he sank one more three and five more freebies, he would have become the fifth player ever to score 25+ PPG on 50/40/90 splits. You may have heard of Larry Bird, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving. To think of Kawhi in that pantheon of scoring efficiency boggles the mind. He and Paul George form an excellent wing tandem, one unmatched at the G/F spots outside of Brooklyn. It’s more than reasonable to think that Kawhi still has that Toronto level of play in him, but it’s going to be a tough road back to the Finals for the Klaw. A lot of healing and team-building has to happen between now and then. – Charlie Cummings

 

7. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

NBA Top 25

Luka Dončić could one day carry the title of consensus best player in the world. It’s as simple as that. At only 22 years old and entering his fourth season, Luka is already a two-time All-Star starter and two-time All-NBA First Team, a ridiculous feat for a young player in the Western Conference. In his first two playoff series versus the Los Angeles Clippers the past two seasons, Luka is averaging 33.5 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 9.5 assists while shooting 49.4% from the field and 39.2% from deep. In his first 13 playoff games, he’s delivered all-time performances highlighted by his 43-point, 16-rebound, and 13-assist masterpiece with a buzzer-beating three. There is only one direction for Luka Magic to go on future iterations up this list: up. – Ahmed Warfa

 

6. James Harden, Brooklyn Nets

NBA Top 25

The league better watch out for a fully healthy James Harden. After being a shell of himself in the playoffs this past season due to injury, he will be coming out with a vengeance this year. Despite Kyrie not being eligible for home games due to the NYC vaccine mandate, I would still go as far as to say the Nets are still the favorite to come out of the East with “just” KD and Harden.

The walking 30-piece is bound to come back to life. With more of the scoring load put back onto him, Harden will have the ability to make massive effects on the game by not just playmaking, but shotmaking as well. Getting back to his iso roots is going to be key for Harden to get back into the sort of rhythm he is used to. But when he is, there is just no stopping that lethal stepback. While defenders are compensating for the jumper, the lanes should be more wide open than before, giving ample opportunity for that automatic floater to fall. – Cameron Prichard

 

5. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

The reigning MVP is out for blood. Or at least for bear hugs and goofy post-game interviews. Nikola Jokic is a gentle giant when it comes to his off-the-court presence. A seven-foot teddy bear with a Serbian accent, who loves to joke around (pun intended) and ride horse carts. However, his on-court presence ignites nightmares to opposing defenses. Many make the argument that he’s the best all-around offensive player in basketball – and for a good reason. Jokic is a three-level scorer, a dominant rebounder, and a playmaking wizard. But we have known that already for quite some time now. With Jamal Murray out until at least after the all-star break, expect Jokic to further polish his offensive talents.

Around the league, there is serious anticipation for third-year forward Michael Porter Jr. to blossom this upcoming season as he will be given the power to showcase his sky-high scoring potential with an increased number of shot attempts per game. But no attention has been set on Jokic. Before the start of last season, Jokic slimmed his frame which paid off notably. He enhanced his stamina, his athleticism spiked, and more importantly his defense (and defensive effort) became apparent as Denver’s defense improved in defensive rating and opponent points in the paint. Jokic hasn’t stopped working either. With his body still active in reconstruction mode and in the peak of his career, Jokic has become one of the NBA’s best five players. – Rex Foster

 

4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

NBA Top 25

Coming off his most transcendent individual season since 2017, Steph bagged his second scoring title en route to a third-place finish in MVP voting, with the second-most first-place votes. He scored a ludicrous 32 PPG despite a supporting cast that offered about as much structure as wet cardboard. The Warriors answered very few of the questions that plagued them after an epic collapse to the bottom of the standings, but Steph showed he is still capable of being the bellwether of the league.

Some people, like myself, would argue it’s been Steph’s league since he secured his first championship. Up until last season, injury luck was the main foe of their dynastic run; now it’s been reinforced by questionable drafting and painful free agency hauls. That takes a toll on a point guard about to turn 34 who can only carry the mail for so long. If Curry can maintain his top-tier play from last season, few will be left doubting what he is capable of. Those who still doubt have few rocks left to live under. The question is, will we see him dropping bombs on the biggest stage ever again? – Charlie Cummings

 

3. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

NBA Top 25

Last season, the Lakers were coming off of the shortest off-season in pro sports history. Yet LeBron James still found himself in the thick of the MVP race in March. A high-ankle sprain derailed his season but as he so often does, he still put up his trademark 25.0 PTS, 7.8 AST, and 7.7 REB for the year. Everyone knows that LeBron loves a statistical milestone. Well, this season he is set to become the second all-time leading scorer, reach 10k assists and 10k rebounds. He would be the first player ever to reach this mark in both of these categories. 

Heading into every season for the past few years, the same question always gets thrown around: “Will this be the year that LeBron slows down?” Spoiler alert: it hasn’t happened yet and it won’t happen this season. A rare, early exit from the playoffs for an injury-struck Lakers team gave him some much-needed rest heading into his 19th season. The last time we saw a well-rested LeBron James, his team won the title and he was the Finals MVP in a dominant, yet underrated Finals run. He’ll be making a similar push deep into June this season, you can take that to the bank. – Eshan Arya

 

2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

NBA Top 25

MVPs don’t usually win the NBA championship in the same year they land the MVP award. The last time was Steph Curry in 2015. Giannis will likely make a push to be the next. Coming off of his first championship, Antetokounmpo enters his prime on a high note. It’ll be scary if he has developed a patented go-to move near the perimeter. He’s still only 26 (27 on December 6th) and has accomplished everything in the NBA. The only thing left is to sustain greatness and prove that this title wasn’t a fluke by defeating the Brooklyn Nets and possibly the LA Lakers in the playoffs. He will be thrust back into MVP conversations now that he has succeeded on the biggest stage. If he continues to dominate in the paint and not settle for the noise around him to make threes, look for him to have another season for the ages. The big man isn’t dead. Never was. Giannis will be undeniable this season. Book it. – Michael Tolliver

 

1. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets

NBA Top 25

The case can be made for a couple of other players, but based on what this man did in June of 2021, it’s tough to argue against KD. Averaging 36.5 PPG as the best player in the ECSF against the eventual Finals MVP, he’s poised to dominate for an entire season once again. Walking into his 14th season at age 33, and his first full season he’ll have played since 2018-19, it’ll be tough to tame the Durantula. With the burden of carrying the load for other injured/unavailable players and being the defacto go-to guy on a loaded roster, Slim Reaper will be the standard pallbearer in regards to assassinating the entire NBA for the 75th year of its existence. – Chris Morrison

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