LeBron James is the best best player on any NBA team. He’s better than the best Spur and the best Buck, although Kawhi and Giannis will see about that soon enough. He’s certainly better than anyone on the Pacers or Magic or Hornets. The Cavs’ best player is better than your best player.
Some teams have LeBron or Giannis. Some even have a couple star players. They’re the ones that get printed on the season tickets, the guys holding the ball with five seconds left in a tie game. But not every team has a superstar or even a star. Some barely have any good players at all.
We did this exercise a year ago and found a surprising conclusion: ranking the star player on each team turned out to be pretty analogous to just ranking the teams themselves. In a star-driven NBA, teams can only go as far as their superstar takes them.
So who are the brightest stars in the NBA universe? And what team has the “worst” best player for the 2017–18 season?
The Best of the Best
1. LeBron James, Cleveland
2. Kevin Durant, Golden State
3. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio
Is Kevin Durant or Stephen Curry the best player on the Warriors? Durant is much bigger, and all that extra size helps him become an elite defender for stretches if necessary and lets him exert more of himself on the game on offense. And second, you could sanely argue KD over LeBron after last June, but no one would even try to argue for Curry over LBJ. So Durant it is, with LeBron still in first and Kawhi nipping at their heels.
We Got Next
4. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee
5. Anthony Davis, New Orleans
6. James Harden, Houston
7. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City
Focus more on the tiers than the order within. You’ve already seen all the summer #NBARank stuff at every other site. These four are undoubtedly next in line, but you can choose your own order.
Giannis looks like The Next Big Thing, and it looks like next might be now. Maybe this ranking is reactionary to an incredible opening two weeks… or maybe he’ll be in the top tier by season’s end. What are the odds on Antetokounmpo not winning an MVP at some point in his career? 10-to-1? 25-to-1? By the way, Greek Freak was 24th on this list just one year ago.
Of course, the other three guys in this tier were First Team All-NBA last season, so you need no introduction. Davis plays the most defense, and Russ is the least efficient, so that’s the order. These are the best players in the NBA without a ring. They’re the ones trying to wait out LeBron and the Ws.
The Long-Shot MVPs If Everything Breaks Right
8. Jimmy Butler, Minnesota
9. John Wall, Washington
10. Rudy Gobert, Utah
11. Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers
I once heard Jimmy Butler described as, “LeBron, but if he were human.” Butler put up a 24/6/5 last year while guarding the opponent’s best guy each night and single-handedly dragged a terrible team to the playoffs. He simply does everything, the sort of player we would worship if he didn’t play the same sport as the aliens holding down spots one-to-four on the list.
Wall does everything except shoot and nicked seven MVP votes already last season. He might get more this year if he ends up the best player on the best team in the East. Gobert somehow led the league in both offensive and defensive rating and may be the one player in the league that transforms a team into a top-five defense all on his own.
Where does Blake belong? You could probably place him anywhere from eight-to-17 and be right any given day, and that’s precisely the problem. Good Blake is awesome but too often we’re stuck with Jumper Blake, Disinterested Blake, or Injured Blake.
The Fighting-for-Third-Team-All-NBA Guys
12. Kyle Lowry, Toronto
13. Marc Gasol, Memphis
14. Damian Lillard, Portland
15. Nikola Jokic, Denver
16. Kyrie Irving, Boston
17. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia
The NBA is awesome and loaded with talent. Everyone here is a franchise player, but none of them will be showing up on MVP ballots or fighting for a First Team All-NBA spot anytime soon, and that says more about the rest of the league than it does about them.
There’s three bigs and three guards here, so let’s compare apples to apples. Kyle Lowry put up 2015 Curry numbers last year before getting hurt. He is the best guy playing in Canada. Kyrie Irving went from great second banana to best player with a trade and a gruesome injury. He needs to prove he can do it without LeBron before moving ahead of Dame or Lowry.
Joel Embiid will either move up this list or fall off of it completely in a few months. Let’s hope for the former, because he’s an incredible talent who’s still learning and getting better every game. I ranked Nikola Jokic 29th on this lista year ago, behind the likes of D’Angelo Russell and rookie Ben Simmons. I’ll take the fall for that, but at least give me credit for calling him the best Nuggets player a year ago. Marc Gasol tops these three big men for now because he’s done it before and done it on both ends. You can argue for Mike Conley over Gasol. They’re 1a and 1b and probably end up in about the same spot on the list either way.
