The 2023-24 NBArank is in the books.
Our top ten revealed a tight race for the No. 1 spot between seven-time All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo and reigning NBA Finals champion and MVP Nikola Jokic as well as raised questions around LeBron James‘ rank as he enters his 21st season in the NBA.
Following the release of the top 100 players for the 2023-24 season, we asked a panel of NBA Insiders — all of which were part of the expert NBArank panel — to break down questions around this year’s biggest surprises, Wemby’s possible rise and the race for No. 1.
1. Fill in the blank: Giannis over Jokic for No. 1 ______.
Tim Bontemps: Should be flipped. Antetokounmpo is a fantastic player, but Jokic led Denver to the championship last year, and in doing so answered all questions about his ability to drive winning at the highest level. I’m a firm believer in that ability to carry over to the next season, and is why Jokic should’ve been No. 1.
Bobby Marks: Is predictable. During the regular season, Antetokounmpo is the most complete player in the NBA. He is a former two-time MVP and was also named Defensive Player of the Year in 2020. My question is where would Antetokounmpo rank if the criteria was based solely on clutch time at the end of games? Would Antetokounmpo rank No. 1 versus the likes of Jokic, Kevin Durant, Luka Doncic or James?
Dave McMenamin: Is breaking an unwritten rule. The NBA doesn’t have many incontrovertible rules in its code of honor, but one of them is this: If you’re already considered one of the best players in the league and your team climbs to the top of the mountain while you take home Finals MVP, you start the next season with the tacit title of the best player in the world. Jokic is currently that dude.
Kevin Pelton: Is inconsistent with NBArank history. Jokic earned the “best player” belt by performing at an MVP level over a deep playoff run after previously establishing himself as a superior regular-season player than Antetokounmpo over the past three years. In the past, players like Kawhi Leonard in 2019 and Durant in 2021 have carried over that playoff ascendance to NBArank.
Kendra Andrews: Is in line with how Jokic is viewed. The Nuggets and Jokic have always struggled to get respect, and this is a continuation with that. Jokic won back-to-back MVPs, was named Finals MVP and led his team to an NBA championship. Antetokounmpo is incredible — and when he got those three honors he was atop the league — but right now, that title should go to Jokic.
2. Fact or fiction: This is James’ final year in the top 10.
McMenamin: Fiction. As James has repeatedly said, so long as his mind stays sharp and dedicated to the sport, his body will follow and he’ll do the work necessary to remain on top of the game. It’s hard to imagine a ranker purposefully selecting a healthy James outside of their top 10.
Marks: Fiction. Call me naive, but it is hard for me to see James falling out of the top 10 as long as he is in the NBA. Yes, there are questions about his durability — he has appeared in 45, 56 and 55 games the past three seasons — and a three-spot drop indicates that James is not the elite player he once was. But unless Anthony Edwards (ranked No. 13) plays like an MVP candidate this season or James suffers a serious injury, it is hard to see him dropping out.
Bontemps: Fact. This is just a bet on Father Time. It’s wild we are even discussing whether James will still be in the top 10 in the season he’ll enter his 22nd NBA season at 39 years old.
Pelton: More fiction than fact. My suspicion is if we did these rankings as tiers, James would be in the same tier as several players ahead of him and nobody behind him. As a result, even another expected year of aging would likely leave James in the top 10 — albeit perhaps not as close to the group of younger stars ahead of him.
Andrews: Fiction. I’m hard pressed to believe James won’t even be considered a top 10 player as long as he’s playing. Even if he’s not necessarily playing his best, his ranking will almost always be based somewhat on his overall reputation; that he’s one of the greatest players — if not the greatest — in league history.
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3. What’s one thing you would change about our top 100?
Andrews: I don’t think rookies should be included. In a year that features a prospect as unprecedented as Victor Wembanyama, it might sound weird to leave out him and other highly touted draft picks, but until they compete against NBA talent in games that matter, how can we really judge where they’ll stack up?
Bontemps: Derrick White should be on it. A terrific two-way guard who is among the best defensive guards in the league, White should be comfortably inside the top 100. There’s a reason Boston has invested so much in White.
McMenamin: You should have to win a playoff series to make it into the top eight. I’m not making this rule up just to discredit Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, he would just so happen to fall victim to it if it was implemented right now. The league is all about winning.
Marks: James Harden falling from No. 11 to 43. Harden is a walking distraction for any team he is on but is still one of the top 25 players in the NBA. The guard is coming off a regular season in which he led the league in assists (he also averaged a career-best assist-turnover ratio), shot the second-highest 3-point percentage in his career and averaged at least 20 points for an 11th consecutive season.
