There may be just 22 teams heading to Orlando to resume the 2019-20 season, but the talent on hand rivals any collection of players in NBA history. Even without Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving or Bradley Beal on the floor, the league remains stacked with a potentially historic pool of talent. LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard are both among the 21st century’s greatest champions. Giannis Antetokounmpo headlines the new generation, though Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum and even Zion Williamson could close ground sooner than later. The league’s current crop of top tier talent may be the best we’ve ever seen.
So who exactly are the best players heading to Orlando to complete the season? We at The Crossover poured over the film and data in recent weeks, making difficult cuts before an even harder ranking. From Zion to LeBron, here are the best 25 players available for the NBA’s restart beginning on July 30.
25. Zion Williamson
Perhaps there are more qualified candidates for the No. 25 spot, but there’s no doubting Zion Williamson’s excellence through his first 19 games with the Pelicans. The Duke product is averaging 23.6 points and 6.8 rebounds per game as a rookie, shooting a blistering 58.9% from the field. Williamson is the tide that lifts all boats in New Orleans. Every unit is markedly better with him on the floor. Let’s hope to see Williamson battle Ja Morant in what would be a thrilling play-in battle.
24. Kristaps Porzingis
It’s been an uneven season for Kristaps Porzingis in his first year with the Mavericks, but the Latvian unicorn appeared to be finding his groove before the COVID-19 hiatus. Porzingis is a superb stretch five and a menace on the offensive glass. He’s a perfect complement to Luka Doncic in the pick-and-roll. When healthy, there are few more potent scoring big men in basketball. Porzingis and Doncic at their best will scare any Western Conference opponent, even the juggernauts in Los Angeles.
23. C.J. McCollum
The Lehigh product is consistently used as trade-machine fodder for basketbloggers across the country, so much that it has obscured his impact as an All-Star caliber player. McCollum is a terrific running mate with Damian Lillard in the backcourt, sporting versatility matched by few two guards. McCollum is a smooth catch-and-shoot asset–shooting 38% or better from three in five of the last six seasons–and he can effectively run the offense when Lillard sits. McCollum isn’t a leaper, nor is he a speedster. But don’t discount his value. McCollum could be integral in keeping Portland’s six-year playoff streak alive.
22. Devin Booker
It’s unclear whether the Suns can capitalize on Devin Booker’s prime to any degree given the competitive landscape in the West, but we shouldn’t criticize the Kentucky product for his organization’s dysfunction. Booker has continued his ascent as one of the game’s best scoring guards in 2019-20, averaging 26.1 points per game on 48.7% from the field and 91.6% from the line. Only two players in NBA history have made more threes before their 24th birthday. Only five have scored more points. Booker is still an ascending player, one with immense talent. Let’s hope Phoenix can put the talent around him to form a winner in the 2020s.
21. Khris Middleton
It’s hard to envision Khris Middleton as an alpha dog for a winning team, but he’s certainly an ideal running mate with Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee. Middleton is averaging 21.1 points per game at a 50-40-90 clip this season, sporting one of the NBA’s smoothest mid-range jumpers. Middleton continues to grow as a secondary ball handler and playmaker, and he’s another effective cog in Milwaukee’s stifling front line. The 2020 playoffs will be a true test of Middleton’s five-year, $177 million contract.
20. Kyle Lowry
Lowry has the least impressive statistical profile of anyone on our list, but his value to Toronto is undeniable. The 2019 champion is a true tone setter for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference, guiding a collection of young talents seamlessly out of the Kawhi Leonard era. Lowry’s shooting efficiency has taken a dip this year, but lineups featuring Lowry consistently outscore teams by a marked margin. Lowry could very well lead the Raptors to a second straight Finals appearance if they hit their stride in Orlando.
19. Kemba Walker
Walker has fit seamlessly in Boston after toiling away for eight years in Charlotte, and his clutch prowess at UConn suggests an easy transition to the bright lights of the playoffs. Perhaps you can’t create a Finals contender with Walker as your best player–similar to Toronto’s with Lowry challenge pre-Kawhi–but Boston’s point guard is overqualified as a complimentary piece. Walker is an efficient scorer from all levels of the floor, and his percentage beyond the arc is impressively steady.
Kyrie Irving is (of course) the more talented of Boston’s last two point guards. Yet as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown ascended, Irving’s presence became an impediment to their growth. Walker is less domineering. He’s a more effective off-ball piece, and a player whose leadership and positive influence has been evident since day one. Brad Stevens is likely thrilled with his swap entering the 2020 playoffs.
