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NBA

NBA top 30 player debates: Devin Booker vs. Ja Morant, Kawhi Leonard’s falling stock and more

The NBA is in the midst of a battle between past, present and future.

Longtime stars like Stephen Curry, LeBron James and Kevin Durant are still playing at an elite level. Two-time MVP award winners Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic are right in the middle of their primes. And then there’s the next generation, which includes Luka Doncic, Ja Morant, Jayson Tatum, and many more.

Ranking all of these players seems like an impossible task, but The Sporting News’ Global NBA staff took its best shot at sorting out the talent across the league. As is often the case with these lists, there were disagreements.

Here are some of the biggest debates that emerged among the group.

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Where do you put Kawhi Leonard?

In his preseason rankings, The Sporting News’ Stephen Noh placed Leonard at No. 7. That seemed fair because Leonard was set to return from an ACL injury and had a history as a dominant two-way player.

But now? Our team is all over the place. Of the 11 voters for our top 30, we had him ranked anywhere from 10th to 28th. That 18-spot gap is the largest for any player.

Through the first two months of the 2022-23 season, Leonard has only played in 12 of the Clippers’ first 33 games. He is averaging 15.3 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists in 26.9 minutes per game while shooting 44.2 percent from the field and 23.4 percent from beyond the arc.

But as my colleague Gilbert McGregor said earlier this month, the stats don’t tell the full story. Leonard has shown glimpses of his old self, including a brutally efficient 25-point effort against the Celtics on Dec. 12.

The big question is whether Leonard will ever look like a superstar on a consistent basis. Clearly, the staff has some doubts, as he is now sitting all the way down at No. 18.

— Jordan Greer (@jordangreer42)

Out with the old, in with the new

Kawhi Leonard isn’t the only star we were all over the place on. Chris Paul, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Karl-Anthony Towns, Draymond Green, Zach LaVine, Rudy Gobert and Bradley Beal all fell since the last time we did this exercise.

In their place are a number of up-and-comers.

Jaylen Brown is a big riser, going from No. 30 to No. 16. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Tyrese Haliburton, Darius Garland and Zion Williamson each missed the cut last time. Now, they’re on the list.

Williamson isn’t a huge surprise — he would’ve received more votes last season had he been healthy — but I’m not sure anyone expected Gilgeous-Alexander and Haliburton to make as dramatic of a leap as they have. Gilgeous-Alexander is almost certainly going to be an All-Star this season. Haliburton has a strong case as well.

Time will tell if they can keep their spots in the top 30, but their rise is another reminder that the future of the NBA is in good hands.

Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles)

Sorting through the young star shooting guards

Ever since Dwyane Wade entered the twilight of his career, James Harden was renowned as the best shooting guard in the NBA. Harden has seemingly passed that torch to Devin Booker — who came in at No. 9 on our list — but there’s a group of electrifying players at the same position right on his tail.

I took a solid 10 minutes debating with myself over how to rank Gilgeous-Alexander, Donovan Mitchell and Jaylen Brown. Gilgeous-Alexander is only 24, while Mitchell and Brown are both 26. All three players are having career years and breakout seasons, making them even tougher to sort.

This threesome was by far the hardest group for me to organize because I don’t think there’s a wrong answer.

I eventually fell on ranking Brown 14th, Gilgeous-Alexander 15th and Mitchell 16th, but I could’ve pulled their names out of a hat and still been happy with however the order shook out. Because it interested me, check out each player’s highest and lowest ranking among our voters:

  Highest Rank Lowest Rank Final Result
Donovan Mitchell 9th 19th 14th
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander 12th 21st 15th
Jaylen Brown 12th 23rd 16th

The poll’s final result still had them back-to-back-to-back with Mitchell 14th, Gilgeous-Alexander 15th and Brown 16th, but it will be fun to monitor all three of these players the rest of this season and beyond as they chase Booker for the crown as the best SG in the league.

— Kyle Irving (@KyleIrv_)

Is LeBron James still a top-10 player?

