LeBron James’ fourth Larry O’Brien Trophy, achieved in the relative solitude of the Orlando Bubble, may have been his most difficult to date. And, thanks to the powers that be (Hell would sooner freeze over than the NBA scrap its annual Christmas slate), he’ll also have the least time to enjoy it.
Seventy-three days isn’t much time to bask in a feat as monumental as an NBA championship. Then again, James has never been a “smell the roses” type. There will come a time when LeBron, probably with prescription lenses and a graying beard, can sit back and crack a cold one, reflecting on his career accomplishments. But not now, not while he’s chasing Michael Jeffrey Jordan for the title of GOAT. James may be running on fumes, but duty calls and the future Springfield enshrinee has a legacy to protect.
The shortest offseason in NBA history is our gain. You know the old adage, “absence makes the heart grow fonder”? Well it’s true. If you ask me, two months without hoops is long enough. I needed my NBA fix, as did my RADIO.COM colleagues Jordan Cohn and Dan Mennella, who helped me rank the league’s top 25 players for the upcoming 2020-21 season.
Narrowing the field to 25 is always a difficult assignment because it means a handful of deserving candidates will inevitably slip through the cracks. So apologies to Pascal Siakam and Nikola Vucevic, both of whom came agonizingly close to cracking our top 25 (26th and 27th respectively).
With Opening Night upon us, join Jordan, Dan and me as we take inventory of the NBA’s elite, a talent hierarchy comprised of former league champions, MVPs, All-Stars, Defensive Players of the Year and Olympic gold medalists.
25. Bradley Beal, G, Washington Wizards
Bradley Beal nearly captured his first scoring title last year, lighting up the stat sheet with an incredible 30.5 points per game highlighted by a dominant 20-game stretch that included a pair of 50-point performances, six 40-point showings and a blistering 35.6-ppg average. It wasn’t a masterclass in efficiency—he connected on a mere 35.3 percent of his three-point attempts—but give Beal credit for shouldering the load, and then some, for a destitute Washington offense.
After largely flying solo last year, Beal will now be accompanied by former MVP Russell Westbrook in the Wizards’ backcourt. Westbrook’s presence could limit Beal’s scoring upside, though that wasn’t the case when Russ teamed up with James Harden, the NBA’s top scorer with room to spare, in Houston last season. It’s a testament to Beal’s steady improvement that he’s graduated from his longtime role as John Wall’s sidekick to his current standing as Washington’s unquestioned alpha. — Jordan Cohn
24. Devin Booker, G, Phoenix Suns
Booker has tightened his game each of the past few years, tidying up his shot selection while also displaying improved efficiency. There isn’t much blood left to be squeezed from that stone considering he shot 49 percent from the field and 92 percent from the line a year ago, though perhaps he still has room to grow as a long-range marksman (35.4-percent success rate from downtown).Beyond that, Booker should benefit from playing alongside veteran maestro Chris Paul in 2020-21. The turnover-prone Booker won’t have to shoulder as much of the ball-handling burden with Paul, one of the most decorated distributors in league history, taking those responsibilities off his plate. — Dan Mennella
23. Zion Williamson, F, New Orleans Pelicans
Twitter trolls love calling attention to Zion’s portly physique (the Tim Robinson “Chunky” meme gets me every time). But the joke is on them because the Pelicans prodigy, even in limited minutes (the result of an October knee injury), was phenomenal in his debut season, going for 22.5 points per game on precise 58.3-percent shooting while finishing runner-up to Grizzlies phenom Ja Morant in Rookie of the Year voting. The rim-rattling 20-year-old is not without his flaws—beyond the obvious conditioning concerns, Williamson’s perimeter game remains a work in progress (he only sunk six three-pointers as a rookie). But that’s nitpicking. Don’t forget there’s a reason the former Duke standout was the no-brainer No. 1 pick in last year’s draft—in a league rife with athletic monstrosities, the 6’7” Zion stands out as one of the most physically-imposing players in recent memory. — Jesse Pantuosco
22. Rudy Gobert, C, Utah Jazz
