Top 100 of 2017, 1-10: Does LeBron James maintain the No. 1 spot?

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Will Kevin Durant pass LeBron and become the best player in the NBA in 2017? You'll finally know the answer! Also: Who takes the third spot behind the two wing stars? The answer may surprise you.

We've reached the final 10 spots on our Top 100 NBA Players of 2017 countdown. Finally, we can answer two questions: Will LeBron James maintain the No. 1 spot, and who will be the third-best player in the league behind James and Kevin Durant? The answer to both questions will surprise you.

To get to know the panelists and read about what this whole list is about, see the Top 100 of 2017 index page.


10.  Blake Griffin

It feels like we've been waiting for Blake to take the next step forever, but he's still just three years into his career and he's been a 20-and-10 player per 36 minutes since he came into the league. While I would have loved to see him absorb the dark arts from Kevin Garnett, a bit of tough love from Doc Rivers and playing his prime years with a (hopefully) healthy Chris Paul could make Griffin into something like an evolutionary Barkley. -FLANNERY

TJARKS: The Barkley comparison is interesting. I'd love to see a season where Blake went Carmelo and took at least 20 shots a game. He's 3-for-3 for All-Star appearances in his career and he's deserved all of them.

PRADA: "Take me back to 2012. UVO, play jukebox."

*Plays Gangnam Style*

2017 BLAKE: "You call that defense?

2012 BLAKE: "Who are you?"

2017 BLAKE: "I'm you from the future."

2012 BLAKE: "Is that a Ring Pop?"

2017 BLAKE: "No, it's a 2016 championship ring I got because Doc Rivers taught me how to play defense."

2012 BLAKE: "Anything else I should know?"

2017 BLAKE: "Yeah, get Vinny Del Negro fired. Pretend Chris Paul did it."

FLANNERY: htr

KACZMAREK: I was going to add my comment about Blake, but after Mike's comment, I'll just let it be.


9.  James Harden

Harden's an extremely efficient offensive player who can function as a team's point guard. He led the league in free throw attempts (10.2) at the age of 23, an impressive feat. With the Rockets adding talent to share the offensive burden, his 44-percent mark from the field last season should improve. That's the only thing holding him back from an MVP-type season, at least on the offensive end.

The question is how much (if at all) his defense will improve. Even if it doesn't, though, he's clearly separated himself from the rest of the under-30 shooting guards in the NBA and he could be in line to start racking up first-team All-NBA spots as early as next season. -TJARKS

FLANNERY: Harden will have the best old-man game at this point. Wait, he already does.

ZILLER: What can keep Harden from being this high in 2017 is if we develop a great publicly available way to grade defense. (See: Love, Kevin.)

TJARKS: Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki say hello from the Hall of Fame. It isn't hard to hide one poor defender, especially on the perimeter.

ZILLER: I'm not sure mentioning Nash and Nowitzki counters my point that we'd more harshly grade some players if we had defensive data as clear and reliable as offensive data. Nash wouldn't have one MVP with that data, is my guess.

PRADA: I'm more intrigued by the possibility that Harden is this generation's Gilbert Arenas. Tremendous, efficient scorer ... but somewhat hard to play with because he monopolizes the ball, is stuck between being a point guard and off guard and, as noted, doesn't defend. I think that's one reason why some teams, especially Washington and Golden State, passed on trading for him. I think Harden is more adaptable than Agent Zero was, but that could derail his rise.

O'DONNELL: Gil's biggest problem was that he couldn't stay healthy. He had some bad luck. So far, Harden has been really durable throughout his career, but it'll be interesting to see if that changes over time given all the fouls he drew last season. That contact comes at a price.


8.  Andrew Wiggins

I have some doubts about whether Wiggins is as good as the hype and I'm also not sure he made the right college choice for his development. (Bill Self has a way of turning his talented wing players into the current version of Brandon Rush. Just ask Ben McLemore.) But it'd have to be a disappointment if all these NBA teams were rebuilding to chase the No. 1 pick and he didn't end up being a top-10 NBA player by Year 4. Kevin Durant was a top-10 player after Year 3, so I think that's a reasonable expectation for Wiggins. -PRADA

FLANNERY: We're trying to be all sage-y with this list, but we just don't know what any of these guys are going to be in the future. Part of the reason why LeBron and Durant are so fantastic is that they became as good as the hype and even exceeded it in some areas. We take it (and them) for granted. Still, everyone seems to agree that Wiggins can be special, and this isn't too high for that kind of potential.

