Top 100 NBA Players of 2018: Nos. 30-11
- Our 30-11 countdown highlights some of the best point guards in the league. Where do Kyrie Irving, John Wall, Damian Lillard, Mike Conley and Kyle Lowry rank on our Top 100 list?
The Crossover is proud to offer our list of the Top 100 NBA players of 2018, an exhaustive exercise that seeks to define who will be the league's best players in the 2017-18 season.
Given the wide variety of candidates involved and the deep analytical resources available, no single, definitive criterion was used to form this list. Instead, rankings were assigned based on a fluid combination of subjective assessment and objective data. This list is an attempt to evaluate each player in a vacuum, independent of their current team context as much as possible. A player's prospects beyond the 2017-18 season did not play a part in the ranking process.
Injuries and injury risks are an inevitable component of this judgment. Past performance (postseason included) weighed heavily in our assessment, with a skew toward the recent. First-year players were not included. A predictive element also came into play with the anticipated improvement of certain younger players, as well as the possible decline of aging veterans. Salary was not taken into consideration. Otherwise, players were ordered based on their complete games. You can read more here on the limitations of this kind of ranking. To see our 25 biggest snubs from this year, click here.
Please feel free to take a look back to SI.com’s Top 100 Players of 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014. A special thanks, as always, to those resources that make researching a list like this possible: Basketball-Reference, NBA.com, ESPN.com, Nylon Calculus, and Synergy Sports.
30. Al Horford, Celtics
Never confuse who shoots most with who is most valuable. There are too many other ways to shape a basketball game, most of which come quite naturally to Horford—a star who tends to be appreciated most by those who have played with him. See the results of Horford’s playmaking up close and one cannot help but admire him. He doesn’t make demands. He doesn’t force any compromises to a team’s style of play. Horford (14.0 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 1.3 BPG) simply makes connections, moving around the floor as needed so he can always work as a pressure release. You might not turn to Horford in a single, high-stakes moment. Instead, you rely on him throughout a game to elevate any systems and teammates he comes into contact with.
Horford, fundamentally, is a player who creates opportunity. On every possession, Horford’s team can trust that he will supply what’s needed on offense and that he’ll know where to be on defense. The only real deficit comes on the glass; the defensive rebounding issues that plagued Atlanta for years followed Horford to Boston, isolating the independent variable involved. Playing Horford at center, especially, creates a pressing need for better team rebounding. Such is the cost of doing business with a player who offers so much of everything else. — Rob Mahoney
29. Kemba Walker, Hornets
An uneven, injury-derailed season for the Hornets camouflaged what was a strong campaign from Walker (23.2 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 5.5 APG). Charlotte’s only hope to compete came with their lead guard on the floor; when Walker was in the game, the Hornets approximated a top-five offense and a top-10 defense. That’s quite a demonstration of what Walker can do as a team’s best player, even if his game is best suited for more of a supporting role.
That isn’t an indictment. Walker has worked his way beyond the need for ball dominance by improving as a distance shooter (39.9% 3FG) and modifying his footwork to better serve catch-and-shoot situations. The player once completely reliant on his pull-up jumper now has so many more options available to him. So long as Walker is this fleet of foot, those quick jumpers off the dribble will be a part of his game. Where he’s shown growth is in using the threat of that shot to pursue others, effectively turning his opponents’ expectations against them. His first few years of NBA scouting reports have served only to make his counters and changes in direction that much more devastating.
