By, matt | Sept. 15, 2019, 4:42 p.m.
Here’s part two of our 2019-20 projected player rankings. In part one, we covered players 100-35 -- tiers six through four. Next up, are players 34 to 1, the elite, the best of the best. These are the high impact stars you want to build your team around. Everyone on this half of the list has All-Star potential and many have All-NBA potential as well.
Again, because this is a projection ranking list for the upcoming season, you won’t see guys like Durant, Wall, and Klay, who project to miss the entire regular season due to injury. With that said, here’s our top 34 players for next season:
34. Khris Middleton - Milwaukee Bucks | G
Middleton is the perfect complimentary player to Giannis -- he can play the spot-up shooter role on drive kickouts, iso and take over possessions, and play pesky D on the other end. His scoring output was slightly down last year and I’d like to see him at 23-25 points a night as opposed to 18-22, so he’ll need to be more consistently aggressive when he gets his touches. I do think he can be a little overrated by the basketball nerds, but he’s a solid number 2 or 3 option on any team in the league and is a huge asset for Milwaukee come playoff time. If teams really sell out in trying to slow down Giannis, he’s the next guy in line, so it’ll be key for him to step up to the plate and take over when the team needs him to.
33. Victor Oladipo - Indiana Pacers | G
It’s unclear when exactly Oladipo will come back, but he’ll likely miss the first few months of the season, recovering from a ruptured quad. He’d be higher on the list otherwise, but with the missed time and likely rusty play first few weeks back, he’s slipped in the rankings. Whenever he does come back, he’ll find himself alongside new acquisition, Malcolm Brodgon, who should be a great Tyreke Evans (☠️) replacement for Indy. He can hold down the fort until Oladipo’s return, and once he does, the two will compliment each other nicely. On Dipo possessions, Brogdon can be a lethal kick out recipient and when Brog runs the offense, Dipo can slash, run around screens, and be a general pain in the ass for defenses to follow. I think the injury will affect Dipo’s defense more than anything, as the reactive nature of playing on that side of the ball could cause trepidation and apprehension -- it might take a while before he feels comfortable putting forth 100% effort. But come playoff time, if all goes well on the recovery front, the Dipo-led Pacers will be tough as nails, they’re team everyone in the East secretly wants to avoid.
32. Luka Doncic - Dallas Mavericks | G
Last year’s ROY will look to continue to impress in his sophomore campaign. With Dirk now retired, he’ll be the center of attention in Dallas and will officially be given the keys to the offense. He set the bar incredibly high for himself, putting up 21 points, 6 assists and 8 rebounds a game in his rookie year, so he could be a prime candidate for the dreaded sophomore slump. But he seems so poised and confident, self-assured, that I think he’ll be fine… if anything, I’d expect him to be even better next year with less distractions and more resources being put into his development. Losing DeAndre Jordan will hurt a bit, as the two had some nice chemistry on pick and rolls and fast breaks, but the addition of Porzingis could introduce a whole slew of opportunities. KP isn’t the rim runner DJ is, but his ability to shoot could open the door for more Doncic drive and kicks, give him more space to operate. With his rising stock and global popularity, it wouldn’t shock me to see Luka in the All-Star game come February.
31. LaMarcus Aldridge - San Antonio Spurs | C
LMA has been the primary workhorse for the Spurs since he signed there in 2015, and put together his best season as a Spur last year. He’s a consistent, traditional 20 and 9 big who prefers to post up rather than face up, rarely shoots the long ball. It works in the Spurs offense that seems to value twos more than threes, though I do see merit in him occasionally camping out for a corner three off a DeRozan, Murray, or White drive. Defensively, he’s a solid rim protector and is a really good one-on-one post defender but tends to struggle a bit in pick and roll actions, which is why he’s not a huge plus defender overall. With more aggressive, competent ball handlers in the mix, in DeRozan, Murray, White, and Walker IV
, it’ll be interesting to see if Pop chooses to play more modern, with more high screen and rolls and threes, which could marginalize LMAs role a bit. Even so, I think the Spurs could be a sneaky dangerous team this year and I’d take the over on their 45.5 win total Vegas line… just have a hard time betting against a Pop-led team.
