The 30 BEST NBA Players Heading Into The 2021 Season (Where does your favorite player rank?)
The 2019–20 NBA season was an unusual one, to say the least. For the first time since 2015, Steph Curry and the rest of the Golden State Warriors watched the NBA Finals the same way we all did, on the couch, going from first to worst in the Western Conference in only 65 games. Oh yeah, and that whole COVID-19 thing that saw the last month of the season played out at the world’s most famous theme park.
As unorthodox as 2020 has been, its iteration of the NBA season showed no lack of emerging stars and tanking underachievers, leaving fans looking forward to the start of a new campaign.
With the 2021 NBA season just getting underway, it’s time to evaluate the league’s biggest names and where each NBA star places in comparison to one another. For these power rankings, I am analyzing where each player stands coming into this season based on both prior individual performance and how each player impacts their team’s success. I also made rankings coming into the 2019–20 season, and I will be comparing each player to their spot from the previous year, indicating their movement on the list in parentheses next to their name.
Before we get started, I have to give a few honorable mentions to Zach Levine, Jamal Murray, Kyle Lowry, Kristaps Porzingus, Jaylon Brown, and Domantis Sabonis for just missing the cut.
Let me know in the comments if there is anything you disagree with, but I don’t expect any comments, I’m never wrong. Now, let’s dive right in.
30. Brandon Ingram (Not Ranked — NR)
While some thought Lonzo Ball was New Orleans’s most valuable prospect acquired in the Anthony Davis trade that took place during the 2019 off-season, it was Brandon Ingram that surprised many and emerged as the Pelican’s star player during the 2019–20 campaign, winning the league’s Most Improved Player Award in the process.
Ingram saw significant stat increases in every major category, highlighted by his 23.8 points per game, finally breaking out after three underwhelming seasons in LA and becoming an All-Star for the first time in his young career. The pairing of Ingram with 2019 first overall pick Zion Williamson, along with the rest of the haul New Orleans acquired as a part of the Anthony Davis trade, gives the Pelicans a bright future and makes them fun to watch as an up-and-coming team.
The bar has always been set high for the former second overall pick, with Kevin Durant comparisons following the long and lengthy spot-up shooter throughout his entire career, however 2019–20 silenced many of Ingram’s critics and showed that he will climb this list in the coming years if he continues to progress.
29. Pascal Siakam (NR)
Siakam broke out during the 2019 playoffs alongside Kawhi Leonard on the way to winning Toronto its first-ever NBA Championship, and the young star carried his excellent postseason play into the 2019–20 season.
Siakam emerged as the Raptors best player following the departure of Leonard to the Los Angeles Clippers, leading his team to a franchise-best .736 winning percentage and the 2nd seed in the Eastern Conference. While Siakam’s 2019–20 campaign started off hotter than it finished, the Raptor’s big man still concluded the season averaging 22.9 points and 7.3 rebounds, earning himself a much deserved 4-year $130 million contract extension.
The 2018–19 Most Improved Player winner made his second consecutive run at the award in 2019–20, and while Siakam’s second-half slide was noticeable, he only went from playing like a league MVP to still playing like a superstar. The lack of success in the postseason for Siakam should be more concerning to Raptors fans. With no Kawhi Leonard to take the pressure off him in the paint and on the perimeter, it became obvious that there are still glaring weaknesses in the young forward’s game.
In spite of this, I expect Spicy P to progress further as he enters his prime and continue leading the Raptors into the top half of the Eastern Conference playoff race for an 8th consecutive season.
28. Chris Paul (-1)
At 35-years-old, CP3 showed he can still facilitate offense at a high level and lead his team to victories, as he took a rebuilding Oklahoma City Thunder team to the playoffs before losing in 7 games to the Houston Rockets. While it was clear from the moment Chris Paul arrived in OKC that he was never in the Thunder’s long term plans, his recent trade to the Pheonix Suns gives the 10x All-Star a great place to finish out his career playmaking for Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton, as evidenced by Ricky Rubio’s success in this role in 2019–20.
