Four hundred and fifty players are on NBA rosters to open the 2020-21 season. If history is any indication, another 75-100 players will join rosters throughout the season. Of those approximately 525-550 players who will occupy an NBA roster spot at some point this season, which players sit in the top 5 percent?
NBA teams are ultimately chasing a championship, a chase presumably led by the Los Angeles Lakers, who sit atop NBA Finals odds in online sports betting, but another chase matters, too: All-NBA. In earning one of the 15 spots on the three All-NBA teams, players can trigger supermax contracts, a contract valued up to 35 percent of the salary cap in the initial year and subject to 8 percent escalation in each subsequent year.
Championships matter in the NBA, obviously. Designation as one of the best players in the game also matters. And entering the 2020-21 season, here are the 25 players with the best chance to earn an All-NBA selection:
25. Zion Williamson
Twenty-four games into his NBA career, Zion Williamson is already a top-25 player.
The 6-foot-6, 284-pounder set several records during his injury-shortened season, including becoming the first teenager in NBA history to score at least 20 points in 10 straight games.
“I think you have a vision for what he is, which is a multi-talented guy,” new Pelicans’ head coach Stan Van Gundy said of Williamson. “He is an unbelievable playmaker for a guy at his size. He is a guy who can take the ball off of the glass and lead the break and make plays. He can make passes off of the dribble and finish over bigger people inside. I don’t look at him in any way, as far as is he a four or a five, I’m not sure those labels matter when it comes to him.”
No. 25 is the starting position for a rising star that could vault into the top 15 by season’s end.
24. Chris Paul
Chris Paul said he “could see himself” retiring early to spend time with his children. That was seven years, four All-Star appearances, and four All-NBA selections ago.
Admittedly rejuvenated after changing his diet and workouts, Chris Paul had a sensational 2019-20 season and, after an offseason trade, enters his first season with the Phoenix Suns as one of the premier end-to-end players in the league.
23. Jrue Holiday
One of the most underrated players in the NBA over the last decade, Jrue Holiday is finally playing for a title contender after an offseason trade to the Milwaukee Bucks. An elite defender who defends far bigger than his 6-foot-3, 205-pound frame suggests, Holiday’s decision-making on both ends is superb.
“He's a very unselfish player who plays hard on both sides of the ball. He plays the game the right way and at a very high level,” Bucks’ guard Khris Middleton said in December.
22. Russell Westbrook
When he’s on, Russell Westbrook is a top-10 player. When he’s off, Russell Westbrook is a careless liability who can’t hit from beyond 20 feet, gives away points with technical fouls, and commits six or seven turnovers in one half.
Entering his 13th season, and his first with the Washington Wizards, he remains a stat-stuffing elite scorer who can take over games. But until Westbrook regains consistency on both ends, he’s a fringe top-25 player.
21. Bradley Beal
Russell Westbrook’s new backcourt mate, Bradley Beal has proven to be one of the three or four best guards in the league...when he’s healthy.
He missed an average of 15 games over his first five seasons, played all 82 games in both 2017-18 and 2018-19, before missing 15 games last year with a rotator cuff injury. The two-time All-Star is reportedly 100 percent entering what could be the prime of his career.
20. Kyrie Irving
Kyrie Irving is an easy target for on- and off-the-court criticism, much of which he brings upon himself. Nonetheless, the former No. 1 pick and six-time All-Star is an elite talent with one of the best statistical résumés of any point guard in NBA history.
“I always knew Ky was a great athlete, incredibly mobile, and such a gifted mover but he is actually more explosive than I thought, which is really impressive,” Brooklyn Nets' head coach Steve Nash. “I don’t remember him being quite as athletic or explosive as he has been. I knew he was a good athlete for sure but he’s been really impressive in his ability to close distances, create space, exploding into gaps - so he looks incredible and he is fun to watch and fun to coach.”
19. Karl-Anthony Towns
A few years ago, Karl-Anthony Towns was widely projected to be a top-five player in the NBA by now. While he’s nowhere near the top five, the sixth-year pro has turned the corner from often frustrating and inconsistent big man to a shockingly versatile 6-foot-11 center who can score from anywhere on the court.
