NBArank is back for its 13th season counting down the best players in the league.
Which stars made or missed the cut? Which rookies are already making noise in the top 100? Where did MVP contenders such as Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic and reigning winner Joel Embiid check in? Where did LeBron James land as he enters season No. 21?
To get the final NBArank prediction, we asked our expert panel to vote on player vs. player matchups from more than 15,000 possible pairings. Voters were asked, “Which player will be better in 2023-24?” and had to predict how each player will perform this season.
In fact, the race for the top spot was one of the tightest in the history of NBArank, as the gap between Nos. 2 and 3 was nearly 16 times larger than the one between Nos. 1 and 2.
Note: ESPN’s NBArank panel, composed of nearly 150 reporters, editors, producers and analysts, was asked to rank players based on their predicted contributions — quality and quantity — for the 2023-24 season only.
Los Angeles Lakers | PF
2022 NBArank: 20
Coming off a renaissance season with the Lakers, when he posted career bests in field goal percentage (56.3%) and rebounds per game (12.5) and was rewarded with a three-year, $186 million contract extension, Davis appears ready to dominate again.
Why he rose 10 spots: After two injury-riddled seasons following the 2020 title in the Orlando bubble, Davis missed 20 straight games from mid-December to late January last season, only to come back as a man on a mission to lead L.A. from a play-in berth to the Western Conference finals.
One huge question for 2023-24: This one is pretty simple. Can Davis stay healthy? If he can reach the 65-game threshold the league has implemented to be eligible for regular-season awards, not only should Davis be in the conversation for both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, but the Lakers should be hosting a playoff round or two. But as always, the question is whether or not his body will betray him.
Davis’ path to the No. 1 ranking: Look up the game tape of Davis’ 55-point, 17-rebound show he put on the Washington Wizards last year. Or the 44-point, 10-rebound, 3-block masterpiece he put on Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks in a road win for L.A. Or how about the 30-point, 23-rebound playoff classic he had against the Golden State Warriors? When Davis is right, it’s hard to find a more impactful two-way player.
— Dave McMenamin
Los Angeles Lakers | SF
2022 NBArank: 6
The 38-year-old James continues to press the limits of his prime to unprecedented levels. He will become just the sixth player in league history to reach his 21st season and will be an important piece on a championship contender.
Why he fell three spots: James missed 27 games last season because of a right foot injury, continuing a string of bad luck for his body that’s caused him to only play in 278 out of a possible 389 regular-season games since joining the Lakers. It’s where he’s showing his age the most.
One huge question for 2023-24: It’s been nearly 10 years since James returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers for a second stint with the supposed goal of taking some of the load off his shoulders with All-Stars in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love there to lead the way. That never really happened with the Cavs, with James still being the clear No. 1. And it hasn’t happened in L.A. Yet. Will the Lakers’ young core of talent in Austin Reaves and Rui Hachimura finally allow James to be a part of the system rather than the system?
James’ path to the No. 1 ranking: Count him out at your own risk. As James told ESPN when he entered the offseason contemplating retirement following a sweep by the Denver Nuggets: “I’m still better than 90% of the NBA … maybe 95.” If he can add a fifth championship to his résumé, he’ll not only make a case for the best in today’s game, but for best of all time.
2022 NBArank: 48
Gilgeous-Alexander and the Thunder took a small step forward last season as the team earned the No. 10 seed and took a game from the New Orleans Pelicans in the play-in tournament before losing to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Now, Gilgeous-Alexander and company hope to build on last season’s success.
Why he rose 40 spots: Gilgeous-Alexander is coming off of the best season of his career: 31.4 points per game on 51.0% shooting from the field. As he was surrounded by younger players, his play was the reason the Thunder were able to make the jump from the top of the lottery to the play-in tournament.
One huge question for 2023-24: Will his efficiency carry over? Gilgeous-Alexander saw a jump in production because he changed his style of play. He took more two-point shots than anyone in the league, reduced his 3-point attempts from 5.3 to 2.5 per game — he shot 34.5% compared to 30.0% the year before — and led the league in free throws made. That style worked for him last year, but can he do it again?
Gilgeous-Alexander’s path to the No. 1 ranking: A lot would have to happen for Gilgeous-Alexander to make the jump to No. 1, but that says more about the seven players ahead of him rather than his own play. But if he’s able to continue being as efficient as he has been, increase his scoring and maintain his efficiency on 3s but with a higher volume, it’s going to be hard to keep him out of All-NBA first team discussion for years to come.
— Andrew Lopez
Phoenix Suns | SF
2022 NBArank: 8
This will be the first full season in Phoenix for Durant, who was limited to eight regular-season games with the Suns before they lost to the eventual champion Nuggets in the playoffs.
