Basketball

NBArank 2021: Where the final five check in, including LeBron, Giannis and KD

Our NBArank countdown is back for its 11th season. And after unveiling players Nos. 100-51, Nos. 50-26 and Nos. 25-6 throughout the week, we’ve finally reached the top five.

We’ve already stated the cases for each superstar, but who was voted in as the league’s best player?

Will LeBron James retain his throne? Will Giannis Antetokounmpo add the No. 1 spot to his list of accolades? Could 22-year-old Luka Doncic leapfrog them all? Here are the very best players for the 2021-22 season.

To get the final NBArank prediction, we asked our expert panel to vote on pairs of players: Kevin Durant vs. James Harden, Luka vs. Zion Williamson, Giannis vs. Stephen Curry, LeBron vs. Nikola Jokic … and the list goes on.

We asked, “Which player will be better in 2021-22?” Voters had to predict what they expected from each player during the season.

Note: Because of knee injuries that will sideline both for most of the 2021-22 season, the LA ClippersKawhi Leonard and the Denver NuggetsJamal Murray were excluded from this season’s rankings.

MORE: Debating LeBron’s spot and the biggest NBArank surprises


Golden State Warriors | PG
2020 NBArank:
No. 8

His legacy is secured no matter what happens this season, but Curry and the Warriors are confident that they can vault themselves back toward the top of the Western Conference if he has another MVP-like season and Klay Thompson returns to form. As usual, the sky is the limit for Curry.

One big question: Can Curry play at an MVP level again? The two-time MVP led the league in scoring last season with 32.0 points per game. He did everything for a Warriors squad playing without Klay Thompson that struggled to find consistent offense outside of Curry’s brilliance. Curry believes he can stretch his prime out a little longer, but he’ll be 34 in March and, aside from a fluke tailbone injury, stayed relatively healthy. If the Warriors want to return to the top of the West, Curry will need to have another huge season — even with Thompson expected to make his return.

Swing skill: Curry is widely regarded by many peers and former players as the greatest shooter of all time. He is a career 43.3% 3-point shooter and shot 48.2% from the field last season. If he puts it up, the expectation is that it’s going in, and his mere presence on the court creates the gravity that allows his teammates to shine.

One thing to watch for: Curry enters the season just 141 3-pointers behind Ray Allen for the top spot on the all-time list. Given that Curry made 337 3s last season, he figures to eclipse Allen before the All-Star break.

— Nick Friedell


Dallas Mavericks | PG
2020 NBArank:
No. 4

At 22, Doncic has already established himself as one of the NBA’s elite. He’s been a first-team All-NBA selection the last two seasons, a feat only Kevin Durant has accomplished at such a young age since the ABA-NBA merger. It only seems like a matter of when — and how many times — Doncic wins MVP. He’s finished fourth and sixth, respectively, in the last two MVP votes.

One distinction Doncic doesn’t want: He has the most career postseason points (436) of any player without a series victory, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

One big question: Can Doncic carry the Mavs to postseason success? It would be wrong to blame Doncic for the Mavs’ failure to get out of the first round, considering he’s averaged an efficient 33.5 points, 8.8 rebounds and 9.5 assists per game in a pair of first-round exits against the Clippers. However, it’s fair to say that Doncic faded in the fourth quarters of last season’s series, shooting only 34.9% from the floor with almost as many turnovers (9) as assists (12) in the final frames over the seven games. Those struggles are likely in large part due to his astronomical usage rate (40.4%, the highest in the playoffs), which is why the Mavs attempted to add another playmaker this offseason.

Swing skill: Doncic staked a claim as the most dominant driver in the NBA last season. According to Second Spectrum tracking, Doncic led the league in points off of drives (804) and ranked third in assists (150). He shot 59.2% from the floor in those situations, tied for second behind Giannis Antetokounmpo among the 48 players with at least 600 drives. Doncic isn’t an explosive leaper, but he excels as a finisher due to his rare combination of size, strength and savvy — and he has mastered a pivot into a one-legged fadeaway for the occasions when he can’t get all the way to the basket. The Mavs’ offseason additions of shooters should give Doncic wider driving lanes this season.

One thing to watch for: There is a good chance that Doncic will rank among the top 10 all-time in triple-doubles by his 23rd birthday on Feb. 28. Doncic has 36 triple-doubles through his third season (plus three more in the playoffs), putting him seven behind Fat Lever for the 10th most in NBA history. (Doncic is only two shy of Oscar Robertson for the most triple-doubles before turning 23.) Doncic has scored at least 30 points in 17 of those triple-doubles. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, only seven players have as many or more 30-point triple-doubles: Robertson, Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, James Harden, Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.

