With the 2021-22 season drawing to a close, the Ringer staff has reconvened to rank the best players in the NBA. Like in years past, voters were given a simple/painful task: Rank the best 25 players in the NBA this season. Below are the results, based on average ranking, according to our panel of analysts—Dan Devine, Zach Kram, Rob Mahoney, J. Kyle Mann, Kevin O’Connor, and Jonathan Tjarks.
But first, a couple of notes based on the rankings, courtesy of Kram:
- The honorable mention list includes: Dejounte Murray, Khris Middleton, Bam Adebayo, Evan Mobley, Paul George, LaMelo Ball, Darius Garland, Kyrie Irving, Mikal Bridges, Pascal Siakam, Jaren Jackson Jr., Damian Lillard
- The players who fell out of the top 25 from last year were as follows: Adebayo, George, Irving, Lillard, Julius Randle, Bradley Beal, Zion Williamson, and Kawhi Leonard. Kawhi (who was sixth last year) and Lillard (11th) suffered the furthest falls. (Both, of course, have been injured this season.)
- Six of the top seven players in last year’s exercise are still ranked that high, with Kawhi being the only exception.
- This is the lowest LeBron has ever placed in our rankings, which date back to the 2017-18 season.
- The widest spread of rankings among individual voters by far belonged to James Harden (ranked as high as 10th and as low as 25th) and Draymond Green (ranked as high as 13th, but off the ballot entirely for other voters).
Without further ado, here are the top 25 players this season:
25. Jaylen Brown
Team: Celtics (39-27) | Position: Wing | 2021: Not Ranked
23.2 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 0.3 blocks, 53.2 eFG%, 8.3 net rating, 51 GP
Dan Devine: Hamstring issues cost Brown 13 games during the first two months of the season. That, combined with the Celtics’ disappointing start, cost him a shot at a second straight All-Star berth. Not making the exhibition, though, doesn’t mean you can’t play like a star.
In the 29 full games he’s played since New Year’s Eve, Brown has averaged 24 points, 6.7 rebounds, 3.9 assists, and one steal in 34.7 minutes per game, shooting 47.6 percent from the field and 34.9 percent from 3-point land on more than seven hoists a night. It’s the kind of production that only megastar wings—LeBron, KD, Harden, T-Mac, Kawhi, Paul George, and Brown’s teammate Jayson Tatum—have ever put up over the course of a full season, and the 25-year-old is delivering it while also doing plenty of dirty work tamping down scorers across all positions for the NBA’s no. 1 defense.
Brown’s ability to handle any defensive assignment has helped unlock the league’s most switch-happy defensive scheme; his improvements as a playmaker and a finisher at the rim (where he’s shooting a career-best 71.2 percent) have helped bolster an offense that ranks just outside the top 10 in points scored per possession in 2022. Tatum gets the pub; Time Lord gets the DPOY discussion; Marcus Smart gets the undying love. Just make sure you save some praise for the guy who not only told you the energy was about to shift, but who also gives Boston what it needs every night to win.
24. Fred VanVleet
Team: Raptors (34-30) | Position: Guard | 2021: NR
21.4 points, 4.5 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 0.5 blocks, 53.1 eFG%, 2.2 net rating, 52 GP
Devine: In an age of Flubber-heeled wonders, visionary needle-threading savants, and geometry-warping stars, we risk damning a player like VanVleet with faint praise. (Such is life when you play a below-the-rim style not exactly suited for the House of Highlights.) His game is best viewed in the context of the full 48, or a series, or a season—the broader samples that allow you to add up all those little advantages he helps create, play after play, and come away marveling at the full fruits of his labor.
VanVleet’s value rests more on efficiency than explosion: on his talents for consistently creating good shots, whether for himself or for his teammates, and for helping tilt the possession battle Toronto’s way, whether by limiting turnovers on offense or generating them on defense. The results might speak softly, but they speak for themselves. He’s one of just 11 players averaging at least 20 points, six assists, and four rebounds per game this season.
He’s third in the NBA in deflections per game and tied for seventh in steals, serving as a persistent point-of-attack disruptor for a near-top-10 Raptors defense that relies on turnover creation to fuel its offense. On that end, VanVleet makes up for Toronto’s lack of reliable shooting and complementary playmaking by ranking second in 3-point makes per game and 13th in assists.
VanVleet’s year-over-year improvement allowed the Raptors to gracefully bid farewell to mentor and franchise icon Kyle Lowry. His ability to serve as a catch-and-shoot threat creates space for the likes of Pascal Siakam and rookie phenom Scottie Barnes to stretch as facilitators; his steady hand at the wheel ensures that they don’t get overextended, that there’s always a safe place to go with the ball. That he leads the league in minutes per game isn’t necessarily an indictment of young backup Malachi Flynn, or an indication that head coach Nick Nurse is a sadist who delights in putting the weight of the world on the shoulders of his diminutive genius point guards. It’s a form of recognition: that, more often than not, the Raptors’ best bet is the underdog who bet on himself, and won.