Scoring comes more naturally to Walker than passing, though he manages to keep a tidy offense through sound, low-risk plays. The same mentality has made him an impressive defender in spite of his small stature. Walker is handsy enough to be a steals threat, but over his time in the league has developed a sharp sense of defensive positioning. Only two players (Ersan Ilyasova and Marreese Speights) drew more charges last season. Execute a spin move and Walker is likely to beat you to the spot. Initiate a hard drive and Walker will recover to plant himself in the path. There are natural limits to how much disruption a 6’1’’ guard can muster. Walker’s best efforts push them as far as can be reasonably expected. — RM
28. DeAndre Jordan, Clippers
Don’t be fooled by his shaky free-throw percentage or the Clippers’ reputation as meltdown artists, Jordan (12.7 PPG, 13.8 RPG, 1.7 BPG) is one of the league’s most dependable producers. It’s freakish, really: The 6’11” center somehow managed to post the exact same scoring, rebounding, assist and turnover averages in 2016-17 as he did the previous season, down to the decimal, en route to All-Star and All-NBA Third Team selections. His game continues to be defined by durability, hyper-efficient finishing, volume rebounding and strong backline defense; last season he missed just one game, he led the league in FG%, he ranked third in rebounding, and he placed second among centers in Defensive Real Plus-Minus behind Rudy Gobert.
Any hopes that Jordan, 29, might expand his one-on-one arsenal or extend his scoring range outside the immediate basket area have subsided. And, with lob partner Chris Paul gone to Houston, it’s reasonable to expect Jordan’s scoring volume and efficiency to slip somewhat next season. While he led the league with a whopping 253 dunks in 2016-17, he couldn’t step up to provide enough scoring help for Paul when Blake Griffin was lost to injury during the playoffs. With a deeper offensive toolbox, Jordan would have a strong case as the league’s best all-around center. As is, he’s a perennial All-Star candidate who will be central to L.A.’s post-Paul plans. Jordan is tracking towards another massive payday next summer, and hopefully his free-agency experience won’t require any hostage-taking this time around. — Ben Golliver
27. Paul Millsap, Nuggets
Maybe it was minor injury issues. Maybe it was moving another year past 30. Maybe it was the loss of longtime frontcourt partner Al Horford and/or the arrival of Dwight Howard. Whatever the explanation(s), Millsap (18.1 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 3.7 APG) couldn’t quite duplicate his sensational 2015-16 campaign during his fourth and final season with the Hawks. A polished and unselfish two-way game kept the versatile power forward among the league’s top Real Plus-Minus performers and helped Atlanta push Washington in a first-round playoff series, but weak three-point shooting and less gaudy defensive stats pushed Millsap outside the top 40 in PER and Win Shares.
The 32-year-old Millsap’s offseason signing with the Nuggets on a three-year, $90 million contract looks like a wise move for both player and team, even if a return to the West’s deeper waters means his All-Star days are likely over. An ultra-adaptable player who can function in virtually any situation and with almost any cast of teammates, Millsap is ideally suited to life as a second or third option within a balanced, pass-heavy offense. He should find the support and structure he needs to thrive within what figures to be a potent Denver attack, and his pairing with center Nikola Jokic gives the Nuggets two unselfish frontcourt playmakers to keep defenses guessing. Don’t be surprised if his shooting efficiency rebounds thanks to a steady diet of better looks. If his offensive load lessens as expected, Millsap should be able to focus more of his attention on providing Jokic the defensive cover he needs. While it’s understandable that Atlanta’s overhauled front-office preferred to execute a full-scale rebuild rather than commit a long-term, big-dollar contract to their aging four-time All-Star, Millsap still brings plenty to the table and should help boost the Nuggets into the playoffs for the first time since 2013. — BG
26. Kevin Love, Cavaliers
Love has been undersold by his circumstances. To Cleveland, he is a shooter first and foremost—an accessory to the creative endeavors of LeBron James and, to this point, Kyrie Irving. To most any other team, Love could be something else entirely. He’s a shooter, to be sure, but also an effective passer, a post threat, and the kind of complete offensive player who could work as a fulcrum. Everything a team runs could swing on his abilities if it so chooses. It’s hardly Love’s fault that a team with the best player in the world did not.
That Love gives his team the choice is just part of what makes him interesting. Teams with clearly better options can lean on Love to stretch the floor, as the Cavs do, while working his periodic post-ups. What seemed an awkward fit at first has since become comfortable. Love is a more reliable spot-up shooter than when he first arrived in Cleveland, and better equipped to pick his spots. Those teams without first-rate alternatives could instead stretch Love’s game as needed – potentially doubling his assists while varying (and ramping up) his touches. Twice has Love averaged better than 26 points a game. There’s little reason to think he couldn’t do so again.
