Basketball is an uncommon sport because, with only five players on the court at a time, the individual players matter more than the teams they play for. LeBron James turned the Los Angeles Lakers from a laughingstock into NBA champions in two seasons, with some help from fellow superstar Anthony Davis. Kawhi Leonard changed the fate of the playoff-maligned Toronto Raptors during his lone season in Toronto, bringing the city its first ever NBA championship. Kevin Durant altered the balance of the league by taking his talents to the Golden State Warriors, where he would have likely won three titles in three seasons if his health had cooperated in 2019.
The stories of one player changing the outlook of an entire franchise go back to the beginning of the game. Bill Russell was drafted by the Boston Celtics and subsequently led them to 11 titles. Magic Johnson returned Los Angeles to glory in his first professional season. Michael Jordan made the Chicago Bulls into one of the NBA’s most storied franchises with six titles in six tries, and the list goes on. The point is that while basketball is a team sport, the brightest stars almost always drive the best teams, and NBA fans obsess over ranking these players year in and year out. That is exactly what I will attempt to do in my column today: rank five of the NBA’s best 10 players heading into next season.
Before I begin, I need to name some honorable mentions. Apologies to Joel Embiid, Chris Paul, Jayson Tatum, Ben Simmons, Bam Adebayo and my toughest omission, Damian Lillard. I would also like to point out that for two players on my list, I am assuming they will return to their pre-injury forms. These two will be denoted with an asterisk next to their name. Now, with that off my chest, I can begin.
10. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat
Out of all the players on this list, Butler’s regular season numbers, while still very good, are the least impressive: 19.9 points, 6.7 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 1.8 steals per contest. He is an elite defender who can guard almost any position, which helps make up for his three-point shooting volume and efficiency falling off a cliff this season. But Butler is on this list because of his playoff performance. Butler led Miami back to the NBA Finals for the first time since LeBron left in 2014, where he averaged a staggering 22.2 points, 6.5 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 2.0 steals per game in the series while also guarding James at the other end of the floor. He chipped in a 40-point triple-double and a 35-point triple-double in Miami’s two wins in the series, both of which will rightfully go down as historic Finals performances, even if the Heat did not end up lifting the trophy.
Some may call putting Butler ahead of Lillard a case of recency bias, and I see their point. The line between the two is razor thin. While Lillard is a subpar defender and not a great rebounder, Butler is an elite defender and a good rebounder to boot. More importantly, Butler proved himself to be a bona fide superstar who can lead his team within a two-win reach of an NBA championship against the immovable force that is Lebron James with his own team’s two next best players injured. Lillard can’t say that; his best playoff performance ended with an unceremonious sweep at the hands of an injured Warriors team before the Finals. Simply put, Butler is better for right now. But Lillard could change that.
9. James Harden, Houston Rockets
Harden’s case for being on this list is just about the opposite of Butler’s. His playoff resume is not great, but his stats last season were, as always, off the charts. Harden averaged 34.3 points, 6.6 rebounds, 7.5 assists and 1.8 steals per game on excellent efficiency and led Houston to the second round of the playoffs. He wasn’t spectacular in the postseason, but he was still pretty good. The former MVP is entrenched as a top-10 player in the league and could be as high as seven on this list, but I see him as a little worse than the next two, if only because he’s on the wrong side of 30 and the following players are not.
8. Nikola Jokić, Denver Nuggets
Jokić’s regular season numbers do not jump off the page like Harden’s, but he was still excellent this regular season: 19.9 points, 9.7 rebounds and 7.0 assists per game on slightly better efficiency. Even so, his playoff run and acutely special skill set give him a slight edge over the Rockets guard. Jokić is quite possibly the best passing big man in NBA history, and he just turned in his second incredible postseason, averaging 24.4 points, 9.8 rebounds and 5.7 assists per game while leading Denver to the Western Conference Finals. While Jokić’s defense is concerning, his offensive skill set will continue to be one of the best in the league, and his second straight year of playoff success makes it clear he will continue to be a superstar for years to come.
7. Luka Dončić, Dallas Mavericks
Dončić is coming off of the best sophomore season in NBA history since LeBron James’s second campaign. The Slovenian superstar averaged 28.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists as a 21-year-old and earned himself a spot on the All-NBA first team. I could look silly by putting him this low by the end of next season, especially considering his heroics in the first round of this year’s playoffs against the superior Los Angeles Clippers team, and without costar Kristaps Porziņģis. Dončić had perhaps the most memorable game of the entire postseason, notching a stat line of 43 points, 17 rebounds and 13 assists in addition to knocking down a game-winning, buzzer-beating, step-back three. Dončić has it all on offense, despite his lack of vertical athleticism, from scoring-title level bucket-getting to historic court vision. His only real flaw is his defense, which is just average at this point in his career. Even so, Dončić has the look of a guy who could go down as one of the 10 best players of all time. He is that good.
6. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
Davis is coming off his first deep run into the playoffs and his first NBA championship during his maiden voyage with Los Angeles. He was excellent during the postseason, just as he was during the regular season. Davis is a two-way menace, finishing second in Defensive Player of the Year voting while averaging 26.1 points and 9.3 rebounds per game in the regular season. He is one of the most versatile defenders on the planet, just as adept as erasing mistakes at the rim as he is being a perimeter stopper. Pair that with his devastating offensive game as a 6-foot-10-inch shot maker, and you have a truly elite player. While his lack of playmaking could prevent him from ever being a number one option on a title team, he is the best number two another superstar could ask for.
Come back in two weeks to find out my top five.
Tim Brennan is a freshman in the McDonough School of Business. Around the Association appears online every other week.