Ranking the best players for 2021-22, from 25 to 6

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Our NBArank countdown is back for its 11th season.

Which players are beginning their ascent up the league’s hierarchy? Who finished just shy of a place among the top five superstars in the NBA?

To get the final NBArank prediction, we asked our expert panel to vote on pairs of players: Kevin Durant vs. James Harden, Luka Doncic vs. Zion Williamson, Stephen Curry vs. Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James vs. Nikola Jokic … and the list goes on.

We asked, “Which player will be better in 2021-22?” Voters had to predict what they expected from each player during the season.

Here’s who made the cut as we continue to break down the league’s top 100. After we revealed the first 50 players on Tuesday, and the next 25 on Wednesday, we stop just short of the top five today:

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

Who’s No. 1: Making the case for the final five

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Utah Jazz | C
2020 NBArank: No. 26

Swing skill: Gobert has collected three Defensive Player of the Year trophies primarily because of his rim-protecting prowess, but he has also proven he can more than hold his own as an isolation defender. In fact, he has been statistically elite as an iso defender in each of the past three seasons (allowing 0.65, 0.66 and 0.71 points per possession in those campaigns, per NBA.com/stats). However, the Jazz rarely employ a switch-heavy defensive scheme, which might have been useful as the Clippers’ small-ball lineups lit up Utah in the playoffs. Perhaps the Jazz, like the Bucks last season, will experiment with scheme versatility during the regular season to prepare for the playoffs. — Tim MacMahon

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Minnesota Timberwolves | C
2020 NBArank: No. 23

Cause for concern: The question surrounding Minnesota’s hyper-talented big man has never been his offense. The simple reason Towns is not higher on this list lies on the other end of the court. Centers are the most important defensive players in the NBA right now, and Minnesota had one of the worst defenses in the league last year. Even with their All-Star big man on the floor, the Wolves posted a woeful defensive rating of 114.7 last year. Unless Towns and the Wolves can fix their defense, they will be in the lottery once again. — Kirk Goldsberry

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New Orleans Pelicans | PF
2020 NBArank: No. 19

One big question: What kind of leap can Williamson take on the defensive end? Williamson has proven to be an absolute force on the offensive side early in his young career, averaging 25.7 points per game in his first 85 career games. But he hasn’t been the same force on the defensive end that many thought he could be coming into the league. Williamson hasn’t averaged a full block or steal per game in either of his first two seasons. Growth on that end will be the difference between a Pelicans playoff berth and another trip to the lottery. — Andrew Lopez

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Milwaukee Bucks | SG
2020 NBArank: No. 33

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

One thing to watch for: Can Holiday become the first guard to become the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year since Gary Payton won the award in 1995-96? Holiday has the sixth-best odds according to Caesar’s Sportsbook and can build off the momentum of the Bucks’ championship run. Holiday, who finished top 10 last season in deflections and loose balls recovered last season, earned All-Defensive first-team honors. — Lopez

Why he rose 11 spots: Holiday joined the Bucks last season as the final core player to help get them over the playoffs hump. He showed again that he was one of the best defensive players in the league, with his third All-Defensive team selection and some game-changing efforts in the postseason. His timely offense and leadership were crucial to the Bucks’ winning their first championship in 50 years. — André Snellings

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Miami Heat | C
2020 NBArank: No. 13

One thing to watch for: The freshly minted gold medalist is still just 24 years old and remains one of the most intriguing players in the game. Adebayo’s length and talent set him apart and have cemented him as a core player for a Miami team that has championship aspirations. Adebayo must continue to elevate his offensive game as his strong defensive skills should continue to blossom with a bolstered Heat roster that features hard-nosed new additions in Kyle Lowry and P.J. Tucker. — Nick Friedell

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Brooklyn Nets | PG
2020 NBArank: No. 25

One big question: Is Irving indeed content with playing off the ball so much? This was the role he played in Cleveland and the results were majestic, the artful curve to LeBron James’ heater led to championship dominance. He also grew tired of it and pined for his own thing quickly, gritting his teeth even as his team soared with James. After the James Harden trade, Irving stepped right up and offered to go back into the space that once irked him. And guess what, when they were actually on the floor together, Irving was majestic. His usage rate went down and his shooting numbers went up as he joined the 50/40/90 club. Nonetheless, linear thinking won’t get you very far with Irving, but the dynamic is worth watching in Brooklyn. — Brian Windhorst

