NBArank top 10: Predicting the absolute best players this season
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For the eighth season in a row, ESPN.com is ranking the top players in the NBA.
Who will be the best player this season? To get the final prediction, we asked our expert panel to vote on pairs of players.
How NBArank works
NBArank is a prediction for the coming season. Dozens of panelists from across ESPN, The Undefeated and FiveThirtyEight — TV analysts, reporters, editors, producers and researchers — voted to forecast which players would be best in 2018-19, taking into account both the quality and the quantity of their contributions.
We asked, “Which player will be better in 2018-19?” To decide, voters had to consider both the quality and the quantity of each player’s contributions to his team’s ability to win games.
After rolling out the rankings all week, we’ve reached the top 10.
10. Damian Lillard
Troy Wayrynen/USA TODAY
Previous rank: 18
Projected RPM wins: 7.9
Lillard — coming off his debut All-NBA first-team selection last season — is quietly one of the most potent offensive players in the league. He has turned in back-to-back seasons with combined averages of 27.0 points (44.2 FG%, 90.5 FT%), 6.2 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 3.0 3s per game, and he teams with CJ McCollum to provide the highest scoring average of any backcourt in the NBA.
Lillard led the Trail Blazers to the No. 3 seed in the West last season, and his quick-strike offense and big-game attitude give his squad a puncher’s chance against any team on any given night. — André Snellings
9. Joel Embiid
Eric Hartline/USA TODAY
Previous rank: 32
Projected RPM wins: 4.2
The likelihood that a 7-footer could ever again be regarded as the world’s best player has been shrouded in doubt with the NBA game’s shift to the perimeter in recent years. Embiid seems determined to challenge this notion as he establishes himself as the most productive player on one of the league’s ascendant, interesting young teams.
If he can improve his proficiency from beyond the arc, commit himself to a more selective diet of possessions on the post and — probably most crucial of all — remain healthy, Embiid will stand as his generation’s revolutionary big man. — Kevin Arnovitz
8. Kawhi Leonard
Soobum Im/USA TODAY
Previous rank: 3
Projected RPM wins: 4.9
Leonard developed into a monster during the 2016-17 season, but lofty aspirations aside, we haven’t seen that version of Kawhi since then. So it’s fair to ponder whether Leonard returns to form after playing just nine games last season in San Antonio.
Leonard will start his tenure in Toronto with an open mind about potentially re-signing in 2019 free agency. But how will the constant scrutiny affect his game, as well as the upcoming bombardment of queries about what went wrong in San Antonio? If Leonard is fully healthy and committed mentally, the Raptors are serious contenders in the East. — Michael C. Wright
7. Russell Westbrook
Previous rank: 5
Projected RPM wins: 9.1
Forever polarizing, perpetually misunderstood, constantly critiqued. Westbrook brings so much of it upon himself, with his mistakes ringing louder than most any other player in the league. But at his best, there are few who can dominate a game the way he can. Efficiency has always been his enemy, with his righteous competitive spirit sometimes getting in the way of better judgment.
He’s averaged a triple-double in back-to-back seasons while putting his stamp as an all-time great and one of the most unique stars to ever play. But for him, it’s about the next evolution — can he be unapologetically himself and still win at the highest level? Or does he need to dial down and change for the greater good? Or really, can he? — Royce Young
6. Anthony Davis
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY
Previous rank: 6
Projected RPM wins: 7.3
After quietly finishing a strong third place in the MVP balloting last spring, Davis ransacked Portland with a first-round sweep and showed well in a five-game loss to Golden State.
Davis’ prolific spring was a reminder of what many projected following his 2014-15 season — that Davis was poised to become the best basketball player on the planet once LeBron James relinquished the title. That distinction will come only with some more postseason success, but Davis’ production and relative health signal that, at least statistically, he will remain a fixture in the horse race. — Arnovitz
T-4. Giannis Antetokounmpo
Previous rank: 9
Projected RPM wins: 8.2
With LeBron James off to L.A., it’s finally time for the Greek Freak’s coronation as the King of the East. Antetokounmpo has become an unstoppable offensive force, improving his field goal percentage and scoring average every year since his rookie season. His jumper still is nonexistent, but the 23-year-old may not need one; he dominates the paint at Shaquille O’Neal levels, averaging nearly 27 points per game last season (fourth most in the NBA).
The one knock is if he can “carry” a team, evidenced by the Bucks not making it out of the first round of the playoffs since 2001. — Martenzie Johnson
T-4. Kevin Durant
Ken Blaze/USA TODAY
Previous rank: 2
Projected RPM wins: 7.6
Coming off back-to-back titles with back-to-back Finals MVPs, there’s not much more for Durant to prove. He’s the best scorer in the world — maybe of all time — and has rounded out his game to resemble a near complete package. He’s a defensive stopper, a rim protector, a savvy passer, a knockdown shooter, a slick ball handler and a solid rebounder.
There’s not much higher of a place for Durant to go, but he’s had a personal goal for years to pass LeBron as the consensus top player in the world. An MVP in 2014 didn’t do it, and going back-to-back hasn’t either. Durant has an insatiable urge to improve, and he’ll be better again this season, but what’s it going to take to officially take the top torch? — Young
3. James Harden
Brad Penner/USA TODAY
Previous rank: 8
Projected RPM wins: 10.6
There is no comparison to Harden working one-on-one. Per NBA.com stats, Harden averaged 1.22 points per isolation possession during his MVP campaign last season — better than any team averaged in transition.
That kind of crazy efficiency comes when a guy who gets to the line more than anyone (leading the league in free throws four straight seasons) develops a deadly stepback 3 as a counterpunch (330 attempts in 2017-18 with an effective field goal percentage of 55.5, per Second Spectrum). And he’s an elite passer. Oscar Robertson is the only other player to average at least 29 points and 8 assists in multiple seasons, as Harden has done the past two years. — Tim MacMahon
2. Stephen Curry
Golden State Warriors | G
Previous rank: 4
Projected RPM wins: 11.7
When the Warriors welcomed Durant in the summer of 2016, questions arose about the impact the arrival of such a supernova would have on Curry, the two-time reigning MVP. In the two years since, Curry has seen measurable drops in some of the rawest of raw stats (e.g., points per game). But he’s simultaneously solidified his standing as the greatest shooter in NBA history (his .675 true shooting percentage in 2017-18 was far and away the best single season by a high-volume perimeter player).
That proficiency figures to hold — provided Curry, who will turn 31 just before the postseason, can stave off major injury. — Arnovitz
1. LeBron James
Previous rank: 1
Projected RPM wins: 7.7
The No. 1 spot has never changed in the eight years we’ve been ranking players: LeBron James has finished atop the rankings every time.
Though LeBron hasn’t won an MVP award since 2013, his playoff dominance has been a different story. He’s topped NBA players in postseason wins above replacement player (WARP) in every year but 2015, when Curry edged him out. Eventually age will affect LeBron, who will turn 34 in December, but we’ve seen little evidence of it yet — at least offensively — and until we see that in the playoffs, he belongs atop the list. — Kevin Pelton
More: 100-51 | 50-31 | 30-21 | 20-11 | 5-on-5 debate
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