The NBA’s Top 10 Offensive Players of 2021
(📸 The Ringer)
Nearing the end of the 2021 Playoffs, with a whole new season of information on the league’s top players, we cycle around to yet another series of rankings. Rather than evaluating a player based on his overall impact, today’s edition starts with ballparking the value a player adds on offense alone. Because the rules and practices of the NBA are currently slanted toward offense, the best offensive players have a significantly greater impact on the scoreboard than the league’s best defensive players. And because offensive skills and tactics continue to develop and grow, ranking these players becomes an even more complex task. So what are we looking for here?
Unlike some lists, this will not rattle off the league’s top volume scorers. While teams win by scoring more points than the opposition, there is a multitude of other ways a player can influence his team’s scoring than taking the final shot. Keep that in mind if these rankings appear to be less fond of players like the Greek Freak, Bradley Beal, or Joel Embiid. While the conversation of exactly how valuable certain offensive skills are is a much larger one than today’s, there will be some themes that pop out during the list.
Contrary to popular opinion, volume playmaking will be viewed in a slightly rosier lens, and that’s because a shot created has a greater expected value than a shot taken. Because an offensive possession is all about generating the most efficient shot, these mega-shot creators who can also score themselves will be ranked higher than the more flashy, self-generated scoring type of stars that historically receive a lot of praise. I’ve written on the topic of volume versus efficiency before, and while there’s more to a player’s scoring value than these two measuring sticks, they’re valued as roughly (key word: roughly) equal.
Because offense is so often reduced to volume scoring, this list may appear to excessively praise great passers and off-ball players, but this is because they both contribute toward high-value offensive possession. Passing exploits the mishaps in a defense while off-ball cutting or offensive rebounding pressure the rim and generate a ton of second-chance opportunities. The overarching point here is that all offensive skills are at play here, and they’ll be weighed appropriately based on evidence of how valuable they are and, even more important to how they affect bad teams, how much they affect good teams.
Before diving into the list, let’s go over some honorable mentions, and why the list caps off at ten players. The first two players out, and the ones I saw as making the strongest arguments to slide in at the back end of the top-ten, are Giannis Antetokounmpo and Karl-Anthony Towns. While they may raise the floor for teams are well as a few players on this list, they were lacking in major offensive categories that made the final cut just a bit easier. Players that were also in contention for the top-fifteen include but are not limited to: Devin Booker, Bradley Beal, Joel Embiid, Paul George, Donovan Mitchell, and Zion Williamson.
The last main sticking point for this list is that it is extremely fluid. Meaning, players who are close to one another are, for the most part, interchangeable to a reasonable degree. This list is also meant to act as more of a starting point than an ending one. A “part one” of sorts that can be added onto alongside a new influx of information and the benefit of hindsight. So, without further ado, I present my estimation of basketball’s ten-best offensive players today.
10. Trae Young
During the past two seasons, Trae Young has evolved into one of the league’s premier shot creators, posting some of the highest estimates on record. He led the league with an estimated 18.5 shots created for teammates in the regular season, which held at a steady 16.4 through 15 Playoff games. Young’s passing was the catalyst to unlocking the value from his shot-creating. An astounding 85% of his assists in the regular season led to layups or three-pointers. While he doesn’t have the catch-and-shot or off-ball proficiency to optimize his fit alongside other perimeter talents, Young’s floor-raising style has proven him to be one of the NBA’s most dangerous offensive weapons.
9. Kyrie Irving
Despite the off-court drama, Kyrie Irving continues to string together some of the more underrated offensive campaigns in recent history, and there are a ton of positive indicators for him: He was +4.6 in offensive Estimated Plus/Minus, +4.1 in offensive LEBRON, and +3 in offensive Real Plus/Minus. Unlike his predecessor on this list, Irving is a great catch-and-shoot scorer, converting on 43% of these attempts in the regular season. Paired with elite finishing that takes advantage of the spacing created by the star talent around him, Irving can maintain a lot of the impact he’d use to strengthen the heights of poorer teams on championship-level offenses. That was the differentiator between him and a floor-raising stud like Trae Young.
8. Damian Lillard
Lillard is one of the most special on-ball talents in the league right now. As the clear-cut primary ball-handler for Portland, he runs a lot of high pick-and-roll that unlock: 1) his elite floor spacing and shooting gravity that pulls defenses far beyond the three-point line, and 2) open driving lanes that allow Lillard to pressure the rim. Because he pairs two extremely effective methods of scoring with the byproduct of high-level shot creation, Damian Lillard is very close to players multiple spots ahead of him on this list. His offensive impact metrics may have been even higher than his represented level, such as his +6.7 in the offensive component of EPM and +8.3 O-RAPTOR. Despite an elite Playoff series on paper: 32 points per 75 possessions on +8% True Shooting, there are still some lingering questions that ask how defenses can effectively scheme around Lillard in the Playoffs; so if forced to choose, he’s a notch under…
7. Kawhi Leonard
I’m splitting hairs between Leonard and Lillard, but the main sticking point with Leonard is that his scoring is more resilient in the postseason. His 48% shooting from the midrange in the regular season (57% in the Playoffs) gives him the classic three-level scoring reprtoire that Lillard (38% in the regular season and 15% in the Playoffs) doesn’t quite have. As the lead ball-handler with the Clippers, Leonard’s playmaking has shined as bright as ever. He doesn’t have the high-leverage assist power of the game’s very best, but his respectable passing keeps defenses at bay for him to punish drop coverages and unlock his incredible scoring repertoire.
