ESPN, Sports Illustrated and many other outlets usually rank the best players in the NBA each preseason. But like the game itself, player rankings fluctuate almost on a week-by-week basis. A highly touted All-Star might suddenly fall off, and a role player might undertake a high usage within his team, reaching heights that appeared impossible earlier in the year. That’s why we’re ranking the top 20 NBA players right now.
It’s been over three weeks since the start of the NBA season and we’re seeing players explode to new heights, while watching others fall from the top. The usual suspects, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul, continue to dominate. Then there are others, Arron Afflalo, Eric Bledsoe and DeMarcus Cousins, who are having seasons that no one expected. Stars like Damian Lillard and Kevin Love are putting up strong numbers to push their team into the playoff picture. While other stars like Carmelo Anthony and Brook Lopez are watching their teams struggle, despite putting up still-solid numbers.
The top players in the league tend to stay the same from year to year, with the exception of someone like Paul George, who augmented his NBA stock last year when he propelled his team deep into the playoffs. But with injuries and some players getting off to terrible starts, the best players in the league can fluctuate even week-to-week. I’ve composed a list of the top 20 players in the NBA RIGHT NOW. Maybe half of the players on this list won’t be here by the end of the season, but for the moment they are playing within this elite tier.
If I had not watched a single NBA game for the past 10 seasons (an awful thought) and then started watching three weeks ago, this would be the list of the 20 best players. These are players who have played near, or beyond, the top of their game to start the season and will be featured prominently in an opponent’s scouting report. Feel free to argue, pull out your hair and yell at the top of your lungs because I may have left your favorite player off the list. But here goes: the 20 best players in the NBA right now.
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20. Al Horford
Despite Atlanta denying any reports they’re looking to deal Al Horford, he is quite possibly the one player who leaves the most GM’s drooling as they figure out a way to bring him to their team. He’s off to a strong start to begin season and we can now officially claim the Hawks as his team. Horford provides a strong defensive presence, collecting 2.1 BPG and 1.3 SPG. He also protects the rim better than most centers in the NBA. With Horford defending, opposing players are shooting 44.9 percent at the rim and only making 3.2 FG at the rim per game. That’s better than players like Dwight Howard and Zach Randolph.
After starting the year with some stellar rebounding performances, Horford has come back down to earth, averaging only 8.2 RPG on the year. He is a major scoring option for the Hawks though, averaging 17.4 PPG. He has a 22.31 PER, which is 18th best in the NBA. His future with the Hawks may be a little uncertain, but he is proving every night that he will give the other team trouble, both offensively and defensively.
19. Eric Bledsoe
Eric Bledsoe is on fire to start the season. He has led an underwhelming Phoenix Suns team to five victories and has pulled out a few close games. He’s averaging 20.4 PPG, 6.8 APG, 4.6 RPG, 1.8 SPG while shooting 50 percent from the field. These are all career bests for the high-rising Bledsoe. He has the 12th best PER (23.75) in the league and so far he is one of the top choices to win Most Improved Player this year. He’s doing it all for his new team. Bledsoe looked explosive for pieces of games last year, but he is putting it all together now. The young star saw his minutes increase from over 20 a game last year to nearly 35 this season and he is handling that increased usage without diminishing returns. He is also second in clutch points in the NBA. Bledsoe has proven that he is a top player in the league, leading his team in close games and increasing his versatility.
18. Damian Lillard
Shortly into his second year in the NBA, Lillard is proving that last season was no fluke. In fact he is fearlessly showing the world the type of player he is by firing away from behind the arc. Lillard is posting 19.9 points a night and he is averaging 2.8 3-pointers, while shooting 39 percent from deep. He can beat you off the dribble and drop a bucket with a floater or just step back and land a three. Lillard is not intimidated by whoever is guarding him and will do whatever it takes to win. He also collects 5.8 APG and 4.7 RPG. The most impressive stat about Lillard isn’t personal. He has led the Portland Trail Blazers to a 10-2 record and an eight-game winning streak.