O'DONNELL: My comparison for Wiggins is ‘Nique. High school athletes get judged on size and athleticism, and Wiggins is about as athletic as any player you'll ever see. Wilkins was a great player (averaged 28 or more per game five times), but given the hype, I almost wonder if people might be disappointed if Wiggins' 3-point shooting and passing don't develop quickly. Regardless, the dude is going to have some incredible highlights, starting next season at Kansas.

KACZMAREK: Would any NBA GM trade James Harden for the No. 1 pick in this draft? I don't see how you could. We KNOW that Harden is a superstar. We THINK Wiggins might be. I love Wiggins' talent, but I'm hesitant to jump all over guys when we haven't even seen them play against college competition yet. I'd have Wiggins a bit lower, personally.

PRADA: Keep in mind that, in your hypothetical, you're not trading Harden straight up for Wiggins; you're trading Harden straight up for the right to choose whoever you think is the best player in the 2014 draft, which may or may not be Wiggins. I think it will be Wiggins, which is why he's here, but it could be anyone. Given that, I do think several GMs would make that trade, depending on the current state of their franchise. The Rockets won't because they just signed Dwight Howard, but to revisit a discussion from earlier: What if your team is Harden and a capped-out roster that's winning 40 games every year? What if you're Philadelphia pre-Hinkie, for example? You don't think it'd be a good strategy to hit the reset button on that and start over with the best non-player asset you could have?


7. Anthony Davis

Two years before all the hoopla about the 2014 Draft class, we saw a can't-miss prospect in the form of Anthony Davis. His first season in the NBA was impressive, but not nearly enough to grab Rookie of the Year from Damian Lillard. His defensive abilities in college were historically good, but it takes some time for that to translate to the NBA. By 2017, I fully expect Davis to have put on some muscle and adjusted to the league physically. He'll be blocking shots with his pterodactyl wingspan and should be able to anchor a very good defense. Oh, and his offensive game is a lot better than people think. As I said, The Unibrow was the no-brainer No. 1 pick for a reason. -KACZMAREK

O'DONNELL: Four top-50 players for the Pelicans! What a world.

FLANNERY: I have a feeling Davis will be higher on the actual 2017 list. The knock on him in his rookie season was his defense, which is ironic since he was one of the most destructive college players I've seen, and I go back to the glory days of Hoya Paranoia and Patrick Ewing.

PRADA: It's silly to make too much out of an exhibition game, but the way he dominated that Team USA scrimmage was eye-opening. I agree: He should be higher.

KACZMAREK: He might deserve to be a little higher ... but ahead of whom? The only guys left that rank above him are really, really good too. We're splitting hairs once we get this high.

O'DONNELL: My dream of only selecting players who hail from Chicago dies an early death. Alas. If this exercise is about projecting who's the best bet to fulfill their potential, Davis is a great pick. His offensive game is already more polished than people realize. By 2017, he might be as versatile defensively as Kevin Durant is offensively.

PRADA: Stay tuned ...


6.  Kyrie Irving

Dr. K is already one of the best point guards in the league, and he just turned 21 toward the end of last season. He could legitimately be better than the next two players on this list in 2017 and I'm not sure anyone would bat an eye. He's a prototypical NBA point guard with fantastic vision and scoring instincts. I hope he and John Wall have a nice long postseason rivalry. -ZILLER

FLANNERY: Has Ziller lost faith in DMC? My column:

PRADA: Just trying to steal him from Conrad, clearly.

KACZMAREK: I'm a homer, but this is way too low for Kyrie. He was an absolute stud in his age-19 and 20 seasons ... What the heck will he do when he's 25?

O'DONNELL: I think Kyrie has the best handle I've ever seen, and I agree with the sentiment that the sky's the limit for him offensively. The true bummer with the current crop of young, amazing point guards is their durability, but Irving's health issues haven't been anything that would affect him long term. I wouldn't be surprised if Kyrie was the sixth-best player in the NBA next season. If the rest of Cleveland's supporting cast develops (looking at you, Anthony Bennett), Irving could be almost unstoppable with the ball in his hands.

