NBA Season Preview 2017-18: Top 50 Players, 5-1

5. Russell Westbrook (5 on ESPN, 6 on SI, 6 on SB Nation) 

-The reigning league MVP finishes fifth on this ballot, and to kind of fan who is a stringent supporter of the idea that stats tell the whole story, this would be an injustice to drop Russ so low. The best way to describe Russell Westbrook‘s 2016-17 MVP campaign would be by saying that it was a rampage over the NBA. Rampage is defined as “an eruption of violently uncontrolled, reckless, or destructive behavior,” and that is the perfect way to define Westbrook’s season: his entire season was a series of eruptions of violently uncontrolled, reckless and destructive individual performances that saved the Oklahoma City Thunder from falling out of the postseason after losing Kevin Durant the previous summer.

This wasn’t a huge surprise. The belief around the league prior to the 2016-17 season was that Russ would do everything in his power to will the Thunder to relevancy. It wasn’t always going to be pretty, and it wasn’t always going to work, but it was going to be a spectacle. Before last season I actually compared Russell Westbrook’s style of play with Tony Montana’s style of gun-fighting in the final scene of Scarface. It’s reckless, fearless, brash, awe-inspiring, and as we found out when the credits finally rolled in Scarface with Tony face down in his “The World Is Yours” fountain, unsuccessful.

Russ did all he could, but his supporting cast wasn’t all that different than Tony’s in that final scene. All season long Westbrook was fighting a losing battle; saddled with shaky shooters, bigs that couldn’t score and no true second option, Westbrook was forced to stroll into gunfights every night with a bunch of dudes who forgot their ammo at home. And dammit, he got them out of a ton of jams just by wanting it more than everybody else he went toe to toe with.

The Thunder were ousted out of the postseason in five games at the hands of the Houston Rockets and MVP runner-up James Harden. Westbrook, in true Tony Montana fashion, left no bullets left in the chamber in that series. By the time Game 5 was all but finished, Russ was basically just throwing his bullet-less guns at dudes while his teammates stood around unable to help him. It was a tragic, but fitting end to a bizarre — and all things considered — successful Thunder season.

Knowing that Westbrook’s one-man show wasn’t a winning strategy, the Thunder went out and turned those teammates who couldn’t help Russ into two dudes who are coming with their own guns and ammunition. Paul George and Carmelo Anthony will take immense pressure off Westbrook, who couldn’t afford taking possessions off last season. The Thunder offense perished when Westbrook rested last year; that was the biggest reason why OKC couldn’t extend that series with Houston beyond five games. That won’t be the case this season if Billy Donovan smartly staggers his stars rest periods so that the Thunder are never playing meaningful minutes without at least one of them on the floor.

Some guys are built to destroy everyone in their path, even if they run the risk of ending up a casualty too. Westbrook will still rampage through the league. It’s just how he’s wired. But we’ve seen Russ tone down the do-it-all act before; he played with Kevin Durant for eight seasons and more often than not, he was able to find a proper balance between “Destroyer” and “Point Guard.” Russ is at his very best when he’s able to be both at once. This team will provide him the opportunity to do just that.

Westbrook won’t repeat as the league’s MVP this year, and he may never win another MVP again. It’s unlikely that he’ll be able to approach his own statistical output from last season. That would be unheard of. But that doesn’t mean that last season will be peak Westbrook. Even if he isn’t rampaging like he was last year, Russell Westbrook could actually be better in 2017-18.

4. Kawhi Leonard (3 on ESPN, 4 on SI, 4 on SB Nation) 

-We hear all the time about how Kawhi Leonard is the best two-way player in the NBA, but I must be honest, I’m generally confused by what that statement actually means. It’s common knowledge and widely accepted that players should play hard on both ends of the floor, and playing great on both ends is an important factor in how we determine a players league-wide rank or worth, so when we say that Kawhi is the best two-way player in the NBA, are we saying he’s in fact the best player in the NBA, as in, he should be ranked #1 on this list and other lists that didn’t rank him 1st overall?