The NBA's very own Patient Zero, Gobert returned from his coronavirus ordeal in the Bubble and pretty much looked like his old self. The Jazz rewarded the two-time Defensive Player of the Year with a monster contract extension earlier this month, all but assuring he'll be in Utah long term and quelling any speculation he might be shipped out after the careless behavior that preceded his positive test. With all that behind him, Gobert should get back to doing what he does best—delivering highlight-reel dunks and smothering opponents with his rugged interior defense. Gobert is a hyper-efficient double-double machine and one of the sport’s premier shot blockers. At 28 with seemingly plenty left in his NBA tank, the Frenchmen should again contend for DPOY honors in 2020-21. — Mennella
21. Paul George, G/F, Los Angeles Clippers
We have George a conservative 21st in our rankings, but don’t be surprised if he finishes closer to his jersey number (13) when the season concludes. After forking over $190 million for his services, the Clippers are certainly hoping that’s the case. The last time we saw George he was struggling in the Orlando Bubble (leading to the derisive nickname, “Pandemic P”), a failure that left Clippers fans with a bitter taste in their mouths. Recent comments by George suggest he wasn’t utilized properly by head coach Doc Rivers, who was ousted after the season.
With Tyronn Lue replacing Rivers and hopefully without the injury and mental health concerns that plagued him throughout 2019-20, George should have a chance to return to the All-NBA form he showed at previous stops in Indiana and OKC. Even during a down year, George still made strides in a number of key metrics. His 41.2-percent clip from deep was a career best, as was his effective field goal percentage. Paul remained a terrific on-ball defender and was nearly as efficient on offense (34.4 points per 100 possessions) as he was the year prior (35.5). With his Clippers future secure, a bounce-back campaign should be in order for PG13. — Cohn
20. Trae Young, G, Atlanta Hawks
Trae Young may not have won the genetic lottery, as his diminutive (at least by NBA standards) 6’1,” 180-pound frame would attest. But what the former Oklahoma Sooner lacks in size he more than makes up for as a shooter, displaying his deep prowess by draining over 36 percent of his three-point attempts in 2020. Atlanta failing to qualify for the Orlando Bubble likely cost Young an opportunity to better Mookie Blaylock’s longstanding team record for most threes in a single season (231). But Young, whose prolific career is just getting started, should get plenty more bites at the apple. We all know he can score at will, but for Young, that’s just one piece of the puzzle. Talented as Young is in the scoring department—his 29.6 points per game in 2020 were the most by a Hawk since Hall-of-Famer Dominique Wilkins went for 29.9 a game in 1993—you could argue the fan favorite is an even more adept distributor, a trait he demonstrated by averaging 9.3 assists per game last season. An Eastern Conference starter in last year’s All-Star Game, Young has, at long last, given us a reason to care about the Hawks, a forgotten franchise that, prior to the 22-year-old’s arrival, hadn’t been in the spotlight for quite some time. — Pantuosco
19. Donovan Mitchell, G, Utah Jazz
Like an active volcano spewing lava in all directions, Mitchell erupted in the Bubble, reducing opponents to rubble with a flurry of clutch performances. The carnage included a pair of 50-point outbursts, none more memorable than his 57-point masterpiece in Utah’s playoff opener, good for the third-highest single-game total in NBA postseason history. The Jazz came out on the wrong side of a seven-game opening-round thriller (a series that saw Mitchell connect on a downright absurd 51.5 percent of his three-pointers), but it was worth it to see Spida go toe-to-toe with Jamal Murray, trading buckets with his Nuggets counterpart in a scoring display for the ages. Mitchell sizzled in Orlando but his unlikely ascent from late lottery pick to indispensable franchise player was years in the making. A former Dunk Champion and Rookie of the Year runner-up, Mitchell is just scratching the surface of his limitless potential. The 24-year-old is the straw that stirs Utah’s drink and, thanks to his freshly-inked five-year, $163-million extension (a financial windfall that could, through incentives and escalators, reach a maximum value of $195 million), that should remain the case for many years to come. — Pantuosco
18. Chris Paul, G, Phoenix Suns
Oklahoma City was not supposed to be a competitive team last year. The year prior, they went 49-33 on the strength of an MVP-caliber season from Paul George and with longtime face of the franchise Russell Westbrook averaging a triple-double (22.9 points, 11.1 rebounds, 10.7 assists). George and Westbrook both departed with veteran Chris Paul arriving in a trade with Houston.
