This week should have been the start of the NBA playoffs, also known as when we start watching the NBA. To ease our pain, ESPN began showing it’s 10-part documentary on the 1997-98 Bulls team, which was the end of the Jordan Era in Chicago. As we all know, Jordan is the greatest of all time, but it’s also been 22 years since he hit the shot over Byron Russell in Utah. In other words, no one that will be drafted in this year’s NBA draft was alive when he hit that shot. So, we thought we’d take a look and see who are the best players of this century.
We are nothing if not self-aware here at Work Hangover, so we’re bringing in some help to discuss the NBA. Fortunately, our cousin-in-law twice removed (or something like that) is the foremost NBA expert in the world. And by world, we mean Norristown, PA.
Ok, Adam…here we go. As I started looking into this, I realized two things. One, I’m old. I keep thinking of Kobe, Garnett, Iverson, Duncan, etc. but none of them meet the criteria. Two, time goes fast. Anthony Davis has been in the league 7 years! Feels like it was just yesterday he was the scrawny Unibrow at Kentucky. Anyway, here are the ground rules for the debate:
- Each player has to have been drafted since 2000.
- Ranking the best, as in most accomplished, not necessarily most talented.
Without further ado, here is my 10th best player drafted since 2000:
WH #10: Dwight Howard –
Between the back injuries and the journeyman nature of the second half of his career, we forget how good Howard was at his peak. He was First Team All-NBA for five straight years, and 8-time All Star and 3-time Defensive Player of the Year. He made it to one Finals, and lost, but hey, that’s more than a lot of people.
Adam #10 – Chris Paul (NO/LAC/HOU/OKC) – 2005 draft, pick 4
Let me first start this by stating that I am not a Chris Paul fan, so I imagine I may have him a spot or two lower than most for these rankings. Most would classify Paul as the quintessential point guard of this era. While I would admit that, there is still just something missing from his resume. Paul has scored efficiently throughout his career (47/37/87), been a terrific distributor (career 9.5 APG, including four seasons of 11 APG if we round up), and a great defender (7x 1st team all defense). Paul has also had his fair share of clutch moments (Chris Paul’s series-winning shot vs Spurs!! – Game 7 – Incredible!). However, at the end of the day, Chris Paul’s teams just could never get over that hump enough for me to value him any higher.
In 2007-08, the Hornets went 56-26 and finished 2nd in the western conference, a season I have zero recollection of. Paul put up some ridiculous numbers 21.1/4/11.6 and almost 3 steals per game. The Hornets took the Spurs to 7 in the second round, but couldn’t close the final game out at home. At this point, you assumed Paul would be ready to take his team to the next level. It just never happened. Paul joined the Clippers in 2011 (although he should have been a Laker), and saw a slight dip in his numbers as he played along a more talented group who were poised to become “the team” in LA. Again, never happened. The Clippers just could never seem to put it together and eventually Paul’s temperament became an issue as that team fell apart in 2017.
Paul joined the Rockets and finally got to his first conference final, but it was not with him as the #1 banana. However, Paul and Harden had the Warriors on the ropes down 3-2, before a Paul injury sidelined him for games 6 and 7. Again, he couldn’t get over the hump.
All in all, Paul’s longevity, efficiency, and numbers get him into these rankings. But, at the end of the day due to his lack of playoff success this 10x all-star falls back a few spots on my list and sits as the 10th most accomplished player drafted in the 2000s.
Adam #9 – Anthony Davis (NO/LAL) 2012 draft, 1st pick
I can already hear the critics as they compare #9 to #10. I must admit there are many similarities between Chris Paul and Anthony Davis’s career to this point. We can start with where their careers began…poor New Orleans. Davis was considered a transcendent player coming out of Kentucky in 2012, fresh off a National Championship. He has lived up to expectations, with one caveat, playoff success, a theme with our first two players. Davis has only been to the playoffs twice and while he’s performed well (30/13/2.5), he’s only won one series. I am willing give Davis a slight benefit of the doubt over Paul, as I believe Paul has played on better teams and Davis hasn’t had as many opportunities, coming into the league seven years later.
