Top 25 NBA Players 2021-22
In honor of the NBA season starting soon, it is time to rank the top 25 NBA players for the 2021-22 season. I considered offensive and defensive statistics, talent, skill, intangibles, and the eye test when ranking players. A specific player’s usage was not considered, as some players can put up big numbers on bad teams. This was not based on long-term potential either, as some players are older than others and have fewer years left at their respective talent levels. I did not include Kawhi Leonard, Jamal Murray, or Klay Thompson because it is unclear when they will return and how much of the season they will play.
1. Kevin Durant – Brooklyn Nets
Kevin Durant tops this list for the best players of the 2021-22 season. Durant returned last season from a torn Achilles, which has historically been known as a career-altering injury. KD doesn’t abide by the general laws of nature or physics, though. However, I think we knew that already. In his first season back, Durant posted an elite 53.7/45/88.2 shooting split. It doesn’t even make sense.
How can you be a seven-footer and shoot at that level while also having a guard’s skill set on offense? He’s the greatest pure scorer in the history of the game, and it’s hardly close. His incredible off-season leading the U.S.A to the gold medal also proved there isn’t a better player on the planet. Even our No. 2 player, Giannis Antetokounmpo thinks so.
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo – Milwaukee Bucks
Coming in second place is the “Greek Freak,” Giannis Antetokounmpo. Giannis holds the unique ability to guard all five positions on defense, if needed, at a high level. He has won the MVP award two of the past three years and won a championship last year after taking his game to the next level in the playoffs. Giannis may be currently the best two-way player in the NBA right now.
Forgetting for a moment the eye-popping 28.1 points, 11 rebounds, and 5.9 assists per game last year, Antetokounmpo has been named First-Team All-Defense three straight years. The only other player on that list is Rudy Gobert, who has won the DPOY award three of the past four years. Antetokounmpo was the only other DPOY recipient in that period. Giannis could be No. 1 on this list if his shooting improved, but that just might be Superman’s “Kryptonite.”
3. LeBron James – Los Angeles Lakers
Some people may not agree with this and consider LeBron too high on this list. To those people concerned with age or statistical output, you’re short-sighted. LeBron still has the highest basketball IQ of any player in the NBA and is still the best passer. While he may not be quite as athletic as he was 5-10 years ago, he has slowed the game down just as quickly as his body. He can score on any possession at any time with still elite-level strength and athleticism. When comparing LeBron’s 2020-21 season to his career averages, everything still looks the same.
That’s the most fantastic aspect of evaluating LeBron. He averaged more rebounds and assists than his career average while only putting up two fewer points per game. Ready for the craziest part? He did all of that while playing nearly five fewer minutes per game than his career average. LeBron is also making a concerted effort to expand his three-point shooting. Last season, he shot 2% better than his career average while tying his highest average in a season for 3PA (three-point attempts) per game. Make no mistake: if LeBron wanted to go out and drop 30+ every game, he could still do it. I assure you.
4. Steph Curry – Golden State Warriors
At No. 4 is the greatest shooter and second-best point guard of all time, Steph Curry. There is no player on this planet like Curry. Steph is coming off of a season where he averaged 32 points per game for a battered Warriors team that still only barely missed the playoffs. Despite an overwhelming focus on Curry from defenses, Steph still managed to put up mind-boggling stats.
In addition to his 32 points, which was two whole points over his previous career-high, he also averaged 5.8 assists and 5.5 rebounds per game. He did all this on 48.2/42.1/91.6 shooting splits with an eFG% (effective field goal percentage) of 60.5%, the third-highest total of his career. Curry’s game is conducive to longevity as he doesn’t rely on substantial athleticism to score at a high level, so he may be great for quite a while longer.
5. Nikola Jokic – Denver Nuggets
How good is Nikola Jokic? Well, he just finished the 2020-21 season with the tenth highest PER in the history of the NBA. In short, he isn’t good; he’s unbelievable. His averages of 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 8.3 assists slaughters his career averages and proves that he has only begun to hit his peak in the NBA. The last center to come this close to a triple-double season average was Wilt Chamberlain. Jokic could be considered the second-best passer in the NBA, regardless of position, an elite shooter, and an elite post player.
The Denver Nuggets offense starts and ends with Jokic. He has taken giant strides on the defensive end too. While Jokic won’t ever have the athleticism for chase-down blocks or stay in front of elite guards on the perimeter, he is brilliant and knows where to be and what to do. Despite being a center with less exposure to primary ball-handlers, Jokic still finished 11th in total steals in the NBA; this ranked first amongst centers. If he continues to improve on the defensive end, then he will keep rising on this list.
