As the kids say, there are levels to this. Ranking players happens everywhere — barbershops, bars, family dinners — and especially on NBA media platforms. Arguments start and finish, be it historically or contemporarily, due to rankings.
Almost the big spade, so to speak.
So here at Yahoo Sports, we thought it would be fun to have rankings of our own. But we’re putting a bit of a twist on it. Numerical rankings are a bit weird, very arbitrary and kinda boring (comparing the 15th-best player to the eighth-best, blah).
But framing the conversations under the guise of championships, or potential champions seems more fun.
And that’s what this exercise is supposed to be, and that’s what it was. Everyone on the Yahoo Sports NBA staff had a vote — not just the writers. It’s important to note that nugget because it is a collaborative process here, editors included, who often have a different view than the writers on the ground.
Different, but still valuable.
There weren’t hard and fast rules but parameters we all wanted to stay within, for clarity for the voters and consistency for the readers.
Now, this isn’t some definitive ranking of the top-40 players in the NBA, although some could interpret it that way. From our standpoint, though, it is a definitive placement of players fitting into categories we all discuss:
Can he be the best player on a title team, no questions asked?
If not, who needs a little more help from his organization or coaching staff to get there?
Who are the perfect side pieces, right behind those guys, the ones who can seemingly fit anywhere and contribute to winning, or those who are right on the doorstep of being a “bus driver”?
Or, who needs a change of scenery before he can fit into the top three categories?
This isn’t a reflection of a player’s career accomplishments, or their individual trajectory. It’s simply about the next six-to-nine months. How healthy can you be? That factors in. How great are you when things start to break down, how close are you to getting over that hump or sliding down that hill?
So, every week in October, we revealed who fits in what category — no, they aren’t numbered and clearly some players have a little more to give than others, even if they’re placed in the same box.
But there are only so many bus drivers in today’s game, which is where we finished the exercise. Level 1 is a nod to Charles Barkley calling Kevin Durant a “bus rider” in 2022 for winning a championship ring on a team loaded with talent. In our ranking, Durant was considered a “bus driver” for being the best player on a championship team.
Again, it is a fun, yet serious, exercise and we hope you enjoy Yahoo Sports’ levels. Let the arguing begin.
The Yahoo Sports NBA staff placed six players in Level 1 based on the following criteria: The player is the best player on a championship team.
Here is the alphabetical list of Level 1 players, followed by Yahoo Sports NBA writers’ commentary on what surprised them about the players at this level, if there were other players you expected to see who didn't make the cut and if the teams represented should be considered championship-level contenders.
For someone who tends to use a lot of fancy numbers in his writing, Level 1 turned me into a snap-judgment, eye-test guy in a hurry. I tabbed Jokić, Steph and Giannis immediately; this likely doesn’t surprise you, considering they’ve been the best players on the last three champions. It wouldn’t be shocking if somebody other than Denver, Golden State or Milwaukee won the title — all things considered, it’s probably smarter to pick the field — but barring a catastrophic injury that drastically reduces their ability to distort the game in ways few players in the history of the sport ever have, it wouldn’t shake my belief that they could do it again.
Ditto for Durant. Age and injury risk loom as significantly larger mitigating factors for him after four consecutive seasons curtailed by leg issues — and I’d at least entertain the possibility that KD could become the second-best player on a Suns title team if Devin Booker catches the Holy Ghost again next spring — but with everything he’s achieved and how unbelievably easy he makes scoring look, I didn’t think twice about putting him on the list.
Honestly, though? I felt the same way about LeBron James, who’s played more games and minutes than KD over the last three seasons, and Kawhi Leonard, who’s been arguably as productive and effective on a per-minute basis than Durant despite less gaudy scoring numbers.
I wrote in Level 2 it’d be reasonable to give both of them the benefit of the doubt they could once again be the best player on a champion, as James was in 2020 and Leonard was in 2019. I get why some of my colleagues doubted — the age, the injuries, the accumulated wear and tear on those wounded wheels, the rise of other powers around them — but if I Rip Van Winkle’d my way clear through to July, and you told me when I woke up that LeBron or Kawhi won Finals MVP? I mean, I’d have all sorts of questions about what conked me out for eight months, but I don’t think I’d be flabbergasted by that.
