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2021 NBA player rankings, Nos. 10-1: Why Anthony Davis will be the best player in 4 years

It was a difficult choice and not a unanimous one, but Anthony Davis edged out several others to top our list.

We’ve finally reached the end of our countdown of the 101 best NBA players in 2021. Unlike the last time we did this exercise, the choice for No. 1 was not a simple one. If you asked each of us individually, we’d have 10 different top fives. But because this was a draft and not a consensus list, we ended up with 28-year-old Anthony Davis and a ton of internal arguments along the way.

Also in this final segment of the list: an unexpected selection at No. 4 that threw the entire draft out of whack. Plus, you’ll be curious to know where the current King of the league went.

10. Russell Westbrook

Age in 2021: 32 (13 seasons)

CHRIS GREENBERG: By 2021, Russ will have accrued four more years’ worth of motivating slights involving everyone anywhere close to him on this list. Given the likeliest relative states of the Thunder, Warriors, Lakers, Spurs, and LeBron over that span, he’ll probably still be chasing that ring wherever he is calling home.

This guy is going to be mad. Going hard. At everyone. Every night. Box scores, stacked. Opponents, racked. Even worse for everyone else, he might still be the most sweltering, stubborn force on the court.

Everyone else’s reactions

TOM ZILLER: He’ll be 32, and athletic guards usually age poorly. But Dwyane Wade held it together for a couple more years, and you can certainly see Westbrook’s indestructible body surviving four more seasons.

KRISTIAN WINFIELD: Unless Westbrook becomes an incredible three-point shooter, I can’t see a 32-year-old guard who relied mostly on athleticism still being an MVP-caliber player.

JOSHUA BROOM, WELCOME TO LOUD CITY: Given the reigning MVP's sheer reliance on athleticism, his still ranking in the top ten while almost 33 years old is quite the compliment. I'd place Russ between No. 17-25, personally.

It will be interesting to see how 6'3 Westbrook's floor game adjusts when his spring is past its prime.

KOFIE YEBOAH: I’d be fine with this pick up to the year 2019. Any time frame longer than that, I have trouble believing.

RICKY O’DONNELL: I truly do not want to imagine a world with old Westbrook.

ZITO MADU: [Westbrook voice] Why not?

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9. Joel Embiid

Age in 2021: 27 (7 seasons, technically)

KRISTIAN WINFIELD: I gave myself a rule: I wasn’t going to pick anyone over age 30 in this draft. Joel Embiid is a franchise-altering talent who hasn’t stayed healthy. I made this pick under the assumption he’s on the court more often than not in 2021.

Embiid checks all the boxes a team could want in a big man. He blocks shots, shoots threes, is a terror on the low and high blocks, dances shirtless at a Meek Mill concert, cursed out LaVar Ball, and wants to date Rihanna. If he gets over the injury bug, there’s no doubt he’s one of the league’s top talents in four years.

Everyone else’s reactions

TIM CATO: This is the Andrew Bynum predicament that we had in 2013, although we’re much more hopeful about Embiid, of course. Either he’s a top-10 player because he stays relatively healthy, or he’s out of the top 100 altogether if he can’t. (Bynum ended up getting picked No. 82 four years ago.)

TOM ZILLER: Glad someone else took the plunge so it didn’t have to be me.

RICKY O’DONNELL: I almost took Embiid at No. 3. I would have considered him at No. 1, too. His impact defensively was incredible as a rookie. And he’s only been playing the game for, like, five years! Please keep this man healthy.

KYLE NEUBECK, LIBERTY BALLERS: If we're going to assume his body doesn't fall apart—and you need to if you're placing him this high at all—I would lean toward him being a top-five player. He was one of the best players in the league when he played last year, and that's with no previous NBA experience and debilitating injuries keeping him off the court for the prior two seasons.

Ranking him is super tough. I just believe you either have to go all-in or just sort of write him off.

