It's that time of year again. With the NBA season set to begin Tuesday, our CBS Sports panel has put together our list of the 100 best players in the league right now. We factored in everything: injuries, new coaching, talent, athleticism, decision-making, the works, and scored the top 100 players on a 1-100 scale with 100 as the best. Rankings were determined by the average of those four scores. Rookies were excluded on the basis that there's simply no way to evaluate them as NBA players yet.
There was a lot of movement on this year's list. John Wall fell. So did Anthony Davis, who just can't seem to stay totally healthy. Shocker ... Steph Curry rose.
So let the debating, and hating, begin. Here's our Elite 100 list:
The 3-and-D wing slipped a little on defense last season on a Houston Rockets team that collectively couldn't stop anybody, but he made 37 percent of his 3s and showed he could play power forward in small-ball lineups. It's hard to believe, but Ariza is heading into his 13th season -- no wonder he is starting to look slightly slower.
A prime bounce-back candidate this season, there's no easy explanation for why he was in a shooting slump for most of last year. Even when he was missing shots, though, he helped the Spurs because defenders respected his range and he continued to play top-notch perimeter defense.
Any guy willing to go right at LeBron James in his first playoff series has our respect. With Johnson's combination of skills on both sides of the ball, he has a bright future in this league, even if the King gave him a lesson.
Due to his lack of flash and his workmanlike game, Lopez may be one of the most underrated players in the league. He will immediately be a fan favorite in Chicago and help the Bulls defensively.
I'd bet on his talent, feel for the game and apparently awesome relationship with Luke Walton making this ranking look way too low by the end of the year. Sure, there are doubts about Russell's maturity, but his proficiency in the pick-and-roll should be on display much more often under Walton.
A skilled passer and strong floor general, Payton has shown promise in his first two seasons and will need to continue improving, especially his shooting, in order to take the next step. We're guessing he won't be ahead of D'Angelo Russell on any list for very long.
The Magic chose Fournier over Victor Oladipo, giving the 6-foot-7 shooting guard a five-year, $85 million contract and sending the former No. 2 pick Oladipo to OKC. Still just 23 years old, Fournier needs to improve when it comes to defense and taking contact, but he made 40 percent of his 3-pointers last year. There is a dearth of great players at his position.
An X-factor for the Thunder in the playoffs, Waiters swung games when he played tough defense and made his 3-pointers. That wasn't enough to get him a rich, long-term contract this summer, though, so he wound up in Miami on a cheapo deal. He could thrive there, or his issues with shot selection and ball stopping could come back to the forefront.
The longest tenured Bull, Gibson is just a steady, all-around solid player. In that sense, he's a rare player and should continue to be a consistent presence for the Bulls, who are one of the hardest teams to predict. You could see them making a run at home court in the East. You could also see them fading into the lottery.
Gordon, when healthy, is still really talented. He finally started to show some of what he could do with the Pelicans, and this is the first time in his career he's gotten to choose where he plays. He could have a huge year under Mike D'Antoni ... if he stays healthy.
If this combo guard rounds out his game, then he and Russell will give the Lakers one of the best young backcourts in basketball. Clarkson is a terrific athlete with a solid jumper, but he needs to make some progress as a passer and defender.
Nurkic is massive, and gifted, but comes with an attitude that drifts wildly. He needs to stay engaged this year to make the most of a big opportunity.
One of the best quotes in the league, Gortat is a fine rebounder and sets excellent screens for John Wall and Bradley Beal. Gortat should thrive under new Wizards coach Scott Brooks, who will be looking to Gortat for a certain toughness as well. This is a big year for Washington. Time to put up or shut up.
Back in NYC, Lin is going to have all the touches and minutes he can handle for the first time since Linsanity. His shot looked improved in the preseason, but it would really help if Brooklyn had better pick-and-roll partners and shooters surrounding him.
Suddenly a sixth man after missing much of last season with a sports hernia, life has come at Knight fast. The guard was considered an All-Star snub just before the Bucks traded him to Phoenix in 2015, and it wouldn't be surprising if he ended up being moved again.
Injuries have derailed Galinari the last couple seasons, but he is healthy for the first time in a long time and should provide the bulk of the scoring for a Nuggets team that will also rely on his veteran leadership. Quietly, Denver has put an up-and-coming roster together. Gallinari can still fill it up.
Korver couldn't duplicate his historic 2014-15 season last year, struggling early in the year with a reworked shot coming off two surgeries. He bounced back in the second half, though, and is still the best shooter on the planet who doesn't play for the Warriors. He remains an underrated defender, too.
Due to a contract stalemate, Smith missed out on all of training camp and the majority of preseason. That could hurt him in the early going, but Smith proved his worth to the Cavs last year and in the Finals. If he can be the J.R. of last year, Smith may rise up this list next season.
Bazemore is coming off a career year that earned him a big-time offseason contract. No longer a bench cheerleader, Bazemore is an effective 3-and-D player who is a vital member of the Hawks. This is one of the really good stories to come out of this summer's spending spree. Bazemore earned his contract the right way: waited his turn, played hard, and produced in a big way when he got the chance.
The Spurs brought in Gasol to fill the hole that was created when Tim Duncan retired. Of course Gasol won't be able to truly fill in for Duncan, especially on the defensive end, but he is still a good offensive player and rebounder.
Due to injuries, it is unclear how good Kidd-Gilchrist can actually be. What we know is that he's an excellent wing defender that has shown potential at becoming a more polished offensive player, but potential only goes so far. He has to stay healthy. He'll never be a reliable shooter, but he needs to double down on his open-court and slashing abilities to take the next step.
