Top 25 NBA players heading into the 2018-19 season

Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

New faces in new cities. That’s what will define the 2018-19 NBA season. Whether it’s LeBron James’ move from Cleveland to Hollywood or DeMarcus Cousins shocking the world by signing with Golden State, there has been a titanic shift of power to the left coast.

Even then, super teams have been formed and maintained as a way to knock off the Warriors. Of the top-25 players in the Association heading into the season, three teams out west make up nine of them. It is certainly a Western Conference-themed NBA right now.

That’s the major focus as we check in on the top-25 NBA players heading into the 2018-19 season.

1. LeBron James, forward, Los Angeles Lakers

We can debate until we’re blue in the face whether James is still the game’s best player after seeing Kevin Durant win the past two titles in Oakland. But at 33 years old, he’s still going as strong as ever. In fact, James’ final season in Cleveland might have been his best yet. The dude averaged 27.5 points, 8.6 rebounds and 9.1 assists per game. He also had a true shooting percentage of .621 while leading a less-than-talented squad to a fourth consecutive NBA Finals appearance. The Lakers have a good one here, guys and gals.

2. Kevin Durant, forward, Golden State Warriors

Like fine wine, Durant’s game has aged well in time. He’s no longer just that one-dimensional offensive force that dominated in Oklahoma City. Now a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate, KD has morphed into a great all-around player. Last season alone, his second with the Warriors, Durant swatted away 1.8 shots per game. Let’s not saying anything of the 26.4 points, 6.8 rebounds and 5.4 assists he averaged while shooting at a 42 percent clip from distance. Now a reigning two-time NBA Finals MVP, Durant is prepared to take over James’ mantle as the planet’s best.

3. Anthony Davis, forward, New Orleans Pelicans

Just a monster. Legitimately, Davis could play that role of a villain in “Space Jam” and we’d understand why. Unibrow averaged a career-best 28.1 points to go with 11.1 rebounds and an NBA-high 2.6 blocks per game last season. He also ranked in the top 16 in defensive plus-minus and No. 3 overall in defensive win shares. It’s obvious that Davis’ all-around game has been taken to the next level in recent years. And at 25 years old, he’s just now entering his prime. It just remains to be seen if those prime years will be spent in New Orleans.

4. Stephen Curry, guard, Golden State Warriors

Curry’s inclusion in the top four is primarily due to his improvement on the defensive end of the court. He was tremendous in that regard in the Western Conference Finals last season, holding Chris Paul and James Harden to a combined 40 percent shooting when guarding them. He was even better when forced into one-on-one situations against LeBron James in the Finals. Offensively, the three-time champ remains a juggernaut. He averaged 26.4 points and 6.1 assists while shooting at an astounding 50 percent form the field last season. From sharpshooter and dish king to one of the game’s best all-around players. It’s been a fun ride.

5. Giannis Antetokounmpo, forward, Milwaukee Bucks

The level of progression we’ve seen from the Greek Freak since entering the league back in 2013 is something the NBA has not witnessed since Kobe Bryant decades back. Here’s a guy that averaged less than seven points per game while showing himself to be raw as all get out as a rookie. Five-years later and the still-young 23-year-old is a clear MVP candidate. He averaged career bests in points (26.9) and rebounds (10.0) while putting up a 60 percent true shooting mark last season. He also finished in the top 20 in defensive win shares.

6. Russell Westbrook, guard, Oklahoma City Thunder

Russ is dropped down a peg here because of his volume shooting ability and lackluster defensive performance. In no way does this mean Oklahoma City’s best player isn’t an MVP candidate or right up there with Curry as the Association’s best back-court player. Last season saw Westbrook average a triple-double for the second consecutive time. That’s Oscar Robertson level stuff, and something we have not seen in the modern history of the NBA. Though, he only shot 30 percent from distance and averaged nearly five turnovers per game. This is what happens when you’re tasked with doing pretty much everything.

7. Chris Paul, guard, Houston Rockets

Paul’s importance to the Rockets came out in droves during last season’s Western Conference Finals. He had helped Houston to a surprising 3-2 series lead against Golden State, only to go down to injury. The rest was history. What this veteran brings on both sides of the court might be among the most underrated things in the NBA today. He ranked eighth in offensive win shares and would have been in the top 10 in the defensive category if the future Hall of Famer didn’t miss 28 games to injury. That’s the only thing keeping Paul from the top five…injuries.