23. Anthony Davis
Team: Lakers (28-36) | Position: Big | 2021: 9
23.1 points, 9.7 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 2.3 blocks, 54.6 eFG%, -2.4 net rating, 37 GP
J. Kyle Mann: In the space between last season’s list and now, Davis has taken an unpleasant slide that Zach Holmes would appreciate.
The most glaring issue this season is sadly on-brand: He can’t stay healthy. In mid-December, Davis suffered an MCL sprain and missed more than a month. He returned in late January, only to fall prey to a mid-foot sprain that has him out indefinitely.
When active this season, Davis has responded to the years of hand-wringing by the hoops community and logged his most reps at center since forcing his way to L.A. He has bulked up, and while it’s affected his movement, he’s still one of the most dominant defensive forces in the game. What defensive metrics can fail to capture at times is AD’s ability to dissuade ball handlers from even trying him, often chewing up clock in their indecision. Watch Philly use nearly an entire clock because they keep avoiding him.
Or watch him gladly switch on to Trae Young here, absorb his first move, and then show enough body control to deny Trae the shooting foul. He also lets Trae know about it afterward.
The positional shift has affected AD’s offense, too. He’s accruing more touches and points in the paint, on average, since 2017-18. This has shifted him away from the perimeter game (he’s shooting 18.2 percent from 3 on 1.8 attempts per game) he’s always wanted to showcase.
These rankings are about the here and now, and I have to admit that in this here and now, I feel a bit deflated by how Davis’s interrupted micro sample size represents him in the grand scheme of the league.
22. Zach LaVine
Team: Bulls (39-26) | Position: Wing | 2021: NR
24.6 points, 4.9 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 0.4 blocks, 56.0 eFG%, 1.0 net rating, 53 GP
Rob Mahoney: Over the past few seasons, LaVine has made himself into a more complete player, a two-time All-Star, and, most crucially, an ideal running mate. It’s so easy to play alongside LaVine these days, seeing as he could run the bulk of a team’s offense if asked, or play largely off to the side if needed. That’s the seamless magic of working with one of the best shooters in the world. Some spot-up specialists may be more purely efficient than LaVine from the perimeter, but precious few can get off high-quality shots in so many different contexts. When we think of unstoppable scorers, we gravitate to players like Kevin Durant—living anomalies who can isolate to get a shot off against anyone. Yet there’s something almost as immutable with shooters like LaVine, who can be moved all around the floor and through such a range of actions that it becomes almost impossible to deny them.
Earlier in LaVine’s career, scouts and coaches in the league were unsure of what his best position might be—to the point that the late Flip Saunders tried him at point guard. As it turns out, LaVine is at his best when you don’t really pin him down at all. He sets up his teammates on some plays, he darts around screens on others, and if there’s an opportunity, he’ll go to work in the post and torch opponents with fadeaways. A place for everything, and everything in its place.
21. Jarrett Allen
Team: Cavaliers (38-27) | Position: Big | 2021: NR
16.1 points, 10.8 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.3 blocks, 67.8 eFG%, 3.3 net rating, 56 GP
Zach Kram: Even in this age of analytics, defense is really hard to measure. One of the few areas we can trust the numbers, though, is rim defense—and Allen just happens to be the best rim protector in the league this season. When Allen is the closest defender on shots taken within 6 feet of the basket, opposing players shoot just 48.6 percent; that’s the lowest mark out of the 213 players who have defended at least 150 such shots.
Allen manages such stingy defense without fouling (just 1.7 personals per game), and his rangy, engaged effort on that end might have been reason enough to rank him on this list; that he’s also contributing a career-high 16 points and 11 rebounds per game, and shooting 68 percent from the field, is quite the offensive cherry on top.
With Allen now out indefinitely because of a fractured finger—just the latest in a long run of Cavaliers injuries—Cleveland looks destined for the no. 5 or 6 seed in the playoffs and a difficult first-round matchup. But a late-season downturn shouldn’t detract from the compelling surprise that was this season’s Cavaliers breakout, or Allen’s in particular.
20. Jrue Holiday
Team: Bucks (41-25) | Position: Guard | 2021: 24
18.5 points, 4.7 rebounds, 6.7 assists, 0.5 blocks, 57.8 eFG%, 8.6 net rating, 53 GP
Mann: Holiday is a philosophical dividing line among basketball fans. It’s similar to my days DJ’ing weddings: I knew early on what kind of crowd I had based on whether they were interested in dancing to Daft Punk or LCD Soundsystem. And I can tell how much my tastes will align with a person’s based on their reaction to Holiday. Are we paying attention to the little things and giving them their proper respect as it pertains to winning?
The fact is that Jrue is one of the game’s most impactful two-way players. He’s not the biggest or most explosive athlete, but on defense, Holiday is like Jim Cantore: Take him to the scariest scenes imaginable and he’ll deliver. He’s in the 97th percentile of matchup difficulty taken on this season, while creating 2.8 deflections per game and contesting 6.5 shot attempts, 10th among guards.