18. Bam Adebayo
What does Bam Adebayo do wrong on the basketball court? We can poke holes in limited shooting range, especially given his size, and occasional brain-fart turnovers but the Heat’s fourth-year forward has developed into one of the most well-rounded players in the league.
“It’s the ultimate luxury, just how dynamic he is and the things he can do offensively,” Heat forward Duncan Robinson said of Adebayo. “People view versatility offensively as being able to shoot and being physical and doing other things. His versatility is so much more than that. The way he can handle the ball, his decision-making has obviously improved. It just makes it easy on me to have an outlet that I can always get it to and then know that he can really play-make on the backside. A lot of times my job is just to get him the ball in those situations.”
17. Devin Booker
Devin Booker was a rising superstar long before leading the Phoenix Suns’ Bubble dominance in which he averaged 30.5 points on 50.3 shooting in eight games. The addition of Chris Paul should open the floor for Booker as he looks for more consistency from beyond the arc.
16. Donovan Mitchell
Like Booker, Donovan Mitchell was a rising superstar long before his 50-point games in Orlando. He landed a max contract extension in November after setting a career-high in effective field-goal percentage (51.3 percent) and leading the Jazz to their second-highest regular-season winning percentage in the last 12 years.
"I have never been around a young player like Donovan Mitchell," Kyle Korver told USA Today in 2019. "I have never seen someone so young take ownership of a team, take ownership of his play, do it with charisma, do it with class. I've never seen that in my 16 years in the NBA.
15. Joel Embiid
When Joel Embiid plays, Joel Embiid is dominant. When Joel Embiid is nursing one of the million injuries throughout his four-year career, Joel Embiid is as valuable as a toothpick.
One of the most talented bigs in league history, Embiid still commits too many fouls and turnovers (6.5 combined last year, down by 6.8 a year ago and seven in 2017-18), but is a highly efficient, mobile 7-footer.
14. Nikola Jokić
Fun fact that went largely unnoticed last year: Nikola Jokić had received more MVP votes than Jimmy Butler and Jayson combined, finishing ninth in voting after his fifth NBA season. He’s rarely injured, remains a threat from the perimeter (albeit inconsistent but still a threat, nonetheless), might be the best passing center ever.
"He has a little bit of everybody," Doc Rivers said in September when asked if Jokic compares to anyone. "He has all the footwork and the moves of an [Hakeem] Olajuwon, the lanky and goofy, like goofy intelligence of Kevin McHale. Shoot, man, he's just good.He's the best passing big that I've seen, I think, ever.”
13. Jamal Murray
Jamal Murray was an inconsistent player in 2018-19, Denver Nuggets’ head coach Mike Malone told Murray after his third season. Malone was right, Murray admitted, and that bothered him.
This offseason, Malone didn’t say that. And like last offseason, Malone was right and enters this season with a lethal scorer and one of the best off-the-bounce offensive games of anyone in the league.
“Jamal is a complete basketball player," Malone said in September. "He's not just a scorer. He's a playmaker, and he can rebound for his position. And these 16 or 17 playoff games I think are the best stretch of defense that I've ever seen him play."
12. Jayson Tatum
Jayson Tatum is no longer the former top-three pick with a bright future; Jayson Tatum is now the former top-three pick who achieved superstar status with a spectacular third season.
After losing six percentage points from deep from his rookie season to sophomore season, Tatum regained three points, shooting 40 percent on more than seven three-point attempts per game. He averaged 23.4 points on just 18 shot attempts per game, hit a three-pointer every 25 possessions and established himself as an elite defender.
11. Paul George
Everyone had the same reaction to Paul George’s $190-million extension: “He better earn it.”
Paul George has been a top-25 player for several years and flirted with top-five status several times over his 10 seasons. Is that enough for a $190-million player? In the regular season, yes. A resounding yes. In the playoffs, no.
Maybe it was Doc Rivers’ fault, as George believes. If true, with Tyronn Lue as head coach, George could take the next step.
10. Jimmy Butler
Jimmy Butler is the epitome of an ignore-the-stats star. While we can’t always ignore 40-point games or, on the flip side, modest production such as a sub-20-points-per-game average, he doesn’t need to stuff the box score to control games.
