A quarter of the way into the 2017-18 NBA campaign, and it is already been a year to remember. While the Warriors are doing Warriors things and the Cavs corrected an early slump on the back of a 13-game winning streak fueled by an effort for the ages from LeBron James, it has been far more than just a two-team party this time around. The Rockets have delivered on their improved promise, while the retooled and revamped Celtics have proven to be up to the task of standing atop the Eastern Conference behind the new-and-improved alpha dog version of Kyrie Irving 2.0.
And besides the upper reaches of the standings, there has been no shortage of individual brilliance on a nightly basis throughout the league. Giannis and Boogie have made triple take-worthy stat lines a thing of stunning regularity. And speaking of triples, while Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony have been slow to meld, they have each been capable of producing their traditional level of highlight show-outs. Sprinkle in a nice dash of The Process, The Brow and of course The Unicorn, and the talent boom throughout the league has been an undeniably joyous occasion to behold.
But amid this perfect storm of the usual suspects, rising stars and those that have regularly lived their lives among the clouds of the league's elite, it has been a banner year for top performances around the Association. And between it all, we here at TSFJ decided to take on the year-long task of tossing our respective hats into the race to sort out the top 20 players on the court throughout the year.
In our first edition here, the participating Fam is: Phillip Barnett, Josh Naso, Ronnie Hampston, Jonathan Tillman and Matt Whitener. Each submitted their take on who the top 20 players in the NBA are today, based on performance so-far, reputation, impact, delivering on promise, blah, blah, blah. Keeping it real simple: each writer stood on their opinion and then we pitted them against each other to get an averaged out list.
We'll share those lists later on, but before we get there, here is the first entry into this season's ongoing series of sorting out the top dog on the hardwood, complete with words from the rankers on how they feel about the exploits of the top 20 in the moment.
Misc: Ties in the voting are noted by an asterik (*) with the tie breaker going to the player who appeared the highest on any given ballot.
(2017-18 stats current as of 12/14)
#20. Nikola Jokic (18.8 average vote)
The basics: 15.5 PPG, 10.6 RPG, 4.6 APG, 24.96 PER
Barnett: "Bruh. That preseason hype was way too real. Expand this list to 30 and I can find a way to fit him in there, but there’s just too much talent in the NBA to justify a guy whose whole reputation is built off the second half of his second season in the NBA. But right now, he’s not even the best player on the Nuggets, let alone one of the 20 best players in the NBA right now."
#19. Jimmy Butler (18.2)
The basics: 19.8 PPG, 5.5 APG, 4.5 RPG, 20.00 PER
Whitener: "Lauri Markkanen has been good, Kris Dunn is figuring it out and Zach LaVine, well, he's in Sonic commercials still at least, so that's something. But all the upside building blocks in the world still make it hard for an enduring Bulls fan such as myself to watch Jimmy Buckets do some real-time heavyweight lifting in pulling the Timberwolves into the upper reaches of the West. This has to be like watching your ex that left you be happy on Snapchat."
#18. Draymond Green (18.2)*
The basics: 10.1 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 7.3 APG, 16.59 PER
Barnett: "Steph Curry started it all, Klay Thompson helped realize a system and Kevin Durant elevated the team’s potential beyond just title aspirations. None of this works without Draymond Green, though. He isn’t just the team’s best defender, his role is dramatically shifted on a night-to-night basis to fit whatever the team needs. He’s an excellent decision maker, can initiate the offense as a de-facto point-forward or slide down and play center. He doesn’t bring intensity, he is intensity and the rest of the team consistently feeds off the energy he brings every night. 75 percent of all of his field goal attempts are either at the rim or beyond the three-point line, and he’s finishing a career-high 78 percent of all shots at the rim while his three-point shooting his a nudge better than it was last year. He does everything so Steph can be Steph, Klay can be Klay and KD can be KD."
Hamp: "Some may not agree with me, but Draymond is a top 15 player in the NBA. No, he doesn't have flashy plays, nor does he score a heap of points, but his impact on his team is irreplaceable. Simply put, Green is the key to Golden State's success. His ability to guard up to four positions allows them to play a style of basketball that is close to unstoppable. It's no secret that Green is praised for his defense, but I'm more impressed with him on the offensive end. Steph Curry may technically be Golden State's point guard, but Draymond is the facilitator that gets the team going. His ability to make the right pass and lead the fast break after the rebound opens up the flood gates for Klay, KD, and Steph. As time evolved, he's also developed solid three-point shot. It's safe to say without Draymond in the East Bay, the Warriors wouldn't be the team they are today."