It’s not common to get that kind of consistent, quality point-of-attack defense from a player who also offers a broad, productive offensive skill set. Holiday is efficient in the pick-and-roll either by pulling up or getting into the teeth of the defense to score it or share it. He’s great playing off the catch (44.2 percent in catch-and-shoot situations) and feasts on the imbalance that someone like Giannis can create.
19. Draymond Green
Team: Warriors (44-22) | Position: Big | 2021: NR
7.9 points, 7.6 rebounds, 7.4 assists, 1.2 blocks, 56.7 eFG%, 9.8 net rating, 34 GP
Mahoney: A three-time champion doesn’t really have anything left to prove, but just in case, Green played absolutely vital basketball before a lower back injury took him out of commission in January. It’s not just that the Warriors have been worse off without Green; at times, they’ve been completely unrecognizable. Stephen Curry may be Golden State’s lodestar, but his signature, audacious style only hums at a championship level when the Warriors also have Green around to run the logistics.
It’s not glamorous work—just damn essential. Draymond makes the most complex orchestrations feel routine, as if any run-of-the-mill NBA player could see their team through a whirlwind of off-ball movement. You might be fooled into thinking that it’s Green’s ability to switch and stifle almost any opponent that makes him one of the best defensive players in the league—when what really sets him apart is knowing when and how to use that flexibility as part of a complete defensive picture. This is a list of prolific scorers and unimpeachable stars, and yet there may not be another player in the bunch with Draymond’s understanding of how all the pieces on the floor fit together.
18. James Harden
Team: 76ers (40-24) | Position: Guard | 2021: 8
22.7 points, 7.9 rebounds, 10.4 assists, 0.6 blocks, 49.8 eFG%, 2.7 net rating, 49 GP
Mann: Because of his half-hearted attention to conditioning or his at times unwatchable, grift-tastic gaming of the rule book, we’ve all given Harden demerits in the past couple of years. But we know full well that he’s still on the short list of the best basketball players in the world. ESPN wouldn’t have done everything short of putting Woj in an Apache helicopter to track his every move at the trade deadline last month if he weren’t.
Not every great artist is going to be great all the time—for some, there will be ups and downs, there will be some friction, some preference on working conditions, some suboptimal behavior. That often leaves leadership waiting around and gambling on the likelihood that they’ll turn it on when it really matters.
Chalk it up to COVID-era weirdness or a compatibility issue, but through 44 games with Brooklyn, his true shooting percentage of 57.6 was his lowest mark since his rookie season with the Thunder, and his pick-and-roll (0.965 points per possession) and ISO numbers (1.121) were the lowest they’ve been in the past five seasons. In fact, Harden’s overall ISOs per 100 possessions were the lowest they’ve been in quite some time.
Harden in Isolation
|Season||Isolations Per 100 Possessions||Points Per Chance||Points Per Possession|
|Season||Isolations Per 100 Possessions||Points Per Chance||Points Per Possession|
A “your turn, my turn, his turn” approach to offense of that caliber can be devastatingly effective (the Nets still came within inches of making the conference finals), but Harden still wanted out of Brooklyn. After getting where he apparently wanted to be all along, his early tenure in Philly has been a glimpse of how good he can still be when he’s dialed in. He averaged 26.8 points, 12 assists, and 1.5 steals, shot 50 percent from 3, and generated nine or more free throws in each of his first four outings with the Sixers. Even scarier, he and Joel Embiid have indicated that their offensive roles are more malleable than they’ve shown us in recent years.
Great baseline drift from Harden. Again if this is the movement the Sixers are going to get from the normally very stationary Harden, that is big. pic.twitter.com/WMfAIPSxti— Mo Dakhil (@MoDakhil_NBA) February 26, 2022
Defending the Sixers will probably be extremely tedious come playoff time, and Harden’s pace and spatial mastery are instrumental reasons why.
17. Rudy Gobert
Team: Jazz (40-24) | Position: Big | 2021: 18
15.6 points, 14.8 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 2.2 blocks, 71.0 eFG%, 9.1 net rating, 50 GP
Kram: We know what we’re getting out of Gobert at this point, which is why he continues to place around the same spot on the rankings. He is once again leading the league in shooting percentage, though he hasn’t added much to his offensive repertoire; he is once again the league’s most important regular-season defender, though we’re all waiting to see how Utah’s team defense will translate to the postseason. It’s impossible to overstate Gobert’s impact on a roster otherwise laden with offensive talent: When Gobert’s in the game, the Jazz allow 7.5 percent fewer shots at the rim than they do when he’s out—the largest differential in the league, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Gobert is a heavy favorite, according to FanDuel odds, to win his fourth Defensive Player of the Year award—which would tie him with Dikembe Mutombo and Ben Wallace for the most DPOY trophies in league history.