Paul proceeded to lead a scrappy team of overachievers to an even better 2019-20 campaign, seemingly out of nowhere. The Thunder finished 44-28, far exceeding their preseason expectations (ESPN pegged them as a 33-49 squad coming into the year). Paul now finds himself playing for his third team in as many years in Phoenix alongside established star Devin Booker, promising up-and-comer Deandre Ayton and a supporting cast of young, eager players ready to make a run in the Western Conference. No one will be doubting Paul this time. — Cohn
17. Kyrie Irving, G, Brooklyn Nets
The time has finally arrived for Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets to execute on the plan they set in motion long ago. Irving and fellow All-Star Kevin Durant will take the floor together for the first time as Nets, buttressed by an impressively deep roster partially assembled before they arrived.
The question is how the star duo will mesh with incumbent Nets, many of whom were pivotal in the franchise’s recent turnaround. Irving, for his part, has elevated his game to new, potentially top-10 heights the past several years. The only issues seemingly holding him back appear to be injuries and what some perceive as unpredictable or immature behavior. The Duke product is a six-time All-Star and NBA champion at age 28, and for better or worse, appears intent on winning a title with his new team, on his terms. — Mennella
16. Karl-Anthony Towns, C, Minnesota Timberwolves
Towns had a trying 2019-20, both on and off the court. The All-Star's mother was among seven family members who succumbed to the coronavirus, a tragic ordeal that by his own account has left him reeling. The calamity came on the heels of an injury-riddled season for Towns that was exacerbated by his team’s lackluster play, a situation that, at its height, became dire enough to prompt trade speculation. It never came to pass. Instead, the Wolves bolstered their roster at the trade deadline and continued to retool this offseason. Towns has a stronger supporting cast this year, at least on paper, with high-scoring combo guard D'Angelo Russell and top draft pick Anthony Edwards in tow. Obviously, there’s no telling where Towns stands emotionally right now and how that will impact his performance in 2021. It goes without saying that the effects of COVID, a global pandemic our society is still grappling with, far transcends any top-25 list. —Mennella
15. Ben Simmons, G, Philadelphia 76ers
We get it. It’s been said to death. Ben Simmons can’t shoot a lick. It’s not part of his game. Accept it. Move on. What he does do is play some of the best defense—statistically, analytically, by the eye test—in basketball and he does it while guarding many of the sport’s top talents, drawing daunting assignments against LeBron James, James Harden and others of similar superstar pedigree. Not to mention he’s a prolific rebounder and finds teammates at a near-triple-double rate. Simmons has yet to develop a perimeter game, but he finishes at the rim with authority. If only the critics would spend as much time focusing on Simmons’ countless strengths as they do his one weakness. — Cohn
14. Bam Adebayo, F, Miami Heat
Adebayo followed up his sophomore breakout with an even more impressive 2020, displaying the type of rugged low-post play that was expected of him along with a surprisingly deft touch as a facilitator (5.1 assists per game) on a team that was without its starting point guard for much of the season. Bam averaged 15.9 points while shooting north of 55 percent for the second straight year. He was also active on the glass, contributing a respectable 10.2 boards per game. In a league where bigs are increasingly heaving from beyond the arc, Adebayo is laying the blueprint for being a successful interior player in the modern NBA. — Mennella
13. Joel Embiid, C, Philadelphia 76ers
It’s going to be an interesting season for the other half of Philadelphia’s star duo, particularly with new coach Doc Rivers calling the shots. If the first preseason game was any indication, Embiid, who has often struggled with his conditioning, won’t be treated with kid gloves anymore. If Embiid improves his fitness and is able to sustain extended stints on the hardwood, he could rise to the MVP level he’s teased over the years.
