Who is the best player in the NBA?
Fresh off an MVP season, Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo was selected No. 1 in NBArank heading into the 2019-20 season. NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard is right behind him at No. 2.
What's the best case for each player to be No. 1 overall? And how does LeBron James fit into this debate at age 34?
The ESPN Hoop Collective crew of Brian Windhorst, Jackie MacMullan and Kirk Goldsberry debate those questions, with a little help from Andrew Han and Kevin Pelton. Watch the full video here on ESPN's YouTube channel.
Disagree with the rankings? Vote on your own top five here.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Take your pick: Giannis or Kawhi?
Windhorst: I was thinking: It's 2019. It's not 2016. It's not 2012. It's a new day in the NBA.
Windhorst: Who's the best player in the NBA?
MacMullan: Kawhi Leonard.
Goldsberry: No, Jackie. That's incorrect. The best player in the NBA is Giannis Antetokounmpo. And it's not particularly close.
There are three reasons why it's Giannis. No. 1, he's a better offensive player than Kawhi. No. 2, he's a better defensive player than Kawhi. And No. 3, he's 24 years old and just won the MVP.
MacMullan: I'll give you that last one. That's all.
OK. So let's take them one by one. Better offensive player. Really? Are we sure? What metric are you using?
Goldsberry: Giannis scored more points. He did it at a more efficient rate and he's the best interior scorer we've had since somebody named Shaquille O'Neal was in his absolute prime. He led the league in paint points and put up more paint points than anybody since Shaq in '03-04 or something in there.
MacMullan: Kirk, you just spent all morning telling me that paint points no longer matter in the NBA. We spent a lot of time talking about how the game is going out to the perimeter. And listen, I think Giannis will be the best player. He's just not there yet because he only shoots 25% from the 3-point line. As you know, Kawhi Leonard, one of your former players, shoots around 33.3%.
But be that as it may, Brian, let's just talk about what happened, shall we, last season in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals. OK? The Toronto Raptors are down two-to-nothing. Nick Nurse says: You know what? I've got to do something. I'm going to put Kawhi on Giannis. And Kawhi Leonard then proved why he's a better defensive player than Giannis -- or maybe a better defensive player than anyone.
Would you like to know what happened?
Windhorst: Yes. Remind me.
MacMullan: OK, in 41 matchups --
Windhorst: It was a pretty damn big important moment.
MacMullan: It kind of was.
In 41 matchups, Giannis took 12 shots, scored four points and had an effective field goal percentage (eFG) of 16.7%. Let us just say that swung things the other way. Now as it went along, Giannis got a little better at being guarded by Kawhi, until it came to the all-encompassing Game 6, which is when the best player should shine. I think we agree. Three shots, four points for Kirk's best player in the NBA.
Goldsberry: As you know from your playing days, basketball is a team game. And the Raptors need to be commended for building a superb postseason team that included Marc Gasol -- world champion Marc Gasol. It included Kyle Lowry; Serge Ibaka, a phenomenal defender; Pascal Siakam, a phenomenal defender; Danny Green, a phenomenal defender. Give head coach Nick Nurse and all those dudes credit, they shut down Giannis in that series. Nobody deserves more credit than Kawhi. He is a marvelous on-ball perimeter defender.
The two stats that make me think that Giannis is an even better defender than Kawhi are the following: Out of 38 players who defended at least 300 shots at the rim last season -- that's a lot of the biggest players in league -- he had the best rim-protection score. He's the No. 1 rim-protector of the volume rim-protectors in the NBA. He's a wing!
He also ranked second in defensive rebounding in the NBA ahead of Andre Drummond and just below Joel Embiid. This dude is supposed to be a small forward and he's blocking shots and getting rebounds. Just remember, a stop isn't a stop until somebody gets the board. The board man gets paid, as some say.
MacMullan: But here's what I would say about that -- and I don't want to disparage Giannis because I think he's a terrific player. But Mike Budenholzer was very smart in the way he used Giannis. He used him as an off-the-ball defender who sagged into the lane and protected at the rim, just in the way you've described. I would argue, quite successfully I believe, that that's a little easier to do than to guard some of the best players in the league. By the way, eight of the past nine MVPs in the league have been wing players, where Kawhi's guarding guys on the perimeter.