If that’s what this is supposed to mean, I have to disagree with the statement. I can’t yet sign off on the idea of putting Kawhi ahead of LeBron James or Kevin Durant. That day may eventually come, but at their very best LeBron and Durant can still reach a level higher than Kawhi can. And I would hope it goes without saying, but that shouldn’t come off as Kawhi hate. He’s a budding offensive star and his dominance defensively is worth more praise than it already gets. Nobody in the Association gives really good offensive players a difficult time than Kawhi does on a regular basis. And if he’s matched up on someone who isn’t a capable iso scorer or an expert ball-handler, it’s like watching someone literally and figuratively take candy from a baby.

There is a stronger case to be made for Kawhi Leonard finishing 3rd in this list. While I personally prefer Stephen Curry‘s once-in-a-lifetime offensive skill-set more than Kawhi’s more well-rounded approach, I don’t think it would be a crime to rank Kawhi one spot higher than Steph. And I would be the first to acknowledge that this may not be my position for much longer … Kawhi Leonard has rapidly evolved from an overqualified three-and-D wing to legitimate go-to-guy for a Western Conference contender who doubles as the league’s best perimeter defender. It’s entirely possible that Kawhi could continue to get better (he’s only 26) and actually stake a claim as the best basketball player in the world.

10. Draymond Green (10 on ESPN, 10 on SI, 14 on SB Nation)
3. Stephen Curry (4 on ESPN, 3 on SI, 3 on SB Nation)
2. Kevin Durant (2 on ESPN, 2 on SI, 2 on SB Nation) 

-If it seems like a slight, or perceived act of disrespect toward any of these three Top 10 players that I decided to combine their three sections into one, I would counter that what makes the present-day Golden State Warriors so overpowering, and gives them a real chance to become one of the greatest sports dynasties ever is not their singular star power, but rather how the stars have come together to prove Aristotle correct … The whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts.

Now sure, we’ve seen Kevin Durant excel in the NBA without either Stephen Curry or Draymond Green going to war with him. Before Durant left behind a bunch of cats he couldn’t win a title with in Oklahoma City, he had been to an NBA Finals, won an MVP Award and was widely considered to be one of the two, or three, or five best basketball players in the world. He was a high-powered and well-oiled scoring machine that was a better defender and distributor than he ever got credit for. In all likelihood, had Durant stayed in Oklahoma City he would’ve found himself in the NBA Finals again at some point; after all, he came damn close in 2014 and 2016.

And of course, the Warriors had been to two NBA Finals and won one in the two seasons prior to Durant deciding to ride their coattails to a Title to head to the Bay Area in Free Agency. The 2014-15 Warriors went 67-15 in the regular season  and won their first Championship in 40 years. The following year the Dubs steamrolled the NBA and topped the 1996 Chicago Bulls’ record of 72 regular season wins, but fell one game short of capping off the greatest single-season and two-year run in NBA history. While Stephen Curry became a two-time league MVP and one of the biggest basketball stars since Michael Jordan, Draymond Green solidified himself as Golden State’s engine … a gritty, unique, and unquestionably polarizing jack-of-all-trades who refused to be outworked by anyone.

We all knew it was a borderline unfair, but unprecedented roster coup when Durant chose the Warriors over the Thunder and Celtics and everyone else last Summer, but as I’ve said before, I genuinely don’t fault him for doing it, and I genuinely don’t understand all of the venom that came from any NBA fans outside of Oklahoma City, who had a very good reason to be pissed off. Knocking a guy because he aspired to live in a bigger and more vibrant city, while also putting himself in the best position to succeed both individually and in a team setting … that seems pretty foolish to me if you haven’t been riding with the Thunder for the last seven years. I didn’t understand it with LeBron James in 2010, and even though Durant’s situation is moderately different because he was leaving for a well-established juggernaut in Golden State, I didn’t understand then either.

