A new NBA season is upon us, so it’s only right to get the debates going.
The 2021-22 season is a landmark for the NBA, which is celebrating 75 years of existence, an achievement that will be marked with a list of the 75 greatest players to ever play the game. In a similar spirit, a few members of SN’s NBA staff embraced debate to put together rankings of the top 30 players in the NBA entering the upcoming season.
It’s important to note that this is entering the season, so players that aren’t expected to play on opening night (Kawhi Leonard, Jamal Murray and Klay Thompson) were excluded from the vote.
The rankings were a collaboratve effort, with a sliding scale of points received depending on where you ranked on our respective staff member’s lists. From there, the rankings were sorted out from 1-30.
Now that that’s out of the way, it’s time for debate. Onto the rankings!
10. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
Highest rank: 8
Lowest rank: 13
Davis missed half of a possible 72 regular-season games before returning ahead of the 2021 NBA Playoffs, but in the opening round loss to the Phoenix Suns, he suffered a groin injury that severely limited his impact.
After a full offseason of rehab and recovery, Davis will look to bounce back to the form he showed during the 2020 NBA Restart, where he won the first NBA title of his career.
9. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
Highest rank: 9
Lowest rank: 10
It’s rare to see a near-consensus reached in basketball debates, but each voter rated Lillard at or around 10th.
Last season, Lillard averaged 28.8 points, 7.5 assists and 4.2 rebounds for Portland, which earned the West’s sixth seed. In the playoffs, Lillard rose to the occasion, upping his averages to 34.3 points and 10.2 assists per game, including an all-time performance with 55 points and 10 assists in a Game 5 overtime loss. Despite the heroics of their superstar, the Blazers were eliminated in six games.
8. James Harden, Brooklyn Nets
Highest rank: 6
Lowest rank: 10
He might not have landed in our top five, but 2017 league MVP is still one of the league’s most dangerous players.
After an early-season trade sent him to Brooklyn, Harden quickly found his way, posting averages of 24.6 points, 10.9 assists and 8.5 rebounds over 36 regular-season games with the Nets. Unfortunately, Harden dealt with injuries during the regular season and playoffs, suffering a hamstring injury just seconds into Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, impacting the entire trajectory of the season.
In 2021-22, Harden and the Nets have a year of playing with one another under their belts and have their eyes set on an NBA title.
7. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Highest rank: 4
Lowest rank: 9
Is Embiid the most dominant player in the league? A few of our voters certainly think so.
Last season, the 27-year-old finished as runner-up for the league’s MVP award after averaging a career-best 28.5 points per game for a Sixers team that finished first in the East. This dominance continued in the Playoffs, where, despite tearing his meniscus in the opening round, Embiid turned in averages of 30.4 points, 12.7 rebounds and 3.9 assists in the Sixers’ seven-game series loss to the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Now, with it appearing as though his All-Star teammate Ben Simmons is done in Philly, Embiid will have to turn it up a notch to keep his team among the East’s elite.
6. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
Highest rank: 5
Lowest rank: 9
At this point, what can we even say about Doncic?
At 22, he put on a masterclass against one of the league’s best defences, averaging 35.7 pooints, 10.3 assists and 7.9 rebounds in a tightly-contested seven-game series with the LA Clippers. Dallas came up on the short end, but Doncic made his presence felt.
He only added to his lore with an epic performance to lead Slovenia to its first-ever appearance in the Men’s Olympic basketball tournament.
With a new head coach in Jason Kidd, the Mavericks will look to take a leap in the fourth year of the Doncic era. Based oon what we’ve seen in recent years, they’re in for a treat.
5. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Highest rank: 3
Lowest rank: 8
From 41st-overall pick to MVP.
If there’s anything we should take from Jokic’s path to superstardom, it is that you can’t put a limit on his greatness.
The MVP earned his hardware with averages of 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists for a Nuggets team that made it to the Western Conference Semifinals despite missing their second best player in Murray. Don’t rule out an MVP encore from the big man, as Denver will lean on him heavily until Murray returns to the lineup
4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Highest rank: 3
Lowest rank: 5
Entering Year 13 of his career, Curry is as good as ever.