The same was true, for me, of Jimmy Butler and Joel Embiid. I’ve seen Jimmy be the best player on teams that made the Finals; I believe, despite his postseason foibles, that Embiid has it in him to be the kind of player in the playoffs that he’s been in the regular season. Your mileage, I’ll grant, may vary.
It’s interesting, though: While the rest of our esteemed panel didn’t extend that level of belief to Jimmy and Joel, they did grant it to Tatum and Luka.
The former’s an easier sell, I think: He’s had monster moments deep into the playoffs, he’s established as a two-way floor-raiser, he’s been the best player on a Finals team, and this Celtics squad looks loaded for bear and is considered one of the favorites to win it all. Seems like a decent case. The Mavericks, as currently constructed, don’t appear to be on that level and have glaring question marks: how to build an above-average defense around the Dončić-Kyrie Irving core, whether the rookies are ready for significant roles, whether they’ve got enough talent to withstand some of the other heavy hitters in the West come the playoffs, etc.
And yet: Luka lands here, in the inner sanctum, because at age 24, his arrow’s still pointing upward, and because … y’know … look at what that dude’s done:
It goes back to the “snap-judgment, eye-test” thing: When it comes to crowning superstars, sometimes it feels like you know it when you see it. Even when you haven’t seen it yet.
Four of these gentlemen represent five of the last seven Finals MVPs, so it should be no secret as to why Nikola Jokić, Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant appear at the top of the NBA mountain. Jokić seems poised to lead Denver’s title contention for the remainder of his long-term contract. Curry and Golden State hope the addition of Chris Paul, the continued growth of young first-rounders and the Warriors’ championship know-how can power another title push. Antetokounmpo and Durant are now playing with even starrier counterparts, and with those setups come even greater expectations to win.
Tatum, of course, has not yet brought Boston to the promised land, but he has driven the Celtics to the conference finals in three of the last four years, plus a 2-1 series lead over Golden State in 2022.
Dončić, by comparison, is the engine of a Mavericks unit that simply does not boast the championship acumen of these other players’ teams. With Kyrie Irving, two first-round rookies and offseason additions like Grant Williams, Dallas surely fancies itself a feistier threat out West. For all of Dončić’s offensive brilliance, how much firepower do the Mavericks truly have behind him, considering Irving’s inconsistencies and defensive shortcomings? Twenty-nine teams would love to have the problem of maximizing Dončić. He’s proven to be one of the greatest talents in the world. And yet of all these Level 1 players, Dončić’s path to a title, compared to the likes of LeBron James and Jimmy Butler down in Level 2, seems far more challenging.
The undisputed crop of players who qualify for this all seem extremely deserving and clear. We can begin with the current king of the hill, Mr. Jokić. He silenced all doubters and professed indifference to the entire basketball industrial complex, but we gotta call bull here. You don’t get this good, this transcendent, without having to immerse yourself in the ways of today. Why’s that important? Because it means he’d know just one championship isn’t enough to satiate the appetite of the public or even himself. Expecting him to take a step back would be foolish. He will be just as driven as ever to validate and increase the distance between himself and everyone else in this category.
Luka Dončić is an interesting pick by our folks, and there was some fence-straddling here. Despite the fact there’s doubt on Dallas even qualifying for the playoffs, Dončić’s greatness isn’t in question. He’s a machine, not quite at Jokić’s level and still with things to prove, but if the right pieces were around him, it’s not a stretch to see him in June.
And June is where Jayson Tatum and Stephen Curry desperately want to get back to. Tatum appears closer and still with enough room to grow, a two-way force who should take more of a leadership role with Marcus Smart sent to Memphis. Tatum’s big-game bona fides are adding up, and Curry’s are so long you’d have to staple it to his dossier. A 50-ball in a Game 7 of Round 1 cemented that, and even if the Warriors don’t seem like championship material as of today, Curry is the lone reason that title window is pried open with a crowbar. He’ll have to play upward of 65-70 games this season and push himself through the regular season. A tough task.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is the most irresistible two-way force in the game, eager to reclaim the status Jokić now occupies. Assuming health for himself and new partner in crime Damian Lillard, he can ease the offensive burden, save his body and return to being the undisputed most impactful defensive player in the game.