A stellar rookie season earned Turner the starting center role in Indiana. This is a role in which Turner should excel as the 20-year-old has the skills to be one of the better young big men in the league. And Indiana needs it. The Pacers expect to compete with Cleveland this year, and that isn't going to happen without a real presence in the middle. Realistically, it's probably not going to happen anyway.
One of our writers had Hill as a top-40 player, and two had him out of the top 100 entirely. He's the perfect point guard for this Jazz team -- a smart, strong defender who makes 3s and won't dominate the ball. He'll probably never make an All-Star team, but many teams would be so much better if they had somebody like him.
Winslow is the Heat's future, and he's set to have a huge season. There are a lot of questions about Miami, but Winslow looks like the real deal. His jumper has to get better, we all know, but he already draws the toughest defensive assignments and is wise beyond his years.
A smart and savvy player, Bogut provides a much needed defensive presence in the middle for Dallas. His passing and ability to set screens should also be a perfect fit in Rick Carlisle's system. He has great instincts on both ends and can really get a break going with his rebounding and outlet passing. Golden State will feel his absence more than people might think.
Trade Bait! Vucevic, our 46th-ranked player last year, is redundant in Orlando next to Bismack Biyombo and Serge Ibaka, but he's also the only one of those three who can put up a 30-point game. He's underrated, and a quality center. His defensive struggles stem from ability, not effort.
Oladipo was an effective player in Orlando but the jury is still out on how good he can actually be. He is a good defender and capable scorer, and he should be a fine running mate for Westbrook in Oklahoma City. That said, for a No. 2 overall pick, he still has a lot to prove, and you can bet Westbrook isn't going to lower his expectations just because Durant is gone. This team still expects to win. Oladipo has to perform.
Lyles' per-minute numbers are crazy, and he combines athleticism, range and hustle. He's like a taller, ganglier Paul Millsap in the making. Utah is expected to make a big jump in the West this year after not making the playoffs a year ago, and Lyles will be a big part of that. One of many really talented players for the Jazz.
Already cementing his status as one of the best dunkers to ever play in the NBA, LaVine's game should develop even further under new Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau. He may not get the same level of shine as Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, but LaVine is a key member of the Timberwolves' young core.
He's only this low because he doesn't score big or consistently. Don't let the still-poor shooting numbers distract you from the fact that Rubio is great at everything else, from his brilliant passing to his forever-underrated defense and rebounding. This year will be fascinating, though -- he's not a typical Tom Thibodeau point guard, and the Wolves drafted his replacement, Kris Dunn, who will reportedly take Rubio's starting job after 20 games.
A skilled, efficient low-post big with great hands and fantastic rebounding numbers, Kanter remains polarizing because he remains one of the least effective defenders in the NBA. He had his moments in the playoffs, particularly against the Spurs, but he can be exploited easily. It's also worth noting that he played in all 82 of the Thunder's regular-season games last year and recorded only 33 assists.
The Hawks strongly believe in Schroder's potential, entrusting him with their starting point guard spot by trading away Jeff Teague. Schroder can be a bit reckless at times yet his talent is undeniable. It will be interesting to see how his game develops in an expanded role.
Carroll was supposed to be the Raptors' missing piece last season, but he was just plain missing for most of the season. The hope is that he stays healthy in his second year with the team -- they're a more versatile, unselfish and tough team when he's on the court.
Valanciunas is slowly coming into his own and could possibly average a double-double this season. He is only 23 years old and still hasn't reached his full potential. Toronto has come to rely on Valanciunas' presence in the middle both offensively and defensively.
At 21 years old with unreal athleticism and advanced instincts, it seems like Gordon can be molded into just about anything ... so the Magic are going to try to make him into a small forward. This feels a little bit like when P.J. Carlesimo had Kevin Durant play shooting guard, but Durant turned out OK after that experiment, didn't he?
He's on a new team in a contract year after an up-and-down season in OKC. This is a huge year for Ibaka, whose responsibilities have expanded as the league has changed -- no longer is his ability to block shots and shoot 3s enough, he must guard smaller players and try to improve his playmaking.
It seems like forever ago but Dragic made an All-NBA third team in 2014. Dragic never took the next step, though, and hasn't turned into an elite point guard. The Heat will struggle this season but Dragic and Hassan Whiteside in the pick-and-roll should be fun to watch.
Toiling away in Brooklyn, Lopez has become a forgotten player among the general public. Too many people don't know just how solid a center he is and the Nets will need everything he's got. Lopez is one of the few go-to scorers in Brooklyn.
The 30-year-old's efficiency fell off a cliff last season, but that was expected following a torn Achilles. Now his job is to remind people that, before the injury, he was one of the best 3-and-D guys in the league, plus an effective post-up player.
Parker spent last year getting back on track after an ACL tear took his rookie year. In preseason, he's been hitting threes, dunking everything, and looking like the kind of talent he was hyped to be coming out of Duke.
Always a solid player, Williams has reinvented himself into a 3-and-D player. Williams is a solid defender, able to guard bigger players and small forwards, and he also shot 40 percent from three last season. If he can duplicate that kind of production, Williams will continue to be a key member of the Hornets.
A jack-of-all-trades player, Iguodala's versatility is one of the many reasons the Warriors are an elite team. An excellent defender and capable scorer in spots, Iguodala will likely continue to be one of the best sixth men in the league this season.
Parker looked like such a corpse in international play a year ago that we expected him to drop off the map. Instead he helped lead the Spurs to 67 wins. But the defense remains exploitable and you wonder how much longer he can handle the reins with so many miles on him.
Whenever Bledsoe seems to have it going, he gets injured. If he can remain healthy, he and Devin Booker could help Phoenix regain some respectability. Bledsoe is a bulldog that plays far bigger than his diminutive stature, and he can really score. He's undersized, however, trying to match up with wings, and for all his fight, that could be a problem when paired with Booker.