17. LaMarcus Aldridge
A 6-11 forward who can play away from the basket and knock down 15-foot pick-and-pops is someone every GM and owner would want. LaMarcus Aldridge’s career has had plenty of bad luck. He can remain healthy but the team members around him cannot. This year may be different as Lillard and Aldridge are dominating offensively for a Trail Blazers team with the third best record in the NBA.
He’s averaging 22.5 PPG and 9.0 RPG this year, remaining efficient despite being a 6-11 forward who shoots jumpers. Aldridge is shooting 48 percent on the season and is among the leaders in shooting efficiency. His catch-and-shoot field goal percentage is at 51.5 percent. He also makes 50 percent of his driving shots. Aldridge is versatile and easily a top 20 player in the league.
16. Brook Lopez
Brook Lopez is the only player on the Brooklyn Nets that can even sniff the top 20. He has put up strong numbers (20.5 PPG, 6.5 RPG, and 2.8 BPG) even with his team struggling to get wins. The most surprising thing about Brook Lopez is that his PER is third in the NBA (27.80). He has had to sit out the past couple of games due to an ankle injury, but he has done his part for the Nets on both ends of the floor (minus his still-awful rebounding). Lopez may even be the best offensive center in the NBA. When he turns to his left on the block, it’s almost impossible to stop him. If Deron Williams starts to perform like the D-Will of old, then Lopez’s numbers will only increase.
15. Arron Afflalo
If you haven’t watched much basketball this season, then this name may surprise you. Afflalo has been on a tear to start this season. He’s averaging 22.5 PPG, 4.5 APG and 4.7 RPG â€” all career bests. In just 11 games, he’s already had three 30-point nights and is shooting an amazing 54 percent from three. Afflalo doesn’t look to be slowing down soon, dropping 30 points on the Heat in the Magic loss earlier this week. Afflalo has a better effective shooting percentage (59.1%) than Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony. If only it could translate into wins for his Magic.
14. Kyrie Irving
The Cavaliers aren’t very good, again. We all know it, but they do have one bright spot for the future and that’s Kyrie Irving. A future superstar, Irving does whatever his team needs him to do. He is a true point guard that has a great ability to score, especially in the clutch. He leads the league in clutch points this season and has the fourth highest usage rate among any player in the association. Irving is shooting 37 percent from three and is averaging almost 22 points a game, which is third among point guards. Despite having to lead his team in scoring, he is 12th in the NBA in points per game created by an assist (15.7). Anything you need Kyrie to do, he is your guy. He just deserves better talent around him, so he can focus on improving his defense, too.
13. Russell Westbrook
Although Westbrook is averaging fewer assists than he ever has, he still remains one of the best point guards in the league. Coming off the first serious injury of his basketball playing life, he has shown that there hasn’t been any setback to his game. He scores the most points per game among all point guards and can harass you defensively, as he collects 1.8 steals each night. He is also second in the NBA for usage rate at 34.1 percent. Westbrook is explosive offensively and getting better defensively. On most teams in the NBA, he would be the main guy, but he plays for the Thunder and he has shown that he can take a backseat when needed.
12. Dwight Howard
Dwight Howard hasn’t been the Dwight of old, but he is still getting it done this season. The 6-11 center can’t jump as high as he used to but he can still block an opponent’s shot or catch an alley-oop. He is leading the league in rebounds with 13.7 a night and protects the rim for Houston with 2.2 BPG. He is among the best in defensive impact, holding opponents to 45 percent shooting at the rim. He is a top-five defensive player and is starting to show signs of returning to yearly DPOY awards from earlier in his career.