The Eastern All-Stars
18. Kemba Walker, Charlotte
19. Myles Turner, Indiana
20. Goran Dragic, Miami
21. Kristaps Porzingis, New York
A Western team featuring one of these lads would be floundering deep in the lottery. In the East, three of the four will lead their team to the playoffs.
Kemba Walker is the new Mike Conley, a guy that gets a little better every season and someone that has become one of the most underrated and overlooked players in the league. Goran Dragic gets the Heat nod because of the way he dominated EuroBasket this summer en route to MVP honors and a Slovenian title. Hassan Whiteside just can’t take over games like that.
Myles Turner edges Kristaps Porzingis in the battle of 2015 draft bigs, for now. Maybe Porzingis will make this look silly by year’s end, but Turner was clearly the better player last season. He was more efficient on offense and far more valuable on defense, even if he’s not as sexy as KP.
The Up and Comers
22. Harrison Barnes, Dallas
23. Tobias Harris, Detroit
24. Aaron Gordon, Orlando
Pause for a second and remember what list these guys are on. Barnes, Harris, and Gordon are young dynamic up-and-coming wings, two of them 25 and AG a young 22, but how are their teams supposed to compete with the ones led by LeBron, Giannis, Russ, and the other mutants above?
Harris and Gordon lead the NBA’s two most surprising teams. We entered the season thinking the Pistons and Magic might battle for the East eight-seed and instead they’re tied for the best record. October basketball is wonderful. Are Harris and Gordon even their best players?
Detroit homers swear Harris is their guy and he looks the part this season with 21 points per game on sizzling shooting. Gordon has matched that scoring average with some of the hottest shooting in the NBA and superb defense after returning to his natural position at the four. We’ll see how both of them hold up once the shooting cools off, but the NBA is better for having budding star wings at two forgotten Eastern teams.
Harrison Barnes might still be the worst American pro basketball Olympian of all time.
The Role Players Posing As Best Players
25. George Hill, Sacramento
26. Brook Lopez, Los Angeles Lakers
27. Dennis Schroeder, Atlanta
28. Zach LaVine, Chicago
It’s getting ugly. George Hill and Brook Lopez are below average NBA starters. They would make wonderful fifth starters as role players on a good team. Masquerading as the best player instead could make for a long season for fans, but Hill and Lopez aren’t exactly the guys fans are there to see. Remember, rookies and sophomores typically aren’t actually good yet. Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, De’Aaron Fox, and Buddy Hield will have to wait their turn.
Dennis Schroeder was the best player on his team at EuroBasket this summer, leading Germany to a surprise upset of France and a quarterfinal exit, but has he really shown much improvement for a guy in his fifth NBA season? He’s yet to have a season with better offensive than defensive rating.
That’s true for Zach LaVine too, who we’re cheating a bit by ranking him a few weeks before his return because it’s too depressing to pick another Bull. LaVine is atrocious defensively but a big time scorer with a 39 percent three-pointer and athleticism for days.
The Young Stars that Aren’t Actually Good Yet
29. Devin Booker, Phoenix
30. D’Angelo Russell, Brooklyn
Russell was the second pick in the 2015 NBA draft. Booker went 11 picks later. Both of them had huge moments amidst tumultuous sophomore seasons. Booker scored 70 in a game against Boston, and Russell hit an emotional game winner on the day his grandmother died. The two played each other Tuesday night and put up 65 points combined with a few highlight-reel plays.
But highlights don’t make a player good, and neither of these guys actually contributes a ton to winning basketball yet. Heck, neither of them was even supposed to be their team’s best player. It should have been Eric Bledsoe for Phoenix if they hadn’t seen him home, but that’s much better for tanking since Bledsoe would’ve been ranked 22nd. Russell takes Jeremy Lin’s spot, but the Nets didn’t exactly plummet down the list.
So which of these 21-year-olds is better right now? It’s closer than you think. Both are horrible defenders who turn the ball over way too much. Each is a good creator and a strong scorer, though not exactly efficient. Both are average shooters, and Russell’s almost as good as Booker.
So who’s the “worst” best player in the NBA for 2017–18? Tie goes to the guy who’s worse at the more important position on both offense and defense. That’s D’Angelo Russell.