The NBA season is finally here. Tuesday night will mark the start of the 2018/19 season, and it’s about time. With LeBron going to the Lakers, Cousins to the Warriors, and Kawhi to the Raptors, it was a crazy summer for the NBA. The offseason is what makes the NBA so much fun. It seems like there is a new storyline every week in the NBA. However, it’s time the real games begin. Here are “100 Bold NBA Predictions” for the 2018/19 season.
Markelle Fultz wins Most Improved Player.
Ben Simmons goes another season without a three.
Joel Embiid averages over 25 points and 10 rebounds per game.
Ben Simmons wins Rookie of the Year, wait a second.
Terry Rozier is traded before the NBA Trade Deadline.
Gordon Hayward makes the Eastern Conference All-Star team coming off his injury.
Al Horford flinches on over 10 free throws.
The Brooklyn Nets finish top ten in the Eastern Conference.
D’Angelo Russell averages over 20 points per game.
Allen Crabbe attempts seven threes per game and makes them at a 40% clip.
Kristaps Porzingis has a hard time staying on the court. Plays under 35 games.
Tim Hardaway Jr. has a 40-point game.
Enes Kanter gets ejected at least three times.
The Toronto Raptors finish with the best defensive rating in the NBA.
Kyle Lowry averages under 14 points per game.
Kawhi Leonard averages three steals per game.
Zach LaVine enters and wins the Dunk Contest.
Jabari Parker wins Sixth Man of the Year.
Justin Holiday shoots over 38% from three.
J.R. Smith drops a 30-point game on LeBron and the Lakers.
Kevin Love averages over 23 points and 10 rebounds per game.
The Cleveland Cavaliers win the Eastern Conference, just kidding (sorry Tristan Thompson.)
Andre Drummond shoots above 70% from the free-throw line.
Khyri Thomas makes an NBA All-Rookie team.
Blake Griffin posterizes Joel Embiid.
Victor Oladipo doesn’t make the Eastern Conference All-Star team.
Myles Turner makes over 75 three-pointers.
The Pacers win less than 12 games on the road.
Giannis Antetokounmpo wins MVP.
Giannis Antetokounmpo averages 30 points per game.
Brook Lopez is an Eastern Conference All-Star.
The Miami Heat win a playoff series with Jimmy Butler on their roster.
D-Wade explodes for a 40-point game.
Hassan Whiteside puts forth effort.
Malik Monk has a breakout year. Shoots at least 40% from three.
Kemba Walker doesn’t make the Eastern Conference All-Star team.
Miles Bridges makes the NBA First Team All-Rookie.
Kelly Oubre Jr. starts over Otto Porter Jr. by the end of the season.
The Washington Wizards finish in the top three in the Eastern Conference.
John Wall attempts close to 400 three-pointers.
The Atlanta Hawks win less than 15 games.
Trae Young attempts more threes than Steph Curry.
John Collins averages a double-double.
Aaron Gordon averages over 20 points per game.
Mo Bamba averages over two blocks per game.
Evan Fournier gets traded by the Trade Deadline.
Steph Curry shoots over 45% from three.
The Warriors are never fully healthy. Never have a game with Curry/Thompson/Durant/Green/Cousins.
Jordan Bell appears in at least 75 games this season.
Marvin Bagley III gets third in NBA Rookie of the Year.
Willie Cauley-Stein averages a double-double.
Buddy Hield has a breakout year. Averages over 16 points per game while shooting over 43% from three.
JaVale McGee averages 25 minutes per game.
Lance Stephenson blows in LeBron’s ear at least once during the season.
LeBron James starts at center for the Lakers at least once over the course of the season.
Tobias Harris averages over 20 points per game.
The Clippers beat the Lakers in each head-to-head matchup this season.
Lou Williams is the last one out again on the Western Conference All-Star team.
DeAndre Ayton wins NBA Rookie of the Year.
Devin Booker shoots under 35% from three.
The Suns make the most trades at the Trade Deadline.
Dirk Nowitzki plays under 18 minutes per game.
Luka Doncic finishes second in NBA Rookie of the Year.
Dennis Smith Jr. and Luka Doncic combine for over 40 points per game.
Carmelo Anthony starts and plays a vital role for Houston down the stretch of the season.
James Harden drops a guy and stares him down again before shooting. Sorry Wes Johnson.
Clint Capela shoots above 70% from the field.
Anthony Davis finishes second in NBA MVP voting.
Nikola Mirotic shoots below 36% from three.
Jrue Holiday has his best year as a pro, averages over 20 points per game.
Despite injuries, the San Antonio Spurs make the playoffs for the 22nd straight year.
DeMar DeRozan is a Western Conference All-Star.
Jakob Poeltl averages at least 10 points per game, while splitting time in the starting lineup.
Memphis decides to sell at the Trade Deadline, moving Marc Gasol and Mike Conley.
Kyle Anderson breaks out with heavy playing time. Averages over two steals per game.
The Memphis Grizzlies get another top-five pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.
Isaiah Thomas is a starter for the Denver Nuggets at the end of the year.
Nikola Jokic makes his first ever NBA All-Star Game.
Jamal Murray and Gary Harris combine to average over 45 points per game.
The Utah Jazz finish as a top three seed in the Western Conference.
Quin Snyder wins NBA Coach of the Year.
Donovan Mitchell posterizes Ben Simmons, allowing NBA Twitter to go crazy.
Russell Westbrook averages a triple-double for the third consecutive season.
Paul George sets a personal record for most three-pointers made in a season.
Dennis Schroder finishes second in NBA Sixth Man of the Year.
Karl-Anthony Towns has a 50/40/90 season. 50% from the field, 40% from three, and 90% at the line.
Andrew Wiggins starts playing defense, sounds crazy, I know.
The Timberwolves get in a fight on the court with their own teammates. Shouting match and chaos breaks loose.
At one point in a scrimmage, sources said, Butler turned to GM Scott Layden and screamed, "You (bleeping) need me. You can't win without me." Butler left teammates and coaches largely speechless. He dominated the gym in every way. Jimmy's back.
The Los Angeles Lakers go into the 2018-19 season with the NBA’s most interesting roster for those who like to play mix-and-match with lineups.
LeBron James, of course, drives a lot of that intrigue. He has spent most of his 15-year career as a point guard who is listed at small forward, who sometimes plays power forward and shooting guard and center. The only job LeBron hasn’t taken on yet is that of the sixth man.
But after the Lakers acquired LeBron this summer, their subsequent additions combined with their existing talent made for a curious collection of players.
Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Lance Stephenson are three more Lakers who can realistically play up to three positions.
JaVale McGee is an athletic freak who is talented enough to be a starting center in the league, but still would give plenty of coaches pause with his infamous mental mistakes. Josh Hart had a solid rookie season for L.A. and followed it up with a great summer league, but he’s a wing player on a team loaded on the wings. So how much do those two get on the court?
Everyone wants to talk about the starting lineup. I want to talk about the lineup who is going to play the most, in which I believe will be: Lonzo, Hart/KCP, Ingram, Kuzma, LeBron.
