Long before a worldwide pandemic shut the NBA down, much of the narrative during the 2019-20 regular season was how TV ratings had slipped. Many people offered their theories.
The one that seemed to make the most sense, however, was the simple fact many of the league's best players were hurt. Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry, in particular, are among the most marketable players in the sport, the ones you tune in to see.
In addition to them, guys like Klay Thompson, John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Victor Oladipo have missed significant time. So have Kyrie Irving and Blake Griffin.
So, that's like what, eight of the league's top 40 players? It is no wonder there was an impact.
It also makes ranking the best players in the NBA an unusual exercise. And really the only fair way to do it is to exclude those guys, given it is impossible to grade them accurately, in some cases having no real certainty for how they will look when they return.
With all that in mind, here is a look at the top 20 players in the NBA right now. Some should be pretty obvious, while some will be up for debate...
20. Zion Williamson, Pelicans - Already? Yeah, already. Williamson has only played 19 NBA games after recovering from a knee injury, but his ability to impact games on both ends of the floor is special. He is a matchup nightmare physically with his strength, first step and explosive leaping ability. And he's more skilled and has better instincts than people give him credit for. The guy is averaging 23.6 points in 29.7 minutes while holding a 59.5 effective field goal percentage, which is just insane.
19. Khris Middleton, Bucks - Middleton is easy to like because of his commitment to both ends of the floor and his constantly improving game. He was a late-bloomer of sorts who didn't really break out until his late 20s, but now he's a perennial All-Star and the second-best player on a true title contender. Don't be surprised if he raises his stock in the postseason, whenever it is played.
18. Ben Simmons, 76ers - The three-point struggles are real and could limit his ceiling long-term, but his reputation has drifted far out of hand. So, he doesn't make outside shots; he literally does everything else well, to the point where he is one of the most well-rounded players in the NBA. It wouldn't be surprising if someday the fact he doesn't look for his own shot becomes more appreciated. Look through the history of the NBA, score-first point guards rarely lead teams to championships.
17. Bradley Beal, Wizards - Every time you think Beal has reached his peak, he finds another level offensively, now to the point where he is second in the NBA in scoring (30.5 ppg). He would rank higher if not for two things: one is the lack of team success, which most might point to, but also the fact he isn't nearly as effective on defense as he is on offense. Now, both of those things aren't necessarily his fault, even the latter. If the Wizards had more talent around him, he would be able to do more on defense and take on tougher assignments. Right now he has to save his energy for offense.
16. Rudy Gobert, Jazz - If you think about it, it's kind of strange how much we weigh offense over defense. Gobert, for instance, is arguably the equal-and-opposite of James Harden. He's probably the best player in the entire league on one end of the floor, while on the other side he's merely decent. Defensively, there is no questioning his impact. He dominates games with his control of the paint.
15. Paul George, Clippers - George may stand to gain as much from the league resuming this year than anyone, as his legacy would change considerably with a deep playoff run. He has long been one of the game's best two-way players, but aside from one conference finals hasn't been able to shine on the game's biggest stage. If the Clippers made the Finals or won it all this year, the view of George could go from likely Hall of Famer to maybe in the third or fourth tier of the best to ever play the small forward position.
14. Russell Westbrook, Rockets - Westbrook is one of those NBA players who is somehow simultaneously overrated and underrated, maybe not quite to the degree of Draymond Green, but there just doesn't seem to be a level and fair way to assess Westbrook's value. Yes, he's inefficient from three-point range, but he essentially does everything else well. And he and James Harden have proven to be a better fit than many predicted.
13. Jayson Tatum, Celtics - Tatum is establishing himself as one of the NBA's best young stars and it's only his age-21 season. It makes you wonder just how good he can be and whether he can ascend to the MVP candidate ranks. The sample size just remains a bit small to put him in the top 10. Maybe that changes after the playoffs, assuming they happen at some point.
