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We’re now in the home stretch of the NBA season. Welcome to Nass’ trip around the association. With playoff and play-in seeding still very much in the air, it’s important to address how we got to this point of the season. Part of that is zeroing in on who’s been playing the best basketball this year. With this much talent in the league right now it’s too much of a challenge to knit pick who’s definitively superior like we usually do when we debate these lists. Through deep analysis, eye test, impact, my player pyramid is a model that lists who the best 25 players in the league are at this very moment before the NBA playoffs begin. The pyramid model is solely based upon the current player’s ability/performance, impact, with a very small healthy dose of recency bias.

Overall this is a conversation about who the top 25 best hoopers alive are. A heads up though, guys like Damian Lillard, Klay Thompson, Bradley Beal aren’t listed because they were either not able to compete this season, had a season-ending injury, or are still working themselves back from a major injury. Guys like Kawhi Leonard and Paul George made this list because at least we’ve seen them perform at a superstar level in either last year’s playoffs or the beginning of this season.

The bottom line is they’ve accomplished too much in their careers to not be in consideration and the rumors alone about their speculated return to the floor in the playoffs can change the whole dynamic of the pyramid so I decided to include them. They’ve both at least been in the same breath as LeBron James or someone of Kevin Durant’s stature. So regardless, you’re going to be mentioned somewhere in the pyramid. Not to mention they’re both at least a slightly higher tier than the examples I stated above. Once again, this model is for right now. In early May this whole list may be shuffled but for now, I present my player pyramid. 

In part 1, we will list players from tiers 3A and 3B.

Tier 3B 

 

Zach Lavine- For the longest time he was labeled an empty stats guy since the Bulls had failed to reach the postseason in each of his five seasons in the Windy City. A legitimate scoring threat at the shooting guard position (one of two players last year to average at least 26 points, shoot 50% from the field, and 40% from the three-point line) LaVine has co-existed alongside All-Star Demar DeRozan beautifully despite enduring minor knee issues on and off. The former UCLA Bruin got his second career All-Star nod and has helped lead the Bulls to the fifth seed in a very deep Eastern Conference.

 

 

Jaylen Brown was undoubtedly the most notable All-Star snub this year. Brown is a major reason for the Celtics’ 12-2 post-All-Star break record (best in NBA) and resurgence into the East’s limelight. Brown also plays a vital role in the Celtics’ two-way identity. The biggest growth in Brown’s game has by far been his shot-making ability off the dribble. Since the beginning of the 2017 season, Brown is shooting 37% from the three-point line on 5.5 attempts. Brown is shooting 51% from the field on drives to the rim (10.7 drives/game). Of the 62 qualified NBA players that have played at least 50 games this season and average at least three possessions a game as a pick and roll ball handler, Brown is averaging 0.92 points per possession. That’s a higher clip than Darius Garland, Jimmy Butler, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Given a much lower volume and frequency rate playing alongside Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, and Derrick White who all generate pick and roll offense as well that’s still solid production from your starting shooting guard. The Arietta, Georgia native has diversified his scoring repertoire immensely since coming into the league as an effective slasher, creator off the dribble, and catch and shoot threat. Brown’s maturation as a complete player has helped the Celtics grow into one of the Eastern Conference heavyweights.

 

 

There’s never been a question about the talent and ceiling of Karl Anthony Towns. Since coming into the league statistically, he’s considered one of the best shooting big men in NBA history. With just one playoff appearance to his name and years of watching the playoffs from the couch, Towns has been the driving force behind the Wolves breakout season with a current 42-32 record locking them in at the 7th spot. Towns is currently averaging 24.9 points and 9.8 boards on 52/41/83 splits.

 

 

Darius Garland (DG the PG) is already on his way to being considered a top-five point guard in the association and contains all the tools you’d love your starting point guard to possess. Garland made his first All-Star appearance and has been outstanding all year. Quarterbacking a boasted front-court rotation of Evan Mobley, Jarrett Allen, Kevin Love, and Lauri Markkanen the pick and rolls/pops all over the court have truly been something beautiful to watch on your TV screen. What makes Garland so special is he never looks rattled on the court and rarely lets defenders get him out of his comfort zone. Garland (8.6 assists a game) is always making the right team play. The play that’ll benefit the team the best whether it means he’s shooting it or someone else is. His ability to shoot efficiently from all over the floor including the shooting stripe (46/37/90 splits) is what separates him from other starting floor generals. His dual ability to kill his opponent with his scoring (21 points per game) and playmaking/creativity is the major reason the Cleveland Cavaliers are going to make their first playoff appearance since LeBron’s departure in the summer of 2018. 

 

 

Jrue Holiday (18.4 points, 6.7 assists, 1.6 steals) is a major catalyst for a Bucks team that is looking to repeat as NBA champions. His defensive pressure against Chris Paul in last year’s NBA finals was by the far the x-factor of the whole series and might just be the reason they edged out the well-coached Suns. His ability to create in the half-court, spread the floor, and defend are all reasons Milwaukee might just be playing in June.

 

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Bam Adebayo has become the prototype power forward future players will try to emulate. A big that can distribute to others, defend at least one through five, and can look for his own shot isn’t something that comes around too often. Someone of a Kevin Garnett/Draymond Green mold Bam is by far a cornerstone piece for a Heat organization that has NBA finals aspirations.