WHITNEY MEDWORTH: I don’t trust his knees :(

KRISTIAN WINFIELD: But do you trust the process?

KOFIE YEBOAH: I am Kofie Yeboah and I do trust the process.

MATT ELLENTUCK: Joel Embiid can have my legs if he ever needs them. Good pick.

ZITO MADU: Sports has taught me that in the face of all evidence and sad reality, people will always have hope. I applaud this pick as a sign of human optimism.

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8. Kyrie Irving

Age in 2021: 29 (10 seasons)

WHITNEY MEDWORTH: Kyrie Irving wanted to leave LeBron James, his championship ring, and three straight Finals appearances to go be “the man” elsewhere. That elsewhere is now in Boston with Brad Stevens working his magic.

Assuming that Kyrie buys into what Stevens is selling, he better be in the top 10 of NBA players. This will be the peak Kyrie Irving at age 29, and he should be the best point guard in the league. Right, Kyrie?

Everyone else’s reactions

JEFF CLARK, CELTICS BLOG: Kyrie has always had top 10 talent, but this ranking foretells a perfect blend of dedication (by Kyrie), coaching (by Brad Stevens), and environment (roster built by Danny Ainge) to maximize his skills.

MIKE PRADA: Fascinating to see how this develops.

I was of the opinion that No. 8 in four years — and the best point guard in the NBA to boot — would be an absolute best-case scenario for Irving. I figured he’d get sent to a team that wouldn’t be ready to compete around him, dooming him to NBA irrelevancy.

But now he’s in Boston, with a good team that has terrific complementary pieces, young’ins to extend the window (or cash in for another star), and a coach that runs a fun system that gets the most out of stars.

The question is whether Irving willing to fully buy in to Brad Stevens’ style of play. I’m a little skeptical, but if he can, this might not be too nuts a ranking after all.

RICKY O’DONNELL: I just don’t see how Kyrie becomes a better player than Steph over the next four seasons.

CHRIS GREENBERG: Kyrie doesn’t necessarily have to be better than Steph — although the age difference could take care of that over four years. He just has to beat him. Curry was switched onto Irving in the waning seconds of Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals. Irving drained the three-point shot. The Land got a title.

Look out for Boston.

TOM ZILLER: I’m only concerned about whether Kyrie will still be a Flat Earther in four years.

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7. LeBron James

Age in 2021: 36 (18 seasons)

TIM CATO: Y’all really let LeBron James slip this far. Y’all really let perhaps the most aberrational deviation from normal human athleticism we’ve possibly ever seen, at least in this sport, slip to No. 7.

LeBron will be turning 36 in 2021, not rolling over onto his deathbed. Y’all know that last season, Bron had the most dunks of his entire career. For normal humans like you and me, we start declining athletically in the 30s, but LeBron’s getting better. Jokes on any of us who thought a supernatural athlete’s body would behave in normal, typical ways. We’re also coming off James’ best three-point shooting season of his career.

Yes, he’s going to start falling off in a few areas, but I’d be surprised if he’s not still a top-five player by the time 2021 rolls around. It just doesn’t seem feasible for James to be anything but great. Not until he’s 40 at least, damnit.

Everyone else’s reactions

TOM ZILLER: Karl Malone won a (fraudulent) MVP at age 36, and Michael Jordan won one at 35. So it’s certainly plausible that LeBron — who is way better than the former and on par with the latter as a talent — could perform at a top-five level at age 36.

The difference is that Jordan had 43,361 NBA minutes (regular season and playoff) when he won that final NBA MVP in 1998. LeBron already has 50,399 career minutes ... with four years to go until 2021.

LeBron is the only fighter you’d want in this battle, but Father Time is undefeated.

CHRIS MANNING, FEAR THE SWORD: As long as he gets some rest between now and then, age 37-38 season LeBron should still be very, very good.