Rebounding is the bridging constant. It took Love time to balance his responsibilities on the glass with all else Cleveland asks of him. Then, in the last two years, it clicked; Love again is rebounding with the best in the league, pulling down a greater percentage of available boards than behemoths like Karl-Anthony Towns, DeMarcus Cousins, and Enes Kanter. No matter his limitations as a defender (which only seem particularly painful in the impossible matchup against Golden State), Love can always help his team seal up their defensive stands by securing the rebound that follows. — RM
25. Nikola Jokic, Nuggets
Give Jokic the most basic of ingredients and he will set the table with a feast. Any cutter who plays with him becomes an open threat on every possession. Shooters on his team find the ball delivered directly into their pocket just when the defense has shifted its attention. Other bigs are free to roam around the rim because Jokic can run an offense from the top of the floor, setting up all manner of high-low delicacies. His is the gift of transformation, and through it a somewhat talented but well-intentioned team can become one of the league’s most potent offenses.
One can get so lost in the bending of Jokic’s impossible passes as to lose sight of the fact that he’s also one of the league’s better rebounders and a shockingly efficient scorer. Jokic doesn’t quite have three-point range and only went to the line for 3.1 free throws per game last season. Still he ended the year with the fourth-highest True Shooting Percentage in the NBA by finishing an absurd number of his post-ups (57.9%) and runners. The high paint is typically home to long, improbable hook shots and ill-fated floaters—close-ish shots that are too often unsteady and heavily contested. Jokic converted 65% of his attempts from that range, applying subtle punctuation to his breakout season.
All that’s holding Jokic back is the burden of proof facing all up-and-coming talent. We don’t yet know how effective a Jokic-centered defense could be, and there is fair reason for pessimism. No opponent has yet approached Denver with playoff-level scrutiny—or even particular regular season seriousness. Everything Jokic has done to this point is genuine. There is nothing fishy in his off-the-charts performance, merely room for some couching and qualification as the NBA catches up to what this upstart superstar does best. — RM
24. Marc Gasol, Grizzlies
Marc Gasol is shooting more than ever without skimping on the assists, and lighting up the arc without neglecting his duties inside. There’s nothing to stop a player with such a diverse skill set from having it all—save for himself. And at long last, Gasol has taken his offensive game to the meaner, leaner heights he has long been capable of.
For a center to turn a handful of long two-pointers a game into threes is in itself a noteworthy shift. When that center is making 38.8% of those shots (better than Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant, albeit on different sorts of attempts), his range becomes that much more consequential. Gasol (19.5 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 4.6 APG) is a different player than he was a year ago because on top of what he offers as a playmaker from the elbow and as a captain of the defense, he’s now one of the most prolific three-point shooting centers in a league that relies on them. The entire structure of the offense changes when a high screener and dribble hand-off initiator like Gasol can begin each play from beyond the three-point line. Stretching even those few feet beyond the arc eats meaningfully into an opponent’s room for error.
That's what makes Gasol so punishing. Other bigs just don’t have an answer for the fact that Gasol can move fluidly from the three-point line into a spin move hook shot in the space of two dribbles. There’s no need for a deliberate backdown when the defender never even has a chance to set his feet—especially when it’s hard enough as it is to actually bother the shot of a mobile seven-footer. Gasol’s defense is still there, albeit not quite at Defensive Player of the Year levels. Changes in shot distribution have led him to a six-year high in Effective Field Goal Percentage. Gasol—a team-first player, through and through—simply feels the freedom now to take what he wants. His team does nothing but benefit. — RM
23. DeMarcus Cousins, Pelicans
Those expecting Cousins (27 PPG, 11 RPG, 4.6 APG) to finally turn over a new leaf once he was set free from the Kings’ dysfunction are still holding their collective breath seven months later. The mercurial center had an unforgettable season given his awkward and unprecedented All-Star Weekend trade, but his arrival in New Orleans has yet to deliver a reputation revision. Instead, Cousins spent the stretch run to another lottery trip slowly gelling with Anthony Davis, serving a technical foul-related suspension, and posing plenty of lineup and stylistic questions for his new coaching staff. Firmly entrenched as the most prolific stat-stuffing center since Shaquille O’Neal, Cousins’s impact continues to be undermined by his emotional outbursts, turnover problems, foul trouble and inattentive stretches on defense.