30. Karl-Anthony Towns - Minnesota Timberwolves | C
KATs numbers were great last year -- 24 pts, 12 reb, 3 ast on 51/40/84 shooting splits... talk about a unicorn. His post up game is elite, looks like a seasoned vet, and he’s able to stretch the floor and hit threes at relatively high volumes. His offensive skillset is invaluable, makes him nearly impossible to guard one-on-one... but I’m just not sold on his motor. Defensively, he’s uninterested, lazy, somewhat soft. He drove Jimmy Butler crazy in both practices and games for his apparent disinterest on that side of the ball. The fact that Butler and the third team were able to route KAT, Wiggins and the first team in a practice game may sound meaningless to some, but it worries me. Great players don’t like to lose, doesn’t matter whether it’s a real game or scrimmage. And what’s frustrating is that the talent and physical tools are clearly there, it’s just a matter of willpower. To me, that’s all defense is anyways -- there’s no reason an NBA player (unless you’re a 5’7” Isaiah Thomas or a 7’3” Boban Marjanovic) shouldn’t be able to competently defend basic pick and rolls or stay with their man one-on-one, and KAT is no exception. I hope we see him really dig down and strive to be Minny’s defensive anchor this year, otherwise I’m not sure his ceiling is any higher than what we’ve already seen.
29. Al Horford - Philadelphia 76ers | F/C
Horford will bring his all-around greatness
to Philly this year, playing alongside his former rival, Embiid. He’ll likely split time at the four and five spot and provide some great complementary play to Simmons and Embiid, make Brett Brown’s life a hell of a lot easier. I could also see Brown choosing to stagger Embiid and Horford some, so he can play the five spot more and run the offense for the second unit. Either way, his addition to Philly is huge, great signing by Elton Brand. His veteran leadership and positive locker room presence are traits that often go overlooked but it’s just what the doctor ordered for Philly, especially after losing Butler.
28. Kemba Walker - Boston Celtics | G
Kemba will look to fill the void Kyrie created
when he left Boston and signed in Brooklyn this summer. He’s not quite as good as Kyrie, but he can give the Celts 85% of what Kyrie could offensively and doesn’t come with all the baggage -- may actually be a net positive for Boston all said and done. He’s worse defensively than Kyrie and could get attacked, especially in the playoffs, so it’ll be something to monitor. But he should be just what Tatum and Brown need from a point guard… a supportive, veteran presence who’ll look to get others involved and can also bail out possessions when needed.
27. Jrue Holiday - New Orleans Pelicans | G
With the addition of half the Lakers roster, Alvin Gentry may choose to split ball-handling duties between Jrue, Zion, and Lonzo -- but because Jrue is so versatile, I don’t see that being an issue for him. He may not rack up as many assists this year, but he’ll still be a valuable scorer and veteran leader on a team full of young guns.
26. Kevin Love - Cleveland Cavaliers | F/C
I’d be shocked if the Cavs don’t move Love before the trade deadline. There’s no reason to hold onto him or his contract, as they’re looking to tank and rebuild thru the draft over the next few years. There are several contenders who’ll come knocking on Cleveland’s door in February for a chance to snag the versatile stretch four. Love is somehow still only 30, even tho it feels like he’s been in the league for like 20 years, so he still has a lot to give. He can still post up just about anyone in the league, and his ability to stretch the floor creates matchup problems that he knows how to exploit. Defensively, he’s never been great, been a minus most of his career, so that limits his overall ceiling, but I think the offensive versatility and playoff experience he brings to the table are enough to keep a lot of teams drooling. Cleveland certainly won’t make the playoffs this year but I think Love will.
25. Kyle Lowry - Toronto Raptors | G
After putting together his best all-around season last year, picking up a ring in the process, Lowry and the Raptors will look to rebound after losing the best player in the league to free agency. I’m not sure what Massai’s plan is, if he’ll look to blow the team up and bring in younger talent or take advantage of the weakened East and try to add a piece or two at the deadline, so it’s hard to project how Lowry’s season will pan out. At 33, you have to think he only has a year or so left as a starter but he’ll still be a solid, reliable two-way option for Toronto or another team this year. If he does stay north of the border, Nurse will look to develop as much chemistry as possible between the verteran and young stud, Pascal Siakam. With the current roster, Toronto will be good enough to make the playoffs, but Lowry will need some more help if they want to seriously contend for another ring.