One year ago, the Lakers took Lonzo Ball with the No. 2 pick in the draft and made it clear that he was meant to be the face of the franchise’s future. Even when Lonzo struggled shooting the ball, when he was benched for the entire fourth quarter of some games, and when injuries limited him to just 52 games last season, Lonzo remained L.A.’s starting point guard.
It was reported even before LeBron joined the Lakers that he wanted to get away from playing de facto point guard so much, therefore his arrival didn’t necessarily mean Lonzo’s days as L.A.’s point guard were over.
But the Lakers’ signing Rajon Rondo made things complicated.
A four-time All-Star who has led the league in assists three times, the 32-year-old Rondo is still one of the best point guards in the league. Last season with the New Orleans Pelicans he was mostly quiet, but then broke out during the playoffs, averaging 10.3 points and 12.2 assists per game and helping the Pelicans upset the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round before falling to the eventual champion Golden State Warriors.
Rondo reminded the basketball world that he’s still a game-changer and still has a lot left in the tank.
When Rondo agreed to join the Lakers on a one-year contract worth $9 million, it gave L.A. three of the best passers on the planet: Lonzo, Rondo and LeBron. The latter two are actually two of the greatest passers the sport has ever seen.
So assuming LeBron sticks to his plan, who is going to be the Lakers’ starting point guard?
Here’s how Rondo and Lonzo stack up.
Prolific scoring is not part of the scouting report for Rondo or Ball. The book on Lonzo is that he’s a willing shooter who too often misses the mark. The book on Rondo is that he avoids shooting whenever possible because he’s made peace with his weaknesses.
Ball scored 10.2 points per game as a rookie, connecting on 36.0 percent of his field goals, 30.5 percent of his three-pointers, and 45.1 percent of his free throws. While normally the free throw shooting would be most alarming, Ball only attempted 1.4 free throws per game. Whereas his 5.7 three-point attempts represented more than half of his shot output, so his lackluster long-range shooting was a running story line throughout the season.
Everybody had theories on what Ball should do to fix his shooting issues. Some said it was his form, some said it was a lack of confidence, some said it was simply a slump that would fix itself in due time. He’s only 20 years old and going into his second NBA season, so it’s not like he’s settled into being whatever he’s going to be as a pro.
Rondo, on the other hand, is what he is at this stage in his career. He’s 32 years old, entering his 13th season in the league. He’s a career 46.3-percent field goal shooter, 30.9 percent beyond the arc, and 60.4 percent at the line. He rarely shoots threes (1.2 attempts per game) and is sometimes cautious to a fault when it comes to pulling the trigger as a shooter.
The strength of these two point guards is their passing and ability to run an offense.
Ball is a brilliant passer. In his one season at UCLA, he led all NCAA Division-1 players with 7.6 assists per game. Last season, he finished second among NBA rookies with 7.2 assists. He had two triple-doubles, and nine double-doubles with points and assists. There’s a reason Lakers president Magic Johnson is so enamored with Lonzo; he really does have that proverbial third eye when it comes to playmaking.
Rondo has that same vision, but his is just a bit better. Chalk it up to experience having been in the NBA much longer, but Rondo is a mastermind at not only making great passes, but also manipulating defenses and orchestrating offenses to get his teammates in the spots he wants to make those passes. Rondo had two triple-doubles and 17 double-doubles (points and assists) last season. He also had two games of 20-plus assists.
If Ball is a passing prodigy, Rondo is an established genius.
By all statistical measures, Ball is a better defender than Rondo.
Last season, Ball averaged 1.7 steals and 0.8 blocks per game, compared to 1.1 steals and 0.2 blocks for Rondo. For his career, Rondo averages 1.7 steals and led the league once with 2.3 steals per game, but in recent years he has not been as prolific in his thievery.
Ball posted 2.5 Defensive Win Shares and a Defensive Box Plus-Minus of 2.5 last season, while Rondo recorded 1.7 and -0.7 in those advanced categories.
Rondo is known for his long arms, but he stands just 6’1″ and is mostly limited to defending other point guards. Ball, at 6’6″ and with room to get stronger, can potentially defend up to three positions.
The Lakers are going to be built around LeBron, and the idea of building a team around a specific player is to play to his strengths and hide his weaknesses.
Given that LeBron will turn 34 years old this season and is going into his 16th pro season, his defense can only be expected to continue to decline. That means L.A. needs to put defenders around him, ideally the kind of long, energetic defenders who can keep up with high-powered offenses like the Warriors and Rockets. Ball fits that profile.
There is already a traveling circus element to these Lakers, and Rondo and Ball each have a hand in that perception.
Rondo has a history of clashing with teammates and coaches, dating back to his time with the Boston Celtics — you can read all about it in Ray Allen’s book From The Outside. It’s no coincidence that he’s now on his fifth team in the five years since Boston first traded him.
Lonzo Ball is by all accounts a great teammate who doesn’t rock the boat … but of course he arrives at the boat with LaVar Ball, his controversial father. One player’s carnival-barker relative should not really be a problem for a professional sports team, but such is the media climate in 2018, where LaVar is a topic the Lakers constantly have to address.
Durability is a concern with both Rondo and Lonzo.
Rondo has missed significant time in recent years with a variety of injuries, while Ball missed 30 games of his rookie season with a knee injury, then had minor surgery on his knee this summer. It’s too early to call Ball injury-prone, however.
The obvious edge in experience goes to Rondo. He has more than a decade under his belt in the league. He’s won a championship and played in over 100 playoff games. He’s played with everyone from Kevin Garnett to Dirk Nowitzki to Anthony Davis. Lonzo plays with a veteran savvy uncommon for someone his age, but he’s really just getting started and there’s a lot he hasn’t seen that he can only learn with time.
Another thing to consider is the contract situation.
Rondo is in L.A. on a one-year deal. It feels like an experiment, given that he hasn’t been with any of his last four teams for more than one season — not to mention this entire Lakers’ season is taking on a trial-and-error vibe. Ball, meanwhile, is still on his rookie contract and could potentially be with the Lakers until 2022 before he becomes an unrestricted free agent. With the Lakers having made a bigger investment in Lonzo, it would make sense to give him the keys to get his chemistry with LeBron, Ingram and Kuzma flowing sooner than later, because that’s the team’s core for the next few years.
Final verdict: Lonzo Ball
For a team that is trying to win right now, Rajon Rondo would seem like the better option at point guard. He’s a championship-experienced veteran who runs an offense better than anyone in the NBA and gets the ball where it needs to be. He also steps his game up in the playoffs to another level.
Lonzo Ball seems like the better option for a rebuilding or rising contender situation, with his age and inexperience and the fact that he’s still working out the kinks in something as basic as his jump shot.
But for these Lakers, the right call is to start Ball, while making sure to give Rondo enough minutes to keep him engaged and motivated.
With LeBron on the team along with scorers like Ingram, Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Michael Beasley, there shouldn’t be much pressure on Lonzo to score. He can focus on doing what he does best, and if the jumper starts to fall, that’s a bonus.