Cousins’s scoring explosions and highlight plays go viral with ease, and his deep portfolio of skills—ball-handling, post moves, three-point range, and much more—is unmatched at his position. But the three-time All-Star is entering his eighth season having made little substantive progress on two key questions: “Does he make his teammates better?” and “Is he really trustworthy?” In fact, last season might have represented a step back on those fronts given the modest package the Pelicans had to surrender to acquire him and his so-so performance after the trade. Summer reports that Cousins has committed to improving his conditioning are promising, and his pairing with Davis will no doubt look better in November than it did in March. However, there’s no guarantee that Cousins, who is an unrestricted free agent next summer, lasts in New Orleans through the trade deadline, especially if the fit questions persist. — BG
22. Blake Griffin, Clippers
The career reboot that Griffin (21.6 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 4.9 APG) so desperately needed fell into his lap this summer. With Chris Paul and J.J. Redick both leaving L.A., the three-time All-Star power forward takes over as the undisputed alpha dog for a Clippers team that will welcome all the scoring and playmaking he can muster. Given that his last three seasons were each marred by injury, Griffin finds himself at an unfortunate crossroads. Can he reclaim his All-Star form and carry a winning team with his scoring, passing and tempo-setting game? Or, will his accumulated health issues push the 28-year-old power forward towards an early-onset decline? Simply put, will he get back to being the old Griffin or, in a worst-case scenario, is he at risk of becoming the next Amar’e Stoudemire?
For now, Griffin remains a nightmare individual cover: he can bully smaller defenders, blow past slower defenders, step out to hit mid-range jumpers, initiate transition scenarios from his own defensive rebounds, run an effective two-man game with dribble hand-offs near the arc, and create offense with high-low passes to DeAndre Jordan. However, his jaw-dropping dunks have become less common in recent years, he hasn’t yet mastered a career-extending three-point shot, and he was never a true rim-protector on defense. In other words, if his burst and pop start to wane, he will find it very difficult to live up to the terms of his new five-year, $173 million max contract. Although it’s not yet clear exactly when Griffin will be back from a toe injury, his expanded post-Paul role should make for a fun and free-wheeling season once he does return. — BG
21. Kyrie Irving, Celtics
Leave it to one of basketball’s most polarizing stars to fully lean into the scrutiny by making the most heavily-debated trade request the NBA has seen in years. Irving (25.2 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 5.8 APG) had good reasons to want out of Cleveland: He’s 25 and ready to be The Man, he’s already a champion, and LeBron James’s future with the Cavaliers isn’t guaranteed. But he had good reasons to stay too: Cleveland was a near-lock to return to a fourth straight Finals in 2018, he had just enjoyed the top-scoring and highest-usage season of his career, and stars and role players alike have flocked to play with James for years. Irving isn’t just striking out on his own in Boston, he’s ditching one of the greatest players ever and setting up an instant rivalry with his former team.