Now Kawhi said himself during the regular season he was coming back from what we assumed was a serious injury. Who will ever know what went on there? He probably wasn't 100 percent in terms of his pursuit defensively in the regular season. But I'll say it again: For my best player, right now -- not three years from now, because your answer could be correct three years from now -- I want the player when the game is on the line, when my season is on the line, when a trip to the NBA Finals is on the line, I want my guy defending then. And Kawhi did.
Windhorst: Well, when I don't know what the answer is -- and both of you guys have made incredible cases, I'm glad I don't have to adjudicate this myself -- I go to the man who has all the answers. And that's Kevin Pelton. Let's hear what he has to say.
Han: Kevin Pelton! Kevin Pelton! Who's the best player in the NBA?
Pelton: Kawhi Leonard. You know, he adds the most to your chances of winning the championship at this point. You saw him as two-way player in the playoffs last year.
Han: Really? So not Giannis?
Pelton: Giannis is great. I mean, it might be Giannis, but he has to prove it at the highest echelons of the playoffs. He wasn't quite the same player last season in the Eastern Conference finals. Kawhi was the best player in that series, wasn't he?
MacMullan: I'm doing the happy dance over here. Can you see my little happy dance?
Matt Barnes contends that LeBron James being ranked third in the annual NBArank has nothing to do with his overall body of work, just his age.
What about LeBron?
Windhorst: Mr. Pelton has weighed in, but does LeBron James not merit part of the discussion?
MacMullan: Also receiving votes. Sorry. Especially based on what happened last season.
Windhorst: Remember that two years ago, the last time he was healthy, he had arguably the best postseason run of his career. And he will have now come off the longest rest he's had since he's been a professional basketball player.
MacMullan: Oh, he'll be great. He'll be great. But the setup that he's in, I think it's going to be very difficult for him to shine the way he has. I mean, for one thing, when you put Anthony Davis on a team, you have to learn to play around him. But Anthony Davis is going to be learning to play around LeBron at the same time. There is going to be a learning curve with the Los Angeles Lakers that I believe will affect LeBron's productivity.
Goldsberry: Let me add one more thing, a tried-and-true basketball cliche: The best ability is availability. And I would say this hurts both Kawhi and LeBron. Both of these guys have missed significant time in the past couple of seasons -- and that's part of this discussion. LeBron, to his credit, has been the most durable superstar of my life.
Windhorst: Played 82 games two years ago.
MacMullan: Which was a huge mistake.
Goldsberry: With his age at 34, 35, it's fair to question: OK, are we going to revert back to 82-game LeBron or are we going to start seeing load-management LeBron? Or worst-case scenario, are we going to start to see wearing-down LeBron, orthopedic LeBron, muscle-tear LeBron?
MacMullan: Cabernet LeBron's my favorite. But I will say this too: Never count out LeBron, for all sorts of reasons. But in terms of load management and Kawhi, he and the Clippers have already said he's not going to play only 60 games this season. He's going to play more. There were reasons for the way that was done in Toronto.
Windhorst: If he's healthy. We'll see.
MacMullan: Aren't you being a little smirky over there.
Windhorst: Now, what do we do here? We go to Kevin Pelton.
MacMullan: Again, I love Pelton.
Goldsberry: Oh man.
Han: Wait, Kevin, what about LeBron?
Pelton: Again, he's got to prove it. Like, he's 34 years old. He has shown in the past that he can be a different player in the playoffs than the regular season. But we didn't see that last season because he didn't even make the playoffs.
Goldsberry: Wow. He has to prove it? ...
MacMullan: That was an interesting comment.
Windhorst: I would take umbrage with that.
Goldsberry: The decade has just ended. The dude was in the Finals eight years in a row this decade. Won three Finals, three Finals MVP in two different uniforms, in very different situations. He doesn't have anything to prove.
Windhorst: But that was then.
Goldsberry: If there's anything about LeBron, he's proved it all. It's gravy time for LeBron.
MacMullan: So there's one thing we can agree on!
Windhorst: One thing he may prove is that he should have been involved in the first part of this conversation.
MacMullan: We'll see.
Windhorst: All right. Get out of here. I don't want to see you anymore. I'm done. I'm off the clock.
MacMullan: Like we don't have other things to do?
Windhorst: Jackie, where are you going to get that cabernet?