12. Karl-Anthony Towns, Timberwolves - Towns may play for a perpetually disappointing Timberwolves team that for some reason couldn't win games with him this season, but the talent and numbers are hard to argue with. If Minnesota was even a decent team, he would rank higher. He's averaging a fairly absurd stat-line of 26.5 points, 10.8 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game while separating himself as perhaps the best shooting big man out there. He made an impeccable 41.2 percent from three on 7.9 attempts; absolutely incredible for a player his size.
11. Jimmy Butler, Heat - Butler has for years been respected for his talent and his competitive fire, but also questioned as a teammate and for his ability to lead a winning team. His tenure in Chicago didn't end well, neither did his time in Minnesota or Philly. So, maybe that will happen in Miami, too, but for now he's proving he can be the top dog on a contending team. It seems like he has finally found the perfect system and place for him.
10. Pascal Siakam, Raptors - It doesn't seem like anyone predicted Siakam would be a legitimate top-10 player this season before it began. But after being a central figure on the Raptors title team, he got significantly better. And the beauty of his game is that there is no real relative weakness. He does just about everything at least average and he does most things above average. Those types of players deserve the utmost respect because it takes a lot of hard work and attention to detail to achieve.
9. Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers - Portland may not be the team they were a year ago, but that hasn't slowed down Lillard from posting some of the best numbers of his career, including personal highs in points (28.9 ppg), assists (7.8 apg) and three-pointers. This is now his eighth straight season as one of the league's standout scorers and he has been especially durable along the way. A few more years of this and he will be a lock for the Hall of Fame.
8. Luka Doncic, Mavericks - Doncic is improving so rapidly that it's tough to tell whether this is an overreaction or if we're selling him short. He's clearly one of the NBA's brightest young stars, ranking sixth this season in scoring (27.7 ppg), fourth in assists (8.7 apg) and top 20 in rebounding (9.3 rpg). And he's doing all that despite recently turning 21.
7. Joel Embiid, 76ers - Say what you want about the Sixers and the perception they underachieve, Embiid is a star on both offense and defense. He might be the most imposing physical force in the game and he combines his size with a uniquely versatile skillset. If Embiid stays healthy, he has the chance to be a league MVP.
6. Nikola Jokic, Nuggets - It might be hard to call Jokic underrated after he made first-team All-NBA last season, but it still seems like he doesn't get enough credit. The bottom line is Jokic is the best player on one of the NBA's best teams and his versatility sets him apart as one of the league's most effective stars. What stands out most is his passing, not only the fact he averages 6.9 assists but the way he gets them. He could go down as the best passing big man in NBA history someday.
5. Anthony Davis, Lakers - An elite two-way player who regularly leads the NBA in blocks, Davis seems really close to finally getting his due now that he's on a winning team. One ring and all of a sudden all the personal accomplishments he's put together over the years will be seen in a different light, similar to what happened with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen when they won with the Celtics.
4. James Harden, Rockets - Harden has taken advantage of the NBA's evolution as much as anyone. He has fully embraced prioritizing the three-point shot over the midrange. Combined with his exceptional ability of getting to the free throw line, he has established himself as the best scorer in the league. If only he played better defense, he would get more respect and be higher on lists like this one.
3. LeBron James, Lakers - Somehow, 17 years after he was drafted, James is still playing at an elite level. By some statistical measurements, he's as good as he's ever been. For example, he's leading the NBA with a career-high 10.6 assists per game. His defense, however, isn't as elite as the top two players on this list.
2. Kawhi Leonard, Clippers - Leonard is one of the select few players in today's NBA who can legitimately control the game on both ends of the floor. He showed last year in the playoffs that there may be no better player to have during crunch time than him. He is also the most versatile player in today's game, which values versatility more than any era before it. The only thing he doesn't do is play a lot of games. If he was more durable and reliable, he would have a better case for being the league's best player.
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks - There shouldn't be much argument here. Antetokounmpo is the reigning MVP and by far the best player on a team on pace to post one of the best records in league history. The Greek Freak's effectiveness on both ends of the floor have all the makings of an all-time great. Not unlike LeBron James or Shaquille O'Neal, guarding him is a physical impossibility. He just has to win something of consequence, and he's well on his way to doing that.
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