0 of 7
Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press
We’re not too far off from the NBA’s planned return date of July 30.
Of course, this year’s title race isn’t like any other. An NBA season has never been halted by a pandemic, nor has its return been questioned because of countrywide protesting of police brutality.
We don’t know who will be comfortable enough to play. Of those who do suit up, we don’t know what kind of shape they’ll be in. Depending on which way you look at it, this year’s title winner will either have a massive asterisk or will get even more praise than normal.
But whose legacy would get the biggest boost if he led his team to a title?
The only disclaimer was to eliminate players on teams that don’t project to be serious contenders. Obviously Zion Williamson or Ja Morant would become instant legends if they won it all as rookies, but that’s too much of a long shot.
1 of 7
David Zalubowski/Associated Press
Jokic has solidified himself as the NBA’s most unique center, if not the best one altogether.
He’s a passing savant with elite touch on all three levels. His defense has been underrated for most of his career. His rebounding prowess helps end possessions, while his IQ and quick hands allow him to swipe errant passes in Denver’s aggressive defensive scheme.
And that was while he looked like the Michelin Man. Now he looks like this.
The “best center in the NBA” debate would end with a Nuggets title.
2 of 7
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
In theory, LeBron shouldn’t be on this list. If he retired right now, you couldn’t argue he’s anything less than a top-eight player of all time. Some would argue that he’s in the same tier as MJ, if not higher.
But yet, we haven’t really seen this. At age 35, LeBron is putting up one of the best all-around campaigns ever. The numbers alone are jarring: 25.7 points, a league-leading 10.6 assists, 7.9 rebounds, 1.2 steals. Once you add in the two-big-lineup tightrope he has to walk every possession, on top of the Lakers having maybe one other credible ball-handler on the roster, it makes his season all the more impressive.
Adding another title (and presumably a Finals MVP) would enhance a mostly ironclad resume. But that’s also why it’s hard to place LeBron any higher on this list.
Maybe title and Finals MVP No. 4 would put him ahead of a guy like Magic Johnson, if he wasn’t there already. But MJ is the standard, and it’s hard to see how a title this year moves the needle in LeBron’s direction on that front.
3 of 7
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
On the surface, Kawhi Leonard seems like an all-timer.
Through eight full seasons, he has two titles, two Finals MVPs, two Defensive Player of the Year awards, three All-NBA selections and five All-Defensive selections. He’s been one of the most dominant two-way forces the league has ever seen. He especially flashed it this season, scoring at all three levels, showcasing high-level passing chops and clamping up your favorite player when the time has called for it.
However, the shared workload in San Antonio and the abrupt halt to his prime because of injury (and the dramatic fallout) skew his averages. His 18.6 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.8 steals don’t scream “one of the best players ever.” His best two seasons have been his most recent ones, and they’ve both come amid “load management.”
He was a cog in San Antonio’s egalitarian offense for the first three years as he overhauled his jumper. His usage rate didn’t eclipse 20 until his fourth season, one in which he averaged just 16.5 points.
Leonard won his first Finals MVP in year three (2013-14), averaging a blistering…17.8 points and 6.4 rebounds. Of course, he did that on tremendous efficiency (75.3 true shooting percentage) while defending then-Heatle LeBron James on the other end. While LeBron’s overall averages in that series looked good (28-8-4 with a 67.9 true shooting percentage), he struggled to get to his spots when defended by Leonard. His rim frequency dropped, while his mid-range and three-point rates spiked with Leonard on the court.
His second Finals MVP was the culmination of one of the best playoff runs we’ve ever seen from a wing. Even that, as unfair as it is, has been given a grain of salt because of the injuries to Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson during that Finals.
A quarantine title would add to the weirdness of Leonard’s career but would undoubtedly move him up a notch in history. The list of players with three titles and three Finals MVPs is a short one: Jordan, LeBron, Magic, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal. That’s, conservatively, five of the 12 greatest players of all time. Add in the DPOYs and Leonard is left standing with His Airness.
4 of 7
Stacy Revere/Getty Images
I almost went with the duo of Simmons and Joel Embiid. Heck, I almost threw Sam Hinkie’s name into the ring; a title, even a strange one, would further validate The Process.
In the end, though, nobody has more to gain than Simmons. He stands as one of the most polarizing figures in the league—a 6’10” dynamo who is lauded for his gifts just as much as he’s shouted down for his flaws.