The Cavaliers wouldn't have won the title without Thompson. Every year since he was drafted No. 4 in 2011, his usage rate has declined and his efficiency has improved. He's one of the best rebounders in the world, and he's happy to do every little thing that Cleveland needs. Few big men could have anchored the Cavs' defense and challenged the Warriors' guards the way he did in the Finals.
Larry Bird wanted the Pacers to play faster, so they acquired Teague, who should help Indiana do exactly that. Teague often gets overlooked when discussing top point guards, but he can really play. He's well rounded as a scorer/playmaker, and he's one of the faster guards in the league.
Memphis sold Parsons on having a bigger role in the offense, just like Dallas did when he signed an offer sheet in a club two years ago. If he's healthy, then he deserves that opportunity, but after having him around for a couple seasons, the Mavs decided not to invest in his knee.
Some people will scream that this is too low, and the advanced numbers back that up. Few rookies impact the game as much as Jokic did in his first year, displaying court vision and defensive awareness well beyond his years. He has Gasolian upside, but has to prove he can sustain his production when given big minutes. The Nuggets are expected to run their whole offense through him.
One of the best shot blockers in the league, Whiteside should again be in the running for Defensive Player of the Year The Heat committed a lot of money to Whiteside in the offseason and have essentially made him the centerpiece of their team. Can Whiteside handle that burden while taking the next step as a more well-rounded player? If he can, expect Whiteside to be much higher on this list next year.
Crowder was All-Star worthy last year, combining defense and efficiency. He's not as valuable as trade talks make him seem -- the idea of him being untouchable is madness -- but Crowder makes the Celtics significantly better on both ends.
Hood has emerged as a light-it-up scorer whose size and athleticism remind you of a young Joe Johnson. He's already a featured scorer on a team looking to make noise in the West, and there is every reason to believe he's going to continue ascending right alongside this promising Utah core.
Porzingis surprised everyone with how quickly he was able to make an impact as a rookie. He is now seen as the future of the Knicks and his tireless work ethic should only allow his game to blossom. Porzingis should also benefit greatly from playing alongside Joakim Noah, who at least from a mentoring standpoint should be valuable to the young Knicks big man, particularly guiding him to be a better defender.
Injuries have been preventing Beal from taking the next step. If he can remain healthy, Beal, who is just 23 years old, could be one of the best shooting guards in the league. He's another guy who should really excel this season under new coach Scott Brooks.
The 32-year-old sharpshooter/podcaster is coming off a career season and is heading into a contract year. He shot an absurd 47.5 percent from deep last season, and he's absolutely essential to the Clippers' success. Redick remains one of the more underappreciated players in the league. He flat out helps you win, is a tough defender, and Doc Rivers really knows how to use him.
Middleton will miss the majority of the season due to a hamstring injury, which is a major blow for the Bucks. A strong defender and excellent shooter, Middleton is a big reason why Milwaukee was/is considered a team on the rise in the East.
Saying he's a Bull will never not be weird, but Wade's impact is complicated at this point. The Heat weren't consistently, nor substantially, better with him on the floor, but his numbers were still great. He's still Dwyane Wade and he still makes plays on both ends.
The questions will be if he can stave off a further defensive drop, and how he'll mesh with the Bulls. He shot 3-pointers well in preseason after last season he was one of the worst 3-point shooting 2-guards since the arc was invented. If that's a real trend, it's a game-changer for Wade and the Bulls. More likely he'll regress at least somewhat back to his mean and the Bulls' spacing will suffer.
There will still be nights when Wade looks like the best player on the floor. Just not as many.
Bradley has added whatever he's been criticized for not having over the past few years. He was a great on-ball defender who struggled off-ball, so he got better with his rotations. He was a good defender but couldn't shoot, so he raised his 3-point percentage. He was a shooter and defender but couldn't create with the ball, so he worked on pick and roll.
At this point, Bradley may be the best bang-for-your-buck shooting guard in the league considering how cheap his deal is. (Bradley makes just $8.3 million this season and $8.8 million next year.) He's a defender who's grown as a playmaker and shooter. He has some injury woes, but he may legitimately be the second-best overall player on the Celtics.
He could also be traded at a moment's notice if the Celtics can find a deal for a star. Bradley didn't even crack this list last year, which shows both how far he's come and the impact of the Celtics being a real playoff threat.
He turns 20 this season, and he's as confident and composed a young player as you'll ever see. Booker has all the makings of a future star on offense, showing as a rookie that he had the potential to do so much more with the ball in his hands than he ever did in college. As well as being a sweet shooter, he can run pick-and-rolls and finish over bigger, stronger players.
The Suns moved Brandon Knight to the bench so Booker could keep his starting spot as a sophomore, and he now looks like their most important building block. He has a long way to go to become an even average defender, though.
If Adams just does what he did last year, he'll be Oklahoma City's second- or third-best player. The mobile 7-footer is a weapon in the pick-and-roll and is skilled at defending it. Plus, his game is devoid of ego. One of the best and most willing role players in the league, he has been happy to set screens and rebound while Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant put up big numbers.
Now that Durant is gone, though, there will be an opportunity for Adams to grow. The Thunder should try to use him as a post player and facilitator, as his development in those areas will help them have a more diversified attack.
Batum thrived last year in Charlotte, where he was enabled as a shooter and playmaker. The numbers, in terms of how much better he made Kemba Walker when he was on the floor with him, were startling. He's a great defender, and makes the whole team better.
