The NBA is fueled by star power and debate. Each year, a procession of star players compete on the field for the glory and immortality of basketball. Then across the world in schoolyards, twitterscapes, break rooms and barbershops, fans and the media debate and recalibrate the pages of basketball lore, moving players up and down. in the hierarchy.
Who is better than who? Who is overrated? Who is awesome and who is a All the time Great?
These are the 12 round conversation fights between fans, young and old, often young against old.
While teaching in a K-8 reading program in Chicago this summer, I was going back and forth with two third graders to see who was better, Michael Jordan or LeBron James? Until a fourth-grader walks into the ring and ends the age-old GOAT debate with his calm “Devin Booker” response. The student has been an unfortunate victim of a recency bias, though he would make a tantalizing new co-host alongside Stephen A. Smith on ESPN’s First Take.
Here at Blazer’s Edge, like this fourth-grader – in a slightly more rational way – we want to spark a debate about basketball. In a new series, I’ll take on today’s game stars and determine who is the best of the best by breaking them down into three levels:
Level I, Generational Superstars: Players for whom the front offices could not trade if they tried. Statistical behemoths that can put teams in contention and dramatically change the landscape of the league when moved.
Level II, Superstars: Similar to Level I, they boast some fantastic numbers and could be a cornerstone of the franchise, but not good enough to warrant the top of the “generational” talent list.
Level III, stars: Players who display All-Star numbers and can be a main piece, but don’t have enough impact to be a top banana on a title contender.
The loose criteria used to put these levels together:
Offensive production: is this player an elite three-way goalscorer? Does he have the total package or is he elite in some areas? Perhaps the most important on the ‘generational superstar’ checklist: Can the ball be put into this player’s hands down the home stretch and can he lead his team to victory?
Defense: This category won’t bring a player down too far, but it can be a major advantage if the player has elite defensive skills or is stuck between two levels and has some defensive sense.
Playoff Success: Integrated roles in deep playoff races or championships will be viewed with affection. However, this one-person ranking committee understands that success in the playoffs can depend on the desirability and quality of teammates. So a player who lifts his roster far beyond expectations, but who may not have a big resume in the playoffs, will not be eliminated from the competition.
Icon Status: The power of the stars can be enhanced through personality, arrogance, patent movements, signature celebrations, and shoe sales.
This series will be released in five episodes, broken down by position. Today we start with the big guys.
LEVEL I: Generational Superstars – Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid
Back in the days when three-point shooting and fast pace were thought to have doomed the big man to the irrelevance of basketball, it was two colossal crosses that finished first and second in the MVP vote for the season 2020-21, Jokic and Embiid.
What is perhaps most “generational” about Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic is the style in which he plays the game. He is barely a hair under seven feet tall and is far from it. athletic by NBA standards with his now famous mushy build, but he dominates the game on so many levels with his slow pace. He can execute offense as a center point, score with power and finesse in the post or touch from the outside, and drop dazzling pennies with his dolphin-like basketball IQ.
The Joker has posted some garish numbers this season poised to become the first true center to win the NBA MVP season since Shaquille O’Neal did so in 2000: 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists decisive per game, while shooting 38.8% city center. He did all of this by ranking number one in ESPN’s player effectiveness rating and fourth in live-shoot percentage among players who averaged over 20 points per game. Is he bad in defense? Is he good at defense? We do not care?
From savvy, unsportsmanlike virtuoso to sheer athletic power, Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid is the second generation talent of the current center class. He might not have been as efficient as Jokic, but all Embiid has done is score a measly 28.5 points per game in the 2020-21 campaign for the number one 76ers. Embiid can score with the best of them, but he compliments his attacking play with similar elite defensive prowess in the paint, winning second-team All-Defensive honors three times in his career. Add a few icon dots to be nicknamed “The Process” and maybe the funniest NBA Twitter personality (or troll), and Embiid is on the first level.
LEVEL II: Superstar – Rudy Gobert, Karl Anthony-Towns
Let’s show immense love for defense, okay? I was real tried not to give Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert superstar status for his complete lack of offensive play, until I realized how dominant he is on defense. Defensive effectiveness is hard to assess, as seriously, as this compelling piece by Zach Kram from The Ringer points out. There are several different advanced stats that attempt to gauge a player’s overall effectiveness and often produce wildly varying results. Still, Gobert is ranked best defenseman in the league according to five of the advanced defensive stats: ESPN plus-minus, ESPN’s RAPTOR FiveThirtyEight, plus-minus estimated from Dunks & Threes, adjusted plus-minus regularized from NBA Shot Charts and LEBRON from BBall Index. The hype around the “Stifle Tower” (international icon points!) Oh, and it’s not like he’s bad on offense. Despite his lack of the ability to create his own shot, he is a powerful partner in the pick-and-roll, averaging 14.3 points per game in 2021 and can affect glass play with a second best 13, 5 rebounds per game.
Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns is the epitome of the great modern with a shot that makes his game highly adaptable in the era of three-point supremacy. Towns’ career clip of 39.4% beyond the arc is better than any center in league history that has attempted more than 500 threes, even better than a second-placed Meyers Leonard. Shots in the air made up 52.8% of Towns’ field goal attempts last season, but he was still a worthy force for doubles teams when operating at post. In a declining year last season due to injuries and family losses, 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 just 25 and the last center in the league today to possess MVP-level talent – he was just hidden in Minnesota on a losing franchise and dysfunctional.
LEVEL III: Stars – Bam Adebayo, Nikola Vucevic
It seems to thrive as a modern great NBA, you have to develop a three-point shot or be so athletic that you’re a terror on defense and charge downhill in the pick-and-roll. Miami Heat Center Bam Adebayo is the latter of these two categories and he is one of the best in this area. Adebayo is undersized at six-foot-nine, but his switching ability on defense makes him the most essential defender of a Heat team that finished first in the defensive standings in 2021 and also trains Jimmy Butler. He can follow the guards around the perimeter, the fat ones at the post, and rush to the aid side to make emphatic blocks like this:
I can’t get over this Bam Adebayo block on Jayson Tatum I’ve seen it +10 times! To make it better, it was a game winner with 5.1 seconds when Heat was 116-114. 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 previous year and 8.9 two seasons ago, are proof of a rapidly accelerating attacking arsenal. Extra-special bonus points for an appearance in the 2020 final.
Chicago Bulls center Nikola Vucevic is sorely lacking in iconic points after spending eight years of his career on the unimportant basketball island of Orlando. Not bad, not necessarily good, right 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 23.1 points and 11.7 rebounds per game, while also reversing 39.8% of his trebles in 6.2 attempts. That sort of production culminated in his second NBA All-Star selection in 2021. Now part of the dangerous and redesigned Bulls in a big market like Chicago, the 10-year NBA veteran could get a little more national love.
Do you agree with these levels? Did anyone rank too high, too low, or completely absent? Join the debate below.