24. Mike Conley - Utah Jazz | G
It’ll be weird seeing Conley in a jersey other than the blue and gold of Memphis, but I’m excited for his new opportunity in Utah. He should compliment Mitchell and Bogdanovic nicely, be a distributor and let the other two run more off-ball actions, where they’re more apt. He’s been criminally underrated his entire career, mostly because he’s not flashy or particularly exciting to watch. He’s never made an All-Star team, only made one All-Defensive team back in 2013, and is rarely mentioned in best point guard in the league talks. But he’s a silent killer, goes in, does his job, gets out. He’ll give you the same output every night, with little variance, which makes him such an ideal fit in Quin Snyder’s system in Utah. He can distribute to Mitchell, Bogdanovic, and Ingles out on the wing, run the pick and roll with Gobert, and iso if he has to. His only knock is that he won’t ever elevate his game to another level in key games -- he’ll remain consistent and reliable, but won’t put up a classic 50-point Curry or Harden lights-out, unconscious performance… his ceiling isn’t far above his floor. But if Mitchell can grow into that hero role for Utah, Conley should fit like a glove.
23. Chris Paul - Oklahoma City Thunder | G
The 34 year old future Hall-of-Famer had a rough summer. Traded from the contending Rockets
to the rebuilding Thunder, Paul’s career seems to be fading. I wouldn’t be surprised if he tries to force a trade before the deadline, but I’m not sure any teams are willing to take on that contract at his age. He’ll go down as one of the all-time great point guards in the history of the league -- elite playmaker, defender, shooter and all-time motor for nearly 15 years, has first ballot Hall-of-Famer written all over him. The knock on CP3, and what makes him such a compelling character, is his notoriously poor communication skills. The relentless, visceral desire and need to win is what made him so great and so flawed at the same time -- it brought him great success but often times at the expense of team chemistry. Would he have been more successful had he minced more words or been less standoffish with teammates and coaches? Who knows. He was one game away from a Finals appearance a couple years ago before his body failed him, so maybe it all boils down to luck. Regardless, the final chapters of his career seem to be fast approaching, and I hope his story doesn’t end in OKC. He deserves to go out on a contending team.
22. Zion Williamson - New Orleans Pelicans | F
After blue balling the world and playing only one quarter in the Summer League, fans are dying to get their first real look at the prodigy this October. The most hyped prospect since LeBron
will be under a microscope his entire rookie campaign, face more pressure than ever before. There will be moments of strife, especially this year, as he’ll have to adjust to NBA-talent levels, but all signs point to him becoming a franchise-calibur superstar. David Griffin has a plethora of young guns to surround Zion with so it’ll be fun and interesting to watch them develop together, create chemistry. Zion’s physicality along with his unique ability to run the point and play off-ball makes him compelling in any offense, but having vets like Jrue Holiday, JJ Redick, and Derrick Favors alongside the young Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Jaxson Hayes, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker make for a playground-like atmosphere that fosters both winning and player development, the perfect environment to grow a superstar in.
21. Devin Booker - Phoenix Suns | G
Does Booker just put up empty stats or can he be the best player on a playoff team? We won’t find out this year -- the Suns ain’t sniffing the playoffs. But with the addition of Rubio and the further development of Ayton, Booker can breathe a little easier with some of the burden lifted from his shoulders. He’ll be able to run more off-ball actions, which is probably what his game is more suited to. I think he’s more effective in a Bradley Beal/Klay Thompson hybrid role, where he can still get his iso touches and run pick and rolls as the ball handler, but also come off of floppy and zipper actions for some easy jumpshot looks. Taking away some of the offensive load might help his defense as well… if he doesn’t have to expend so much energy running the offense, he could shift some towards his defensive efforts, which has been his area with the most room for improvement.
