The NBA is fueled by star power and debate. Each year, a procession of star players compete on the court for basketball glory and immortality. Then across the globe in schoolyards, Twitterscapes, break rooms and barbershops, fans and media debate and recalibrate the pages of basketball lore, moving players up and down the hierarchy.
Who’s better than who? Who’s overhyped? Who’s great and who’s an all-time great?
These are the conversational bouts going 12 rounds between fans young and old — oftentimes young vs. old.
While tutoring at a K-8 reading program in Chicago this summer, I was going back and forth with two third-graders about who was better, Michael Jordan or LeBron James? Until a fourth-grader entered the ring and ended the age-old GOAT debate with his calm answer of “Devin Booker.” The student was an unfortunate victim of recency bias, although he would make a tantalizing new co-host alongside Stephen A. Smith on ESPN’s First Take.
Here at Blazer’s Edge, like that fourth-grader — in a slightly more rational way — we want to spark some basketball debate. In a new series, I will be putting the stars of today’s game head-to-head and determine who is the best of the best by dividing them into three tiers:
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. So 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.
This series will come out in five installments, split up by position. Today, we start with the big fellas.
TIER I: Generational Superstars — Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid
In the era in which three-point shooting and fast pace was thought to have doomed the big man to basketball irrelevance, it was two colossal centers who finished first and second in MVP voting for the 2020-21 season, Jokic and Embiid.
What may be most “generational” about Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic is the style in which he plays the game. He stands at just a hair under seven foot tall and is far from athletic by NBA standards with his now-famous doughy build, yet he dominates the game on so many levels with his slow pace. He can run the offense as the point-center, score with power and finesse in the post or touch from outside, and drop dazzling dimes with his dolphin-like basketball IQ.
The Joker put up gaudy numbers this season on his way to becoming the first true center to win the NBA MVP season since Shaquille O’Neal did it in 2000: 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 8.3 assists per game, while shooting 38.8% from downtown. He did all this while rating number one in ESPN’s Player Efficiency Rating and fourth in True Shooting Percentage among players who averaged more than 20 points per game. Is he bad at defense? Is he good at defense? Who cares?
From savvy, unathletic virtuoso to a sheer athletic powerhouse, Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid is the second generational talent in the current center class. He may not have been as efficient as Jokic, but all Embiid did was score a meager 28.5 points per game during the 2020-21 campaign for the No. 1 seed 76ers. Embiid can score with the best of them down low, but he compliments his offensive game with a similarly-elite defensive prowess in the paint, earning Second Team All-Defensive Honors three times over his career. Add in some icon points for being dubbed “The Process” and possibly the NBA’s funniest Twitter personality (or troll), and Embiid belongs in the top tier.
TIER II: Superstar — Rudy Gobert, Karl Anthony-Towns
Let’s show some tremendous love for defense, shall we? I was real tempted to not give Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert superstar status for his lack of a complete offensive game, until I realized just how dominant he is on the defensive end. Defensive effectiveness is hard to gauge, like seriously hard, as this compelling Zach Kram piece from The Ringer points out. There are multiple different advanced statistics that try to rate a player’s overall effectiveness that often produce wildly variational results. Yet Gobert is rated the league’s top defender according to five of the advanced defensive statistics: Plus-minus from ESPN, RAPTOR from FiveThirtyEight, estimated plus-minus from Dunks & Threes, regularized adjusted plus-minus from NBA Shot Charts, and LEBRON from BBall Index. The hype around the “Stifle Tower” (international icon points!) is real and there’s a reason why he’s only the fourth player to ever be named Defensive Player of the Year three times. Oh, and it’s not like he’s bad at offense. Despite a lack of ability to create his own shot, he’s a potent partner in the pick-and-roll, averaging 14.3 points per game in 2021 and can affect the game on the glass with a second-best 13.5 rebounds per game.
Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns is the epitome of the modern big with a shooting stroke that makes his game highly adaptable in the age of three-point supremacy. Towns’ career clip of 39.4 percent from beyond the arc is better than any other center in league history who has attempted more than 500 threes, even better than a second-place Meyers Leonard. Last season, jump shots accounted for 52.8 percent of Towns’ field goal attempts, yet he was still a force worthy of double-teams when operating in the post. In a down year this past season dealing with injuries and family loss, Towns averaged 24.8 points, 10.6 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game. The 2016 Rookie of the Year and two-time All-Star is only 25 and the last center in the league today who possesses MVP-level talent — he’s just been tucked away in Minnesota on a losing, dysfunctional franchise.
TIER III: Stars — Bam Adebayo, Nikola Vucevic
It seems to flourish as a modern NBA big, you need to develop a three-point shot or be so freakishly athletic you’re a terror on defense and charging downhill in the pick-and-roll. Miami Heat Center Bam Adebayo is the latter of those two categories and he’s one of the best at it. Adebayo is undersized at six-foot-nine, but his switchability on defense makes him the most essential defender on a Heat team that finished first in defensive rating in 2021 and also rosters Jimmy Butler. He can keep up with guards on the perimeter, bigs in the post, and swoop in on helpside to make emphatic blocks like this:
I just can’t get over this block from Bam Adebayo on Jayson Tatum I’ve seen it +10 times! To make it better, it was a game-winning one with 5.1 sec when Heat were 116-114 up. Just look at these 2 angles! pic.twitter.com/WbbrAbfofT— Rayane Moussallem (@RioMoussallem) September 16, 2020
His 18.7 points per game in 2021, up from 15.9 the year before and 8.9 two seasons ago is proof of a rapidly-accelerating offensive arsenal. Extra-special bonus points for a 2020 Finals appearance.
Chicago Bulls center Nikola Vucevic severely lacks in icon points after spending eight years of his career on the Island of Basketball Irrelevancy that is Orlando. Not bad, not necessarily good, just there. Despite an illustrious name, Vucevic has quietly been one of the best centers in the league. Over the past two seasons, Vucevic has averaged an eye-popping 23.1 points and 11.7 rebounds per game, while knocking down 39.8 percent of his triples on 6.2 attempts. This type of production resulted in his second NBA All-Star selection in 2021. Now a part of the new-look, dangerous Bulls in a big market like Chicago, the 10-year NBA veteran could get some more national love.
Do you agree with these tiers? Anybody ranked too high, too low, or missing altogether? Get in on the debate below.