2021-22 NBA Tiers: Ranking the 100(ish) Most Important Players

The 2021-2022 NBA Season tips off tonight, and that means it’s time for me to start writing again.


A few years ago, I went through the classic exercise of ranking the top “x” players in the NBA. I started by attempting to rank each position individually, and it brought me to the idea to create tiers. Using mid 2010s point guards as an example, around the time I first started doing this, Steph Curry was a clear Superstar, Russell Westbrook was obviously a star, but a slight step down from Curry. Then, you’d have a guy like Mike Conley, who clearly wasn’t a “Star,” but, even though he didn’t actually make it until last year, was an All Star-level player. That would bring me to Quality Starters, like a Goran Dragic, and Elite Role Players, like a Lou Williams.


As I publish my tier list for the first time this year, I decided to add a few new categories. We still have Superstars (the absolute cream-of-the-crop of the league, and by far the most exclusive list), Stars (guys that you would love to have as the best player on your team, but are just missing something that the superstars have), and All Stars (a mix of veterans who have stopped progression up the list and young talents who are on their way into stardom). I have split “Quality Starters” into “Great” and “Good” Starters (self-explanatory), and I have changed “Elite Role Players” to “Top Role Players” (That way I can broaden my list to players beyond just the “elite” in their specific role. This tier will also include players who are starters for their teams, and are just a step below the “good” designation). Also, I added a “Rookies” tier to include the five most important first-year players this season.


Some quick notes before I get into the tiers:


1) THESE ARE NOT MY PLAYER RANKINGS. The exact purpose of dividing this list into tiers is to avoid the pointless and arbitrary exercise of ranking players. I tried to select the 100 (I did go a little bit over) most important players this season. There are definitely players outside of the list that I would have in my top 100 “best.”

2) All of the tiers are organized in alphabetical order. No rankings!

3) Apologies in advance for just giving each player one or two quick notes. My full, in-depth NBA Season Preview & Predictions will be coming this Tuesday on The Inconclusive Evidence Podcast.

4) I will definitely make this a yearly preseason article, but I will also try to update the tiers at some point during this season.

5) Shoutout to Basketball Reference and Stat Muse for making it so easy to find all of these nuggets.

 

Superstars


Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks, PF) - The reigning Finals MVP enters the season as arguably the best player in the NBA. With his first ring in his pocket, it will be refreshing to finally see the two-time MVP play without the pressure of having to “prove” himself in the postseason.

Steph Curry (Warriors, PG) - The 33-year-old is unquestionably one of the greatest players in NBA history. However, there seems to quietly be some pressure on him after missing the playoffs in 2021. With much more help around him this year, Curry and the Warriors should be right back into contention.

Luka Doncic (Mavericks, PG) - The 22-year-old phenom is the MVP betting favorite for the second consecutive season. Hopefully this year, in his first season with Jason Kidd, Doncic shows up in better shape.

Kevin Durant (Nets, SF) - Despite a disappointing second round defeat, Durant’s 2021 playoff performance, where he averaged 34.3 points per game and nearly single-handedly willed the Nets to the Eastern Conference Finals, reminded the world just how incredible he still is. Entering his 15th season, Durant is, at-the-worst, the “1B” to Giannis’ “1A” when it comes to the league’s best player.

James Harden (Nets, PG) - In 36 games with Brooklyn last season, Harden averaged 25-11-9, and the team was 29-7. Without Kyrie Irving there, the Nets can completely unleash Harden exclusively at point guard.

LeBron James (Lakers, SF) - the living legend is entering his 19th season and turns 37 in December. His 2021 campaign was essentially derailed by injury, but, when healthy, he was the frontrunner for MVP. The aging James will eventually begin to regress, but I won’t be the one to bet on it happening this year.

Kawhi Leonard (Clippers, SF) - Unsurprisingly, there is no clear timeline yet on Leonard’s return from the ACL injury he suffered in the playoffs last year. The best case scenario seems to be an April return, but, with his track record, I would be shocked if he played at all this season. Regardless, he is still unquestionably a superstar.

 

Stars


Bradley Beal (Wizards, SG) - The three-time All Star seems to be content with the team that the Wizards have put around him for the upcoming season. Coming off of a season where he averaged 31.3 points per game (second in the league), if things go wrong to start 2022, nobody would blame Beal if he requests a trade.

Devin Booker (Suns, SG) - After an underwhelming first five seasons, at least in terms of team success, Booker quickly ascended as the Suns made their surprise run to the NBA Finals. The soon-to-be 24-year-old should build off of this momentum and take the next steps towards superstardom.