Last season saw Paul make the All-Star team for the first time since his days as an LA Clipper due to his efficient shooting, classic playmaking ability, and lockdown defense at the one. Paul put together a better season than his previous two with the Rockets, the only reason for his rank drop from last year is because of the first time All-Stars that shot ahead of him, however this veteran remains an impact player at an age where many great players begin to fall off.
I think the Pheonix Suns are a perfect fit for the aging Chris Paul, and I expect his assist numbers to increase with better scorers around him in Phoenix than he had in OKC. Overall, Chris Paul put together an impressive season in 2019–20 against the doubts of many, and showed that his veteran leadership and playmaking ability can lead his team to wins.
27. Jayson Tatum (NR)
Tatum took a huge leap in 2019–20, becoming an All-Star for the first time while averaging 7.7 more points, 1 more rebound, and 0.9 more assists per game. Tatum also doubled his amount of three-pointers made per game this past season and looked very mature for a 22-year-old player when running the floor.
Tatum’s development, along with that of Jaylon Brown and the addition of Kemba Walker lead the Celtics to rebound from a disappointing 2018–19 season riddled by chemistry issues caused by departing point guard Kyrie Irving. While the Celtics still have yet to put it together in the playoffs, they continue to be in contention to win the East thanks to the continued improvement from Tatum and their plethora of other young players.
While many predicted Jayson Tatum would emerge into the star he’s become, he took an unprecedented leap last year and will undoubtedly continue to be one of the impressive young forwards in the league.
26. Bam Adebayo (NR)
With the departure of Hassan Whiteside to the Portland Trailblazers, Bam Adebayo was finally able to blossom into a monster in the paint on both sides of the ball. Bam was a stat sheet stuffer in every way imaginable, being one of only six players to ever average more than 15.0 points, 10.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.0 block, and 1.0 steal in a single season.
And while the stats are impressive, Adebayo’s developed play meshed perfectly with Jimmy Butler and the rest of Miami’s young core to bring the team all the way to the NBA Finals this past season.
Adebayo is a part of the big man revolution in today’s modern NBA, with his two-way versatility allowing him to thrive at both the four and five. His quickness allows him to score against big men and effectively guard wings when necessary. While non-existent last season, developing a three-point shot to complement those of Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson would do wonders to Bam’s already versatile game.
25. Donovan Mitchell (+1)
While Mitchell’s development from 2018–19 into 2019–20 was a bit more subtle than Utah fans would have hoped, if his 36.3 points per game in last year’s postseason is any indication of the leap this young star can take in 2021, he will be much higher on this list next year.
The addition of Mike Conley didn’t take the pressure off Mitchell in the backcourt as much as Utah’s front office had intended when they brought the veteran point guard in via trade with the Memphis Grizzlies, however the young two-guard was still able to increase his shooting percentages and efficiency in 2019–20. Injuries to both Conley and Bogdanovic held the Jazz back from significantly improving from last season, but in spite of this Mitchell was still able to lead his team to the 6th seed in the West and a 7-game playoff series with the 3rd seeded Denver Nuggets.
Since his rookie year Donovan Mitchell has had the unique ability to lead his team to wins, and with a healthy team in 2021 Mitchell and the Jazz should be able to boost their standing in the Western Conference. The pairing of Mitchell and Gobert is still one of the more promising up-and-coming duos in the NBA, but it’s time for this team to take the next step in 2021 towards becoming legitimate contenders in their conference.
24. D’Angelo Russell (NR)
Even though D’Angelo Russell only played 12 games for the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2019–20, none of which included co-star Karl-Anthony Towns, the young duo is promising to Timberwolves fans who have seen their team struggle to put the right pieces around their star young center over the last 5 years. It was clear when the Golden State Warriors acquired Russell in the sign-and-trade that sent Kevin Durant to Brooklyn that he wasn’t going to fit in a backcourt dominated by Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, however with neither playing much or at all during the 2019–20 season, Russell was able to be the ball dominate guard he was with the Nets in 2019, with similar success.