Re-signing Batum was the biggest move of Charlotte's offseason and his positional fluidity helps a lot with putting the right pieces on the floor at the right time. The Hornets were 4.1 net points per 100 possessions better with Batum on the floor last season. He jumped 40 spots on this list after showing what he could do outside or Terry Stotts' system.
When can a team survive losing four-fifths of its starting lineup?
When there's a former Lehigh star on its bench.
McCollum, the first Mountain Hawk to make the NBA, scored 37 in his first start of last season, then didn't score in single digits until after the All-Star break, tripling his previous season's scoring average (6.8 to 20.8) as he also tripled his minutes. That earned him the Most Improved Player award. His postseason -- 20.5 points per his 11 games -- earned him more notice. He'll only be moving up this list.
In his first full season as a starting point guard, Jackson was just a stud in Detroit. He averaged 18.8 points while shooting 43.4 percent and averaging 6.2 assists. With Jackson running Detroit's offense, the Pistons made the playoffs last season after an extended absence and fought tooth and nail with the Cavs before falling in the first round.
A lingering knee and wrist injury, however, will force Jackson to miss an extended period of time at the start of the season. This could spell trouble for Detroit's playoff chances as it may have to play catch-up for most of the season. Still, with Jackson and Andre Drummond, Detroit has a nice foundation for the future.
Howard gets a bad rap for a variety of reasons yet he remains one of the better centers in the league. Injuries have contributed to Howard losing some of his explosive athleticism, but he is still an excellent rim protector, rebounder and efficient scorer around the basket.
How Howard will exactly fit in Atlanta remains to be seen, but back playing in the East means he could possibly become an All-Star again.
A Most Improved Player candidate last year, Walker finally came into his own and became a more efficient player (shooting 37 percent from deep). He's still not a high-assist player, but he's learning to run an offense and got some playoff experience.
Walker's step-back remains one of the most dangerous in the league, but his ranking here is surprising considering Batum is likely the better player.
Here's something that suggests the 2014 No. 1 pick may actually be the superstar so many predicted he'd be someday: he's already getting some superstar calls.
Wiggins tied for ninth in the NBA in free throw attempts per game last season, and two of the players ahead of him are centers whose incompetence makes them targets (DeAndre Jordan, Andre Drummond). That knack should sustain him as he knocks out the kinks in his jumper. Defensively, he's been granted little latitude, expected to cover the best every night from the start of his career, and the expectations won't lessen now that he's under Tom Thibodeau's thumb. He should flourish, as he's more athletically gifted than either Luol Deng or Jimmy Butler ever were for Thibs, and he's ready for the minutes after averaging 35.7 his first two seasons.
In terms of future Hall of Famers remaining on the same team their whole career, Nowitzki is now the last current Lifer, now that Dwyane Wade is in Chicago, Tim Duncan is in comfortable jeans, and Kobe Bryant is in judgment of all those players who come after.
Meanwhile, at age 38, Nowitzki's still going strong for the only NBA team he's represented -- yes, you can forget the draft day trade. Forget defense, too, because that wasn't why he made America learn his name. He still needs to be guarded, and that one-legged jumper still needs to be admired. He's shot 37.3 percent from three-point range the past two years, and last season his offensive rating and net rating were second and first, respectively, among Mavericks regulars.
A solid pick for Defensive Player of the Year, there's no one better at protecting the rim than the Stifle Tower. You could call Gobert one-dimensional, but what a dimension! Opponents shot just 41 percent against him at the basket last season, and that stat doesn't account for all the times that players decided to shoot jumpers rather than challenge him.
A game-changer defensively, there is plenty of room for Gobert to grow at the other end of the floor. While he's shown flashes as a passer, you can expect the Jazz to continue to run their offense through their wings. He'll never be a stretch 5, but it would help if he could keep defenses honest with a mid-range jumper.
Love was 23rd last year in our rankings, and it's not hard to figure out the drop. He excelled when Kyrie Irving was out to start the year, but when Irving came back, there went Love's touches, and effectiveness.
He locked up Stephen Curry on one of the most important sequences of Game 7, but that doesn't change his status as a defensive liability. Rumors about the Cavs exploring a trade for Love continued through the year until the trade deadline and could resuscitate if the Cavs slump out of the gate this season. Love has a ring now, but questions continue in terms of where he fits in a championship model.
There was much debate in Toronto about whether DeRozan is a franchise cornerstone, or whether the Raptors were cornering themselves with a extravagant contract for a secondary star. That's just one of the debates about DeRozan. He's inefficient and efficient at the same time: taking more two-pointers than any player in the league last season, while also taking more free throws than all but two players, and converting a healthy 85 percent of those.
This isn't in question: the Raptors have gone to the playoffs three straight times for the second time in their history, and to a conference finals for the first time, and he's been the leading scorer through all of it.
Thomas is coming off a career year in which he earned his first ever All-Star selection. He is also the face of the Celtics, a great fit for Brad Stevens' system and has Boston among the elite teams in the East.
Thomas is an electric scorer, fine playmaker and good shooter, and while Al Horford is now in Boston, the Celtics may only go as far as Thomas can take them. If he can become a better three-point shooter and improve on the defensive end, he could start at least threatening elite status.
Listen close, or even not-so-close, and you can hear Stan Van Gundy screaming at the 23 year old -- yes, still just 23! -- to get it together, but the center already does one thing better than anyone in the NBA: He's led the league in offensive rebound average each of the past three seasons, and offensive rebound percentage two of the past three seasons, finishing second last year.
While many focus on the trouble at the line (.355), the next step in his progression is on the block. He posted up more than all but three players last season, according to SportVu, but averaged just 0.73 points per possession, the equivalent of .365 at the line.
This is a major move for a player who was statistically similar last season to the season, similar enough to suggest he plateaued. Or maybe it's just belated appreciation for all that the Georgia Tech product provides, with the promise -- at 25 -- of the next leg up.
