Ladies and gentlemen: it’s officially the most wonderful time of the year. Not because of Christmas, of course, but because it’s an ideal time to evaluate the league’s best players. With the Lakers’ game-six victory against the Heat closing the book on the 2020 season, now is the perfect time to reflect on basketball’s top talents; and what better way than with a top-10 list?
This list intends to connect a player’s worth to a team’s ultimate goal – to win a championship. Therefore, the “best” players bring a team closest to a title. However, this isn’t a measurement of situational value, or how valuable a player is in his specific role on his specific team. I’ll look to connect a player’s “true” value, or how he’d impact a wide variety of teams, with increments in title odds. Resultantly, the placements on this list are partial to a trio of “portable” skills, or certain attributes that maintain value alongside better teammates: defense, passing, and shooting. The qualities of my criterion are similar to those of the CORP methodology because of a shared common goal: to, as stated earlier, connect a player’s value across a variety of environments to the degree of championship lift he provides.
(Click here for a deeper review of my methodology)
Disclaimer: This ranking does not assume all players are healthy. For example, if a player misses 2 of his team’s 10 postseason games, that player is credited with 80% of his full-heath championship equity in the Playoffs.
10. Damian Lillard
Lillard vaulted himself into the conversation as one of the league’s greatest offensive players this year. His lethal scoring repertoire, which consists of elite screen action, defensive spacing exploitation, and perimeter play resulted in an impressive 28.5 points per 75 on nearly +6.5 relative True Shooting. Lillard’s instrumental playmaking was a large asset for Portland, creating around 15 extra shots for teammates every 100 possessions. He doesn’t provide a ton of value off the ball, and Lillard’s postseason offense was clearly inferior to his regular-season self. Lillard’s defense is also problematic. His deep coverage and transition efforts make it hard to argue he’s a positive on that end, but the general premise of Lillard’s offense earns him a spot on this year’s list.
9. Jimmy Butler
Butler’s postseason play was the deciding factor in his spot on this year’s top-10. He maintained a decent scoring attack of 22 points per 75 on moderate efficiency in the regular season, but the latter’s Playoff changes were an influential factor in Miami’s Finals run. Butler improved by nearly five percentage points in the True Shooting department, enough to make his Playoff scoring elite. His facilitation drastically improved once separate from a drowned-out role in Philadelphia. Butler improved by four extra shots in the creation department, a figure he maintained in the second season. Butler’s great defensive impact, a mixture of low-error play, good positioning, and strong hands are of high worth to NBA rosters. His anchoring of a great postseason offense and perennially-strong defense made him a newcomer in my latest top-10 list.
8. Nikola Jokić
Jokić was nearly identical to his previous-season self: identical scoring and (adjusted) turnover rates and slightly higher efficiency and creation. Similarly, his 23.6 points per 75 and +3.7 rTS% in the regular season rose to 25.8 and +5.5 in the Playoffs, respectively. Jokić’s postseason change was on perfect display with his three-point efficiency, which vaulted to 43% on 5.4 attempts per 75. He continued his highly-effective “bully-ball” and perfected his pick-and-roll routine with teammate Jamal Murray. Jokić’s defensive remains the subject of criticism; his honey-bear build and slow feet don’t amplify his team’s defense. However, his quick reaction time and smart hand placements keep Jokić’s head above water in terms of defensive impact. Jokić’s role as a strong offensive cornerstone is applicable to a wide variety of teams, which paired with adequate defensive impact, makes Jokić one of the most equitable players in the league today.
7. Luka Dončić
Luka Dončić, in a season in which he was surely robbed of the MIP Award, took his offensive game to another level. Dallas featured the most efficient offense in league history, posting a 117 Offensive Rating in the regular season. Dončić’s having anchored that offense is a strong indicator of how good his offense is. He was near the top of the league in scoring rate, 31.1 points per 75, which he matched in the postseason, on stronger efficiency against a tough Clippers defense. Dončić was the true centerpiece of his team’s offense; he was “meaningfully” involved in roughly two-thirds of his team’s possessions. His offensive attacks, step-back jump shots, foul-drawing, and tough-shot making contribute to his world-class offense among a plethora of on-ball habits. Dončić’s defense is nothing to be impressed with: mediocre positioning, man, and off-ball defense, but his offense is enough to propel him safely onto this year’s list.
6. Joel Embiid
Embiid was quietly one of the league’s top players this season. He had a strong season as a scorer: 28.4 points per 75 on +2.1 relative True Shooting, which grew to 31.9 and +3.9 in the postseason, respectively. Embiid is a strong bully in the post with solid feet under the right care, which paired with undervalued passing and creation, makes him a strong offensive anchor in the post. However, the aspect of Embiid’s game that separates him from the players ranked below him is his defense. Embiid is antithetical to Butler in that his defense is more prone to error, but the benefits are of far greater return. He’s an extremely strong paint presence (career 4.8 block percentage) with solid pass anticipation, which paired with his maintained value in the Playoffs, sets Embiid apart from the rest of the pack. His strong post offense and world-class defensive impact are deciding factors in Embiid’s placement.