#17. Paul George (16.6)
The basics: 20.3 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 2.4 SPG, 17.00 PER
Whitener: "PG13 is going to be setup next summer to framed like the man, so I want to see if he can actually be it this year while having to play nice with others. He said he wanted to play with more talent on a nightly basis, but now that he's gotten his wish, the would-be franchise star is giving us his worst year in the last five. Jury is still out on if he's the guy you build around....or add to the foundation."
#16. Damian Lillard (16.6)*
The basics: 26.3 PPG, 6.1 APG, 5.0 RPG, 24.12 PER
Hamp: "He's the Rodney Dangerfield of NBA point guards. He gets some respect, but not enough for as talented as he is. There are a litany of players in his position that receive more recognition, but few have the total package like Lillard. I know I may get a lot of flak for this, but I ranked Lillard over John Wall, because of his ability to play and score in a half-court setting. All point guards can get up and down the floor, but there are few that can alter their game when things get tough. Dame is that guy. He has a penchant for getting to the foul line as he is in the top 5 with 7.8 attempts per game and he is also shooting over 55% in the restricted area. His play-making skills and defense still warrant some improvement, but at age 27, there is time to develop in that area."
#15. Kristaps Porzingis (16.0)
The basics: 26 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 2.2 BPG, 24.21 PER
Hamp: "The Unicorn' is 7-foot-3, he can shoot the ball from Pennsylvania Plaza and he is one of the most transcendent talents the game has seen in recent memory. There are few players that have the versatility of Porzingis, and the scary part is that he is just getting started given that he is only 22 years old. I was a bit generous in ranking Kristaps ahead of players like Paul George, Draymond Green, and John Wall, but he is exhibiting he has the ability to be the lead guy for his team. In Carmelo Anthony's absence, Porzingis has New York in playoff contention, which is something the Knicks haven't been used to in quite a while."
#14. John Wall (15.8)
The basics: 19.9 PPG, 8.9 APG, 3.2 RPG, 21.20 PER
Naso: "In my opinion, one of the most underappreciated players in the game. The fact that his Wizards can never seem to gain true relevancy doesn’t help. But he’s been incredibly consistent since day one, and he’s super fun to watch."
Whitener: "I love what Wall does, I truly do. But whenever I watch the Wizards, I am beginning to have a harder and harder time saying that it is truly his team, while Bradley Beal is steady looking more and more like 1998 Ray Allen next to him. This is no knock, mind you, but I just don't know if he is THEE man that way he's framed to be."
#13. Karl-Anthony Towns (14.2)
The basics: 20.1 PPG, 11.8 RPG, 1.3 BPG, 22.12 PER
Whitener: "He's in the body of an evolutionary David Robinson, but puts the ball on the floor like a small forward from the early 90s. This is match up nightmare extraordinaire, and he's getting plenty of time to learn to lead with Jimmy Buckets in town taking the lead. Hopefully that's a pairing that can play some meaningful basketball together sooner than later."
#12. Chris Paul (12.4)
The basics: 16.2 PPG, 9.6 APG, 2.1 SPG, 26.22 PER
Barnett: "Chris Paul may be the most difficult player to place right now. Just take a quick survey of all of the point guards around the league and every single one of them is either a speed demon or a legit threat from beyond the perimeter -- and CP3 isn’t really either. Unlike the rest of his peers, he literally holds defenses in the palm of his hand and dictates not only what the offense does, but how he wants defenses to react before he makes any decision. Of all players who have started and can be listed as a guard, Paul ranks 110th of 116 in average speed per game, but he makes up for it by performing at his best when the game is on the line. Last season, CP3 was sixth in rebounding and first in assists in clutch situations among the same cohort. He’s not a contemporary point guard, but his classical game still works better than the overwhelming majority of his peers."
Whitener: "Many of us owe CP3 an apology. After all of the doubts about fit and how he could co-exist with James Harden in the same backcourt, he's shown up and showed out in H-Town. They spread the court together, he still puts the ball in the best place for everybody possible and is putting up points on his own as well. Like the works of da Vinci or Rembrandt, the artistry of the type of point gawd work that Paul puts out will always have a place."