Rondo, a veteran who is aware of his place, hopefully won’t be too salty about coming off the bench. So far he’s saying all the right things, but you never know how a career-long starter will react when he’s actually not in that role anymore. Assuming he’s of the belief that finishing is more important than starting, the Lakers would be smart to have Rondo on the floor in high-pressure, crunch-time situations later in the game — particularly in the postseason.
Rondo may very well be the better overall player right now, but Lonzo is the better option for L.A. as its starter.
One would need unhealthy doses of both Magic Johnson’s beaming confidence and LaVar Ball’s unflappable optimism to claim with a straight face that the Los Angeles Lakers got everything they wanted this offseason.
Of course, LeBron James was the biggest piece of the Lakers’ plan for the immediate future, and the franchise was quick to get him under contract soon after free agency opened.
But it was no industry secret that the Lakers’ summer goals involved teaming LeBron with at least one more All-Star, be it Paul George or DeMarcus Cousins in free agency, or Kawhi Leonard or Damian Lillard in a trade. Some dream scenarios had the Lakers bringing in two stars to flank LeBron and creating an instant contender.
So far, however, the Lakers have failed to land any of those big-name targets. George decided to re-sign with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Cousins joined the Golden State Warriors. Leonard was traded to the Toronto Raptors, and the Lillard trade talks didn’t materialize into a deal.
Barring a surprise move, the Lakers will begin the 2018-19 season similar to how the Cleveland Cavaliers ended the 2017-18 season — with a roster that features LeBron leading a collection of youngsters and veteran role players.
No one outside of the Lakers’ front office knows exactly what the plan is moving forward, but the end-goal is obviously to contend for NBA titles. Which means competing with the Warriors. Which means having the offensive firepower to keep up with the Warriors. This means the Lakers may have to reach back into the archives and create a team that is reminiscent of their “Showtime” glory days from the 1980s.
And who better to build that team than Magic Johnson?
Whether it’s at the 2019 trade deadline or next summer’s free-agency period, there are some available players that can truly bring the “Showtime” element back to L.A.
5. Ricky Rubio
Word on the street is that LeBron wants to move away from playing de facto point guard, and it looks like the Lakers are trying to facilitate that by employing true playmakers like Lonzo Ball and Rajon Rondo.
As brilliant as he is at orchestrating an offense, it’s not a coincidence that Rondo has played on five teams in the past four seasons. He’s clashed with enough coaches and teammates that it seems no one is willing to commit more than one season to him despite his talent and his knack for stepping his game up in the playoffs.
If things go according to trend, Rondo won’t be with the Lakers after next season.
At the same time, Rubio will be a free agent after next season. And as I’ve written before, Lonzo Ball would be in pretty good shape if he were to put together a career using the Rubio and Rondo blueprint. (Jason Kidd would be the ceiling in that scenario.) So if the Lakers lose Rondo, bringing in Rubio would be the next best fit for that style of point guard.
Rubio is an incredible passer (7.9 assists per game in his career), a defensive playmaker (2.0 steals per game) and a good rebounder for his position (seven games last season of 10-plus rebounds). He and Ball, like Rondo and Ball, have similar skill sets, all the way down to their suspect jump shots.
Rubio currently has a nice gig in Utah as the starting point guard on a playoff team. But if he wants to be on a championship contender sooner than later, he might be willing to accept a lesser role in L.A.
4. DeAndre Jordan
During his last season in Cleveland, LeBron reportedly wanted the Cavaliers to make a trade with the Los Angeles Clippers for Jordan. It wasn’t difficult to see why.
Jordan is one of the more explosive athletes at his position in the league. He’s a three-time All-NBA pick, one-time All-Star, two-time All-Defensive pick and a two-time league leader in rebounds.
His offensive game doesn’t go far beyond catching lobs, getting putbacks and dunking the ball, but at least he knows what he can and can’t do and stays within his limitations. Jordan has led the league in field goal percentage five times — last season was the first time he hadn’t been No. 1 in that category since 2012 — and he is the NBA’s career leader (67.3 percent) in field goal shooting.
Surrounded by great passers like LeBron and Lonzo (and Rubio?), Jordan would thrive like he did when he played with Chris Paul in L.A.
Jordan left the Clippers this summer to sign a one-year deal with the Dallas Mavericks. He’ll be a free agent next summer. After coming up short in the playoffs so often in L.A., and being on a likely lottery team next season in Dallas, he may be another player interested in winning a title with the new-look Lakers.
3. Klay Thompson
One player who certainly has his share of championship rings but may have other priorities next summer that work in the Lakers’ favor is Klay Thompson.
The four-time All-Star shooting guard has won three NBA titles with the Warriors, and will be favored to add a fourth ring in 2019. After that, he’ll become a free agent.
Because he has previously been the No. 2 and now the No. 3 option with the Warriors, and perhaps because he’s been labeled by many as a shooting specialist rather than an all-around star, Thompson hasn’t been making superstar-level money. He’s not broke by any stretch — his salary is $18.9 million next season — but he hasn’t yet cracked that $20 million mark that often represents real superstardom in the league.
Klay is also an L.A. native whose father, Mychal Thompson, won championships with the Lakers in the 1980s. There may be a part of Klay that wants to wear the purple and gold for the hometown squad.
Klay won’t rise beyond being the No. 2 option in L.A. as long as LeBron is around, but he could get out of the No. 3 spot he’s currently in behind Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, if that means anything to him. Like De Andre Jordan, Thompson would benefit a lot from having passers like LeBron and Lonzo getting him the ball, and he could continue winning championships.
2. Jimmy Butler
While his game isn’t flashy like the style that the name “Showtime” brings to mind, Butler is simply a great all-around player who excels on both ends of the court that would make the Lakers a real title contender if he joined the team.
The 6-foot-7 wing achieved the NBA triumvirate of individual honors last season: He was named to the All-NBA, All-Star and All-Defensive teams for the Minnesota Timberwolves. But there have been reports that Butler isn’t happy in his current location, talk that only gained traction after he recently turned down a $100 million contract extension offer.
Butler has a player option that allows him to become a free agent in 2019. If he chooses that route, the Lakers should be among the teams pursuing him. Butler was a tough rival for LeBron when they were both in the Eastern Conference, so the two know each other’s games well.
Viewed as more grit than glamour on the court, Butler is nonetheless a versatile weapon (22.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 2.0 steals per game last season) who is one of the game’s elite talents.
1. Kawhi Leonard
After LeBron, the Lakers’ top target this summer was Leonard. Of course, the hard part would be prying the two-time Defensive Player of the Year and 2014 NBA Finals MVP away from the San Antonio Spurs via trade, when it was widely reported that the Spurs really preferred not to deal with the Lakers.
Still, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Leonard would be headed to L.A. Not only had he burned his bridges in San Antonio and made it clear he didn’t want to be there anymore, but he’d also reportedly made it clear that he planned to sign with the Lakers as a free agent in 2019. That took away the incentive for a lot of teams to pursue a trade, if Leonard would be a one-year rental at best.