16. Karl-Anthony Towns
Team: Wolves (37-29) | Position: Big | 2021: 25
24.7 points, 9.7 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.2 blocks, 58.8 eFG%, 4.6 net rating, 59 GP
Devine: Nobody ever doubted Towns’s offensive talents: His ability to go to work in the post, to facilitate from the elbows and block, and, to a greater degree than just about any big man before him, to step back beyond the arc and scorch the nets like a shooting guard. (KAT’s one of just 18 players 6-foot-10 or taller to make 700 3-pointers in his career and the fourth most accurate.) The questions surrounding him—questions posed with increasing volume ever since the Jimmy Butler Experiment blew up in the Wolves’ faces—have always focused elsewhere.
After six straight seasons as the back-line anchor of one of the NBA’s worst defenses, could Towns be the centerpiece of a team that consistently got stops? After the Butler debacle tagged him, fairly or unfairly, with a reputation for being “soft,” could he lead a team that battled—that was willing to do the dirty work and could find ways to win even when the shots weren’t falling? Towns has answered the call this season, bouncing back from two seasons derailed by multiple injury absences and personal tragedies to log the most minutes on a Wolves team that sits in or just outside the top 10 in a slew of defensive categories.
Nobody’s likely to start confusing Towns with Rudy Gobert in the paint—opponents are shooting 62.1 percent against him at the rim this season, 34th out of 52 players to defend at least 200 up-close shots, according to Second Spectrum’s tracking—and he’s had plenty of help in overhauling Minnesota’s defense, with Patrick Beverley and Energizer Bunny disruptors Jarred Vanderbilt and Jaden McDaniels wreaking havoc on the perimeter. But Towns has worked his ass off, too: pressuring the ball above the arc, tracking back to protect the rim, and using the quickness that bedevils opposing centers on offense to stick with guards on switches.
The Wolves have been stingier with KAT off the court, but they’ve been about league average with him on it. That’s a real and significant step up for the 26-year-old—and when you produce like he does on the other end, averaging a tick under 25 points and four assists per game on .635 true shooting, it’s enough to put Minnesota back on the path to the postseason, and Towns back on a path to All-NBA consideration.
15. Trae Young
Team: Hawks (31-33) | Position: Guard | 2021: NR
27.8 points, 3.8 rebounds, 9.4 assists, 0.1 blocks, 52.5 eFG%, 1.3 net rating, 59 GP
Kram: The pick-and-roll remains the premier play for NBA offenses, and Young is perhaps its premier practitioner. He’s received about 300 more screens than any other ball handler this season, according to Second Spectrum, and the Hawks score an average of 1.04 points on those possessions—tied for the fourth-best mark among players who have received at least 1,000 picks.
While slippage from the likes of Clint Capela and Bogdan Bogdanovic has prevented the Hawks from capitalizing on last season’s surprise playoff run, Young himself hasn’t suffered: He’s shooting a career-high 38 percent on 3s as part of his most efficient offensive season, and even a league crackdown on his foul-drawing antics haven’t much slowed his production.
A player with his defensive limitations can vault only so high on this list, but his offense remains extraordinary. Estimated plus-minus rates Young as the fourth-most-valuable offensive player this season, behind only the three leading MVP candidates: Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. RAPTOR ranks him second, behind only Jokic.
14. Donovan Mitchell
Team: Jazz (40-24) | Position: Guard | 2021: 22
25.7 points, 4.0 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 0.2 blocks, 53.6 eFG%, 7.9 net rating, 52 GP
Kram: One of the only players who ranks above Young in scoring efficiency with a screen? That would be Mitchell, who ranks second because Utah scores 1.07 points per possession when he receives a pick. More broadly, the Jazz boast by far the league’s best offense, and Mitchell is its engine. He’s even better this season, with a career-best true shooting percentage and assist rate.
While Mitchell’s 3-point accuracy has dipped a touch this season, he’s compensating with career-best percentages at the rim and from the midrange, per Cleaning the Glass. And the 3-point stroke is just fine, too: Only Stephen Curry and VanVleet are making more 3s per game than the Jazz star.
13. Devin Booker
Team: Suns (52-13) | Position: Guard | 2021: 20
25.6 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 0.4 blocks, 51.1 eFG%, 8.4 net rating, 54 GP
Mann: Is Booker the 13th-best player in the world? I would argue that he’s not, and we might be giving Book the “contribution to winning” bump here. Phoenix is winning, a lot—at one point going 21-2 from the start of January until Chris Paul went down with a thumb injury—and Booker remains a key aspect of that success.
Booker has exceeded the initial expectations for his career because he’s an exceptional shot creator, predominantly facing up in the midrange or creating off the dribble, but he’s much more of a craft scorer than someone who relies on burning defenders with dribble separation. Footwork, fakes, angles. Even when contested, he’s one of the best deep midrange scorers in basketball, averaging 6.7 points per game on 44.1 percent shooting.