— Tim MacMahon


Los Angeles Lakers | SF
2020 NBArank:
No. 1

In two out of the last three seasons since arriving in Los Angeles, James has suffered a major injury that sabotaged his and the Lakers’ chances. In the other: James finished second in MVP voting and led the Lakers to the championship. Will it be triumph or tribulations in 2021-22?

One big question: Can James help a Lakers team with 10 fresh faces coalesce into a championship team from the jump? James has four titles under his belt already and has long cemented his legacy as one of the true greats to ever play the game, but adding a ring at age 37 would certainly boost his quest for universal GOAT recognition.

Swing skill: James averaged a career best 2.3 3-pointers made per game last season and shot 36.5% from deep, which accounted for his fourth most accurate season from deep of his career. With Russell Westbrook added to the mix as another playmaker, it will be interesting to see if James’ aim can benefit from the type of looks he’s usually creating for others.

One thing to watch for: James enters the season just 1,562 points away from passing Karl Malone for No. 2 on the league’s all-time scoring list. If James averages the 25 points per game that he did last season — and plays in every game — he would be in range to pass Malone in L.A.’s 63rd game on the schedule (which just so happens to be a primetime ABC matchup against Curry and the Warriors).

— Dave McMenamin


Milwaukee Bucks | PF
2020 NBArank:
No. 3

What do you do to top the epic NBA Finals-winning performance Antetokounmpo turned in last year? The easy answer is to repeat. The real answer — which is downright scary for the rest of the league — is for Antetokounmpo to improve the few areas of his game he can still work on. He’s still just 26 years old, which means we probably are just now getting to Antetokounmpo’s prime years. He’ll enter them with the confidence of a two-time MVP and an NBA champion.

One big question: History will always remember Antetokounmpo’s 50-point masterpiece in Game 6 of the NBA Finals to close out his first championship and Finals MVP. Social media will always remember the 50-piece at Chik Fil-A he ordered afterward. But it was the 17-for-19 performance at the free throw line in Game 6 that really stood out. Giannis was so unstoppable at times during the Finals that fouling him and forcing him to hit free throws (he hit just 54% of them in the three road games during the Finals) seemed like the best way to stop him. Giannis is a career 71.7% free throw shooter, but he dipped to 63.3% in 2019-20 and 68.5% last year.

Swing skill: Antetokounmpo was the first player to average 20 points and shoot 65% in the paint in a single postseason. In the Finals he was even more lethal in the paint, shooting 75%. Simply put, he is virtually impossible to stop once he gets inside. But there’s even room for improvement there, too, if he works on his back-to-the-basket post moves like LeBron James did at a similar juncture in his career.

One thing to watch for: Antetokounmpo is already second on the Bucks all-time scoring list after passing Glenn Robinson last season. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (14,211 points as a Buck) is in sight this year. Antetokounmpo (12,319 points) needs 1,892 this year to become Milwaukee’s all-time leading scorer. He’s averaged 1,895 points over the past four seasons (the last two were shortened to 72 games) so he could easily pass Kareem sometime in April.

— Ramona Shelburne


Brooklyn Nets | SF
2020 NBArank:
No. 6

NBA moments are ripe for hyperbole, but with what happened in 2021, there’s a grounded case to make for the championship coming down to Durant’s toe. That devastating turnaround jumper in Game 7 against the Bucks — the thunderous left-foot pivot and lightning-quick rise-and-release over P.J. Tucker is downright legendary — was almost on the list of biggest shots in NBA history. Instead it was the longest 2-pointer possible and the topper to an incredible playoff series that verified Durant’s complete recovery from a torn Achilles. Then, by the way, he laid waste at the Olympics and carried the Americans to gold. Yeah, um, look out, 2021-22.

One big question: Durant’s game is almost untouchable, so the real question is: Will everyone stay on the floor? Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden all had moderate injuries during the shortened season, and, combined with Irving’s leave of absence, the Spencer Dinwiddie injury and the transition after the Harden trade, they made last season a mess for Brooklyn. If they get even half of those events eliminated, it’s not hard to see why the Nets are the preseason title favorites.

Swing skill: It’s probably foolish in these times to say anyone is the “greatest” at anything, so let’s avoid that nonsense. Let’s leave it at: Durant is one of the most skilled players to ever take up basketball, and his height, release and accuracy make him one of the most undefendable players in history. It’s remarkable that Durant doesn’t shoot every time down the floor because, frankly, it would almost always be considered a good shot no matter the circumstances.

One thing to watch for: The Nets protected Durant as much as they could last season — he averaged his fewest minutes per game during the regular season and he skipped some back-to-backs. With the team deeper this season after signing a host of veterans, the inclination will be to protect Durant some more. The inactive list may be the only thing that stops him. How that may affect the MVP race could be a topic as the year unfolds.

— Brian Windhorst

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