Pelton: Besides the omission of White and Giannis over Jokic, I’d flag Jimmy Butler being too low. He’s performed like a top-three player in the playoffs since getting to the Heat, driving a pair of Finals appearances and a third trip to the conference finals, and his regular-season value is underrated, too. To me, Butler belongs in the same tier as KD and LeBron at this point.
4. How many seasons until Wembanyama is a top-10 player on this list?
Andrews: Three to five. It’ll be a combination of the Spurs climbing out of the bottom of the conference and also other players that are sure to occupy the top 10 falling out of those places.
Bontemps: Four to five. It’ll take Wembanyama some time to adjust to the NBA, and for the Spurs to put a team around him that maximizes his skillset. Once those things happen, he’ll be a fixture at the highest levels of this list for a long time.
Marks: Five. Outside of James, the top 10 is dominated by players (Antetokounmpo, Jokic, Embiid, Doncic, for example) that are in the prime of their careers. You can even make a case that Anthony Edwards or Devin Booker, two players that fall in the next 10, will make a significant jump into the elite category before Wembanyama does.
McMenamin: Six or seven. This is less about Wemby and more about the guys he’d have to leapfrog that all are squarely in their primes and don’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon. Hey, maybe Jokic decides to hang it up sooner than expected to go be with his horses full time and a seat opens up for Wemby.
Pelton: Two to three years. I think the rest of the panel is being too conservative. It took two years for Doncic to go from ranked lower than Wembanyama as a rookie (No. 67) to fourth entering his third season. There’s no guarantee Wembanyama will follow a similar path, but it tends to happen quickly for the NBA’s truly elite talents.
5. Which player outside the top 50 has the best chance to enter the top 25 next season?
Bontemps: Cade Cunningham. After missing out practically all of last season with injuries, Cunningham was terrific with Team USA’s Select Team this summer and looks poised to have a terrific season for the improved Pistons.
McMenamin: Zion Williamson. Yes, he’s missed 194 games over his first four seasons. But when he’s been on the court, he’s been wildly successful: 25.8 points on 60.5% shooting with 7.0 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game. And he’s still just 23 years old.
Andrews: Williamson. Before Wemby-mania, the biggest hype surrounding an incoming player was Williamson, and it was for a good reason. His lack of availability has been the knock against him, but when he’s on the court, he dominates. If he’s able to actually play a nearly full 2023-24 season, there’s no reason he won’t skyrocket up this list.
Pelton: Franz Wagner. After averaging 18.6 PPG at age 21, Wagner vaulted from off the list a year ago to No. 52 now. Another year of development for Wagner and more attention on the Magic if they can contend for a spot in the play-in tournament could put him on the cusp of an All-Star appearance.
Marks: The obvious answer is Zion, but I am going outside the box and select Wagner. I don’t read much into the preseason, but the Orlando forward had an efficient nine points on 4-for-6 shooting from the field in only 15 minutes Tuesday against New Orleans. The short sample was enough for Pelicans forward Larry Nance Jr. to comment that Wagner is a top three under-appreciated talent in the league. Wagner averaged 13.4 points in this summer’s FIBA World Cup and help lead Germany to a gold medal, averaged a career-high 18.5 points last season and has missed only four games in two years.
Bonus! Give us your way-too-early picks for the top five for 2024-25.
Bontemps: Jokic, Antetokounmpo, Embiid, Jayson Tatum, Doncic. There isn’t usually a ton of change at the very top of this list, and I don’t anticipate much next year. But I think Jokic is likely to claim the top spot, and given I expect Boston to be in the Finals, I think Tatum will crack the top five for the first time.
Marks: With apologies to Embiid, I have the same top five outside of the current MVP. The final spot goes to Tatum. The forward earned back-to-back All-NBA first team and finished fourth in MVP voting last season. Now with the addition of Jrue Holiday, do not be surprised if Tatum has a career year.
McMenamin: Tatum is the guy who gets in, although I have him taking Doncic’s spot. The Celtics have a better shot of making a deep run than the Mavericks and, I can’t stress it enough, winning has to matter in these rankings.
Pelton: Jokic, Antetokounmpo, Tatum, Embiid and Doncic. The Celtics are my preseason title pick, and if that comes true I think Tatum will easily elevate into not only the top five but perhaps the top three.
Andrews: Tatum, Jokic, Antetokounmpo, Embiid and Curry are my top five for next season. I still can’t quite get myself to buy into the Mavs.