While the Warriors finished last in the Western Conference, Russell solidified himself as one of the league’s top point guards during his 33 games with the team, and showed that he was able to grow on his breakout 2018–19 season in-and-amongst the uncertainty of his future. At only 24 years old, the former second overall pick has already been on four different teams, but if he is finally able to settle down in Minnesota this could be another year where Russell increases his level of play.
Russell easily replaces the one-dimensional scoring of Andrew Wiggins, while also being able to lead the team as their primary ball-handler to take the pressure off first overall pick Anthony Edwards and facilitate offense for Karl-Anthony Towns in the paint.
23. Ben Simmons (-2)
It became clear last year that Ben Simmons cannot successfully coexist in an offense that relies on Tobias Harris to be its primary perimeter shooter, and Simmons not having any resemblance of a three-point shot at the point guard position makes this team too one-dimensional. While I think a Harden-Embiid pairing would fit much better with the current layout of this team, the 76ers have made it clear that Simmons is an integral part of their future, and for good reason. At 6–10 Simmons has shown his ability to handle the ball and facilitate the offense, with his size and skill at the point guard position making him a mismatch on defense.
The reason for Simmons’s drop has to do with both his stagnant progression and disappointing 2019–20 season from his team as a whole. 2019–20 saw Simmons’s points per game and rebounds drop as his team underperformed in both the regular and post seasons, however the former first overall pick did lead the league in steals per game with 2.1.
For the Sixers to be successful in 2021 with their current roster, Simmons needs to at the very least get to the point where teams can’t just leave him wide open from beyond the three-point line and expect him not to shoot it, making a similar improvement to that made by Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2019 offseason. Simmons has all the tools to be the kind of player that takes over games, but he still has to put it all together before he can rank ahead of the guys that already do.
22. Rudy Gobert (-3)
Similar to Chris Paul, Gobert’s drop in rank has more to do with the people ahead of him than his own play in 2019–20, however had he won his third consecutive Defensive Player of the Year Award he probably would have ranked a little higher. Regardless, Gobert kept up his reputation as one of the league’s best interior defenders, averaging at least 2.0 blocks per game for his 6th consecutive season.
Gobert also finished 2019–20 with career-highs in field goal percentage, with a .693 mark that was the second-highest in the league, and rebounds with 13.5 per game which was third-highest in the league. Utah’s big man saw a minor drop in scoring from his 2018–19 season, however this can be contributed to the increased scoring at the power forward position provided by the addition of Bojan Bogdanovic, with the two meshing nicely together when healthy.
Gobert, along with teammate Donovan Mitchell, made his first All-Star team in 2019–20, and should continue his dominant rebounding and interior defense as Utah looks to move up in the West this season.
21. Paul George (-10)
After finishing third in MVP voting for the 2018–19 season, Paul George’s first year in the City of Angels was beyond underwhelming. George’s points per game dropped from 28.0 all the way down to 21.5, with his assists, rebounds, and steals taking significant drops as well.
In the playoffs George’s numbers were even worse, and his play can be largely attributed to the Clippers’ disappointing elimination by the Denver Nuggets in the second-round. After much speculation during the summer of 2018–19 on who would be LA’s most dominant duo, the answer now is clearly the Davis-James combination that won the Lakers their 17th title, while the Clippers didn’t even make it to the Western Conference Finals.
Paul George is still one of the better defenders and three-point shooters on the wing, and I wouldn’t put it past him to have a bounce-back season as the Clippers look to redeem themselves from last year’s failures. The Clippers should still be seen as legitimate contenders to the newly crowned King of the West LeBron James, however Paul George’s success alongside Kawhi Leonard is vital if the Clippers are to give the Lakers a run for their money this season.
