Lord forgive me, for I am about to go on an absolute rant and a half.
The mainstream media and NBA fans, whether they be causal ones or self-proclaimed scholars, are awfully quick to crown a new jewel. In all honesty, I can’t blame them, because I understand that new things are enticing, intoxicating and far more sought after than the ones we’re accustomed to. I’m a victim of this myself.
I will, for likely the rest of my life, continue buying the new Madden and NBA 2K every year. Are they ever really THAT different of games? Absolutely not, but I still spend $120 each year on them because I want to experience the new mechanics and play with the rookies.
Simply put, new things are entertaining. We cheer for Zion because we’ve never seen anything like him. Even the people who despise Duke basketball did so (#DukeintheNBA) because he was like an alien version of Charles Barkley. We were naturally eager to crown Giannis Antetokounmpo with the “Best player in the world” title when we saw him leap from the free throw line on fast break dunks because we’d never seen something like that in an actual professional basketball game before.*
*(I am using the not “we” in this scenario, not the “we” that actually includes me.)
My question is this: is that natural tendency to want to buy the new shiny toy fair to the people who have performed at the highest of levels year in and year out?
The mainstream media has desperately tried to dethrone LeBron for years as the best hooper alive. They tried it with Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and now they’re attempting to do it with Giannis.
The question must be asked, where do Giannis and LeBron actually rank as a basketball player in today’s NBA? These are the 8 best remaining NBA players in the bubble in Orlando, Florida, at Disney World.
8. Khris Middleton
Middleton has been the MVP for Milwaukee in the playoffs. He’s a legitimate 3-level scorer that is damn near impossible to find an answer for defensively because of his versatility on the offensive end. His mid-range game is his best attribute, and he was as close to being a 50-40-90 percent shooter this season as one gets.
7. Jimmy Butler
Balls. Balls. Balls. I’m not the biggest supporter of the, “He just has that clutch gene,” theory because people say that about players as if they never missed game winners or had bad elimination games in their entire career, but if it is real and applies to anybody in the Eastern Conference then that’d be Jimmy Buckets.
Butler has accepted the role of being the franchise player for Miami, and it’s really his first opportunity since his time in Chicago. This Heat team feeds off of his pissed off attitude (which I do wholeheartedly believe in), and Butler rises to the occasion 9 times out of 10 regardless of which end of the floor he’s playing at. Need a showstopper? Go to Jimmy. Need a backdoor cut? He has the IQ to read and execute. My favorite part about the Jimmy experiment this season has been his duties as a playmaker while Dragic was sidelined. Look for more of that moving forward in the bubble.
6. Jayson Tatum
There are few players, if any, who have more fries at the bottom of their bag than Jayson Tatum. He’s a deathly three level scorer who can get to the free throw line 10-20 times per game. Sending one defender at him is a nightmare, but you can’t necessarily double team because of Boston’s supporting cast.
If Kawhi is the closest thing we’ve seen to Michael Jordan, then Tatum has developed into the closest thing we’ve seen since the late great Kobe Bryant. His footwork is baffling, his release point is untouchable, and his knack for getting buckets is unteachable. Rarely are there possessions where Tatum can't muster up a half-decent look at the basket.
The best part of JT's game is his commitment this year to be an All-NBA level defender. The 22 year old phenom is an absolute problem and will likely be in the MVP race for years to come.
5. Giannis Antetokounmpo
Regular season Giannis is a blend of Wilt Chamberlain and St. Vincent/St.Mary’s LeBron James. Playoff Giannis is a blend of Wilt Chamberlain and Providence Lamar Odom. He still has the ability to get to the rim nearly at will, make fairly impressive passes to open shooters, and finger roll from 6 feet away. His defense remains near the top of the league as far as rim protection is concerned and his feet are quick enough to stay attached laterally with the likes of the league’s fastest guards.
At the end of the day though, he’s yet to prove anything in the playoffs. A locked-in defense can shut him down from getting to the rim at suggested will. The key to stopping Giannis always has been and remains to be forcing him into becoming a jump shooter.
He’s been knocking down open/uncontested 3’s at a far more consistent rate than where he was last year, which is what you want to see as a Bucks fan. But his free throw woes and lack of an in-between game are serious stretchmarks on his nearly picture perfect body of work. Giannis also seriously lacks any real post moves other than a predictable turn and go which can be contained by a help defender.
If I were Coach Bud, I would have him coming off of a lot more flex screens to try and get him to catch the ball with a running start. And if I were his trainer I wouldn’t work on anything other than free throws, dribble pull-up/fade-away/step back jumpers from 10-18 feet, and little floaters this offseason. He clearly has the extension for it. It’s also really easy to learn how to do a simple drop-step move, and I rarely ever see him pull that off.
If he can add those little differences to his repertoire and continue to improve as a passer, he’ll finish as a Top 5 player in the history of the league. Remember this: He’s only 25 years old.