6. Luka Doncic – Dallas Mavericks
Luka Doncic is merely 22 years old and comes in at No. 6 on this list. It’s such a rarity to be this dominant in your early twenties in a league filled with grown men who have played at the highest level for years. Even from when I first started watching Luka a few months before he was drafted, there was just something different about him. In a way, he is sort of like “Neo” in “The Matrix”: the game is slow to him, and he knows exactly how to get his shot off. His craft is impeccable, and his tools are precise.
Last season, Doncic put up 27.7 points, 8.6 assists, and eight rebounds per game in a phenomenal season that ended in a close series loss in the first round against a loaded Los Angeles Clippers team. Doncic needs to improve defensively and become a consistent threat on that end to keep climbing this list. Also, if he can improve his shooting splits and consistency, that should make him even more incredible. His ceiling is insanely high, and I, for one, can’t wait to watch how high he goes.
7. Joel Embiid – Philadelphia 76ers
Embiid comes in at No. 7 on this great list of basketball players. He is a force on both ends of the floor and continues to improve exponentially. My favorite Embiid stat is that he has never had a season averaging less than 20 points per game. The past four seasons, Embiid has consistently missed around 20 games on average; however, he has avoided major injuries, which was the primary concern the first few seasons in the league. If he can remain healthy and play like he did last season, then an MVP is undoubtedly in the cards. Last season, he put up 28.5 points and 10.6 rebounds on 51.3/37.7/85.9 splits, which is impressive for a big man in any era.
Additionally, Embiid consistently is one of the best defensive big men in the game and in the company of players like Myles Turner, Clint Capela, and Rudy Gobert. What Embiid has that those guys don’t is an elite offensive package. He can drive by bigs, score on bigs in the post, and hit tough fadeaways and threes. Essentially, he’s unguardable because whoever you put on him, he can take advantage of them somehow. Embiid can focus on passing and decision-making as his two primary areas of opportunity. If he becomes a player who can average five or six assists, he will be genuinely dominant in every aspect of the game.
8. Damian Lillard – Portland Trail Blazers
In recent years, my belief surrounding Damian Lillard is that he is the most underrated player in the league, and perhaps, one of the most underrated players of all time. While many are blinded by the flash, glitz, and glamour of Steph Curry, Lillard has never been far behind. Curry has benefitted from the reality that the Warriors organization, chemistry, and players have always been better than the Trail Blazers while both have been in the league.
Constantly, Portland mismanages its team and does not supply the necessary talent around Lillard that it takes to win in this era. Lillard has cemented himself as one of the most clutch players in this era, exemplified a few years ago when he sent Paul George and Russell Westbrook packing from a step-back 37-footer at the end of a game in the playoffs.
He has also slowly become one of the toughest and longest shot-makers in the world. Along with Curry and now Trae Young, Lillard has established the closest thing to “parking lot range” that had previously existed. Interestingly enough, Lillard developed this range out of necessity. If you watch enough of Portland’s games in the past few years, you will see the super high ball-screen at the top of the key.
This was implemented after Lillard saw double-team after double-team a few years back and became stifled by them. If you go under the high ball-screen, he shoots. And he’s lethal from that range. He already has you on his hip 25+ feet away from the basket if you go over the screen. In some ways, he may be the MVP, depending on your criteria desired for the award. Imagine what the Trail Blazers would have looked like the past decade without him.
9. James Harden – Brooklyn Nets
It’s hard to describe Harden’s game, but I will try. Offensively, he is the “Thomas Edison” of basketball. I’ve seen videos of Harden working out and trying new things, and it’s remarkable. Who knew that a one-legged three-pointer was ever a good shot for anyone? When mentioning Harden, it is also hard to forget when defenses tried to play behind him.
How well does a player have to be for a coach just to say, “Well, I guess we can try playing behind him and see how that goes?” In a season that saw Harden playing a little over half of the games, he averaged 24.6 points, 10.9 assists, and 8.5 rebounds per game. It would not shock me if Harden averaged a triple-double in the 2021-22 season.
10. Anthony Davis – Los Angeles Lakers
Another big man on this list who could be considered one of the best two-way players in the game is Lakers’ star, Anthony Davis. Davis had an “off” season, by his standards, last season on the offensive end, averaging 21.8 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game. While Davis only played in half of the regular season games due to injury, he still had the worst FT% (free throw percentage) in his career and the lowest 3P% (three-point percentage) since 2014-15.
