How does one go about ranking NBA players? It’s definitely not easy. There are so many talented basketball players in the league right now, and it is impossible to watch every player on every night.
With a combination of statistical evaluation and just purely watching players for their impact on each end of the court, I’ve done my best to create a projected top 10 players for the 2019-20 NBA season.
To clarify, Kevin Durant of the Brooklyn Nets will not be considered for this list, as he is not expected to play in 2019-20.
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Antetokounmpo was last season’s MVP and he more than deserved it. He is also still just 24 years old and has made significant improvements in each of his six NBA seasons. Despite his limitations (basically just outside shooting and free throws), I’m comfortable tabbing him as the league’s best player in 2019-20.
The Toronto Raptors did make the Greek Freak look quite vulnerable in the Easter Conference playoffs last year. His poor free-throw shooting and utter lack of an outside shooting game were key factors in the Raptors’ comeback series win.
Look for some improvements in those two areas from Giannis when he returns to the floor in 2019-20.
2. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
The last season Curry didn’t play with Kevin Durant, he had arguably the best offensive season in NBA history. Steph averaged 30.1 points and 6.7 assists in just 34.2 minutes per game on a ridiculous shooting slash of 50.4/45.4/90.8 and led the Warriors to a record-breaking 73-9 regular-season record.
Now, I don’t think either he or the Warriors will be that good again, but there will be fewer limitations on his volume with KD out of town and Klay Thompson recovering from his Achilles tear. Golden State can run its offensive game plan around Steph, and we have all seen how good the results are when the squad does that.
If Curry is going to maintain this high ranking, he will have to maintain his respectable defense and awesome efficiency even as his offensive volume increases.
3. James Harden, Houston Rockets
Harden is a tough player to slot. I have no problem with anybody ranking him in any spot from first through fifth heading into this season.
The perennial MVP candidate has been the NBA’s best regular season player of the past five seasons. In that span, he has won the MVP once and finished second place in three other years. Harden has a very crafty offensive game that includes accurate pull-up three-point shooting, deft finishing, on-target passing and a host of foul-drawing tricks.
The burning question is: Is Harden’s play style conducive to a team winning an NBA title? His squads have gone far in the playoffs on some occasions, but he has never won the West and he dominates the ball and shots like few other superstars in the league. In four straight playoff runs, Harden’s true-shooting percentage, free-throw rate, assists per turnover and points per game average have all dropped from his regular season numbers.
4. Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers
While Antetokounmpo was the best player of the 2018-19 regular season, Leonard ruled the postseason. He led the Toronto Raptors to their first title in franchise history with efficient, high-volume scoring and always reliable defense.
The main reason I have Leonard down this far is that his persistent knee and quad injury issues are always a threat to throw a wrench in his season. The Clippers will have to manage their new superstar’s workload throughout the regular season, as Toronto did so well last season, to keep him fresh for the playoffs.
Hopefully, The Claw will be ready to dominate again next April when the playoffs start.
5. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
This feels disrespectful to James, who has had an argument as the best player in the NBA for the past 12 years or so. Honestly, he still does have an argument there. I just have four amazing players slightly above him because of their age trajectories and the fact that LeBron is not a plus defender during the regular season anymore. James also missed a career-high 27 games last season.
Still, there is no player I have more faith in once next spring rolls around. James will step up his defensive effort and he will frequently take over games with both his scoring and playmaking.
6. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
James and Davis are going to be very fun to watch together. Both are super explosive frontcourt players with a penchant for high-flying dunks and other impressive displays of strength and skill.
Davis sets himself apart by being extremely agile and comfortable as a ball-handler compared to most other big men. Without a doubt, he will show those skills again under the bright lights of Los Angeles.
Davis is, however, a tier below the top five players in the league. He has very little playoff success to his name so far and is not known for his outside shooting or facilitating for teammates. Everyone above him has at least made the playoff’s conference finals before and stands out either as a shooter or facilitator.
7. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Jokic continued his somewhat surprising run up the NBA’s superstar hierarchy last year. The 24-year-old center was the 41st overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft and doesn’t exactly have the greatest basketball physique, but he is just so insanely skilled on the offensive end of the floor. On my hypothetical MVP ballot last season, he would have placed third.
The Serbian big man is probably the best passing big man in NBA history. He also has a strong post game and a soft shooting touch that extends to the three-point line. He is tough to contend with on the boards.
Improvement points for Jokic moving forward are clearly his stamina and toning his body for easier movement on defense.
8. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Embiid is similar to Davis in that both are bigs with versatile offensive games, surprising agility and elite defensive impact.
While Embiid is bigger and a bit better as a playmaker, he is also a bit slower, more turnover prone and struggles with shot selection. His minutes need to be managed, because his stamina is also still a question.
Still, Embiid has improved in each of his three healthy seasons in the NBA. There is no telling what this 25-year-old’s ceiling is. With a solid core around him in the Philadelphia 76ers, he should be contending for NBA titles for a long time.
9. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
Lillard is definitely a forgotten NBA superstar. Maybe it is because he is just an all-around very good player and not the best point guard in any area.
He is not a Stephen Curry-level shooter, but he’s very good. He’s not a Kyrie Irving-level ball-handler, but he has a very good handle. He doesn’t finish like Russell Westbrook, but he is very good at finishing. His defense won’t win him any awards, but he’s gotten so much better on that end in the past few years.
Lillard just keeps cranking out seasons of 26 points and six to seven assists per game. Maybe one of these years, he will challenge for the MVP award.
10. Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers
George clearly had the best season of his career in 2018-19. He was a force on both ends of the floor, averaging a career-high 28 points per game while making the All-NBA First Team. The only other players to do that in the past 44 years are Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
One concern with George is that he and the Thunder did fade in the second half of the season. Also, he had shoulder surgery during the offseason, which could delay his start to the campaign and slightly dampen his impact.
- Honorable Mentions: Kyrie Irving, Karl-Anthony Towns, Russell Westbrook, Rudy Gobert.