Jimmy Butler (Heat, SF) - It was interrupted by a battle with COVID-19, but 2021 was one of Butler’s best seasons. The 32-year-old, who signed a massive contract extension this offseason, averaged 22-7-7 and led the league with 2.1 steals per game. With a new running mate in Kyle Lowry, Butler’s third year in Miami should be his best yet.

Anthony Davis (Lakers, PF) - For the first time since 2018, Davis has been dropped out of my superstar tier. His typical durability questions reappeared last season, but even when healthy he just didn’t look like his usual self. The 28-year-old, who is expected to finally spend a majority of his time at Center this season, should be back into the superstar tier at this time next year.

Joel Embiid (76ers, C) - Injury concerns popped up for Embiid once again last year, but in the 51 games he did play, he averaged 29-11-3-1-1 and Philly went 39-12. If the center can stay healthy, the Sixers, regardless of what happens with Ben Simmons, will contend for the one-seed once again, but that remains a big if.

Paul George (Clippers, SF) - “Playoff P” stepped up last postseason and almost carried the Kawhi-less Clippers to the NBA Finals. Without another star next to him, George is in a great position to push his way into superstar tier territory. Side note, I think he is worth a flyer to win league MVP at +4000 odds (Bovada).

Kyrie Irving (Nets, PG) - As of right now, it looks like Kyrie is going to sit out the entire 2022 season. However, he may be the most “important” player in the league. If the 29-year-old returns, the Nets are clear title favorites. If he doesn’t return, then we’re actually going to witness a seven-time All Star throw away $200+ million because he won’t get a CDC recommended vaccine. If he plays, he is easily in the star tier. In 2021, he averaged 26.9 points per game on 50-40-90 shooting.

Nikola Jokic (Nuggets, C) - It feels crazy for the reigning MVP to fall into the second tier, but I just can’t put Jokic with the top seven superstars quite yet. Considering Jokic has an MVP and Luka Doncic doesn’t, maybe he should have gotten the nod. Regardless, an elite start to the season could move him up in the updated version of this list.

Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers, PG) - Like Davis, Embiid and Jokic, Lillard probably belongs in a tier somewhere between star and superstar. I’ll work on creating that tier before the updated version comes out. For now, it looks like Lillard is going to remain with the Trail Blazers. Heading into his tenth year in Portland, the 31-year-old has made the playoffs eight years in a row and remains one of the league’s premier point guards.

Chris Paul (Suns, PG) - The veteran point guard will turn 37 during the season, but that didn’t stop Phoenix from signing him to a four year $120 million deal this off-season. His first year in Phoenix went better than anybody would have expected, and now, as long as Paul can stay healthy, they enter the year as true contenders.

Jayson Tatum (Celtics, SF) - With all of the incredible under 25-year-old talent in the NBA, Tatum seems to be the closest to joining Luka Doncic in true superstardom. He has improved in each of his first four seasons, and this year should be able to further grow as a playmaker (career high 4.3 assists per game in 2021). If the 23-year-old can continue to grow in that area, and as a two-way player, he will be moving up a tier very soon.

Klay Thompson (Warriors, SG) - Thompson hasn’t played since the 2019 NBA Finals. Coming off of the torn ACL he suffered in that series, and the torn Achilles he had last offseason, his most realistic timetable for return seems to be January. Still, out of respect for the future Hall of Famer, he lands in the star tier and will instantly raise the Warriors’ ceiling when he returns.

Trae Young (Hawks, PG) - Young was the biggest breakout star of the 2021 NBA Playoffs. He averaged 28.8 points and 9.5 assists per game and brought the fifth-seeded Hawks within two games of the NBA Finals. More importantly, he broke the narrative that he is simply a “good stats, bad team” guy. Entering his fourth season, Young has averaged 24.1 points and 8.9 assists per game in his career, and looks like he’ll be moving into the highest tier soon.

 

All Stars


Bam Adebayo (Heat, C) - Adebayo will probably never jump beyond the All Star tier, but that doesn’t matter at all. He has already established himself as one of the league’s best two-way big men, is a cornerstone of the Heat’s present and future, and is a guy that every single team would kill for. With all that being said, he still seems to be underrated. In 2021, the 24-year-old averaged 19-9-5-1-1 on 57% shooting.

Karl Anthony-Towns (Timberwolves, C) - It’s already year seven for the big man in Minnesota. He feels like the logical choice, after Beal and Lillard, to be the next player in these top three tiers to request a trade. He is way too talented to have only played in one career playoff series. The clock is certainly ticking for the Timberwolves.