A key difference for him in the past few seasons is that he’s learned to benefit from the trickery of creating contact and getting to the line as a way of bumping his numbers. There’s been less of that this season. Similar to guys like Trae Young and James Harden, Booker’s ISO production has been noticeably affected by the shift in officiating foul-drawing maneuvers. His shooting fouls in isolation have dipped significantly, and his overall free throw rate (.243) is the lowest of his career.
The flip side is that Booker is taking better care of the ball, and that has prevented his scoring from falling off. Although I can’t follow the notion that Booker is an MVP candidate, as some Suns folks have argued, at only 25 years old, he still has room to grow. He ain’t perfect, but Phoenix’s success in assembling a competent roster around him should continue to give him opportunities to expand.
12. Jayson Tatum
Team: Celtics (39-27) | Position: Wing | 2021: 17
26.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 0.7 blocks, 50.6 eFG%, 9.7 net rating, 62 GP
Mahoney: It’s not a terribly complicated formula that puts Tatum on our list with a bullet: premier shot-making plus stout all-around defense bolstered by a growing understanding of how to best get his teammates involved. The most frustrating thing about Tatum is that he can do so much so well that any error feels amplified. Why force a shot when he has every tool to work for a better one? Why let the defender off the hook when he has the very edge he needs to draw contact and get a free trip to the line? There are fewer and fewer of those questions these days, as Tatum has culled ever more reliable play from one of the league’s most well-rounded skill sets.
You simply cannot tell the story of the Celtics’ in-season turnaround without giving due to Tatum’s increasingly focused game. As a scorer, he’s running about as lean as ever—settling less, attacking more, and trusting his teammates to do some of his work for him. That’s real growth, all but verified by the fact that it didn’t come easily or evenly. Development rarely does. But it’s easy to take progress for granted with Tatum, considering that he’s been in the league long enough to make three All-Star teams and two appearances in the Eastern Conference finals—even if this is just his fifth season. The past few months have been a welcome reminder of how much one of the best players in the league can still progress. Every passing month is a chance to push some slow-burning skill toward its greatest possible advantage.
11. Jimmy Butler
Team: Heat (44-22) | Position: Wing | 2021: 15
21.4 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 0.5 blocks, 48.3 eFG%, 6.7 net rating, 46 GP
Jonathan Tjarks: Butler is in his happy place in Miami. He knows exactly who he is and what his team needs from him. He facilitates the Heat’s intricate half-court offense, scores efficiently but doesn’t force his own shot, and defends at a high level across multiple positions. He hasn’t been talked about much this season because he’s been doing the same thing for a couple years now. You can’t count on Butler to play a full 82-game season at this stage of his career, but he has been the best player on the no. 1 seed in the East when he has been on the floor.
But the only thing that matters for a veteran player like Butler is what happens in the playoffs. He put together an all-time-great postseason run in the bubble to carry the Heat to the 2020 NBA Finals before falling flat on his face when the Bucks swept them out of the first round in 2021. Giannis Antetokounmpo turned the tables in that matchup by guarding Butler all over the floor and completely stifling him on offense. The level of play in the East has risen a lot in the past two years. Butler will have to raise his game to match it.
10. Chris Paul
Team: Suns (52-13) | Position: Guard | 2021: 12
14.9 points, 4.5 rebounds, 10.7 assists, 0.3 blocks, 53.2 eFG%, 10.5 net rating, 58 GP
Devine: Revenge isn’t a dish best served cold. It’s a dish best served piping hot, to a wide variety of customers, from every imaginable angle, perfectly, and more than 10 times a night.
After the first NBA Finals trip of his Hall of Fame–bound career ended in disappointment at the hands of an irresistible force, Paul came back committed to finishing the job this season, leading a peerless and punishing Suns team that was on pace for 68 wins before he fractured his right thumb. He doubled down on elevating his teammates, cutting down his usage and shot attempts in favor of a greater distribution—an extra touch for Devin Booker or Deandre Ayton here, another shot attempt or two for Mikal Bridges or Cameron Johnson there—and in the process put himself in position to lead the league in assists for the fifth time, and for the first time in seven years.
Paul’s scoring and 3-point shooting numbers have dipped, but his total impact on Phoenix’s offense remains remarkable. He’s creating 36 points per 100 possessions via assist, according to PBPstats.com, more than any player in the last decade—since, as luck would have it, Steve Nash, in 2011-12, his final season with the Suns. He’s still plenty capable of taking over in crunch time, too: Paul’s shooting 22-for-39 (56.4 percent) this season when the score’s within five points in the final five minutes, and 8-for-11 (plus a perfect 12-for-12 at the free throw line) when the margin is within three points in the final three minutes. And he’s doing all of that while continuing to serve as a plus backcourt defender—a help-side menace in the passing lanes who is tied for second in the league in steals and in the top 20 in deflections, and in whose minutes the Suns’ already elite defense allows 3.2 fewer points-per-100.
