The opening night of the 75th NBA season has the four best players in the league facing off in back-to-back games. But who of Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James and Steph Curry can actually lay claim to being the number one superstar in the league right now?
The case for Giannis Antetokounmpo
Last season: NBA Champion and Finals MVP
28.1 PPG, 11.0 RPG, 5.9 APG, 1.2 SPG, 1.2 BPG
56.9 FG%, 30.3 3PT%, 68.5 FT%
Last season saw the tangible culmination of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s comic book development as a basketball player, from raw project to bona fide superstar.
He is one of the most dominant players the league has ever seen on both ends of the floor and that complete skillset, whether protecting his own basket or rampaging through defenders at will to score at the other, powered the Milwaukee Bucks to their first championship in 50 years and only the second in the franchise’s history.
His 50 points, 14 rebounds and 5 blocks to seal the title in Game 6 of the Finals will live long in the memory as one of the most iconic performances in NBA history, but Giannis was on a tear throughout last season.
In fact, he has been so good for so long now that he was barely mentioned as a Most Valuable Player candidate despite a stat line closely resembling his numbers during his two MVP seasons to date in 2019 and 2020.
In the end, he received only one first-placed vote, finishing in fourth overall behind Steph Curry, Joel Embiid and the winner Nikola Jokic. Jokic, of course, was a deserving recipient of the Maurice Podoloff Trophy, but it is telling Giannis’ regular season performances received such little attention: this is simply what we have come to expect from him now.
There are only two weaknesses that remain in Antetokounmpo’s game: his three-point and free-throw shooting. It gives teams the option to slow this unstoppable force down by leaving him unguarded on the perimeter to instead clog up the paint and take away the drive, or cynically foul as he bullies his way to the rim knowing he likely will not convert both foul shots.
The problem for the rest of the league is that Giannis is still only 26 and has already shown flashes of a jump-shot, along with the ability to lock in and hit free throws when it really counts. During that Game 6 masterpiece, he went 17-19 from the line. That might suggest that his difficulty at the stripe is mental, rather than a technical issue.
Should Antetokounmpo make strides in either category this season, it would be hard to refute his claim as the most complete, and best, basketball player alive. As it stands, given the season he has just had, it is pretty difficult to argue against it anyway. Only Hakeem Olajuwon and Michael Jordan have won MVP, Finals MVP and Defensive Player of the Year awards along with Giannis.
There are three other men, however, who might have something to say.
The case for Kevin Durant
Last season: 26.9 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 5.6 APG, 0.7 SPG, 1.3 BPG
53.7 FG5, 45.0 3PT%, 88.2 FT%
After missing the entirety of the 2019-20 season due to an Achilles tear, Kevin Durant made a triumphant return to NBA basketball and reminded the world exactly what they had been missing in his absence: the most effortless scorer in the league. Nobody makes putting up points look quite as easy as ‘KD’.
Injury problems persist, as Durant played less than half of the shortened 72-game season, but on the court, the Brooklyn Nets forward was every bit his former human flamethrower-self and recorded career-highs in field goal and three-point percentage.
Things got even better in the playoffs, with Durant posting career-best marks in points (34.3), rebounds (9.3), steals (1.5) and blocks (1.6) per game. Injuries to his co-stars James Harden and Kyrie Irving in the Eastern Conference Finals ultimately helped the Milwaukee Bucks prevail, but even so, the margin could not have been finer.
Had Durant’s tying two-pointer in Game 7 been an inch further back, we would probably be referring to him as a three-time NBA champion and Finals MVP. Instead, we have his ridiculous 48/17/10 and 49/9/6 showings in Games 5 and 7 as proof that Durant remains utterly unguardable, even in the thick heat and intensity of post-season basketball.
Fully healthy, Durant has every right to claim to be the best player in the world, with his slicker offensive game and lights-out shooting perhaps giving him the edge over Giannis. In fact, after their gruelling play-off series Antetokounmpo anointed KD exactly that, and who are we to disagree?
Thankfully, we will not have to wait to see the two go head to head again. Brooklyn visit the reigning champions tonight to open the 75th NBA season, live from 12:30am on Sky Sports Main Event & Arena.