Offensively, Irving is as creative and gifted as it gets, blending his signature, well-honed handle and deft finishing with total confidence, three-point range, and loads of shot-making ability. As the Celtics’ newly-minted No. 1 option, he has a chance to claim the NBA’s scoring title. But virtually everything else about Irving’s game—leadership, play-making for others, night-to-night focus, defense, and health—remains an open question. Indeed, the four-time All-Star point guard must prove that his way will work, without James, because Cleveland was truly awful from 2012 to 2014 when a young Irving struggled to lead the way. Can he drive a top-five offense like Chris Paul and Stephen Curry? Can he be a winning team’s defining personality for 82 games like Russell Westbrook and James Harden? Can he take his own team into the second round of the playoffs like John Wall, Kyle Lowry, and Damian Lillard? Can he inch closer to average for a starter at his position on defense and stay on the court for 75+ games? In the end, those are the questions that will validate Irving’s move to Boston and determine whether he vaults up the point guard pecking order next year. – BG
20. Klay Thompson, Warriors
Thompson is inconceivably the fourth-best player on his own team, all because he has never let ego get in his way. Rarely will a 20-point scorer so graciously fall into the background. Should the Warriors need him to shoot, Thompson (22.3 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 2.1 APG) is ever willing to let loose. If the offense is finding fertile ground elsewhere (or even if his own shot has deserted him), Thompson will defend and curl just as hard, content to have indirectly done his part. Thompson’s game scales up and down effortlessly—from minute to minute and from game to game—so that his team can always draw exactly what it needs from him.
The rarity of that separates Thompson from most every other player in his class. No team should make Thompson its primary scoring option because he doesn’t have the ball skills to support that responsibility. Virtually any other role is fair game. Golden State won the title with Thompson as its second-leading scorer in 2015 and as a hot-and-cold streak shooter in 2017. He makes himself instrumental, regardless, because Thompson demands to be guarded even while at a standstill. His shooting can blow a game open without the slightest warning.
Those incendiary highs are a remarkable thing. It is not a stretch to say that Thompson’s hot hand laid out a return path to the 2016 Finals through scorched earth. It’s also not wrong to credit him, in some way, for Stephen Curry finding the perfect role. It’s because of Thompson’s ability to guard across three positions that Curry never really had to sweat his matchup. The toughest defensive assignments would always be accounted for. It’s also in part because of Thompson’s gravity that opposing defenses faced an impossible dilemma. Curry would have found his own way, but—as with the Warriors as a whole—it was Thompson who exaggerated his best attributes and mitigated his worst. — RM
19. Kyle Lowry, Raptors
Lowry (22.4 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 7 APG) has fallen down a few pegs in the crowded conversation concerning the league’s top point guards, as he missed 22 regular-season games due to injury and then fizzled out amid nagging health issues during Toronto’s humbling postseason. When he was on the court, the hard-nosed, well-rounded floor general was as effective as ever, ranking in the top 25 of four major advanced statistics (PER, Win Shares, Real Plus-Minus, WARP), setting new career-highs in scoring, assists and three-point percentage, and leading the East’s second-best offense. An excellent pick-and-roll threat who improved Toronto’s offensive efficiency by nearly seven points when he was on the court, Lowry had success helming the Raptors’ starting unit and a lethal bench mob group.
This summer, the 31-year-old Lowry cashed in his three consecutive All-Star seasons to the tune of a three-year, $100 million contract. That deal represented a career-best pay day, but its length and less-than-max total value appeared to reflect concerns about his age, durability and struggles to translate his big-impact play into the playoffs. After a busy offseason in which a good chunk of his supporting cast has turned over, it’s time for Lowry and the Raptors to re-frame their focus. Rather than running Lowry into the ground in pursuit of 50-win seasons that were hard to come by earlier in the franchise’s history, his playing time should be more carefully managed to ensure that he enters the postseason without any lingering health issues or built-up fatigue. Without another signature playoff run to his name, Lowry is at risk of fading further as a deep crop of younger point guards nips at his heels. – BG
18. Mike Conley, Grizzlies
David Fizdale sold Conley on a vision. Memphis had centered itself over the years through Conley’s careful stewardship—his even keel a defining force of a balanced offense. As Fizdale saw it, what the Grizz needed was greater abandon. Grinding out games as usual was an option, though it left Memphis particularly vulnerable to the NBA’s emerging arms race. A low-variance, post-heavy style could only get the team so far in a league dominated by dynamic scoring guards. Fortunately, the Grizzlies had just that sort of guard hiding in plain sight. It took some coaxing, but Conley upped his usage to a career-high 26.3% (higher than Kyle Lowry and Derrick Rose) in a revelatory season. For the first time in his basketball life, Conley came off of screens firing. His scoring leapt from 15.3 points per game to 20.5. He made 39% of his pull-up three-pointers and 40.8% of his three-pointers overall. Chipping away at Conley’s inhibitions even unleashed him into the isolation game, where the speedy point guard took Fizdale’s directives to heart.