So, what has Davis done since joining the NBA? How about 24/10.4/2.4 (blocks) with a peak season of 28/12/2.6? He’s led the league in blocks on three occasions. He’s been an All-Star 7 of his 8 seasons. He’s been first team All-NBA on 3 occasions. Last season, Davis pulled some “tactics” to head out of New Orleans and to LA (see a third Paul trend) where he teamed with Lebron James this season to post the best record in the Western Conference.
WH: There are two things that are tough about this ranking – not letting personal bias get in the way and length of careers. Davis didn’t make my Top 10, and both of those reasons probably played a role. Never been a fan of his, dating back to his time at Kentucky and it feels like he’s too early in his career to make the list. But, you make some compelling points. Paul is in my rankings and has accumulated some impressive stats, and for both of them, the lack of winning makes a huge difference. If Paul doesn’t miss Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals in 2018 with a hamstring injury, the Rockets probably win that game, and likely end up winning the whole thing. And if we did this ranking 3 years from now, Davis could be in the top 5 and he continues on his incredible pace and gets a ring or two with Lebron in LA.
#9 – Tony Parker
This one is for the old guys. Parker may not have the gaudy stats of some others, but the man has four rings, including being the Finals MVP in 2007. As you’ll see in my rankings, winning matters. The Spurs teams in the early to mid 2000s didn’t play the prettiest basketball, but they won and Parker is the only real representative from that team that fits our criteria, so he gets the call. He did make 6 All Star teams and was second team All-NBA for three straight years (2012-2014). He was really, really good for a long time and played for one of three most successful franchises of this century.WH
#8 – Russell Westbrook
The lack of winning is the only knock on Westbrook, other than his fashion sense. But when you average a triple-double over three full seasons, you can wear whatever you want. He’s lead the league in scoring twice and in assists twice, he’s been one of the three All-NBA teams 8 times, made 9 All-Star teams and won the league MVP in his first season after Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City. Reunited with James Harden this year in Houston, and he averages dropped to a mere 27.5 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists. The knock on Westbrook has always been leadership and the ability to win in the postseason, and those are valid points against him, but his numbers are too impressive to ignore.
Adam: I tried to take out my personal bias as best I could. I know I’m lower on Paul than most and I stared at him vs Davis for a while. I did leave out a piece of Davis, which explains my rankings that needs to be added to his write-up. I added that below and my #8 and #7 players.
If you prefer Paul to Davis, I have no issue with that, but at the end of the day, Paul’s had more opportunities to perform in the playoffs and I am knocking him down a spot for that.
#8 – Dwight Howard (ORL/LAL/HOU/ATL/CHA/WAS/LAL), 2004 draft, 1st pick
A polarizing player to say the least comes in at #8 on my list. Dwight’s career has NOT aged well, but that is not a knock to his peak and the dominant player that he was. He was the #1 pick out of High School in 2004 to the Orlando Magic and transformed that team to one that went that NBA Finals in 2009 after upsetting Lebron James and company in the conference finals. Howard went for 40 and 14 in the clinching game 6. The Magic would follow that season by going to another conference final but fell short to the Boston Celtics.
To properly judge Howard, we can’t look at his overall stats (although they aren’t terrible 17/13/2 BPG). Howard’s game has fallen off in recent years and has skewed his stats as he’s aged. Howard’s peak, however (2007-14), produced 5 rebounding titles, 3 DPOY awards, and 5 1st team all-NBA selections. He was not a liability on the offensive end either, as he had four seasons averaging over 20 PPG.
When comparing Howard and the two players below him, I give the edge to Howard because of his playoff success. Howard was the best player on a team that went to the finals and featured other key players : Jameer Nelson, Hedo Turkoglu, and Rashard Lewis, not exactly a who’s who. Howard was an absolute menace on the defensive end and turned that team into something it could not have been without him. After a lost season in LA (where Kobe made him cry repeatedly), Howard moved to Houston, where he wasn’t an ideal fit, but managed to get to another conference final with James Harden. While he wasn’t his dominant self, Howard was a big asset in their second round series with the Clippers, where they came back from 3-1. Many will remember Howard for his late career fall-off, but Dwight was truly a monster in his prime and ranks as my 8th most accomplished player drafted in the 2000s.