5. James Harden
James Harden continued his trend as one of the league’s elite offensive weapons in 2020. After posting the highest scoring rate in league history in 2019, Harden remained near the top of the leaderboards at 33.2 points per 75 possessions on high efficiency. In the Playoffs, his volume dropped to 29.3 points per 75, but his increased efficiency argues Harden had his best-scoring season in the Playoffs this year. His creation rates were consistent with the league’s top marks, exceeding 15 shots created per 100 in the regular season and 12 per 100 in the postseason. If Harden’s offense were more scalable or he provided more off-ball value, he would ubiquitously rank as the league’s top offensive player. However, given the “true” value of his offense and subpar defensive efforts, Harden comes in at fifth this year.
4. Kawhi Leonard
Leonard had one of his strongest regular seasons in 2020. He entered the upper echelons of scoring at 30.4 points per 75 on respectable efficiency. Leonard’s creation made a clear leap from last season, rounded at 11 shots created per 100. There were still instances of hesitance on Leonard’s passes, and it’s likely his playmaking estimates are a tad overrated, but his distinct improvements on that front gained him some offensive territory. Leonard’s defensive impact will likely never match his defensive talent as the two did earlier in his career, but Leonard remained one of the league’s top wing defenders in a mix of excellent hands, a prominent ability to clog passing lanes, and solid tracking on the perimeter. Leonard’s weaker profile in the postseason and limitations as an offensive engine diminish his ceiling on this list, but the totality of his championship equity ranks him near the top of the league this year.
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo
The Greek Freak had one of the greatest regular seasons of all-time according to the sport’s major impact metrics. Antetokounmpo led the league in RAPM, RPM, PIPM, and three BPM statistics (Basketball-Reference‘s, Backpicks‘s, and my own models). He led the league in scoring rate, 33.3 points per 75, on impressive efficiency, +5.2 relative True Shooting. The Greek Freak’s creation rates were approaching the top of the league, but similar to Kawhi Leonard, his hesitance to make tougher passes leads me to believe those figures are moderately overstated. His postseason dips aren’t close to remotely as dramatic as the average commentator will state: 31 points per 75 on +4 rTS% with similar creation rates. Antetokounmpo nearly doubled his relative offensive rebounding rate despite facing two of the league’s most prolific defensive-rebounding teams in Miami and Orlando. His absence in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semis takes him down a notch on this list, but Antetokounmpo’s historical 2020 will remain a footnote in basketball history.
2. Anthony Davis
Anthony Davis makes arguably the strongest case as the league’s best frontcourt player of the season. His already elite box profile of 27 points per 75, 61 TS%, ~ 5 Box Creation, and +2.4 rORB% in the regular season leaped to 29.5, 66.5, ~ 6, and +2.9 in the postseason. Davis’s offensive profile is a great fit on strong offensive teams: strong scoring and efficiency as well as undervalued passing. Contrary to Giannis Antetokounmpo’s evaluation, Davis is a high-quality passer with lower creation rates. Davis’s shooting in the Playoffs (38% from 3) and improved play were focal points of the Lakers’ title run. However, the strongest facet of Davis’s résumé is his defense, a lethal mixture of awareness, great hands, positioning, and multidimensional coverage. His strong combo of offense and defense was good enough to blur the title of “best player” on the Lakers roster. Davis’s strong two-way play, especially in the postseason, propelled him to the second spot on this year’s list.
1. LeBron James
LeBron James refuses to age for another year as he contributes more championship equity than any player in the league once again. His impressive scoring repertoire as a strong driver and passable shooter, when paired with historical passing, makes James arguably the best offensive player of the year. He thrived as a primary ball-handler up top, skipping passes all over the court and converting on near-impossible chances. James’s value off the ball wasn’t as excellent, but his transferrable role as an offensive centerpiece is a strong point of his résumé. Contrary to 2019, James was a strong positive on the defensive end. His elite anticipatory movement, positioning, and rim protection contributed to a highly-valued defensive role in Los Angeles. James continued his career trend of improvement in the postseason, the deciding factor in his topping this year’s list.
I’ll defend my positions on these players, but there will always be some wiggle room in these rankings. The order in which the players appear on this list is not definitive, and a certain degree of shuffling wouldn’t drastically alter the results. With that, I’ll close the book on my top-10 players of 2020 player ranking. Now that we’ve cycled through another year of NBA basketball, I’m curious to read your guys’ top-10 lists. ⬇️⬇️