6. Gordon Hayward
The Charlotte Hornets almost stole Hayward away in restricted free agency this past summer. If they had, they’d be a much better team. But the Utah Jazz smartly matched Michael Jordan’s four-year offer, worth over $60 million, and now Gordon’s the centerpiece of a budding new NBA culture in Salt Lake City. Averaging 19.7 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.3 assists as his team’s go-to option, Hayward does more than a little bit of everything. When the Jazz mature around the 24-year-old, they’ll be a scary, climbing force in the future of the Western Conference.
5. Andre Iguodala
Also known as arguably the best NBA player who doesn’t start, Iguodala is the most versatile defender and floor-runner on basketball’s best team, the Golden State Warriors. His selfless attitude doesn’t hurt, either; Andre’s given up a starting spot under head coach Steve Kerr so that Harrison Barnes could get his swagger back, and his acceptance of the move has made the Warriors a far more fearsome team overall. More important than anything, though, is that Andre will be the man who’s called upon to try to contain Kevin Durant in the seemingly inevitable playoff matchup between GSW and the Oklahoma City Thunder. There could hardly be a better man for the job.
4. Carmelo Anthony
Melo’s busted knee on a busted New York Knicks team shouldn’t take away from what we know to be reality: Anthony is one of the greatest scorers the game has ever seen. A creative, confident, efficient shooter who’s an offense unto himself, Carmelo has made Eastern Conference defenses sweat since he came to Manhattan. It’s a sad sight seeing his talent wasted through NYK’s sorry rebuilding years, but we’ll always have plenty of memories of his transcendent moments. And with any luck, his healed knee and and a hopefully refurbished Knicks roster can bring Anthony’s brilliance back to the limelight next season.
3. Kawhi Leonard
Last year’s NBA Finals MVP is as great as he is quiet, and he’s very quiet. A lengthy, relentless two-way player who was forged in early fires—he was already fighting for championship appearances with the San Antonio Spurs as a 20-year-old—Leonard is the purest product of the league’s best franchise since they got Tim Duncan into their hands in 1997. Kawhi is the future of the most impressive culture the league has likely ever seen, and his scary, mean intensity seems like an appropriate spearhead for years and years of more Spurs dominance; last June, he even ran LeBron James ragged. Leonard’s future is even brighter than his present, which is a big, blinding light.
2. Kevin Durant
Durant’s in the news, these days, for a somewhat shocking new turn in personality. But in the weeks to come, we’ll probably shut up about that talk, as KD’s play comes to be the main event yet again. The leader of a Thunder team who have some work to do, a pissed-off version of last year’s MVP is a frightening prospect for the rest of the sport. No player creates more problems for defenses — the word “unguardable” is not hyperbole when we’re discussing this man. Whatever you may think of his testy behavior of late, anyone who doubts Durant is doing so at their own peril; the rest of us will sit back and enjoy the show.
1. LeBron James
The NBA’s best small forward is also its best player. And, to be sure, his positional designation is merely something of a formality — close followers of the sport know that James plays his own, singular role for his Cleveland Cavaliers. “The LeBron position” is something like a point forward. In other words: The King does it all. He runs the offense, makes big shots, finds open men as well as anyone in the league, and guards the other team’s best player in crunch time. And if he keeps up his scintillating play of the last month down the stretch, he’ll be looking at his fifth MVP trophy.
— John Wilmes