20. Kyrie Irving (-2)
I ranked Kyrie low last year not because of his individual play, but how both his play style and attitude negatively affected his team’s overall performance, and his first season as a Brooklyn Net showed similar trends.
The Nets were a better team without Kyrie last season, posting a 27–25 record without Irving in the lineup versus an 8–12 record when he was healthy. While this is a small sample size, and no indication of how he will mesh with Kevin Durant in 2021, it’s clear that Irving took the same traits to Brooklyn in 2019–20 that dragged the Celtics down in 2018–19.
With all that said, Kyrie remains the NBA’s best ball handler and averaged 27.4 points over the span of his 20 games with the Nets in 2019–20. Whether or not Kyrie can be an impact player on this team all comes down to how his playstyle fits in with that of Kevin Durant’s, and it will be interesting to see how Kyrie handles not being the number one option on his team anymore.
19. Kemba Walker (-3)
Even though Kemba Walker had drops in almost every major stat category after leaving a bad Charolette Hornets team that allowed him to stuff his box score every night, Walker was able to transform his game to play around Boston’s young stars and win games for them. The Celtics were much better off with Kemba Walker in 2019–20 than they were with Kyrie Irving in 2018–19, with Walker’s leadership and floor-running ability leading the way for young players Jayson Tatum, Jaylon Brown, and Marcus Smart to grow in their roles.
While Boston has been a threat in the East for the last few years, they’ve never been able to make it over the hump and into the NBA Finals, and with the Celtics young players only improving, this is the year Boston can look to take that leap. A left knee injury caused Kemba to miss time in 2019–20, and it is vital for him to remain healthy in 2021 for Boston to thrive.
Walker’s fit with the Celtics was great last season, and while he will remain the team’s leader on the court and in the locker room during 2021, don’t be surprised if he starts to take the back seat to rising stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylon Brown.
18. Klay Thompson (-3)
It’s too bad that we won’t get to see the return of the splash-brothers in 2021, however if Thompson can come back strong in 2022 he is still one of the league’s best two-way players. That’s a pretty big if though, after suffering a torn ACL in the 2019 NBA Finals and a torn Achilles during a workout a couple of months ago, it’s hard to say if Klay will ever return to his prime form.
If there is any ranking I am uncertain about, it’s Klay’s. Assuming he was healthy and could play right now, I think the 18th spot is pretty fair for the 5x All-Star, factoring in regression from his injuries and age, but it’s hard to say how effective Klay can be until we see him on the court again in 2022.
Even with injuries taking their toll on Klay’s body, I am still confident in his ability to remain an effective spot-up shooter next to Steph Curry and at the very least an above-average defender at the shooting guard position.
17. Bradley Beal (+6)
How Bradley Beal didn’t make an All-Star team averaging over 30.0 points per game last season is beyond me, but I’m not afraid to give Beal the credit he deserves.
Bradley Beal was the only bright spot on a pretty terrible Washington Wizards team, finishing second in the league in points per game behind only James Harden. Even though Beal was the only major scoring threat on the Wizard’s roster last season, he was still able to get buckets even as opposing defenses were able to single him out, and I only see his play improving throughout his prime.
Beal is a player I really wanted to see traded to a contending team last year, as I think he could mimic the path of Kemba Walker going from putting up great stats on a terrible team to leading a true contender, but with Washinton’s recent addition of Russell Westbrook this looks unlikely. The Beal-Westbrook combo is an interesting one, and I think both players will fit well together with Westbrook taking the scoring and ball-handling pressure off Beal while also providing a more physical presence in Washington’s backcourt. That being said, I think the Wizards are stupid for trading for one of the league’s worst contracts and not just blowing up their roster, but we’ll see how this all ends up.
16. Russell Westbrook (-4)
Coming in at 16 is the man who normalized the triple-double. I’ve always felt that Russell Westbrook deserves more respect than he gets, however the fit with the Rockets last season did not work out due to the culture that a Harden-run team created in Houston.
