Our panel of NBA writers collectively put LeBron James in the No. 1 spot in , but one of his worthy challengers, Kevin Durant, was ruled ineligible because of a ruptured Achilles tendon that is expected to sideline him all season. In this roundtable discussion about the rankings featuring James Herbert, Colin Ward-Henninger and Michael Kaskey-Blomain, we’ll start there, imagining a world in which Durant made it through the 2019 playoffs injury-free.
1. If Kevin Durant were healthy, where would you rank him?
James Herbert: No. 1, I think, because he looked like the best player in the league in the postseason. There is a caveat, though: In this alternative universe, we would have been able to see Durant go up against Kawhi Leonard in the NBA Finals for longer than 12 minutes, and we must assume that the matchup would have influenced our thinking. What if Leonard had thoroughly outplayed him?
Colin Ward-Henninger: Man, this is tough. Based on what I saw in the playoffs before his initial calf injury, I’d say that Durant belongs at No. 2, right behind LeBron. I feel there might be some recency bias with what we saw with Kawhi in the playoffs, and I just need to see him do it again for a full season before I believe he’s fully healthy. Durant, on the other hand, has proven that he can do it year in and year out. You throw in the fact that he would be relatively unleashed in his new Brooklyn surroundings after having to sacrifice so much with the Warriors, and Durant would have been in line for a monster season.
Michael Kaskey-Blomain: Fully healthy, he would have ranked No. 2 on my personal list, just behind LeBron James. Durant is the most deadly force on the offensive end in the entire NBA. He can score in virtually every possible way, and he can get it done defensively, too. James’ playmaking and natural leadership ability are the two traits that set him apart from Durant in my mind, but when both are at the peak of their powers, it’s really close.
2. Which player/players have we collectively underrated?
Herbert: I’ll mention a current and former Rocket. Eric Gordon (No. 69) is too low for my liking, perhaps because his unimpressive shooting percentages undersell his ability — there is value in the volume of 3s he takes and the distance from which he takes them — and because, while he isn’t considered a stopper, he has proven more than capable of defending multiple positions. I also had Chris Paul (No. 31) significantly higher than anybody else did, as I’m generally a sucker for basketball IQ and I’m not convinced that he is over the hill just yet. (I am also much more bullish than the rest of our staff on young bigs Jaren Jackson Jr. and Domantas Sabonis, who were ranked Nos. 52 and 71, respectively.)
Ward-Henninger: I know there’s a movement that says he puts up somewhat “empty” stats, but Devin Booker should be higher on this list. He’s proven himself to be the ideal modern wing offensively, able to shoot and a playmaker from both guard positions. You don’t average 27-7-4 with over two 3s per game unless you’re an elite player, and Booker, for whatever reason, doesn’t get that kind of praise. Especially since we’re projecting for this season, in which he finally has a true point guard on his team in Ricky Rubio, Booker is underrated at No. 32.
Kaskey-Blomain: There was a point in time where I thought Kristaps Porzingis (No. 33) was overrated, but the tables have turned. Now that Porzingis has missed nearly a season and a half, he’s become underrated, at least on our list. How well he is able to bounce back from a tough ACL injury remains a legitimate question, but all the talent and potential that Porzingis flashed in New York is still there, and he’s still just 24 years old. With a bounce-back season in Dallas, he could climb much higher in our rankings next year.
3. Which player/players have we collectively overrated?
Herbert: I am fully aware that Deandre Ayton (No. 86) and Marvin Bagley (No. 74) could make me look silly for putting them in the “overrated” category, but I am only doing that for now. As intriguing as their skill sets are, Ayton and Bagley exist in the awkward space that many young players occupy — their flaws make them less-than-ideal supporting players, and they can’t credibly be called stars yet, either. The top two picks in the 2018 draft have solid counting stats and all sorts of upside, but I want to see them contribute to winning. I’m worried about them playing out of position at power forward, too.
Ward-Henninger: It pains me to say this, but Al Horford. The contribution that Horford makes on both ends of the court is well documented, but if we’re talking about his impact on this specific 76ers team — we’re still not sure how he and Embiid will fit together — for this specific season, I think that No. 29 is too high. The 33-year-old will be valuable to a Philly team with championship aspirations, but I would put players like Booker, Khris Middleton and Paul ahead of him.
Kaskey-Blomain: After averaging a pedestrian 7.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game two seasons ago, Pascal Siakam (ranked 28th on our list) had a breakout season for the Raptors, and he was named the league’s Most Improved Player as a result. And while his play was certainly impressive, I need to see more before I’m sold. Siakam will have an opportunity to take a big-time step forward again with Leonard gone, and if does, he will solidify his spot. Until then, however, he’s not a top-30 player in my eyes.
4. Which player/players outside of the top 100 have we unfairly snubbed?
Herbert: Dejounte Murray! He was getting Most Improved Player buzz before a torn ACL cost him the entire 2018-19 season, and it feels like we forgot about him. We should not have — he was an unbelievable defender before the injury, and I’m expecting a big jump on offense now. I am also partial to Bogdan Bogdanovic, Andre Iguodala and Ricky Rubio.
Ward-Henninger: Try as you might, you can’t convince me that Bogdan Bogdanovic isn’t going to be a top-100 player this season. He averaged 14 points and four assists last season in less than 30 minutes per game and is an absolute knock-down shooter, both in catch-and-shoot situations and off the dribble. I think he’s going to thrive in Luke Walton’s system as a smart, versatile guard, and that at the end of the season we’ll look back at not ranking him as a big mistake.
Kaskey-Blomain: Iguodala probably should have made the list. Yeah, he’ll turn 36 in January and he isn’t as athletically inclined as he used to be and his regular season production has dipped a bit, but he remains one of the league’s better perimeter defenders and possesses an extremely high basketball IQ. It remains to be seen which team Iguodala will be suiting up for, but when the games matter, there aren’t 100 players better than Iggy.
5. Which player/players were the most difficult to rank?
Herbert: I still have no idea what to do with Gordon Hayward (No. 48), and vague return-from-injury timelines made Victor Oladipo (No. 25) and Klay Thompson (No. 26) tough ones, too. The most difficult part for me, though, was figuring out how to account for the flaws of young, high-usage guards like Booker, Jamal Murray (No. 40) and Trae Young (No. 45). The flaws and features of Russell Westbrook (No. 19) drove me similarly crazy.
Ward-Henninger: Zion Williamson (No. 67) was difficult to gauge since we’ve literally never seen him play a second of real NBA basketball, but for me the hardest player to rank was Westbrook. He’s coming off a catastrophic shooting season, but he also averaged a triple-double for the third straight season, a feat that has somehow become underrated. The biggest reason why he’s hard to get a grip on, however, is that I have no idea what the offense is going to look like with him and James Harden — it could highlight all of Westbrook’s talents while minimizing his faults, or it could demand him to do things he’s simply not capable of doing. To me, Westbrook is the player on the list with the most question marks.
Kaskey-Blomain: The toughest player to rank was Williamson for me, due to the obvious fact that he has yet to play in a regular-season game. Williamson is teeming with talent, and he is one of the most hyped prospects in recent memory, but it remains to be seen how the rookie will fare against professional competition and how quickly he will put everything together.