Jaylen Brown (Celtics, SG) - Brown set career highs in points, assists, blocks and steals last season on his way to his first career All Star Game. We know that the 25-year-old has all of the tools to be one of the game’s elite two-way players, but this year feels like a big test for the future of the Tatum-Brown tandem in Boston.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Thunder, SG) - I might be jumping the gun here considering Gilegous-Alexander is yet to even make an All Star Game. However, the three-year pro was so good in his brief time on the court last year. The Thunder were openly tanking last season, but if it weren’t for SGA’s injury, they probably would not have finished with a bottom-five record. In games that he played, Oklahoma City went 16-19. Without him, the Thunder were 6-31.

Rudy Gobert (Jazz, C) - As ugly as it was in the playoffs, Gobert is still an all-time great defender in the regular season. Regardless, the two-time All Star will have to wait until the postseason to change the narrative.

Draymond Green (Warriors, PF) - A strong finish to the 2021 season keeps the three-time NBA Champion in All Star tier. Green, playing with Curry and Thompson once again, remains one of the league’s most versatile players.

Jrue Holiday (Bucks, PG) - The 31-year-old is truly playing with house money now. After the Bucks gave up a king’s ransom to bring him to Milwaukee, and then gave him a big contract extension, Holiday spent last Summer winning an NBA Championship and an Olympic Gold. He also cemented his status as an all-time great two-way guard.

Kyle Lowry (Heat, PG) - After nine seasons with the Raptors, Lowry has signed with the Miami Heat. On paper, it looks like a perfect fit for the veteran point guard who averaged 17-7-5 last year in 46 games.

Khris Middleton (Bucks, SF) - Just like Holiday, Middleton is playing with house money. He proved that he can be a number two option on a championship winning team. The consistent wing has averaged 20 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists and 1 steal in the last three seasons.

Donovan Mitchell (Jazz, SG) - Coming off a season where he averaged 26.4 points per game and had career highs in rebounds and assists, Mitchell may be a tier too low. It definitely won’t take much for me to move him up into stardom.

Ja Morant (Grizzlies, PG) - The third-year point guard is still far from a finished product, but he already has sneaky star potential this season. His performance down the stretch and in the playoffs last season showed that the 22-year-old deserves to be in the conversation with Trae, Luka and Zion when it comes to that generation of stars.

Domantas Sabonis (Pacers, PF) - The fact that Sabonis has never won a playoff series explains the lack of hype around him, but he remains one of the NBA’s most underrated players. He averaged 20-12-7 during his career year in 2021.

Ben Simmons (76ers, PG) - The 2021 playoffs were a disaster for Simmons, and it remains to be seen who he is playing for next year, but there is no way the three-time All Star can drop out of this tier.

Russell Westbrook (Lakers, PG) - I still don’t like the fit with Westbrook and Lebron in Los Angeles, but the future Hall of Famer did average a triple for the fourth(!) time in his career last year. I, despite my belief that triple doubles can be very overrated, feel like that alone keeps him in this tier, even if he won’t be in the All Star game for the second consecutive season.

Zion Williamson (Pelicans, PF) - Zion and the Pelicans might be the most interesting player/team in the league this season. Williamson is still recovering from a foot fracture, and there is no timetable yet for his return. The Pelicans have seemingly done everything wrong since they won the lottery to draft the most-hyped prospect since LeBron. When healthy, the 21-year-old is as good as anticipated.

 

Great Starters


Deandre Ayton (Suns, C) - If he isn’t there already, Ayton should easily jump into the All Star tier this season. If he is able to get even better, the Suns may just be able to replicate last year’s surprise run to the Finals.

Lonzo Ball (Bulls, PG) - This is definitely a toss up between “great” and “good,” but I am still such a believer in Lonzo. In his first year in Chicago, I believe that the 24-year-old will be the engine on both ends for this Bulls team.

Malcolm Brogdon (Pacers, PG) - Similar to the previously mentioned Pacer, Domantas Sabonis, Brogdon has flown under the radar. He and Sabonis have the potential to grow into one of the league’s best duos. In 2021, Brogdon averaged a career high 21.2 points, to go along with 5.9 assists and 5.3 rebounds per game.

Clint Capela (Hawks, C) - The veteran center had a career year last season in Atlanta. Capela averaged 15.2 points, 14.3 rebounds (leading the league), and 2.0 blocks per game.

Mike Conley (Jazz, PG) - The health concerns are always there for the 34-year-old point guard, but the Jazz were 37-14 when Conley played last regular season. If he had been healthy in the playoffs last year (he played just one game in the Conference Semifinals against the Clippers), the Jazz may have won the West, or even the NBA title.

DeMar DeRozan (Bulls, SF) - This is definitely a controversial pick, as DeRozan has become one of the league’s most polarizing players. His three-year Spurs tenure was interesting as he changed positions (twice), developed as a playmaker, and fell off the map as an All Star caliber player. Regardless, I think DeRozan, contract aside, can still be an effective player. He is right on the bubble of “great” and “good,” but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt as he moves to Chicago.

