Who will be the NBA’s best players in the 2021–22 season? Sports Illustrated‘s annual Top 100 list is back, aiming to answer that question.
This year, the rankings were determined holistically by a panel of NBA writers—Chris Herring, Rohan Nadkarni, Michael Pina and Jeremy Woo—through a combination of data and subjective evaluation. (As far as the content of those discussions is concerned, consider the first rule of Fight Club.) The goal remains to evaluate players in a vacuum as much as possible, without overvaluing team context in taking stock of their quality.
To be clear, these rankings are specifically for the upcoming season and do not take into account players’ long-term prospects or career arcs beyond 2021-22. As has been the tradition here, rookies were not considered. So it’s best to consider these rankings as short-term value projections. This is not a representation of a player’s trade value or contract value, and it does not account for the impact of his salary relative to his production. The possibility of growth or decline are factors, tied to players’ age and career stage. The list attempts to account for the entirety of a player’s impact: offense, defense, structural or otherwise, and tends to favor those with the most malleable skill-sets.
Availability due to injury and the ensuing recovery process are also factors here: this year, Kawhi Leonard, Jamal Murray and Klay Thompson were most affected in that way. The biggest snubs from this year’s list can be found here.
For further reference, explore SI.com’s Top 100 lists from 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015 and 2014. SI’s Michael Shapiro, Ben Pickman and Wilton Jackson also contributed player profiles to this year's list. To listen to how the list was made: Listen to the Open Floor podcast.
10. Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers
(Previous rank: 3)
If 100% healthy heading into this season instead of nursing a torn ACL, Kawhi Leonard would’ve likely finished top three on this list. Before he churned through another robotically superb stretch of playoff basketball (during which he led the entire field with a 30.6 PER and, with the Clippers’ backs against the wall, turned out an iconic 45-point showpiece in Game 6 against the Mavericks), Leonard was his typically efficient self, barely missing entry into the 50/40/90 club by a hair.
When healthy, his general adaptability is such a convenience. Leonard neatly fits in any lineup, playing any position, filling any role. It’d be wise to give him the ball and let him dictate every offensive possession, but he doesn’t need it in his hands to impact the game positively. He rebounds. He defends (extraordinarily well, still). He reigns over every square inch his wingspan allows him to with as much ferocity as anyone in the sport.
Alas, Leonard may not play a minute this season, which complicates his placement on a list like this. But so long as he’s included, it doesn’t make much sense to drop anyone who soared as high as Leonard recently did out of the top 10. — MP
9. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
(Previous rank: 7)
Davis fulfilled his potential in the bubble in 2020 with a dominant run that resulted in his first championship. He averaged 27.7 points, 9.7 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game, with a silly 66.5 true shooting percentage that, when combined with his versatility on defense, made him as valuable as any player on the planet. (The Lakers outscored opponents by 11.6 points per 100 possessions with Davis on the floor and were outscored by 8.9 points per 100 possessions when he sat, the widest differential on the team.)
If he followed that stretch up with an entire season’s worth of similar production, Davis would in all likelihood rank No. 1 on this list. Instead, he had the most disappointing year of his career, with a statistical chasm unseen since his rookie year. Injuries played a role, as did an unprecedentedly brief offseason.
His mid-range shot was inconsistent, albeit relied upon more than any other time since he was drafted. He took fewer shots at the rim and didn’t aggressively seek trips to the free throw line as frequently as someone so physically imposing probably should. The thing is: A down Davis year is still better than 99% of his contemporaries’ best. At only 28 years old, there’s no reason why he won’t bounce back. Generational talents tend not to lick their wounds for very long. — MP
8. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
(Previous rank: 10)
When he is at his best, there is nobody in the league who can match up with Embiid. His combination of size, strength, power and touch is the antidote to the spacey style of modern basketball. Embiid is a dominant low force presence in a league continuously less familiar with those types of players. And in addition to his prowess on the block, last season Embiid turned in a stellar performance as a midrange shooter. The increase in efficiency from the midrange plus excising lazy threes led to the best scoring average and field-goal percentage of Embiid’s career.
On the other end of the floor, Embiid’s presence in the paint all but guarantees a top-flight defense. Even if he’s not the type to switch onto guards, Embiid is still more than capable of sticking with smaller lineups—particularly when he’s in great shape. If there’s anything holding Embiid back from winning more individual accolades—and a higher spot on this list—it’s his health. Injuries are a persistent problem for Embiid, even if he was willing to battle through a torn meniscus during the Sixers’ most recent playoff run.
On any given night, Embiid can be the best basketball player in the world. He’s a unique two-way force, and there’s still room for more once he finally plays on a roster optimized for him. — RN
7. James Harden, Brooklyn Nets
(Previous rank: 4)
Harden, when accounting for injuries and level of responsibility, is perhaps the most consistent volume scorer of his era. Even in 2021, when Harden averaged his fewest points since 2012, he remained one of the most feared scorers in the world. There is nuance to the way Harden collects his points despite his never ending quest for threes, layups and free throws. He’s deeply knowledgeable at using his body and leveraging his physicality to create space. Harden’s herky jerky movements are calculated, all part of a delicate dance to put his defender off balance. Harden’s footwork is so precise the moment he senses vulnerability he can pull into his shooting motion.
Harden’s methods are undeniably effective. And in Brooklyn, he showed he didn’t have to rely on his scoring prowess to be effective. Harden earnestly took on the role of point guard for the Nets, and he delivered by racking up nearly 11 assists a night. Harden was a willing passer and table setter for a team that could let him isolate more comfortably than any one before it.
If there’s a hole in Harden’s game, it’s on the defensive end, where he’s never been confused for a stopper. Still, his shortcomings there are a small price to pay for what else he brings to the table. Harden may never get a chance to prove he’s the proverbial “best guy on a championship team.” But if you pair him with anybody else in the top 20, you instantly have a contender. — RN