Regardless of that, Westbrook still had a great individual season last year, and showed his versatility by effectively playing the center position in the Rockets failed small ball experiment. Westbrook finished 7th in the league in points per game while increasing his field goal percentage by nearly 5 points from 2019. His assists and rebounds took a toll from playing alongside Harden and no longer running the floor as he did in OKC, but I expect Westbrook to revive his game in these two categories as a Washington Wizard. The argument that Westbrook puts up empty stats certainly did not disappear after another disappointing season from the Rockets, and is the main contributor to his drop in rank.
Westbrook has only gotten worse at hitting the deep ball since his MVP season in 2016–17, and this will continue to be the glaring weakness of his game. It’s uncertain whether Westbrook and Beal will be good enough to carry Washington to the playoffs, but I still expect Westbrook to continue loading up box score night in and night out.
15. Karl-Anthony Towns (-2)
Towns was limited to just 35 games in 2019–20, however the 2015–16 Rookie of the Year continued his gradual but consistent rise to becoming one of the league’s top centers. As with other players on this list, his drop is primarily due to the people ahead of him rather than his own play, which saw him double the number of shots made from beyond the arc and increase his point per game average to 26.5 last season.
Towns is the ideal modern big man, able to score in the paint and on the perimeter while still being a dominant rebounder. Towns’ career has so far been defined by the lack of talent that’s been put around him, however the Timberwolves have taken big steps in the past year to shake up their roster, trading disappointing first overall pick Andrew Wiggins for All-Star point guard D’Angelo Russell and taking Anthony Edwards with the first overall pick in the 2020 draft.
Through the ups and downs of his time on the Timberwolves (mostly downs), KAT has been the only constant in the team’s seemingly constant rebuilding efforts, and now it’s time to see if they are finally able to surround their young superstar with good players.
14. Jimmy Butler (+15)
Man has my respect for Jimmy Butler skyrocketed over the last few months. I thought Butler signed his career away to first-round playoff exits every year when leaving the Philadelphia 76ers to join the Miami Heat last offseason, but the young and deep Heat team lead by Butler surprised pretty much everyone and made it all the way to the NBA Finals before losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in the 6 games.
Butler has always had an impact on the game outside of what can be seen on the stat sheet as both a leader and defender. Butler finished last season with a career-high 6.0 assists while averaging 19.9 points per game and 1.8 steals. These numbers only improved during the postseason, as Butler rose to the occasion and boosted the play of his young teammate’s.
Jimmy Butler can do everything, and it’s clear how much Philadelphia missed his scoring, playmaking, and game-closing abilities last season. Butler thrived when finally given the chance to lead a playoff team as the number one player, and showed the value of playing selfless win-focused basketball.
13. Trae Young (NR)
I’ve always been high on Trae Young, even when people were ripping on the Hawks for trading away Luka Doncic for the Oklahoma product on draft night, and while in hindsight this trade didn’t go in favor of Atlanta, it was far from a loss. The Hawks got their superstar, as Young showed his ability to score at will from anywhere on the court in 2019–20, averaging 29.6 points per game in just his second season in the league.
Since his days at Oklahoma, Trae Young drew comparisons to Steph Curry for his ability to drain three-pointers, but Young has made these comparisons even more realistic by successfully translating his ball-handling and playmaking to the NBA level. The 22-year-old was the runner-up for the league’s 2019–20 assist title, averaging 9.3 assists on a Hawks team that finished 14th in the Eastern Conference.
I expect Atlanta to be one of the better teams in the East this season, led by Young and followed by a young core highlighted by John Collins, Clint Capella, and Kevin Huerter. Trae Young took an astronomical leap in his sophomore season, and I’m excited to see the encore the sharp-shooting point guard can put together in 2021.
12. Joel Embiid (-4)
Embiid still holds the spot for the second-best center in the NBA, but significant stat decreases in every major category to go along with the regression of the 76ers as a whole last season leads to his drop on this list.
