Who are the top GOAT candidates among active NBA players?

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Who are the top GOAT candidates among active NBA players?


Who are the top GOAT candidates among active NBA players?

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The GOAT debate is one that rages on in every sport, but especially in the NBA, where one player can be excellent enough to propel his organization to previously unreached heights.

Because we still have a bit of a way to go until the NBA season resumes, we decided to take a look at the Association’s GOAT debate and rank active players based on where we think they’ll place in Greatest-of-All-Time rankings by the time their careers are over, according to our projections.

Just to be clear, potential is important here, to be sure, but so is realized production.

Let’s get right to it.

Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Career stats: 23.6 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 8.6 apg, 1.1 spg, 42.8 FG%

Only five players in league history have posted averages over 29 points and nine assists per game in a single season as Trae Young did in 2019-20. And none of them did it in their age-21 season like Young was able to accomplish.

The other four players to have done accomplished that statistic include two former MVP guards who will show up on our list a bit later and two Hall-of-Famers in Oscar Robertson and Tiny Archibald, and none of them possess the audacious range Young has on his outside jumper.

That’s all to say that although Young may have warts in his game (namely, his atrocious defense), the level of production he has been able to reach so quickly in his career is downright insane, puts him in absolutely elite company and has him on a scary trajectory. As long as the Atlanta Hawks continue to wisely build around him, they might be able to create a monster of a team centered around their All-Star point guard.

Career stats: 16.8 ppg, 12.3 rpg, 1.4 apg, 1.9 bpg, 58.6 FG%

Despite how the last few years of his career have unfolded, failing under unfairly high expectations in his first stint with the Los Angeles Lakers, struggling to acclimate to playing with another superstar 2-guard with the Houston Rockets and then not making much of an impact on four teams over his last four seasons, Dwight Howard still has a ridiculous resume – one that should one day grant him a spot in the Hall of Fame.

Howard has eight All-Star appearances under his belt, five 1st Team All-NBAs, three Defensive Player of the Year awards and four 1st Team All-Defenses. He also led the Orlando Magic all the way to the 2009 Finals on a team where the second-leading scorer was Rashard Lewis, who was averaging 7.8 points per game three years later.

There was a relatively long stretch of time in the late 2000s where Howard was arguably the best center in the NBA, a dominant force on the defensive end and the glass who could still put up 20 points nightly despite possessing a limited arsenal in the post. And had the last few years of his career not gone so poorly (his numbers haven’t been bad, but he was reportedly a nuisance in the locker room and his teams didn’t do much winning), people would remember that more part of his career more fondly.

Career stats: 23.6 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 2.9 apg, 1.0 spg, 44.8 FG%

There have been questions about Carmelo Anthony’s impact on winning throughout his career. Even so, Anthony is one of the smoothest bucket-getters the sport has ever seen, capable of filling it up from all over the floor, from beyond the three-point line to facing up opponents in the mid-range to backing them down in the paint.

Melo’s coveted jab step move may have become a meme, but there’s no denying how deadly it was in his prime when opponents were terrified of letting him blow by them while simultaneously trying to be in position to contest his knockdown jumper.

Anthony currently ranks 17th in league history in scoring with 26,314 career points and has a solid chance of passing No. 16 John Havlicek and No. 15 Paul Pierce this season, if games do resume, who are 81 and 83 points ahead of him on the list respectively.

Career stats: 23.2 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 8.3 apg, 1.8 spg, 43.7 FG%

Rockets guard Russell Westbrook made history in 2016-17 by becoming the first player since Robertson to average a triple-double for an entire season… and he followed that up by doing it again the two seasons after that.

Westbrook has led the league in scoring twice and in assists twice, he earned league MVP honors in 2016-17, he’s a nine-time All-Star and he’s been named to 1st Team All-NBA twice.

And though his style may not be perfect (he’s a poor three-point shooter but still jacks up nearly four of them a night for his career, his defensive effort can wane at times and his extremely ball-dominant style can make it difficult for his teams to get far in the playoffs), Westbrook is still one of the most exciting players in recent league history and he plays with a ton of passion, something he should be commended for.