That Conley’s performance extended to a monster playoff series against San Antonio only reinforces the strength of his season. A solid defender and floor general is now a 20-point scorer posting the highest True Shooting Percentage of his career. It’s hard to imagine Conley, soon to be 30, improving on that kind of performance moving forward. Some regression to the mean could be in order. Nevertheless, Conley has pushed his way into a different tier of point guards, making contemporaries of stars like Damian Lillard, Kyle Lowry, and Kyrie Irving. This is where Conley lives now, and the stature his play demands. — RM
17. Damian Lillard, Blazers
Even at 27 years old, Lillard is still learning. There’s so much to explore when every defense he faces is rightly terrified of his jumper. Schemes are built to stop him from even taking shots, and still they cede 27 points per game without Lillard really pressing beyond what is reasonable. There are nights when Lillard settles when he shouldn’t and those when he isn’t seeing the full view of the game. But by and large, Lillard is filling exactly the role that’s set out for him—for which commanding attention is an essential part. Lillard is puzzling out in real time how to use all that attention to his advantage. His latest trick: manipulating defenders to get to his drive (and to to the free throw line) even more often.
The cat-and-mouse game has been good to Lillard, who finished 58.6% of his shots in the restricted area last season, up from 51.9% the season prior. More of his heavily contested layups are ending in fouls, too, as Lillard feels his way through the nuances of creating contact. Making space comes naturally. Lillard has spent his entire basketball life trying to put enough separation between himself and his defender to hoist up a jumper. It’s knowing when to bump and how to fall that demanded some on-the-job training, the result of which has Lillard up to 7.3 free throw attempts per game.
Lillard’s credentials as a scorer are rock solid at this point. Most of his limitations are familiar, too; running an offense through Lillard means planning around his so-so passing abiity, while leaning on him for big minutes means coming to terms with his lacking defense. Most of what holds Lillard back on that end are misguided instincts. He tries to get around a screen but charts the wrong angle. He moves to cut off a drive but charts the wrong course. So much of playing high-level defense comes from an internalized sense of what to do when. Lillard doesn’t have it, though his willingness to try at least leaves room for realistic improvement. — RM
16. Gordon Hayward, Celtics
Painstaking development has given Hayward’s game layer upon layer, to the point that he’s become one of the most complete wings in the league. Offense could be run to feature Hayward sprinting around screens or isolating his defender, reading an opening for a backdoor cut or threading a pass to a teammate who had done just that. His evolution has made him both a real threat and a compelling decoy—a combination that Quin Snyder and the Jazz used to great effect last season. Players like Hayward make an offense ripe for misdirection.
And no matter how he’s deployed, Hayward has grown enough as a ball handler to come with an escape plan baked-in. Almost any situation can be reset into a basic pick-and-roll if need be, teeing up for an easy, exploitable opening. Defenders who don’t challenge Hayward at the point of the screen leave themselves vulnerable to a free-and-clear three-pointer. Those that do then have to hang as Hayward slinks inside, using his body to create space all the while. Hayward has a knack for hitting the sort of hanging, contested shots that drive a defense crazy. Even perfect execution might not be enough.