18. Rudy Gobert
Isolate the external factors, and Rudy Gobert’s performance has been downright dominant for much of 2019-20. The Stifle Tower is shooting 69.8% from the field this season (better than his league-leading mark last year) and he’s scoring an efficient 1.19 points per roll possession. Gobert may not be the conference’s best center, but he’s certainly an All-NBA talent.
But it’s hard not to consider the circumstances that surround the 7’1” center. The relationship between Gobert and Donovan Mitchell has been frayed by the coronavirus crisis, but there have been legitimate frustrations prior to March. Gobert needs to be force fed nearly every bucket that isn’t a put-back or tip-in, and his effectiveness has been neutralized by small-ball lineups in the postseason. Gobert’s talent suggests he should be higher on this list. But it still feels as though he’s not quite fulfilling his potential.
17. Chris Paul
2019-20 isn’t the best year of Chris Paul’s career, but it’s arguably the most satisfying. The 10-time All-Star has full control of Oklahoma City’s offense after splitting time with James Harden last season, leading the Thunder to a surprising 40–24 record. Paul is shooting his best mark from the field since 2009-10 this season. He leads the NBA in clutch points. The Thunder aren’t true Finals competitors, though with Paul at the helm, they’re certainly a threat for a first round upset.
16. Donovan Mitchell
Mitchell has established himself as a legitimate All-Star and the second-best player in the class of 2017, an impressive resume for the late lottery pick. The Louisville product has averaged over 20 points per game for three straight seasons, and Mitchell is in the midst of the most efficient year of his career. But how close are we to Mitchell’s ceiling? Utah has been dispatched by the Rockets in back-to-back playoffs, including a truly dreadful series in 2019. Mitchell isn’t in the same league as Harden and Lillard as an isolation player. He doesn’t see the floor like Doncic. This isn’t to say Mitchell can’t grow, nor should we count the Jazz out in round one. But we should be wary when considering the ceiling of the Mitchell-Gobert duo.
15. Ben Simmons
Philadelphia’s point guard is effectively the NBA’s Bizzarro Jerry when compared to Donovan Mitchell. While Mitchell is a model of consistency with a visible ceiling, Simmons sports a vast disparity in potential performance. The 2016 No. 1 pick can truly battle Giannis Antetokounmpo or Jayson Tatum on his best night, wrecking opponents as a dominant two-way force. Simmons should earn multiple All-Defense honors over the next decade. He’s a transition nightmare and a surprisingly impactful roll man. Yet Simmons’ brilliance is too often marred by glaring flaws. His inability to shoot with any range has been noted ad nauseam, and his pick-and-roll numbers are downright uninspiring. Simmons’ talent keeps the Sixers in the Finals conversation. But it’s hard to consider them legitimate contenders without more proven consistency.
14. Pascal Siakam
Perhaps we’re falling to a victim of small sample size here, and there’s a chance Siakam isn’t quite up to the role of leading man down in Orlando. I’ll still trust what we’ve seen thus far. The Cameroon native filled the void left by Kawhi Leonard with aplomb this season, averaging 23.6 points per game on 46% shooting. Siakam has held his three-point percentage steady despite more than doubling his attempts–Simmons could only dream of that growth–and his spin move remains the game’s best. Toronto’s latest homegrown star won’t have to shoulder the load alone for the defending champs, which should help him thrive in the postseason. There’s a chance Siakam creeps toward the top 12 after the 2020 playoffs.
13. Jayson Tatum
Tatum’s sample of stardom is even smaller than Siakam’s, but Boston’s phenom sports a nearly limitless ceiling as he approaches his third postseason. Tatum has taken the reins of the Celtics’ offense after Kyrie Irving’s ill-fated tenure, emerging as one of the NBA’s top wing scorers. He’s seen a serious jump in his free-throw and three-point rates, eschewing a stream of ugly 19-footers from his diet. There’s no spot on the floor Tatum can’t score from. He went toe-to-toe with LeBron as a rookie, and he could very well do the same with Giannis this season. Tatum earned an All-Star appearance in February. He’ll earn All-NBA honors sooner than later.
12. Jimmy Butler
Jimmy Butler’s multi-year odyssey landed him in Miami, and it’s been largely a seamless fit alongside Erik Spoelstra and an impressive cast of youngsters in 2019-20. Butler is a defensive tone setter and primary ball handler for the Heat, though Kendrick Nunn, Goran Dragic and even Bam Adebayo have been effective in dampening Butler’s playmaking load. Butler is more than comfortable raising to the occasion as a crunch-time scorer (seizing the role over Simmons and Joel Embiid last season) and the Marquette product excels at drawing contact late in games. Miami has a true leading man for the postseason.