Why he rose one spot: Durant didn’t really change tiers, shuffling ahead of James largely because of James’ age (39 in December, while Durant just turned 35). We’re also a little farther removed from Durant’s poor shooting (39%) in the 2022 playoffs’ first-round sweep at the hands of the Boston Celtics.
One huge question for 2023-24: Can Durant still be as efficient in the playoffs as in the regular season? His 56% shooting and his effective field goal percentage (eFG%) of 61% (accounting for the added value of 3s) were both career highs. Durant’s eFG% dipped to 52% under heavy defensive attention in the playoffs.
Durant’s path to the No. 1 ranking: Durant topped this list in 2021, coming off his superhuman efforts to get the Brooklyn Nets to a seventh game against the eventual champion Bucks. If he performs at that level in the playoffs, he could reemerge as the league’s best player — particularly if he leads Phoenix to a title.
— Kevin Pelton
Boston Celtics | SF
2022 NBArank: 7
Last season was another impressive individual campaign for Tatum, who made a fourth straight All-Star team, a second straight All-NBA first team and won his first All-Star Game MVP award. But Boston’s ongoing pursuit of a title again fell short after losing in seven games in the Eastern Conference finals to the Miami Heat.
Why he rose one spot: Tatum continues to develop into one of the most well-rounded wing players in the league. He eclipsed the 30 points per game mark for the first time in his career, did a much better job of getting to the foul line and continues to be a sound defensive player, making him precisely the kind of two-way wing every NBA team would love to have.
One huge question for 2023-24: The one hole in Tatum’s game the past couple of seasons has been his efficiency — specifically, his 3-point shooting. Tatum has averaged 35% from deep on nine attempts per game over the past two years, a number that doesn’t match up with his smooth shooting form. For him to take the final step as a scorer, he needs to get that number up closer to 40%. If he does, a scoring title could easily follow.
Tatum’s path to the No. 1 ranking: Like so many of the players on this list, what will most impact Tatum’s ranking is team success. If they can break through and win a title after years of late-postseason oustings, Tatum is likely a lock for the top five on this list next year. Couple that with some improved efficiency and a scoring title, and he can win an MVP award this year, too.
— Tim Bontemps
Golden State Warriors | PG
2022 NBArank: 5
Curry had one of the best offseasons in the NBA — second to maybe just Nikola Jokic — and he enters this season eyeing a deeper run in the playoffs and possibly his fifth ring.
Why his ranking was unchanged: For the third straight year, Curry is ranked No. 5. He led the NBA in 3-pointers made for the third straight season, doing everything he could do to help his team stay afloat, but the group’s struggles and chemistry issues were too much for Curry to overcome by himself. Curry also suffered two different injuries that limited the two-time MVP to 56 games.
One huge question for 2023-24: Can Curry make a case for another MVP? Curry came in third place in award voting in 2021, behind Jokic and Embiid. That year, Curry led the league in scoring with a career-best 32.0 points, 5.5 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 1.2 steals per game while shooting 42.1% from 3. Even at 35 years old, Curry still has that magic in him — is it enough to leapfrog the likes of Jokic, Antetokounmpo and Embiid and break the run of big men dominating the MVP race?
Curry’s path to the No. 1 ranking: Last season, Curry averaged the third-most points in his career (29.1). But on-court support wasn’t there, and neither was team chemistry. Now, he’s playing alongside one of the best point guards in the league in Chris Paul, and through just a handful of preseason games their partnership seems strong. If Curry can play off the ball with Paul dishing him assists, as well as create his own shot, there’s no reason Curry couldn’t rejoin the conversation as the league’s best player.
— Kendra Andrews
Dallas Mavericks | PG
2022 NBArank: 3
Doncic, a first-team All-NBA selection the past four seasons, has a remarkable blend of a brilliant basketball mind, strength and skill. He’s arguably the best offensive player in the game, but he enters the season with a lot to prove after the Mavs slipped to the lottery in 2022-23.
Why he fell one spot: It’s tough to make a case for a top-three spot for a player whose team finished under .500 and failed to even qualify for a play-in bid. Then again, it’s difficult to put too much blame on Doncic after he had his best statistical season, recording career bests in scoring (32.4 points per game) and effective field goal percentage (56%) while averaging 8.6 rebounds and 8.0 assists per game.
One huge question for 2023-24: Can Doncic lead the Mavs back to the playoffs and beyond the first round again? Dallas should return an elite offense led by Doncic and Irving, and the hope is that the duo’s chemistry will improve with more time together, particularly in clutch situations. But dreadful defense was the primary culprit in Dallas last season. Offseason personnel upgrades were made, but Doncic must improve on that end of the floor.