De’Aaron Fox (Kings, PG) - Last year, his fourth in the NBA, Fox had a monster season. He averaged 25-7-4-2, but the Kings couldn’t even get into the play-in tournament. Despite his individual success, Fox hasn’t been close to the playoffs so far in his career. That begs the question, what happens first: Fox jumps into the All Star tier? Or Fox gets out of Sacramento?

Tobias Harris (76ers, PF) - I can’t find it, but somebody tweeted recently that Tobias Harris has the easiest job in the NBA. They cited his big contract, his lack of pressure, and absence of blame when things go wrong for the Sixers. It’s a good point, but the downside of that is, even though he’ll likely be in the All Star reserve conversation this season, he is stuck in the starter tier.

Brandon Ingram (Pelicans, SF) - Like the man who was picked after him in the 2016 Draft, Jaylen Brown, this year is about seeing if Brandon Ingram can be a successful “Robin” to Zion Williamson’s “Batman.” If things go poorly in New Orleans, the 24-year-old could be a very intriguing trade piece.

Zach Lavine (Bulls, SG) - He made his All Star Game debut in 2021, but I still need more before I move him up a tier. He averaged a career high 27.4 points per game last year, but the Bulls even missed the play-in tournament. The more I need from him is, obviously, wins. Of course this is far from solely his fault, but Lavine’s career record is 131-280 (32%). That has to be among the lowest of any seven-year veteran in the league.

CJ McCollum (Trail Blazers, SG) - I’m honestly surprised that McCollum is still in Portland. McCollum entered the league in 2014, joining Damian Lillard in the backcourt and playing for Coach Terry Stotts. Since then, the Trail Blazers have made the playoffs every year, but only reached the Conference Finals (where they were swept) once. Stotts is gone now, and McCollum seemed like the logical next move to shake things up. However, he is still in Portland and is coming off an injury-riddled season. He’ll be looking for a bounceback campaign and should be in the mix to finally make his first All Star game.

Jamal Murray (Nuggets, PG) - There is no estimated time for Murray’s return from a torn ACL yet. Pre-injury last season, he was disappointing when it came to living up to his success in the bubble. When he comes back, he will once again push to move into the All Star tier.

Michael Porter Jr. (Nuggets, SF) - Speaking of Jamal Murray, his absence gives Michael Porter Jr. the chance to be the Nuggets’ number two option for an entire season. Porter Jr.’s scoring prowess is undeniable, but the pressure is on for him to expand his game and justify this potentially ambitious rating.

Julius Randle (Knicks, PF) - As a Knicks fan, I really wanted to put Randle in the All Star tier. However, I am still scarred by his disastrous playoff performance against the Hawks. He is right on the brink of the All Star tier for me, so it won’t take much more than a strong first half of the season to get moved up.

Pascal Siakam (Raptors, PF) - The 27-year-old has had one of the strangest careers in recent memory. He gradually developed from a later first round pick into a legitimate second scoring option on a championship team. Then, with Kawhi gone, he seemed to be the Raptors’ new star. After a shaky end to the 2020 season, and then a brutally bad showing in the bubble, he seemed to be less of a sure thing. He didn’t seem to improve much last season, and now he enters 2022 with a lot of questions. It may not be until after the new year that we see Siakam, but this a huge season for him

Fred VanVleet (Raptors, SG) - The Raptors are a very tough team to figure out this season. What I do know is that VanVleet will be asked to carry a major portion of the scoring load with Siakam out. He should easily set a new career high (passing 19.6 from last year) in points per game.

Nikola Vucevic (Bulls, C) - The soon-to-be 31-year-old has been an All Star two of the last three years. However, those came when he was a sympathetic figure on weak Magic teams. It will be very interesting to see him this year on a team that has some expectations. The key for Vucevic and the Bulls will be if he can be at least an average defensive player.

Christian Wood (Rockets, C) - Wood has become a polarizing player as he went from very underrated to slightly overrated. He played in just 41 games last season, but he averaged 21.0 points, 9.6 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game. Additionally, the Rockets went 5-26 in games that he missed (they were only 12-29 when he played but that’s still a 13% difference in terms of win percentage).

 

Good Starters


LaMelo Ball (Hornets, PG) - It’s definitely too soon, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t consider putting the 2021 Rookie of the Year in the great starter tier. The Hornets are my favorite of the fringe play-in contenders this year, and they’ll go as far as Ball will take them.

RJ Barrett (Knicks, SG) - Going into his third season, and still just 21-years-old, Barrett is primed for a breakout season. Maybe I’m a delusional Knicks fan, but I expect another big leap from RJ, especially in terms of his playmaking and defense. Also, he should be considered untouchable in *almost* any trade package.

