Disclaimer: the following is not a ranking of best players or even of the most objectively fun players. This is an extremely subjective list with a mixture of big names, role players, and seldom-seen reserves, and it doesn’t follow a particularly consistent logic or have much internal coherency. It simply reflects who I’m most drawn to when I open up the League Pass menu every night to peruse the evening’s games. When you watch a lot of basketball, you look for the guys who make it enjoyable to keep coming back. These are the players that I’m always happy to see grace my television screen.
PG: Ja Morant, Grizzlies
I’m really starting with a controversial choice here. Ja Morant has had arguably the greatest highlight-reel season since Steph Curry’s insane 2015-2016 MVP season.
It’s not that Ja jumps higher than everyone else so much as he takes longer to come back down. He’ll stop to chat with some passing birds or try a piece of cloud to see if it tastes like cotton candy. Then he remembers he has to pretend that gravity exists, and he re-enters the atmosphere with a vengeance:
Morant’s athleticism is jaw-dropping, but it overshadows all of the nuance he has developed in his game. He leads the league in points in the paint, and not all of them look like that. Many result from a veteran’s patience: canny hesitation dribbles to keep defenders on his back, until he can get close enough to the hoop for an easy floater or layup.
Morant is on the fringes of the MVP debate this year as a 22-year-old. It won’t be long before he’s at the forefront of those conversations.
SG: Alex Caruso, Bulls
Caruso was a fan-favorite in Los Angeles, the hard-nosed defensive guard who could also throw down some vicious slams on offense. After the Lakers cried poor and wouldn’t pony up a few extra million for Caruso in the offseason (think they regret that?), Alex moved to Chicago and flourished in a bigger role. Caruso would’ve been a lock for first-team All-Defense if he hadn’t been hurt on a dangerous play by Grayson Allen in December.
The Bulls give up 10.2 points fewer per 100 possessions with Caruso on the court, per Cleaning The Glass. He’s a one-man swarm: arms stretching, chest bumping, feet sliding. Caruso’s an anticipatory genius, capable of beating offensive players to a spot before they even knew they wanted to be there.
Watch poor, sad Will Barton try to isolate Caruso here. Someone didn’t read the scouting report:
Chicago’s defense fell off a cliff when Caruso and fellow defensive guard Lonzo Ball got hurt. His return to action this weekend coincided with the Bulls’ first game holding an opponent below 100 points since… the last game Caruso played, in January.
And unlike some other defensive-minded players, Caruso is fun on the other end, too, as a big guard capable of hitting from deep or skywalking for a huge dunk in traffic. The pre-injury Bulls were one of the most fun teams in the league to watch, and Caruso is the two-way Elmer’s that holds the team together.
SF: Josh Hart, Trail Blazers
Hart is the hipster player for people to talk about when they want to show they are part of the basketball intelligentsia (see, I’m doing it now!). He’s the rare role-player wing who is a plus player despite not being a great shooter.
Josh plays good defense and uses a nice handle to worm his way to the hoop, especially in transition. But when you talk about Hart, you’re talking about one thing: a 6’5 wing who is one of the best rebounders in the league.
Hart was literally in the 100th percentile for rebounding at his position both last and this season, and it’s the key to his success. So many of his possessions look exactly like this:
The second Hart grabs that board, which he does about eight times per game, he’s zooming off towards the other hoop like a net-seeking missile. It adds a dose of welcome chaos to any viewing experience, and I never get tired of it.
PF: Maxi Kleber, Mavericks
The big German power forward is having a bit of a down year shooting, but he’s looked better than ever on defense, which is a huge reason the Mavs have a shocking top-10 unit on that side of the ball.
I have no way of quantifying this, but it just feels like Kleber blocks more supposedly-unblockable shots than anyone in the game. He gets his mitts on jump shots, floaters, and hook shots with surprisingly regularity:
The real showstoppers are his chase-down blocks, like this one on an unsuspecting Kyle Lowry:
Lineups with Kleber at center have smacked the rest of the NBA to the tune of +9.0 points per 100 possessions, in the 92nd percentile for all lineups leaguewide, and he spends 40% of his time there. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him anchoring the center spot even more often in the playoffs.
C: Nikola Jokic, Nuggets
How could it be anyone else? Jokic and Ja Morant have been on a different level this season when it comes to nightly watchability. After the backlash from his cheap shot on Markieff Morris, he’s calmed down a little with the frustration fouls (although he still whines to the ref too much). He plays the most unconventionally beautiful and stylistically diverse brand of basketball in the NBA – and maybe ever.
This season, he’s had game-winning steals, game-winning blocks, game-winning shots, and game-winning passes. Jokic has no offensive weaknesses, and he can do anything you want to see on a basketball court that doesn’t require a 40-inch vertical leap.
Even his gaffes are fun to watch. When a quicker player blows by him on defense, Jokic will cartoonishly pinwheel his arms and lurch after the player in a hysterically awkward fashion.
I don’t know if he’ll be the year-end MVP, as it’s too close to call right now. But I do know that he’s the MVP of my heart, and that’s not changing any time soon.
PG: Jose Alvarado, Pelicans
Alvarado is a tiny badger of a point guard. He has zero name recognition even amongst other NBA players, but he plays a physical, trash-talking style that’s quickly made him a fan favorite in New Orleans. Alvarado is a chihuahua, and I swear I mean that as a compliment. He even leads the league in steals per 36 minutes!
The incoming return of Zion Williamson means that more people will be watching the Pelicans than ever before. If you’re one of them, keep an eye out for Alvarado – he always does something to make me smile.
SG: Gary Payton II, Warriors
Everything I wrote about Caruso above applies to Gary Payton here. He’s a defensive menace with high-flying acrobatics on offense, and he’s a joy to watch in his limited minutes. Imagine how demoralizing it must be to have Payton hounding you full-court on one side and then dunking on your head on the other end.
SF: Kevin Durant, Nets
This is cheating a little since Durant is primarily a power forward now, but it’s my column, so I’m going to bend my own rules if I want! Durant’s game is almost unfair. He averages dang near 30 points per game without breaking a sweat. His trebuchet release point allows him to shoot over any defender he wants, but he also has a Mary Poppins bag of mid-range footwork tricks and silky dribble combos to get wherever he wants to go on the court.
I can’t prove it, but I’ve always thought the only reason Durant doesn’t score 40 a game is because it would be too easy, sort of like when Dash lets other boys win the race so that he’s allowed to keep competing:
PF: Scottie Barnes, Raptors / Evan Mobley, Cavs / Franz Wagner, Magic / Josh Giddey, Thunder
This quartet of positionally-fluid rookies has been key to maybe the best and most watchable rookie class since 2003. I have a lot more coming in the next couple of weeks on these guys and others, so I’m not going to spoil it right now. But it’s safe to say that the league’s future is in good hands.
C: Bam Adebayo, Heat
Bam is the absolute best switch defender in the NBA, truly guarding 1-5 with equal parts strength and finesse. He’s also a good passer, a bouncy rim-runner, a mean screen-setter, and a crafty finisher with a developing mid-range game. Bam gives you something different to talk about with your friends at the metaphorical Zoom water cooler every night, and that unpredictability (“What’s he going to do next?”) is always a joy to watch.