While still making an All-Star team in 2019–20, Embiid’s points per game dropped from a remarkable 27.5 in 2018–19 all the way down to 23.0, while his average rebounds decreased by 2.0 and his assists went from 3.7 to 3.0. Even though Embiids’s blocks per game also suffered last season, his interior defense remains one of the best in the NBA, however the 7-footer must return to the offensive force he was at the center position during his 2018–19 season for the Sixers to contend in the East.
Injuries remained a concern for the 26-year-old in 2019–20, and his availability this season will be vital to the Sixers success, especially without Al Horford to step in during his absence. New head coach Doc Rivers is a refreshing change over a Brett Brown led team that could never make it over the hump, and I look for Embiid to bounce-back this season in a new system if he is able to stay on the court.
11. Devin Booker (+3)
After much speculation of Devin Booker wanting out of Pheonix due to years of front office incompetence, the team finally began to trend upward in 2019–20 as Booker continued to blossom into one of the league’s best two-guards. Finally having a quality point guard in Ricky Rubio did wonders for the 24-year-old’s development last season, as Rubio finished 4th in the league with a career-high 8.8 assists per game playmaking for Booker and Ayton, and inserting Chris Paul into this same role in 2021 should elevate Booker’s game even further.
After just missing the cut for an All-Star team almost every year he’s been in the league, Booker finally secured his spot last season, averaging 26.6 points, 6.5 assists, and 4.2 rebounds per game. Booker’s season ended stronger than anyone’s, averaging 31.0 points per game in the bubble, while going 8–0 and bringing his team within one game of a playoff berth.
Entering his 6th season in the league while finally having a competent roster around him, I think 2021 is the year we finally get to see what Book can do in the postseason.
10. Nikola Jokic (-1)
After a slow start to his 2019–20 campaign, Nikola Jokic finished strong, averaging just under 20.0 points per game to go along with 7.0 assists. Jokic’s ability to run the floor like a point guard while still being a threat in the paint secures his place as the league’s best center.
In my opinion, the Nuggets are a ticking timebomb waiting to explode into the NBA Finals, lead by Jokic and the rest of Denver’s up-and-coming young players. It’s not like they don’t have tough competition in a loaded Western Conference, but this team continued to gain much-needed playoff experience through 19 postseason games a season ago, with Jokic ramping up his play over that span.
Nikola Jokic’s ability to lead a team the way he does from the center position is rare, and his diverse skill set makes him a difficult assignment for other big men when he has the ball in his hands. At still just 25-years-old, the former second-round pick still has plenty of time to elevate his superstar status and take his team to the promised land.
9. Damian Lillard (+1)
Damian Lillard had a career year last season, averaging 30.0 points and 8.0 assists per game while significantly improving both his field goal and three-point percentages. Lillard also led the league in minutes per game, averaging 37.5, and it’s indisputable that the limited success of the Portland Trailblazers last season came off the play of their superstar point guard.
The Trailblazers regressed significantly in 2019–20, going from a Western Conference Finals appearance to the Conference’s 8th seed, before losing in 5 games to the Los Angeles Lakers. It was Lillard’s bubble play that propelled Portland into this position after a rough start to their season, leading his team to a 7–2 record over that span, beating out the Memphis Grizzlies and Pheonix Suns for the West’s final playoff spot. While Portland’s bounce-back second half looked promising, it’s clear that the Trailblazers need to switch things up and get another star around Dame before they waste away his prime without ever being legitimate title contenders.
Lillard solidified himself as the league’s best pure point guard a year ago with the absence of the halfcourt-shot-draining Steph Curry, however Dame showed his own skill from “way downtown” last season. His improved ability to hit the deep ball, making an addition 1.1 three-pointers per game last season, to go along with great passing and lethal ball handling allows Lillard to move up on this list in spite of the team accolades other players in the top 10 are able to achieve as a result of better talent around them.