He rebounds. He defends in the post. He blocks shots. He plays perfectly off his center, Rudy Gobert, on both ends. He scores efficiently even while a metric misfit; he stepped out more into the 10 to 15 feet area last season, but still has attempted only one three-pointer in eight seasons. Now he'll get more overall looks until Gordon Hayward returns, and to make that long-ago Deron Williams deal look even better.
My favorite analogy for Antetokounmpo is that he's like Facebook in the movie "The Social Network" when Justin Timberlake's Sean Parker breezes in for the introductory lunch with Andrew Garfield, Brenda Song and Jesse Eisenberg. Parker says "You don't even know what the thing is, yet."
That's Antetokounmpo. We still don't even know what he is. Is he a point guard? A center? A wing? Is he a post-up player? A traditional big? A point forward? A point center? An omni-wing like LeBron? David Robinson with handle? What is he?
That's the exciting part of the Greek Freak, but it's also the frustrating and concerning part. He's a puzzle that Milwaukee still hasn't figured out. They know he's good, and they know he's versatile. This season he'll be playing mostly point guard, which means he'll have the ball in his hands. But will he set the offense? Manage the flow? There's so much to the position and that's a steep curve.
He's also not a great shooter. Just 26 percent from deep last season and it wasn't an outlier. If you're a ball-handler in this league and you're not Dwyane Wade, you need to make 3s.
But then there's everything else. He's just physically omnipresent. We've seen gifted athletes before who didn't have the skills, but Antetokounmpo has skills in spades. He's the promise of Anthony Randolph, or Tyrus Thomas, fulfilled. But can he be the best player on a playoff team? There's so much we don't know and that's the fun part about this season with the Greek Freak.
One former teammate of Conley's told CBS Sports this summer he believes Conley truly didn't think he would get the money he did this summer, a record $153 million deal which is the richest in league history, by virtue of the influx of cap space.
But that's false modesty, if true, on Conley's part. He's a max player, to Memphis. There's a balance you have to strike between investor and market value. Conley is not a max player when placed in line with all the other point guards in the league, filled with All-Stars. But he certainly is so to Memphis, which could not even begin to replace his defense, shooting, playmaking, leadership or maturity through free agency or the draft.
Hayward continues to slide under the radar, given how good he is on both ends of the floor. Only six players posted his per-100-possession stats last season, all top-tier players, and that was a down year for Hayward.
Hayward's numbers are always depressed by the fact that Jazz play at a pace that resembles that sloth scene from "Zootopia." He's tasked with guarding the best opposing wing, and manages to have moments where he takes over the game, only to then slip back underneath the radar seamlessly. Hayward isn't an every-night, dominate-the-opponent guy, but he seems to adapt to whatever is needed.
He's like Shawn Marion in that regard, and his numbers when compared with Marion at Hayward's age are very similar. That kind of uber-utility matters, and it makes him maybe the most important player for the Jazz' high hopes this season.
Jordan fits snugly into the Clippers' system, the ideal complement to Chris Paul's pick-and-roll probing, while continuing to serve as the eraser on the other end, an annual top-three finisher in defensive win shares.
The NBA GMs value Jordan even more than we did, ranking him ahead of DeMarcus Cousins and every other center, and it's easy to understand why, even with the free throw foibles -- executives appreciate players who recognize their role. Jordan knows his. He's an elite screener, glass-cleaner (leading the NBA in defensive rebounding two of the past three seasons) and shot-swatter, whose own shots rarely come outside two feet (50 percent are slams).
If he stays healthy, he'll make this ranking look silly. For our money, he's still the best center in basketball, and that's the case regardless of whether or not he keeps up his preseason 3-point shooting. This is one of the most skilled players in the league, capable of being the focal point of the Grizzlies' offense and the hub of their defense.
The worry: Gasol is 31, and his season ended in February last year because of a broken foot. That's a scary injury for a big man, and there was some slippage last year before the injury. He needs to be as aggressive as he was in 2014-15 when the ball is in his hands.
Millsap is just a damn good player. He is versatile, able to bang down low and shoot from long range. His game has truly blossomed since he signed with the Hawks three years ago and he'll likely continue to be a force for Atlanta this season.
Millsap will also probably opt out of his contract and the prospect of earning another large deal in the summer could further spur him on to have a big year this season.
If you're still waiting on Anthony's reinvention, it's better to watch him away from the court, where he has taken an increasingly active stance on social issues.
On the court, we know what stance he likes, and that's still the shooting stance -- he's averaged at least 18.2 attempts in each of the past 11 seasons. He's a volume scorer, who can still get his shot off against most defenders, even if he doesn't finish at quite his old rate. Then he shows just enough flashes as a ball-handler, distributor (averaging a career-high 4.2 assists last season), rebounder and defender -- especially when engaged in the Olympics -- that we start believing he can morph into that more often. But, in the end, this is what he is, and maybe it's still better than we think.
The Celtics were 27th in shots from the roll man out of the pick and roll and 24th in spot-up shots last season. Horford was 79th percentile in the pick and roll and 47th percentile on spot-up shots with Atlanta last year. In other words, he improves the Celtics specifically where they need it most offensively without giving up anything on the defensive end.
Horford once again showed last year that he can't be the top player on an elite team. He can't take over a game, and that's a limitation, but on the Celtics, with their formula, he won't need to. He didn't with the Hawks, either, and that meant consistent, deep playoff runs.
Horford will be featured more this season than he ever was in Atlanta, and that could mean a big jump, but the more likely scenario is the same as what we've seen, a player who is adept and skilled in every area, with very few weaknesses (rebounding), and who won't lead the headlines often. He just makes you better. He's the ultimate helper.
