In the 2021 NBA Finals, gifted power forward Giannis Antetokounmpo led the Milwaukee Bucks to the Larry O’Brien Trophy, but does that put him into the echelon of greatest of all time? Today, that answer will be revealed, as we continue our running series where we rank current NBA players into three tiers: Generational superstars, superstars, and stars.
Now, before we get into this, let’s go over the ground rules again.
Tier I, Generational Superstars: Players whom front offices couldn’t trade for if they tried. Statistical juggernauts who can vault teams into contention and dramatically alter the league’s landscape when moved.
Tier II, Superstars: Similar to Tier I, they put up fantastic numbers and could be a franchise cornerstone, but not quite good enough to warrant the top-billing of “generational” talent.
Tier III, Stars: Players who put up All-Star numbers and can be a main piece, but don’t carry nearly enough impact to be a top banana on a title contender.
The loose criteria used to assemble these tiers:
Offensive Production: Is this player an elite three-way scorer? Does he have the total package or is he elite in certain areas? Maybe most important on the “generational superstar” checklist: can the ball be put in this player’s hands down the stretch and can he carry his team to a win?
Defense: This category won’t knock a player down too far, but it can be a major plus if the player has elite defensive abilities or he’s caught in between two tiers and has some defensive acumen.
Playoff Success: Integral roles in deep-playoff runs or championships will be looked upon fondly. However, this one-person ranking committee understands that playoff success can be dependent on opportunity and quality of teammates. A player who elevates his roster well-beyond expectations but may not have a big playoff resume won’t be knocked out of contention.
Icon Status: Star power can be enhanced by personality, swagger, patented moves, signature celebrations, and shoe sales.
The last post covered centers. Today, we’ll dissect the play of their frontcourt mates, power forwards.
TIER I, GENERATIONAL SUPERSTARS: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Zion Williamson, Anthony Davis
To answer the question from up above about whether Giannis Antetokounmpo is one of the greatest ever to play the game: Of course.
His nickname, the “Greek Freak,” would come off sounding a little rude if the rhyme wasn’t so tailor-made and his talent wasn’t so, well, freakish. Standing at six-foot-eleven with a seven-foot-four-inch wingspan and strides that stretch farther than the bounds of astronauts, the two-time NBA MVP’s game is irreplicable and dominant, without the need for a consistent jump shot.
He sweeps every category looked at in this deliberation process with flying colors. Offensive production? Over the last three seasons, Antetokounmpo has averaged 28.4 points per game as the franchise cornerstone of a perennial contender. When facing up in the post or at the top of the key, he charges the rim like a bull for 48 minutes, making him one of the most exhausting covers in the league. He may struggle with free throws, but he never shies away from taking them, evidence of his nonstop motor and tenacious will to win.
Defense? Antetokounmpo’s accolades include the 2020 Defensive Player of the Year Award, three First Team All-Defense selections, and one Second Team All-Defense selection. Playoff success? In a closeout Game Six of the NBA Finals during Milwaukee’s 2021 championship run, he went for 50 points, 14 rebounds, five blocks, while going 17-19 from the free throw line.
This takes us to icon status. At 26, Antetokounmpo, with his joyful and humorous personality, is the new face of the NBA. He already has one of the most iconic plays in Finals history. As Blazers fans, we know the pain of seeing the Kobe-to-Shaq alley-oop on highlight reels every year since 2000. Phoenix Suns fans will be forced to relive this alley-oop for decades to come too.
Jrue Holiday’s steal and alley-oop to Giannis Antetokounmpo generated more than 50 million views across social media in 24 hours, the most-viewed moment from this year’s NBA Finals.— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) July 19, 2021
Previously, the most-viewed play was Giannis’ block (24 million views). pic.twitter.com/U2Q8u3Zo6X
Look at the athleticism and strength — look at the pose and stare! He looks like a great Greek statue, which is fitting because one day he likely will be one outside the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee.
From the current face of the NBA, we go to the future of the league: New Orleans Pelicans power forward Zion Williamson. A high school sensation due to viral footage of his monster physique and powerful windmills, and then a megastar in one year at Duke, Williamson entered the league already touted with generational hype.
