NBArank roundtable: Surprises, snubs and LeBron James' future

ByNBA Insiders ESPN logo
Saturday, September 24, 2022

NBArank is in the books for the 2022-23 season. How'd we do?

Our top five was unveiled on Friday, with the Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo reclaiming the No. 1 spot following a three-year absence. The Denver Nuggets' Nikola Jokic, Dallas Mavericks' Luka Doncic, Philadelphia 76ers' Joel Embiid and Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry rounded out the top five.

But the biggest headlines came from the bottom half of our top 10, where LeBron James (No. 6) and Kevin Durant (No. 8) suffered the most noteworthy falls, and where Ja Morant (No. 9) climbed into the upper tier of NBA superstars.

Following the release of the top 100 for 2022-23, we asked our panel of NBA Insiders -- all of which were also part of the expert NBArank panel -- to break down the countdown's biggest surprises, what they would change in the top 10, which players will outperform their ranking and what lies ahead for LeBron.

NBArank 2022: Nos. 100-26 | Nos. 25-11 | Nos. 10-6 | Nos. 5-1

1.What would you change about NBArank's top 10 for 2022-23?

Kendra Andrews: I would put Steph higher in the ranking, maybe at No. 3, and slide down Doncic and Embiid. Seeing how Curry ended last season -- and how he performed for most of the regular season before his injury -- it's fair to rank him higher than where he was at the start of last year. He kept the Warriors at the top of the West through injuries to Klay Thompson and Draymond Green and led them to their fourth title.

Tim Bontemps: I was surprised Steph was fifth. He should've been second only to Giannis after that ridiculous run through the NBA playoffs, culminating in a championship for the fourth time in six seasons. Performing that way on the sport's biggest stage should've earned him a bigger boost.

Tim MacMahon: I don't have any major beef with the top 10, but I'd bump up Curry. He's coming off a Finals MVP, which should serve as a tiebreaker if it's close to a coin flip. Doncic and Embiid are absolutely deserving of top-five status -- and it can be reasonably argued that they had better regular seasons than Curry -- but neither has an MVP or Finals appearance on their résumé. Two-time MVP Curry will get his fourth ring on opening night and is still playing at a prime level.

Kevin Pelton: Add more spots to the top five! It's never been more difficult to rank the league's best players because of the frequency of injuries and distinction between performance in the regular season and playoffs. Yes, it seems unthinkable for LeBron and KD to be out of the top five, but it's easier to say that than actually decide who they should replace.

André Snellings:I would move Rudy Gobert into the top 10. ESPN's Real Plus Minus (RPM) estimates how much a player's presence on the court correlates with changes in the team's scoring margin. The top players on the RPM list tend to be the biggest impact players in the league. This is the list of players to be top-10 in RPM both of the past two seasons: Antetokounmpo, Jokic, Embiid, Curry, LeBron ... and Gobert. His defensive impact is almost off the charts, and this season he brings that impact to an up-and-coming Timberwolves team whose biggest need was defense.

2.Which player outside the top 50 has the best chance to enter the top 25 next summer?

Bontemps:Ben Simmons (No. 76). It's easy to forget, given all the noise that has surrounded him, but it wasn't long ago that Simmons was seen as one of the league's best passers and most versatile defenders. If he can get back on the court with the Brooklyn Nets and help lead them deep into the playoffs alongside Durant and Kyrie Irving, he could easily return to the top 25 -- he was 28th last season after three top-20 appearances from 2018 to 2020.

Pelton: Ben Simmons. Do I think that's likely? No, but Simmons is two years removed from ranking 16th and remains in the prime of his career at age 26. If Simmons submits another All-Star regular season, I think he's got a better chance of jumping up than any other single player.

Snellings: Ben Simmons. He's clearly a top-25 player -- when he plays. After he missed the entire 2021-22 season, it's perfectly valid to have him lower in the rankings for this season. But he's still one of the most unique talents in the league, his game should mesh perfectly with teammates Kevin Durantand Kyrie Irving and at 26 years old he clearly has realizable All-NBA potential.

Andrews:Tyrese Haliburton (No. 59). Before he was traded, Haliburton was coming into his own with the Sacramento Kings. Now with the Indiana Pacers, he's the centerpiece of their rebuild and could take his game to the next level as Indiana places the correct players around him.

MacMahon: Jalen Green (No. 62). There are a handful of 2021 draft picks with the potential to make a leap. Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley and Scottie Barnes are all ranked in the 30s, so I'll take a flier on Green. He finished his rookie season on a sizzling run, averaging 28.1 points with a 62.5 true shooting percentage in his last nine games, scoring 30 or more in six of the last seven. Green worked in the weight room over the summer to add significant muscle to his slender frame, which should help the explosive leaper finish around (and above) the rim.

3.Which player will most outperform his ranking this season?

Snellings: LaMelo Ball (No. 41). Outside of Gobert mentioned above, I'll go with Ball, who made major strides from his Rookie of the Year first season to his All-Star sophomore campaign. Ball was always known for his creative flair with the ball in his hands, but last season he improved dramatically as a floor general, as an outside shooter and even a defender. His RPM score increased nearly four points from his first to his second season; if he makes anywhere near that type of improvement at age 21, he could be one of the top-10 impact players in the league by this time next summer.

Andrews: Jamal Murray (No. 50). Murray has as fair a shot at any player to outperform his ranking. Because he is coming off of an injury, it's hard to predict how exactly he will play. But before he went down in March 2021 with an ACL tear, he was having a strong season. And just a few months before that, he was leading the Nuggets to the West finals in the bubble.

