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ESPN and SI: Best player in the world plays in Brooklyn

Milwaukee Bucks v Brooklyn Nets - Game Seven Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

DUH!

In their annual top 100 player rankings, ESPN and Sports Illustrated both put Kevin Durant as the NBA’s best player. While both sites admit there were other players with an argument for the top spot, KD was ultimately an easy choice for the pundits, helped by his masterful performances in the post-season and the Olympics.

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst wrote it’s not just about this year either. KD is a classic.

Let’s leave it at: Durant is one of the most skilled players to ever take up basketball, and his height, release and accuracy make him one of the most undefendable players in history. It’s remarkable that Durant doesn’t shoot every time down the floor because, frankly, it would almost always be considered a good shot no matter the circumstances.

SI’s Michael Pina noted that Durant also gets maximum respect from his colleagues.

When the dust settled, his place at the top became a universal truth. Anyone who wants to lobby for another candidate can just ask Giannis Antetokounmpo. Standing on the court after he just eliminated Durant’s Nets in their own gym, the two-time MVP called his opponent “the best player in the world.” Who are we to argue?

Not bad for a guy who missed more than a year of basketball ... and who many doubted could return to his previous form.

That out of the way, we can now debate whether the Top 100 rankings for three of Durant’s teammates are reality-based. To sum up,..

  • ESPN has James Harden at No. 10, SI at No. 7.
  • ESPN puts Kyrie Irving at No. 20. SI at No. 19.
  • ESPN puts Joe Harris at No. 75. SI at No. 72.

The big complaint, of course, has to be about Irving, who became just the fourth player in NBA history to average better than 25 points a game while joining the exclusive 50/40/90 club. The Nets 29-year-old guard joined Durant, Steph Curry and Larry Bird (who did it twice.) Moreover, he was easily the most durable of the “Big Three,” playing 54 games with the Nets, 18 more than Harden, 19 more than Durant. As per usual, Irving appeared to get dinged for off-the-court issues, literally.

Chris Herring of SI puts Irving’s “availability” at the top of Irving’s No. 19 profile...

Yes, his availability is often a question. And yes, he’s generally going to be his team’s third option. But it’s not often you see a 50/40/90 season from a scorer who also has Michelangelo-level skill as a ballhandler. Irving averaged 26.9 points and six assists on 50.6% shooting, 40.2% from three and 92.2% from the line. If not for his stepping on Giannis Antetokounmpo’s foot in the conference semifinals, the Nets might very well be NBA champions. And if he and one of Kevin Durant and James Harden stay healthy, Brooklyn will be expected to claim that crown this time around

Windhorst’s comments,, on the other hand, make Irving sound like someone who should be higher than No. 20, calling him “majestic.”

Is Irving indeed content with playing off the ball so much? This was the role he played in Cleveland and the results were majestic, the artful curve to LeBron James’ heater led to championship dominance. He also grew tired of it and pined for his own thing quickly, gritting his teeth even as his team soared with James. After the James Harden trade, Irving stepped right up and offered to go back into the space that once irked him. And guess what, when they were actually on the floor together, Irving was majestic. His usage rate went down and his shooting numbers went up as he joined the 50/40/90 club. Nonetheless, linear thinking won’t get you very far with Irving, but the dynamic is worth watching in Brooklyn.

As for Harden, the pundits think he has yet to show his full range in Brooklyn, affected as he was by persistent hamstring woes. His ranking was hurt by his “D” ... or lack of same.

Says Tim McMahon of ESPN which put Harden at No. 10...

An argument can be made for Harden as one of the best scorers in history — his career true shooting percentage (.611) ranks fifth among the NBA’s 50 all-time leading scorers — but his elite passing ability is even more valuable to the Nets. Harden has averaged 9.1 assists per game since former Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni made him a full-time point guard five seasons ago, including 10.9 in his first partial season with the Nets. Harden can prioritize playmaking when playing with fellow Hall of Fame-level scorers Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. Injuries limited that trio to 202 minutes together in the regular season, when they scored 119.6 minutes per 100 possessions. That doesn’t seem unsustainable, particularly considering Brooklyn’s Big Three lineups produced a 135.4 offensive rating in 130 playoff minutes.

Rohan Nadkarni of SI, who put him three spots higher, spoke of his unselfishness...

Harden’s methods are undeniably effective. And in Brooklyn, he showed he didn’t have to rely on his scoring prowess to be effective. Harden earnestly took on the role of point guard for the Nets, and he delivered by racking up nearly 11 assists a night. Harden was a willing passer and table setter for a team that could let him isolate more comfortably than any one before it.

If there’s a hole in Harden’s game, it’s on the defensive end, where he’s never been confused for a stopper. Still, his shortcomings there are a small price to pay for what else he brings to the table. Harden may never get a chance to prove he’s the proverbial “best guy on a championship team.” But if you pair him with anybody else in the top 20, you instantly have a contender.

As for Harris, his ranking appeared to have taken a hit from his subpar performance in the post-season.

Ben Pickman of SI pointed to the disparity between his regular season and playoff numbers in ranking him at No. 72...

One of the game’s premier long-range shooters, Harris led the NBA in three-point percentage for the second time in three seasons in 2021, converting on 47.5% of his attempts. Much of his success, though, was overshadowed by his struggles against the Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals, which saw him shoot just 24.2% from three in the series’ final five games. That cold streak aside, Harris is a marksman and poised for another stellar season alongside the Nets’ Big Three.

Tim Bontemps of ESPN who had him at No. 75 wondered if he could “bounce back”...

Can he bounce back from playoff disappointment? It’s hard enough to guard Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving in a vacuum. Add in Harris flying around the perimeter alongside them, forcing defenses to pay attention to him, and it makes the task all the more difficult. Harris had a rough series against the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round of the playoffs, but he remains one of the league’s best 3-point shooters, and will help make the Nets the league’s most complete offense this season.

A few other fun facts from the Top 100 rankings. Based purely on his 2019-20 performance and his upcoming role with the Wizards, Spencer Dinwiddie is ranked No. 75 by SI, No. 68 by ESPN, and none of the Nets 30-something bigs, all of them former Top 100 or higher, broke into the list this year. Not Blake Griffin, not LaMarcus Aldridge, not Paul Millsap. Same with Patty Mills.

One theme that runs through the rankings, both individual and team, is whether the Nets can stay healthy with ample mentions of how the “Big Three” only played 202 regular season minutes together. But in his recent power rankings, NBA.com’s John Schuhmann essentially wonders if that’s a bit of a false narrative.

“Health is obviously the No. 1 concern in Brooklyn,” he wrote, adding, “but it’s the No. 1 concern everywhere in the NBA (and beyond).”