Malik Beasley (Timberwolves, SG) - This may be a bit of a stretch for a score-first player like Beasley, but he is just such a good scorer. His scoring average has jumped from 3 points per game (2017 and 2018), to 11 points per game (2019 and 2020), up to 19.6 last year. If things go better than expected for Minnesota, he’ll be their x-factor. If the season goes poorly, he’ll be a great trade chip.

Bogdan Bogdanovic (Hawks, SG) - This might be high, as Bogdanovic feels more like a role player than a legit second option on a contender right now. However, his impact on this team was palpable last season. Yes, some of this overlaps with Nate McMillan replacing Lloyd Pierce, but the Hawks were 30-14 with Bogdanovic last year, and 11-17 without him.

Mikal Bridges (Suns, SF) - Fresh off of a well deserved 4-year $90 million extension, Bridges has as high a two-way ceiling as anyone in this tier. Assuming Ayton’s deal is next, he, Bridges and Devin Booker will be an elite trio for years to come in the West.

Dillon Brooks (Grizzlies, SG) - In all honesty, prior to last year I would have said there’s a better chance that Brooks is out of the league than in this tier. As annoying as he is on the court (unless you're a Grizzlies fan), the Canadian has averaged 16.2 and 17.2 points per game respectively the last two seasons and is a willing and able defender.

John Collins (Hawks, PF) - Collins is a tough player to figure out. He successfully bet on himself and got paid this off-season, but that will now bring pressure on the four-year pro to be a top player on this loaded roster. The case could be made for three or four players as the Hawks’ second best player after Trae Young, but Collins is the one getting paid like it. Simply continuing to bring great energy on both offense and defense should be enough for Collins to contribute to winning in Atlanta.

Spencer Dinwiddie (Wizards, PG) - The 28-year-old played just three games for the Nets last year before partially tearing his ACL. Now, he arrives in Washington, D.C. to join Bradley Beal in the backcourt. He is a much better fit with Beal than Russell Westbrook was, and that duo still made the playoffs. I think the Wizards may surprise some people this year, and Dinwiddie should play a big part in that.

Anthony Edwards (Timberwolves, SG) - Like LaMelo Ball, who finished ahead of Edwards for Rookie of the Year last season, I was tempted to move the 2020 First Overall Pick up a tier. I held off, but I was very impressed with his improvement throughout last season. He has plenty of room to grow, specifically by expanding his game beyond just scoring, and by this time next year, he should be solidly in the “great starter” tier.

Darius Garland (Cavaliers, PG) - The Cavaliers moved Garland from shooting guard to point guard last year, swapping him with Collin Sexton, and I loved how the 21-year-old performed in his second season. He comes into 2022 as a major breakout candidate, and his +2200 odds (Bovada) for Most Improved Player are definitely worth a shot.

Aaron Gordon (Nuggets, PF) - Coming over from Orlando to Denver during the season, Gordon never truly fit in with the Nuggets. As he enters his first full year in Denver, I trust that Gordon, who got a nice contract extension this off-season, will be ready to play big minutes in a variety of roles.

Jerami Grant (Pistons, PF) - Grant left the Nuggets for the Pistons because he wanted to be the number one option. His first season in Detroit was moderately successful, as he averaged 22.3 points per game (smashing his previous career high of 13.6), but the team struggled. Now, after one season of being the man in Detroit, he’ll be expected to play a complementary role to number one overall pick, Cade Cunningham.

Tyrese Haliburton (Kings, SG) - Haliburton impressed as a rookie last season, and now has high expectations for his sophomore campaign. The Kings have a very crowded backcourt, but Haliburton’s ability to play both guard positions will be very valuable.

Gordon Hayward (Hornets, SF) - When healthy, Hayward looked good last year in his first season with the Hornets, but he missed 28 games. The veteran’s health may determine the ceiling for this young Hornets team.

Richaun Holmes (Kings, C) - I banged the drum for Holmes during the off-season, and the Kings must have been listening as he received a nice four-year $55 million deal to stay in Sacramento. He is one of the most underrated players in the league, and he averaged 14-8-2-2-1 on 64% shooting in his 2021 breakout season.

Jaren Jackson Jr. (Grizzlies, PF) - The 22-year-old just received a four-year, $105 million rookie extension. He only played 11 games last season due to injury, but Jackson’s potential ceiling is high enough to get him on to this list.

Reggie Jackson (Clippers, PG) - The veteran point guard had a big postseason for the Clippers, especially after Kahwi Leonard went down. With Leonard likely out for the season, Jackson has a great chance to step up as their second scoring option.