Kevin Durant … In the semifinals against Denver, he shot just 45% and 22% from 3, while Devin Booker cooked (30.8 points, 7.8 assists on 57/55/88 splits). After just eight games in Phoenix before the playoffs, the unfamiliarity began to show and Denver’s defense loaded up on him. But let’s just say if there’s sufficient competence on the sidelines and front office, there’s no reason why he’s not still in the conversation for the game’s best player. Nobody on this list scores as easily as he does, and from as many spots. And even if he’s slipped defensively from his highest heights, he’s still every bit the bus driver people try to claim he’s not.
We have seen four of these players — Nikola Jokić, Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant — be the best player on a title team, and Jayson Tatum was four minutes (and a signature Curry performance) from elevating to that same level. We can debate whether the aging talent around Curry is still enough to win a title, but he has kept apace, and four rings earns you the benefit of the doubt. It would be unsurprising for Jokić, Antetokounmpo or Tatum to be the best player on a championship team this season.
The elephant in the room? Durant won his rings with Curry. Charles Barkley raised the issue as Durant’s Brooklyn Nets were in the process of being swept by Tatum's Boston Celtics in 2022, calling Durant a “bus rider.” I don’t want to argue about whether Durant has ever been on this level (he has). We also have not seen him escape the second round of the playoffs since his Achilles injury. I can envision a world in which the Phoenix Suns win the title with Devin Booker as their best player, and then we can have this discussion again. In the meantime, I left both Booker and Durant on Level 2. I need to see more from both this season.
Luka Dončić is just as fascinating a case. He is as skilled as anyone on this level, and I believe in his ability to win the whole thing with the right players around him, which is why I had him here on my list. I also don’t think he has the right players around him, even if they are closer to making that claim this year than last, and we have yet to see Dončić’s heliocentric style deliver a championship. Depending on how you feel about Curry’s Warriors, Dončić might be the only player with the talent to be on this level but not the team, which could have repercussions for the Dallas Mavericks the closer they get to his free agency in 2026.
I have a hard time believing anyone else but Booker can leave no doubt about a Level 1 claim this year, but I will enjoy watching Ja Morant and Anthony Edwards try, and the NBA is a canvas for Victor Wembanyama. Now for the climb, and for us to see the highest level everyone reaches before the other side of the season.
The Yahoo Sports NBA staff placed five players in Level 2 based on the following criteria: The player is the best player on a contender or an overqualified No. 2 player on a championship team.
Here is the alphabetical list of Level 2 players, followed by Yahoo Sports NBA writers’ commentary on why there aren't more players at this level, whether that means there are fewer contending teams and/or fewer overqualified No. 2 players on championship teams, or whether having a superstar negates the need for a player at this level.
There’s a bit in Al Pacino’s big Oscar-bait monologue from “Any Given Sunday” that I found myself thinking about when we got these results. No, not the part about how coach Tony D’Amato chased off anyone who’s ever loved him and can’t even stand the face he sees in the mirror. (Good guess, though!)
It’s this: “The margin for error is so small. I mean, one half a step too late or too early, and you don’t quite make it. One half-second too slow, too fast, you don’t quite catch it.”
Such is life in the championship chase. Even the greatest to ever do it don’t win every year. It all has to line up just right: the opportunity, the competition, the supporting cast, the health, the dumb blind luck, everything … and just because it’s happened before, that doesn’t mean it’ll happen again.
LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard have both been the best players on championship teams — the definition of a Level 1 star. It’d be reasonable to give them the benefit of the doubt in thinking they could do it again; James, after all, just averaged nearly 25-10-7 in the playoffs through a torn foot tendon for a conference finalist, and Leonard just dueled Kevin Durant and Devin Booker to a standstill in a playoff series before suffering a torn meniscus. It’d also be reasonable, though, to consider the facts of the case: LeBron in Year 21, nearing age 39, with significant injuries in four of the last five seasons; Kawhi now 13 years removed from his draft, the poster board man of load management, the spurts of superhumanity increasingly overwritten by injuries and absences — and place them on the “half-step too late/half-second too slow” side of the line that separates the best of the best.