The Lakers still failed to get their man. The Spurs traded Leonard to the Toronto Raptors.
But that may turn out to be a good thing for the Lakers. In order to get Leonard this summer, L.A. would’ve had to trade some valuable pieces from their young core. To get Leonard next summer, L.A. just needs some room under the salary cap, which they should have.
Injuries (and a rumored disinterest in playing when he was healthy) caused Leonard to miss all but nine games last season. But when he’s at the top of his game, Leonard is one of the best players in the league. He finished in the top-3 of MVP voting in 2016 and 2017. In his last full season, he averaged 25.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.8 steals per game.
Like Butler, Leonard is not a flashy player. He’s just highly skilled, productive and tough. Which is what “Showtime” is really all about in the first place: Winning games and hanging banners. Leonard can help the Lakers get back to where they used to be.
The year is 1995. Hakeem Olajuwon just followed up one of the greatest individual seasons in ‘94 with an equally as great postseason run the following year. The Rockets plowed through the best the West had to offer. From the high-powered offense of the Utah Jazz led by Stockton and Malone, to Barkley’s ‘93 runner up champions, the Phoenix Suns, league MVP David Robinson’s hungry San Antonio Spurs, and eventually crushed the young tandem of Shaq and Penny in the finals, all while Hakeem dominated the box score series after series. Truly, one of the all-time great runs in NBA history.
But fast-forward 8 years later and another giant out West is giving teams all they can handle. Tim Duncan played like a man possessed in 2003. He went head-to-head with some of the games top talent at the time. Squaring off against a young, athletic frontcourt in Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion in Phoenix. Had his hands full with a behemoth in Los Angeles, Shaquille O’Neal, who was accompanied by his trusty sidekick, Kobe Bryant. He dueled with the master of the fadeaway jumper Dirk Nowitzki down in Texas, and finally, annihilated J.Kidd’s Nets in the finals while putting up some of the most remarkable numbers in finals history.
So who had the greater the playoff run?
Was it Hakeem for defeating FIVE 50+ win teams and dragging the 6th seeded Rockets to their second straight championship? Or was it The Big Fundamental who took a young Tony Parker (20 years old) and an on-the-way-out David Robinson (37 years old) to the promise land and did it with no teammate averaging more than 15 points throughout the entire playoffs?
Well, we’re going to have to dig deeper. Starting with each players first round, working our way through the semi and conference finals, and all the way to the championship round.
Though the Suns might not have had any All-NBA or All-Defensive selections, they did have a Rookie of The Year winner in Amare Stoudemire, and two All-Stars in Stephon Marbury and Shawn Marion. Behind those three, the Suns finished 44-39 for an 8th place finish in the Western Conference.
The Spurs won the series in 6 games though it probably should’ve been over sooner if Suns didn’t steal the first matchup in San Antonio on a game-winning heave from Marbury.
Duncan had two monstrous performances coming at the most critical time of the series.
Game 5: 23 points, 17 rebounds, 6 assists and 5 blocks in an 92-84 win.
Game 6: 15 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists and 4 blocks in an 87-85 win to closeout the series.
Duncan’s 20 defensive rebounds in game six were the most defensive rebounds in a single playoff game. He also finished the series with 21 total blocks. To put that into perspective, the Suns as a team had 35 blocks. It was just a dominating performance on both ends of the floor.
As mentioned earlier, the Rockets finished the season as the 6th seed, so right out the gate the odds were stacked against them.
They found themselves facing a tough and scrappy 60-win Jazz team that was equally good defensively (8th in defensive rating) as they were offensively (4th in offensive rating). John Stockton and Karl Malone – both members of the All-NBA first team that season – had the high pick-and-roll down to a science. Getting past them in the opening round would be a battle.
Hakeem did everything you could ask for on the offensive end and more.
He had two 40-point performances and two more 30-point games. And after going down 2-1 in the first three games, he helped Houston fight off elimination in the two biggest games of the series by averaging 36.5 points, 9.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists while converting 12.0 field-goals on 19.0 attempts (63%).
This would be the first of three MVP candidates Hakeem would conquer throughout the playoffs.
After getting bounced in the semi-finals by the Lakers the previous season, Duncan and the Spurs would have their revenge the following year.
The Lakers finished the season 50-32 and posted the 4th best offensive rating in the league. Going up against the defending champs and one of, if not the, best duos of all-time would certainly be a handful. And dealing with the massive giant known as Shaq down low would be no less difficult.
Duncan was otherworldly in this one. He played a brilliant offensive game, giving L.A. buckets in a variety of ways, held his own against Shaq on the defensive end, and led the team minutes, points, rebounds, and assists.
As expected, his two best games of the series came in the final two games:
Another series and another offensive juggernaut standing in front of Houston.
The Phoenix Suns finished 3rd in offensive rating, second in pace and had two all-stars in Charles Barkley and Dan Majerle. The offensive trio of Majerle, point guard Kevin Johnson and Charles Barkley – member of the All-NBA second team – led the franchise to its third straight 55+ win season and the third overall best record in the NBA. This was a team that was determined to get back to the finals and redeem their ‘93 loss to the Bulls.
After going down 3-1 in the series, the Suns smelt blood and this one looked all but over.
Finding themselves facing adversity and on the brink of elimination yet again, Hakeem played out of his mind in the final three games, extending the series to a deciding game 7 on the road.
His averages during that stretch: 30.0 points, 11.7 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 2.3 blocks and 1.0 steals on 50% shooting.
Olajuwon closed out game 7 with a 29-11-4 (pts,rebs,asts) and the Rockets won 115-114 on a Mario Elie game-winning three-pointer, also known as “The Kiss of Death.”
The Houston Rockets became just the fifth team in NBA history at the time to come back from a 3-1 deficit and win the series.
Led by the All-Star tandem of Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki – who were also apart of the All-NBA teams (Dirk second, Nash third) – the Dallas Mavericks had an offense that was built to outshoot opposing teams and run up the scoreboard.
As a team, they finished first in the following categories: offensive rating, points, free throw percentage, and turnovers. They also finished third in three-point percentage at 38%.
A good ‘ol fashioned defense vs offense matchup down in Texas. Unfortunately for the Mavericks, Tim Duncan played for San Antonio, not Dallas.
The Big Fundamental had multiple “holy s***, he had how much?” performances in this showdown. From a 40-15-7 with one block and one steal in game one – a game that San Antonio lost – to a 32-15-5 with three blocks in the following matchup, and then followed that up with a ludicrous 34-24-6 with six blocks and two steals in the third game.
Yes, you read that right. Tim Duncan had 34 points, 24 rebounds, 6 assists, 6 blocks and 2 steals in game freaking three. Wilt Chamberlain, who?
But hold on, we’re not done.
In those three games, he shot 37-for-60 from the floor for a field goal percentage of sixty-one percent! Spurs went 2-1 in that stretch and eventually found themselves up 3-1 in the series after Duncan delivered a 21-20-7 with 4 blocks performance in game four.
