Ever since he was a baby-faced rookie in 2003, LeBron James has been regarded as one of the best players in the NBA, and for the last 5-6 years, regarded as simply the best. While this distinction is more than fitting, a king’s reign can only last so long, as and he approaches the inevitable end to an amazing career, who takes over as the “best player in the NBA?” Will it be scoring machine Kevin Durant, newly minted MVP Stephen Curry, or someone else?
Assuming LeBron takes that awkward plunge from great to good in about three years, the players age at that point will have a major impact on whether or not, at that point, they would be considered the “best,” as well as injury history and yearly progression.
This list is composed of current NBA players. That means no Jahlil Okafor.
Age in 3 years—29
For the first five years of his career, Westbrook was the model citizen when it came to showing up for work every night, playing missing not a single game due to injury in that time span. While the last two seasons have largely been missed due to the torn meniscus suffered in the 2013 playoffs, Westbrook’s initial Favre-like availability plays well enough in his favor. The world has long been on standby with Westbrook as he’s gotten better every year. With Kevin Durant sidelined this year, Westbrook nearly led the Thunder to the playoffs in the thick of the Western Conference all the while leading the league in scoring. He’s also strung together some of the most impressive stat lines of anyone in NBA history, becoming only the second player ever (Oscar Robertson) to average at least 30 points, 10 assist, and 9 rebounds in a calendar month.
Westbrook’s obvious knocks for why he can’t take LeBron’s place lie in his shot selection and his playing along Durant. Even though Westbrook missed 15 games, this past season, he still led the league in total FG’s taken, one more than scoring champ runner-up James Harden (who played 81 out of 82 games). You have to imagine those numbers will decrease next season, assuming Durant will be healthy and regardless of what pundits have been saying, it’s still Durant’s team. His usage is ridiculously high and he’s not nearly as efficient with the ball as anyone else on this list. He can always improve, but Westbrook is always going to be that high volume shooter who makes about 45% of his shots. That’s hardly Best-brook.
Age in 3 years—31
Curry’s biggest issue is that he’ll be the oldest out of this group, and 30-year-old point guards aren’t nearly as sexy a pick as athletic wings or dominant postmen. What Curry does have working for him is being named the 2014-2015 NBA MVP, a distinction only one other player on this list can claim. Also, shooters tend to age like fine wine and there’s simply no better shooter than Steph. It’s easy to be blinded though by Curry’s year, which, on the surface, was statistically identical to the year prior.
The largest differences between the two seasons are the minutes and turnovers, and because his usage was essentially the same for both seasons (28.3 and 28.9), the easiest conclusion to come to is that Curry was more efficient. Simply put, Curry continues to get better, and while he may never be the two-way player like Chris Paul, he won’t need to. The best defense is being able to shoot from anywhere on the floor, and Curry is second to none in that respect.
Even still Curry, for all his greatness, isn’t number one. Why? As I mentioned before, he’s a point guard, and when was the last time a point guard was regarded as “the best player in the league?” Iverson? Not quite. He still had Shaq, Kobe and McGrady to contend with. Magic? Yeah, that’s probably more accurate. And as talented as he is, Curry is no Magic Johnson. Winning both regular season and Finals MVP would certainly bump him up a few spots, but as of now, he’s simply the best player on the best team. Not enough to remove the current parliament from power.
Age in 3 Years—28
The moment Harden stepped foot in Houston as their franchise player, he has steadily delivered. Harden is easily the premier shooting guard the NBA has sorely missed with Kobe getting stuffed at the rim by father time. The do-it-all guard has averaged 26.3 points, 6.3 assists, 5.1 rebounds the last three seasons, all with Houston. The only players in the NBA who can boast such numbers over the same span (at least 25 PPG, 5 RPG, 5 PG) are James and Durant. Harden has even emerged as a defensive presence, which is refreshing considering how, umm, bad he was last year.
His 4.2 win shares were enough to place him in the top-10 this year in that category (a spot he shared with 5 others, including defensive ace Anthony Davis), and his 12.2 offensive win shares placed him firmly in second place, behind Chris Paul’s 12.9. Simply put, Harden is one of the best players in the league on both ends of the floor and can only continue to get better.
While Harden will likely be the best 2 guard in the league for years to come, there’s no true guarantee he’ll ascend to the best period. First, he has to shed the magician act in the playoffs as he has continued to disappear when the lights are brightest. It’s been hard to look past dating back to his OKC days, particularly the 2012 NBA finals when he averaged 12.4 points on 41.6% shooting. The following season Harden played markedly better, averaging 26.3 points, 4.5 assists and 6.7 rebounds. Only in his elimination game against OKC, Harden went 2-6 with two turnovers in the 4th quarter. That’s hardly “showing up.” Follow that up with next seasons first round exit to the Blazers, with Harden shooting an atrocious 37.6% from the field and a just as terrible 29.6% from deep. If Harden wants to be considered the best player in the NBA, for him, it starts in the post season at this point.
