By Brady Klopfer
25. Paul Millsap, Denver Nuggets
Paul Millsap represents a rare and fascinating intersection in the NBA. The bruising power forward looks the part of a 90’s star: he’s built like a tree trunk; he’s shorter than most modern big men; he’s happiest living in the post; and he’s a student of traditional defensive principles, making his living with leverage, strength, and positioning, rather than highlight blocks at the rim.
And yet, unlike so many players transported from other eras, Millsap’s modern value is through the roof. In a world where LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Ben Simmons are now power forwards, Millsap’s lumbering efficiency and defensive prowess place him near the top of the positional rankings.
Part of this is Millsap’s willingness to adapt. After attempting just 113 three-pointers during his seven-year stint with the Jazz, Millsap began firing away, taking more than 200 triples in each of the four seasons since. Last year he let fly 3.5 per game, and while his percentage was not particularly good at 31.1%, it represented a willingness to evolve with a game that is quickly seeking to eliminate his position.
Millsap is not a terrifically efficient scorer, but his ability to be a threat from any part of the court opens up the game for his teammates. Now, paired along two things he lacked in Atlanta – an elite passer, and a bevy of shooters – it’s reasonable to expect Millsap’s offensive game to grow wildly more efficient.
His offensive game is predicated on fundamentals, footwork, and technique, not athleticism or size. As such, he’ll thrive in an environment where he’s no longer counted on to be the go-to option.
Where he will be the go-to option is on defense, where he is – quietly – one of the league’s elite. Millsap doesn’t spike basketballs into the 30th row, or pluck steals in the open court; he simply locks down the league’s best interior scorers, while holding his own when switched onto the perimeter.
His defense will be crucial this year, as he joins a Nuggets team that was 29th last year in defensive rating. Denver will count on him to not only be a defensive anchor, but an orchestrator and teacher as well.
You may not see Millsap grace the Top 10 Countdown any night this year. But when the 82 games are up, you’re likely to see him playing a critical role on an otherwise young and inexperienced playoff team.
24. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics
It’s going to take fans a while to get used to Kyrie Irving being a Celtic. Then again, it might take Kyrie Irving a while to get used to being a Celtic.
While Irving is one of the NBA’s premier offensive magicians, it’s hard to find two offenses that contrast more starkly than his old one in Cleveland, and his new one in Boston. The Celtics were second in the league last year in passes made, a result of Brad Stevens’ motion-heavy, college-style schemes. The Cavs, on the other hand, were 26th, and favored isolation plays over ball movement.
Irving has already cemented himself as one of the greatest isolation scorers in the history of the point guard position. And, through his four years of high school, one year at Duke, and six seasons in the NBA, that has been the hallmark of his game.
The question now is, can he adapt to a relatively foreign style of offense?
On paper, Irving is an ideal fit for Boston. He’s an elite shooter, having made 40.1 percent of his attempts last year, while shooting at one of the league’s highest volumes. His ball handling wizardry allows him to penetrate the defense at will, a staple in Stevens’ drive and dish scheme. He’s a good enough passer to make the right play, but not such a good passer that he’ll want to hijack the flow and create a play.
Adaptation in the NBA is inherently a slow play. Not only is Irving adapting to a new system, but he’s adapting to 14 new teammates as well, while his star teammate Gordon Hayward does the same.
And yet despite potential bumps in the road, one thing is certain about Kyrie Irving: he’ll always put on a show. He comes to play every night, with dazzling dribbles that are somehow as effective and purposeful as they are flashy. He’ll make Houdini shots and Allen Iverson-inspired crossovers, and he’ll always, always score.
The question, then, is if he can do so in a manner that unlocks not only his full potential, but Boston’s as well.
23. Isaiah Thomas, Cleveland Cavaliers
There is perhaps no player in the NBA who has had as dramatic of a roller coaster ride over the last year as Isaiah Thomas. The former final pick in the draft took the leap from All-Star to MVP candidate, put his third NBA team on his back, and led Boston to the top seed in the East.
Then, in heartbreaking fashion, Thomas lost his sister in a car accident, injured his hip, tried to hide the severity of the injury, and was swiftly eliminated by the Cavaliers, all in a span of a few weeks. Shortly after, Thomas, who developed a deep relationship with the Boston fanbase, was ruthlessly traded to the team that eliminated him.
Unfortunately for Thomas, the roller coaster doesn’t end there. The hip injury is sidelining him for the first half of the season, atwhich point he’ll have a few months to not only compete for a title, but try and convince NBA teams that he’s worth the max contract he expected Boston to offer him.