There’s no doubt that whenever Embiid is on the court—which has always been half the battle—he’s damn near unstoppable. Embiid’s 72.5 field goal percentage within three feet of the hoop and his 51.7 percent clip overall shows you what a ferocious low-post presence he can be. His frustrating obsession with shooting from the perimeter—an inexplicable 21.5 percent of his attempts last season were of the three-point variety—is somewhat necessary in order to space the floor. But with natural shooters like Danny Green and Seth Curry surrounding him, Embiid would be wise not to venture too far from the paint. Just as forceful an interior defender as he is on the offensive side of the floor, Embiid’s durability will determine whether he takes a leap forward in 2021. — Cohn
12. Jimmy Butler, F, Miami Heat
No one straddles the line between eccentric and diabolical quite like Miami’s gleeful anarchist (I’m not talking about beloved serial killer Dexter Morgan), Jimmy Buckets. Butler’s not-here-to-make-friends modus operandi isn’t for everyone, but unlike his previous employers, who bristled at his confrontational stylings, the Heat love him for it, embracing the 31-year-old’s needling, win-at-all-costs mentality. A born pot-stirrer who defends like his life depends on it (he’s long been LeBron James’ kryptonite), the latte-loving veteran performs best when the lights are brightest. He proved that in last year’s Finals by averaging an electric 26.2 points per game on magnificent 54.6-percent shooting. But anyone familiar with Butler’s work knows putting the ball through the net is just a fraction of what he does. Like the menu at The Cheesecake Factory, Butler’s game offers a little of everything, whether it’s crashing the boards (career-high 6.7 rebounds per game last season), getting his teammates involved (six assists per game) or hounding the opponents’ best player. You can hate Butler all you want—in fact, he’d probably prefer it if you did. But that won’t stop him from devouring your favorite team with a smile on his face. — Pantuosco
11. Jayson Tatum, F, Boston Celtics
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result. Yet, against their better judgment, teams continue to make trades with Celtics GM Danny Ainge. I’m telling you guys, just don’t do it. He knows more than you. We knew Dastardly Dan had something up his sleeve when he happily traded out of the No. 1 pick in 2017, which the Sixers ultimately used on Washington point guard Markelle Fultz. While Fultz proceeded to crash and burn, stumbling to 7.7 points per game over his two largely fruitless seasons in Philadelphia, Ainge struck gold with Tatum, a smooth-shooting, rim-attacking monstrosity from Duke (via St. Louis feeder system Chaminade Prep, the same school that produced All-Stars Bradley Beal and David Lee). After weathering somewhat of a sophomore slump, Tatum went ballistic in 2020, offering us a glimpse of his mountainous ceiling (we’re talking Kilimanjaro) by averaging a slick 23.4 points per game while cashing in on over 40 percent of his long-range tries. The high-flying Tatum is still growing, literally—head coach Brad Stevens claims the 22-year-old shot up two inches, from 6’8” to 6’10,” during the pandemic. Donovan Mitchell isn’t buying that narrative but regardless of what his actual height is, it’s clear the supremely talented (and also extremely wealthy after landing a $195-million max extension this offseason) Tatum is ticketed for mega-stardom. — Pantuosco
10. Nikola Jokic, C, Denver Nuggets
Jokic was one of the few players who clearly benefited from the league’s COVID suspension, resurfacing in the Bubble looking notably svelter after beginning the year as many as 40 pounds overweight. The Nuggets couldn’t have been happier with his transformation as Jokic's inspired play in Orlando even prompted a flattering Larry Bird comparison from coaching legend Gregg Popovich.