Bontemps:Paolo Banchero (No. 82). He came into the draft process as the most NBA-ready player in this year's class, and he landed in a situation with the Orlando Magic where he should have the ball in his hands. That should allow him to make a big leap up this list, similar to jumps by Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley and Scottie Barnes.

Pelton: Kristaps Porzingis (No. 86). I think there's been a bit of a Porzingis overcorrection. If he's healthy, Porzingis is overwhelmingly likely to improve his 3-point shooting after hitting an aberrant 28% with the Mavericks before the trade deadline. Porzingis was far more effective after being dealt to the Washington Wizards.

MacMahon:Dorian Finney-Smith (NR). Not being ranked among the top 100 is a major oversight. I'd argue he's the Mavericks' second most valuable player behind Doncic, never mind that his 11.0 points per game last season is his career high. Finney-Smith ranked 46th in the league in win shares (6.6). He's one of the league's elite role players, the epitome of the 3-and-D prototype, a 6-foot-8 wing who guards elite scorers at every position, shoots 39% from 3-point range and embraces being a role player.

4.Which player was most overrated on the list?

MacMahon: Bradley Beal (No. 19). At the risk of overreacting to one injury-marred season, Beal's ranking seems too high. He's not a more impactful player than Jaylen Brown, Donovan Mitchell, Anthony Edwards, Jrue Holiday, Zach LaVine, Brandon Ingram or Khris Middleton, just to rattle off several of the guards/wings who are ranked below Beal.

Snellings: Chris Paul (No. 21). Paul was one of the most impactful players in the league last season, ranking eighth in RPM to actually outperform his NBArank this season. But, NBArank is about both quality and quantity, and at age 37, Paul could be in for a decline in both. He missed an average of 23 games per season due to injury from 2016-17 through 2018-19, then after two relatively healthy campaigns in COVID-19-shortened seasons, Paul missed 18 games in 2022-23. Paul still has great game in him, but in season 18, the risk of injury and/or declining play makes him unlikely to produce up to his 21st overall spot.

Pelton: Tyrese Maxey (No. 44). Maxey had a breakthrough second season, establishing himself as a core piece for the Sixers, but I don't understand why he's ahead of two players (Jarrett Allen and Darius Garland) who were All-Stars when Maxey wasn't a part of that discussion and isn't substantially younger than them.

Andrews: Russell Westbrook (No. 65). Russ dropped 36 spots, but he is still the most overrated player on the list. The Westbrook of today is far from the Westbrook in Oklahoma City, and it feels unlikely that version of him is going to resurface. It's time we let go of the Westbrook that won the MVP and start examining who he is in the present.

Bontemps:Lonzo Ball (No. 78). We have no idea when he's going to be ready this season after spending virtually all of 2022 dealing with knee problems. There are other players whose reputations are probably still giving them a bigger boost than they should -- most notably Russell Westbrook -- but Ball's injury issues should've kept him off this list entirely.

5.Fact or fiction: LeBron will return to NBArank's top five.

Bontemps: Fiction. The odds are against him moving up the list as he gets older, and there is so much talent in the league at the moment. But if there's anyone who is going to defy Father Time, it will be the man who already has done so as much as anyone to step on a basketball court. This season, James is likely to break what was once seen as an unbreakable record -- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's all-time scoring title -- and is showing no signs of slowing down.

MacMahon: Fiction. It's remarkable that James is still in the conversation of the league's best players as he enters his 20th season, but Father Time has taken its toll when it comes to durability. The top four players all have plenty of prime left -- or have yet to hit it, in Doncic's case -- and Curry's historically elite shooting should continue to age gracefully.

Pelton: Fiction. The question is basically whether LeBron can stay healthy and enjoy a long playoff run before he ages to the point where even the peak version isn't quite worthy of the top five. Given my cynicism about the Lakers' roster, I think that's worse than a 50-50 proposition.

Andrews:Fiction. If anyone could do it, it's James, but it won't be easy. This isn't to say he won't continue to be great, but the league is getting more individual stars each season. As they rise, and as James gets older, it's hard to say he'll be considered a top-five player based on his level of basketball played right now.

Snellings: Fact. LeBron is still clearly playing at a top-five level -- arguably top-one level -- but injury has caught up with him at the end of his second decade in the league. But his level of play is still so high that all it would take is one reasonably healthy season for him to get back near the top. I think LeBron can maintain his per-game level for at least the next couple of seasons, so I'm predicting at least one semi-healthy campaign in that span will get him back there.

Bonus! Because it's never too early, which player is your pick to lead this list in 2023?

Pelton: Antetokounmpo. Giannis is poised for another big playoff run, so I'm betting on him to retain top billing.

MacMahon:Antetokounmpo. It's going to be awfully tough to knock him off the throne. Nobody in the league dominates on both ends like Antetokounmpo, and he's still early in his prime. It will probably take an MVP campaign and/or championship run for one of the challengers to ascend to the top spot next season.

Snellings: Antetokounmpo. He's proven that his dominance translates to championship-level play in the postseason. His ability to warp opposing defenses into having to build a wall, while also providing strong floor generalship and elite defense generates an overall performance envelope that is unmatched in the league right now. And at only 27 years old, it's conceivable he still hasn't hit his peak, which is very scary for the rest of the league.

Bontemps: Antetokounmpo. Giannis is the best player in the universe. Barring injury, it is hard to see that changing anytime soon.

Andrews:Doncic. Luka should be primed to take another step, individually if not as a team with the Mavericks. He's been knocking on the door of being the top player for the last few seasons now, and the way he plays this year could propel him to No. 1 by the start of the 2023-24 season.

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