Age in 3 years—27
Cousins is the Darkhorse of this race, as being stuck in Sacramento has limited his national exposure, much like another player on this list. Still, that hasn’t stopped Boogie from being considered the best center in the NBA, a distinction that used to belong to Dwight Howard. Once considered enigmatic, Cousins has blossomed a new bud in each season since his rookie year, increasing his scoring, rebounding, or free throw shooting, a knock on most big men. This season, he posted averages of 24.1 points, 12.7 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.7 blocks and 1.5 steals. No one but Cousins has had a stat line of at least 24 points, 10 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.5 blocks and 1.5 steals since Chris Webber did so in the 1999-2000 season. Basically, something we haven’t seen in 15 years and rarely anytime before. In fact here is a list of all the players who have accomplished this feat, most of whom have done it multiple seasons:
Just for shit-and-giggles, here’s a list of players who didn’t but maybe you would think HAVE:
Some names didn’t appear, like Oscar Robertson and Wilt Chamberlain, as they played in eras when steals and blocks weren’t a recorded statistic.
For the historic season he just had, all he really needs to do is keep trending in the same direction. His age makes him a good bet to start cracking peoples Top 5 lists, and if he A) gets out of Sac-town and/or B) gets better coaching, he can be a lock for a mainstay in Americas eyes. His one knock though, and an alarming one, is that he has yet to play a full season. Damn, those pesky ankle and calf injuries. At any rate, playing 89% of possible games is still pretty damn good.
Age in 3 years—30
KD is already widely recognized as the second best player in the NBA, and it’s easy to see why. Since being taken with the second overall pick in 2007, all Durant has done is amass over 15,000 points, nearly 4,000 rebounds and just over 2000 assists, all the while winning four scoring titles, an All-Star game MVP, a regular season MVP, and Rookie of the Year, along with a crap ton of other accolades. He’s a member of the ultra-exclusive 50-40-90 club and is the only player not named Larry Bird to have those figures while averaging more than 28 PPG. Like his teammate Russell Westbrook, Durant has been insanely healthy, playing in nearly every game every season, except where the coaching staff decided to rest his star for the playoffs, or he had a slight “ding.” This was all before this season though, when KD had numerous complications with his feet. From foot surgery to a sprained big toe, it was difficult for KD to stay on the floor, playing in only 27 games, his lowest total since he played 35 games…when he was a freshman at Texas. Durant is already a lock for the Hall of Fame, even at the tender age of 26, easily having the best resume of all the players on this list.
So how can KD be so great and not be considered the best player in the NBA in three years? It’s mostly his damned foot. Throughout this season, KD had been patient with his healing, not rushing back electing to play when the doctors deemed him ready, but that still backfired, as he could never truly stay healthy. Not to mention, this is predicated on the idea that LeBron remains the top dog over this time frame, meaning for the most part, Durant would have spent the majority of his career as the second best player in the NBA. One of the greatest scorers the NBA will ever know, Durant’s lack of championships (the ridiculous measure by which all players are assessed), current foot problems, and the number 1 guy on this list makes it hard to see Durant taking claim of that spot at the age of 30, when the next guy will be only 25…
Age in 3 years—25
When Anthony Davis was coming out of college, I was one of his skeptics, noting his frame was too slight to survive the 82-game grind of an NBA season. While I’ve somewhat been vindicated in that belief having played no more than 68 regular season games in any of his first three seasons. Even still, the kid is ridiculously good. Like, “all-time talent” good, which is in no way an overstatement. While is rookie season was “good” by most accounts, his next two were astronomic. Take a look at Davis’ second season compared to that of Tim Duncan, who’ regarded as the best power forward ever and to whom Davis will always be compared.
Again, this was in his second season.
In Davis’ third though, is where things got interesting. En route to leading the Pelicans to their first playoff berth since 2011, Davis was all-time great. His 30.81 PER, was good for 11th best. Ever. What’s more is that there are only 3 players that occupy those top ten spots: Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, and LeBron James. In fact, the nearest front court player on that list (I tend to not count Chamberlain as he is an urban legend) is David Robinson (13th) in 1993-1994, when Davis was hardly a year old.
In his extremely short time, Davis has established himself easily as the best power forward in the NBA, being able to lead a team on both ends of the floor, and in the great western conference no less. He can’t be held to the same “lack of championships” argument as his counterparts, he just hasn’t been in the league long enough. That fact alone though is the perfect reason for why in three years, he will be considered the best player in the NBA.