We marvel at LeBron continuing to produce at an elite level into his 19th season at age 37, and justifiably so. We should sing similar hosannas for CP3, who’s just two months away from his own 37th birthday, in Year 17, with more than 44,000 NBA minutes on his body, and who has been, according to a slew of advanced statistical metrics, one of the 10 best players in the world. With the exception of John Stockton, no small guard has ever aged this well. But then, there haven’t been many small guards, or many players period, quite as exceptional as Chris Paul.
9. DeMar DeRozan
Team: Bulls (39-26) | Position: Wing | 2021: NR
28.0 points, 5.4 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 0.3 blocks, 52.6 eFG%, 3.5 net rating, 61 GP
Kram: DeRozan had the tightest spread of rankings among the individual voters for any player on this list: He placed eighth or ninth on every single ballot. That’s a minor surprise because DeRozan isn’t like the rest of the players in the top 10: He might be the weakest defender to rank this high, and only Embiid—spoiler, he ranks pretty high!—averages fewer assists per game than DeRozan. It’s not easy to be so valuable when contributing through points scored and not much else.
It helps, though, to score a whole lot of those points (28 per game) on tremendous efficiency (59 percent true shooting) while spearheading an anachronistic brand of offense. The gap between DeRozan and the rest of the league on some of his statistics is hilarious. For instance, DeRozan’s made 332 midrange shots this season, per Second Spectrum; Booker’s in second place with just 185. And DeRozan’s drawn 101 fouls on midrange attempts; Luka Doncic is in second place with just 56.
And it helps even more to score those points when they matter most, such as via buzzer-beating game-winning 3-pointers on consecutive days. DeRozan’s win probability added in clutch situations is nearly twice as high as that of any other player in the league. That stat is worth repeating for emphasis: Accounting for the context of his shots, DeRozan has basically been twice as clutch as anyone else. He’s more than earned down-ballot MVP consideration.
8. Ja Morant
Team: Grizzlies (45-22) | Position: Guard | 2021: NR
27.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 6.7 assists, 0.4 blocks, 53.4 eFG%, 4.2 net rating, 53 GP
Devine: The first week of the season—105 points and 24 assists in three games, complete with mind-blowing highlights—announced that Ja Morant was coming. Every week since, though, has made it crystal clear that he’s already here, and not going anywhere:
Morant’s numbers are impressive enough on their own: 27.5 points per game, good for seventh in the NBA and a full 8.4 points per game more than last season, on 49.5 percent shooting to go with 6.7 assists and 5.8 rebounds. That puts him on pace to be just the 25th player ever to average 27-5-5 for a season—a list of players who are either already in the Hall of Fame or exceedingly likely to be enshrined one day.
Ja’s so devastating off the dribble, so slippery in open space, and so ferocious as a finisher that at 6-foot-3 and 174 pounds he leads the NBA in points in the paint, ahead of Giannis, Jokic, LeBron, and everyone else. That constant rim pressure, paired with the court vision and playmaking touch to find the teammates that swarming defenses leave open, serves as the engine of Memphis’s offense, which ranks fifth in points scored per possession—a stark contrast to the glacially paced and often middling attacks of the Grit and Grind days—and goes from elite to below average when Ja hits the bench.
The numbers tell only part of the story, though—and not the most interesting part of it, by a long shot. I recently described Ja as “the most aesthetically satisfying and singularly thrilling player to watch in the NBA right now,” and afterward I worried I might be underselling him—that maybe I should’ve spiked “right now” and replaced it with “in ages.” His is a rare combination of grace and electricity; his game sparkles, shimmers, transfixes the audience in every city the Grizzlies visit. He has become, almost overnight, the brightest and most compelling star in the sport, creating a new contender in Memphis and leaving countless jaws on the floor in his wake.
7. Luka Doncic
Team: Mavericks (40-25) | Position: Wing | 2021: 10
28.0 points, 9.3 rebounds, 8.8 assists, 0.5 blocks, 51.5 eFG%, 3.4 net rating, 49 GP
Mann: Is there a player in the world, 25 years old or younger, who you’d rather build your franchise around than Luka? We’ve already seen him shoulder the load and scare the shit out of higher seeds in two separate playoff series while shorthanded. And I know we’re not supposed to pull prior accomplishments into this, but this is too good: During the 3-point era, eight players have scored 6,000 points, handed out 1,500 assists, and pulled down 2,000 rebounds before their 25th birthday. It’s an incredible list of players, and Luka’s done it in by far the fewest minutes.
Elite Scorers Before the Age of 25
There’s a scene in the OG Jumanji movie where Sarah, Bonnie Hunt’s character, thanks Alan (Robin Williams) for “wrestl[ing] an alligator” for her. Alan corrects her and says, “It was a crocodile. Alligators don’t have that little fringe on their hind leg.” To me, that’s Luka. It’s important that you distinguish him from some ordinary alligator—he has that extra fringe on his hind leg.