Hayward might not be Boston’s leading scorer next season, but the range of what he brings to the table makes him the Celtics’ best player. It’s not just offense; Hayward has a proven track record guarding both wing positions at a high level and is strong enough to dabble at power forward if the situation calls for it. The scope of his offerings opens the door to all kinds of creative solution. Should the offense stall, Hayward’s role could be easily shifted to find a new opening. If a particular defensive matchup becomes a problem, Hayward could take it on or switch capably mid-possession. These are the luxuries that coaches crave. With Hayward, so many of them come standard. — RM
15. Rudy Gobert, Jazz
While the basketball intelligentsia now unanimously views Gobert (14 PPG, 12.8 RPG, 2.6 BPG) as one of the league’s elite defensive players, numerous statistical measures consider him one of the league’s elite players, period. The NBA’s leading shot-blocker and Defensive Player of the Year runner-up rebounded from a knee injury that marred his 2015-16 season to deliver a career year across the board in 2016-17. The 25-year-old center helped lead the Jazz to their first playoff series win since 2010 and set new career-highs in scoring, rebounds, blocks, and FG% while ranking second league-wide in Win Shares and eighth in both Real Plus-Minus and WARP. All things considered, Gobert was 2017’s biggest All-Star snub.
Gobert’s development as an ultra-efficient pick-and-roll target aided his ascension. Not only did the Stifle Tower improve Utah’s No. 3 ranked defensive efficiency by 6.9 points when he took the court, he upped the Jazz’s improved offense by 4.1 points too. Although his range is strictly tied to the paint and his ball skills are limited, Gobert’s finishing ability and commitment to pursuing second-chance points will make him a key prong in Utah’s team-based approach to replacing Gordon Hayward’s offense. More importantly, Gobert’s proven ability to lead an elite defense, regardless of how many of his teammates might be injured at any given moment, makes him the best reason to believe in Utah’s post-Hayward chances. The Jazz might have lost their top scorer this summer, but they retained their most indispensable all-around player. — BG
14. Karl-Anthony Towns, Wolves
The worst that could be said about Towns is that the 21-year-old who played over 3,000 high-usage minutes wasn’t always completely committed on defense. He could be caught moseying back in transition, catching his breath at a time when the Wolves needed him. It’s clear Towns has more to learn about what goes into defending at a competitive level. It’s also clear that in all matters of basketball (including defense, in time), he figures to be an absolute monster.
Towns’s (25.1 PPG, 12.3 RBG, 2.7 APG) present-day performance becomes all the more terrifying when you consider that the best is so clearly yet to come. Even modern bigs don’t have this kind of floor game. The league is ready for roll men and pop shooters. No defense, however, is fully prepared for a seven-footer shooting 36.7% beyond the arc to charge so smoothly toward the rim without the slightest notice. Everything Towns does is overwhelming—so much so that it’s a struggle to even brainstorm what an ideal defender for him might look like.
The freedom of Towns’s game makes him a perfect contemporary post player. Part of the reason that low-post play has fallen out of vogue is that defenses have become too effective at hampering post entry. A leaning, quasi-zone defense makes it hard for a post player to catch the ball with good position—forcing a team to spend precious seconds getting the ball into the post and then even more time working into scoring range for a contested shot. Towns is versatile enough to actually maneuver his way to the block from a variety of angles, and can audible into a different sort of offense if that opportunity disappears. At worst: Towns has at his disposal a ferocious drop step and counters aplenty. Should he run into pressure later, he sees the floor well enough to pass his way out of trouble. There’s still rich potential to mine from the post for a player with this many tools. What’s unknown is where exactly Towns—who is stunningly efficient already—might go if he ever grasps the full scope of his capability. — RM
13. John Wall, Wizards
Recently, Wall (23.1 PPG, 10.7 APG, 4.2 RPG) boldly claimed that he is the “best two-way point guard in the league.” That’s going too far. Although he led the NBA with 157 steals last season and excels at turning defense into offense in the open court, Washington’s defense was slightly worse with Wall on the court than off the court last season. Meanwhile, Real Plus-Minus and other impact stats strongly suggest that Chris Paul, Stephen Curry and Kyle Lowry are all more deserving of the “best two-way” title than Wall. If, however, the Wizards’ four-time All-Star point guard simply intended to highlight the fact that he can play far more effective defense than the likes of James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Isaiah Thomas and Damian Lillard, then his point is well-taken.