Is he a big point guard with crippling shooting deficiencies? A post playmaker at the 4 without the length or pull-up shooting surrounding him to thrive?
The Sixers can’t pull off a title run without Simmons doing something unexpected. He’ll either need to knock down jumpers—short corner popshots, pull-up jimmies, spot-ups from beyond the arc or fadeaways over smaller defenders—or be so physically dominant that his jumper doesn’t matter.
If Simmons can lead the way or at least pull his own weight alongside Embiid, he’ll get a well-deserved status boost.
5 of 7
Stacy Revere/Getty Images
Before we get into the actual basketball, can we point out just how much of a whirlwind the past couple of months must’ve been for Giannis?
Imagine being in the midst of your most dominant season ever: front-runner for MVP and Defensive Player of the Year. Your team isn’t just a contender; it is a historically dominant juggernaut. Your girlfriend has just given birth to a baby boy. Life is good!
Then a pandemic worsens, the season comes to a halt, and the momentum you’ve built all season long has faded, if not been lost altogether.
At any rate, Giannis stands to gain quite a bit with a title. Avenging his quiet-by-his-standards showing in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals would be huge. Similar to Simmons, Giannis has some questions to answer regarding his offensive playstyle in the postseason. Unlike Simmons, Giannis has at least flashed a passable jumper and showcased comfort with a turnaround jumper this season that should frighten everyone.
The Bucks haven’t won a title since 1971, and winning one would further entrench Giannis as a legend in that area. More importantly, it would cement his place as the league’s best player, making this moment from December that much sweeter.
6 of 7
Michael Dwyer/Associated Press
There was a disclaimer to limit this list to players on legitimate title contenders. An exception has to be made here, though.
Paul could retire as a first-ballot Hall of Famer right now with 10 All-Star appearances, nine All-Defensive selections, eight All-NBA teams and four top-five MVP finishes.
What’s missing is playoff success. Paul has been a good playoff performer throughout his career. Beyond his averages—20.9 points, 8.5 assists, 5.1 rebounds, 2.2 steals—he has had some memorable moments, highlighted by his series-ending floater against the Spurs in 2015.
There have also been lowlights. Looking at you, inexplicable foul-drawing mishap and subsequent turnover against the Thunder.
Paul failed to make the Western Conference Finals before the 2017-18 season with the Houston Rockets. As fate would have it, he would suffer a series-ending hamstring injury near the end of a Game 5 victory that put the Rockets up 3-2 against the Golden State Warriors.
We, uh, know how that one ended.
In terms of talent alone, Paul is a Pantheon member. His blend of court vision, passing ability, shooting, defending and finishing—a career 61.7 percent converter at the rim despite his 6’0″ size—is nearly unrivaled. What keeps him out of the Magic-Steph-Oscar tier and puts him alongside the Stocktons, Zekes, Nashes and Kidds of the world is the lack of hardware.
A ring would do it, especially if he does it with a Thunder team that wasn’t expected to make the playoffs before the season started.
7 of 7
Tim Warner/Getty Images
It’s only fitting that Paul’s former teammate claims the top spot.
If Simmons is one of the most polarizing players in the sport, Harden’s picture could be found beside the word in Webster’s dictionary.
Harden is one of the greatest offensive talents the NBA has ever seen. Statistically, and depending on what metric you go by, you can remove the “one of” qualifier. We haven’t seen anyone produce offense the way Harden has. His mix of volume and efficiency—even if it isn’t always pretty to look at—is unparalleled.
There have been 25 instances all time when a player has logged a usage rate above 30. Only four times have we seen a player post a true shooting percentage above 60 while having a usage rate above 30.
Harden has three of those seasons.
He guarantees his team an elite offense thanks to his blend of shot-making, foul-drawing and dime-slinging. What that hasn’t led to, at least thus far, is significant playoff success.
Like Paul, Harden has come through in big moments.
And like Paul, he has had some late-game disappointments.
It’s hard to understate the level of vindication that would come with a Rockets title. Years of Harden’s playing style being slung through the mud—online, on air, on the court—would be undone.
Statistically, Harden’s threes-or-frees mantra has often been the correct way to go, but his lack of scoring diversity has hurt him in deeper rounds of the playoffs. If the sheer volume of his method shines through, what could anyone say?