NBA

NBA top 15 wing rankings: LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant lead way; Jimmy Butler cracks top five

1 You were expecting someone else? James has held the top spot on this list every year since its inception, and after a dominant playoff run yielded the world’s most expensive pinkie ring, the question for LeBron is no longer how his contemporaries stack up, but rather where he stands in relation to Michael Jordan on the all-time leaderboard. By the time this list has a new No. 1, we’ll have our answer. If the past year is any indication, it’s going to be a while before we get either. 2
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It’s refreshing to see that the “what have you done for me lately” trope hasn’t diminished Leonard’s standing among our experts. Despite the Clippers’ playoff implosion, Leonard remains the best two-way player in the league. His offense took a tremendous leap last season, notching career-highs in points (27.1) and assists (4.9) as he initiated more pick-and-roll offense than he ever has while remaining a deadly catch-and-shoot threat and lockdown perimeter defender. The Clippers may be an unknown heading into this season, but Leonard certainly is not. 3
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The only reason Durant is this low is because he’s coming off a ruptured Achilles. At full strength, we know, at worst, he’s the second-best player in the world. Durant’s game isn’t particularly reliant on speed or explosion, and his release is high enough standing still to get his shot off against anyone. The guy could be Dirk Nowitzki on one leg. I wonder about the defense, both because of the injury and the fact that he is no longer playing alongside Draymond Green or inside the Warriors’ well-oiled system, which brought out a different level of defense, at least consistently, than we ever saw from him in OKC. 4
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No matter what team he ends up playing for this season, Harden is arguably the NBA’s best scorer. Though aesthetically polarizing, Harden’s isolation-heavy offense has been indisputably effective, as he averaged 1.127 points per possession (91st percentile) on 958(!) isolation possessions last season, per Synergy. Just for reference, the next-highest number of isolation possessions was 424 by his then-teammate, Russell Westbrook. In addition to his scoring exploits, Harden remains an elite passer, making him one of the most unstoppable offensive players in the league. 5
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Butler has had similar seasons in terms of efficiency. He has had seasons in which he averaged more points, shot much better from 3-point range and locked down the perimeter for more stingy defensive teams. Last season, though, was the ultimate Butler experience, and watching him rampage through the bubble was like mainlining adrenaline (or Big Face Coffee). We should have believed him when he told us he was a point guard five years ago, and we should have known he and the Heat would be perfect for each other. There are several players ranked higher on this list who could never do what he did in Games 3 and 5 of the Finals. 6
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The Celtics have made all sorts of moves over the past few years to try and find their next superstar, but it turns out he was on their roster the whole time. Tatum has made good on the promise he showed as a rookie, and is now one of the league’s premier wings, with a complete offensive package and the defensive instincts to match. He made his first All-Star Game and first All-NBA appearance last season, and shouldn’t be leaving either of those lists anytime soon.   7
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Beal has established himself as one of the best scorers in the league. He averaged a career-high 30.6 points per game last season, which was second behind only James Harden. Washington’s addition of Russell Westbrook should help open things up a bit for Beal, as Westbrook commands the attention of opposing defenses like few others in the league. If this duo is able to click, Washington could find itself competing for playoff positioning in the Eastern Conference, and Beal could find himself competing for the scoring title again. 8
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Perhaps never fully healthy last season, George’s counting stats dropped off in his first season with the Clippers, but his efficiency remained impressive. He shot a career-high 41 percent from the 3-point line, and was deadly in both catch-and-shoot and pull-up situations, while remaining an elite perimeter defender. George should be at full strength this season, which will make him one of the best two-way players in the league. It will be interesting to see how new coach Tyronn Lue makes use of George, since he voiced displeasure with his role in Doc Rivers’ offense. 9
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Booker’s performance in the NBA bubble last season might’ve been what convinced Chris Paul to accept a trade to the Phoenix Suns in the offseason. During the Suns’ 8-0 record in Orlando, Booker averaged 30.5 points, six assists and five rebounds per game. Now with Paul acting as the primary ball-handler in Phoenix, Booker is going to get even better looks coming off screens and cutting to the basket. 10
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It’s a shame the Jazz ended up blowing a 3-1 lead in the first round of the playoffs, because it overshadowed what was a spectacular performance by Mitchell, who dropped two 50-point games in the series. Where there might have previously been a debate about the best player in Utah, that’s over now. The Jazz are Mitchell’s team, and he has a shiny new five-year, $195 million max extension to prove it. 11
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For 19 games, he was a revelation. No one could keep Williamson off the glass or stop him in transition. Even as a rookie coming off a knee injury, he averaged 17.3 points in the paint, second only to Giannis. (On a per-possession basis, he actually edged Giannis in this category.) His defense was nowhere near where it was in college, his shot needs work and he didn’t look right in the bubble, but Williamson has already shown that he can affect the game like a legitimate star. And his upside is limitless. 12
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Middleton isn’t in their tier, but his trajectory is about as anomalous as Jimmy Butler’s or Nikola Jokic’s. This is a former No. 39 pick who didn’t lead his college team in scoring as a junior, barely played as a rookie, arrived in Milwaukee as a throw-in and thoroughly outperformed a $70 million contract. Now he’s on a $177.5 million deal, and he’s one of the most skilled and efficient scorers in the NBA, the rare player who makes contested 2s at a rate that his coach has to let him take them. Where would the Bucks be without him? 13
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Jaylen Brown was snubbed from the All-Star Game a season ago, after posting career numbers across the board, including an improved finishing rate around the rim. He’s become a more efficient scorer alongside Jayson Tatum, and now that Gordon Hayward is gone, it will give Brown even more opportunities to shine on offense. 14
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Ingram’s all-around scoring repertoire finally came together last season as he tripled his 3-point output and rode that improvement all the way to the All-Star Game, but there are genuine questions about how much value he’d actually provide to a winning team in his present state. The Pelicans had a better net rating when Ingram was off of the floor (-1.1) than when he was on it (-1.3), and they weren’t exactly overflowing with replacement options. With his scoring settled, it’s now time for Ingram to take the next step, and it’s the hardest one. The flashes of brilliance he’s shown as a defender and playmaker need to become more consistent elements of his game. All-Stars can score. Superstars can do everything. Once Ingram harnesses his Swiss Army knife skill set, he’ll become one of the very best players in basketball. 15
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The Robin to Damian Lillard’s Batman in the Portland backcourt, McCollum has never quite become a star, but he is a model of consistency. Every single night you know he’s giving you 20-25 points while handling some of the playmaking duties. He can’t carry a team by himself on a consistent basis, but he’s one of the better secondary scoring options around, and is not afraid of the moment in the playoffs.



 

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