The Serbian seven-footer has a uniquely refined skill set for an athlete his size and, at only 25, it's possible his best is yet to come. Even so, Jokic is a nightly triple-double threat and a safe bet to average 20 and 10. His physique may not be pretty, but seemingly every other aspect of his game is. — Mennella
9. Luka Doncic, G, Dallas Mavericks
Forget Obama. Let the Twitter body-shamers hate. Mark Cuban and the Mavericks know they have something special in Luka Doncic, a dime-dropping, barely-old-enough-to-legally-drink floor general with all the trimmings. The 6’7” Slovenian’s skill set isn’t rare—it’s unheard-of. Craftier than Martha Stewart with eyes in the back of his head, the Euro-stepping Doncic is a walking triple double (league-leading 17 last season) with laser floor vision and a flair for the dramatic (his walk-off dagger to stun the Clippers in the Bubble was as coldblooded as they come). Can Doncic improve in certain areas? No doubt. The Real Madrid alum is no one’s idea of a polished shooter (he shot a pedestrian 31.6 percent from long range in 2020) and the Mavs would be wise to nip his turnover habit (fourth-most per game a year ago) in the bud. But ask yourself, how many other 21-year-old, First Team All-NBA selections are currently in existence? Doncic is one of one. — Pantuosco
8. Damian Lillard, G, Portland Trail Blazers
I thought it was a hot take when I proclaimed, on the heels of another late-game masterpiece, that of any current player in the league, Damian Lillard would be my choice for the final shot. But apparently, I was preaching to the choir as 32 percent of NBA general managers said the exact same thing. For context, Steph Curry finished a distant second, polling at 25 percent.
But how could you not want Lillard in crunch time? How could you dismiss a player who warranted his own “Greatest Game-Winners” YouTube compilation after his fifth season, an updated version after his seventh and another after his heroic efforts in the NBA Bubble? How could you deny an assassin who averaged 42.4 points over a historic nine-game stretch last season? I had Dame higher than Curry in my own personal rankings, but clearly my RADIO.COM colleagues didn’t feel the same. — Cohn
7. James Harden, G, Houston Rockets
This guy. Everything about Harden is polarizing, from his on-court aesthetic, which consists mainly of aimless dribbling, shameless flopping, low-percentage step-back threes and his patented brand of halfhearted defense, to his various off-court habits including his well-known affinity for the Canadian ballet. Between his Tom Hanks Cast Away beard and the Freshman 15 he debuted earlier this week, Harden certainly doesn’t look the part of a 35-point-per-game scorer in the National Basketball Association, but that’s precisely what he’s been the past two seasons. The 31-year-old is a locker-room headache (his swollen ego is large enough to be classified as a “census designated place”) and a chore to watch, but he’s also the league’s best scorer by a country mile. And for all the talk of Harden’s perceived selfishness, he’s consistently among the league leaders in assists (7.5 per game in 2020) and is also a better defender than he’s given credit for (fifth in steals per game last season). Critics like to deride Harden as a “volume scorer,” but his ball-handling acumen and maddening ability to get to the charity stripe (where he is a career 86-percent shooter) are second-to-none. — Pantuosco
6. Kevin Durant, F, Brooklyn Nets
I was looking up other NBA players who have come back from Achilles injuries when I reached the following conclusion—it doesn’t matter. K.D. isn’t like “other” players. He’s an unguardable, 6’10,” scoring machine with a feathery shooting stroke and limitless range. Durant has never needed explosiveness or burst to succeed. He’s such a spindly, fundamentally-sound player he could probably score on one leg.
It’s confounding to me why people are so skeptical of the Nets. Maybe they’re a tier below other contenders like the Bucks and Lakers, but can a team with Durant and Kyrie Irving truly be bad? I don’t think so. — Cohn
5. Stephen Curry, G, Golden State Warriors