Keldon Johnson (Spurs, SF) - The Spurs are desperate for somebody from their young core to establish themselves as the team’s best player. Johnson, fresh off of an Olympic Gold Medal in Tokyo, seems like the best bet.

Caris LeVert (Pacers, SG) - The 27-year-old has had awful luck with health and injuries. When healthy last year, LeVert set career highs in points (20.2), assists (5.2), rebounds (4.6), steals (1.4) and blocks (0.6). The Pacers have one of the most talented lineups in the league, but if they look to split up their core, it feels like he may be the odd man out.

Brook Lopez (Bucks, C) - Last year was Lopez’s worst of his three so far in Milwaukee, but he remains in this tier due to his unquestionable contributions to their success. All he has to do is continue to protect the rim and space the floor.

Dejounte Murray (Spurs, PG) - Murray is one of my favorite players in the league, but this feels like his last chance to have the huge breakout year that everybody has been waiting for. After averaging career highs in points, rebounds and assists last season, expect Murray to take another step and move up a tier at this time next year.

Jusuf Nurkic (Trail Blazers, C) - The big man has played in just 45 games over the last two regular seasons. When healthy, he is a walking double-double and a key piece of the Trail Blazers’ offense and defense.

Kristaps Porzingis (Mavericks, PF) - With all of Porzingis’ talent, it’s crazy that he’s in this tier. However, it’s the right call as his fit with Luka Doncic and this Mavericks team continues to be brought into question. This is definitely his last chance to make things work in Dallas.

Kevin Porter Jr. (Rockets, SG) - Porter Jr. had a rollercoaster 2021 season, but averaged 17-6-4 in the 26 games he played. There are a million different directions that the 21-year-old’s backcourt partnership with Jalen Green could go in, but I’ll take the risk with him in this tier.

Norman Powell (Trail Blazers, SF) - Portland traded for Powell during the season last year, and then gave him a long term deal in the offseason. He wasn’t the difference maker that they expected him to be last year, but in his first full season with the Trail Blazers, expect Powell to be their x-factor.

D’Angelo Russell (Timberwolves, PG) - Russell has hit a very strange point in his career. He played in just 42 games last season and saw his scoring and assist numbers dip to the lowest they’ve been in years. Fully healthy, Russell’s performance this year is one of the things I am most interested in seeing.

Collin Sexton (Cavaliers, SG) - The Cavaliers seem reluctant to offer Sexton an extension, which explains why they seem desperate to trade him. Regardless, he averaged a career high 24.3 points per game last year, which is enough to get him into this tier.

Marcus Smart (Celtics, SG) - Smart enters his eighth season with the Celtics, and this year, with the addition of Dennis Schroder, he shouldn’t have to play point guard as much as he did last year. This will allow him to return from his typical role off-the-ball and as a defensive stopper.

Myles Turner (Pacers, C) - I am very interested to see what Rick Carlisle, who has had mixed results with young centers, can do with Turner. The 25-year-old is perpetually in trade rumors, but has proven to be a true defensive anchor. I’m not sure if he can go full 2011 Tyson Chandler, but Turner did average a league leading 3.4 blocks per game last season.

Jonas Valanciunas (Pelicans, C) - The Lithuanian big man averaged an impressive 17.1 points per game and 12.5 rebounds per game in 2021. He was traded to the Pelicans this offseason and, while he’s not a perfect fit with Zion Williamson, he will work much better than Steven Adams did last year.

Kemba Walker (Knicks, PG) - The four-time All Star has never been in a tier this low, but he comes home to New York after a difficult 2021 season with the Celtics. For the Knicks to succeed, they probably only need Walker to perform as a top role player.

Andrew Wiggins (Warriors, SF) - If the Warriors end up deciding to move their young pieces for an established veteran/star, Wiggins and his contract will naturally be moved. If that doesn’t happen, the former number one overall pick will play a key role as a complement to the Warriors’ legendary big three of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.

 

Top Role Players


Steven Adams (Grizzlies, C) - He probably shouldn’t even be on here, but his one-year stint with the Pelicans last year was doomed from the start. I’ll give the veteran center the benefit of the doubt and expect him to fit in better with the Grizzlies.

Jarrett Allen (Cavaliers, C) - The 23-year-old was rightly paid like one of the best young centers in the league. Now, with rookie Evan Mobley joining him in the frontcourt, Allen will be expected to serve as both a mentor and a defensive anchor for this young roster.

OG Anunoby (Raptors, SF) - Anunoby’s fantastic two-way prowess and room to improve makes him a prime candidate to shoot up these tiers. He averaged a career high 15.9 points per game last season.

Bojan Bogdanovic (Jazz, SF) - The veteran wing gives you exactly what you want from a role player. In his seven-year career, he has played in 534 of 554 possible games and averaged 14.6 points per game.