Jimmy Butler has been the best player on a team that’s made two Finals in four years and was the best performer on the floor in Finals games against James and Anthony Davis — the reason why Erik Spoelstra described that instant-meme screenshot of an utterly exhausted Butler slumped over in the bubble as “an image of a champion before you’re a champion.” Joel Embiid has been, at worst, one of the four best players on the planet for the last three regular seasons and just got a big ol’ trophy for being the very best. Could either of them be the leading man on a champion? Probably. Would you bet on it this season, though, with Miami striking out on its No. 1 target and Philadelphia dealing with another point guard who doesn’t want to be around anymore? Probably not. Again: small margins.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander lives in the small margins — the sliver of space he needs to get to his stepback, the infinitesimal crevices he routinely squeezes through as he pitter-pats to the cup. After celebrating his All-NBA First Team selection by looking like the best player at the FIBA World Cup, he leads a Thunder team tipped by many as the pick to skyrocket up the standings, perhaps a contender in the making. But the making often requires patience; rotations as precocious as Oklahoma City’s, so heavily reliant on early-20s talent sans big-game scar tissue, don’t tend to linger long in the postseason.
Maybe Gilgeous-Alexander, for all his brilliance, is still a half-step too early for his moment. The optimist, though, looks at this list and imagines a world where those breaks do line up just right, where the road does rise to meet them, and where one of them — once again, or at long last — manages to be right on time.
Each of the players in this category are Level 2 for different reasons. LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard were certainly the best players on multiple championship teams and each was almost certainly the best player in the world for significant stretches. Joel Embiid, to me, is mired in Level 2 as opposed to being listed among the top tier of championship-caliber players simply because he has not carried the 76ers out of the second round of the playoffs. In contrast, I’m sure Jimmy Butler was knocked for his inability to lead Miami to the promised land, but I believe a perennial All-Star lifting his franchise to the conference finals every season and two Finals appearances in four seasons should qualify Butler for the top level of this project.
The last player in this group, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, simply hasn’t had the opportunity to stamp himself in the postseason as a bona fide title linchpin, but he seems like a sure, sure bet to do so eventually. Coming off a first-team All-NBA selection, SGA powered Team Canada to its first FIBA medal since 1936 this past summer at the World Cup. During that run, he outdueled Luka Dončić in a critical quarterfinals elimination game. I’d frankly be surprised after this season, when there’s expectation outside of Oklahoma City that the Thunder could leapfrog up the Western Conference standings, if Gilgeous-Alexander isn’t considered a lock for Level 1 entering the 2024-25 campaign.
Let’s start with the obvious. This is not a shot at LeBron James’ historical greatness or his Lakers tenure or even the 2020 championship. Playing 55 and 56 games the last two years makes it hard to put him in Level 1, but in moments he can be as impactful as anyone in his level or the level above. Being able to summon that greatness, particularly on both ends, for long stretches, is asking a lot at his age and mileage. And it’s hard to see him being healthier as he gets closer to 40. That’s probably the only reason he’s looking up as opposed to looking down from a throne.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will certainly turn some heads by his admission on the list, but he’s compiling a body of work that appears to support him making it. He won’t make another huge scoring leap, but if Oklahoma City is to elevate itself to true relevancy in the West, he’ll be spearheading it while the rest of the bunch matures on the fly.
Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard each feel like Level 1 guys but for different reasons. Butler’s playoff performances have elevated him to the doorstep of the Hall of Fame (seriously), but he could only elevate the undermanned Heat so far once they made it to the NBA Finals. Having enough in the tank, being a supreme shot creator and reliable 3-point shooter are all slight concerns.
With Leonard, his game is remarkable, but his reliability is not. He was a one-man wrecking crew against the Suns for a game and a half … and then he got hurt. And if LeBron’s health is a concern, Leonard has to be viewed similarly.
Unfortunately, Joel Embiid is an MVP, but it’s hard to ignore the dossier of playoff failures when considering him as a true leader on a title team. He’s not trending toward Karl Malone territory, but he’s certainly on the freeway. Better avoid that off-ramp.
I don't know what's more fascinating: LeBron James has finally been voted off the "best player on a title team" island, or in Year 21 he's still capable of being "the best player on a contender." The Lakers still need Anthony Davis to join James on this level in order to compete with the best. I had Davis there on my ballot, since we have seen him do it. He peaked on his own on the All-NBA First Team, carrying the Pelicans to no more than 48 wins and a spot in the second round of the playoffs, but as soon as he joined James, he fit seamlessly as an overqualified No. 2 on a championship team — and he is still somehow only 30 years old.