8. Kevin Durant (-1)
Similar to former teammate Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant’s placing on this list is purely based on speculation of how he will recover from a severe Achilles injury that saw him miss all of the 2019–20 season, however in the small sample size from Durant’s return to the court he looks like he hasn’t skipped a beat. Even if his mobility is weakened as a result of the sport’s most brutal injury, the ability for the 6–10 Durant to shoot over anyone is a skill that will not be taken away.
The return of a healthy Durant makes the Brooklyn Nets instant title contenders, with a deep young team to go along with the star pairing of KD and Kyrie Irving. Kevin Durant showed his ability to lead a team in the postseason as a member of the Golden State Warriors, winning 2 Finals MVP Awards during his time with the team. Now a member of the Brooklyn Nets, it’s time to see if KD can win a ring without the star-studded roster he had in Golden State.
7. Stephen Curry (-4)
Everyone was excited to see if Steph Curry could return to his 2015–16 MVP form without having to share the ball with Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant in 2019–20, however a broken left hand made us all wait until this 2021 season to see what Curry can do on his own.
This season hasn’t looked great for the Warriors so far, and the Western Conference has gotten much tougher since the team’s title runs in the second half of the 2010s. The Warriors have a solid lineup on paper with former Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green and 20.0+ point scorer Andrew Wiggings, to go along with newly acquired Kelly Oubre Jr. and second overall pick James Wiseman. These aren’t the same stars that took the Warriors to the Finals five years in a row (other than a regressed Draymond Green), however if Curry can return to his superstar form this roster is more than good enough to put the Warriors back in the Western Conference playoff picture.
6. Anthony Davis (-2)
Anthony Davis already proved he was a great individual player over the course of 7 seasons in New Orleans, and 2019–20 showed that he could fit his playstyle into a championship system led by LeBron James.
The Lakers’ star continued to be in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation, finishing third in the league with 2.3 blocks and averaging 1.5 steals per game, while dominating on the glass and draining perimeter shots when necessary. Davis’s numbers took a little bit of a hit playing alongside LeBron James, however the 7x All-Star meshed perfectly with the 35-year-old, with the two becoming the most dominant duo in the NBA. The combination of Davis and James, along with the veteran pieces LA was able to surround them with, led the Lakers to their 17th NBA Title and has made them favorites to repeat this season.
Davis signed a 5-year $190 million contract this past offseason to keep the 27-year-old in Los Angeles for the duration of his prime. I think we can confidently say that giving up their young core for a proven superstar paid off nicely for the Lakers in 2019–20, and the future is bright for Davis as LeBron will begin to pass the reigns over to him in the next couple of seasons.
5. Luka Doncic (NR)
Man is this kid a stud, making the jump all the way to number 5 of this list after his rookie season. I know I said earlier that the draft night trade that sent Doncic to Dallas wasn’t a loss for the Hawks, but they still messed up badly by letting this generational talent slip right through their fingers. In just his second year in the league, Luka Doncic started in the All-Star Game, made first-team All-NBA, and was in the conversation for league MVP.
The stats are just as impressive as the accolades, with Doncic averaging 28.8 points, 8.8 assists, and 9.4 rebounds in the 2019–20 regular season while also shinning in his playoff debut against the Los Angeles Clippers. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the young star average a triple-double in 2021, and it’s going to be exciting to see if Doncic can take yet another leap in his third season.
Already one of the favorites for this year’s MVP award, Luka single-handedly makes the Mavs one of the most interesting teams to watch in the West. While the pairing of Doncic and Kristaps Porzingus worked nicely last year, it's Doncic’s play from the one, two, and three that makes this team a rising contender.
4. James Harden (+1)
While issues with the Rocket’s culture and Harden’s work ethic have dominated NBA headlines recently in-and-amongst the star’s trade requests out of Houston, its undeniable that the 3x Scoring Champion is the league’s best point-getter. Harden averaged an NBA leading 34.3 points per game in 2019–20, preceded by 36.1 the year before. This kind of scoring is followed by 7.5 assists and 6.6 rebounds per game (in both 2018–19 and 2019–20), with Harden consistently leading the Rockets to be one of the Western Conference’s top teams.