Jordan Clarkson (Jazz, SG) - Clarkson averaged 18.4 points per game last year on his way to winning Sixth Man of the Year. Bench scorers like Clarkson are exactly what contending teams need, and he is a big reason why the Jazz should push close to 55 wins once again.

Robert Covington (Trail Blazers, PF) - The 30-year-old was disappointing last year, but his reputation as a top 3-and-D wing is enough to get him into this tier.

Eric Gordon (Rockets, SF) - Health is always a concern for the veteran guard, and he has only played in 63 games over the last two years. However, he is still one of the league’s best bench scorers. He deserves to be on a contender, instead of this rebuilding Rockets team, but he is under contract through 2023. It will be interesting to see what happens with the former Sixth Man of the Year winner this season.

Jae Crowder (Suns, PF) - Crowder is the definition of a top role player. He has only missed the playoffs one time in his career, his rookie season, and has played in postseason games with five different teams (including the Heat and Suns in the last two NBA Finals).

Seth Curry (76ers, SG) - Curry is likely going to have to carry the biggest scoring load of his career this season for Philadelphia. We saw him succeed as the Sixers’ third scoring option last year in the playoffs, as he averaged 18.8 points per game (up from 12.5 in the regular season).

Goran Dragic (Raptors, PG) - It seems to be an open secret that a buyout or trade to Dallas is looming. Wherever he plays, the veteran point guard is still one of the league’s best role players.

Evan Fournier (Knicks, SF) - Fournier is the exact type of player the Knicks were missing last season. His ability to score and make plays from the wing will help New York’s offense immensely.

Blake Griffin (Nets, PF) - The six-time All Star may be a shell of his former self, but he really showed his value to this Nets team in the 2021 playoffs. He won’t need to do much this regular season, but once we get to April, the Nets will lean on him for valuable minutes once again.

Tim Hardaway Jr. (Mavericks, SG) - This is probably a tier too low, but I just need to see a little bit more consistency from the veteran sniper. He averaged 16.6 points per game on 39% three-point shooting last year alongside Luka Doncic. If he can replicate that this year, he’ll easily move up a tier.

Joe Harris (Nets, SG) - After his abysmal performance last year against Milwaukee in the playoffs (16-49 on threes, including 5-20 in the final three games), Harris should be punished with a ban from this list. However, he is still one of the league’s best shooters (league leader in three point percentage two of the last three years), and definitely one of the top role players.

Tyler Herro (Heat, SG) - Herro has become a punching bag on social media, and he definitely is an easy target. With that being said, he still averaged 15-5-3 last year and is only 21-years-old. While he may not be the future star that he looked like in the bubble, he still plays a key role for the contending Heat.

Buddy Hield (Kings, SG) - Hield is unquestionably an elite three-point shooter. In the last three seasons, he has made 831 three pointers (and only missed 11 games). The problem is that he does not do much else. He’d be a perfect player for a contender, which is why I preferred the Lakers’ deal for him over Westbrook, but he is under through 2024, so it will be tough to move him out of Sacramento.

Al Horford (Celtics, C) - The 35-year-old quietly looked like he had some more good basketball left in him last year in his 28 games with the Thunder. He was good enough that the team stopped playing him in order to fully embrace tanking. After averaging 14-7-3-1-1 in those 28 games in Oklahoma City, Horford returns to Boston where he will play valuable minutes at center along with Robert Williams (arguably the biggest snub from this list).

Kevin Huerter (Hawks, SG) - Huerter, like the rest of his Hawks teammates, shined last year in the playoffs. He has had success both starting and off of the bench in his three-year career, and his offensive talent will be important for the Hawks if they want to get back to the Eastern Conference Finals.

De’Andre Hunter (Hawks, SF) - Speaking of the Hawks, Hunter played in just 23 of their 72 regular season games and 5 of their 18 playoff games. They missed him all season, especially in the playoffs, as he is by far their best perimeter defender. He has also averaged 13 points per game through his two-year career, and seems primed to be one of this season’s breakout players (+6000 for Most Improved on Bovada!).

Joe Ingles (Jazz, SF) - Ingles is the third Jazz player in this list, and that is exactly why many will pick them, despite the postseason failures, to be the top seed in the West for the second straight year. The veteran has carved out a fantastic career for himself in Utah, and will once again be among the league’s best role players.

T.J. McConnell (Pacers, PG) - McConnell had a very impressive season last year, averaging 9-7-4-2, and was rewarded with a nice contract in the Summer. He is one of the NBA’s best backup point guards.

Marcus Morris Sr. (Clippers, PF) - With Kawhi Leonard out, the Clippers will likely ask Morris to do more than he has ever done before in his ten-year career. Last season, he shot an impressive 47.3% from three point range, on 5.2 attempts per game. The veteran is definitely a candidate to move up into the “good starter” tier by midseason.