#11. Joel Embiid (11.2)
The basics: 23.7 PPG, 11.1 RPG, 1.9 BPG, 24.47 PER
Naso: "While The Greek Freak has us rethinking the game, Embiid has us thinking back to the heyday of dominant bigs. For some time, the NBA has been considered a guard-dominated league, but an influx of gifted big men is changing the conversation. Joel Embiid is helping lead that shift in thought. As he posted eye-popping numbers last year while on a minutes-restriction, stat geeks salivated at his per 36 numbers. This year, with the restrictions slowly being lifted, those lofty per 36 numbers are looking more and more attainable. He gets bonus points for his charisma and social media presence, which are 'face of the league' level. Expect him to climb this list as the season advances."
#10. Boogie Cousins (10.6)
The basics: 26.1 PPG, 12.5 RPG, 1.5 BPG, 23.41 PER
Barnett: Boogie is one of those players who, because of his troubled history, you’d imagine he’d be universally hated, but EVERYONE loves Boogie, and I believe this is why he consistently ranks so high when ranking players in today’s NBA. There’s no doubt that Boogie can flat out play, but when you look at the rest of the players on this list, all of them have games better suited for 2018, Boogie plays like he was taken out of 2004 and is trying to fit into a brand new world. This is probably the most unfair assessment I could give for justifying for listing him as the 20th best player in the league right now, but when you look at what Anthony Davis can do compared to Boogie’s limitations, I just don’t think they’re as close as the rest of the squad does. If this makes me an animal, I’ll be that.
#9. Kyrie Irving (9.6)
The basics: 24 PPG, 4.9 APG, 3 RPG, 25.69 PER
Hamp: "At times you have to be careful of what you wish for, because of the element of the unknown. As witnessed in many situations, the grass isn't greener than the other side, but for Kyrie, it is figuratively and literally. From the time Irving was traded, I expected him to become a top-ten player in the league. Thus far, he's proved that. In Boston, he is taking his game to new heights and as the team continues to gel, he will improve as well. Although his points are down compared to a year ago, Irving is playing better basketball. In Brad Stevens' free-flowing offense, Irving's playmaking ability has been at the forefront and surprisingly, he's displayed that he is a pesky defender."
#8. Kwahi Leonard (8.2)
The basics: 13 PPG, 6 RPG, 1 BPG, 34.38 PER
Naso: "Full disclosure, Kawhi didn’t make my ballot. This sounds like heresy, and likely has you questioning my qualifications, but hear me out. In formulating my list, I heavily weighted performance in the current season. For example, I strongly considered slotting Ben Simmons in at No. 20, despite him having only played 16 NBA games. Unfortunately, Leonard has yet to see the court this season (Ed. Note: made season debut 12/12). With so many deserving players, I just couldn’t include someone who has yet to make a contribution in 2017-18. Rest assured, with him back on the court, he’ll find himself on my ballot the next time around."
Whitener: "Yeah, I know he didn't see the court until damn near Christmas, but its Kawhi. I mean, he's the guy that when you have debates about who's the best player in the game, you get to about five and then stop like 'Oh, damn! I forgot about Kawhi!'. And then you go on about how he's a souped up Scottie Pippen for another 10 minutes. He's that guy."
#7. Giannis Antetokoumpo (6.8)
The basics: 29.9 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 1.9 BPG, 31.39 PER
Naso: "2017-18 marks year five of Antetokounmpo’s career. Through the first four, he posted improvements in every major statistical category year-over-year, and that trend looks to continue this season. He has turned the early NBA season into a coming-out party, averaging a double-double and making an impact all over the court. The Greek Freak has lived up to his nickname, forcing us to reconsider how the game of basketball can be played."
#6. Anthony Davis (6.4)
The basics: 25.1 PPG, 10.6 RPG, 1.9 BPG, 28.24 PER
Whitener: "Nobody thought that Boogie and Brow could work together, but it has been undeniably entertaining as hell. It's like a hybrid of the Legion of Doom (Hawk and Animal, of course) taking on the flavor of the Twin Towers. Brow remains one of the most unique talents ever, and boy oh boy do I wish I could have seen him take on prime Kevin Garnett just once. There's an undeniable awe factor around Davis that keeps him as one of the most intriguing talents of his time....and maybe ever."