5.  Derrick Rose

It will be 18 months between NBA games for Derrick Rose when he mercifully makes his return from the ACL injury that robbed the Chicago Bulls of competing in the playoffs the last two seasons. Rose has been gone for so long that it's easy to forget how great he is and how great he should be for a long time. This is the youngest MVP in NBA history, and someone whose best years should still be in front of him. Rose should still have his world-class athleticism in 2017 at 29 years old, and history has shown great players tend to add something to their game each season. For Rose, that comes down to 3-point shooting, defense and finding ways to score without putting himself at risk by flying to the rim. Rose was a great player before his prime years hit. There's no reason to think he'll be any less of a star four seasons from now. -O'DONNELL

PRADA: Homer.

ZILLER: I'm glad Ricky took Rose, because I was struggling to decide between him and Kyrie.

PRADA: In all seriousness, Rose vs. Irving and the No. 4 guy on this list is an interesting debate. We don't really know how all these point guards will react to the serious knee injuries they've dealt with recently.

FLANNERY: Honest question: Why does everyone expect D-Rose to be exactly the same player he was before the knee injury? That's a long time to be off, and no, I'm not making any value judgments. I'd just like to see him back on the court, for his sake and ours.

PRADA: It's a concern I have too. I'd have put Kyrie ahead of Rose for that reason.


4.  Russell Westbrook

I thought about Kyrie Irving and I considered Derrick Rose, but Westbrook is a much better defender and I don't think he's reached his potential as a player. We have a good idea of what those guys are going to be, but I'm not sure any of us truly know what direction Westbrook will take. It's a long shot playing with Kevin Durant, but of the three point guards, I see Westbrook as a potential MVP by this point. (Yes, I know D-Rose already won once, but it should have been Dwight.) -FLANNERY

KACZMAREK: Russell Westbrook is ridiculously good. He's going to be ridiculously good for a while.

TJARKS: If Durant and Westbrook ever buckle down defensively, OKC is going to be SCARY. If those two follow LeBron and Wade's trajectory, they could be All-Defensive team members by the middle of the decade.

ZILLER: Guys, Russell Westbrook is going to probably play basketball again this season. I cannot wait. His first game back should be a national holiday. (Also applies to Rose and Rajon Rondo.) Also, the fact that people in Chicago still think I hate Rose because I compared Westbrook to him during the MVP season is something I think about a lot. Rick Reilly made me do it.

O'DONNELL: It'll be interesting to see how long OKC rides with the Westbrook-Durant combo if the Thunder don't win a title by 2017. They probably will, but it's not a given with LeBron James around. Obviously, Westbrook is an amazing player, but he could also be one of the greatest trade assets in league history if the Thunder can't find a way to win the championship at some point. Not advocating it, just bringing it up.


3.  Andre Drummond

In 2017, Drummond will be 24 years old and he'll be the biggest and most athletic player in the NBA. This is a 6'11, 275-pound teenager who can take the ball between his legs in mid-air and dunk! That's insanity. As a 19-year-old rookie, he had per-36 minute averages of 14 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks on 60 percent shooting. At worst, he'll be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate who gets 18 and 14 just by hanging out around the rim, a la Dwight Howard in Orlando. It's almost impossible for any perimeter player to have the same type of impact on both sides of the ball. Let's not even talk about what happens if he learns some post moves from Coach Sheed! -TJARKS

FLANNERY: This is either fantastically brilliant or obviously foolish, much like the rest of this list.

KACZMAREK: It's definitely possible that Drummond is the third-best player by this time, but there's no way that I would *predict* him to be. Risk/reward, Drummond may be the best bet ... but that's not the purpose of this exercise, right?

PRADA: Forget Drummond over Westbrook, Rose and Irving. How can you explain Drummond over Davis?

TJARKS: The main thing Drummond has on Davis is 50 pounds. He's going to cause so many matchup problems with his size. The only guys with the strength to wrestle with Drummond are going to destroy your floor spacing on offense.

PRADA: Except right now, Drummond also destroys your floor spacing. I could live with it at No. 12 or so, but I can't see him being the third-best player in all of basketball at any point in his career. It's a bold pick, that's for sure.

ZILLER: I can almost buy it because Dwight Howard was recently the third-or-so-best player in the league. But at the line, Drummond makes Howard look like Jose Calderon. If he's playing 35 minutes a game, he's going to be bricking a ton of free throws, and I'm not sure he's a good enough finisher to make up for it offensively.

Also, this is the most insane pick of the whole exercise. I could have taken Kobe at No. 6 and this would still be more insane. The riskiness of this pick (were this list to have any real-world ramifications) would be literally off of the charts.

PRADA: It's out there, but I still think Julius Randle at 14 is more insane than this. I will not give away the Most Insane Pick crown easily!