20. De'Aaron Fox - Sacramento Kings | G
Huge Fox fan -- this kid’s quick, aggressive, confident. Reminds me of a young John Wall but with a better jumper. I think Sacramento could be a sneaky 8th seed in the West this year and Fox could easily be putting up 20 pts, 9 ast, 5 reb with a couple steals per game. He’s already one of the more dangerous players in fast breaks and knows how to use his body to absorb and finish thru contact. And I’m equally impressed with his IQ as I am with his speed and athleticism. Often times, you see young, athletic players get wild and out of control, but even with the jets turned all the way up, De’Aaron always looks cool, calm, and collected, like a seasoned vet. He’s got two-way superstar potential and should be making All-Star and All-NBA teams before we know it, a good chance he lands a spot on one this year.
19. Pascal Siakam - Toronto Raptors | F
With Kawhi gone, Nick Nurse will have to look elsewhere for offensive production this year. Enter: Pascal, last year’s Most Improved Player. His unicorn-esque size and athleticism along with his top-notch post up game, much improved shooting, and defensive dominance makes him one of the most compelling young studs in the league, he’ll just have to continue to put it all together and become more fluid. With the increased touches, he could develop into a Giannis-lite, start getting more looks up top and look to attack his man one on one, draw the help defense, and kick out to shooters in the halfcourt. He should also look to push the pace as much as possible and lead the fast break… with his length and athleticism, picking up more speed on his way to the basket makes him all the more dangerous. I think this kid has superstar potential if he does indeed put it all together I think he’s a lock to make his first All-Star team and maybe an All-NBA team this year.
18. Donovan Mitchell - Utah Jazz | G
This is a big year for Mitchell. He’ll be entering his third year, won’t have the benefit of being a young rookie/sophomore, so if he continues to chuck shots and convert at low percentages, he could be in for some real public critique for the first time. Luckily, Utah added Conley and Bogdonovic, so he won’t have to make everything happen himself anymore, should see some better shot selection and more ball movement. If he can reel himself back a bit and trust the guys around him, Utah will be a tough out for anyone in the West. Quin Snyder seems to have Mitchell’s trust and should be able to assist with this new role, but accepting it will a pivotal step in his young career. It’ll be the difference in his career panning out like a Dwyane Wade and a Tyreke Evans. The raw skills are there, the killer mentality is there, the playoff experience is there… he just has to start making superstar decisions on the court to take that highly-anticipated next step.
17. Bradley Beal - Washington Wizards | G
With John Wall out again this year, Beal will continue to be Washington’s only real source of offense. He can iso, run the pick and roll, move off-ball, defend -- put up 25/5/5 last year and should have no problem doing the same again this year. He’s growing into one of the most reliable, consistent two-way guards in the league and several teams have sent over trade offers only to be shut down -- it’s clear the Wiz see Beal as a guy they can build around for the future. He’s not the best player on a championship team, but like most players in his tier, makes a great second option. With the Wiz refusing to tank and trying to make a run at the playoffs, it’ll be difficult for them to acquire that number one option tho, as Washington isn’t a free agent draw. Beal seems to like being in the nation’s capital as the go-to guy, but it might not be long before he starts wondering what it’s like to play for a true contender...
16. Blake Griffin - Detroit Pistons | F
In his first full season in Detroit last year, Blake set a career high in points, threes (attempts, makes, percentage), and usage rate. He was
the offense, often playing the point-forward role, distributing the ball and finding the open shooter. Not having to play alongside Chris Paul’s barking or DeAndre Jordan’s whining is probably refreshing, despite his public exception to the Clippers’ false promises. Can he be the best player on a championship team? No. But he’s a solid second option anywhere, a tough matchup for any opposing big, especially with his revamped outside shot. Unfortunately for Blake, he plays in Detroit, where he’s big fish in a small pond that isn’t seen as a free agent destination for other… fish. He’ll continue to lead the Pistons to first-round exits until he gets some real help.
15. Draymond Green - Golden State Warriors | F
With no KD or Klay this year, Kerr will lean on Draymond for more offense -- more playmaking duties and increased shot attempts. I expect to see a lot of point-forward duties for Dray, where he’ll push the pace in transition, penetrate the defense and kick out to an open Curry or D-Lo. He’s still one of the most versatile defenders in the league and will anchor the depleted Warriors defense. Motivation has never been an area of weakness for Dray but this year is different. He, Steph, and Kerr want to prove to the league they’re still as dangerous as ever after KD ditched them and Klay went down with an ACL tear. This extra motivation could go both ways for Dray tho… if the Dubs struggle to stay in playoff contention, we could see more techs and on-court meltdowns than ever. Either way, Draymond will continue to be the team’s vocal leader and he’ll need to give everything he has and more for the Dubs to have any playoff success.