#7 – Russell Westbrook (OKC/HOU), 2008 DRAFT, 4th pick
Watching Russell Westbrook play basketball is a bit like a roller coaster, especially during his prime. His athleticism, speed, and fearlessness jump off the screen, as can his shot selection and his tendency to force when it may not be needed. With that said, taking a glance at his career numbers will make your eyes pop. What he does lack in efficiency he adds in counting stats. Westbrook’s career numbers sit at 23/7/8, and at his peak he averaged a triple-double over three straight seasons, including a 31/11/10 MVP winning season in 2016-17.
When you think of winning, Westbrook is not necessarily the first player that comes to mind, but Westbrook has played in four conference finals and did reach the NBA finals in 2012. Similar to Paul, they were one win away from taking out the Warriors in 2016, but could not finish the job.
Westbrook’s accolades include two scoring titles, two assists titles, eight all-league selections, and one MVP, to go with the aforementioned four conference finals and one NBA finals appearance. A true bulldog in every sense of the word, Russell Westbrook is my 7th most accomplished player drafted in the 2000s.
WH: First, the fact that I feel like we’re essentially on the same page with this makes me feel so much better about myself. I was convinced the Dwight Howard pick was going to be wildly ridiculed, but turns out I was the one who underestimated him. I’m also glad Hedo Turkoglu made an appearance in this analysis. Reminds me of the old Kings teams with Webber, Vlade Divac, Peja Stojakovic and White Chocolate Jason Williams. Loved watching those teams. Anyway, back to the countdown.
#7 – Chris Paul
The more I read about Westbrook, the more I think he should probably be ahead of Paul, but that’s where I default to who I would rather be my point guard. You’ve covered Paul’s stats, but when I think of what I want in a point guard, Chris Paul comes to mind. Creative, pass first, can score enough to keep defenses honest. Also, having watched him play in person at Wake Forest, when they had great regular seasons but could never replicate it in the tournament…which turns out to be the predominant theme of his career.
#6 – James Harden
Harden’s ability to score is unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Mostly because most of his moves used to be illegal, but nevertheless, he’s the perfect player for the modern NBA. His scoring gets all the attention, and rightfully so, but his career average of 25/5/6 lead you to believe he’s more than just a scorer. He’s won the last two scoring titles and was on his way to his third, and has been first team all-NBA 5 times with one MVP. The common theme with 6-10 though is lack of postseason success, although he’s been close, but no titles. That will change as we get into the top 5.
Adam: #6 – Kawhi Leonard (SAS/TOR/LAC), 2011 Draft, 15th pick
The next two players were very difficult to rank. In what arguably is the best move in the Spurs dynasty era, the Spurs acquired Kawhi Leonard on draft day in a trade for George Hill. Considered a project coming out of San Diego St, Leonard really broke out during their championship run in 2014, before leading the Toronto Raptors to their first championship last season.
I have to knock Kawhi down for two reasons. First, although he was not needed to be a star in San Antonio, he didn’t truly develop into one until the past few years. In fact, his career numbers are probably the worst of all the players on this list at 18/6/3. He only has four all-star appearances and has only been all-NBA on three occasions. Second, Kawhi has had durability issues the past few years. After basically, sitting out the entire season in 2017-18 in San Antonio, Leonard missed 22 games last year and was on pace to miss 15-17 more due to “load management” again this year.
While that paragraph, may seem like I am knocking Kawhi, at the end of the day he is in the argument for best player in the NBA right now. He is a menace on the defensive end (2x DPOY, 3 time 1st team all defense) and when it comes to stepping up in the playoffs, I’m not sure there is another player I would take before him. Kawhi has been NBA finals MVP twice (3 appearances) and his shot to close out the Sixers in last year’s playoffs will live in NBA lure. With the team success he’s had, it pains me to rank Leonard this low, but his individual accolades don’t quite add up to be in my top 5.