One notable hiccup: Butler’s disappearing jumper. He’s shooting just 24.8% from three this season, and teams are sagging off him as though this extended cold stretch is more than a fluke. Butler will need to find his three-point stroke for Miami to make noise in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
11. Russell Westbrook
The post-MVP discourse surrounding Russell Westbrook dampened his value to an unfair degree. His triple-doubles became more a source of mockery than appreciation, and the shortcomings of his teammates were often attributed to his historic ball dominance. Following an ugly final playoff series in Oklahoma City, Westbrook was all-but-dismissed as an All-NBA talent. His performance in 2019-20 should quiet that notion.
Westbrook is in the midst of perhaps the most efficient season of his career in 2019-20, shooting a career-high 47.4% from the field. And the numbers of late are downright dominant. Westbrook found his groove in January after a rocky integration period with Houston, averaging 32.2 points, 8.6 rebounds and 6.9 assists per game in his last 20 contests. Westbrook is shooting 52.7% from the field since Jan. 1. Only Giannis Antetokounmpo has made more two-pointers this season. Westbrook is thriving without a true center in Houston’s lineup, attacking open lanes with abandon as the best second banana outside of Los Angeles. If Westbrook continues his MVP form, the Rockets are a legitimate threat for the Finals.
10. Joel Embiid
Joel Embiid is the best true center in basketball when playing at the peak of his powers. The three-time All-Star is a monstrous offensive force with plenty of touch, able to score against any frontcourt in basketball. Embiid is often the creator of his offense in the halfcourt. He’s nimble off the bounce, and strong in traffic. He may not receive the unicorn label like Porzingis or Karl-Anthony Towns, though he certainly qualifies.
Embiid’s development on the other end is perhaps more impressive than his offensive skill. Embiid sports an impressive 101.4 defensive rating this season, with units featuring Embiid, Simmons and Al Horford locking down opponents at a dominant rate. Embiid doesn’t just survive on an island. He glides with wings and guards, goading them into bad looks against his outstretched paw. Embiid’s weak-side defense is stronger by the season, and his sheer presence deters drivers at the rim. There’s too much talent to break up the Embiid-Simmons duo, especially considering this strange season. But if push came to shove, dealing Embiid remains the ultimate last resort.
9. Damian Lillard
It’s been a difficult season in Portland, and advancing to the playoffs remains an uphill climb even with a potential play-in. But the Blazers’ struggles can’t be attributed to Lillard. The five-time All-Star is in the midst of a dominant year, averaging 28.9 points per game on the best shooting percentage of his career. Lillard would be discussed among the best shooters of all time if he wasn’t in Steph Curry’s shadow.
Lillard is an elite isolation scorer despite his modest frame, and his flair for the dramatic is a legitimate skill. Kawhi Leonard is perhaps the only player in Orlando more trustworthy at the end of games. Lillard is building a Hall-of-Fame career somewhat stealthily. He’ll add another All-NBA honor this year, and he should add to his career resume across the next decade. Let’s hope Portland can keep a winning roster in place in the second half of Lillard’s prime.
8. Paul George
Paul George’s previous playoff failures (and unfortunate nicknaming) has perhaps obscured his place in the league hierarchy. Despite his flaws, there are few better wings in the game, and perhaps no top-10 player is better suited to be the ultimate Robin. Anthony Davis is more talented, but George can truly create his own shot on each possession, generating offense independent of a lead guard.
Pairing with Leonard has only accentuated George’s strengths. He’s hit 39.9% of threes this season to pair with an 88.2% mark from the line, thriving as a weak-side attacker and consummate floor spacer. George’s stroke is smooth with a quick trigger. His range is unlimited. The former Pacer is equal parts shifty and powerful off the bounce, able to still beat guards to the rim and absorb contact as he elevates. Perhaps Playoff P will finally live up to his self-proclaimed name in Orlando.
7. Luka Doncic
It’s a testament to Doncic’s immense talent that he’s No. 7 on our list without even a single playoff minute. The Slovenian sensation should finish in the top five of the MVP race this season, registering peak Westbrook-level product in his second year. No player outside of LeBron manipulates defenses to such a degree. Doncic slings cross-court passes almost wouldn’t dream of, and he delivers with pinpoint accuracy. Last year’s Rookie of Year is a dynamic isolation talent,
6. Nikola Jokic
Regardless of his puzzling weight fluctuation, Nikola Jokic remains one of the most delightful players to watch in the NBA. The Serbian center is a true offensive fulcrum for an efficient Denver offense, controlling the action without making an impact above the rim.