The rest of Level 2 mirrors my list, save for Kevin Durant and Devin Booker, both of whom I ranked here. We can debate, as others have, whether Durant drove the Warriors to back-to-back titles, but we have not seen him elevate a team anywhere near a championship since the injury to his Achilles. The closest he came was in 2021, when he missed half the season. James Harden and Kyrie Irving helped the Nets maintain a 55-win pace in the regular season, and when those guys were not 100%, Durant lost (by a big toe) in seven games to Giannis Antetokounmpo's Bucks. Even Durant conceded he was not enough to carry the Nets.
"I had to play every minute for three straight games," Durant clarified two seasons ago at age 33. "If you think I was going to do that for the next two rounds and win the championship, I mean s***, thank you."
Booker was the best player on a team that reached the Finals that same season, when he was 24. He also was not good enough to outduel Antetokounmpo, but like the Lakers, if Booker and Durant both perform to a Level 2 degree, the Suns can absolutely win a title, and then we will decide who was the driving force.
The Yahoo Sports NBA staff placed 12 players in Level 3 based on the following criteria: The player is integral to winning a championship, but he can’t win on his own. He is an All-Star and/or an All-NBA-caliber player.
Here is the alphabetical list of Level 3 players, followed by Yahoo Sports NBA writers’ commentary on why these players' games are solid, but why they need additional support and what else is needed for them to win a title.
No player ever wins a title on his own, really. Even Michael Jordan, for decades our sainted template for championship dominance, needed Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant and Dennis Rodman to stay atop the mountain; in the NBA, no man is an island, no matter how often he works in isolation.
(Well, maybe James Harden in Houston.)
Even given that, though, an exercise like this reminds you just how much of NBA stardom lies in the eye of the beholder — the degree to which context shapes how we perceive players.
We’ve seen residents of Level 3 serve as full-fledged No. 2 options on title winners: Kyrie Irving in 2016, Anthony Davis in 2020, Jamal Murray just four months ago. We’ve seen them co-anchor Finals teams: Devin Booker in 2021, Jaylen Brown in 2022. We’ve seen them lead, if not carry, conference finalists: Damian Lillard in 2019, Paul George in 2021. (Remember: After Kawhi Leonard tore his ACL midway through Round 2, PG averaged 30-11-5.5 in 41.6 minutes per game the rest of the way — dauntless work in dire circumstances.)
Context ever so slightly dims their shine, whether because newer stars seem to burn brighter or because they’ve partnered with higher-wattage Hall of Famers. (Though LeBron James keeps trying to make “AD is the face of the franchise” happen, and Booker’s probably closer to eye-level with a 35-year-old Kevin Durant than some might think.) Would it shock you, though, to see any of them outperform “best supporting” status and step into the spotlight at this season’s most critical juncture?
Kyrie, maybe, if only because it’s been seven years since his Finals heroics and six since he last played 70 games in a season. But he’s also just two seasons removed from making All-NBA and just averaged 27-5-6 on 51/39/95 shooting splits after he got to Dallas. It’s not like he’s forgotten how to be one of the best three-level scorers alive. If the ball swings his way when it matters most, you can bet Irving won’t hesitate to let it fly; after all, he’s already seen it go in.
The trick, though, is getting to that moment. That’s where smaller guards — like Ja Morant, Donovan Mitchell and De'Aaron Fox, all of whom have made All-NBA and led high-seeded teams, but none of whom has made it past Round 2 — have fallen short in an era dominated by big wings and skilled bigs. Team USA standout Anthony Edwards is the former, with the game to get Minnesota over the hump … if he can just depend on the latter (Karl-Anthony Towns) as he tries to get Minnesota over the hump. Zion Williamson is sort of a Brundlefly hybrid of both, an unguardable marvel who could vault the Pelicans to the top of the West … if he could just stay healthy.
That, really, is how narrow the separation is from one level of acclaim to the next, how thin the line can be between “best player on a champion” and “elite complementary piece” — just two letters. If. If injury luck, seeding and a couple of breaks go your way, you could find yourself elevating to the upper echelon. If they don’t … supporting actors make a lot of money and get trophies, too.
On the surface, Devin Booker fits the bill for this level perfectly. A younger All-Star, who’s welcomed a bona fide championship alpha dog to help lead his franchise to the promised land. Booker, though, is so much more than that.