Plus, he helped take the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Finals before, and his teams usually range from good to great, so it’s not like he’s a complete detriment to winning, either.

Career stats: 24.0 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 6.5 apg, 1.0 spg, 43.6 FG%

One of the most explosive scorers in recent history, Damian Lillard hasn’t even gotten to his age-30 season yet, and even so, he’s got more ridiculous playoff highlights than most players produce in their entire careers.

The Weber State legend has yet to reach a Finals (his prime coming at the same time as the Golden State Warriors’ peak didn’t help matters), but there’s still no doubting his ability to produce in the postseason, where he’s averaging nearly 25 points and six assists for his career.

Lillard has one 1st Team All-NBA to his name and has been an All-Star five times, and with the style of play he has, one predicated upon craftiness as a ball-handler and a deep outside jumper, it’s clear that he won’t be slowing down soon, giving him plenty of time to find even more individual and team success.

Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

Career stats: 23.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 2.2 apg, 0.8 spg, 46.2 3PT%

An argument could be made that we have Zion Williamson ranked either too low or too high at No. 10. For starters, the sample size for his career still hasn’t even reached 20 games, we don’t know how he’ll perform in playoff-level intensity and he’s only shot 13 threes so far, so we have no idea how effective of an outside shooter he is.

At the same time, however, the glimpses we have seen so far of Williamson are undoubtedly special, as his blend of explosive athleticism in a body built like an All-Pro NFL tight end with solid ball-handling and playmaking skills to boot gives him a package we have very seldom seen in NBA history.

And though his raw statistics are impressive, the most important thing to note about Williamson is that that they’re far from empty; with him on the floor, the New Orleans Pelicans are 13.6 points per 100 possessions better than when he’s sitting on the bench.

We still need to see more of Williamson to get a better read on his upside, but if the first 19 games of his career are any indication, we’re looking at a special player – and one that could possibly make his ranking on this list look bad.

Career stats: 18.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 9.5 apg, 2.2 spg, 47.0 FG%

Say what you want about Chris Paul’s referee-related antics on the court, but there’s no doubt the floor general is one of the best point guards the NBA has ever seen, and if he’d had better luck in the playoffs, he’d probably place higher when people rank the greatest point guards of all time.

On top of his 10 All-Star appearances, four 1st Team All-NBAs and seven 1st Team All-Defenses, Paul has led the league in assists four separate times and in steals six times. In NBA history, Paul sits seventh in all-time dimes and seventh in career steals, with a great shot at finishing much higher up as he continues to pour in statistics over his upcoming final few seasons.

Even more impressive? Paul ranks third in career Box Plus/Minus (BPM), a fairly well-regarded advanced metric, just ahead of Magic Johnson and trailing only Michael Jordan and the player coming up at No. 1 on this list.

Add a title or two to Paul’s resume and he’d be discussed more frequently as an all-time great. Even without a ring, though, he deserves more credit for the outstanding career he’s had thus far.

Career stats: 24.0 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 2.2 apg, 2.4 bpg, 51.7 FG%

Like Paul, Anthony Davis would likely place higher on this list had his teams found more postseason success, though there are a couple of key distinctions there.

For one, at least Paul has made it to one Western Conference Finals in his career while Davis, on the other hand, has never gotten past the second round of the playoffs. Furthermore, Davis is still in the early stages in his prime, giving him plenty of time to find postseason success now as a Laker.

Arriving in the NBA with a lot of hype and mountains of upside, Davis has more than lived up to his potential first as a Pelican and now in Los Angeles, blending monstrous rim protection with astoundingly tidy scoring on the offensive end, even despite being a career 31.9 percent three-point shooter.

Davis, to this point, is a seven-time All-Star and a three-time 1st Team All-NBAer, with the opportunity to rack up a ton more accolades before he eventually calls it quits. More intriguing than that, however, will be seeing what kind of team success Davis will be able to find now as a Laker and teamed up with the top player on this list.