#5 – James Harden (OKC/HOU), 2009 draft, 3rd pick
THE BEARD!!! Crazy to think that in three consecutive drafts, the Thunder drafted 3 players on this list (no spoilers if you haven’t read ahead). After Durant, Westbrook, and Harden led the Thunder to the finals in 2012, the Thunder made a financial move and dealt Harden to the Houston Rockets. What blossomed in Houston turned out to be the most gifted scorer of our generation. Sometimes difficult to watch, Harden uses an extremely tight handle paired with a pure jumper and some flopping to be an absolute menace. Since being traded, Harden has eight consecutive 25+ PPG seasons, including three straight seasons over 30+, all of which were good for scoring titles. He also led the league in assists in 2016-17 at 11.2. Harden is an 8x all-star, he’s been first team all-NBA on five occasions, and won MVP in 2017-18 to go with the aforementioned 3 scoring titles.
Unfortunately, what is lacking is some true playoff success as the top dog. Harden’s shooting percentage in the playoffs drops from 44% to 41% compared to his regular season numbers and he has disappeared in some big games, including the 2012 finals where he averaged just 12 ppg (albeit in a bench role). Since arriving in Houston, Harden has led the Rockets to two conference finals, where they’ve been eliminated by the Warriors on both occasions. In fact, when you look closer at Harden’s resume and see that they’ve been eliminated by the Warriors in four of the past five seasons, you almost feel bad and wonder what could have been for Harden, if not for the best team in NBA history.
WH: I think what really pains you is that Kawhi’s shot broke the heart of your 76ers! Harden’s numbers are undeniable, and if Kawhi didn’t lead the Raptors to the title last year, I’d have him behind Harden but that run was the stuff of legends and brought a franchise their first ever title. All of which leads me to my next ranking…
#5 – Kawhi Leonard
As I mentioned, titles win the day. I’m actually a little surprised by his career numbers, but I suppose that makes sense given the majority of his tenure in San Antonio he was the third or fourth option. That said, the fact is I wanted to rank him even higher than this because I love his game and the way he affects the outcome on both side of the ball. I wasn’t a huge fan of the way things ended in San Antonio, but to take the Raptors to their first ever title put him over the top for me, as compared to Harden.
#4 – Dwyane Wade
Honestly, when we started this, I had Wade a lot lower in my rankings, but when you really look at his numbers, he’s clearly top 4 and I probably am underrating him. For some reason, I’ve just never been in love with Wade, but I have no logical reasoning for doing so…maybe it was that he played for Tom Crean in college, who might be my least favorite coach in all of basketball, non-Mike Krzyzewski category. But, this is rarefied air, so at this point we’re just nitpicking. The real reason he doesn’t crack my top 3 is he never won a league MVP award. Maybe that’s unfair given his three rings, the one before Lebron being the most impressive one in my book. But with 3 rings, 13 All Star appearances and being named first team All-NBA twice, he’s more than earned his spot in the Top 4.
Adam: Don’t mention Kawhi’s shot again please…In the end to me, Kawhi’s a better player than Harden when they’re at their peaks. Harden has just done it longer. Kawhi’s overall numbers aren’t that impressive…again because they didn’t have to be.
#4 – Dwyane Wade (MIA/CHI/MIA), 2003 draft, 5th pick
I also underrated D-Wade prior to doing my research and while I was never a big fan of the way he played, his achievements are up there with many greats. Wade had a few things working against him. First, he came into the league at 22, which led to his main issue, that his body broke down too soon and didn’t allow him to have the longer prime that some of his peers had. Third, he ended up sacrificing and become the second fiddle to Lebron starting in the 2010-11 season.
Wade’s run was highlighted by the 2005-06 playoff run, where he won finals MVP, his first of three championships (5 Finals appearances). In that playoffs, Wade averaged 28-6-6 and went for 35-7-4 in the finals.
In the five seasons prior to Lebron’s arrival in South Beach, Wade averaged 27.2 PPG and was one of the most efficient scorers in the league. His full resume includes the aforementioned 5 finals appeareances, 3 championships, a scoring title, a finals MVP, 13 all-star appearances, 8 all-NBA selections, and of course the icing on the cake, our 4th most accomplished player drafted in the 2000s.
