Throughout history there have been some transcendent physical and tactical talents filter through the NBA and this trend has shown no signs of stopping.
The current line-up of modern-day stars can boast an undoubted top 3 all-time player and someone who probably makes it into the top 15. This combined with an athletic freak with top ten all-time potential, the best statistical pure scorer since Wilt Chamberlain and someone who embodies the modern big man perhaps more than anyone, makes the class of 2020 truly elite.
Point Guard – Stephen Curry
As previously covered in our previous article with Tim Duncan there is a lot to be said about players who are superstars in their own right however are willing to become background pieces for the benefit of the team goal. Steph Curry is the modern superstar who embodies this more than any other. He is, in his own right, the best shooter of all-time (not really close) and arguably a top 3 point-Guard of all-time despite not necessarily being a Point-Guard in the truest (traditional) sense.
Not all of Steph’s genius is through his deadly shooting and handling skills however as he is one of the cleverest off-ball offensive players to play the game, causing havoc with opposition defences even when being nowhere near the basketball. There is no one quite like Curry, he transformed basketball and made people realise that the 3-point shot was a viable go-to option – something scarily few people really considered.
It was clear from the beginning that Curry was something different, but this also meant that there was a lot to prove. From being drafted by the Golden State Warriors in 2009 through his injury plagued first couple of years in the NBA, it’s safe to say it was not plain sailing. Since 2013 however, Curry has been a statistical revelation on the NBA’s most destructive offensive team, averaging over 25 points per game whilst maintaining all time great shooting percentages.
Being the league’s best marksman more or less since his debut, has led to some of his other skills being largely overlooked. Curry is an elite finisher and can get to the rim with alarming efficiency thanks to his elite handling ability, and is an underrated playmaker with great court-vision and understanding. These assets coupled with the unselfish off-ball movement and the willingness to shift down a spot to accommodate further star power (Kevin Durant in 2016) make Stephen Curry the best Point Guard in the world right now. Perhaps the biggest compliment to pay Steph is that, like Dirk he inspired a whole generation of players to play like him, but like there will never be another Dirk, there will never be another Steph Curry.
Shooting Guard – James Harden
No one quite explores numbers like James Harden, mathematical exploitation from D’Antoni and Morey of the Houston Rockets combined with James Harden’s pure brilliance has a sense of inevitability. The synergy of these characters lead to the controversial “Hardenball” tactic that has dominated the NBA. Autonomy over possession and decisions has led Harden to some video game like feats, highest scoring seasons ever averaging over 35ppg and 50 point triple doubles flooding the stat sheets has somewhat been taken for granted and can let people look past the brilliant James Harden.
Yes, I accept his relentless repetition of play style can come across as boring and unskilled but I’d argue that is a monumental injustice to the man with the ball. James Harden has developed a tantalising ability when dribbling to enter a grey area for defenders, too close to shoot but too far to steal the ball from. This space is maintained by a beautiful display of dancing feet and subtle body feints to keep defenders in this state of confusion. More often than not, whilst Harden is sizing these defenders up with his constant movement the defender snaps and leaps in to foul (hence the absurd amount of free throws Harden takes) or fears being blown by and falling onto their heels, Harden then snaps up this opportunity to launch his prolific step back and fire a 3 pointer into the open basket.
The skill of Harden is attributed to his surgical understanding of the game, nothing quite signifies this like the fact he is often one of the slowest moving players in the league (was at one point the third slowest moving player on average in the whole league) despite being the player that scores the most. Harden also has perfected a world class passing game and dictates the pick and roll to a Stockton like standard. So, I accept it’s controversial and occasionally monotonous but I am not ignoring one of the greatest and most intelligent scorers ever when it comes to this current NBA team.
Small Forward – LeBron James
LeBron James is many things to many people, many love him and some hate him but only the foolish would ignore the simple fact: he’s as close to basketball perfection as we’ve seen. Before I get accused of hyperbolic blasphemy no, that doesn’t mean I’m saying he’s better than Michael Jordan, but it does mean that we simply haven’t seen someone tick as many boxes as LeBron does. Whilst the man is unequivocally one of the finest athletic specimens the sporting world has ever seen (a 6’8 113kg freight train that can jump over people) his basket balling perfection is far more layered than that. The attraction to the once high schooler at St. Vincent-St. Mary didn’t begin because of his physical traits but his obsession with getting everyone on the team to succeed.
If he’s not running you over in what has been a 15 year long unstoppable trend, LeBron is passing around and through you. The typical LeBron play we’ve become accustomed to is a full speed drive past a defender before controlling his whole body in the air before lasering a ball one handed to a perimeter shooter. His comprehensive repertoire of passing doesn’t stop there, a crafty and often mesmerising passer out of the pick and roll and to back door cutters are often made to look easy.
The real “wow” factor with LeBron comes every post season when we see how easy he finds the regular NBA, the switch from the best player in the league that’s saving his energy to one of the best we’ve ever seen is an instant change. LeBron pumps out stat sheet filling games including a playoff season of averaging 38/7/7 and a finals game of 52 points against the best team ever with a team of spare parts to help him. No one has dragged teams of non all-stars to a finals series like LeBron has twice, no one has tallied 30,000 points, 8,000 rebounds and 8,000 assists on their career like LeBron has, no one has such a complete ability to play basketball like LeBron has.
Power Forward – Giannis Antetokounmpo
The NBA has not seen a force of nature quite like the “greek freak” since the days when Shaquille O’Neal was in his prime and the most alarming thing about the emergence of this almost unnatural athlete is he seems to improve year upon year. With offensive and defensive dominance harking back to the days of Wilt Chamberlain, Giannis can reasonably expect to be a candidate for both the MVP award and the Defensive Player of the Year award each year.
Defensively, Giannis is almost as destructive, with an ominous paint-presence deterring all-but the most hardy souls from attempting to break out of their match-up. Lurking in the paint like 7-foot grim reaper Giannis swats shots with the vigour and look of distain of someone swatting away mosquitos on a hot day.
It is rare to find a transcendent physical talent with the brain and awareness that Giannis possesses. A real fan favourite and leader in Milwaukee, the only question mark that remains is of his ability to consistently score big points in the closing minutes of important games. If this ability is worked upon (and make no mistake, it will be), together with a reliable jump-shot, these could be alarming times for the rest of the NBA.
Centre – Nikola Jokic
The increasing amounts of money sport has welcomed over the years has raised the bar for the expected athlete, we are treated to super humans that can fly through the air and run through walls. But alas, there are still figures that champion one truth, skill and technique still rule. No one in the NBA quite displays this like Nikola Jokic.
The 7 foot Serbian officially lines up at Centre, but pulls the strings like a Quarterback in the NFL. Unarguably the best passer in the league with a full arsenal of flair, range and accuracy, he’s equipped with a team of capable but not superstar Denver Nuggets and that doesn’t bother Nikola one bit. When Jokic isn’t running a beautiful offensive game plan with his methodical passing he’s getting the ball given back to him, this is the moment where Jokic gets to showcase his outstanding sense of touch and guile around the rim. Granted, he’s not physically able to contort like some other super athletic centres in the league but he possesses the ability to attack the rim from quick and differing angles before the deftest of touches bring him a consistent wealth of points. Since entering the league, Jokic has gone from a skilful rookie to a top 10 player in the league purely on the basis of solid skill and technique, something that we seldom see in today’s NBA.
By Michael Vince and Harry Booth