Career stats: 24.4 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 7.1 apg, 1.1 spg, 44.3 FG%

Slovenian star Luka Doncic has absolutely hit the ground running since getting drafted by the Dallas Mavericks, averaging 28.7 points, 9.3 rebounds and 8.7 assists in his age-20 season and helping bring the Mavericks back to relevancy after a few down seasons.

Doncic is as well-rounded of a wing as they come, able to drop 30 on any given night, rebound the basketball at a high level and set up teammates for easy looks consistently. Truth be told, there are some elements of LeBron James to his game, just without the freakish athleticism, which the Mavs stud doesn’t quite possess; Doncic does his damage closer to ground level than James did early on in his career.

Even so, if you were tasked with building a top team of the future and given the top overall pick, Doncic would receive heavy consideration to be taken No. 1 overall, and his scary upside has Dallas eyeing big things over the years to come.

Career stats: 25.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 6.3 apg, 1.6 spg, 44.2 FG%

If there’s one player who has that whole scoring aspect of basketball figured out, it’s James Harden.

Since joining the Rockets in 2012-13, the bearded 2-guard is averaging an astonishing 29.6 points per game, which is two points more than the next closest player’s scoring average over that eight-season stretch, and leads the league in total points scored with 17,928.

What’s more, Harden is also putting up 7.7 assists and 1.8 steals nightly over those eight years, proving that he’s doing more than just scoring for Houston.

For what it’s worth, another Rockets legend had extremely high praise for Harden recently, too:

Now, there is one negative that has to be discussed with Harden, and that’s his lack of playoff success. Harden’s had memorable meltdowns in the postseason before, and his Rockets haven’t been able to reach the Finals with him at the helm, though they did come close twice, reaching the Western Conference Finals in 2014-15 and 2017-18.

Harden will have to prove it at the highest level come playoff time before he retires in order to rank higher on lists like these, but even if he doesn’t, he’ll still go down as one of the greatest shooting guards in league history and a surefire first-ballot Hall-of-Famer when it’s all said and done.

Kawhi Leonard, Clippers

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Career stats: 18.6 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 2.7 apg, 1.8 spg, 49.1 FG%

He may not have a league MVP trophy on his resume (yet, at least), but Kawhi Leonard has been named Finals MVP twice, first in 2014 and then in 2019, to go with two Defensive Player of the Year awards and four All-Star appearances.

Leonard’s numbers may not stand out quite as much as some of these players on this list, but his development from a 3-and-D wing to a player who can fill it up from all over the floor while also playing lockdown defense has been nothing short of special to witness. Over his last five seasons, Leonard is putting up 24.5 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game on 48.8/38.7/87.3 shooting splits, numbers that speak well of how well-rounded Leonard’s game has become.

Leonard’s legacy received a serious boost in 2018-19 when – in his lone year with the Toronto Raptors – he led his team to an unexpected championship and performed like the best player in that season’s playoffs. In 24 games that postseason, Leonard put up 30.5 points and 9.1 rebounds per contest, and, more memorably, hit an unforgettable series-ending game-winner in Game 7 of the second round against the Philadelphia 76ers.

What’s more, it must also be noted that Leonard accomplished all of that the year after he missed basically a whole season due to injury troubles, among other issues with the San Antonio Spurs.

Now fully healthy and having his workload properly managed by the Los Angeles Clippers, Leonard will only continue to rack up accolades and awards for his high level of play, which doesn’t look like it’ll be dropping off any time soon.

Career stats: 23.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 6.6 apg, 1.7 spg, 47.6 FG%

The greatest shooter basketball has ever seen and arguably someone who might have changed the way the sport is played forever, Stephen Curry transformed from a fun, oft-injured player for the Warriors early on in his career into a legitimate superstar once his injury troubles subsided and his defense improved a tick.