Now that Tim Duncan has retired, Aldridge will have to take on an even larger role in San Antonio. He will have to be a better team defender and rim protector, both areas in which he has struggled throughout his career.
Aldridge remains an excellent low-post scorer and can knock down mid-range jumpers with ease. Last season, Aldridge's numbers went down slightly but he was an All-Star for the fifth time. Aldridge will likely increase his scoring average this season as he becomes a bigger part of San Antonio's system.
There have been rumors that Aldridge is unhappy in San Antonio and the Spurs may even try to trade him after just one season. Aldridge shrugged off those rumors and says he is happy in San Antonio but this could be a storyline to watch this season.
It takes moxie to take the biggest shots when you pair with the world's most dominant and demanding player, and that -- if anything -- is what Irving has proven as his career has progressed. He'll take it. Take the All-Star Game MVP. Take USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year. Take some suggestions, and even scolding, from LeBron James as part of the star's culture crusade. And yes, even take a shot that changes the course of NBA history, splashing a 24-footer over Steph Curry in the final minute of Game 7 of the Finals.
Irving's three-point shooting plummeted last season (41.5 to 32.1 percent as he recovered from offseason surgery), he tends to go GPS-less with his dribble, and his assist totals are paltry for his position. But there's never been a need for the purest point guard on James' gang, just someone who can give him a scoring breather. Fair to say that Irving's 154 points in the final five Finals games will allow any teammate to breathe deeply.
With Wall, it's a series of counter arguments.
On the one hand, he's been in the top three for assists each of the last three seasons. On the other, he continues to be unreliable as a shooter, shooting just 36 percent off the dribble. Can you really be an elite guard in this league if you can't shoot off the dribble?
But then, he's an exceptional athlete with a higher gear than most human beings ever reach and he's added something every season. He's also never had a breakout season where you thought "Does John Wall deserve to at least be on the MVP list?"
Through one lens, Wall finally had multiple knee surgeries to repair long-standing issues and could be fully healthy for the first time in a long-time. Through another, he's coming off two knee surgeries.
In the end, this is a guy who has actually made deep playoff runs, and seriously threatened top seeds for an ECF berth, and he's more motivated than ever. Problem is, there's a lot with this roster we just don't know and if he can't pull this squad together, his frustrations with other point guards getting paid more, and recognized more, could seem unfounded.
This is another big season for John Wall. At times he'll look like a lion, at others he'll look like a lamb. His competitiveness cannot be denied, but at this point, Wall has to find a way to impact things like team chemistry and grit which have been, as of yet, beyond his control. Or catch fire with his jumper. One or the other.
Accountability is a necessity for an NBA point guard, and Lowry never shied from the critics during last postseason -- a postseason he opened by missing 48 of his first 57 three-pointers. As he put it, succinctly, "It sucks I'm playing this bad."
Naturally, the accountability only became a necessity because he was struggling in the playoffs again, and those struggles will likely fuel the skeptics of this selection. But Lowry has been so essential to the Raptors' regular-season resurgence that it's OK to overlook the smaller sample size. He is the Raptors' pressure applicator, at the point of attack on defense, and into the paint on offense, where he has consistently ranked among the drive and free-throw attempt leaders at his position. He's not perfect, but his collaboration with DeMar DeRozan has made the Raptors relevant.
The reigning 3-point shootout champ and one half of the Splash Brothers, Thompson is an elite scorer and excellent wing defender.
Capable of big-time scoring performances, Thompson is just a lethal shooter who shot 47 percent and 42.5 percent from three last season. His versatility makes him one of the best shooting guards in the league and Thompson has now reached that stage of his career where he will be a perennial All-Star.
Thompson gets overshadowed by Stephen Curry, and now Kevin Durant, but he is yet another key superstar on the Warriors. Yes, we called him a superstar.
You know what we learned last season?
Never. Doubt. Dame.
The Blazers had a lot of things go right for them last year to reach the 5th seed, but they don't get there to begin with unless Lillard becomes a top-flight player. He increased his play-making with a career high in assists, and while his defense remains his biggest weakness, he wasn't the obvious exploit point that he was in 2015 when he garnered so much criticism.
Lillard climbs 10 spots from last year's ranking for carrying Portland, which lost four of five starters two summers ago. Now the Blazers are faced with expectations again, and they fall once again on Dame. He just dropped a rap album, he's one of the most recognizable stars in the league. The world is his oyster.
It's easy to think that Lillard is who he is, at this point -- a terrific scorer who can run an offense and comes up with his biggest moments in the biggest games. But that runs the risk of assuming he can't improve at age 26, when most point guards really start to understand how to run a team in this league. As always, the lesson remains.
Never. Doubt. Dame.
Entering his sixth season, Butler has gotten better each year and that trend should only continue. One of the best wing defenders in the league, Butler has also become an excellent scorer, as evidenced by his 40-point, second-half explosion against the Raptors last season. His three-point shooting at 31.2 percent is still average, but Butler is a complete player.
How he will play alongside Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo is the big question mark. The three, on paper at least, don't seem like a good fit together, but perhaps they can figure it out. In any case, if Chicago has any hopes of making it to the playoffs again, in all likelihood that burden will fall most heavily on Butler, who is the Bulls' true star.
A revolutionary player whose versatility sparked the Warriors' ascendance, Green is still arguably the most important piece of the Golden State puzzle. Last season was the best of his career, but unfortunately might be defined more by his suspension during the NBA Finals than his improved passing and shooting.
Green's Game 7 against the Cavs would be the stuff of legends if not for The Block, The Shot and The Stop. He had 32 points on 11-for-15 shooting, plus 15 rebounds, nine assists and two steals. It wasn't enough, though, and now the story heading into the season is how his temperament could sink this superteam.