Jokic’s offensive arsenal is extensive. He has legitimate range and a deep pool of dips and head fakes in the lane, consistently keeping defenses off balance. But we all know where Jokic truly shines. Denver’s center is the best passing big man since Bill Walton, sporting an imagination that would make even the shiftiest point guard jealous. Jokic sends looping curveballs cross-court to open shooters. He fires passes through a sea of limbs into the arms of streaking cutters. Jokic is an impressive low-post scorer, and he’s dynamic in isolation. But even shading help his way is a massive mistake. Jokic will find the open teammate with ease, engineering a three or layup. Without a true second star, Jokic carries an immense burden. He was up to the task in the 2019 playoffs, and he should be once again in Orlando.
5. Anthony Davis
It’s been smooth sailing for Anthony Davis in Los Angeles by all considerations. The former No. 1 pick was a lethal roll man and lob threat alongside LeBron James since opening night, and the Lakers’ size in the frontcourt has allowed Davis to spend plenty of minutes at his preferred power forward spot. Playing next to a true center has brought out the best in Davis. He’s arguably the game’s best weak-side shot blocker, thriving at times as a defensive center fielder. His speed and wingspan make even the most difficult close out look routine. The Lakers will one day be Davis’ team assuming he locks in another long term deal in the coming seasons. For now, Davis is content to thrive as the game’s best No. 2, wreaking havoc on both ends of the floor. Few players provide a matchup nightmare quite like Davis.
4. James Harden
Despite three straight ugly playoff exits, there remains the chance of a James Harden inferno propelling the Rockets to the Finals. Harden is the league’s top scorer by a marked margin, and we’ve seen extended stretches of historic offense from the 2017-18 MVP. Harden started 2019-20 on an outrageous pace, averaging 38.6 points per game before Christmas. Previous postseasons have featured some of Harden’s lowest moments, with ugly exits fueled by simple exhaust. Perhaps the extended layoff will be a blessing in disguise. Houston’s superstar split playmaking duties with Westbrook for much of the season, then received a nearly five-month break before the playoffs. If Harden is healthy and sharp, there will be a new contender for the West crown.
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo
You can’t go wrong with any of the three final players on our list in the top spot, and Antetokounmpo could very well be the undisputed best player in basketball by the end of the 2020 playoffs. Antetokounmpo is likely to cruise to a second straight MVP this year, and he’s in the midst of a season with Shaq-like efficiency. Antetokounmpo is growing his jumper to respectability. He’s a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate. He may not currently stand as the league’s best player, but he’s likely the most talented.
2. Kawhi Leonard
Kawhi Leonard’s expression doesn’t change much depending on the circumstance, and frankly, neither does his play. The two-time Finals MVP has effectively been a carbon copy of his Toronto self in his first year with the Clippers, providing All-NBA play on both ends of the floor.
There are whispers that Leonard’s night-to-night defensive impact may be dampened this year compared to previous seasons, and that may be true. But when he’s active and engaged, Leonard remains the most dynamic defensive wing in the game. He rips the ball from small guards. He bodies the game’s largest bigs. Opposing players don’t even think of throwing a cross-court pass with Leonard around. His extendo arms and oven mitt hands are always ready for a deflection or interception. The Leonard-George duo is truly nightmarish for opposing offenses.
Leonard and the Clippers have oddly flown under-the-radar compared to their Los Angeles counterparts, yet their playoff potential remains just as great. Last year’s run entrenched Leonard as one of the NBA’s premier late-game scorers, with few players able to so consistently bully their way to a preferred spot. With the game on the line, Leonard is the NBA’s top choice to take the last shot. We could have another classic Kawhi buzzer beater in the 2020 playoffs.
1. LeBron James
If you were to consider 2018-19 to be an aberration, it’s unclear whether LeBron James ever ceded the crown as the best player alive. James was the undisputed king for the first six years of the decade through his first title in Cleveland, and even losing the Finals to Golden State in 2017 and 2018 didn’t necessarily knock James below Kevin Durant. And the four-time MVP has done plenty to assert himself as the game’s best player this season.
James remains a one-man wrecking crew in Year 17. He now leads the league in assists while averaging a hearty 25.7 points per game, fully embracing his role as the game’s preeminent point forward. We once cried for an evolution in James’ game as he fell short in Cleveland. We’ve seen plenty of full revolutions since. James embraced his low-post game in Miami. He refined his three-point shot upon returning to Cleveland. James has now effectively changed positions in Los Angeles, engineering a lethal transition attack with nearly 50,000 regular-season minutes on his odometer. James may not be the GOAT, but he’s clearly the game’s greatest athletic marvel. Now armed with a true running mate once again, there’s no reason to think James won’t be adding a fourth ring in October.