NBA player rankings: Who are the top 15 stars for the 2019-20 season?
The NBA has made so many headlines for its controversial relationship with China that it’s easy to forget there is real, actual basketball on the horizon.
Yes, the 2019-20 regular season is upon us, and with it comes another set of player rankings. There has been significant movement since last year’s version, including a new No. 1 overall player. Sporting News has narrowed the list down to the top 15 stars in the league, making this a club reserved exclusively for the best of the best.
Let’s dive into the rankings, starting with the reigning NBA Finals MVP…
(Note: Kevin Durant has been omitted given he is not expected to suit up for the Nets until the 2020-21 campaign. The same rule applies for Klay Thompson, who will be out until at least the All-Star break.)
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1. Kawhi Leonard, Clippers
The champ is here. After load managing his way to 26.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.8 steals during the regular season, Leonard led the Raptors to the title with one of the most impressive individual playoff runs in NBA history. He scores efficiently at every level, defends elite wings and somehow improves under postseason pressure.
Leonard is never going to be a big talker, but his game says plenty. He checks every box and earns this spot
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
Antetokounmpo transformed into a terrifying modern Shaquille O’Neal last year. He overwhelmed opponents, setting career-highs in points (27.7), rebounds (12.5), assists (5.9) and shooting percentage (57.8), not to mention his dominance as a legitimate rim protector defensively. The scary part? “The Greek Freak” hasn’t yet turned 25 years old, and if he discovers even a passable 3-point shot, he becomes unguardable.
There is an argument to be made for Antetokounmpo over Leonard, but the Clippers star gets a slight edge for a more complete offensive repertoire and his previous one-on-one work against Giannis. Make no mistake, though — the NBA will be Antetokounmpo’s league for quite some time.
3. LeBron James, Lakers
Injury trouble, trade rumors, Magic Johnson quitting on the last day of the season! Yes, the Lakers dealt with a lot of drama as James began the next stage of his career to Los Angeles, but he can only drop so far. In 55 games, James nonchalantly posted 27.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and 8.3 assists. His leadership and effort on a nightly basis left something to be desired, yet he still landed on an All-NBA Team.
With Anthony Davis by his side, James shouldn’t need to carry his team in typical LeBron fashion. He’s not the undisputed best in the league any longer, but now he may not need to be.
4. Stephen Curry, Warriors
What happens when “Chef Curry” is allowed to cook without Durant and Klay Thompson? Will Warriors fans see the return of 2015-16 Curry? Golden State coach Steve Kerr says Curry is “at his peak” physically and mentally, so expect some eye-popping numbers. It isn’t out of the realm of possibility he leads the league in scoring and hits close to 400 3-pointers.
No one can alter a defensive game plan like Curry, creating clean looks for his teammates simply by being on the court. Perhaps his impact was lost in the midst of the Warriors’ dynasty. Curry will remind everyone exactly what he can do.
5. James Harden, Rockets
Harden led the NBA in scoring (36.1 points per game) by more than eight points — eight. He lapped the field multiple times in isolations but finished at a tidy 1.11 points per possession. His passing is underrated because of the focus on his dribbling displays and the traveling debates he inspires. There is a reason he has been a top-two MVP candidate for three consecutive years.
The stats are silly, but Harden hasn’t been able to guide the Rockets to the NBA Finals. Maybe Russell Westbrook will help push Houston over the top, but that partnership also brings a new set of challenges.
6. Anthony Davis, Lakers
Davis’ exit from New Orleans was a mess, so the focus understandably shifted away from hoops to trade speculation. Here’s a little reminder of what Davis can do: 28.1 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.6 blocks, 1.5 steals. Those are his numbers for the 2017-18 season before Rich Paul emerged and lobbed a grenade into the Smoothie King Center.
If Davis and James can figure out how to work together — and their styles suggest they should — Davis could be a real MVP and Defensive Player contender. He is that skilled and talented.