The crux of ESPN's Ethan Sherwood Strauss' recent piece on Green is that while he's unpredictable, he's also essential. With the departure of rim protectors Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli, Green's toughness and ability to play center is more vital than ever before.
Here are the guys who put up Towns' per-100 numbers while averaging 30 minutes per game as a rookie.
Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal. That's it. That's the list.
Towns is a transcendent talent, and looks like the kind of franchise-altering, league-shifting force that you wait your whole life as a fan hoping for. He's smart, driven and versatile. He can hit from range, drive off the catch, post up, dominate the glass, and he's constantly pushing himself, critiquing even good performances. He's never satisfied.
Perhaps the most telling moment for Towns last year wasn't a highlight shot, dunk or block - it was when he hit a standard mid-range jumper. On the play, as he was rising up, Wiggins appeared wide open under the bucket, and as Towns went back up the floor, after a made bucket, he apologized to Wiggins and was obviously kicking himself for not making the right play.
A lot of guys have talent, but the mindset to want to be better, to always improve? That's rare. Towns is something entirely new, a combination of the old-school, traditionally dominant center and the new big man who is versatile in defending guards and can hit from the outside. The alpha, and the omega. The future is now.
Oh, and he makes his free throws.
Boogie still hasn't reached his tipping point. It seems no matter what happens, Cousins refuses to demand a way out of Sacramento, and for that, honestly, he should be applauded.
Here's the thing: he's 26.
Cousins is reaching his peak, and the point where he's not going to make substantial strides. For a long time, through his temper tantrums and the Kings' rampant dysfunction, it's always felt as if he would struggle and pout there, then get traded somewhere with good culture (probably in a major market) and suddenly thrive. The defensive malaise would fade and he'd commit himself to becoming the top-five player his talent says he should be.
But time is running out. Towns is coming up behind him as the predominant big man and soon he'll be the veteran. Cousins has given the Sacramento community so much and the team has always returned mismatched rosters and identities.
Maybe this is it, and Dave Joerger is going to get the most out of the rest of the team so Cousins can thrive. You'd like to see Cousins set the example defensively. But there doesn't seem to be more hope with Cousins this year than in any before. Cousins isn't old, but it's time. It's past time.
Cousins has to start going somewhere in this league. He's too damn good to not.
Nothing Davis did last year caused him to slide back to the rankings spot he occupied two years ago, after being ranked No. 3 on this list last year. It was again about what he didn't do -- and that was finish out a full season.
So far, he's played 64, 67, 68 and 61 games as a pro since New Orleans took him first overall in 2012 maligned by knee, hand and shoulder trouble. Those setbacks, and the Pelicans' disjointed roster, have stalled his ascent, but, a little perspective is required.
There aren't many historical players that combine Davis' size and skill, though another Chicago guy, Kevin Garnett, may suffice as a comp. Each was 23 years old after their fourth season, and Davis averaged more points, rebounds and blocks through those four, with a superior player efficiency rating. And he's still evolving, playing more center last season, and taking more threes under Alvin Gentry.
So the future is all in front of him, so long as he doesn't stumble over it.
Thanks to a quad injury and a scuffle with an equipment manager, Griffin isn't coming into this season with MVP hype. He played at a near-MVP level early last season, though, and has developed into one of the best playmakers in the league. That's almost unthinkable given that he was seen as mostly a finisher, not a creator, when he entered the league.
Griffin is still an explosive leaper who can finish fast breaks and alley-oops spectacularly, but he's just as adept at starting them. When the ball is in his hands, he has more in common with LeBron James than Amar'e Stoudemire. There's a chance he expands his game even more, too -- in the preseason, he has been firing away from 3-point range.
When is it a compliment to say someone stays the same?
When it's this guy.
Consistency has been the calling card for Paul and, while some will snicker that he's consistently fallen short of the conference finals, that feels like an unfair assessment of what he contributes year after year. He was the template for point guard play in the NBA prior to Steph Curry shattering all the molds: tenacious, tough, two-way and tested in every situation, knowing where to go with the ball, or when to just take it and go himself.
And he's still doing all of that, even as he's sitting more, playing a career low 32.7 minutes, and now with Ray Felton aboard to help him maximize that court time even more.
Slowing? Slow down. On a per-36 minute basis, he averaged more points last year (21.5) than he has in any of his eight other All-Star seasons, and more assists (11.1) than in any season since 2007-08, while other numbers (such as steals and rebounds) hugged their typical trends.
George has an MVP season in him. He started off showcasing it last year before tailing off. George is that modern superstar that you want. He's never made noise about wanting out of Indiana, he doesn't complain (unless it's about having to play power forward), he came back from a horrible injury to represent his country with Team USA, he can take over the game, and he's a great defender.
That ability to take over the game weighs heavy, here. George moves up six spots from last year, and it's really difficult to put him any lower. George's performance in the playoffs showed what can happen when you have the best player in the series and the Raptors were lucky to survive him.
This year is about efficiency with George. The Frank Vogel offense he's operated under has always been sluggish; under Nate McMillan he'll have an opportunity to combine production with efficiency. George shot just 42 percent from the field last year, though he did hit 37 percent from deep.
The bar last year was for George to get back to his rightful place following his broken leg. He did that and more. Now, with a new system and springboarding off a gold medal summer, George has an opportunity to go from All-Star to household name.
This is a second straight year of one-slot slippage in our rankings for the hyper-kinetic Thunder guard, and it feels like a setup, since Westbrook already has enough to anger him, notably Kevin Durant taking off via text. Rage, as Kobe Bryant once regally noted, can be one of Westbrook's more redeeming qualities.