I also didn’t completely understand just how nice the partnership between Durant and the Warriors would be. The Dubs won 67 games last season, six fewer than their record-setting 73, but they showed the highest nightly ceiling I’ve ever seen from a basketball team. There is no NBA team in the history of the league that could beat the Warriors if they were near their best. I just don’t see it happening. And again, this isn’t because of star power … it’s because of star power buying into a system.

The key figures to this working at such an astonishingly high level have been Stephen Curry and Draymond Green. Curry’s star had ascended higher than only a handful of pro athletes ever; this isn’t necessarily an argument of his greatness being greater than anyone else’s, it’s just an observation of how quickly he became the face of a sport. Curry became the most fun player in the NBA almost overnight. He lit up MSG in February 2013, established himself as a bonafide star the following season, won the MVP in the 2014-15 and became the fucking Beatles in 2016. Seeing Curry at the peak of his popularity and basketball dominance in February 2016 (a month he averaged 37 points, 6 rebounds and 7 assists per game), in Miami remains one of the coolest in-person sports moments I’ve ever had. He killed the Heat down the stretch. It was a cold, calculated late-game massacre.

The very next day I left the United States to go to Belize for a week, and while I was gone Curry did this …

And this:

Now just think for a moment how selfless Curry was to give this up, and make no mistake, he did give it up. No matter how many titles Curry and Durant win together, his star will never shine brighter than it shone in 2016. He was the biggest star in basketball, and it seemed like he was destined to get to Jordan territory. Curry shares that spotlight with Durant now, and there’s no reason to think that either of them aren’t fine with it that way. They’ll win many Championships, and there it’s reasonable to believe that they’ll go down as one of the most successful sports duos ever.

And how about this: we still haven’t covered the very loud man who very quietly makes this all work. I know that claiming that Draymond Green is the one who makes all of this work is kind of like saying James Caan is the reason why The Godfather is so great, but it’s not totally off-base either. Draymond does all the dirty work, plays the most unselfishly, takes all of the media barbs and misses out on the spotlight almost entirely unless he’s kicking someone in their genitals. He was finally voted Defensive Player of the Year last season, and there have been plenty of well-written pieces about how valuable he is to the Warriors, but I still don’t think we fully understand just how deep his impact goes.

It remains to be seen if basketball fans will continue to be enamored by the Warriors, or if eventually there will be fatigue. I’d be inclined to guess that so long as they continue playing so beautifully and selfishly, fans will continue to be invested in their success, as well as their few and far between failures just because they play basketball how it should be played. It’s the ideal combination of star power and perfect team basketball …

1. LeBron James (1 on ESPN, 1 on SI, 1 on SB Nation) 

… And just remember, the Warriors needed both of those things to be able to dethrone the King.

A year ago I wrote about how LeBron James was the best NBA player of the 21st Century. It wasn’t exactly a hot take or a bold statement. It’s just common knowledge. LeBron had been able to build a one-of-a-kind career that only the most special kind of moron could possibly deny was spectacular.  There truly isn’t much more for him to add to his legacy. He’s won three NBA Titles and been to the NBA Finals an additional five times. His statistical resume will have no rival when it’s all said and done, and for nearly a decade he’s been the league’s best player. At one point or another he’s triumphed over every rival he has crossed paths with; the Pistons, the Celtics, the Pacers, the Spurs, the Warriors … he conquered them all.

Another title would be great, but I swore after LeBron and the Cavs won in 2016 I wouldn’t be selfish and ask for more. This was the one title I needed. I was wholly satisfied that night. I cried tears of joy on my living room floor as LeBron did the same on the Golden State Warriors home court.

I’m no longer worried about having to defend LeBron’s legacy, or having to hope that his legacy would continue to improve. No, what I’m worried about now is how much more time I actually have left to watch my favorite player. LeBron James is entering his 15th season (fif-fucking-teen) and even though he’s still the best basketball player in the world, we all know that Father Time is undefeated. As I have many times before, I would advise putting personal feelings aside and appreciating every opportunity you have left to watch LeBron James play basketball. It’s only a matter of time before someone catches him. But for at least one more year, LeBron leads the pack.

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