He is a lap ahead of Ja Morant, Zion Williamson and Anthony Edwards in terms of young stars driving postseason success. Booker was the leading scorer on a team that came two wins shy of the title in 2021. He was Phoenix’s leading scorer during a tough series against eventual champion Denver, when Kevin Freaking Durant was launching right beside him. Now that Bradley Beal’s arrived in the desert, perhaps a three-headed monster can ironically indicate just how capable Booker truly is all on his own.
There are a couple players I ranked higher than this grouping, although I fully understand why in the aggregate they’re here: Anthony Davis’ longevity, which no one seems to trust, or Zion Williamson, another player with whom we all have earned trust issues. Williamson is intriguing because apparently, he’s finally taking the proper approach to his conditioning and preparation — funny how that was missed in the rookie handbook, but we digress. He was a one-man wrecking crew even before getting himself right, giving glimpses of an MVP player before his body or himself failed the Pelicans yet again.
In a year, one would be shocked to see Anthony Edwards still planted as a supporting actor, because he should make a huge jump this coming season. Jaylen Brown and Donovan Mitchell fit perfectly into this space. Brown, because he’s reliable even with his flaws and made himself into a No. 2 behind Jayson Tatum, which makes the Celtics a bona fide title contender. Mitchell is an explosive scorer, but how he fits with the Cavs for the time being is interesting as their best player. Is there another leap in him or will someone else take the mantle to elevate the Cavs from competence to prominence? Also: If Detroit’s Cade Cunningham isn’t on this list this time next year, something went terribly wrong.
Jamal Murray is this level's poster child, and it's remarkable that someone who has never made an All-Star Game is so clearly a No. 2 on a title team. This remains unfathomable: Four players have averaged a 26-5-7 on the road to a championship, and they are LeBron James (2016 and 2020), Michael Jordan (1991) and now both Nikola Jokić and Murray. Scottie Pippen was a Hall of Fame wingman to Jordan. Kyrie Irving and Anthony Davis have ridden this level to 15 combined All-Star bids, and that bodes well for Murray's career trajectory.
We can legitimately argue whether Irving, who has undermined the championship odds of rosters boasting James, Jayson Tatum, Kevin Durant and Luka Dončić in seven seasons since being a best supporting actor on a title team, still belongs on this level, but it is more fun to debate who could climb from this category.
Anthony Edwards (only 22 years old), Zion Williamson (29 games played over the last two seasons) and Ja Morant (suspended 25 games to start the 2023-24 season) could all take the next step up and be on conference finals contenders by season's end, but there's a real chance Devin Booker (33.7 points per game on 59/51/87 shooting splits in last year's playoffs) could be the No. 1 player on a championship team when all is said and done in 2024.
The Yahoo Sports NBA staff placed 16 players in Level 4 based on the following criteria: The player does something really well like a specialist or the player could be a trade away from being on a contending team.
Here is the alphabetical list of Level 4 players, followed by Yahoo Sports NBA writers’ commentary on the decisions, what surprised them and what players in this category are a trade away from contention.
Aaron Gordon and Andrew Wiggins were missing pieces for champions. Derrick White served a very similar purpose for consecutive final-four Celtics teams, and now starts for a favorite. Golden State and Memphis bet big on Chris Paul and Marcus Smart, respectively, to complete their pictures. Yet, none wound up on Level 4.
Two who did have played that role in the past: Draymond Green, whose insertion into the Warriors’ starting five ignited a dynasty, and Jrue Holiday, whose arrival solidified the Bucks’ floor enough for them to reach their ceiling. (Now that Milwaukee has changed over to Dame Time and Portland is building around a young guard core, the Celtics hope to make Holiday the missing piece of their puzzle.) The Suns wagered that Bradley Beal could make that kind of difference for them; after pocket-passing Joel Embiid to the MVP, James Harden wants to provide similar service in Los Angeles (ideally without another early-round flameout).
If things go south in Chicago, Zach LaVine (on a monster deal for the next four years, but arguably more productive and efficient than Beal for the past four) and DeMar DeRozan (still a premier isolation, inside-the-arc offensive engine) could be killer additions for teams in need of perimeter punch. Ditto for Brandon Ingram, though I’d be surprised if New Orleans moved him with two fully guaranteed years left on his deal — especially with injuries limiting him, Zion Williamson and C.J. McCollum to a measly 10 games and 172 minutes together. You’ve got to get to actually see it, you know?