Just recently, the Mavs took on the Lakers on national TV, and Luka intentionally targeted LeBron James a few times in the fourth quarter to close out the game. He could’ve hunted the skinnier, smaller Malik Monk. He could’ve set his sights on the older, slower Carmelo Anthony. Nope. He sought an audience with the King.
We should be fair and also mention that Luka had to win us back a little bit this season. He and the Mavs both started pitifully and then picked up momentum, as Luka improved his fitness and the energy changed when Dallas shipped off Kristaps Porzingis for Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans. I loved this move, because both Dinwiddie and Bertans have shown that they can be valuable NBA players with skill sets that pair well with this type of superstar talent.
Luka’s high-impact, chessboard-finagling dominance relies on his being a consistent three-level scorer. He ambled out of the gate to start the season, but since February 2 he’s averaging 34.5 points per game, 8.4 assists, and 10.4 rebounds and is shooting nearly 40 percent from 3. He just litigates you to death in the half-court, and it’s a reason why no other player gets blitzed in the pick-and-roll as frequently (2.91 blitzes per 100 possessions) as Doncic. It’s typically a mistake to hope that Luka will make a mistake. He’s that smart, he’s that skilled, he’s that ruthless. The question will be whether or not he’s in the top three on this list come 2023.
6. LeBron James
Team: Lakers (28-36) | Position: LeBron | 2021: 2
29.4 points, 8.1 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 1.0 blocks, 58.7 eFG%, -1.6 net rating, 46 GP
Mahoney: You can tell this NBA season has been a bit chaotic, narratively speaking, by the fact that LeBron—the best and maybe only good thing the Lakers have going—has caught occasional strays due to the failings of pretty much everyone around him. Blame Russell Westbrook; blame L.A. ‘s supporting cast; blame Anthony Davis’s injured legs; blame the front office; and, to be fair, blame LeBron’s impact on that front office. But what James offers between the lines is still in a rare class, and in the highest-leverage moments of a potential playoff series (should the Lakers be lucky enough to see one), maybe in a class all its own.
James has to be a bit more selective these days when tapping into his highest quick-twitch gear, but even a choosier LeBron is getting to the rim with ridiculous frequency. Zoom in on any one possession and it’s hard to blame opponents for letting him slip past. LeBron still has so many options every time he touches the ball—starting with his all-time vision and an increasingly lethal rock-back jumper—that defenders practically throw themselves off-balance in anticipation of whatever they fear most. What drops James even this far in our ranking is the reality that all that talent and all those head games aren’t always enough anymore. For the vast majority of his career, LeBron was able to make something from nothing—to will it no matter the limitations of his supporting cast. Some nights he still can.
And maybe that’s the key to understanding where James finds himself, 19 years in. LeBron can still deliver for a lesser team. He just might not be able to carry it on his back the whole way through.
5. Stephen Curry
Team: Warriors (44-22) | Position: Guard | 2021: 4
25.8 points, 5.2 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 0.4 blocks, 54.8 eFG%, 10.4 net rating, 59 GP
Kram: Other than his injury-shortened five-game stint in 2019-20, this is unambiguously Steph’s worst offensive season since he first won an MVP award and his Warriors first won a title. His scoring averages are down, his shooting percentages are down, his advanced metrics are down—it’s all a relative disaster.
And yet, a relative disaster for Curry means he still ranks fifth in estimated plus-minus’s offensive rating and third in RAPTOR’s, because a down year for him is still an amazing one for just about anyone else. The Warriors are a legitimate championship contender (as long as Green returns healthy). Steph might be the most feared offensive player in the league—certainly the one who inspires the most audacious and panicked defensive strategies, opening up the floor for his teammates. And he provided perhaps the best highlight of the season so far, when he set the career 3-point record at Madison Square Garden.
4. Kevin Durant
Team: Nets (33-33) | Position: Big | 2021: 5
29.1 points, 7.2 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 0.9 blocks, 56.6 eFG%, 4.1 net rating, 39 GP
Tjarks: When Kevin Durant sprained his MCL on January 15, the Nets were a half-game out of the top seed in the East. When he returned a little under two months later, they were in eighth place, fighting to get out of the play-in games. For all the chaos in Brooklyn this season, everything comes back to the health of their best player. The Nets have gone 24-14 with Durant and 8-19 without him. His presence is the difference between their being a title contender and a cellar dweller.
Health is the only issue with Durant at this point in his career. He may not have quite the burst that he did when he was in his 20s, but he’s fine-tuned his skill set to the point where it no longer matters. There’s nothing defenses can do to stop him. He can shoot over any defender and he doesn’t need any space to get his shot off. The result is a player with an almost unlimited ability to create offense for both himself and others.