What made Wall truly special last season wasn’t his two-way play, it was his ability to be a point-generating machine as both a scorer and a passer. The only player besides the top two MVP finishers—Russell Westbrook and Harden—to average 20 points and 10 assists, Wall set new career-highs in both categories, as well as PER, while guiding Washington to a top-10 offense for the first time in his seven-year career. After years of scolding, Wall finally scaled back his reliance on long twos and took more pride in parading to the free-throw line. And, with a healthy and well-balanced starting lineup around him, Wall finished second only to Harden by generating 25.3 points per game with his assists. The next steps are clear: Walk the walk as an elite and consistent on-ball stopper, fashion a more dependable three-point shot, and build on an impressive 2017 playoff run by lifting the Wizards to the East finals for the first time since 1979. — BG
12. Paul George, Thunder
George made it clear in last year's playoffs that he is a deep believer in pecking order—no matter if his teammates are open. You might be, too, if you were this good. George (23.7 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 3.3 APG) is the kind of star who can dominate a game in all phases. We’ve seen him shackle some of the league’s highest scorers while dropping 30 of his own. To grab 15 rebounds, notch nine assists, or make five three-pointers in a game is well within his grasp. We know this because he did all three on the same night (while scoring 36) against the Cavs. Big stages and big moments do not bother him. What does, apparently, is anything less than superstar treatment when he has clearly played at a superstar level.
In that way, George is … particular. He does not want to guard power forwards if he doesn’t have to. He might spend his post-game press conference calling out teammates who didn’t play up to his expectations. Teams jump at the chance to put up with this because George is an exceptional basketball player at a position of scarcity. There is a league-wide search for wing defenders who can contribute anything to an offense and wing shooters who can be counted on at all defensively. George is nearly as good as it gets in both regards and coming off arguably his best season to date. All of the pieces were in place for George—who has a tendency to settle for jumpers—to short his scoring efficiency last season as he dragged along middling talent. Instead he scored more economically than ever before. His mid-range shooting (46.3%) spiked. The post become an even more reliable weapon for George to shoot or pass over the top of undersize wings. George took almost seven three-pointers a game and drained 39.3% of them – most as smart, high-value spot-up attempts. Things about the way Indiana played clearly bugged him. Annoyed as he was, George responded by balling out with game-saving performance after game-saving performance. Some headaches are worth the trouble. — RM
11. Jimmy Butler, Timberwolves
Chicago’s stunning draft-day decision to trade Butler (23.9 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 5.5 APG) to Minnesota for young, injured and unproven pieces was the basketball front-office version of skydiving sans parachute. With the three-time All-Star shooting guard playing the heaviest minutes load of his career and posting career-highs in scoring, rebounds, assists, PER and Win Shares, Chicago managed to stumble into the playoffs at 41-41. When Butler was off the court, however, the Bulls’ net rating slipped to -7.1, which is almost identical to the Lakers’ league-worst -7.2 net rating. With Butler, the poorly-constructed Bulls were respectable. Without him, utterly abysmal.
For their part, the Timberwolves will gladly welcome the two-way game-changer, even if his fierce competitive spirit drew some heat when he lashed out at his younger teammates and clashed with former coach Fred Hoiberg. Butler, 27, represents the top in-his-prime talent Minnesota has had since Kevin Garnett, as he ranked third in Win Shares, seventh in Real Plus-Minus and 10th in WARP. Although he first made his name in the NBA through tireless and physical defending, Butler has evolved into an all-around scoring threat who bulldozes to the foul line, effectively runs the pick-and roll and creates something out of nothing in isolation. If Butler even comes close to replicating his 2017 All-NBA Third Team campaign this season, the new-and-improved Timberwolves should have no problem snapping a postseason drought that dates back to 2004. — BG