Doncic’s path to the No. 1 ranking: Doncic is a perennial MVP candidate who appears to be in his best physical condition in at least four years. He’s capable of winning the scoring crown and the assists title. If the Mavs manage to have a bounce-back season, Doncic could certainly find himself in the discussion for the league’s best player.
— Tim MacMahon
2022 NBArank: 4
After finishing runner-up the prior two seasons, Embiid won his first NBA MVP award in 2022-23, as well as claiming a second straight scoring title. That, however, didn’t lead to more playoff success. Philadelphia once again lost in the second round, falling in seven games to the Celtics.
Why he rose one spot: Embiid has become the league’s dominant scoring force. He shot a career-best 54.8% from the field while finishing with a career-high average of 33.1 points per game, as he paired a nearly automatic midrange jumper with wearing out a path to the free throw line. Between his size, speed and skill, it’s not a matter of stopping Embiid — it’s simply making life difficult and hoping he has an off night.
One huge question for 2023-24: The big question surrounding Embiid is the same one hanging over the 76ers: What will happen with James Harden, and how will this saga shape Embiid’s feelings about the franchise? Eyes around the league are fixated on Embiid and how things are going in Philadelphia. If this season ends with a loss in the first or second round of the playoffs, next summer will be a long one for the Sixers.
Embiid’s path to the No. 1 ranking: At the end of last year’s regular season, there was a debate about whether Embiid, Nikola Jokic or Giannis Antetokounmpo was the NBA’s best player. How did that battle get decided? By Jokic steamrolling the field en route to his first NBA championship. With an MVP title crossed off Embiid’s to-do list, breaking through for a championship could easily vault him to the top of this list.
No. 2: Nikola Jokic
Denver Nuggets | C
2022 NBArank: 2
After celebrating the Summer of Jokic by dancing and singing in viral videos, the reigning Finals MVP returns refreshed and ready to duplicate his historic run to last season’s championship.
Why his ranking was unchanged: Jokic didn’t care much for winning a third-straight MVP down the stretch of the regular season due to the discourse surrounding the race. But he left no doubt who was the best player in the Finals, becoming the first player in history to lead the postseason in points, rebounds and assists. The Suns, Lakers and Heat had no answer.
In these rankings, Jokic was edged out by mere percentage points by a fellow two-time MVP big man.
One huge question for 2023-24: What record is next to fall? Jokic does so many things at an elite level but he’s rewriting history with his triple-double wizardry. When opposing coaches had the most time to scheme against him, Jokic picked defenses apart, averaging 30 points, 13.5 rebounds and 9.5 assists last postseason. His 10 playoff triple-doubles were the most in a single postseason ever. Joker has led the Nuggets in points, rebounds and assists in six straight seasons, most by any player in history.
Jokic’s path to the No. 1 ranking: Hall of Fame point guard Isiah Thomas said Jokic has to be considered the best player on the planet after his championship tear, something Thomas said also puts Jokic in a “legendary category.” And he still has room for growth, as Nuggets coach Michael Malone said in camp. If he can improve his defense and perhaps be more aggressive with his 3-point shot — Jokic hit 46.1% of his 3s in the playoffs — Jokic could be collecting even more hardware, a second straight championship and finally the No. 1 spot in NBArank.
— Ohm Youngmisuk
No. 1: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Milwaukee Bucks | PF
2022 NBArank: 1
For the first time in his career, Antetokounmpo will get to play alongside another superstar after Milwaukee pulled off a blockbuster to acquire Damian Lillard. Could playing next to a Hall of Fame point guard open up the floor even more for Antetokounmpo?
Why his ranking was unchanged: Antetokounmpo joined Wilt Chamberlain as the only players in NBA history to average at least 30 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists while shooting 50% from the floor, carrying the Bucks to the best record in the NBA in 2022-23. Milwaukee’s postseason could have gone much differently had Antetokounmpo not suffered a back injury that sidelined him for most of Game 1 and all of Games 2 and 3 in the Bucks’ first-round loss to the Heat.
Antetokounmpo retains his No. 1 spot, topping Jokic by one of the slimmest margins in NBArank history.
One huge question for 2023-24: How will Antetokounmpo’s partnership with Lillard work? This will be the first time in both of these stars’ careers they have played next to another superstar, and there will be a learning curve. Antetokounmpo has already spoken during training camp about deferring to his new teammate in an effort to make Lillard’s transition smoother. Shouldering less of a workload during the season could keep Antetokounmpo fresher for the playoffs.
Antetokounmpo‘s path to keeping the No. 1 ranking: Even if Antetokounmpo’s production is altered with Lillard carrying more of the offense, he should still remain as one of the league’s most dominant forces. Lillard could open up easier opportunities for Antetokounmpo, creating a duo so dangerous it could rival the Lakers’ legendary one-two punch of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.
— Jamal Collier