#5. Russell Westbrook (6.0)
The basics: 22.6 PPG, 9.9 APG, 9.4 RPG, 20.86 PER
Whitener: "The dude averaged a triple-double a year ago. He literally cannot be lower than five. And even that feels irresponsible. But its more of a credit to where the NBA is on a talent base than a detraction from Russ. Because he still attacks the rim with the fervor of Black Panther. Word to Chadwick Boseman, of course."
#4. Stephen Curry (4.8)
The basics: 26.3 PPG, 6.6 APG, 5.1 RPG, 27.67 PER
Barnett: "More than any other player in the game right now, what we know to define Steph Curry’s game has changed the way basketball is played. The NBA’s preeminent dynasty is built on the singular idea that Curry can pull up from anywhere beyond the three-point line with the confidence that it’s going to fall at a 40 percent clip. Pre-Steph NBA feels like watching an unrecognizable, decades-old game and he’s only in his ninth season. In his rookie season, the Lakers won a title off the strength of a volume scoring wing and two fantastic big men. The Warriors run out 'death lineups' where the tallest player on the court is one of the best deep ball shooters ever -- and all of this is thanks to Curry. He’s no longer the best player on his team, but he’s one of the three most important players in the NBA at large right now."
Whitener: "My favorite thing about Steph is that he's probably the best 1A (or 1B) player in the history of the game right now. His greatness gets overshadowed by KD's, while KD's gets overshadowed by his. That's pretty dope considering we're talking about a two-time MVP who could easily be racking up more of them if he wanted to, with KD still right there."
#3. James Harden (3.6)
The basics: 31.6 PPG, 9.4 APG, 5.1 RPG, 31.11 PER
Hamp: "After a forgetful postseason, James Harden is reminding us why he is an MVP candidate year after year. Under Mike D'Antoni's tutelage, James Harden continues to reinvent his game as one of the most dynamic players in the NBA. Many expected his play to dip with the arrival of Chris Paul, but while his assists are down, his points per game and shooting percentages are up across the board. Harden may not have the jewelry that many NBA players covet, but his play on the court should be celebrated as he is one of the best talents in the NBA."
Naso: "While coming in at number three on this list, Harden topped my ballot. After being denied an MVP award thanks to Russell Westbrook doing his best Oscar Robertson impersonation, Harden has picked up right where he left off last year. Piloting the second-highest scoring offense in the NBA, he leads the league in scoring and assists. While many questioned the Harden at point guard experiment, The Beard quickly made head coach Mike D’Antoni look like a genius, asserting his prowess as a basketball player in the process."
#2. Kevin Durant (2.4)
The basics: 25.7 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 2.1 BPG, 24.61 PER
Naso: "I’ll admit it, Kevin Durant’s departure from Oklahoma City had me hating. Fortunately, I don’t let that get in the way of acknowledging his talent or enjoying the show. He can do literally everything on a basketball court, and it’s a joy to watch. Had he ended up at number one on this list, there would be no beef from me."
#1. LeBron James (1.2)
The basics: 28.2 PPG, 9 APG, 8.2 RPG, 31.76 PER
Hamp:"It's unfortunate that some take LeBron James' greatness for granted. He is far and away the best player in the NBA and it isn't even close. In his 15th season, he continues to prove that on a nightly basis. James leads the NBA in PER and he is averaging 28.2 points. Nonetheless, his scoring stats have been impressive as his overall play, but his career-high in field goal percentage (58 %) and three-point percentages (42 %) proves he continues to refine his already dominant game. When looking at the history of the NBA, players of James' caliber in year 15 didn't have the same impact on the game as 'The King' does today."
Whitener:"It's LeBron frickin' James. This isn't hard. The conversation starts at #2 until further notice, just like it has for the last half decade, at least. His 32/year 15 isn't meant to be compared to others'. The expectation should continue to be exception."
Here is what each contributing writer put forward to bring the ranks together.
I'm a firm believer that the closest I've gotten to Heaven is Game 6 of the 2011 World Series. In the meantime til we cross paths again, I'll pass along the gospel of the Field of Dreams here, Cheap.Seats.Please, I70 Baseball, and 'Live From The Cheap Seats'.