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Milwaukee Bucks | SF
2020 NBArank: No. 35

Swing skill: There is, understandably, a ton of attention given to Giannis Antetokounmpo for his impact on the Bucks. But the world saw during Milwaukee’s run to the NBA title just how essential Middleton is to its success. He isn’t flashy — despite his “Money” nickname — but he’s silky smooth, and his ability to go shot for shot with the league’s best players in clutch moments is a huge reason why Milwaukee has its first title in half a century. It’s also why the Bucks will have a legitimate chance to repeat this season. — Tim Bontemps

Why he rose 16 spots: Middleton averaged more than 20 PPG for the third time in four seasons but also showed big improvements as a playmaker with a career-best 5.4 APG. He was the clear closer for the champion Bucks, coming up huge in clutch situations multiple times throughout the playoffs. — Snellings

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Utah Jazz | SG
2020 NBArank: No. 18

One big question: It’s easy to forget that Mitchell was considered a potential defensive stopper coming out of college, considering his steady development into one of the league’s elite offensive guards. Mitchell has increased his scoring and assist numbers in each of his four seasons, improving at making reads off the dribble and expanding his shooting range. Now, can he prove the pre-draft scouting reports right about his defensive potential while carrying such a heavy offensive burden? You can bet his mentor, Dwyane Wade, one of few guards who dominated on both ends, is challenging Mitchell to take that leap. — MacMahon

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Atlanta Hawks | PG
2020 NBArank: No. 29

One big question: What’s next? Young is one of the most ascendant young stars in the league, but the big questions here are does he have another gear and can he click into it this season? The keys are shooting efficiency and turnovers. Last season, Young made just 34.3% of his 3s (and just 31.3% in the postseason) and was among the league’s leaders in giveaways. If he can improve in those areas, he immediately becomes an MVP candidate for Atlanta. — Goldsberry

Why he rose 12 spots: You might be old enough to remember when people (guilty!) wondered whether Young’s size would limit his playoff value. Instead, Young delivered one of the best postseason debuts in recent memory, leading the Hawks to the conference finals with 28.8 PPG and 9.5 APG and firmly establishing himself as a star. — Kevin Pelton

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Miami Heat | SG
2020 NBArank: No. 12

One big question: Butler has always set himself apart in a league full of confident players. He believes in himself and believes that he can deliver a championship. With the additions of Kyle Lowry and P.J. Tucker and a returning core in place, including a healthy Victor Oladipo, Butler’s time to take the Heat back to the top of the East is now. The question is, at age 32, can Butler maintain the same high workload night after night the way he has throughout the first decade of his career. — Friedell

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Phoenix Suns | SG
2020 NBArank: No. 17

One big question: After the Suns took a 2-0 lead in the Finals, Booker’s championship round was a mixed bag. He struggled mightily in Game 3, scoring 10 points on 3-for-14 shooting, followed that up with back-to-back 40-point outings in Games 4 and 5, and went 8-for-22 with six turnovers as Phoenix was eliminated in Game 6. Booker responded with a gold-medal summer in Tokyo, with the disappointment still fresh. Can he keep up his revenge tour by helping the Suns back to the mountaintop? — Dave McMenamin

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Boston Celtics | SF
2020 NBArank: No. 11

Swing skill: Tatum has continued to make strides toward being a true superstar scorer on the wing and was rewarded with a max contract extension prior to last season. For him to become a top-10 player, he will have to take a step up from the roughly five free throws per game he has averaged in each of the past two seasons into the seven-to-10 range. If he does that, he could become a 30 PPG scorer. — Bontemps

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Phoenix Suns | PG
2020 NBArank: No. 15

Cause for concern: As brilliant as Paul was in making the first Finals run of his career, it came at a cost. His left wrist, which he injured in the conference finals and played through, required surgery in the offseason. Now entering his 17th season, the 36-year-old point guard will be tasked with the challenge of a full, 82-game season for the first time in two years while playing for a team that opponents will circle on their calendars all season long. — McMenamin

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LA Clippers | SF
2020 NBArank: No. 20