We’ve officially — finally — reached the point where LeBron James is no longer unquestionably one of the league’s truly elite players. Not only that, he’s no longer unquestionably the best player on his own team, finishing just one spot ahead of Anthony Davis. In fact, four of our voters slotted AD higher than James.

It only took 20 years!

James is perhaps the most fascinating player on this entire list.

On one hand, yes, it’s fair to question whether a player in his 20th season who has literally logged more total career minutes than every player not named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar can stay healthy and engaged over the course of an entire season. As the saying goes, availability is the best ability.

On the other hand, how many players would you truly take ahead of James for one playoff series? I’d bet the number is smaller than nine, which is the number of players ahead of James on this list.

That we’re even having this debate is a testament to the most indestructible and dominant force the NBA has ever seen. Regardless of where you personally rank James, don’t take his presence for granted. 

— Micah Adams (@micahadams13)

Guards reign supreme, but is Kyrie too low?

Despite the recent resurgence of big men in the NBA with Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic winning back-to-back-MVPs and Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid rounding out the top three last season, the strength and depth of guards in the league tells the story of the modern NBA. 

Three of the top 10 players on the list are point guards with Stephen Curry (2), Luka Doncic (5), and Ja Morant (8) finishing the highest across the rankings, with 18 of the top 30 players coming from the backcourt. 

In TSN’s preseason rankings, Irving came in at No. 15, however, in the latest round of votes his range varied from as high as 17th and as low as 30th.

At his best, Irving is perhaps one of, if not, the most devastating combo guards in the league and despite missing 10 games, he’s still putting up near career-best numbers.

Considering Damian Lillard (17), Trae Young (21) Tyrese Haliburton (23) all finished higher than Irving, it feels like he should be closer to Lillard than looking up at Haliburton, but at the same time, is that just a testament to how many elite guards we’re seeing take the floor every night?

— Benyam Kidane (@BenyamKidane)

Ja Morant or Devin Booker?

Who is better right now: Ja Morant or Devin Booker?

The answer: ¯_(ツ)_/¯

Technically, we landed on Morant having the edge, but it was very close. Of the 11 people who participated in the vote, Morant finished higher than Booker on six ballots. Overall, Morant’s best placement was No. 7 and his lowest was No. 14. Booker peaked at No. 8 and his floor was No. 15.

They’re obviously very different players — Morant a gravity-defying point guard, Booker a silky-smooth shooting guard — but they’re two of the best young players in the NBA on two of the best teams in the Western Conference.

Not that one game is going to settle the debate, but they will face off before Christmas Day. They’ll then battle two more times in January.

Get your popcorn ready. It should be a fun one.

Rafferty 

Ja Morant (Memphis Grizzlies), Nikola Jokic (Denver Nuggets)

NBA top 30 players: Giannis Antetokounmpo tops list

Rank Player Team Previous Rank
1 Giannis Antetokounmpo Bucks 1
2 Stephen Curry Warriors 4
3 Nikola Jokic Nuggets 2
4 Kevin Durant Nets 5
5 Luka Doncic Mavericks 6
6 Jayson Tatum Celtics 9
7 Joel Embiid 76ers 3
8 Ja Morant Grizzlies 11
9 Devin Booker Suns 13
10 LeBron James Lakers 8
11 Anthony Davis Lakers 25
12 Jimmy Butler Heat 10
13 Zion Williamson Pelicans 26
14 Donovan Mitchell Cavaliers 22
15 Shai Gilgeous-Alexander Thunder 29
16 Jaylen Brown Celtics 30
17 Damian Lillard Trail Blazers 18
18 Kawhi Leonard Clippers 7
19 Paul George Clippers 16
20 Pascal Siakam Raptors 24
21 Trae Young Hawks 12
22 James Harden 76ers 14
23 Tyrese Haliburton Pacers
24 DeMar DeRozan Bulls 19
25 Bam Adebayo Heat
26 Kyrie Irving Nets 15
27 Brandon Ingram Pelicans 28
28 Jrue Holiday Bucks 23
29 Khris Middleton Bucks
30 Darius Garland Cavaliers


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