Doing so will be no easy task. Thomas is already doubted given his small stature, and lower body injuries are red flags, especially given that he’ll be 29 when he reaches free agency next summer.
But what if Thomas returns from injury looking like the player we saw last year? The player who somehow averaged 28.9 points per game on 62.5 percent true shooting? A player whose team scored a tantalizing 122 points per 100 possessions with him on the court?
That player is undeniably one of the league’s elite offensive forces. He can seemingly get his shot off at any time, from anywhere, and his silky-smooth touch on jumpers, floaters, and layups alike is mesmerizing. He weaves through defenses like a ball in a pinball machine: moving sideways, backwards, in circles, just looking for the right opportunity. And when the right opportunity emerges, he strikes efficiently, especially if it’s the fourth quarter.
Of course, we’ve never seen Thomas play alongside a player of LeBron James’ caliber before. When the hip heals, we’ll get to see how one of the league’s top weapons fares when playing second fiddle to the its top player.
22. Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors
It’s easy to watch Klay Thompson and think he’s merely an elite shooter. He’s a career 41.9 percent marksman from deep, having never dipped below 40 percent in his six-year career. He averaged 22.3 points per game last year, yet he’s only the fourth-best player on his own team.
Reducing Klay to a catch and shoot superstar is selling him short. It’s not just the shots he makes, but how gets them that is so impressive.
While moving without the ball is unlikely to be highlighted on SportsCenter anytime soon, it’s a highly crucial skill. The ability to generate space between you and your defender – even if just mere inches – can make all the difference in the world, especially if you’re one of the best shooters in NBA history.
And when you move as well as Klay does, you not only create opportunities for yourself, but for your teammates as well. Thompson is so crafty and effective off ball, that opposing teams have to counter with help defense . . . for a player without the ball. This, in turn, opens up the game for Thompson’s teammates, particularly Steph Curry and Kevin Durant.
On defense, Klay is solid, if not flashy. He routinely gives the league’s top perimeter options fits, a combination of his low defensive stance, his long wingspan, and his willingness to play with discipline. He can hold his own on the block against larger players, and has a keen awareness of where the help defense is coming from, even if he often gets lost when he plays the help role.
Of course, for as long as Klay remains a member of this Warriors’ super team, his abilities will be questioned. How would he do as the first option? Is he only good because of his teammates?
While the answer to the latter question is emphatically “no”, the former question is worth asking. Klay is his team’s third option and fourth-best player, ranked in a tier full of player who are first or second in both categories. And, given his willingness to embrace that role, it’s quite possible that we never find out just how good Thompson can be on his own.
But then again, isn’t there something to be said for that? There are barely any NBA players who can be the best player on a championship team. And yet, there’s a much larger collection of players who think that they can be. Perhaps a star who is content being a glorified role player is more valuable than we give credit to.
21. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
If there’s a quiet star in this league, it’s Kyle Lowry. He doesn’t score the most points on his team, or make the most money. He doesn’t seek the spotlight, or even look like a notable athlete. He doesn’t have the marketable game or arsenal of highlight reel moves that his teammate DeMar DeRozan has, and yet . . . Lowry is emphatically the Raptors’ best player.
It’s best to describe Lowry’s game not with what he can do, but what he can’t do. That list is essentially empty. At 41.2 percent last year, he was one of the league’s best shooters from distance, and poured in a whopping 7.8 attempts per game. And despite being a point guard who is more than capable shooting off the dribble, Lowry is a magician when working off ball.
His shooting prowess allows him to create spacing with or without the ball, and his movement around and through screens is second only to Stephen Curry at the point guard position. While not incredibly tall, Lowry is stout enough, with a low enough center of gravity, to work efficiently in the post, where he’s not only a graceful scorer, but a savvy playmaker.
At 7.0 assists per game, Lowry is no stranger to making brilliant passes and getting the offense moving, and his ability to pass against the direction and momentum of his body is a sight to behold.
Lowry is also a premier defensive player, a necessity on a team that lacks such players. He doesn’t profile as an elite defender, given his lack of length or alien athleticism, but he consistently makes life miserable for opposing point guards and shooting guards alike. Lowry’s understanding of leverage and positioning are not just tools he uses when posting up, but weapons in his defensive tool case as well.
It’s hard to know just how good Lowry can be. While he trumps DeRozan in the value category, his teammate’s isolation-heavy, anti-spacing game makes for an odd pairing. Coach Dwayne Casey has at times tailored Toronto’s offense to fit Lowry’s efficient skills, but too often regresses to stagnancy and isolation. That Lowry has remained as effective as he has is a testament to both his skillset and demeanor. And that Toronto has had the success that they have, is a testament to his value.