14. Ben Simmons - Philadelphia 76ers | G/F
With Butler removed from the equation, Simmons will be stepping to the plate as the primary signal-caller in Philly. I think this is the year he’ll finally start expanding his range
… I mean, he has to, right? Doing so would completely overhaul the stagnant, clunky offense we’ve seen at times, especially in the slower paced playoffs. The Sixers were within spitting distance of an Eastern Conference Finals appearance last year, taking the Canadian champs to seven games before falling in heartbreaking fashion. His transition game is already elite. His size and athleticism make it near impossible for defenders to stay in front of him when he picks up speed, defenders have no choice but to get the hell out of his way. If he can just knock down jumpers at a league-average rate and prevent defenders from sagging off him and diving under every screen, the Sixers’ halfcourt offense will become instantly more fluid, graceful. To me, the entire key to the Sixers’ success rides on Simmons’ jumper -- if it improves, they can contend for a title, if not, his max-extension contract will age like milk.
13. Kyrie Irving - Brooklyn Nets | G
After burning his last two bridges in Cleveland and Boston, Kyrie will look to turn a new leaf in Brooklyn with his buddy, KD. Durant won’t play this year due to injury, so it’ll be the Kyrie show -- last time he led a team, he only managed to put together 20-30 win seasons but that was six years ago and he was 19, 20 years old. It’s startling how similar the situation he’s entering in Brooklyn is to the situation in Boston -- young, green but promising core with a coach determined to get everyone on the floor involved. He’s one of the best scorers in the league, is an underrated playmaker, and has really improved defensively as well… the talent is clearly there. But this season, without KD, he’ll be “the man” in Brooklyn and needs to gain the respect of his teammates by fighting for
them, not with
them. If he can develop chemistry with the young guns, namely Lavert, Harris, and Prince, the Nets will be in great shape once KD comes back the following year. If not, his stint in New York will end just as it did in Boston.
12. Nikola Jokic - Denver Nuggets | C
How far can the Nuggets go with Jokic at the helm? Is he capable of dragging them on a Finals run or is his team poised for disappointment? Hard to say, but what I do know is Jokic will have to shed some body fat this year, first and foremost. He has the skills, just needs to prove he has the drive. As said before, he’s the most skilled and best playmaking big in the league… by far. He’ll meticulously thread the needle on backdoor cuts, can post up and kick out once he’s doubled, and stretch the floor when his man sags off him. These skills are invaluable to an offense and creates tons of mismatches -- he’s nearly impossible to guard one-on-one. Defensively, he’ll have to improve, as his slow-footedness gets relentlessly attacked in pick and roll actions. He’s a decent rim protector against bigs, but struggles against quicker, more athletic wings. If he can get himself into better shape, he’ll instantly improve his footwork and mobility on that side of the floor -- he doesn’t necessarily need to be an Al Horford or Marc Gasol, but he will have to get to the point where a successful offensive gameplan for the opposing team isn’t to put him in as many pick and rolls as possible.
11. Russell Westbrook - Houston Rockets | G
The former MVP and triple-double machine is playing in a new town this season, alongside his former teammate and good buddy, James Harden. The two offensive powerhouses demand a lot of attention and each have had their run-ins with other superstar teammates in the past. Russ played a hand in running KD out of town and Harden developed chemistry issues with Dwight, CP3, and coach McHale, leading to all three of their removals from Houston. All is well between the two friends now, but can the two co-exist
as the season progresses? For the first time since KD left for Golden State, Russ won’t be the first option -- Harden will. Can he reign himself in after having full autonomy over his team’s offense for the past four years? Morey and D’Antoni will try everything they can to make it work, but if not, we’ll be looking at another messy Texas breakup after a year or so.
