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
6. Luka Dončić, Dallas Mavericks
(Previous rank: 9)
It stands to reason the 22-year-old Dončić may one day inherit the top spot on this list, as he continues on an all-time great trajectory. He’s prolific in every facet as a full-time offensive engine, with the size and pace to create mismatches in lieu of elite quickness, preternatural scoring know-how, and ingenious passing and processing speed. It’s not a bad bet that he may eventually average a triple-double … and he’s only been in the league for three seasons.
The Mavericks are still working to build a championship-caliber core around Dončić, and there are some areas of individual improvement to watch for in the interim. Despite taking a lot of difficult shots, he upped his three-point clip to a respectable 35% last season, which should trend up over time. He’s capable of better than 73% from the foul line, and he gets there plenty. Upping his efficiency along those margins, coupled with any reduction in turnovers (which are a byproduct of how often he has the ball) will take him to the stratosphere, statistically speaking. It seems foregone Dončić will eventually win an MVP regardless. The fact that nothing said here is exaggeration tells the story. He’s going to be here a long time. — JW
Watch NBA games online all season long with fuboTV: Start with a 7-day free trial!
5. Nikola Jokić, Denver Nuggets
(Previous rank: 8)
For all the talk of the unicorn era in the NBA that never quite was, what exactly are you supposed to call Jokić? Who was the last MVP who simply loved to pass and scored almost reluctantly all while flummoxing great players with his distinct lack of athleticism? Jokić is singular, and watching him play is one of the most fulfilling experiences for fans of fun basketball.
Jokić is a threat to get a triple double every night. He’s got brilliant touch as a shooter, allowing him to pop for threes on pick-and-rolls or pull up for little midrange Js near the elbow. Jokić doesn’t bulldoze people in the post. Instead, he prefers to attack with a flurry of moves before finding the perfect angle on the backboard while uncorking a shot from a comically awkward position. Of course, he’s a much better passer, keeping the Nuggets’ offense humming and constantly throwing players into open spots on the floor. Jokić’s passing isn’t only aesthetically pleasing or some kind of nerd cred test; it’s genuinely a boon to Denver’s attack, allowing them to pick up buckets most other teams can’t.
For years now, Jokić has been one of the most impactful offensive beings in the NBA. His defense will never be elite, though a decent enough one can be built around him. What matters more is that Jokić’s rare set of skills not only continue to raise his own game to new heights, it raises those around him as well. — RN
4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
(Previous rank: 5)
No matter what happens next, Curry is going down as the most prolific shooter ever. He’s on pace to pass Ray Allen for the top spot on the career threes leaderboard, and sits a hair above Steve Nash for the best free throw percentage of all time. And he just put together the highest scoring average of his career, posting 32 points per game at age 32, while playing through injury. There’s essentially no assailing what Curry has accomplished, and his ubiquitous style of play has aged gracefully. Nobody else bends defenses as blatantly, and whether or not the ball happens to be in his hands is not the problem. The three-point revolution already happened, and the copycats are still coming—a direct product of Golden State’s championships—but no guard will ever do exactly what Curry does, or replicate the style with which he does it.
The Warriors did fall short in the play-in round, and it’s now been two seasons since they made the playoffs. Provided Curry can maintain optimal health, it’s hard to think that streak will last. His effortless range, clever finishes and discerning IQ are as sharp as ever, and there’s a strong argument for him as the most individually skilled player in the whole league. He’ll require additional defensive insulation as he enters his mid-30s. But Curry will always be the guy you want shooting the ball when it counts, and looks poised to extend his run atop the league’s guard hierarchy for as long as his body can handle it. — JW
3. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
(Previous rank: 1)
Someday LeBron, the most important, imposing and intelligent player of his (and possibly every other) generation, won’t crack this list’s top three. Even after a massively disappointing first-round dismissal (the first of his career) in which despite averaging 23.3 points, 7.2 rebounds and 8.0 assists the 36-year-old actually looked mortal, that day isn’t this one.
James doesn’t have the same athletic advantage he once did. And even though he’s a step slower, with the physical authority to control every square inch of the floor finally starting to fade, he’s still LeBron. Nobody anticipates live action more succinctly. Nobody analyzes whatever’s happening in their peripheral vision quicker, or makes a fast, ever complicated game look so elementary whether the ball is in their hands or not, on offense or the other end.
Bet against him at your own peril. If and when healthy (a more significant caveat every year) James is still a paragon of basketball expertise. — MP
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
(Previous rank: 2)
Antetokounmpo, a reigning NBA champion and winner of two out of the last three league MVPs, presents the strongest case for No. 1 outside of Durant.
Giannis isn’t the most fluid scorer. But who else can give you nearly 30 a night—and 50 in a Finals clincher—while setting up teammates a half dozen times per game, while also scorching opponents in transition and playing some of the best, most versatile help defense in the league at 7 feet tall? No one but Giannis does that. And he’s done it while staying relatively healthy for a superstar.
His ability to quickly bounce back from one of the uglier knee hyperextensions you’ll ever see changed the course of basketball history, and earned the Bucks a title. That shouldn’t be taken for granted. — CH
1. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets
(Previous rank: 6)
After he spent the entire 2019-20 season recovering from a torn Achilles, Durant’s peak ability was called into question for the first time in his career. At 32 years old, would the four-time scoring champion bounce back and look exactly like he did when we saw him last—which is to ask, could he again be one of the world’s two or three best players?
Durant’s regular season was disrupted by a strained left hamstring and left thigh contusion, then overshadowed by a blockbuster trade for James Harden. But in the 35 games he did play, KD looked like the same guy, with a statistical profile that either matched or exceeded most of his career averages.
Then the playoffs happened. In them, Durant submitted the most impressive series of his career, averaging a hyper-efficient 35.4 points, 10.6 rebounds and 5.4 assists against the Bucks, eventual world champs that had zero answer for his excellence. It was pantheon worthy, and made debate over if we’ve ever seen a more ruthless iteration completely justifiable.
When the dust settled, his place at the top became a universal truth. Anyone who wants to lobby for another candidate can just ask Giannis Antetokounmpo. Standing on the court after he just eliminated Durant’s Nets in their own gym, the two-time MVP called his opponent “the best player in the world.” Who are we to argue? —MP
More NBA Coverage:
- SI Top 100: Counting Down 100-51
- SI Top 100: Counting Down 50-31
- SI Top 100: Counting Down 30-11
- SI Top 100: Biggest Snubs
- NBA Offseason Report Cards: Eastern Conference
Sports Illustrated may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website.