Westbrook's good at some other stuff, too, and he's already shown what havoc he can wreak while flying solo; he stuffed the stat sheet without Durant after the 2014-15 All-Star break, averaging 31.3 points, 8.7 rebounds and 9.9 assists. That season, he also produced a usage rate higher than anyone but Kobe Bryant.
Then, last season, while often deferring to Durant, he took better care of the ball (increasing his assist-to-turnover ratio from 1.96 to 2.44). Naturally, that wasn't widely noticed, since narratives about recklessness and selfishness can take forever to fade. But this year will be more fun anyway: watching him toss the caution aside, and take what he wants when he wants it.
It's not hard to figure out why Harden is a trendy pick for Most Valuable Player. He damn near won the award two years ago, and Mike D'Antoni's offense could have him near the top of the league in terms of scoring and assists per game. On a recent podcast with The Ringer's Chris Vernon, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey said you could credibly argue that the seven-seconds-or-less system is even more suited to Harden's skills than Steve Nash's.
Harden will always be a divisive superstar because of his extreme foul-drawing tendencies and defensive lapses. It's more than fair to want more from him at the defensive end, but if he just increases his effort level to what it was in 2014-15, then he'll almost certainly be back in the mix for MVP. Aside from an injury, it's hard to imagine a scenario where his numbers aren't mind-boggling.
Leonard was 24 spots lower two years ago, and five spots lower a year ago. He became the man in San Antonio, and the result was 67 wins and an incredible performance in terms of offensive efficiency.
Leonard was in the 80th percentile or higher in eight different playset categories according to Synergy Sports last season, including pick and roll as the ball-handler (95th), post-up (89th), and isolation (85th). It didn't matter what capacity the Spurs used him in, he was hyper-efficient, and that meant they could use him in a wide range of roles.
Oh, and he's the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year, the most fearsome one-on-one stopper in the entire league.
So what's missing?
Leonard still struggles when called upon to carry a team through a playoff series when the Spurs' formula hits a wall. He was rendered ineffective vs. the Clippers in 2015, and then vs. the Thunder last year, he had another great start to the series only to fade late. Leonard had a strong second half to Game 6, but by then, the game and series had slipped away.
Yes, George and Harden are behind Leonard on this list, which speaks to Leonard's overall game, but he can stand to learn a thing or two from those guys in terms of taking over a game in a big-time moment. Leonard has added something every year. If he takes his game to another level, somehow, the Spurs will maintain their standing in the league's hierarchy, and Leonard could very well walk away with the 2016-17 MVP award.
Think that Durant took the easy way out by leaving Oklahoma City for Golden State, and one All-Star for three? That's your right. That won't make him any easier to guard this season.
Durant was sixth in isolation scoring last season, with a higher effective field-goal percentage (.488) in those situations than any of the other top 20 isolation scorers, other than Steph Curry (.530). But he won't need to go it alone as often, not with the Warriors' read-and-react system that ensures more egalitarian touches.
So what will he do? Win. A lot. Swish. A lot. Sacrifice. A little, but not too much, and it will be for the better. He's made at least 50 percent of his field-goal attempts each of the past four seasons, but it wouldn't surprise if he experiences the sort of spike that LeBron James did when joining Miami, where his .503 field-goal percentage in his last Cleveland season swelled to .565 in South Beach. Selectivity led to connectivity. The same will be true for Durant, who -- less burdened -- can devote more attention to defending and passing.
James finally won a championship in his ninth season. This is Durant's 10th, and his squad is stacked, so the pressure's never been greater. Good thing he's still one of the three best players in the world.
He's the one we can't stop watching, and we saw what he did last season. More than validating his jump from No. 4 on last year's list, he simply outdid himself, hitting a mind-boggling 402 3-pointers en route to winning his second MVP, this one unanimously -- somehow becoming even more efficient, his effective field-goal percentage spiking from .598 to .630, and his career mark in that category to .574. That ranks eighth all-time; the seven players ahead of him are at least seven inches taller, in a sport in which stature once mattered quite a bit.
Curry, however, has changed that equation and many more, whether rooted in simple mathematics (the contested three tops an open two!) or more complex physics and geometry (that handle? That angle? That release? That's impossible!). He's can cover a college curriculum, actually, since his story is also economic (elevating Under Armour) and medical (his once-brittle ankles still breaking the ankles of others).
He's done everything but outplay LeBron James in an NBA Finals, which is the one reason that the one we can't stop watching must settle for No. 2.
Hail to the King, forever, amen.
The conversation is over. You can hold the fort for Michael Jordan if you want, his Airness still holds the mantle. But you can no longer exclude LeBron James from the best-ever conversation. He's right there with anyone who's ever played the game, ahead of most. That's what happens after you do what he did last year.
James took care of his historic legacy, brought a title home to Cleveland as promised, and made the greatest individual defensive play in Finals history. As a result, all of his challengers for current best player fell away. It's great that Steph Curry's the greatest shooter of all time... he's not LeBron. It's terrific that Kawhi Leonard is so versatile ... he's not LeBron. Anthony Davis, Paul George, James Harden, Chris Paul, Karl-Anthony Towns, on and on, they can all wait.
This is James' Kingdom, and his reign ends when he says it does, until further notice. James may win his fifth MVP this season. He may lead the Cavaliers, somehow, past the Warriors again for his fourth title. He may take two months off, he may struggle or coast. It doesn't really matter. James ended the conversation last June and it will be a long time before anyone is going to be brave enough to suggest that this isn't his league.
They say 'heavy is the crown,' because of the burden the King shoulders. But for James, it means something different now. It means moving it off his balding head will take a truly great feat of strength.