Playoff failures have defined Harden’s time in Houston, and while being a top contender year after year, Harden has never been able to bring his team over the hump with co-star point guards Chris Paul and most recently Russell Westbrook. While the Rockets did have the Golden State Warriors standing in their way during the Harden-Paul era, Harden’s inability to make it out of the second-round this past season with a superior Russell Westbrook legitimizes his playoffs failures. Harden’s numbers have also taken significant hits over the past two postseasons as defenses hone in on his get-to-the-line play style.
How much value the Rockets will be able to get in return for their disgruntled superstar is currently unknown, due to his issues with teammates and the front office. Where Harden will go next is currently up in the air, however I don’t doubt his ability to elevate any offense he becomes a part of as long as he can remain the primary ball handler on his team.
3. Kawhi Leonard (-2)
When I ranked Kawhi Leonard number 1 last year, I was still hungover on the historic 2019 postseason where he led a Toronto Raptors team that had struggled in the playoffs year after year to its first NBA Championship over the star-studded Golden State Warriors. While the Clippers underachieved in 2019–20, this was no fault of Leonard’s.
Kawhi averaged a career-high 27.1 points a season ago, to go along with 7.1 rebounds, 4.9 assists, and his excellent defense. While no longer number 1 in my rankings, Leonard remains the NBA’s most complete player, making .470 of his field goals, .378 of his three-pointers, and consistently locking down the opposing team’s best player in 2019–20.
I have no doubts of the Clippers returning to a top 4 placement in the 2021 Western Conference, but in order for the team to make it out of the West it's up to a bounce-back year from Paul George and better play from a supporting cast that lost 2019–20 Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell to the team’s cross-town rival.
2. LeBron James (+4)
Ok, I was wrong to put LeBron James 6th in my rankings from a year ago, but I just wasn’t buying the fact that a groin injury kept the Lakers from missing the playoffs in 2018–19 when that team was still better than the Cavs one LeBron took to the Finals just a year before. The King showed no evidence of decline this past season however, and 2019–20 proved that he is still the MVP candidate he was at 25.
En route to winning his 4th NBA Title, James averaged 25.3 points, a league-leading 10.2 assists, and 7.8 rebounds. His ability to run point for the Lakers and facilitate offense around Anthony Davis was remarkable, showing that his playmaking ability and basketball IQ will not dwindle with age.
LeBron’s Lakers are favored to win their second consecutive NBA title with a recently re-signed Anthony Davis to go along with the additions of Montrezl Harrell and Dennis Schroder. As the 16x All-Star enters his 18th season in the league, there are no signs of slowing down as LeBron continues his quest to top Michael Jordan’s 6 NBA Championships.
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo (+1)
While some might argue that this spot belongs to LeBron James, I have to give it to the back-to-back league MVP and reigning Defensive Player of the Year. Giannis Antetokounmpo somehow improved on his remarkable 2018–19 season, averaging an increased 29.5 points, 13.6 rebounds, and 5.6 assists in 2019–20. Antetokounmpo also doubled the number of three-pointers he made per game last season, finally becoming respected as at least being able to hit the deep ball when open, which made the 6–11 power forward even more difficult to guard.
Giannis led the Milwaukee Bucks to the top seed in the Eastern Conference for a second year in a row, however second-round playoff exits are all that people will remember from both of those two seasons. Milwaukee bolstered its roster this offseason, adding veteran guard Jrue Holiday via trade with the New Orleans Pelicans as well as signing role players Bobby Portis and DJ Augustine in free agency.
Whether or not Giannis will be able to lead his team over the hump and into the NBA Finals is his biggest question mark going into this season, but the Bucks are still the favorites to come out of the East due to his dominance.