8. Kawhi Leonard, forward, Toronto Raptors

Leonard’s presence in the top 10 despite missing pretty much all of last season is a clear indication of just how darn good he has been. Now in Canada for at least one year, Leonard has an opportunity to prove that he was not a product of Gregg Popovich’s system with the Spurs. He does so with a lot riding on what happens this season, health-wise. But from an on-court perspective, he’s an elite two-way player. Prior to a lost 2017-18 campaign, the former MVP candidate averaged 25.5 points while shooting 49 percent from the field in 2016-17. He also earned a third consecutive spot on the All-NBA Defensive First Team.

9. James Harden, guard, Houston Rockets

How could the reigning NBA MVP be ranked this low? It’s rather simple. Harden is among the worst perimeter defenders in the entire Association. We saw this first-hand during last season’s playoffs, with opposing teams attempting to go one-one-one against him. Unfortunately, it’s something Harden himself has not improved on in recent years. And it threatens his legacy. Offensively, he’s the most-dominating player not named James or Durant. Last season saw Harden average an NBA-high 30.4 points to go with 8.8 assists per game. That alone, enables him to crack the top 10.

10. Jimmy Butler, guard, Minnesota Timberwolves

Now unlikely to start the season in Minnesota after requesting a trade, Butler is going to be a major addition to some team around the Association. As underrated as they come, his two-way ability is about as good as it gets in the league. Last year, he averaged 22.2 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game. Butler also earned NBA All-Defensive Second Team honors for the fourth time in his career, racking up a personal best 2.0 steals per game. Minnesota might not value him as a franchise cornerstone, but that’s exactly what the 29-year-old Butler is.

11. Klay Thompson, guard, Golden State Warriors

On a normal team, Thompson would easily be considered a legitimate star and MVP candidate. This is just how darn good of a player he’s become since entering the league as a one-dimensional player back in 2011. We can talk about his shooting ability until we’re blue in the face. But Thompson’s presence in the top 11 is primarily due to a defensive ability that stands out above pretty much every other two-guard in the Association. Continually tasked with guarding the opposing team’s best offensive wing, Thompson continues to be a shutdown force. It doesn’t hurt that he boasts two of the top-seven all-time marks for three-pointers made in a single season.

12. Paul George, forward, Oklahoma City Thunder

Having decided to remain in Oklahoma City on a long-term deal, George is now going to team up with Russell Westbrook for the foreseeable future. It creates one of the best one-two tandems in the entire Association. Unfortunately for George, a career that has been defined by progression and All-NBA performances took a turn last season. He averaged a four-year low 21.9 points per game while shooting just 43 percent from the field. This is somewhat mitigated by the fact that he’s among the best defensive wings in the entire Association. This makes up for Westbrook’s shortcomings in that area.

13. Joel Embiid, center, Philadelphia 76ers

Despite missing some of the playoffs, Embiid is coming off his healthiest season as a pro. He played in 63 games and averaged north of 30 minutes per outing. And in reality, Embiid was the best big in the game when on the court. He averaged 22.9 points and 11.0 rebounds while shooting at a 48 percent clip from the court. The always boisterous center also blocked nearly two shots per game. We’re just going to have to see another healthy season before moving this generational talent into the top 10.

14. Damian Lillard, guard, Portland Trail Blazers

As underrated and under-appreciated as they come, Lillard has earned just one All-Star appearance over the past three seasons. During that span, the 28-year-old guard has averaged 26.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 6.2 assists per game while shooting a tremendous 37 percent from distance. Sure Portland’s backcourt has struggled on defense, but Lillard’s ability on the offensive end of the court has more than made up for this. Last season alone, he finished among the top-10 guards in offensive win shares and offensive rating. That’s good enough to find him on this list.

15. Karl-Anthony Towns, center, Minnesota Timberwolves

Like some others on this list, Towns is a defensive liability. It’s been a major issue for the Wolves, especially with Andrew Wiggins being among the poorest defenders in the game. And now that Jimmy Butler will no longer be in Minnesota, it’s an area opponents will focus on moving forward. But he’s an absolute force offensively. Even at 22 years old, Towns finished second in the NBA in offensive rating, third in offensive win shares and third in offensive plus-minus last season. He also averaged 21.3 points and and 12.3 rebounds while shooting at a 55 percent mark from the field. Whew.

16. Kyrie Irving, guard, Boston Celtics

If it weren’t for an injury-plagued past three seasons, Irving would certainly be among the top-10 players in the NBA. In his first year as a member of the Celtics, the former NBA champ averaged 24.1 points while shooting at a remarkable 49 percent from the field. That included an even more impressive 41 percent from distance. What’s even bigger when it comes to Irving’s status in the NBA is that he proved a team led by him can contend for a title. That has to make fans in Cleveland feel pretty bad, especially after James bolted for Hollywood.