Patty Mills (Nets, PG) - Mills to Brooklyn was one of my favorite signings of the off-season. Now, with all of the uncertainty surrounding Kyrie Irving’s status, the veteran point guard will have to play a bigger role than expected. The 33-year-old should be more than capable, as he is coming off of another solid season with the Spurs and an Olympic Bronze Medal with Australia.

Kelly Olynyk (Pistons, C) - This may be a surprise, but Olynyk was great last season. He averaged 14-7-3-1-1 and, even at 30-years-old, earned a $37 million contract. Unfortunately for Olynyk, he is stuck in obscurity with the Pistons.

Jordan Poole (Warriors, SG) - The 22-year-old was the breakout star of the preseason. Poole’s 21.8 scoring average in five preseason games led him to jump all the way to the co-favorite spot for Most Improved Player. His scoring punch will be invaluable to this Warriors team.

Duncan Robinson (Heat, SG) - Robinson became the highest paid undrafted player ever this offseason. He deserved every penny as he made 520 threes on 43% shooting in his first two full seasons. It’s not a problem at all, as you just need one elite skill to succeed in the NBA, but he has attempted 196 two pointers and 1,254 three pointers in his young career.

Derrick Rose (Knicks, PG) - If he is healthy, which is of course a big if, Rose is one of the favorites for Sixth Man of the Year. In 50 games last season, Rose averaged 14.7 points and 4.2 assists per game. The Knicks are going to take a point guard by committee approach this season, and Rose will play a huge role.

Terry Rozier (Hornets, SG) - This is probably low, as Rozier averaged 20-4-4 on 45-39-82 shooting splits last season. With Devonte’ Graham (who is one of the bigger snubs from this list) gone but rookie James Bouknight and free agent Ish Smith in, the Hornets’ backcourt remains crowded. It won’t take much for me to move Rozier up a tier next time.

Dennis Schroder (Celtics, PG) - Like Tyler Herro, Schroder has become an easy target for social media ridicule. Regardless, he is going to play a big role for this Celtics team. He may not be the ideal point guard, but he did average 15-6-4-1 last season with the Lakers.

Matisse Thybulle (76ers, SG) - The 24-year-old averages just 4.3 points per game in his career, which has to be the lowest on this list. However, after just two seasons, he is already one of the best overall defenders in the NBA. If Ben Simmons isn’t playing for the Sixers this year, Thybulle will take on even more defensive responsibility.

Gary Trent Jr. (Raptors, SG) - He can be polarizing due to his streakiness, but Trent Jr. has improved in each of his three seasons in the league. He is an above average 3-and-D player who will need to continue to improve as an overall offensive player in order to keep the Raptors afloat without Pascal Siakam.

P.J. Tucker (Heat, PF) - It’s amazing it took Tucker this long to end up in Miami. The veteran perfectly embodies the vaunted “Heat Culture” and will fit very nicely into the starting lineup between Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo.

T.J. Warren (Pacers, SF) - Coming off of a broken foot that cost him all but four games of the 2021 season, Warren is an interesting player to watch. He has averaged 15.5 points per game in his seven-year career, but will need to add to his repertoire in order to push this Pacers team into legitimate contention.

 

Rookies


Scottie Barnes (Raptors, SF) - I’ll admit that I did not love Barnes as a top five pick in this year’s draft, but he has proven me wrong so far with his play in the Summer League and preseason. His versatility and defensive motor will allow him to immediately be an x-factor for the Raptors, even as his offensive game develops.

Cade Cunningham (Pistons, SG) - Cunningham was drafted first overall, and the Pistons will, correctly, give him the keys to the team right away. He’ll have plenty of room to grow and make mistakes with this barren Detroit roster.

Jalen Green (Rockets, SG) - The second overall pick is the betting favorite, at least per Bovada, for Rookie of the Year. Like Cade Cunningham, the rebuilding Rockets will hand Green the keys and allow him to grow throughout the season.

Evan Mobley (Cavaliers, PF) - Mobley comes to a Cavaliers team that already has Jarrett Allen at center. Assuming Kevin Love ultimately gets bought out, Mobley should begin his career spending most of his rookie season at power forward. This season should be about the third overall pick spending time at both frontcourt positions and getting acclimated with Cleveland’s strong young core.

Jalen Suggs (Magic, PG) - I am still shocked he didn’t go fourth overall in the draft, but, as previously mentioned, maybe I was wrong about Scottie Barnes. Regardless, Suggs, even in the Magic’s crowded backcourt, will be asked to contribute right away. There is no question that the 20-year-old will be up for the task.

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