#3 – Steph Curry (GS), 2009 draft, 7th pick
We’ve reached the top 3, which is where we put Steph Curry. Quite frankly, Steph Curry has changed the game of basketball as we know it. There’s no statistic for that. The amount of three pointers we see today are largely apart of the Golden State influence and the history they’ve made by shooting the basketball. In the 2015-16 season, Steph made 402 threes. How does that rank exactly? The closest competitor to him (prior to that season) was Ray Allen. Allen made 269.
Curry’s career got off to a rocky start as he battled some chronic ankle injuries and people worried about his slender frame. However, in the 2012-13 season, Curry was able to stay healthy and led the Warriors to the 2nd round of the playoffs, where they lost to the Spurs. After a disappointing first round exit in 2014, the Warriors dynasty truly began the next season. Curry and company would go on to make five consecutive NBA finals (and counting), winning three of them. They also had the best record in NBA history in the 2015-16 season going an astonishing 73-9. Curry won MVP that season, averaging 30-5-6, his second of back-to-back MVPs.
He’s been the main cog in the dynasty engine for many years and he’s done it while leading the league in three pointers on five straight occasions from 2012-2016, leading the league in scoring once, winning two MVPs, six all-star appearances, as well as six all-NBA selections. Lastly, he is without a doubt, the best shooter in the history of basketball. Take this as a parting gift…in 2015-16, Curry took 886 threes…he shot 45.4% from that range that season. What?!?!
WH: All the things you listed about Curry are exactly why I have him ahead of..
#3 – Kevin Durant
Look, Durant has been to the more All-Star games, been All-NBA more times and generally everyone would say if you could pick a healthy Durant or a healthy Curry to start a team, you’d take Durant. I would take Durant! But, at the end of the day, Durant couldn’t break through for a title with Harden and Westbrook (I know Harden was traded pretty early in that OKC team’s history) and so he joined Curry and the Golden State dynasty that had already begun, and was built around Curry. And that’s the reason I ultimately put Durant at the 3 spot. Durant, to his credit, is 7′ and is a career 49%/38%/88% shooter, has won an MVP, 2 titles, made 10 All-Star Teams and been named 1st team All-NBA 6 times. Plus, he apparently has burner Twitter accounts. What more could you ask for?
#2 – Stephen Curry
You covered all the pertinent facts about Curry, so I’ll just reiterate one of them. He is the best shooter in the history of basketball. Is that good? I think that’s good. I saw Curry play in person once in college. Davidson was playing North Carolina in Charlotte in an early season game, and this was a UNC team that would make the Final Four that year. Curry was unstoppable, but you didn’t know how he was doing it. Well, fast forward 12 years and I still don’t know how he did it, but he’s the second best player of this century.
Adam: As I typed those two, I debated flipping them but when Durant joined GS, he became their best player. That tipped it over the top.
#2 – Kevin Durant (SEA/OKC/GS/BRK) – 2007 draft, #2 pick
What could have been for Portland had they not selected the oft-injured Greg Oden #1 overall in 2007? As mentioned above, the (then Seattle) Oklahoma City Thunder selected three players on this list in three consecutive years. The first of that trio was Kevin Durant. Durant has become arguably the best scorer of our generation, winning scoring titles in 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2014. For his career, Durant has averaged 27/7/4, with his peak season coming in 2013-14 where he went for 32/7/6 on 50/39/87 splits. That was his lone MVP season, even if he forfeit the award over to his mom.
Durant has done his fair share of winning, although many may not give him a ton of credit for it. He led the Thunder to the finals in 2012 as a 23-year old, after falling short in the conference final the year prior to Dallas. Oklahoma City was consistently a threat in the Western Conference every year while Durant was there, but they never made it back to the NBA finals. After blowing a 3-1 lead to Golden State in 2016, Durant made a controversial jump and joined the Warriors dynasty. From there, Durant won two NBA titles, winning finals MVP on both occasions and outplaying Lebron James in both series. Durant’s final year in Golden St was cut short due to an Achillies injury in the playoffs.