WHITNEY MEDWORTH: The NBA is changing the schedule already in LeBron’s favor. Fewer back-to-backs, no more four-game-in-five-night stretches. Players are taking care of their bodies better now than ever. Plus, he can easily adapt his game to whatever it needs to be.

Never doubt, Bron. Not even 36-year-old Bron.

KOFIE YEBOAH: LeBron is a terminator, but it’s hard to imagine him still being this dominant going into his 18th season of pro basketball.

MIKE PRADA: Old Bron will be fascinating. Kobe didn’t exactly exit the NBA gracefully and Bron has more miles on him than Kobe did. Could it all fall apart at once for Bron like it did one day for Kobe? It’s hard to doubt him, but it was hard to doubt Kobe at the time, too.

Either way, I don’t think he’ll be No. 7. Either Bron will still be the undisputed king of the league, or he’ll be a sad, broken-down version of his former self. Hoping for the former.

KRISTIAN WINFIELD: In four years, LeBron will not be a top-five player. I’m sorry, I don’t believe it. He might not be in the NBA at all. He may end up retiring before 2021 to pursue that good ol’ acting career.

TIM CATO: What, is acting the new minor league baseball?

But I am still deadly serious about this pick. Give me Bron and his all-time historic greatness and I’ll fight any battle you send my way.

MATT ELLENTUCK: Wait, are we talking about the DJ or the player?

Doesn’t matter, LeBron is indestructible and I laugh at anyone who questions how good he will be in four years.

RICKY O’DONNELL: I look forward to taking Bronny James when we do this exercise again in 2021 for the 2025 season.

6. Kawhi Leonard

Age in 2021: 29 (10 seasons)

KOFIE YEBOAH: Kawhi is great defensively, and his offensive production has improved every year he’s been in the league. I can’t wait to see how dominant he becomes in a league where the seemingly immortal LeBron James gets older and older. Pretty soon, he’ll ... Kawhiet every doubter out there. *runs*

Everyone else’s reactions

MIKE PRADA: Hey, terrible puns are my jig.

We all missed the boat on this one. Kawhi will only be 29 in four years, smack in the middle of his prime. He gets better every year, to the point that I’ve stopped pretending I know how good he can be. I ultimately chose the dude next on this list ahead of him, but it was a tough decision. You could honestly make an argument for Kawhi being the No. 1 player in the league in four years and I wouldn’t blink.

We always overlook the Spurs, don’t we?

TIM CATO: You could honestly make an argument for Kawhi being the No. 1 player in the league right now and I wouldn’t blink. He’s gotten demonstratively better every season he’s been in the league. How’d he fall this far!?

TOM ZILLER: “We all missed the boat on this one.”

The fact that we saw “you could make an argument for him at No. 1” tells me I didn’t miss the boat on this one, being the guy with the No. 1 pick.

But this is a good selection. He should be a spot higher, at least.

TIM CATO: Hey, it was your own argument, Ziller!

BRUNO PASSOS, POUNDING THE ROCK: This is a tad low for Leonard, who's just entering his prime and has finished in the top 3 in MVP voting the last two years.

KRISTIAN WINFIELD: If Giannis Antetokounmpo was off the board and I was picking, I’d have picked Kawhi second. Damn you all for forcing me to the bottom.

WHITNEY MEDWORTH: Coach Pop can make 40-year-old players look good. Can you imagine an extremely prime Kawhi Leonard? Wooooweeeee. He should be higher.

ZITO MADU: The Spurs will still be surrounding him with 40-year-olds and undrafted European players in the future.

CHRIS GREENBERG: Kawhi probably won’t get the respect he deserves in 2021 either.

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5. Kevin Durant

Age in 2021: 32 (14 seasons)

MIKE PRADA: KD will be 33 in four years, the same age LeBron James will be this December. That’s working out just fine for Bron, isn’t it? Why wasn’t KD more in contention for the top spot on this list? (Especially ahead of the dude coming up next ... ).

