As we sit here dragging through the off-season, watching anything and everything NBA-related, I think it’s high time to talk about some actual basketball. Enough with the DeAndre Saga and the ensuing NBA emoji battle, the Morris twins’ stubbornness, and gawking at the gobs of money that this recent class of free agents received.
Last season, I was a bit late on my predictions pieces so let’s get it started right here with about two more months to go before the regular season tips off. Everyone always has something to say about the best players in the NBA, so here are my top 20 NBA players of the 2015-2016 NBA season. (And yes, there was quite a lot of jockeying from last season’s rankings of which you can view the three parts here: ranks 30-21, 20-11, and top 10 NBA players of 2014-15).
20. Damian Lillard
Lillard is left with the remnants in Portland after a mass exodus of his teammates from last season. LaMarcus Aldridge, Arron Afflalo, Nic Batum, and Wesley Matthews headline the departures from what was a Western Conference powerhouse just a season ago. Expect the numbers of one of Oakland’s best products to jump without the presence of the player that I ranked one spot ahead of him. He’s out to prove that he is worthy of a third consecutive spot on the All-Star team.
19. Pau Gasol
Gasol wasn’t playing off of Kobe Bryant, but in 2015 he certainly exhibited flashbacks from his back-to-back championship self. Although the Bulls lost to the eventual Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round (in large part due to Gasol’s absence in games 4 and 5), Pau proved that he still has plenty left in the tank. A healthy Chicago Bulls team is a championship caliber team.
18. LaMarcus Aldridge
It remains to be seen how Gregg Popovich will implement the 30-year-old heir to the Tim Duncan throne in San Antonio. But if Tim Duncan’s past and present are any indication of where LMA has the potential to go this coming season, we’re in for a monster season from a guy who already has a track record of 20-10 on a nightly—and yearly—basis. The Spurs leapfrogged the 2015 NBA champion Golden State Warriors as favorites to win the 2016 NBA title, and this guy had everything to do with that.
17. Marc Gasol
The grinding Grizzlies earned their reputation in large part due to the presence of their tandem of bigs. Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol serve as the enforcers on the interior, and Z-Bo has acknowledged that Gasol is the better offensive big man. Gasol, now a two-time All-Star, saw his numbers improve across the board last season and Memphis was one of Golden State’s greatest challenges in the 2015 playoffs. Gasol anchors perhaps the only remaining team that is still run through their bigs offensively, and they proved last year to be very effective doing so.
16. Hassan Whiteside
There was that one guy who predicted Jeremy Lin’s ascension to fame and that other guy who predicted before the 2014-15 season the Warriors would win the title. But I haven’t seen a soul come out of the woodwork who predicted a player who hadn’t seen NBA action since 2012 was going to put up a 20-20 game and multiple 20 rebound games during last season. But this dude showed time and again that he is a freak of nature who can play at a very high level. He’s one of the main reasons I believe that at +1800, Miami is a good sleeper pick to win the East.
15. Chris Bosh
It’s relieving to hear that Bosh is once again in great physical condition (per Miami Herald). A scary bout with blood clots in his lungs last season stopped what was a ferocious start to his post-LeBron era. Bosh averaged 21-8-2 with a respectable 35 percent from three in November prior to discovery of the life-threatening clots. There is no LeBron James, yes, but Pat Riley gave the $118 million dollar man an excellent supporting cast that the Heat will show off starting this November. Maybe some people are starting to write him off, but at age 31, Bosh still has elite talent to showcase.
14. John Wall
One of the fastest players in the league, Wall was a half-second away from seeing overtime action against the Atlanta Hawks in Game 6. Paul Pierce’s second effort in the series at a buzzer-beating shot did not count, but Washington’s shaky foundation does have a rock solid point guard. Wall’s ability to facilitate saw marked improvements in 2014-15, peaking at a three-game streak in April where he averaged almost 16 assists. Wall has cemented his spot in the discussion of today’s best point guards.
13. Klay Thompson
A 37-point third quarter heat check was enough to get Klay Thompson a vote for MVP…and no it wasn’t from a Warriors personality, either. With the incredible run that the 2015 Warriors had, Klay finally got national attention for being more than a prolific three-point threat. An excellent and elite on-ball defender at the two-guard and a developing passer, Klay Thompson is one half of the Splash Brother tandem that won an NBA championship.
12. DeMarcus Cousins
Boogie Cousins’ involvement in trade rumors this off-season has added noise to support the already rampant dislike that he receives. But there is no doubting his improved character and slow-but-steady decrease in technicals assessed over the past three years (17 to 16 to 14…hey it takes baby steps). His on-court production, however, is undeniable. 24-13-4 with 1.7 blocks and 1.5 steals is as good as it gets. The only question mark for 2016 is how he, Rudy Gay, and Rajon Rondo will coexist in an already tumultuous system under new Kings ownership. What isn’t a question is that he is the best pure center in the NBA.
11. Kawhi Leonard
Already with an NBA Finals MVP to his name, Kawhi proclaimed this off-season that he wants to be both an All-Star and a regular season MVP. Not only that, but the Spurs star is on the short list of elite two-way wing players with LeBron James and Paul George. His personality, like his teammate Tim Duncan, will always make him fly under the media radar, but any even mild NBA fan knows the value that Kawhi brings to a team.