Debating LeBron James’ spot and the biggest surprises of the 2021-22 countdown

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NBArank 2021 has reached its thrilling finish, with Brooklyn Nets superstar Kevin Durant edging out the Milwaukee Bucks’ reigning NBA Finals MVP and champion Giannis Antetokounmpo for the No. 1 spot in Friday’s countdown of the top five NBA players for the upcoming season.

Overall, there was a ton of movement within our top 100 list, including Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson, New York Knicks forward Julius Randle and Charlotte Hornets guard LaMelo Ball vaulting into the top 50 after missing our countdown completely in 2020-21. Which players could take a similar leap next season?

We also saw Los Angeles Lakers legend LeBron James lose his NBArank throne, dropping to No. 3 behind KD and Giannis. James’ All-Star teammate, Anthony Davis, also fell in our latest rankings, slipping to No. 9 after an injury-filled season. How did that sit with our panel?

What did we get right this year? What did we get wrong? Our experts are diving into the results as we close the books on the 11th installment of NBArank.

The full NBArank list: Nos. 100-51 | Nos. 50-26 | Nos. 25-6 | Nos. 5-1

Our NBArank panel is expecting a bounce-back season from Klay Thompson. Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

1. What was the biggest surprise from our 2021 top 100 rankings?

Bobby Marks: Klay Thompson at No. 32. We have not seen Thompson on the court since June 2019, when he tore his left ACL in the NBA Finals. A year later he suffered another significant injury with a torn right Achilles. While the Warriors recently gave a medical update that Thompson has been progressing and that we will see him during the 2021-22 season, his exact timeline is still unknown. Even with all that uncertainty, Thompson still ranked ahead of a group of players including Zach LaVine, De’Aaron Fox, Deandre Ayton and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

Andrew Lopez: Thompson at No. 32. He hasn’t played competitive basketball in 834 days. If his return comes around Christmas time, as ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reported last month, Thompson would miss two months at the start of the season and he surely will have some time off on back-to-backs. There’s no doubt a healthy Klay would make an impact this season, but No. 32 seems high.

Kevin Pelton: Anthony Davis at No. 9, a seven-spot fall after ranking No. 2 last year. It’s not surprising he dropped after an injury-plagued season, and last year’s ranking might have involved a bit of recency bias after Davis’ strong contributions to the Lakers’ title run. Still, this is the lowest AD has ranked since 2013. I expect he’ll move back up next year.

Tim MacMahon: Myles Turner at No. 44. With all due respect, what did Turner do to jump 30 spots into the top 50? He’s an elite shot-blocker, but it should take much more than that to occupy a spot in that territory. There is no reasonable explanation for Turner (12.6 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 3.4 BPG, .557 eFG) being ranked several spots ahead of Clint Capela (15.4 PPG, 14.3 RPG, 2.0 BPG, .594 eFG).

Jorge Sedano: Bradley Beal at No. 11. It hurts me to say this, because I love his game. He has been an incredible player throughout his career, especially the past two seasons, but the players above and slightly below him all have a modicum of playoff experience or success. I believe that would likely be the case with Beal if he had a better roster around him. Sorry, Bradley! I had to pick someone!

MORE: These superstars just missed top-five NBArank status

2. Who’s one player currently outside the top 100 who will be inside next year?

MacMahon: Tyler Herro. Falling from No. 59 to unranked is an overreaction to a somewhat disappointing sophomore season for the Heat guard. He’s too talented — and has too much swagger — not to be included among the NBA’s top 100 players. It’s barely been a year since Herro lit it up for 37 points in a conference finals game. I’ll bet on Herro getting back in the top 100 next year and staying there for the next decade or so.

ESPN’s countdown of the league’s top 100 players returns for its 11th season. Which stars made the cut?

Marks: Blake Griffin. Griffin ranked No. 23 in 2019, a result of a career year in Detroit that saw him earn All-Star and All-NBA honors. Last year, Griffin fell 42 spots to No. 65. Now, Griffin has failed to crack the top 100. Prior injuries and a reduced role could certainly be blamed for the fall, but the 26 games (and also 12 playoff games) in Brooklyn last season proved that Griffin can once again compete at a high level. While it is unlikely that we see his name on an All-Star roster this coming season, Griffin should be in the top 100 next year.

Lopez: RJ Barrett. The Knicks guard quieted some of his critics with his sophomore season, averaging 17.6 PPG, 5.8 RPG and 3.0 APG while shooting 40.1% from deep. The Knicks went 11-2 in the regular season when Barrett scored at least 24 points. If New York finds more success in 2021-22, Barrett should see his name on next year’s list.

Pelton: Gary Trent Jr. If Trent simply submits a repeat of his 2020-21 (15.3 PPG with 2.8 3-pointers at a 39% clip), I suspect he’ll establish himself as one of the league’s better 3-and-D role players. And at age 22, Trent has a chance to continue developing during his first full season with the Toronto Raptors.

Sedano: De’Andre Hunter. I loved his game in college and felt he would translate right away to the NBA as a 3-and-D guy. I believe he has shown more than that in a small sample size. If it weren’t for injuries derailing his early career, he would likely be in the top 100. If he stays healthy and Atlanta continues to ascend, he’ll be in there next season.

Top breakout candidates for 2021-22



Kendrick Perkins and Dave McMenamin analyze who has the higher ceiling between Anthony Edwards and Cade Cunningham.

3. Which player currently outside the top 50 has the best chance to be inside the top 25 next season?

MacMahon: Anthony Edwards. He came close to making the top-50 cut this year, and he certainly has star potential and averaged 23.8 PPG, 5.3 RPG and 3.8 APG after the All-Star break as a rookie. Edwards should benefit from having a training camp under Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Chris Finch and playing off of a hopefully healthy Karl-Anthony Towns.