His dominance “calmed down” in games five (23-15-6) and six (18-11-4). The Spurs ended the series in six games after Dirk Nowitzki suffered a knee injury in game three and was sidelined for the remainder of the playoffs.
Duncan ended the series with 100 total rebounds. The next closest? Michael Finley with 38. If that’s not enough then how about this: Michael Finley, Dirk Nowitzki and starting center Raef LaFrentz combined for 99 total rebounds.
No one expected the Rockets to get this far, but if any team was equipped to tame Hakeem and crush Houston’s spirit, it was the San Antonio Spurs.
Not only did they have the league MVP, David Robinson, but his frontcourt teammate, Dennis Rodman, made All-Defensive first team that year. Oh, David Robinson was also apart of that same defensive team.
On the season, San Antonio finished top 5 in both defensive rating and offensive rating, and had the league’s best overall record at 62-20. It was obvious Hakeem would be in for a long series… or so we thought.
Hakeem downright embarrassed Robinson. He gave it to him inside and outside, showing him every move in his arsenal and putting on an offensive clinic. And it didn’t stop there. Hakeem went down on the other side and held Robinson well below his season averages. This was the MVP of the National Basketball Association and Hakeem made him look completely insignificant.
To say Hakeem had Robinson’s number would be an understatement. Hakeem had Robinson’s entire soul, and if you don’t believe me then maybe you’ll believe his teammate, Dennis Rodman.
“Before those games, he looked so f***ing scared in the locker room, he couldn’t stop shaking.” That was a direct quote from Rodman himself from his book Bad As I Wanna Be.
I mean, just look how demoralized David Robinson is in this photo.
Olajuwon had three 40-point games in the series. He led his team in nearly every category – points, rebounds, blocks, assists, field goal percentage, free throw percentage, and minutes. He ended up with a whopping 212 points and had as many blocks (25) as the Spurs did as a team.
He put the finishing touches on the series and David by averaging 40.5 points, 13.0 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 5.0 blocks on 63% in games five and six to put the Spurs away and send the Rockets to their second straight finals appearance.
Robinson still hasn’t fully recovered from that beat-down.
The New Jersey Nets were the best defensive team in the NBA. Ran by their All-Star floor general, Jason Kidd, the Nets had reached the finals just a season ago but were swept by the Lakers. If the Nets thought going up against Duncan and the Spurs would be any less difficult than dealing with Shaq and Kobe, then they were about to be in for a rude awakening.
Duncan did a lot in this series, and I mean A LOT.
After six games, he tallied 145 total points, 102 rebounds and 32 blocks – the most blocks in a 6-game series in playoff history. The Nets as a team only had six more blocks than Duncan did.
Timmy had himself another 30-20 performance in game 1. He dropped 29-17-4-4 in game 5. In game 6 he was screwed out of two blocks, so what should’ve been a quadruple-double ended up being a 21-20-10-8. Still ridiculous, I know, but why couldn’t they just give him the damn quadruple-double!? It’s all on footage, you can’t sit here and tell me those two blocks don’t count. Watch it for yourself if you don’t believe me.
Anyways, the Spurs sent the Nets packing in six games. Duncan led both teams in points, rebounds and blocks, he played an enormous role in effectively shutting down New Jersey – the Nets shot 37% from the floor as a team – and he was awarded with his second finals MVP.
It’s just a shame they robbed him of a quadruple-double.
Though Hakeem didn’t lead his team in nearly every statistical category like Duncan did against New Jersey, he did closeout the deadliest offensive team in the league and the only team to beat the Bulls from ‘91 to ‘98 in just four games.
After outplaying the league’s MVP in the previous matchup, Hakeem would now have to do the same against the runner-up, Shaquille O’Neal.
He did. In every game.
Olajuwon became 1 of 6 players in history to score at least 30 points in every game of a playoff series. And scoring wasn’t all he did. Take a look at his stat lines in each game.
Game 1: 31 points, 6 rebounds, 7 assists, 4 blocks and 2 steals.
Game 2: 34 points, 11 rebounds, 2 assists, 4 blocks, and 1 steal.
Game 3: 31 points, 14 rebounds, 7 assists, and 2 steals.
Game 4: 35 points, 15 rebounds, 6 assists, and 3 steals.
Hakeem also scored 56 field goals, giving him the record for most made field goals in a 4-game series.
Oh, and he also had one of the most forgotten game-winners in NBA history in game 1.
Olajuwon and the Rockets did it. He was an NBA Champion once again and captured his second straight Finals MVP trophy. The Rockets became the lowest seeded team to ever win it all.
As head coach Rudy Tomjanovich shouted after game four, “don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion.”
You’re damn right, Rudy.
In the end, both Hakeem and Duncan ran through an entire conference without a single All-Star teammate, came away with the Larry O’Brien trophy, and gave us two of the greatest individual playoff performances in the process.
Olajuwon – and the Rockets – defeated 7 members from the All-NBA team (4 first team, 2 second team, 1 third team), 4 All-Defensive representatives (2 first, 2 second), the top 3 MVP candidates (Robinson, Malone, Shaq) and ended up with the third most points ever scored (725) in a single playoff run.
We can’t knock Duncan for playing lower seeded teams or only going up against one MVP candidate, because after all, HE was the MVP that year and HIS team lost the least amount of games. But, Duncan – and the Spurs – did win every series comfortably, never requiring a game 7 and without having any other player average more than 15 points throughout the run.
Before we get into the “Top 25 Players in the NBA,” I need to preface by saying this is if everyone is healthy in the league. For example, I did not lower Kawhi Leonard’s rank because he barely played last season. So, here it is, my “Top 25 Players in the NBA.”
#25: Ben Simmons
I have already prepared myself for the reactions to the 25th ranked player in my “Top 25 Players in the NBA” rankings. People are going to say that Simmons is already a top-20, or even top-15 player in the NBA. However, why? I am not saying that Simmons is not going to be a top-10 player in the league one day, but I do not understand how people already have him ranked so high.
Simmons had a very good rookie year in the NBA. Averaging 15.8 points, 8.2 assists, and 8.1 rebounds per game, Simmons ran away with the Rookie of the Year. What makes Simmons’ stats even more impressive is the fact that he did not make a single three last season. With the way the modern NBA is trending, having a non-shooting ball-handler is uncommon.
While Simmons did not make any threes last season, that did not slow him down. Take a look at the GIF below.
It never seemed to matter how far off Simmons’ defender played him last season. Simmons would always find a way to get to the basket and finish at a high clip. Converting on 69.8% of his shots at the rim, Simmons was well-above the 63.1% league average. Just because Simmons is currently ranked 25th in my rankings, it will not be long before he slides into the top-15, and the top-10 in the “Top 25 Players in the NBA.”
#24: LaMarcus Aldridge
NBA fans often forget how dominant LaMarcus Aldridge really is. Remember his days in Portland? The dude was a walking double-double. Then, he gets out of the spotlight in San Antonio and people forget about him. Aldridge is still one of the most dominating big men in the NBA.