7. Joel Embiid, 76ers
8. Nikola Jokic, Nuggets
This is a coin flip. Does Embiid’s paint protection outweigh Jokic’s playmaking? How much should health and conditioning factor into the debate? What is the ceiling for each guy?
Jokic proved his regular-season excellence can translate to the playoffs (25.1 points, 13.0 rebounds, 8.4 assists in 14 postseason games), but Embiid gets the nod here because of how impactful he can be at the peak of his powers. The difference for the Sixers with Embiid on vs. off the floor was ridiculous, and that gap only widened during the playoffs. A 100 percent healthy and engaged Embiid is the best center in basketball, but is that Embiid available consistently?
9. Paul George, Clippers
Quick question: Which NBA player finished second in scoring behind Harden? That would be George (28.0 points), who briefly jumped into the MVP race before a shoulder injury hurt his chances to crash the Antetokounmpo-Harden party.
George is fighting just a bit above his weight as a 1A Option, but he should be perfect as 1B next to Leonard in Los Angeles. He is comfortable with the ball or as a spot-up shooter (39.2 percent on 3-pointers over two seasons with the Thunder) and has established himself as a lockdown perimeter defender. In the modern NBA, George is the ideal forward.
10. Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers
11. Russell Westbrook, Rockets
Lillard lands above Westbrook because, come on, the man torched Westbrook’s Thunder and waved them out of the arena. Lillard is always available (at least 73 starts in every season of his career) and ready to be the Blazers’ voice in the locker room and on the court. He stretches the floor with his range unlike any non-Curry player.
Aside from losing the individual matchup, Westbrook also enters the 2019-20 season with more to prove than Lillard. There are questions about his fit next to Harden and his ability to be impactful without the ball.
Westbrook shot less than 30 percent from 3-point range over the last two seasons on nearly five attempts per game and has never been all that interested in cutting. Still, he always leaves his fingerprints on the game. The fact that a triple-double now seems easy is a testament to his greatness.
12. Bradley Beal, Wizards
13. Jimmy Butler, Heat
His abrasive personality might be tough to handle — Timberwolves fans are aggressively nodding in agreement — but “Jimmy Buckets” is a competitor at heart and not afraid of the big moment. Butler drifted behind Embiid and Ben Simmons once he joined the Sixers last season, but he became the unquestioned No. 1 option when Philly needed points in the playoffs. Butler is also a solid defender, though he is slightly below the Leonard-George tier.
So why is Beal ahead of Butler? The Wizards guard has been healthier over the past two seasons, starting in all 164 regular season games for Washington. He is a more explosive offensive player with career-highs of 25.6 points and 5.5 assists per game in 2018-19. There is a gap on defense, but at 26 years old, Beal can keep improving. The big question is whether he will be wearing a different uniform by the end of the season.
14. Rudy Gobert, Jazz
Gobert is the main reason why Utah is routinely one of the best defensive teams in the league. The two-time Defensive Player of the Year rejects or alters tons of shots near the rim, and he has made strides against smaller guards when isolated on the perimeter. At 7-1 with a pterodactyl-like wingspan, Gobert is unsurprisingly a monster rebounder as well (12.9 boards per game in 2018-19).
While he isn’t known for his offense, Gobert quietly averaged a career-high 15.9 points per game on 66.9 percent shooting. He also led the NBA in screen assists, and that should continue with Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley in the backcourt. If Gobert advances his finishing and passing to another level, the Jazz will be dangerous.
15. Kyrie Irving, Nets
Before the Boston faithful starts yelling, yeah, that whole thing went sideways. Irving has admitted he was dealing with some personal struggles and didn’t rise to the challenge of being the Celtics’ leader. There is no ignoring the fact that his time with the Cavs and Celtics ended rather unceremoniously.
However, do you realize what he did last season? Just a standard 23.8 points, 6.9 assists and 5.0 rebounds on 48.7 percent shooting (40.1 percent on 3-pointers). Like LeBron, he made an All-NBA Team despite the noise surrounding him.
Irving is an immensely talented player. It’s on him to keep that the main thing now that he’s in Brooklyn.