11. DeMarcus Cousins
Another surprise if you aren’t watching carefully. DeMarcus Cousins is having his best year yet. He’s repping a 25.51 PER which is the seventh best in the league. He scores 21.5 points a night, while collecting 9.9 RPG and 1.4 BPG. His 6-11, 270-pound frame is trouble for opposing defenders on the block. He can back you down for the bucket and is scoring with an improved efficiency through the seasons first three weeks. He is also sporting the highest usage rate (36.1%) in the game. Cousins is just getting started and could potentially take the spot as the best center in the NBA in just a few season.
10. Tony Parker
Taking over as the leader for the Spurs last season, Parker is doing an even better job leading them now. They are tied with the Pacers with the best record and that’s primarily due to Tony Parker. He can pretty much go anywhere on the court, with his defender usually trailing behind. With 18.5 PPG and 6.1 APG, Parker will continue to be the motor for the Spurs’ offense. The main reason Parker is so high is because he is so difficult to guard. He is 6-2 and has 82 field goal attempts at the rim, which is absurd for a guy his size. But that’s been the case for a couple years now, and he’s got the best floater in the game.
9. James Harden
Last season, James Harden seemed liked he turned into a star overnight. This season he has sustained his high level of play. As the clear leader of the Rockets, Harden scores 24.2 points a night and is shooting 44 percent from the field. He’s a strong offensive player with great footwork and GM’s ranked him as the best shooting guard in the league in their preseason survey. He is tied for fourth in clutch points and can either cross the opponent over with the euro step or step back for three. The only reason he isn’t higher is because his three point percentage (30) is awful for the best shooting guard in the league, and his defense, um, leaves a lot of be desired. Nonetheless, Harden will make you pay if left open.
8. Anthony Davis
Possiblt the biggest surprise on the list, Anthony Davis is having an incredible early season run. He currently has the best PER (30.23) in the league and protects the rim better than anyone not named Roy Hibbert. In his second year, he is averaging 21.0 PPG, 10.8 RPG, 4.1 BPG and 1.9 SPG. He is on fire and outplaying his opponents almost every single night. Opponents’ field goal percentage at the rim is at a very low 36.1 percent. In fact his opponents only manage to take 5.5 attempts at the rim per game because Davis is patrolling the paint. He’s freakishly athletic and can clean up any perimeter defender’s mistake â€” of which there are many in New Orleans.
7. Carmelo Anthony
The Knicks are really struggling to stay afloat and Anthony is doing everything in his power to get them back into the playoff picture. He averaging a career best 9.5 RPG despite all the losing. Anthony is also second in the NBA in scoring with 26.1 PPG after leading the league for the first time in his career last season. His field goal percentage and three-point shooting are down from last year, but he is still getting his buckets each game, particularly at the charity stripe. He’s still shooting 75 percent inside of 12 feet, excluding drives, so the little pull-ups are still going in. He is battling harder than ever to help the injury-prone Knicks get the stank off their slow start. ‘Melo is doing a little better defensively, collecting 1.4 steals a night, and he’s trying to do it all for the Knick after losing Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton to injury â€” not that losing Felton is such a bad thing this season. The persistence and versatility of of Anthony keeps him high on the list.
6. Stephen Curry
Stephen Curry continues to bring in new fans to the NBA. He is one of the most exciting players to watch with his astonishing three-point shooting and eye-popping handles. Curry is shooting nearly 44 percent from three-point range and is averaging 19.9 PPG and 8.7 APG, which are career highs so far. Curry is going head-to-head with the best guards in the league almost every night, and usually coming out on top. He’s the only player in the NBA that gets doubled five feet beyond the three-point line.
He is the most dangerous pull-up shooter in the NBA, sporting an effective field goal percentage of 46.2 while averaging 12.0 PPG from pull-up jump shots. Not only can he shoot from anywhere, he can get his shot off at almost any time. He might have the fastest release in the league, which is why he leads the league in most points scored on pull-up jumpers. Off-the-dribble, in transition or coming around a bevy of screens in Golden State’s fun offense, there’s no stopping Stephen Curry this season unless you fall on him.