Averaging 23.1 points and 8.5 rebounds per game last season, it is time to acknowledge how talented Aldridge is. LMA led a Kawhi-less Spurs team to the playoffs in a loaded Western Conference. Yes, Gregg Popovich is a mastermind, but teams do not make the playoffs in the West without talent on the court.
Aldridge’s 29.1% usage rating last season was the highest it has been in his career with San Antonio. Aldridge made it work too. Developing his game to continue to fit the modern NBA, Aldridge posted the highest offensive rating of his career. Fans often forget about how good Aldridge is, it is time to continue to acknowledge that fact.
#23: Nikola Jokic
Nikola Jokic is one of my favorite players to watch in the entire NBA. His skill set for a center is wildly unheard of, but wildly productive. I mean, come on, how many NBA centers can make this pass?
Jokic’s basketball IQ and passing ability alone make him one of the top centers in the NBA. However, there is so much more to his game. With averages of 18.5 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 6.1 assists per game, Jokic brings it all to the table.
Perhaps the biggest improvement in his game last season was his three-point shooting. The Joker attempted a total of 280 threes last season, connecting on 39.6% of the attempts. Jokic has made it a point of emphasis to continue to adjust his game to stay up-to-date with the modern NBA.
Last season, 27.7% of Jokic’s attempted field goals were from three-point territory. The season before, just 16.3% of his shots were from three. This is a good sign for the Nuggets and their big man. Jokic has been able to adapt and stay productive while the league changes. This is why Jokic is in my top-25 and why Denver just inked him to a max contract.
#22: DeMar DeRozan
Another season has gone by and another season has ended for DeMar DeRozan and the Raptors at the hands of “The King.” After going into the playoffs as the top seed in the East, the Raptors did not even manage to win one game against Cleveland in the second round. However, this does not alter DeRozan’s playing ability.
Last season marked the fifth straight year that DeRozan posted at least 20 points per game. Recording 23 points, 5.2 assists, and 3.9 rebounds per game, DeRozan solidified himself as one of the game’s top two guards. Having his usage rate drop from 34.3% in the 2016-17 season to 29.6% in the 2017-18 season, DeRozan remained effective attempting the most threes in his career, and connecting at the second-highest clip on those shots in his career.
In addition, DeRozan posted a 9.6 win share stat, making him one of the most valuable players in win shares in the league. Most of the stats speak for themself. DeRozan gets to his spots on offense, and he takes advantage of his matchup. There was little debate in my mind when deciding if DeRozan belonged in the “Top-25 Players in the NBA” list.
#21: Rudy Gobert
Mark Rudy Gobert down as one of the most underrated players in the NBA. Gobert is not a flashy player by any means, which is why he is seldomly mentioned in the “Top 25 Players in the NBA” conversation. Just because Gobert is not a three-point shooting five does not mean he is not one of the best centers in the league.
Gobert does most of his damage on the defensive side of the ball. Averaging 2.3 blocks per game last season, Gobert solidified himself as one of the best paint-protectors in the league. However, there is more to his game than his defense. Gobert recorded 13.5 points per game last season while shooting 62.2% from the field, a career-high. Yes, most of these points came on dunks or lobs from the “Spanish Unicorn,” but that is where Gobert does his damage.
It is mind boggling why Gobert is not talked about more often. His stellar 122 offensive rating and 99 defensive rating should put him in the “Top 25 Players in the NBA” with few questions asked.
#20: Victor Oladipo
Who would have thought that one year ago at this time that we would have Victor Oladipo in the “Top 25 Players in the NBA”? What a year it was for Oladipo with the Indiana Pacers. Oladipo silenced all his haters averaging 23.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game. Vic led the Pacers, who were a projected lottery team, to the fifth seed in the East and took LBJ and the Cavs to seven games in the first round of the playoffs.
I had trouble finding a spot for Oladipo in the rankings because of how unexpected last season was. But, when you look at all the numbers as a whole, he definitely deserves to be in the top-20. In addition to his gaudy offensive numbers, Oladipo averaged 2.4 steals per game, ranking him first in the NBA last season. The winner of the Most Improved Player is bound for another successful 2018-19 season. His determination to win was on full display right after the game seven loss to the Cavs. The first thing he did after the game was text his trainer asking him when the work started up again.
#19: Paul George
Well, Thunder fans, PG13 is there to stay. Congratulations. One year after you traded for a “rental,” the team has convinced a top-20 player in the NBA to stay in Oklahoma City. Now, Thunder fans may be wondering why George ranks lower than others have him in the “Top 25 Players in the NBA” rankings. Averaging 21.9 points per game and 5.7 rebounds per game, PG13 had an interesting season adjusting to the OK3.
In my opinion, George hasn’t been the same since his gruesome injury with Team USA. He has not been as explosive and does not show the same burst he showed in those playoff battles against LeBron and the Heat. This was to be expected based on the injury, but that is the biggest reason he is 19th in the rankings. In addition, George has never been a great clutch player, often underperforming in crucial situations.
This season, George shot 42.2% from the field in the fourth quarter. In addition, he shot 38.3% from three in the fourth quarter. Now, do not get me wrong, 38% from three is not a bad number, but it is lower than his 40.1% from three throughout the season. Finally, who can forget game six of the playoffs last season against the Utah Jazz. In an elimination game, George juiced just five points. Paul George is a great player, I am not trying to say he is not, but for me 19 is where PG13 belonged on the “Top 25 Players in the NBA” list.
#18: Karl-Anthony Towns
The Big KAT had a terrific third season in the NBA, and now he is going to get paid. Karl-Anthony Towns is reportedly in negotiations with the Minnesota Timberwolves on a five-year, max contract. Towns made his first all-star appearance last season and he is not looking back.
Documenting 21.3 points per game and 12.3 rebounds per game, Towns was one of the most versatile offensive bigs in the NBA. Notice how I said offensive, because his defense is a whole different discussion. Towns shot 42.1% from three-point range last season, the highest percentage of any Wolves player. Ranking 14th in the NBA in percentage from downtown, Towns has adjusted his game with the modern NBA.
Helping lead the Wolves to their first playoff series in over a decade, Towns had a disappointing playoff series. Averaging just 15.4 points per game and shooting under 50% from the field and under 30% from three, Towns had a less than pleasing first playoff series of his career. However, in games three, four, and five of the series against the Rockets, Towns was back to averaging 21 points a night. He struggled mightily in the first two games, but seemed to overcome his struggles and put it past him.
As one of the most versatile bigs in the NBA, Towns already ranks in the top-20. But, it will not be long before he is in the conversation for the top-10 in the “Top 25 Players in the NBA.”
#17: Klay Thompson
Mark me down as a firm Klay Thompson believer. What he does every night for the Golden State Warriors is invaluable. Thompson is one of, if not the best, shooter in the NBA. Averaging 20 points per game last season on 44% shooting from three-point range, Klay solidified himself as the best third option in the NBA. Imagine what Klay could be doing as the first option on a team? He is a free agent in 2019, could we see him as a first option?