6. Kevin Durant
We’ve had the benefit of viewing Kevin Durant through the lenses of various different roster constructions. The only problem: stints have been spaced far apart from one another. There are continuous questionings of whether he could handle the load as a primary ball-handler against elite defenses in the Playoffs, but he provides a ton of value as a secondary star as well. Durant’s all-time-level shooting and isolation scoring allow his scoring to fit well on most types of teams. And because he adds smaller amounts of value through passing and gravity as a roller, Durant still remains an All-NBA player due to offense alone. My confidence level is smaller with Durant, mostly because I wish there were more of him for us to see, but my “most likely” spot for him ends up being sixth.
5. Luka Doncic
A second consecutive player who’s very hard to rank, Luka Doncic. There’s a good argument that Doncic is currently shouldering the largest offensive load in NBA history, and he’s handling it extremely well. His creation estimates were second only to Trae Young in the regular season, and he placed first in the quick scoring proficiency model I whipped up some time ago. Because he creates so much offense through his individual actions, Doncic might be the best floor raiser in the league today. But because he can much up possessions by holding the ball later in the shot clock, and due to a lesser-developed off-ball game, my only concern is how well he could maintain that value if he were playing alongside another ball-dominant guard. This is the lowest I could see Doncic based on how incredible he’s been. (If it isn’t already obvious, these rankings are really hard.)
4. LeBron James
Once again, another player with lingering question marks. Last season, James made a great argument as the best healthy offensive player in the league with how well his motor was repaired for the Playoffs, allowing him to punish teams at the rim. His passing still continues to peak, but we saw his regular-season Passer Rating dip from historical heights to 8.3, suggesting he’s lost a bite of his passing value from a statistical perspective. There are also concerns of health and aging, so it’s difficult to fully assess healthy LeBron’s offensive prowess. But because I think he still fits on a good amount of teams, I’ll slot him in at fourth, but this is a bit of an optimistic outlook. Lower rankings are perfectly justified.
3. James Harden
Harden isn’t a traditionally scalable player, but he’s shown time and time again that he can provide oodles of impact on good teams. The only question with this is how much of his teammates’ roles are being sacrificed to incorporate Harden and his perennially league-leading times of possession. However, it has become clear his high-level shot creation will remain effective alongside other perimeter stars. Harden’s scoring took minor tolls from both a volume and efficiency standpoint, but he still averaged a steady 25 points per 75 on +4% relative True Shooting. I’ve gone back and forth between him and mate Durant for the past few months, but I went with Harden because Durant’s raw performances are far more likely to be the results of his being the beneficiary of optimal roster construction.
2. Nikola Jokic
The razor-sharp battle for the top spot is ever-so-slightly lost by Jokic in my eyes. (I’ll explain more later.) He carried over his all-time passing capabilities from the 2019 and 2020 seasons, but managed to perfect the craft even more. Jokic’s half-court passing and creation reached career highs, enhancing the Nuggets’ offense through the layups-and-threes shot selection, panning out countless assists to the paint and the corners. The full-court was his tapestry, and Jokic painted it with his passes as he hit leaking teammates as if it were target practice. When he wasn’t fighting for open position in the middle of the floor or screening for teammates, which added to his off-ball value, Jokic’s increased scoring kick took his offense toward historical levels. With a cleaner form and positive signals that accompany his shooting spikes, Jokic’s three-level scoring and league-leading passing create a combination that led to one of the greatest offensive seasons in history and a deserving MVP.
1. Stephen Curry
Narrowly edging out the MVP for the top spot on this list is Steph Curry, who manages to rack up more and more MVP-caliber seasons in Golden State. The argument that 2021 was his peak season is valid in that this very well might have been the best season of Curry’s career in a vacuum. While he loses some three-point dominance as the outside shot continues to evolve, Curry’s insane gravity unclogs the middle of the floor unlike any player ever. The classic images of teams sending traps on the perimeter early into the shot clock are great representations of the difficulties surrounding defenses scheming around Curry. Statistics like Box Creation underrate players who aren’t outliers as floor spacers on paper (Shaquille O’Neal), and while Curry doesn’t pass out of traps exceptionally well, his floor-spacing might be the most effective catalyst for a championship-level offense.
To end the list, I’ll give a quick update on the content drought as of late. It’s been 40 days since my last NBA article, so while there hasn’t been the same writing frequency as of late. there are more types of content in the works. I’ll likely have some video content rolling out in the near future related to some cognitive phenomena in evaluating players and individual breakdowns of current and historical player seasons. Until then, I hope today’s article was a solid exchange of information on the league’s top offensive players.