Playoff P lived up to his self-assigned nickname and then some last spring when he led the Clippers to their first Western Conference finals after Kawhi Leonard was lost for the season with a partially torn ACL. George averaged 27.6 points, 11.8 rebounds and 5.6 assists in nearly 42 minutes a game in the Clippers’ series loss to the Phoenix Suns, earning respect across the league. He’ll have to carry the Clippers without Leonard for much of this season as well, but his playoff performance — particularly as a playmaker — gives L.A. a lot to build from. — Ramona Shelburne

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Washington Wizards | SG
2020 NBArank: No. 22

Swing skill: For the second straight season, Bradley Beal averaged at least 30 PPG. Edged out by Stephen Curry for the scoring title, Beal is poised to score a ton of points again. The Wizards traded Russell Westbrook and surrounded Beal with a new supporting cast of Spencer Dinwiddie, Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. But this is Beal’s deal, and if the Wizards are to have any remote shot of making the playoffs again, he will have to score like the best in the league. — Ohm Youngmisuk

Why he rose 11 spots: Beal moved up 11 spots despite a season relatively similar to his 2019-20. It certainly helped that the Wizards reached the playoffs after Beal sat out the 2020 restart with Washington hopelessly out of the play-in race. Beal gutting through a hamstring strain was key to the Wizards getting there. — Pelton

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Brooklyn Nets | SG
2020 NBArank: No. 9

Swing skill: An argument can be made for Harden as one of the best scorers in history — his career true shooting percentage (.611) ranks fifth among the NBA’s 50 all-time leading scorers — but his elite passing ability is even more valuable to the Nets. Harden has averaged 9.1 assists per game since former Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni made him a full-time point guard five seasons ago, including 10.9 in his first partial season with the Nets. Harden can prioritize playmaking when playing with fellow Hall of Fame-level scorers Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. Injuries limited that trio to 202 minutes together in the regular season, when they scored 119.6 minutes per 100 possessions. That doesn’t seem unsustainable, particularly considering Brooklyn’s Big Three lineups produced a 135.4 offensive rating in 130 playoff minutes. — MacMahon

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Los Angeles Lakers | PF
2020 NBArank: No. 2

Swing skill: When Davis was at his best in a Lakers uniform, dominating the bubble en route to the 2020 NBA title, he played close to 60% of his minutes at center during that postseason run. L.A.’s net rating with Davis playing the 5 was a sublime plus-15.8. The Lakers went out and got Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan to man the middle alongside Davis for this upcoming season, but recent history has shown that AD thrives in that spot when it matters most. It will be on head coach Frank Vogel and his staff to know how much is too much for Davis down low without risking injury, as poor health sabotaged his 2020-21 season. — McMenamin

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Portland Trail Blazers | PG
2020 NBArank: No. 7

One big question: The six-time All-Star has made his frustration toward the Trail Blazers’ lack of playoff success widely known but has held back from asking or demanding a trade this offseason. His recent posts on social media, and reports out of Portland, suggest he’ll give new head coach Chauncey Billups and president of basketball operations Neil Olshey a chance to prove they can get the team back into the upper echelon of the Western Conference. The question is: How long will Lillard’s patience last? — Shelburne

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Philadelphia 76ers | C
2020 NBArank: No. 14

One thing to watch: Before Embiid suffered an unlucky fall in Washington in March, it looked like he had a real shot at being the NBA’s Most Valuable Player. Instead, he wound up finishing second behind Nikola Jokic. Still, if Embiid could be penciled in for 75-plus games today, he would be the heavy favorite to be the league’s MVP this season — and possibly its Defensive Player of the Year as well. With the uncertainty of the Ben Simmons situation, there won’t be a more important stat for the 76ers this season than the number of games Embiid can play. — Bontemps

AP Photo/Jack Dempsey

Denver Nuggets | C
2020 NBArank: No. 10

Cause for concern: Jokic and the Nuggets got blown off the court by the Suns in the second round. Why? They couldn’t get stops when it mattered most. With Jokic on the floor in the postseason last year, the Nuggets logged an embarrassing defensive rating of 123.5. That just won’t get you wins against the best teams out west. Make no mistake, Jokic deserved the MVP last year, but if he wants to climb higher on lists like this, he needs to find ways to become a more complete two-way star. — Goldsberry