Thanks to Curry, the notion that three-point-centric attacks could never lead to championships, which was the common belief not a long time ago, went away. Now, for the most part, if a player can’t shoot from the outside, he’ll struggle to see playing time, no matter what position he plays.

That’s how Curry and Golden State were able to revolutionize basketball.

Curry ranks third all-time in three-pointers made (and will, barring disaster, finish at No. 1 by a long shot), has won three championships and two league MVP awards, one of which was the first and only unanimous of all time, and has been 1st Team All-NBA three times.

Career stats: 27.0 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 4.1 apg, 1.1 spg, 49.3 FG%

One of the smoothest scorers in league history, someone able to get buckets from all over the floor and does so in a 7-foot package, Kevin Durant makes the impossible look easy on the court.

To be that tall and long while still possessing that quickness, craftiness and agility with the ball in your hands is nearly impossible, yet Durant can do it all, and then some.

Durant has led the league in scoring four times, won league MVP in 2013-14 and six 1st Team All-NBAs under his belt to go with 10 All-Star appearances. He was able to reach the top of the mountain, too, twice as a member of the Warriors, both of which he took Finals MVP home for, which nudges him ahead of Curry on a lot of people’s all-time lists.

Now, the tricky question as far as Durant’s resume remains: Had he remained with the Oklahoma City Thunder and won two titles rather than joining a loaded Golden State squad to do so, would his legacy look different?

The answer to that is almost certainly yes, which is a shame, considering how close the Thunder came to a title in 2011-12, and to reaching the Finals in 2015-16, where they have had another good shot at winning a championship.

Now, it still feels like Durant has something left to prove. Luckily, he has time to do so now as a member of the Brooklyn Nets.

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Career stats: 20.0 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 4.3 apg, 1.3 bpg, 52.5 FG%

Milwaukee Bucks wing Giannis Antetokounmpo, one of the most explosive two-way forces in NBA history, already has one MVP to his name and was one of the two favorites to win the award again this season before play screeched to a halt.

The Greek Freak, despite his struggles as an outside shooter, can do just about anything on a basketball court, from locking down opposing point guards (or centers) to running a fast break to protecting the rim, and pretty much everything else in between.

Antetokounmpo’s numbers this season – 29.6 points, 13.7 rebounds and 5.8 assists nightly – are out of this world, and can only be matched by two other players ever: Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor. His numbers were also extremely impactful, as Antetokounmpo’s Bucks were easily this campaign’s best team by net rating (+10.7).

The scariest part about Antetokounmpo’s legacy, however, is the fact he’s still just 25 years old and appears to remain on an upward trajectory career-wise, meaning there’s a shot the near-7-foot forward continues to improve over the season to come.

That’s probably the biggest reason why he ranked so high on this list.

Career stats: 27.1 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 7.4 apg, 1.6 spg, 50.4 FG%

If we were to rank every player in league history based on their GOAT status, LeBron James would finish either at the top of the list or very close to it, so ranking just active players meant James finished No. 1 – pretty easily, at that.

Already, James ranks Top 10 all-time in two statistics – in points with 34,087 and in assists with 9,298 – and he’s got a good shot to finish in the top spot in at least one of those metrics. Even more impressive than that is that he’s the only player in NBA history to place within the Top 10 in both of those statistics.

Scoring isn’t even considered to be the best aspect of James’ game, and he’s still able to pour in points at a much higher, and more efficient, rate than most other players to have ever graced the hardwood.

James’ longevity has been absolutely insane, as even at 35, he’s still showing little signs of slowing down. He’s got more 1st Team All-NBA appearances (12) than any other player ever. And he’s been voted into 16 All-Star games in a row.

And sure, James’ legacy may take a bit of a hit due to his 3-6 record in the Finals, but even in the championship series he lost, James was almost always the top statistical player, proving his excellence even on the biggest stages.

That’s all to say: LeBron makes a solid case to be considered the NBA’s GOAT, and not just among active players.

You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter: @FrankUrbina_.

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