Pelton: Anthony Edwards. I wrote about the candidates earlier this week. Top 25 is a bit aggressive for the current rookies and unrealistic for older players, so I think the 2020 draft class is the right place to look, and Edwards has the best chance.

Sedano: It’s easily Anthony Edwards. He was the third-youngest player in NBA history to score 40 points in a game. He is as dynamic a scorer as we have seen at that age. The wild part is he has allegedly grown two inches in the offseason, according to Finch. Look out for Ant Man in 2021-22.

Lopez: Christian Wood, but it will take a healthy season, as well as a big jump by his teammates. In 41 games last season, Wood averaged 21 PPG and 9.6 RPG while shooting 51.4% overall and 37.4% from deep. Of the nine players who averaged 20 points and either 10 rebounds or 10 assists last season, four are in the top 10 and six are in the top 30. All nine are ahead of Wood. If he hits those numbers — and maybe if Houston can string together some wins — he could make a massive jump.

Marks: I am going to rewind the clock and say Gordon Hayward. The Hornets forward played at an All-Star level last season, but a sprained right foot ended his season in early April. Hayward’s impact on the court is immeasurable. At the time of the injury, Charlotte was two games over .500 and on pace to finish in the top six of the East. The Hornets finished the season six games under .500 and lost in the play-in game to the Indiana Pacers. Prior to the injury, Hayward was averaging 19.6 points and shooting 41.5% from 3-point range.

Lessons from a decade of ranking the NBA’s best players

Note: Due to knee injuries that will sideline both for most of the 2021-22 season, Leonard and Murray were excluded from this season’s rankings.

MacMahon: Leonard is without a doubt a top-10 player if he’s healthy. Maybe top five. Is there another player in the league capable of scoring an efficient 45 points and bothering Luka Doncic defensively down the stretch in a road Game 6 as Leonard did to extend the Clippers’ season? Murray is top 30 with the potential to rise. He’s a cut below Devin Booker and Donovan Mitchell among the league’s best young guards.

2 Related

Marks: Leonard entered the 2020-21 season at No. 5 in the ESPN Top 100 and would fall two spots back to No. 8 if he were healthy this season. The drop is more of a result of the MVP play of three players in front of him: Stephen Curry, Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid. If Murray were healthy, I would put him at the same spot that he occupied last year: No. 21. Jumping into the top 20 is not easy, considering that there is separation between Kyrie Irving (No. 20 this season) and a healthy Murray.

Pelton: If Kawhi had been healthy the entire postseason, he might be No. 1 after leading the Clippers to a title. If his playoff injury had been less serious and he were back healthy now, I’d say probably No. 4. Because he’s less established and there’s less clarity in the rankings outside the top 10, Murray is tougher to place, but I’d guess somewhere between No. 28 and No. 33. That puts him in the same group as Ben Simmons, Russell Westbrook, CJ McCollum and Ja Morant.

Sedano: Kawhi would be at No. 4 for me. When healthy, he is arguably still the best two-way player in the NBA. His game has actually expanded in his time in Los Angeles as he has become a much better facilitator. There’s no way I wouldn’t have a two-time Finals MVP in my top five. Murray would be at No. 22 for me. Jrue Holiday (the current No. 22) is a more complete player due to his defense. Murray, however, has to carry a larger burden overall — and certainly on offense — for his Nuggets team. Murray has also become a must-watch in the fourth quarter of any close game.

Lopez: Leonard’s impact is hard to rank because he doesn’t play a full season anymore. But even taking load management days into account, he’s probably No. 7 for me because a healthy Leonard-Paul George combo is special for the Clippers. Likewise, a healthy Murray-Nikola Jokic-Michael Porter Jr. trio would do damage in the Western Conference. Murray is a top-30 talent and I’d slot him in at No. 27 on this year’s list. Anyone averaging 21 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds per game on 47/41/87 shooting percentage splits is a pretty good player no matter what.

What does Kawhi’s ACL surgery mean for the Clippers?

Was the NBArank panel correct to vote LeBron James as the third best player for 2021-22? Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

5. Fill in the blank: LeBron James’ No. 3 ranking is _____.

Sedano: A bit too low for me. I still think that he is the most complete player on the planet when he’s healthy. Yes, Durant is a more natural scorer and Antetokounmpo is more athletic at this stage, but LeBron still puts up equally jarring scoring stats and makes the guys around him better. At least more so than the aforementioned players. We are splitting hairs here.

MacMahon: Fine. I’m sure King James will consider it an insult, and I don’t blame him for believing he’s still the league’s best player as he enters his 19th season, but a reasonable case can be made for any of the top three players. Should Giannis Antetokounmpo be offended that he isn’t No. 1? All he has done in the past three seasons is win a pair of MVPs and a Finals MVP.

Marks: Justified. This is not a knock on James, but more about how Durant and Antetokounmpo have elevated their games. In the playoffs, Durant almost carried a wounded Brooklyn team to the Eastern Conference finals by himself. He duplicated that performance in the Olympics, leading Team USA to the gold medal. As for Antetokounmpo, the Finals MVP put to bed any talk that he is a regular-season player and could not close games.

Pelton: Understandable. Could LeBron win MVP, lead the Lakers to a title and make us look bad for having him anywhere but No. 1? Of course. Something similar happened in 2019-20. Still, the injury that marred James’ 2020-21 campaign is the kind of thing that becomes more likely as he ages. So I think No. 3 is about right.

Lopez: Appropriate. James was limited to a career-low 45 games last season as he dealt with the high ankle sprain. If James was guaranteed to be healthy for 82 games and the playoffs, you could make the argument he belongs back at No. 1, where he was last season. But for now, having James as the top player in the Western Conference feels about right.

Why LeBron — and the entire top five — has a case for No. 1