Not only did the greatest shooter of all time win his second scoring title by averaging a career-high 32.0 points per game last season, but he also earned a third-place finish in MVP voting by nearly willing Golden State to the playoffs.
This season, Golden State has reloaded with talent by adding through the draft and free agency, but the most anticipated movement will be Thompson’s return to the lineup, which should only make life easier for Curry. Things easier for Curry? Sounds like trouble for the league.
3. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
Highest rank: 2
Lowest rank: 3
Don’t let the #WashedKing talk fool you, LeBron is still a top three talent in this league.
Even entering Year 19.
I’d argue that the gap between third and first isn’t that far, as James was an MVP frontrunner during the 2020-21 season before a high ankle sprain derailed his and the Lakers’ season. Despite the fact that he still appeared hobbled during the postseason, James led LA past Golden State in the Play-In Tournament before bowing out in the opening round to the Phoenix Suns, marking the first time he’d ever been eliminated in the first round in his career.
If we’ve learned anything about James, it’s that those memories are still fresh on his mind, and with a new supporting cast in 2021-22, expect him to gun for the No. 1 spot.
2. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets
Highest rank: 1
Lowest rank: 3
There’s really no wrong answer at this point.
Entering his age 33 season, Durant is at the top of his game, something he put on display during the 2021 NBA Playoffs when he averaged 34.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 4.4 assists while shooting 51.4 percent from the field, 40.2 percent from 3 and 87.1 percent from the free throw line.
Durant came oh-so-close to willing the banged-up Nets past the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks, putting forth virtuoso performances like his 49-point, 17-rebound, 10-assist masterpiece in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals and his 48-point explosion in Game 7 just a few nights later.
His achievements are even more awe-inducing when you take into consideration the fact he missed the entirety of the 2019-20 season and a large chunk of the 2020-21 season. Riding the momentum of a historic postseason and a dominant showing at the Tokyo Olympics, it’s clear that Durant’s focus is now shifting to winning his third NBA title.
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Highest rank: 1
Lowest rank: 3
After scoring 50 points in a title-clinching Game 6 win and delivering signature Finals moment after signature Finals moment, were you really expecting anyone else?
Giannis edged out Durant in a manner similar to how his Bucks edged out the Nets in the Eastern Conference Semifinals this past season. From there, The Greek Freak delivered a postseason performance that will be talked about for years to come as one of the toughest and most dominant showings in the history of the game.
Oh yeah, he’s still just 26. There’s plenty more where that came from.
The Final List
|1||Giannis Antetokounmpo||Milwaukee Bucks|
|2||Kevin Durant||Brooklyn Nets|
|3||LeBron James||Los Angeles Lakers|
|4||Stephen Curry||Golden State Warriors|
|5||Nikola Jokic||Denver Nuggets|
|6||Luka Doncic||Dallas Mavericks|
|7||Joel Embiid||Philadelphia 76ers|
|8||James Harden||Brooklyn Nets|
|9||Damian Lillard||Portland Trail Blazers|
|10||Anthony Davis||Los Angeles Lakers|
|11||Jayson Tatum||Boston Celtics|
|12||Jimmy Butler||Miami Heat|
|13||Chris Paul||Phoenix Suns|
|14||Devin Booker||Phoenix Suns|
|15||Paul George||LA Clippers|
|16||Kyrie Irving||Brooklyn Nets|
|17||Trae Young||Atlanta Hawks|
|18||Donovan Mitchell||Utah Jazz|
|19||Zion Williamson||New Orleans Pelicans|
|20||Bam Adebayo||Miami Heat|
|21||Bradley Beal||Washington Wizards|
|22||Khris Middleton||Milwaukee Bucks|
|23||Rudy Gobert||Utah Jazz|
|24||Russell Westbrook||Los Angeles Lakers|
|25||Jaylen Brown||Boston Celtics|
|26||Karl-Anthony Towns||Minnesota Timberwolves|
|27||Jrue Holiday||Milwaukee Bucks|
|28||Ja Morant||Memphis Grizzlies|
|29||Ben Simmons||Philadelphia 76ers|
|30||Julius Randle||New York Knicks|
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