10. Jimmy Butler - Miami Heat | G/F
Jimmy Buckets is taking his talents to South Beach and will look to push the Heat over the hump and into the playoffs. He’ll be the number one option there with some help from Dragic, Herro, and Adebayo, should be interesting to see how good a Butler-led team can really be. There’s no doubt about his work ethic or hustle -- guys like KAT and Wiggins disgust him, as he sees their indolence and lack of motivation as a personal weakness, a real mark on their character. He’s a guy who developed himself into a two-way star after being a low-skill, late draft pick who had to fight his way into the starting lineup. What I do see as an issue is his Chris Paul-like approach to the game. I’m not saying you have to be friends with everyone you play with, but team chemistry is vital and if you bring storm clouds with you everywhere you go, create locker room tension and dysfunction, that’s a problem. He’ll be the clear-cut #1 option for the first time in his career and if he wants to be truly successful, he’ll have to learn that being a good leader is about bringing the troops together as much as it is putting the troops on your back.
9. Damian Lillard - Portland Trailblazers | G
Dame Time has quietly been one of the most consistent offensive stars in the league over the past five years. He’ll get you 25 points, 6-7 assists, 4-5 rebounds a night and is durable as hell too. His ability to put such relentless pressure on opposing defenses, in large part due to his seemingly limitless shooting range, makes the Blazers one of the toughest teams to guard in the league. His biggest knock is his defense, where he’ll get targeted, especially in the playoffs, which has been Portland’s Achilles heel. I’m not sure Lillard or the Blazers present enough of a threat to realistically contend for a ring, as his supporting cast has always been underwhelming, so expect another second round exit this year.
8. Paul George - Los Angeles Clippers | F
PG13 ditched Russ and the Thunder and forced his way into LA with Kawhi and Doc this summer. He’ll be option 1B, a role he’s comfortable with, and might just be the best second option in the league. He’s perfectly capable of running the offense himself, playing iso-ball and even creating for others, but he’s also an effective and willing off-ball mover, slashing to the hoop and coming off of screens. That versatility and team-first approach is invaluable, such a rare combination for superstars to possess. Defensively, his length, speed, and athleticism allow him to stick with any wing in the league and with Kawhi and Beverly alongside him, will help make up the best perimeter defense in the league. Up until All-Star break last year, George was in the thick of the MVP race and put together the best statistical season of his career... he seems to be smack-dab in his prime and could top his output again this year. He’ll be getting plenty of touches and should have no problem stuffing the stat sheet on a nightly basis.
7. Joel Embiid - Philadelphia 76ers | CLosing Jimmy Butler will hurt
the Sixers overall, but it could help Embiid on an individual level. He’ll be getting even more touches this year and should embrace the leadership role that’s been gifwrapped to him. His on-court relationship with Simmons isn’t always peachy -- stylistically, they tend to get in each other's way. It’d be nice to see more pick and roll actions between the two, but Simmons’ lack of a jumpshot and Embiid’s lack of speed might limit the efficacy over time. It’s a shame, because it could help the offense get away from the forced post ups or awkward Simmons isos that bog the offense down so much, especially in the playoffs. If Embiid can get in better shape and stay healthy, he’ll be able to run the floor more on fast breaks, which would play to Simmons’ strengths and really open up the offense. Either way, this is a big year for The Process and if he takes it seriously, could put together a dominant, Shaq-esque season.
6. Anthony Davis - Los Angeles Lakers | F/C
This summer, The Brow officially kissed goodbye to New Orleans, packed his bags, and moved west to team up with LeBron in LA. He’ll be playing with Tier One talent for the first time in his career and stylistically, he fits nicely with The King. He can be a corner kickout option for LeBron, can set screens and roll hard to the rim for easy alley-oops, post up and take over possessions when needed, and isn’t someone who constantly demands the ball or would hijack an offense for his own benefit. He’s a great talent, one of the best in the league, but isn’t quite number-one-option-on-a-championship-team level great. That’s fine, as there are only a few players in the league who fall in that category, so being option 1B in LA is a role that suits him perfectly. His biggest challenge will be staying healthy for 82+ games.