There’s a slight worry that KD’s history of foot trouble will doom him, but he’s coming off one of the most dominant NBA Finals ever and can afford to rest during the regular season to stay fresh. He just finished the most efficient and least turnover-prone season of his career, and he was already damn efficient and careful with the ball. As long as he’s seven feet, he’ll get whatever shot he wants off. That won’t change in four years, not when the Warriors’ offense serves up easy looks on a silver platter.

He’d be No. 1 on my list, with Kawhi No. 2. I’m stunned both were there when it was my turn.

Everyone else’s reactions

JUSTIN MAK, GOLDEN STATE OF MIND: After 5-peating as champions, KD and Stephen Curry (13th) go down as a GOAT-tandem. Anywhere below 1 and 2 is ludicrous.

TIM CATO: It’s still unfair that Durant suddenly turned into one of the league’s best defenders in the past few years. He always had these moments, but suddenly becoming a legitimate, 82-games-a-year rim protector and versatile switcher in addition to his offense? Damn.

Durant’s going to finish as a top ... 10 player of all time? Dare I say top five? He needs to stay healthy, but I believe that’s an extremely reasonable prediction.

RICKY O’DONNELL: We are all idiots for letting KD slip this far.

TOM ZILLER: I considered Durant for No. 1 but the foot trouble and his still-slight frame made me go another direction. Part of the comparison to current LeBron that strikes me as off is that Peak LeBron was much better than Peak Durant to date. He’s also more muscular and well-rounded. The thin die first in a famine!

KRISTIAN WINFIELD: I stayed away from players who will be over 30 in 2021, and Durant falls in this category. But he’ll certainly be the best player in his age bracket in four years.

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4. Kristaps Porzingis

Age in 2021: 25 (6 seasons)

MATT ELLENTUCK: I’ve received a lot of heat for this pick, but I never even came close to hesitating. If you don’t see how unicornly unicorny Kristaps Porzingis is by now, I give up. If you don’t understand how that talent is going to translate when he’s 26 years old, bulkier, and maybe not a Knick anymore, I’m not sure how to explain it.

He’s a 7’3 shooter who can stretch out to anywhere. He’s been forced to play power forward in a system neither he nor his teammates liked. Just wait until he’s in the right situation that lets him play center.

He’s also 22 years old right now, so in four years, he will just start to reach his prime.

(Go away, inevitable criticism.)

Everyone else’s reactions

JOE FLYNN, POSTING AND TOASTING: The greatest Knicks draft pick since Ewing officially takes his place as the greatest Knick since Ewing.

MIKE PRADA: Are you serious, Matt?

WHITNEY MEDWORTH: The Knicks won’t allow Kristaps to be this good.

MIKE PRADA: There’s that, which is a huge part of why this pick makes no sense. Even if you assume that Kristaps really is the fourth-most-talented player in the NBA in four years, what are the chances the Knicks actually nurture it correctly?

There’s also the fact that as fun as Kristaps is, his game does not measure up to several of his peers just yet. His PER was so-so last year, his true shooting percentage was around the league average, and he’s not a great playmaker or defender against smaller players yet. He will obviously improve because the Knicks put him in the absolute worst situation possible last year, but he has a bigger mountain to climb than I think a lot of folks realize. (And remember: That assumes the Knicks actually put him in a position to climb it going forward, which is a huge assumption.)

The guy Matt picked last round (Nikola Jokic, No. 14) is younger, more productive, and plays for a better team than KP. Nobody considered Jokic in the top five in this exercise, so why would Porzingis be included? I want him to be this good, but realistically he belongs in the late teens or early 20s.

MATT ELLENTUCK: I’m extremely hesitant to use advanced numbers against any player inside his first four years in the league. For a Knick, I might even extend that time frame. For someone who was a Knick in year two, and more specifically a Knick in 2017, I am going to extend that time frame some more.