Finally playing for a team that allows aggressive freedom, Butler is masterful at drawing fouls (real fouls, not the laughable ones James Harden routinely draws) and confounding opponents in Erik Spoelstra’s zone defensive schemes.
9. Damian Lillard
It’s often difficult to separate the evaluation of a superstar talent from the evaluation of a constantly underachieving team. In the case of Damian Lillard and a Trail Blazers team that can’t take that next step, it’s not difficult.
“I’ve never played with someone who lifted his team on the court with his play and as a leader,” Carmelo Anthony told Chris Haynes recently. “He genuinely cares for his teammates. What he’s been able to do is amazing. He’s the top guy I’ve played with. … I’ve played with some great players, but the way Dame elevates his game and others, he’s at the top.”
8. James Harden
For the last few years, fans and pundits have kicked around some version of, “Is James Harden the NBA’s best scorer since…?”
Called one of the greatest scorers in NBA history by LeBron James, Harden has averaged at least 30 points in each of his last three seasons and will comfortably hit 30 in his 12th season after Russell Westbrook left behind more opportunities.
7. Luka Dončić
In leading the Dallas Mavericks’ dramatic turnaround from irrelevance to potential championship contender, Luka Dončić is a legitimate MVP candidate in just his third season. And with Rick Carlisle extending the leash of his rising star, Dončić is primed for another huge leap.
6. Steph Curry
Without Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson and returning from a broken hand that forced him to miss all but five games last year, Steph Curry is entering the most interesting year of his Hall of Fame career.
He’s still a career 43-percent three-point shooter, didn’t have an effective shooting clip below 54 percent until last year’s lost season, and doesn’t need 30-point games to alter the Warriors’ offense.
“He's so unique,” Warriors’ head coach Steve Kerr said of Curry. “There's nobody like him in the NBA. Nobody who can play on and off the ball at that level and who creates that kind of havoc.”
5. Kawhi Leonard
On his third team in three years. Kawhi Leonard’s first season with the Los Angeles Clippers was a weird one. At times, he looked like the best player in the league. Other times, he went cold from deep and wasn’t as dominant of a defender as he’s been throughout his career.
Still, he’s arguably the most polished all-around player in the NBA, proven he’s reliable from the perimeter, and routinely shuts down opposing scorers.
4. Kevin Durant
Occasionally dubbed the most natural scorer in NBA history, Kevin Durant’s accolades speak for themselves: Two championships, two NBA Finals MVPs, one NBA MVP, 10 All-Star appearances, and nine All-NBA selections. He doesn’t need anything else for a first-ballot Hall of Fame selection.
Entering the latter portion of his career, Durant isn’t on a specific load management plan, says Steve Nash, but will carefully return from a missed season.
3. Anthony Davis
Entering hsi age-27 season, Anthony Davis is already an NBA champion, seven-time All-Star, four-time All-NBA selection and three-time leader in blocked shots. And his game could reach a new level this season with increased opportunities from the perimeter.
Davis’ three-point attempts have climbed in each of his first eight seasons reaching 3.5 per game last year, of which he hit 1.2 per game to bump his career average to 32 percent. And he could attempt five per game if Lakers’ head coach Frank Vogel gets his wishes.
“There is no more complete basketball player in the game,” Lakers’ general manager Rob Pelinka said after acquiring Davis from the New Orleans Pelicans last year. “There is nothing he can’t do. He can shoot. He can make plays. He can defend 1-5. He can protect the rim. He can handle the ball.”
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo
Superstars who don’t win in the playoffs are fairly criticized, as Giannis has been the last two seasons in failing to lead the Milwaukee Bucks to the NBA Finals. And while the avoidance of two five-game stretches of poor basketball in the playoffs may elevate his standing amongst the NBA’s elite players, the Greek Freak is still an elite player and one of the most special athletes in American sports history.
1. LeBron James
It’s trendy to pick against LeBron. In the NBA Finals, MVP race, and elsewhere. Oftentimes, it works. More often, it doesn’t and LeBron James repeatedly proves he’s the best player in the league.
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Andrew Doughty is a writer for BetMGM and host of High Motor, a college football podcast available on Apple Podcasts and everywhere else. He has written for Sports Illustrated, HERO Sports, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. Follow him on Twitter: @adoughty88.