A little over two years removed from his torn Achilles tendon, there are no longer any questions about how the injury will impact Durant’s career. After a brilliant showing in the playoffs for the Nets, where he almost single-handedly beat the Bucks, and a dominant summer for Team USA at the Olympics, Durant has taken the throne as the best player in the world. With his unique combination of size and skill, he is an unstoppable scoring force, the likes of which the league will never see again.
Is LeBron slipping? That’s a loaded question. He was right in the thick of the MVP race before Solomon Hill dove into his ankle. He also averaged his fewest minutes (33.4) of his career, his fewest assists (7.8) since 2016 and the fewest points (25) since his rookie year. The king remains the NBA’s smartest player, but eventually, Father Time is going to knock him off of his throne physically. Russell Westbrook’s arrival was geared largely toward staving that moment off for just a little while longer. James will likely play fewer minutes and take fewer shots this season. All that matters is whether or not he can still summon the brilliance that makes him arguably the greatest player ever when it counts most. If the 2020 postseason is any indication, he’s still got enough left in the tank to do just that.
Harden was bothered by a hamstring injury during the latter part of last season, but when he’s healthy, as he’s projected to be during the ’21-22 season, he remains arguably the most dangerous offensive player in the league. He’s the complete package on that end of the floor. In addition to his scoring, Harden’s playmaking has been on full display in Brooklyn, and with a chance to chase his first title, he should be extra motivated.
Leonard’s time with the Clippers has thus far not gone to plan. First there was the playoff collapse in the bubble, and then a torn ACL in the second round last season. Now, he’s likely to miss, at the very least, a significant portion of the upcoming season. But while there are currently questions about his health, there are none about his talent. He’s still one of the best defenders in the league, and has developed into a precision scorer who can single-handedly carry teams come playoff time.
Both Tatum and the Celtics are coming off a season from hell, during which they were ravaged by COVID-19 and fell short of expectations. Now, after shake-ups across the organization and roster, it’s time for a fresh start. An elite scorer and impactful defender, Tatum is one of the best two-way wings in the league. The next challenge for him will be putting everything together on a more consistent basis. Another year of development and being recovered from COVID-19 should help on that front.
Paul George continues to be one of the best two-way wing players in the entire NBA. He averaged 23.2 points, 6.6 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 1.1 steals per game for the Clippers last season, and those numbers will likely increase a bit due to a larger load stemming from the fact that Kawhi Leonard is expected to miss a large chunk of the season. It will largely be up to George to keep the Clippers in the contention conversation while Leonard is sidelined, and that’s something that he’s certainly capable of doing.
If you worship at the altar of advanced acronyms, you love Jimmy Butler, who last season finished third in WS/48, fourth in BPM, fifth in WS, fifth in OWS, fifth in PER, sixth in DBPM and sixth in VORP, per Basketball-Reference.com. Butler has shifted his focus in Miami to that of a methodical facilitator, putting up career-high assist marks since making his way to Miami. His 3-point shot has all but disappeared, but he compensated for that by working his way to the free-throw line a career-high 9.1 times per game last season. As the 2020-21 steals leader, Butler also remains one of the best defenders in the league.
Beal put up 31.3 points per game last year — his second straight season averaging over 30 — in finishing second to Curry for the scoring title. Beal is a well-rounded offensive player, a better facilitator than he gets credit for and a capable pick-and-roll initiator who can function as an elite lead guard for stints, but putting the ball in the basket with a single-minded focus is what makes him a star. With Russell Westbrook gone, Beal will have to score a ton again this season if the Wizards are going to contend for a playoff berth. If he doesn’t get traded, that is.
Perhaps the single biggest story of the postseason slipped right under our noses as the Los Angeles Clippers stunned the Utah Jazz in the second round. Think of the glory heaped upon Luka Doncic after Dallas nearly toppled the big bad Clippers. Well, in the first two games of the second round, Donovan Mitchell averaged 41 points on 53-44-80 shooting to give the Jazz a 2-0 lead without Mike Conley. The Clippers threw everything at Mitchell but remained as befuddled by him as they were Doncic. And then Mitchell hurt his ankle and everything fell apart. A two-game sample is hardly ironclad, but taking it to Kawhi Leonard is no easy feat. If that leap was an indication of what’s coming, Mitchell is going to be an MVP candidate sooner rather than later.
We saw Booker shed the “empty stats” label that plagued him for the entirety of his career as the Suns shocked everyone last season. His usage rate still ranked in the 97th percentile in the league, but — thanks to Paul — instead of having to get buckets and worry about getting his teammates involved, Booker was able to play off the ball more and became even more of a terror on offense.
It’s not just the tough and timely contested jumpers, though the Bucks wouldn’t be the champs without them. Middleton is an ideal complement for Giannis Antetokounmpo because he is now the kind of pick-and-roll playmaker that is trusted to initiate the offense late in playoff games. Just like he earned the right to shoot more midrange shots than Mike Budenholzer typically allows, Middleton took on that role over time. When the former No. 39 pick dropped 40 in the Finals, it wasn’t all that surprising.
A wrist injury ended Brown’s season short, which forced him to miss the playoffs. But prior to that injury, Brown was showing that he’s every bit as deserving of the spotlight in Boston as Jayson Tatum is. This past season showed that he can get his teammates involved on offense, averaging a career high in assists, but it’s his versatility in scoring that really blossomed last season. Brown elevated his game to another level, and he should no longer be considered the No. 2 option in Celtics, as his name should be right next to Tatum in Boston’s hierarchy.
The Bulls are still struggling to turn LaVine’s individual success into team success, but after several years of being snubbed as an All-Star, LaVine finally climbed that mountain top last season. Not only did he put up career numbers in points (27.4), assists (4.9) and rebounds (5.0), but he enjoyed by far the most efficient season of his seven-year career. He ranked in the 90th percentile in the league in effective field goal percentage (60 percent), and the 88th percentile in 3-point percentage (42 percent). His time spent with Team USA at the Tokyo Olympics gave LaVine a taste of what winning on the biggest stage feels like, and now he’ll be able to take what he’s learned and use it to get the Bulls into the playoffs.
Green isn’t quite the defender he used to be, but you could still make the case that he’s the best defender in the league. His impromptu instincts are a gift, and with the Warriors back in position to compete for a top-four seed, his competitive juices should be flowing in full force this season. Offensively, Green, who finished tied for fourth league-wide with 8.9 assists per game last season, is an equally brilliant facilitator; his sense of where Curry is at, and where he’s going to end up, is uncanny, and his anticipation in making those passes — whether it’s for a backdoor layup or a relocation 3 — a beat early rarely fails to catch even the most alert defenders off guard.
You would be forgiven for not watching much of Gilgeous-Alexander last season considering he was limited to just 35 games due to plantar fasciitis and the Thunder were actively trying to lose. But when he was on the court, it was special. If he stays healthy this could be the season he becomes a breakout star. He gets into the paint at will, where he’s a terrific finisher and playmaker, is a legitimate 3-point threat now and has the size to defend multiple positions.