5. Paul George
Paul George is a dark horse MVP candidate that everyone has their eye on this year. He is a top-five defender in the league and is the leading scorer on the team with the best record in the NBA. Averaging 24.4 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 3.3 APG and 1.7 SPG, he is among the league’s most elite wings. Second only to LeBron with a 19.5% PIE (Player Impact Estimate), George is also fourth in points-per-possession. He keeps getting better each year in the league.
While already one of the best on-ball perimeter defenders in the game, his scoring and efficiency on offense have improved this season, shooting 46 percent from the field and 84 percent from the free throw line. Paul George is becoming the player the Pacers need to compete for a championship for the foreseeable future.
4. Kevin Love
Kevin Love is back and he may be better than last time. He can beat opponents in so many ways. He shoots 35 percent from three and also collects 13.3 RPG. He is fourth in the league in scoring with 25.4 PPG, while putting up a career high 4.8 APG. Love can pretty much do it all. The hole in his game is defense, but what other 6-10 player can knock down threes and grab over 13 rebounds a night? While his defense might still need work â€” particularly getting back in transition â€” his rebounding is essential in keeping second chances points away from opponents.
Love is providing the Timberwolves with so much. He is one of the most versatile players in the league and an early MVP candidate. He is second to only LeBron in Value Added to his team and estimated wins added, with 3.7. Through the season’s first three weeks, Love has been dominant and the best power forward in the league today.
3. Chris Paul
Chris Paul is hands down the best point guard in the NBA. The other night, he broke Magic Johnson‘s record for most double-doubles to start a season. Paul now has 12 for the year and is averaging 19.5 PPG, 12.5 APG, 5.3 RPG and 2.8 SPG, career bests in both steals and assists. He leads the league in total touches and time of possession he has the ball in his hands each game, soo his part in the Clippers efficient offense continutes to be the most important ingredient for success.
Paul is taking care of the ball and runs the team’s offense exceptionally well. He has a 3.95 assist to turnover ratio on a team with the second best offensive efficiency (108.3 points per 100 possessions) in the NBA. He will score when needed but would rather get his teammates involved. Paul is a walking double-double and is taking his already polished game to new heights. He is also leading the league with a remarkable 28.0 points created by assists per game.
2. Kevin Durant
Kevin Durant is my early pick for MVP. He is scoring 29.6 PPG, which the highest in the NBA by over 3 points, and he is efficient in doing so, shooting 45 percent from the field, 35 percent from three and 88 percent from the free throw line â€” down from his remarkable 40/50/90 splits a year ago, but still highly efficient for such a heavy-usage player. Durant also boasts a true shooting percentage of 62.4, and makes 8.7 pull-ups a game on 50 percent shooting.
The talent most overlooked about Kevin Durant is his ability to rebound. He is averaging 7 RPG this season, boasting a 65.4 percentage of rebounds per chance this season. If there is a rebound near Durant, he will go out and grab it.
1. LeBron James
Of course, the best player in the NBA right now is LeBron James. The only one who can stop LeBron James is LeBron James. He fills the stat sheet every night, but also leads his team to a win. He is the most valuable to his team’s success right now, with Wade’s minutes limited. He has a 29.13 PER, averaging 25.6 PPG, 6.8 APG and 5.5 RPG. James will get it done any way possible, but still remains efficient doing so. He is sporting career bests in every major shooting category, making an unbelievable 60 percent of his shots from the field, while also hitting 78 percent of his free throws and 48 percent from three.
Just when we think he can’t get any better he surprises us with a strong performance every single night. He is 6-8, but runs the floor like a point guard, and can bang down low with the majority of power forwards in the league. LeBron James will be the best player the NBA sees for quite some time. The last two seasons, featured LeBron reaching new heights, and there is no longer any discussion of who the best in the game is today. He will probably top this list for the next three-to-five years as well.
[All numbers via NBA.com]
Who doesn’t belong and who did we miss?
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