 

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De’Aaron Fox has been one of the NBA’s hottest players as of late. Since the beginning of the calendar year, he is putting up 27 points, four rebounds, and six assists while shooting 50% from the floor overall and 34% from deep (26 games). Last year, the trade for Domantas Sabonis in exchange for Fox’s former backcourt mate Tyrese Haliburton in a packaged deal has given Fox even more volume to flourish as the dynamic offensive creator the Kings imagined him to become when they took him in the 2017 NBA draft. 

 

Tier 3A  

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Trae Young is probably the only player that should be upset with where he’s fallen in the deck of cards in my pyramid. Ice Trae’s the only player that’s averaging over 27 points a game and not make tiers; 1A-2B. Don’t get me wrong, Trae Young is a superstar talent and undoubtedly a top-five point guard in our league today. The only difference between him and the other 27 points per game scorers is that his team is in the play-in as of right now and the others are contending. Now not all of the Hawks woes this year fall on Trae’s lap but for a team that faced the reigning champs in the Eastern Conference Finals last spring, the bar and expectations entering this season were going to be higher. Yes, 27.8 points & 9.4 assists on 45/38/89 splits are certainly superstar individual-level productivity but there’s still a dimension of superstardom for Trae to unlock. The same code that Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas cracked on his way to two titles with the Bad Boy Pistons. Trae isn’t a selfish player by any means but it is up to him as the best player and point guard on the team to solve and maximize the team to the best of their abilities. Just like it’s the front office’s job to maximize Trae by surrounding him with the ideal players that’ll make up for his weaknesses. Now the Hawks have some talented core pieces with John Collins, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Kevin Huerter. The question is are those the exact pieces you need to round out the roster in order to maximize the potential of your franchise point guard. This season has sadly been a disappointment given the expectations and where the bar was at for Atlanta. They’re 36-37 and are locked for the play-in tournament to see what their playoff destiny awaits. For that reason alone is why I had Trae further down the pecking order. It utterly came down to the fact that the players above him are all in winning situations and are part of if not the reason their organizations are where they are. 

 

 

The Los Angeles Lakers are currently in a play-in spot in the West. A lot of that is due to the fact Anthony Davis hasn’t necessarily been his dominant self. The numbers (23 points & 9.7 boards on 53% field goal shooting) look good at first glance but AD’s superstar flashes this year have varied simply due to the fact that he hasn’t been as consistent or healthy enough. Part of that is due to the fact LeBron’s early injuries and availability affected the early stages of comradery amongst the big three along with Russell Westbrook. Most of us agree AD is a top-five talent in the world when his body is feeling right. Perhaps the additional mass and muscle put on in order to sustain the physical combat in the paint is what has affected his perimeter skill touch. A lot of that also has to do with him playing more minutes at center in order to make the Westbrook transition smoother. Just watching this version of Davis he doesn’t look like he’s moving as fluid as the same guy that finished third in MVP voting back in 2018. AD’s currently posting career lows in three-point percentage and free-throw shooting. We all know when AD is right physically he’s amongst the apex of the pyramid. The only question is when is he going to be right? 

 

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Chris Paul made his first NBA finals appearance last summer as a member of the Phoenix Suns. Just like last year, he is a major reason for their success and their locked spot at the one seed in the West. After missing 15 games due to a minor thumb fracture, Phoenix hasn’t quite lost a beat, especially with the constant growth of Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson going 12-3 during his absence. Coming into this season fans were gearing up to watch and see if the Suns can complete what they could not last year.

 

 

Paul George re-assumed all number one responsibilities and duties with Kawhi Leonard out indefinitely with his torn ACL. Playoff P, fresh off an outstanding playoff run himself which ended in a hard-fought six-game series vs the Suns in the Western Conference Finals, was instantly looking like that same Paul George. PG was averaging 24.7 points (highest since a third-place MVP finish in 2018), seven rebounds, and five assists (career-high). The seven-time All-Star suffered a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow that has kept him sidelined since December 22nd. An upcoming MRI visit within the next couple of weeks should give us a stance on where PG stands from a timetable point of view and if he’ll be returning this year. With Kawhi already re-vamping up and hinting at a return, it would really be quite a boost for a Clipper squad that’s staying afloat minus their two superstars. 

 

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Jimmy Butler is still one of the NBA’s best two-way players. On the season, Butler is a 21/6/6 player and just like CP3, an All-Star caliber player that possesses championship intangibles. Due to numerous lingering toe and ankle injuries this year, Butler’s been limited to just 50 games. But with a flourishing and defined role hierarchy in Miami, the current one-seeded Heat have been one of the most competitive and cohesive teams in the association.

 

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Draymond Green’s impact on the floor can never be simply measured quantitatively or through a box score. His defense, playmaking, versatility is one of if not the biggest reasons the Golden State Warriors’ dynasty was as sustainable as it’s been to this point. If it weren’t for a major back injury that held him to 38 games this season he’d without a doubt be the front runner for this year’s Defensive Player of the Year award.  

Next: Part 2 of Nass’ pyramid.

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