O'DONNELL: I like Tjarks making this pick because I think it's cool and funny, and a lot can happen in five years, but this pick is more out there than Randle at No. 14. The top of the league, individually, usually isn't that subjective. Maybe that's a component of Internet groupthink or LeBron and Durant being entrenched for a while now, but the title of "Third-Best Player in the NBA" seems like it usually falls under some sort of consensus. The 14th-best player in the league could bring you 20 different answers.


2.  LeBron James

Four years is a long time, but does anyone really see LeBron James slowing down much by age 32? He's so far ahead of everyone else right now that I find it hard to believe he won't continue his reign into his 30s. He's tremendously skilled, and unless he has a serious injury, he should maintain enough of his athleticism to be the best in the league. Michael Jordan should have won MVP at 33 and was seen as the best player alive. Given the advancements in training and injury prevention, as well as James' decision to retire from international play, why can't he still be the best player in the NBA in 2017? -PRADA

TJARKS: James will have to adjust his style of play as he moves into his early 30s, which should be fascinating to watch. Jordan started to play more in the post as he got older, but he wasn't 6'9 and 270 pounds. Couldn't LeBron turn himself into Karl Malone? He's got the size and the jumper to be a great player for a long time.

FLANNERY: We've never really had a career arc like LeBron. He was arguably the best player in the league by the time he was 23 years old, and that was in his FIFTH season. He's not just the best player, he's also the best-conditioned and in total control of his career going forward. He's set up to not just be among the all-time greats by the time he's done, but the starting point of the conversation.

KACZMAREK: LeBron James is really good. He and Kyrie are gonna do crazy things in Cleveland in 2017. Kidding, mostly.

PRADA: No you're not.

ZILLER: In four years, we will call our planet LeBron, and it will be good to us.

PRADA: Guess I'm moving to the moon then.

O'DONNELL: LeBron will own the moon by 2017, too. NOWHERE TO RUN.

PRADA: Welp, off to Omicron Persei 8 then. (All hail Futurama jokes.)


1.  Kevin Durant

Kevin Durant isn't even 25 years old yet, so he's going to be in the prime of his career in 2017. He's gotten better every year he's been in the league and somehow he just keeps getting more and more efficient at putting the ball in the basket. If we go by his current rate of improvement, he'll be scoring five points per shot somehow, probably. He's improved defensively and on the boards, and has become a significantly better playmaker. LeBron won't decline that much, but the smart money is on Durant to surpass him at some point. -KACZMAREK

PRADA: It's not like LeBron is going to be ancient in 2017. MJ's reign as the Best Player Alive lasted even longer than this. Can Durant really grow that much at this point to make up the gap that currently exists between the two?

FLANNERY: I'm frightened by how good Durant will be by 2017.

PRADA: Here's a question: will Durant be with the Thunder in 2017? His free-agent year is in 2016, and if the luxury tax keeps crippling OKC's chances to improve its roster, will he really want to stay? I'll tell you this much: Teams that aren't signing players to long-term deals right now are keeping their powder dry just in case.

TJARKS: Crippling their chance to improve? The No. 4 and No. 19 players are on his team! As long as they stay healthy, they should win 55-plus games a year in perpetuity. OK, if they were in a bigger market, they might still have Harden too, but that's just greedy. Let's just hope Scott Brooks and Kendrick Perkins are gone by this point.

PRADA: Fine! Kill my dream of Durant on the Wizards in 2016, why don't you!

ZILLER: I actually hope we have a Thunder stretch where they are mediocre for a year or two and Durant goes ‘07 Kobe on opponents. If Kobe could go for 81, Durant can do 100, right? Can you imagine ... a 100-point game in the [successor to Twitter] world?

O'DONNELL: Durant's field goal attempts have remained steady (declining, even) over the years that I'm interested in seeing where his assist numbers go. He jumped from 3.5 to a career-high 4.6 last year, and that was despite playing with two traditional big men in most lineups. But get Kendrick Perkins' carcass out of there, move Durant to the four and surround him with shooters? There might be no answer for that.

KACZMAREK: It's just terrifying that Durant is so young. He's younger than Stephen Curry. Think about that. There's no doubt in my mind that Durant could average 35 points a game and do it efficiently if he wanted.

****

Thus concludes our countdown. Now, tell us where we messed up!

INTRO | TOP 99 OF 2015 REVIEW | 91-100 | 81-90 | 71-80 | 61-70 | 51-60 | 41-50 | 31-40 | 21-30 | 11-20

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