We saw that in last year’s playoffs. The Nets pushed the eventual champion Bucks to a Game 7 overtime even though Durant was essentially playing one-on-five due to injuries to James Harden and Kyrie Irving. It was his twist on the one-man show that LeBron James put on against the Warriors in the 2015 NBA Finals. Let’s hope that Durant can stay healthy in the playoffs because any team that hopes to knock off a healthy Durant will have to play incredible basketball.
3. Joel Embiid
Team: 76ers (40-24) | Position: Big | 2021: 3
29.7 points, 11.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.4 blocks, 52.6 eFG%, 8.1 net rating, 52 GP
Devine: It’s staggering how far Embiid has come. A half-decade ago, Embiid’s career and prospects were shrouded in uncertainty; now, he’s become one of the most inevitable quantities in the NBA.
There’s really no “stopping” Embiid anymore. Teams with enough length, athleticism, creativity, and tenacity to relentlessly swarm him with double-teams from surprising places can bother him, or influence him into moving the ball. But he’s just become so incredibly skilled at so many other things—at facing up and driving; at pulling up from the midrange and at popping beyond the arc; at reading coverages and instructing his teammates to move around the perimeter to give him options for passing out of those doubles; at delivering the ball on time and on target; at catching you with your hand in the cookie jar and getting the foul line—that, at this point, defenses kind of just have to hope that he misses.
Unfortunately for them, he does not miss all that often: Embiid’s shooting 72 percent at the rim, 45 percent on long 2s, 35 percent from 3-point land, and 82 percent at the charity stripe this season. That’s how you wind up leading the league in scoring; that’s how you wind up scoring exactly as many points as minutes played (1,021) since Christmas. Also, he plays with James Harden now, so, y’know, good luck with those double-teams.
Marrying that level of overwhelming offensive production with the sort of paint-smothering coverage that has ensured Philly remains a top-10 defense even without Ben Simmons makes Embiid one of the most uniquely sovereign figures in the sport—a player capable of setting the terms of engagement in any game, and of being the best player in it, no matter who else is suiting up. I don’t know if that will win him the MVP or an NBA championship; I do know, though, that I damn sure wouldn’t bet against him.
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo
Team: Bucks (41-25) | Position: Big | 2021: 7
29.4 points, 11.5 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.4 blocks, 57.8 eFG%, 9.0 net rating, 55 GP
Mann: We were a little mean to Giannis on this list last year. Playoff results factor into regular-season feelings—you hate to see it but they just do—and I suspect that affected the perception of his dominance. A prevailing feeling of “sure, yeah, pal, do it when it matters.” Well, he did, and what a difference a title makes—suddenly, he’s getting the benefit of the doubt despite being virtually the same player he was during his MVP seasons.
There has not been a discernible championship hangover, as Giannis is fourth in the league in scoring (29.2 per game) on a 54.5 field goal percentage, a number that trails only Jokic among the top 20 scorers. He’s second in box plus/minus at 11.1, again, behind only Jokic. He also leads the league in points per game scored in the fourth quarter.
Giannis’s agile assaults on the rim continue to implode defenses, even when we know damned well what’s coming. He’s attacking and scoring as the ball handler in transition more than ever at 5.2 possessions per game, a career high, and he’s in the 94th percentile in generating uncontested attempts from 3.
And, as we also know damned well, he’s the two-way Flex Seal that’s kept Milwaukee from really falling in the standings. The Bucks’ inconsistency at the 5-spot in the absence of Brook Lopez has pushed Giannis to defend centers more this season than in any other time of his career.
1. Nikola Jokic
Team: Nuggets (39-26) | Position: Point Big | 2021: 1
25.9 points, 13.8 rebounds, 8.1 assists, 0.8 blocks, 61.8 eFG%, 9.6 net rating, 58 GP
Mahoney: What more can one player do? That isn’t a rhetorical question. I’m asking you, as we all consider the NBA’s best, what more anyone could possibly ask of a superstar than what Jokic has given so freely this season, in propping up a roster totally misshapen by injury. There isn’t a better and more comprehensive shot creator working today. Jokic scores about as many points in the paint as anyone, and more efficiently. He runs an entire offense himself, not through mechanized action but by actively passing his teammates open off little more than guile and good nature. His vision makes even the shakiest option on the floor an outsized threat. But you can’t let him get to his midrange, and you can’t let him get to his 3, either. His shooting changes the shape of the entire defense, dragging the only player big enough to battle with him inside far away from the rim and everyone else who would go there.
When Jokic is on the court, Denver scores as well as any team in the league and boasts the equivalent of a top-five defense. He’s also a monster rebounder. A killer screener. He’s aces in crunch time—and any time, really. Whatever defensive scheme an opponent runs, Jokic breaks it. There isn’t a system out there built to withstand a 7-footer who will stretch bigs out to the perimeter, demolish all mismatches, and beat any double. It doesn’t exist. It cannot exist. It might seem strange that the NBA reached a strategic tipping point with a goofy, 6-foot-11 center hooking passes every which way, but honestly? That’s just where we live now. Welcome to Jokic’s world.