We’ve finished our countdown of who we think will be the 101 best players in the NBA in 2021. Hopefully by now, you’ve checked out the whole thing. If not, start here and begin the journey.
When we did this four years ago, there were only two real options for the top spot. Twenty-eight-year-old LeBron James had just won his second title, while 24-year-old Kevin Durant had just narrowly missed out on his fourth straight scoring title. Conrad Kaczmarek chose Durant No. 1, but reaction was split at the time.
This time, the choice was much harder. James will be in his late 30s in 2021, while Durant will be 32. Meanwhile, a flood of younger players could stake their claim to the top spot if they continue to develop over the next four seasons.
In polling our panel of 10 drafters, we found five players with legitimate claims to the No. 1 spot. Here is the argument for each of the five, made by different members of the panel.
The case for Anthony Davis
By Tom Ziller
I almost had a panic attack when I won the No. 1 pick in the NBA 2021 draft. This is how legacies are destroyed! I would have much rather picked No. 3 or 4, where I could make a safe pick from the leftovers and second-guess the unfortunates in front of me.
But No. 1 it was. I considered four names based on the contours of our exercise: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Kevin Durant in addition to my eventual choice: 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 seasons. 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. By passing on Durant here, I’m making a small wager that he won’t continue to gain power into his 30s as LeBron so clearly has.
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.
The case for Giannis Antetokounmpo
By Tim Cato
Giannis Antetokounmpo is not the best player in the league right now, but he’s close enough (an All-NBA second teamer) and young enough (22) that no soul would dare deny the possibility. Giannis is mesmerizing. Everything about him is endless: his wingspan, his potential, the amount we love him.
But let’s resist the urge to fall into long-winded esoteric praise — boy, could I — and examine what Antetokounmpo would look like as the league’s best player.
Last season, Antetokounmpo became the first player to finish in the top 20 in all five major statistical categories. That raw, all-around impact that Antetokounmpo can exert on every facet of the game will be present for years, especially as he refines his feel for the game and develops veteran instincts that you don’t expect a 22-year-old to possess. Imagine how much more polished a 26-year-old Greek Freak could be, and sweat bullets at how that would manifest itself against your favorite team.
Can Antetokounmpo shoot better? He shot 27 percent behind the arc and 34 percent on long two-pointers last season, which isn’t good enough. Both of those figures are worse than LeBron James has ever shot in a season — and yes, since we’re wondering if Antetokounmpo can claim James’ mantle, that’s a fair comparison. Giannis doesn’t need to be a good shooter; he isn’t one right now and still a borderline top-five player who can literally — and I do mean literally in its truest sense — do everything else on the court.
Still, I’m a believer in his ability to improve that jumper. Everyone on this list has at least one major hurdle. Anthony Davis and Kevin Durant must stay healthy. Karl-Anthony Towns needs to completely rework his defensive approach. Kawhi Leonard has to add more playmaking depth to his offensive palette.
Comparatively, a 26-year-old Antetokounmpo improving to shoot 33 percent on three-pointers — the same percentage James shot while winning MVP in the 2008-09 season — feels like a much simpler path. Giannis picked up basketball just a decade ago when he was 12, and he has still learned so many requisite skills so easily and so quickly that I can’t deny him learning one more.
And if Antetokounmpo does that, I don’t think this is even a debate.
The case for Kevin Durant
By Mike Prada
A lot changes in the NBA in four years but not at the very top of the league. Four years ago, we were arguing Durant vs. LeBron James for the No. 1 slot in 2017. Four years later, Durant and LeBron battled in the NBA Finals as the two best players on the floor — with Stephen Curry maybe in the conversation as well. Not much really changed.
So when projecting the very best player in the NBA four years down the line, history suggests it’s actually best to go with the best player right now.
Kevin Durant is the best player in the NBA right now, especially after his 2017 finals performance. True, he didn’t have the best 2016-17 season, nor does he necessarily carry the label in the eyes of traditionalists (like my colleague Tom Ziller) who still favor LeBron.
But when the games mattered most, one player was omnipresent in all aspects of the game. One player hit the toughest shots. One player supplied the scoring binges that held off opponent runs and put games out of reach. One player protected the perimeter and the rim, all while swooping in for boards to kick-start the devastating fast break. That player was Kevin Durant. (Reminder: He was recovering from a knee injury, too.)
Durant has a history of foot problems, but he’s also a 7’0-small forward who can get his shot off anytime he wants. That doesn’t age, especially on a loaded team like the Warriors that can save his legs until he’s needed most.
With LeBron too far along in the aging curve and the other options not quite there yet, Durant, at 32, is the easy choice for me to be the best player in the game in 2021.
The case for Karl-Anthony Towns
By Ricky O’Donnell
It’s already fair to say the NBA has never seen a big man like Karl-Anthony Towns. Not one who has this much shooting ability, this proficient a floor game, and this bounty of athletic grace. Not one already so productive at just 21 years old, only two years removed from his freshman season at Kentucky.
When you look at numbers Towns has put up through his first two NBA seasons, the only comparisons can be to names like Olajuwon, Shaq, and Robinson. And that’s mostly just points and rebounds — none of those Hall of Fame bigs could shoot like Towns, who canned 102 three-pointers at a 36 percent clip last season.
Consider that Towns made more three-pointers in 82 games last season than Davis has made (78) in 335 career NBA games. That 82 is a big number, as well. Towns has played in every game since being drafted, something Davis, Durant, and Joel Embiid can only dream about.
The big question for Towns is how good he can be on the defensive end of the floor. That’s common for young big men. The bet here is that another season under Tom Thibodeau with the guidance of Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler will push Towns to be a more consistent defender.
When that happens, watch out.
The case for Kawhi Leonard
By Kristian Winfield
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: If Kawhi Leonard didn’t re-injure his ankle in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals against Golden State, the Warriors almost certainly lose that game. They probably don’t lose the series, but they don’t become the greatest playoff team of all-time.
Leonard’s injury single-handedly turned a 23-point Game 1 lead into a series sweep in favor of Golden State. That’s how dominant he is on both ends, and he’ll only get better.
As it stands, Kawhi’s a player who’s a visibly better defender than he is a scorer and playmaker. That’s a huge compliment, because he averaged 25.5 points for San Antonio and was the end-all-be-all for its offense last season. His offense is pretty damn great, too.
Sure, Leonard will turn 30 in 2021, and I made it a point to shy away from players over that age. But Leonard’s a two-way player the likes of which most people my age haven’t seen, and he finds ways to get better every single season.
I’m riding with Kawhi.