Getting past his future with the Warriors, when we look at Klay Thompson’s game, it is nothing but good things. We all know about his stellar shooting and his ability to knock down shots from anywhere on the court, but what some people do not know about is his defensive ability. Watch below as Klay Thompson absolutely locks down Paul George as the shot clock expires. Not many people can hang with a top-level offensive player like PG13, but Klay Thompson can.
#16: Joel Embiid
Trust the Process. Well, the process is working. It will not be long before Joel Embiid is a top-10 player in the NBA. Playing in 63 games last season, the Kansas big man averaged 22.9 points and 11 rebounds per game. Embiid did work in every facet of the game shooting over 48% from the field and recording 1.8 blocks per game. However, there is still work to do if Embiid wants to be a top-10 or top-5 player in the NBA.
The first thing is development from three. In his “rookie” season in the NBA, Embiid shot 36.7% from three, a very respectable percentage for a big man. However, last season, that percentage dropped to 30.8%. There is potential for Embiid to have his downtown shooting percentage climb, and he will need it to climb to take the next step.
In addition, speaking in general terms, Joel Embiid has the mindset and attitude of a top-level NBA player. Embiid cares about one thing and one thing only: winning. Whether you like it or not, Embiid’s trash talking on the court helps him gain an edge and it causes problems for opponents. Joel Embiid is on his way. Even though I do not have him ranked as my top center, it should not be long before “The Process” claims that spot in “Top 25 Players in the NBA.”
I already know it is coming. People are going to think I am crazy for putting Cousins ahead of Embiid. Since these rankings are not taking injuries into the picture, Cousins still ranks as my top center. People forget of how dominant Cousins is. Players feed the ball down low and Boogie gets a bucket, it is usually as simple as that.
Cousins was having a career-year before going down with injury last season. Posting 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, and 5.4 assists per game, Cousins looked primed to appear in his first playoff series. Unfortunately, the NBA Gods had different ideas. But, the injury does not take away from the player Cousins is. DeMarcus Cousins is, plain and simple, dominant. His footwork on the low-post and his continued development from three make him the most effective center in the NBA and 15th in the “Top 25 Players in the NBA” rankings.
#14: Draymond Green
There are fans of the NBA who cannot stand Draymond Green, and I am in the same boat. However, I respect him as a player and the energy that he brings to the game. It hurt me to put him 14th in these rankings, but it was what he deserved. Green affects the game in so many ways that the Warriors would not be the same without him. He does it on offense, defense, leadership, and of course, in trash talking.
There is not a player in the NBA that I can think of who plays with more energy than Draymond Green. Green is pure heart and effort every time the ball goes up in the air. Yes, his passion for the game can get him in trouble from time to time, but his passion is usually used positively. Green averaged 11 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 7.3 assists per game last season. However, it is what does not show up in the box score that makes Green a difference maker. Green’s 105 defensive rating and 6.1 defensive win shares make him one of the top defenders in the NBA.
Another part of Green’s game that makes him so good is his ability to play the five. The Warriors made the small-ball lineup a thing, using Green at the five. This death lineup is what makes the Warriors so good. Teams can try to put Green in a pick-and-roll when he is at the five, but Green has the ability to switch onto guards and shut them down. It is unfair at times and part of the reason he ranks 14th in my “Top 25 Players in the NBA.”
#13: Damian Lillard
“Dame Dollar.” “Big Game Dame.” Whatever you want to call him, Damian Lillard is a special talent. While he has never found much success in the postseason, Lillard is one of the best guards in the NBA. His shiftiness and sudden explosion make him a must-watch. Filling it up with 26.9 points and 6.6 assists per game last season, Lillard had arguably his best season in his career.
Lillard made 227 threes last season, just two less than his career-high, which he posted in 2015-16. Dame kept defenders guessing last season. If the defense came up and pressed Lillard, he would explode past them and finish at the rim. If the defense laid off, Lillard would pull up from Mars and drain a long three in your face. Don’t believe me? Check out his game-winner against the Lakers below and think again. There’s no reason that Lillard should not be in the top-15 of any “Top 25 Players in the NBA” rankings.
#12: John Wall
Why is everyone starting to hate on John Wall? He gets hurt for one season and everyone is starting to act like he is falling off. No way. Not a chance. John Wall is still one of the most dominant and explosive points guards in the association. Even after injury last season, Wall managed to post 19.4 points and 9.6 assists per game. No, he was not his normal self, but that is expected coming off an injury that sidelined him for more than a month.
No matter what anyone says, there shall be no John Wall slander. Wall is one of the toughest covers in the entire league, and when he brings out the gang signs, it is over. The speedster has never been a great three-point shooter or defender, and he might never be. However, the way he attacks the rim and creates for his teammates, Wall deserves to be 12th in the “Top 25 Players in the NBA.”
#11: Jimmy Butler
Jimmy Buckets. All kinds of rumors are surrounding Butler and the Timberwolves this summer. There have been recents reports that Butler will not re-sign with the Wolves. There has been reports that he is unhappy with the effort shown by Karl Towns and others. If you need a refresher on the whole situation, I broke it down in an article. Anyways, on to Butler as the player. Butler is the second-best two-way player in the NBA (behind Kawhi.) There are no words to describe his value to the Timberwolves last season. Without him, the Wolves would have been in the lottery and nowhere near a playoff team.
To further prove that point, Butler missed 23 games last season. The Timberwolves were 10-13 without Butler last season. With him, the Wolves were 37-22. Butler was one of just a handful of Timberwolf players that decided to play defense last season. Butler’s defense was so good that the Wolves held opponents to 7.2 points lower in offensive rating when Jimmy was on the floor. Jimmy, along with other veterans like Taj Gibson, was the main reason the Wolves did not allow 150 points per game.
In addition, Jimmy got his buckets. His 22.2 points per game led the Timberwolves. Furthermore, Butler was who the Wolves went to when the team was in dire need of a basket. Butler was the go-to man down the stretch and led the Timberwolves to the playoffs.
#10: Chris Paul
What could have been. That will be the question in NBA and Rockets fans head for the months leading up to the 2018-19 season. The Rockets were one game away from defeating the “undefeatable” Golden State Warriors. Then, Chris Paul went down with an injury at the end of game five that kept him out of game six and seven. Paul’s value to the Rockets was much more than scoring, finding teammates, and defending. Paul was a leader on and off the court for Houston.
Multiple times throughout the season, the Rockets looked like they would fall apart during a game; however, they held on. Why? Chris Paul. Paul kept the team together in games that were spiraling out of control. Paul got the team buckets when they needed them most, and he controlled the game like a true floor general. While CP3 posted his second-lowest assist total of his career, the ball was out of his hands a lot. People wondered how he and James Harden would co-exist. And to put it lightly, I think they did just fine.
Chris Paul seems to fit in nicely with whoever he plays next to. He is the true definition of a great leader and a great teammate. The only thing preventing CP3 from being ranked higher than 10 is the other unearthly players sitting higher in the “Top 25 Players in the NBA.”