If we were ranking based on last year alone, Davis would not be in the top ten; however, Davis’s talent is undeniable on both ends of the floor. He has guard skills as a near-seven-footer and usually shoots a high percentage from the floor. Defensively, he slides laterally well and can contest guards on the perimeter, and is strong enough to body big men down low. If Davis increases his 3P%, he will climb back up this list in no time.
11. Jayson Tatum – Boston Celtics
Tatum moves with a fluidity that very few players, who are as tall and long as him, can move. It may not take long for Tatum to catapult into the top ten best players in the NBA, but for now, I couldn’t quite squeeze him in there.
Tatum has increased his per-game averages in points, assists, and rebounds every year in the NBA. He is one of the smoothest three-level scorers in the game and is still merely 23 years old. Tatum could win MVP one day; it may not be this year, but it will likely be sooner versus later.
12. Devin Booker – Phoenix Suns
Devin Booker is a fundamental, shifty scorer who can get to his spots at will. Booker is only 24 but has had three straight seasons of scoring right around 26 points per game. He has recently drawn some comparisons to a young Kobe Bryant, which may be a little premature.
Still, Booker’s a pure scorer at all three levels, and it is no surprise why he would draw such high praise. This year, he should take another giant leap forward, solidifying himself as one of the game’s best.
13. Donovan Mitchell – Utah Jazz
Donovan Mitchell is the best player on one of the best teams in the NBA: the Utah Jazz. Mitchell averaged a career-high 26.4 points per game last year on a very deep Jazz team. He also shot 38.6% from behind the arc last season, which was a career-high for him. Mitchell has always been a volume scorer who needs a fair share of shot attempts to maximize effectiveness, but this is in no way a problem.
Plenty of great NBA players were volume scorers, like Kobe Bryant. The most incredible thing about Mitchell is his playoff performances; he turns it on like very few players can when the game is on the line. Last season, Mitchell put up an astounding 32.3 points per game in the playoffs. His explosiveness reminds me a bit of Dwyane Wade, and he could have a similar career if he continues to progress.
14. Bradley Beal – Washington Wizards
Beal has come off his second straight season, averaging at least 30 points per game. His 31.3 points per game last season ranked second in the NBA only behind Steph Curry and represented a career-best for him. He is one of the most premier isolation scorers in the NBA and can shoot the lights out of it.
Beal is shifty and an elite athlete around the rim. If Beal becomes a primary playmaker for the Wizards and increases his assist totals, he will undoubtedly be a top ten player in the league.
15. Zion Williamson – New Orleans Pelicans
Many people may think ranking Zion this high is premature. However, some statistics would argue against that. Williamson averaged an astounding 20.3 points in the paint, which is the most of any player in the 2000’s, including Shaq.
Additionally, he was mind-bogglingly efficient (61.1% from the field) on his 27 points per game in 2020-21. Defensive improvements will help Williamson fire up this list in short order. Anytime multiple statistics prove you are as efficient as prime Shaq, you are an insanely talented basketball player.
16. Kyrie Irving – Brooklyn Nets
Kyrie Irving is, without a doubt, the most talented ball-handler to ever walk the planet. I won’t even have a conversation about it. Irving can create for himself anywhere on the floor and can get to his spot as well as any other player in the league. Additionally, he is coming off of a terrific shooting season with 50.6/40.2/92.2 splits.
From a statistical standpoint, Irving may have just had his best season ever, and it is being overlooked because of the hype surrounding the Brooklyn Nets in their totality. Talent-wise, Kyrie Irving belongs on this list, regardless of statistics. However, his stats have mirrored his talent perfectly of recent.
17. Trae Young – Atlanta Hawks
Trae Young lit up the NBA Playoffs last season and may have had his official coming-out party as a superstar in this league. After an incredible second season in the league, Young took a small step back in a few statistical categories, including points per game and 3P% (three-point percentage.) However, in the playoffs, Young looked like a superstar posting a marvelous 28.8 points per game and taking out the New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers.
The Hawks even won a couple of games in the series against the Bucks, proving time and time again that they are the real deal. Young’s next steps are defense and shooting efficiency. Being such a great shooter, his efficiency is sub-par; however, if he can adjust that, he could be a future MVP-level player.
18. Paul George – Los Angeles Clippers
The fluidity with which Paul George plays for his size is remarkable. There may not be another player outside of Kevin Durant and Jayson Tatum who is at least 6-foot-9 and truly moves like a guard. George silenced many critics last season during the playoffs when Kawhi Leonard went down with an ACL injury.