4. James Harden
James Harden has been the most prolific scorer in the regular season for the last several years, but after over a decade in the league he still can’t seem to find a similar rhythm in the playoffs. He doesn’t get the same foul calls from May-September as he does from November-March. And rightfully so, playoff basketball is a more physical game by all accounts. Stepbacks to create separation quickly dissolve into desperation heaves. Sure, he still has the ability to blow by defenders and eurostep his way to the rim, but he simply doesn’t do on a consistent enough level.
As far as Harden’s defense is concerned, the knock on him being a bad defender is complete horseshit. The video evidence of disinterested laziness all across Twitter is from several years ago, and Harden has been at the bare minimum an above average defender since 2018. (I wrote this before Game 7 against Oklahoma City.)
3. Anthony Davis
I’m aware that I may catch flack from the peanut gallery for being somewhat biased and having AD ranked above Giannis, but I frankly don’t give a shit.
AD succeeds in all the areas where Giannis is downright brutal. He does have an in-between game, and it may be the most lethal one since the likes of KG, Duncan and Dirk. There are few shots in the league that I’m more comfortable with than AD’s face up midrange jumper over smaller defenders.
Truth be told, there’s a spot for AD at number one on this list if he does decide to become more of a Tim Duncan and less like Dirk Nowitzki. He’s nearly unstoppable in the post with his arsenal of moves. If you put him on the foul line, well then he’s running back on defense, where he’s the best player in the world, with an extra two points on the scoreboard. His handle is polished because he was a point guard for his entire life until he grew into a unicorn.
The only area where he’s sort of lacking is his passing ability on double teams, he’s often very predictable and not dangerous enough in those situations without a wide open cutter headed towards the basket
2. Kawhi Leonard
If I were the coach or general manager of an NBA team, there may not be another player who I would rather have with the ball in their alien-ass hands in the last 24 seconds of a close game than Kawhi Leonard.
Kawhi has proven his talents and basketball IQ on the biggest stages in basketball several times. He can consistently get his shot off over the most stout defenses even with his jumper that lacks arc. Each and every game, he routinely makes awfully difficult midrange jumpers look like layups. He also has that “killer instinct” that people overate and conjure up in their minds in order to discount other talented hoopers, but Kawhi’s has been evident ever since his first playoff appearance in San Antonio.
Not only is Kawhi perhaps the best pure scorer remaining in the bubble, he’s become a willing passer over the time and is making the right decision on a night-to-night basis. I don’t believe it’s necessary to discuss the strongest part of his game, his defense, because his reputation speaks for itself.
The next time you watch the Clippers play, don’t just look for Leonard’s one-handed snag-steals, watch for how many potential passes are disrupted on the catch or not even attempted by the offense because of him. If it weren’t for the greatest player ever, Kawhi would have a stronger argument for number one on this list.
1. LeBron James
Trust me, I so desperately want to put something as simple as, “He just is,” as my argument here, but the incessant and intolerable LeBron haters would have a field day. Here are all of the arguments:
LeBron James is, still to this day, a combination of three of the greatest players ever: Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Karl Malone. He has Magic’s vision and passing ability (led the league in assists this year), he has 110% Jordan’s instinct to make the winning decision/play on offense and about 90% of his abilities on defense at this point in his career, and he has 95% of Karl Malone’s body with a much faster top miles per hour caliber. He remains in the top 2% of the NBA as far as athletic specimens are concerned alongside Giannis, Westbrook, Zion and Ben Simmons. There is no real way to defend him.
If you sag off, he will nail three pointers in your face with his jumpshot which has admittedly been relatively up and down for his career but looks more confident and polished than ever since perhaps his 2-time championship run in Miami (unless you want to argue for 2018 Cleveland Bron, which I have no issues with because that’s the greatest playoff run ever by a fairly wide margin).
If you get up on him, well, his handle has never been this tight thanks to Lakers assistant coach Phil Handy who helped take Kyrie Irving’s ball handling abilities to a whole other level during his stint in Cleveland and Frank Vogel handing him the full-time assignment of playing point guard. But if we’re being totally honest, LeBron has pretty much played point guard his entire career because he’s always been the best passer on the floor.
If you put a smaller defender on him, he’ll post him up with embarrassing ease. If you put a slower and bigger defender on him, he’ll blow by him toward the rim and either lay it in, dunk it home or drop off a jaw dropping dime/lob to Javale McGee, Dwight Howard or a shooter in the weak side corner.
The only area where LeBron still has minor struggles in is at the free throw line. Now I’ve always considered myself the biggest LeBronunist on planet Earth, and nothing frustrates me more than his free throw shooting struggles.
When it all comes down to it, there isn’t a single player in basketball history who I would rather have making the decisions every time down the floor for my team than LeBron James. He’s a classical music orchestrator fine tuning his instruments in a world of SoundCloud producers.