Pascal Siakam, to me, is the most compelling: someone who’s been a killer complementary piece on a title winner and an All-NBA primary option on a playoff team, who can play off high-usage ball-handlers and defend across the positional spectrum. There’s been plenty of smoke this summer connecting him to Atlanta, home of Trae Young — maybe the league’s leader in Your Mileage May Vary.
A bona fide pick-and-roll genius regarded as perhaps the sport’s worst individual defender, Young’s specificities require constructing the whole operation around him; it’s almost impossible to imagine just dropping him into someone else’s set of circumstances. But he’s also one of the scant few dudes we’ve actually seen be the best player on a conference finalist. Maybe the One Big Trade that Young is from contending doesn’t include trading him.
For the most part, though? Prime-age players on long-term nine-figure deals, plus a pair of jewel-of-the-superstar-trade pieces you’d have to pry from their GM’s cold, dead hands. A kōan: Are you still a missing piece if you’ve already been found?
My interpretation of this tier is that any team acquiring one of these players would surely have expectations of contending for a championship if they landed him. That’s certainly what the Kings hoped the upside was for swapping Tyrese Haliburton for Domantas Sabonis, and what Atlanta would think if it ever does bring Pascal Siakam to the Hawks — both guys I personally ranked higher in this exercise.
A lot of the Levels project was drawing the line of demarcation between absolute franchise superstars and everyone else, then functionally grouping everyone else. It does somewhat mirror how front offices of contending teams evaluate talent. Any club trading for a player in this tier is pushing its chips in like Phoenix plucking Bradley Beal. That’s how James Harden views himself as a potential missing piece for the Clippers. If the Bulls continue to linger well below the Eastern Conference hierarchy, it would be fascinating to see which teams might try and swipe DeMar DeRozan for additional postseason playmaking.
This level was so hard to peg. Even guys you weren’t really sure fit in the first three levels on the floor but talent-wise they did, could they belong here? That’s why the most controversial pick on my list, Karl-Anthony Towns, made it. If you squinted, if he were transitioned to another team with high-level talent and higher accountability, could he be a stretch four who got on the block and rebounded, too? Maybe, no?
But it’s also, and more importantly, a spot where a guy like Draymond Green thrives. It’s also a spot where Jrue Holiday turned the Bucks from perpetual underachievers to actual champions, and presumably, he’s still capable of doing that. Green is more high-maintenance but when he’s right, he’s everything you want: a hole filler on offense and an absolute hell raiser on defense — and other places, if you’re not careful. Holiday could be just as impactful for the Boston Celtics as Damian Lillard, the player he was moved for.
These guys generally make good teams better, while some other players need a change of scenery or a change in role, possibly taking up too much oxygen and usage to be truly effective. The hard task is figuring out who’s underqualified and who’s overqualified for the roles they currently occupy.
It surprised me to see Aaron Gordon left outside of Level 4, since he is the player who jumped to my mind when envisioning this category. Treading water in Orlando, Gordon’s ceiling soared in Denver, where his ability to defend any position and space the floor as both a lob and 3-point threat perfectly complemented Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray. Gordon bullied Miami from the jump in the Finals, and he left no doubt as to whether he could be the third-best player on a title team.
I was just as surprised to see Trae Young and James Harden qualify for this category. In theory, Young is an upgrade from Austin Reaves for the Lakers or Harden eases the burden on Kawhi Leonard and Paul George for the Clippers. In practice, what evidence suggests either accepts the kind of tertiary table-setting role necessary to elevate those teams into serious contention? Situation in the NBA is everything, except when your brand of basketball dictates the situation.
How we did it
Nine Yahoo Sports writers, editors and producers submitted ballots with their individual player placements in four levels. Players were assigned points based on the level they were placed on each ballot to determine overall level placement. Players had to appear on the majority of ballots to be considered for this project.
Players were not ranked numerically in each level nor in the overall project. Instead, they were assigned a level based on the aggregate voting. Each level has a varied number of players for a total of 39 players making the project.
Each Monday in October, Yahoo Sports unveiled one level. We started with the bottom level and made our way to the most elite players over four weeks leading up to the start of the 2023-24 NBA season. For more discussion on each level, listen to the "Ball Don't Lie" podcast.