5. James Harden - Houston Rockets | G
The Beard won’t have to fight with CP3 anymore
but he will have to play nicely with the newly acquired Westbrook. He’ll get his numbers, but in order for the Rockets to truly flourish, he’ll have to let Russ get his touches too. I’m not sold on the pairing of the two former MVPs -- on paper, it sounds like a stylistic nightmare. Neither are off-ball movers and Russ isn’t a dangerous kick-out option for Harden, either. Defensively, they make a horrid backcourt, will be giving up a lot of points every night. Harden might have to play faster because of this; more isos = fewer possessions and fewer opportunities to score, so we may see a faster pace with more early shot clock pick and roll actions with Capela this year. Harden’s still the best scorer in the league
and put the Rockets on his back to finish 53-29 after a 11-14 start, with CP3 missing over 20 games last year, so maybe I’m overthinking things. But one thing I know for certain, is that if he can’t get over the WCF hump this year, speculation regarding the true potential of a Harden-led team will grow increasingly louder.
4. Steph Curry - Golden State Warriors | G
No more KD, Klay’s out for the year… uncharted territory for Steph the Dubs ahead. Bringing on D-Lo will help relieve some of the offensive burden and Kerr will likely lean on Draymond more this season too, but even so, Steph’s usage rate will be sky-high this season, should see some monster performances from him. And despite losing Klay (for the year) and KD (forever), the Dubs will still make the playoffs and be a tough out. I don’t think a Finals run is all that realistic, but you better believe he, Dray, and Kerr are looking to prove they’re still as lethal as ever.
3. LeBron James - Los Angeles Lakers | F
King James has an entirely new squad this year. Last year’s young, budding core was swapped for The Brow, as the Lakers look to position themselves to make a championship run in a league as wide open as ever. Last season was a huge disappointment for LA -- Bron pulled his groin, played only 55 games, and they consequently missed the playoffs entirely. At 34, LeBron’s entering the backside of his career and will start to slow down a bit, lose that first step and could potentially start to rack up more injuries. And while adding an All-NBA, All-Defensive talent to play the Robin role alongside LeBron was ultimately the right move, it killed any real roster depth. It’ll be the LeBron and AD show in LA… the duo won’t be able to afford a slow start or any extensive injuries and will have to give everything they have for 82+ games on both sides of the ball. Luckily though, LeBron at a half-step slower is still better than 99% of the league and they won’t have to worry about the depth and potency of the Hampton Five this year. And having two top-tier players will allow them to compete with anyone in the league, any given night. I think LeBron knows this could be his last realistic shot at picking up ring number four, which would put him two below MJ and that much closer to first on the 🐐 list. I think we’re in for a classic, motivated, put-the-team-on-his-back season from LeBron and should expect to see the patented 28/8/8 statlines on a nightly basis. And if the front office can add a piece or two at the deadline, who knows… last year could have just been his “MJ baseball” year-off before coming back to dominate the league once again.
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo - Milwaukee Bucks | F
A successful year one in the Budenholtzer system, where the Greek Freak took home his first MVP award
and led his team to the Eastern Conference Finals, is in the books. Year two should yield more of the same -- he’s still only 24 and hasn’t even entered his prime years yet. And with the Sixers, Celtics, and Raptors all becoming worse over the summer, the road to the Finals just got a little easier. There are areas of his game he’ll have to improve on tho, mainly his shooting, but he began taking and making more threes last year, so look for him to continue to expand his range and start launching even more this year -- if he can start knocking those down at even a league-average rate, I don’t see how anyone will be able to guard him -- even Kawhi. With his all-around dominance, incredible drive, and relentless aggression, I could easily see him picking up MVP trophy number two this year, especially if he is indeed able to expand the range.
1. Kawhi Leonard - Los Angeles Clippers | F
The Claw is officially the best player in the league. If I’m a GM, there’s not a single player I’d take over him -- he’ll get you 25 points a game, can shoot the three, iso, drive, post up, lock down just about anyone in the league on the other end, can close out any game… he’s on another level, has no glaring weaknesses. Coming off the heels of earning his second ring and Finals MVP award, he’ll look to bring his winning ways to LA, alongside the lite version of himself, Paul George. He’s capable of being the MVP and DPOY this year and would be the first since MJ to do so, but Doc Rivers may take the Raptors’ approach limit his workload to 65-70 games, which would likely remove him from contention. But if everything goes according to plan in the playoffs, Kawhi would be sitting with three rings, three finals MVPs, two DPOY awards, some all-time classic clutch performances... point is, it won’t be long before we have to start including Kawhi in 🐐 conversations.