#9: Kyrie Irving
Another great “what if” story from the NBA last season. The Boston Celtics took the Cleveland Cavaliers to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Celtics did so without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. So, Boston fans everywhere are dreaming over what could have been for the team last season if even Irving stayed healthy. In his first season post-LeBron, Irving averaged 24.4 points and 5.1 assists per game. His handles and offensive wizardry continued to dazzle in Beantown.
I have Irving ranked as my third best point guard, behind Russell Westbrook and Steph Curry. However, at just 26-years-old, Irving is bound to soon be the top point guard in the league. It is amazing what Irving is doing at such a young age. If injuries stay out of his way, top-5 is on the way for the former Duke guard in the “Top 25 Players in the NBA.”
#8: Giannis Antetokounmpo
For the longest time, the Greek Freak was on his way. Well, it is official, he has arrived. Now the best player in the East with LeBron gone, Antetokounmpo is just what his nickname says “a freak.” Giannis recorded 26.9 points and 10 rebounds per game last season. Every season that he has been in the NBA, Antetokounmpo has made a jump in PPG from the previous season. If that continues, it will not be long before Giannis is averaging 30 PPG.
In addition to his ridiculous scoring numbers, Giannis is a terrific passer and defender. Averaging 4.8 assists per game last season, Giannis made defenses pay when they doubled him. On defense, he recorded 1.5 steals and 1.4 blocks per game. His length and athleticism makes him a top-five two-way player in the NBA. Before you start debating whether Giannis should be ranked as the top player in the Eastern Conference without LeBron, chew on this:
#7: Russell Westbrook
For the second season in a row, Russell Westbrook averaged a triple-double. I do not care what you think of stat-padding or anything of that nature, averaging a triple-double is impressive. The amount of energy Westbrook puts forth every night is next to none. Westbrook plays with a similar intensity as Draymond Green. Ever since Kevin Durant left the Thunder, it seems like that energy has doubled. Westbrook is out to prove something, and he wants to prove it with a championship.
Ranked as my number two point guard on the list, it is Westbrook’s explosiveness and offensive abilities that get the job done. Averaging 25.4 points per game last season, Russ shot 44.9% from the field. His 5.5 offensive win shares makes you realize just how great Russ is on that side of the ball. If Westbrook could develop a 36-40% three-point shot he would be virtually unstoppable. The only chance teams have of stopping Russ is letting him shoot and hoping he misses. Because once he gets to the rim or on the fastbreak, it is game over.
#6: Kawhi Leonard
The summer of LeBron was quickly flooded by the summer of Kawhi. After requesting a trade out of San Antonio, fans have been on the edge of their seats waiting to find out where Leonard will land. Leonard has been on the record saying he wants to be in Los Angeles, but there might not be a deal that makes sense for the Spurs/Clippers/Lakers. Wherever Leonard lands, the team will be getting the top two-way player in the game.
After basically sitting out an entire season, it is easy to forget just how good Kawhi is. He is nicknamed “The Klaw” for a reason. Kawhi absolutely shuts down the opposing team’s best player each and every night. He has made a living on the defensive side of the ball. His defense is what got him into the NBA. Kawhi was never a great offensive player coming into the league, but his defense was enough to get him a spot.
Since he has been in the league, Kawhi has developed his offense. Kawhi is now one of the biggest offensive threats in the NBA. His ability to knock down shots and over power people on the way to the rim make him such a scary matchup. If Kawhi Leonard played last season, and we were able to see his further improvement, he very well could have made the top-5 in the “Top 25 Players in the NBA.”
#5: James Harden
Yes, your eyes are not lying. I have the MVP ranked fifth in my “Top 25 Players in the NBA” rankings. James Harden is great, that is not a question, but there are just players that do more than Harden. Harden makes his living on the offensive side of the ball, and in particular, at the free-throw line. Harden attempted over 10 free-throws per game last season. His 8.7 points per game that come from the stripe accounted for 28.6% of his total points.
There is no doubt there is a skill in getting to the free-throw line, but sometimes the way Harden gets to the line is hard to watch. His flopping and wild body movements draw the refs into a ton of whistles when there is really no contact. This, along with his sub-par defense, which is recently improved, made Harden land in the five hole in the “Top 25 Players in the NBA.”
#4: Steph Curry
The former two-time MVP and unanimous MVP has a great story. The sharpshooter was labeled as “too small” coming into the draft. People thought that he was just a cinderella story that went to Davidson, and they predicted Curry would fall off the map. Well, Golden State took a chance on Steph, and boy has it paid off. Curry takes the most threes out of anyone in the NBA. Curry attempted 501 threes last season in just 51 games, that is almost 10 threes a game. And, while he attempts those 10 threes a game, he connects on 42.3% of them.
Hats off to Steph Curry. The NBA has arguably changed because of guys like Curry who attempt threes in bunches. Curry has no problem pulling up and shooting from anywhere on the court. He is one of the deadliest offensive players the NBA has ever seen. Widely regarded as one of the best shooters in the history of the NBA, there was little doubt to put Curry in the four spot in the “Top 25 Players in the NBA” rankings.
#3: Anthony Davis
When DeMarcus Cousins went down with an injury last season, most thought the Pelicans playoff hopes were over. Anthony Davis had different ideas. Davis averaged 28.1 points and 11.1 rebounds per game last season. He continued to develop his game to fit the modern NBA, shooting 34% from three. In addition to the offensive work he put in, Davis showed his worth on defense too. Recording 2.6 blocks per game, Davis made any player think twice before testing him in the paint.
Davis has the potential to be one of the all-time greats. Yes, I said it. At just 25-years-old, Davis is showing how good he can be. If Davis can continue to develop his three-pointer and start winning more playoff games, he will be first on the list before too long.
#2: Kevin Durant
Kevin Durant is great. There is no other way to put it. What KD does on a nightly basis is unheard of. The two-time champ is the best pure scorer the game has ever seen. Durant fills it up in so many different ways. He will take you off the dribble and finish at the cup. Durant will explode by you just to stop and pop from mid-range. Or, he will not worry about dribbling at all and just take a 30-foot bomb that he knocks down with ease.
There are so few words as to how one would describe Kevin Durant and the way he can score. So, I am going to leave it as that. As the best pure scorer the NBA has ever seen, KD will go down as an all-time great.
#1: LeBron James
LeBron James tops off my “Top 25 Players in the NBA” list. When I said it was hard to describe Kevin Durant? It is even harder to describe LeBron James. What LBJ did this past season with the Cleveland Cavaliers, leading the team back to their fourth straight finals appearance is only supposed to be possible in movies. LeBron James single-handedly dragged the Cavs to the finals, and that is an understatement. And if it was not for J.R. and his foolishness in game one of the NBA Finals, who knows how that series plays out.
LeBron James is simply great. Perhaps the greatest to ever play the game. Now, in Los Angeles, LABron will continue to cement his legacy as the best player in the NBA.
Thanks for checking out the “Top 25 Players in the NBA” rankings. Share the article and let me know what you think in the comments below!