This is about where Porzingis can be in 2021, and I think his ceiling is this high.

TOM ZILLER: I don’t think it’s ridiculous to think Porzingis will be really good in four years — he’s really good now! But to be better than Durant, LeBron, Kawhi, Westbrook and James Harden? That’s a big ask.

KRISTIAN WINFIELD: I think Kristaps will eventually be a player the likes of which the NBA has never seen. I don’t think he gets to that point by 2021.

ZITO MADU: By 2021, Kristaps will be playing for the Lakers, so I’m fine with this.

CHRIS GREENBERG: On the bright side, Matt, I have many Knicks fans in my family who will love seeing this. Uncle Elliot, this is for you.

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3. Karl-Anthony Towns

Age in 2021: 25 (6 seasons)

RICKY O’DONNELL: Karl-Anthony Towns should have been a junior in college last season. He still averaged 25 points and 12 rebounds per game while finishing top-15 in the league in true shooting percentage, PER, and win shares. He’ll be 25 years old in 2021 and should be reaching the height of his powers.

I see Towns as a player with very few holes in his game. He can score with his back to the basket, stroke three-pointers, and clean the glass. He also has the frame to handle center responsibilities long-term if the Wolves ever let him do it. Look for him to grow as a passer as the Wolves continue to build around him.

I might have gone with Joel Embiid — who has a clear edge defensively — if you could have promised me his health. Instead, here’s hoping Tom Thibodeau doesn’t run Towns into the ground before he’s legally old enough to rent a car.

Everyone else’s reactions

ERIC GOLDMAN, CANIS HOOPUS: Third? Are Michael Jordan from Space Jam and Superman going to be in the league in 2021?

TOM ZILLER: I almost took Towns No. 1 overall. The numbers at his age and development arc are ridiculous. The Wolves should certainly be a winning team this season, too, so he can add that to his résumé. What a player.

KRISTIAN WINFIELD: This is the same as saying Karl-Anthony Towns is an MVP candidate in 2021. Not so sure I’m on that bus.

MIKE PRADA: Not entirely sure what happened to his defense last year, because we were praising him on that end every year prior. Assuming that turns around, Towns absolutely can be an MVP candidate. Solid selection.

TIM CATO: You can actually rent a car before you turn 25. They just charge you more. (Trust me, I would know!) Do we think KAT can afford it?

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2. Giannis Antetokounmpo

Age in 2021: 26 (8 seasons)

ZITO MADU: I knew I made the right choice when I logged into Twitter, saw Giannis asking Kobe Bryant what challenge the Lakers legend had for him, and Kobe replied with “MVP.”

Not that Giannis will get it this year, but it seems inevitable at some point in his career. He improves in leaps and bounds every year, so by 2021, the NBA might have to count him as two players to make the game fair for others.

Everyone else’s reactions

KOFIE YEBOAH: It was very stupid of me to think that Giannis would fall to me at No. 6. I can’t wait until he’s the King of the League.

KRISTIAN WINFIELD: I had every intention of picking Giannis until I realized I was picking No. 9. Must be nice.

TIM CATO: I would’ve taken him first — after a whole lot of hand wringing.

KYLE CARR, BREW HOOP: ​The rise of Giannis has been amazing, to say the least. He has gone from man of mystery to the heir to best player of the Eastern Conference, and he still can get better. By 2021, it will require only one hand to name players better than him.

RICKY O’DONNELL: Can someone who can’t shoot really be the best player in the league in this era? I’m not doubting Giannis at all, but it will be fascinating to see how he adapts his game as he reaches his prime.

TIM CATO: Can someone address Ricky’s (totally valid) argument, please? I’m too busy watching Antetokounmpo go from the opposite three-point line to dunking in two dribbles to be bothered with him right now.

TOM ZILLER: Giannis is already almost an A+ at all important basketball skills except shooting. If he’s a C shooter, he can be right there at the top.