The case for LeBron James
Last season: 25.0 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 7.8 APG, 1.1 SPG, 0.6 BPG
51.3 FG%, 36.5 3PT%, 69.8 FT%
Truthfully, ‘King James’ has reigned supreme over the NBA for the vast majority of his 18-year career to date. He has been voted an All-Star and All-NBA selection in 17 of those seasons and his four MVP awards are – somehow – an inaccurate reflection of just how high and how long his quite remarkable peak has been as a player.
As has become the case with Giannis, LeBron has suffered from voter fatigue ever since claiming four MVP awards between the 2008-09 and 2012-13 seasons.
But then again, that does not matter all too much when you are widely regarded as one of the best two players to ever play the game, behind only Michael Jordan, before you have even hung up your Nikes for good.
That is perhaps the only reason this debate can even exist. James is 36 years old now and will turn 37 in December. His 61,000 minutes of NBA game time will take their toll on his body eventually and we may (finally) be starting to see microscopic chinks in the armour: James has not played over 70 regular-season games since 2017-18.
He may not need to given the addition of Russell Westbrook ahead of the season, but there is a lingering sense that all the injuries, niggles and strains are starting to add up particularly after last season: the first in which he was eliminated from the opening round of the playoffs.
In contrast, James’ production on the court has remained absurdly consistent across his career and still is not showing any signs of dropping. He may not be able to fly around on the defensive end as a free safety like he used to, he made five consecutive All-NBA Defensive First Teams with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Miami Heat after all, but pretty much everything else in LeBron’s game has remained intact. In fact, his development as a post-player and spot-up threat from three-point range has continued even into the twilight of his career.
In terms of longevity and consistency, LeBron James has no contemporary equal. That being said, the King can only truly reclaim his throne with a fifth NBA championship this season, such are the absurd standards we hold him to.
The case for Steph Curry
Last season: 32.0 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 5.8 APG, 1.2 SPG, 0.1 BPG
48.2 FG%, 42.1 3PT%, 91.6 FT%
Like Durant and James, a 33-year-old Steph Curry does not appear to be showing any signs of regression. Last season he posted career-highs in points (leading the NBA), rebounds and led the league in real plus-minus while carrying the Golden State Warriors to the Play-In Tournament with a roster that truthfully had no right even sniffing the post-season.
Curry’s argument comes down to one simple truth: he is the de facto greatest shooter in the league’s history. Add to that the growing evidence the NBA is becoming a three-point shooting league, with players taking more threes than ever before, and it only strengthens his case. Thirty-nine per cent of all field goals were from behind the arc last season. Ten years ago that figure was just 22.2 per cent.
At the forefront of this movement towards the perimeter has been Curry, who will almost certainly break the all-time record for three-point field goals made this season, needing just 141 triples to surpass Ray Allen. Last year, he finished top in both attempts (801) and makes (337), meaning it will likely be a formality achieved midway through the season.
In comparison to Allen’s 1300 NBA appearances, Curry has played only 762 games.
All-time 3-pointers made, NBA history
In other words, there is evidence that no player has impacted the league more over the past decade than Curry. His Warriors have been a force in the West since the 2012-13 season largely down to his individual brilliance and his three titles and back-to-back MVP awards are testament to that.
His 15-16 season is scarcely believable looking back. Curry became the first unanimous MVP, led the league in scoring and steals and poured in 402 three-pointers – an NBA record that looks unlikely to fall anytime soon (unless it is by the man himself). He was the star player on a team that went 73-9 in the regular season, another mark that looks set to stand for a very long time.
It did not end in a title thanks to LeBron’s performance for the ages in the Finals, but you would do well to find a more significant campaign by a player across the league’s 75 years.
Five seasons have been and passed since Curry’s stratospheric peak, yet he remains one of the most influential players in the game and his opening night clash with James, live immediately following Nets vs Bucks, holds every bit as much intrigue as it did during those iconic Finals clashes years ago.
Honestly, there is no wrong answer here and all four superstars possess a compelling case to claim to be the single best basketball player alive right now.
However, given everything he accomplished last season and his superior availability compared to Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo is the name that stands out as number one at this time. That could all change during the new season but as it stands, this is the Greek Freak’s league, especially before a ball is tipped on opening night as he and the Milwaukee Bucks collect their championship rings. Bring on the 2021-22 season, we have all waited long enough.