In those playoffs, after Leonard went down, George put up 29.6 points, 11 rebounds, and 5.6 assists per game. He wasn’t particularly efficient from the field, but he still delivered. We should expect much of the same this year and possibly even more.
19. Zach LaVine – Chicago Bulls
LaVine has gotten continually better in his three seasons in Chicago and has truly formed into one of the best players in the game. Last season, LaVine had 27.4 points, five rebounds, and 4.9 assists on a 50.7/41.9/84.9 shooting split. It is safe to say that not only is LaVine perhaps the most athletic player in the NBA, he is also one of the best shooters.
This is a scary thought as he may not have even hit his ceiling yet. While the 2021-22 structure of the Chicago Bulls roster may not be conducive to him averaging close to 30 points, he will still continually be the best player on the court as he continues to evolve.
20. Jimmy Butler – Miami Heat
Jimmy Butler led the league in steals in 2020-21 and had a very productive offensive season. This was shortly after Butler led the Heat to the NBA Finals during the “NBA Bubble” last summer/fall. Butler is still only 32 and still has a few great years ahead.
He would be ranked higher if he was a threat on the perimeter, but teams can sag off him quite a bit. Butler’s playmaking for others on offense has helped diversify his game, though, and a few tweaks on offense could move him up in these rankings.
21. Khris Middleton – Milwaukee Bucks
Middleton is coming off an NBA Championship season with the Milwaukee Bucks. He is playing the best basketball of his life and, in the playoffs, he had some monster games, including a 40 point Game 5 in the NBA Finals against the Suns. Middleton was not far off from the elusive 50/40/90 season after putting up 47.6/41.4/89.8 shooting splits. At 6-foot-7, Middleton has the height and length to get shots over most perimeter defenders. Additionally, he can handle the ball like a guard and works well in the P&R (pick-and-roll). His isolation ability on offense is elite.
If he weren’t often taking a backseat to the No. 2 player on this list, Giannis Antetokounmpo, he would almost certainly be putting up close to 30 points per game. Consistency is the most significant area of improvement for Middleton as sometimes he can disappear from games. Some of this can be attributed to his selflessness on the offensive end, but he will need to be a bit more assertive for looks on offense to climb the list.
22. Chris Paul – Phoenix Suns
Chris Paul completely changed the Phoenix Suns organization. During the 2019-20 season, Phoenix went 34-39. With a very similar roster in 2020-21, except the addition of Paul, the Suns ultimately did a 180-degree turn, finishing 51-21. Paul was the missing piece of the puzzle for Phoenix. His exceptionally high basketball IQ, which is in the same tier as LeBron, mid-range game, and elite point guard play, have kept Paul in the conversation as one of the 25 best players in the game.
Because of Paul’s style of play, he can still be just as great this year. I certainly don’t expect a fall-off of any sort, especially after he showed he can still play at the highest level as he did in the playoffs.
23. Bam Adebayo – Miami Heat
Bam Adebayo is another center on this list that has established himself as a premier player on offense and defense. He is set for a massive year after averaging 18.7 points, nine rebounds, and 5.4 assists per game. This year, Adebayo should be the focal point for the Heat offense as he is their most talented player on that end of the floor.
Bam has improved his free throw shooting substantially, and if he ever develops a consistent three-pointer, he will be dangerous considering his ball-handling ability. The more Adebayo expands his game, the tougher of a player he will be to defend.
24. Jaylen Brown – Boston Celtics
In the past three seasons, Brown has made huge strides. In 2018-19, Brown averaged 13 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 1.4 assists. Last season, he put up 24.7 points, six rebounds, and 3.4 assists. Brown was a near 40% three-point shooter last year as well.
His combination of shooting and athleticism has helped his ascension on the list of best players in the NBA. There are only a few players who can shoot it from deep and have Brown’s athleticism.
25. Rudy Gobert – Utah Jazz
How great of a defender is Rudy Gobert? FiveThirtyEight’s defensive RAPTOR metric stated Gobert had the highest rating since 1977, and the next closest was far, far away. His defensive rating last season was 100.5, and the next closest rating was Ben Simmons at 106.1. Gobert was also at the top of the list of defensive win shares along with Mike Conley.
Gobert makes this list purely because he is a defensive menace and one of the greatest defenders of all time. Offensively, Gobert has very little to offer in terms of skill; however, he still averaged a productive 14.3 points per game. Additionally, Gobert is one of the best rebounders in the league, averaging 13.5 rebounds per game in 2020-21. Gobert’s overall game isn’t the most attractive, but to keep him out of the Top 25 best players list would be a huge mistake.