Zion Williamson threw down an NBA Dunk Contest-worthy slam.— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) February 14, 2017
Oh, and he's in high school. pic.twitter.com/2fXtcP5V8W
So far in his two-year career, he’s lived up to the absurd expectations. In the 2020-21 season, Williamson averaged 27 points per game on 61.1% shooting from the field at age 20 — I repeat, age 20. According to HoopsHype, that makes him the most prolific scorer ever under age 21 and gives him the highest field goal percentage of any NBA player who scored more than 25 points per game in a season. He scored all those points while attempting less than one three per game, a rare feat in today’s game. His rim-attacking, athleticism, and explosiveness — powerful enough to burst through Nikes — are already generational. As he’s only just getting started, Williamson has the potential to become scary good.
The one-man selection committee of these rankings wrestled with this next player’s placement for some time. After checking my salt levels (still apparently high from a certain playoff sweep three years ago), I realized it would be a disservice to this list not to rank Los Angeles Lakers power forward Anthony Davis as a “generational superstar.”
Davis’ build and skillset allows him to do so much. The six-foot-ten forward known as “The Brow” (icon points galore!), is a towering presence inside, but can handle, shoot, and move like a guard thanks to a famous high school growth spurt. In his two best seasons in New Orleans, Davis recorded over 28 points, 11 rebounds and 2 blocks per game. During LA’s championship run in 2020, he averaged 26.1 points per game as second fiddle to Lebron James.
Stats aside, the major reason why Davis earns a generational billing is how his move to LA reversed the fortunes of his new franchise. The 2018-19 Lakers didn’t qualify for the playoffs with a 37-45 record, but after trading a boatload of young talent and draft picks to the Pelicans to secure Davis, the following year the Lakers went 52-19 and captured the NBA title. There’s Davis’ impact on the court spelled out, plain and simple.
TIER 2, SUPERSTARS: Julius Randle
Leading up to last season, the New York Knicks were a trainwreck. They finished the 2019-20 season with a 21-45 record, failing to reach the playoffs for the sixth straight season, they had failed again to lure any elite free agents and they had even managed to upset diehard loyalist Spike Lee. Then, when it looked like all hope was lost, power forward Julius Randle elevated his game to new heights, taking his franchise with him. In just one season, Randle upped his scoring from 19.5 points to 24.1 points per game, doubled his assist total to a team-high 6 per game and increased his three-point percentage from 27.7% to an astounding 41.1%. The leap garnered the seven-year forward the 2021 Most Improved Player Award, along with his first All-Star appearance and skyrocketed the Knicks to the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
His game may not be flashy, but for the near-impossible task of making the Big Apple relevant again in basketball, Randle warrants superstar status. With the Knicks just entering their resurgence and Randle entering his prime at 26, look for the bruising lefty’s star power to shine brighter in the years to come.
TIER 3, STARS: Domantas Sabonis, Pascal Siakam
Next up on the list is another southpaw All-Star. Indiana Pacers power forward Domantas Sabonis has quietly been one of the best frontcourt players in the league over the past two seasons. In 2020-21, the Lithuanian forward averaged 20.3 points and 12 rebounds per game on his way to his second consecutive All-Star appearance. His strength and solid handle allow him to play with toughness and finesse in the post. Like his Hall of Fame father before him, Sabonis excels as a passer, operating as the hub of the Indiana offense. He averaged a career high 6.7 assists per game and set a franchise record with nine triple-doubles last season. Does this look familiar, Blazers fans?
I had to go back and clip the video of this Domantas Sabonis pass because it was so damn good. Great vision, awesome touch, perfectly placed. pic.twitter.com/T3PuovPKCs— Jay King (@ByJayKing) December 30, 2020
The 25-year-old forward has only been a full-time starter for two years in his young career, so he has the potential to take more leaps with his game.
Recency bias and clutch-time woes last season would tell you Toronto Raptors power forward Pascal Siakam isn’t a star in the NBA, but this list says “Nay!” Just two seasons removed from his first All-Star appearance and a Second-Team All-NBA selection, Siakam still possesses the versatility at six-foot-nine to make him one of the league’s finest scorers and defenders. After returning from the NBA shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Siakam hasn’t quite looked like himself. Yet even in a down year, Siakam averaged 21.4 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game and flirted with another All-Star selection. While he shot a rotten 29.7% from deep last season, he knocked down 35.9% of his three-pointers in 2019-20 on more attempts, so there’s proof he has a shot in his bag. Oh, and three seasons ago he played a vital part in bringing a championship to Canada.
As the Raptors return to Toronto this season after a year in Tampa Bay and their new-look roster settles in, Siakam should return to his All-Star form.
What do you think of this list? Do you think calling Randle a superstar is poppycock? Are you mad Tobias Harris or others weren’t included? Get in on the debate below!