17. Draymond Green, forward, Golden State Warriors

There’s already little doubt about Green’s status as a future Hall of Famer. He might not score 20-plus points. He might not hit on 40 percent of his threes or grab 15-plus rebounds. But he does everything great. When we say everything, we’re not exaggerating. The mold that holds Golden State together, Green is averaging 11.8 points, 8.3 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.3 blocks per game over the past four seasons. Talk about consistency. Let’s not even mention that he’s legitimately up there with Kawhi Leonard as the best defensive player in the game.

18. Nikola Jokic, center, Denver Nuggets 

In the mold of other modern big men, Jokic has proven himself to be among the most-skilled centers in the game. At just 23, he put up career highs in points (18.5), rebounds (10.7) and assists (6.1) last season. That latter number led all centers in the Association and reminds us of the great Arvydas Sabonis in that regard. It’s in this that Jokic makes the top 20 despite being a below-average defender. What he’s able to do to open up Denver’s offense can’t be overstated.

19. Kristaps Porzingis, forward, New York Knicks

It’s somewhat shocking to realize the Unicorn is just 22 years old, because, he looks like a grizzled veteran out there. Sure a torn ACL he suffered last season has impacted the Latvian’s growth, but his skills cannot be overlooked. Here’s a dude that averaged 22.7 points while shooting at a 40 percent mark from distance last season. Did we mention he’s a 7-foot-3 stretch-forward. We’re talking about a generational talent that has changed the landscape of the Association. Just ask Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks.

20. Ben Simmons, guard, Philadelphia 76ers

Speaking of changing the landscape of the NBA, Simmons’ ability to run the point at 6-foot-10 will lead to some absolutely absurd mismatches moving forward. Heck, it did during the 22-year-old’s rookie season in 2017-18. Simmons averaged 15.8 points, 8.1 rebounds and 8.2 points in his first action as a pro. He also shot a resounding 55 percent from the field. If Simmons is somehow able to extend his game to three-point range, he’ll become this generation’s version of LeBron James. That’s just how good he is.

21. Donovan Mitchell, guard, Utah Jazz

There’s many out there who believe Mitchell should have earned Rookie of the Year honors last season. Some of them don’t think Simmons should’ve been eligible given he missed his rookie year to injury. In any event, it’s absolutely extraordinary what this Louisville star did as a rookie. He actually led a 48-win team in scoring at 20.5 points per pop. More than that, Mitchell turned it up big time in the postseason. In helping Utah upset Westbrook and the Thunder, he averaged 18.6 points and shot 46 percent during that series. This is some next-level stuff from a 22-year-old whose previous experience was at a mid-major in college. Think about that.

22. Rudy Gobert, center, Utah Jazz 

The Eiffel Tower, as some have coined him, Gobert’s progression from awkward rookie to elite force in just five years has been something to behold. The reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year ranked No. 2 in both defensive rating and defensive plus-minus last season. He also put up 13.5 points per game and shot 62 percent from the field. Should Gobert’s offensive game improve here moving forward, he’ll be talked about as one of the best centers in generations. It’s that simple.

23. Victor Oladipo, guard, Indiana Pacers

Looked at as a throw-in when Oklahoma City traded for Paul George during the summer of 2017, Oladipo has proven himself to be more than that. Having previously struggled in terms of progression after being selected No. 2 overall back Orlando back in 2013, Oladipo earned both Most Improved Player of the Year and NBA All-Defensive Second Team honors last season in Indiana. He also put up a career-high 23.1 points while shooting 46 percent form the field for a surprising squad that won 48 regular season games.

24. Devin Booker, guard, Phoenix Suns

Booker might be better known outside of the desert for putting up 70 points in a game during the 2016-17 season. But he’s going to be a household name here. Having just signed a max extension with the Suns, he’s now the face of a talented, young team. This comes after the still-young 21-year-old averaged 24.9 points shot at a 38 percent clip from distance. He’s nowhere near close to hitting his prime, which has to be a scary proposition for opposition Western Conference teams moving forward.

25. DeMarcus Cousins, center, Golden State Warriors 

The fifth (and newest) member of the defending champs to be listed in the top 25, Cousins would be much higher if he weren’t coming off a torn Achilles with New Orleans last season. Though, all reports regarding his rehab are tremendous at this point. That’s scary, given the 28-year-old former Kings malcontent averaged 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.6 blocks per game last season. Oh, and he shot a robust 35 percent from distance. Cousins remains one of the most-skilled bigs in the game, and that’s not going to change playing in Oakland.