His final resume includes the aforementioned four scoring titles, two finals MVPs, Rookie of the Year, four or five finals appearances (depending if you count Toronto), two championships, ten all-star appearances, nine times all NBA (including six 1st team), and a MVP. A truly great career, and one that could have all happened in Portland…
#1 – LeBron James (CLE/MIA/CLE/LAL) – 2003 draft, #1 pick
There need not be controversy on this selection. LeBron came into the league out of high school in 2003 with more hype than any man deserves and has surpassed all those expectations. Let’s get the accolades out of the way before telling the story:
16x all star, 15x all NBA (12x 1st team), Rookie of the Year, 5x 1st team all defense, 1x scoring champion, 3x NBA Finals MVP, 9 finals appearances (8 consecutive), 3 championships, 4 MVPs
· Only player in NBA history to record at least 34,000 points, 9,000 rebounds, and 9,000 assists.
· Only player in NBA history to post at least 2,000 points, 500 rebounds, 500 assists, and 100 steals in four consecutive seasons.
· Only player in NBA history to average at least 25 points per game for 15 consecutive seasons.
· Only player in NBA history to be in the top 5 all-time in points and top 10 all-time in assists.
· Only player in NBA history to have at least 9,000 rebounds and 9,000 assists.
I could go on and on. The list of accomplishments LeBron has achieved is unmatched and the guy continues to produce at a MVP-level despite having logged over 58,000 career minutes, roughly the same amount as Kobe Bryant and we saw what happened to Kobe’s body towards the end. The guy is truly a once in a generation athlete. He should be appreciated.
There are two knocks on LeBron. His record in the finals is 3-6. I will defend these numbers with the following. LeBron’s teams were only favored in 2 of the 9 finals and let’s break down each one:
2007 – vs Spurs – Lebron, Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden, Larry Hughes, Sasha Pavlovic (need I say more)
2011 – vs Mavs – no excuse for this one. Probably ugliest moment in Lebron’s career besides “The Decision”
2012 – vs Thunder – win
2013 – vs Spurs – win
2014 – vs Spurs – all time great team that was really clicking at the time. Lebron went 28-7-4 on 57/51/80 splits.
2015-18 – vs Warriors – against the best team of all time.
2015 – Kyrie gets hurt game 1. Starters the rest of the way: Lebron, Mozgov, Thompson, JR Smith, Dellavadova. LeBron manages two wins with that bunch….yes Tristan and Mozgov started together…who says twin towers can’t exist in today’s game.
2016 – Win – epic, beating 73-9 Warriors when down 3-1.
2017 – Loss – healthy Cavs, healthy Warriors w/Durant. LeBron goes for 34/12/10 on 56/39/65 splits.
2018 – Loss – LeBron, Love, JR Smith, Thompson, George Hill…just wasn’t gonna happen again with that group against GS. Lebron 34/9/10 on 53/33/84.
At the end of the day, many of the LeBron team’s were outmatched and he happened to have to have seven of his nine finals against the greatest team of all time and a heck of a group in the Spurs. His career numbers:
Regular Season – 27/7/7 on 50/34/73
Playoffs – 29/9/7 on 49/33/74
NBA Finals – 28/10/8 on 47/34/73
Pretty damn good…all this while getting every movement and breathe dissected by the media we live in today.
Oh, I forgot to mention the second knock on LeBron…I’m in the camp that we could use a little less of him on social media as well…he is a nerd, but he’s also the most talented basketball player to every step on the floor…and I don’t care how much “Last Dance” you watch.
WH: Uhh….ditto? Did I mention that Adam was an NBA expert? I’m exhausted just reading it…I’m sure our regular readers are very confused. Don’t worry friends, we’ll be back to the regularly scheduled drivel soon.
I’ll always be an MJ guy, but the statistics are impossible to argue with Lebron. Frankly, the fact that he has outperformed the hype (which was considerable) and put himself in that conversation is more impressive than any accumulation of stats. And to outperform hype in this day and age, with every move analyzed, it’s pretty incredible that the only real knocks on Lebron are “The Decision”, the banana boat experience and being overly dramatic, on and off the court.
But, Lebron has handled all the pressure, won, amassed an incredible collection of statistics and is going to retire in the conversation with Jordan as the greatest player of all time. Not bad.
If anyone was brave enough, or bored enough, to make it this far, you’re the real MVP.