MIKE PRADA: There’s some logic to Ricky’s point, but Giannis is also the kind of player that can completely warp what skills actually matter in the NBA. In other words: Shooting matters for like 99 percent of NBA players, and Giannis is the 1 percent. I would have put him in contention for No. 3 with Towns and the guy who went No. 1, behind KD and Kawhi.

I’m also a little concerned that the Bucks won’t fully maximize his potential, but that might be an irrational fear.

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1. Anthony Davis

Age in 2021: 28 (9 seasons)

TOM ZILLER: This was a tough pick, truly. I considered Giannis, Towns, and Durant in addition to The Brow.

It ended up being a series of comparisons that led me here. Giannis is wonderful and a smart pick at No. 2, but Davis has done the unicorn things more consistently for longer. The same applies to Towns — he’s incredible, but has only been able to show that for two season. Davis has been unreal for four.

As for Durant, he’ll be 33 entering the 2021-22 season, whereas Davis will be just 28. It’s similar to where LeBron and Durant were entering this season in terms of age. We don’t yet know if KD will age like LeBron — in other words, we don’t have evidence that Durant will continue to add and refine skills and make his body a masterpiece. Durant has also had injury issues LeBron did not.

Of course, Davis is a walking bag of maladies. But I have faith that his body will get right and so will his team, whether that’s in New Orleans or elsewhere. The Brow is still the future of the league until someone forcibly takes that title from him.

Everyone else’s reactions

OLEH KOSEL, THE BIRD WRITES: At 28 years of age, there's a good chance this high-flying 7-footer will have mastered every facet in his prime: long range shooting, playmaking, and winning tons of games. But I admit I'd feel better about the top overall pick if someone were to finally rid the Voodoo curse ravaging New Orleans locker rooms sooner rather than later!

CHRIS GREENBERG: This is a good and true pick.

KRISTIAN WINFIELD: You smart. You loyal.

TIM CATO: “I considered Giannis, Towns, Durant, and Dion Waiters,” is the sentence Ziller wanted to write.

TOM ZILLER: You know the true me.

ZITO MADU: This all depends on him being able to balance basketball and his role as a Kaiju in the new Pacific Rim, but good choice.

TIM CATO: Jokes aside, this is really just about whether the injuries catch up to Davis before his overwhelming talent fully develops, right?

He’s already this good at age 24, with an increasingly unstoppable mid-range game that’s coupled with incredible finishing around the rim. He can be better on defense, but he’s already good. He can start hitting threes consistently, but he’s slowly shooting more of those anyway.

He can stay healthy? I wish I could put that question mark in 72-point font, because it’s the only one that matters for Davis. Well, that, and getting him some decent teammates, damnit.

MIKE PRADA: I’d have placed Davis No. 4 or No. 5, which is probably a little lower than most. To me, KD and Kawhi were clear Nos. 1 and 2, with Giannis, AD, and Towns in some order thereafter.

Health is a big reason, but not the only reason.

The other reason is that Davis is much more of a play finisher than a play starter. Last year, only 34 percent of his buckets were unassisted — and that was a career high. It was also only the second season in which that mark cracked 30 percent.

Towns, by comparison, was already at 36 percent last year despite being three years younger. Kawhi and Giannis were both well over 50 percent, and KD was over 48 percent every year since 2010-11 before dropping to 38 percent on the loaded Warriors.

This is splitting hairs, of course. AD is arguably the best play finisher in the league already, which counts for something. But relative to the other real candidates for the top spot, Davis needs more help to put him in positions to succeed.

Barring improvement, that’s enough for me to drop him down ever so slightly.

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INTRO | FULL LIST | TOP 100 OF 2017 | HOW WE DID IN 2013 | SNUBS | 101-91 | 90-81 | 80-71 | 70-61 | 60-51 | 50-41 | 40-31 | 30-21 | 20-11 | 10-1 | THE CASES FOR NO. 1