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Who is the Best Offensive Player in Basketball?


In the 2017-18 NBA season, James Harden was awarded his first ever MVP solely based on his offensive genius and team success. The Rockets finished the year 65-17 before being eliminated from the playoffs by the Steph/KD-led Golden State Warriors. While the ultimate goal of winning a championship was not met, Harden had solidified himself as a historically dominant offensive player. But he wasn’t done yet.


Because the very next season, Harden put up the following regular season averages in 78 (!!) games:


PPG: 36.1

REB: 6.6

AST: 7.5

FG%: 44.2

3P%: 36.8

FT%: 87.9


All this to say, James Harden was a damn good offensive player.


But never, at any point in his career, was he the best offensive player in basketball.


That’s because in the 2018-19 season, the absolute prime of James Harden’s illustrious offensive career, there was not one, but three players who were operating at a higher level than him.


Don’t agree with me? I completely understand. But much of the same rationale that brought me to this conclusion is still relevant today. So rather than simply giving you my opinion on who the best offensive player in the NBA is right now, I’d like to share my viewpoint on offensive basketball as a whole.


What Makes a Great Offensive Player?

Steph Curry, Luka Doncic, and Giannis Antetokounmpo will likely all retire as top 20 offensive basketball players of all time. But each of them do it in entirely different ways. Luka might be the best in the NBA with the ball in his hands at sizing up his matchup and creating a basket for himself or a teammate. Giannis makes up for his lack of elite ball skills with a unique blend of point-guard-esque agility and Shaq-like dominance. And in the words of CJ McCollum, Steph Curry is like a “Solar System.” Everything revolves around him.


So how do you distinguish between the three? Or Jokic? Or KD, Embiid, Lebron… the list goes on. The short answer is, well, by nitpicking.


Let’s break offensive basketball down into 5 broad categories and go from there. These categories were selected off of what I believe are the most important aspects of contributing to a championship-level offense.


  • Volume

  • Efficiency

  • Impact On Teammates

  • Portability

  • Clutch-Time Effectiveness/Decision-Making


Volume

In the 2020-21 season, Michael Porter Jr. put up 19 PPG on 54/45 shooting splits, mostly off of contested jump shots and cuts. While these numbers made him indisputably one of the best offensive weapons in the game that year, his volume is what separated him from the truly elite. Could he have maintained that efficiency taking 20 shots per game? Maybe. Probably not.


If you find yourself in an NBA discussion and you hear someone use the label “volume scorer” to discredit an efficient, high-volume scorer, run the other way. In the NBA, players who can produce 25-30 points a night in a playoff series will always hold irreplaceable value.


It’s also important to look at variance in volume based on team need. Last season, Nikola Jokic averaged 27/14/8. This year, he’s down to 20/11/9. This is not because Jokic has taken a step back… his team has simply taken a massive step forward. Incorporating two 20 PPG scorers isn’t easy. And while his volume has dipped, Jokic has improved both his field goal and free throw percentages by 2.9% and 7.5%, respectively, which, considering he was statistically the most efficient basketball player of all time last year, is notable.


Volume Leaders:

1: Luka Doncic

2: Giannis Antetekounmpo

3: Steph Curry

4: Nikola Jokic

5: Kevin Durant/Joel Embiid


Efficiency

Continuing my point on Jokic, he’s averaging 20.3 PPG this season, up only 0.8 points on Jalen Green’s season averages. Efficiency is what makes up the hole-so-big-you-could-drive-an-18-wheeler-through-it gap between the two. While Jalen Green will probably be an excellent player someday, right now he is the actual definition of a volume scorer. He just chucks up shots. Some go in, some don’t. Every shot Jokic takes feels like a surgical incision from Dr. House (I’m assuming his surgeries typically went well, I’ve never actually watched the show).


After posting the highest single season PER (player efficiency rating) in NBA history last season, Jokic, as mentioned earlier, has gotten even more efficient offensively. While his 3P% has dipped, his volume of long range attempts has been almost sliced in half - Jokic isn’t taking threes anymore because he doesn’t need to. All it takes is two pound dribbles and all of the sudden he’s in position for a layup or baby-hook that seemingly never misses. The one-legged “Sombor-Shuffle” that helped make Jokic a household name is also pretty much a thing of the past. At this point in his career, you’re surprised every time a Jokic shot attempt doesn’t find the bottom of the net, and while it’s less fun than his early career magic, you have to acknowledge the art.


Luka Doncic, while less efficient, provides similar scoring headaches. But where the two are most similar is in their passing. While Luka and Jokic may operate from different areas of the court, they both share a remarkable ability to seemingly always put the ball in the right place. NBA defenses are designed to be unpredictable. This century of basketball has adjusted (along with newly implemented rule changes) to feature more and more scheming (Thinking Basketball did a great job of explaining this on videos like these: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jbNS09Rt4u8&t=10s). Take for example Game 7 of last year’s Mavericks-Suns playoff matchup. Jason Kidd and the Mavericks confused Devin Booker all night long with calculated help defense, and effectively ignored Chris Paul off the ball. Yes, you read that correctly. A top 5 point guard of all time was ignored as an off-ball threat. If you have any weaknesses at all in today’s game, defenses will find them.


Players like Luka and Lebron are impossible to exploit. Whether you double team them or let them operate on their own islands, they will eat you alive. Would you rather Luka back your point guard down in the post or deliver a pinpoint pass to a 40% three point shooter in the corner? Either way, you lose. The elite offensive basketball players aren’t simply high efficiency scorers; they are elite playmakers with counters for anything a defense is likely to throw at them.


Efficiency Leaders:

  1. Nikola Jokic

  2. Stephen Curry

  3. Giannis Antetekounmpo

  4. Luka Doncic

  5. Kevin Durant

(Honorable mention: Jimmy Butler)


Impact on Teammates

This aspect of offense is definitely the most subjective. NBA “analysts” will use the phrase: “he just makes his teammates better” for just about any basketball player they want, but that doesn’t exactly make it true.


Let’s start with two players who I believe detract from the players around them:


James Harden

Luka Doncic


Put down the pitchforks for a moment and I’ll explain.


Luka Doncic, by any measure, is a top 5 player in basketball right now. He is also a top 5 passer in basketball. When you have Luka Doncic on your team, you can deploy 4 G-League players next to him and still tread water offensively.


But, like Harden, he does very little without the ball in his hands. Think about this for a moment: When was the last time you saw Luka Doncic take a catch-and-shoot jumpshot? It’s not a weapon he deploys very often. A staggering 90% of his made shots are unassisted, up from his league-leading 85% last season. If that number holds, which wouldn’t be at all surprising to anyone who’s watched Mavericks basketball this season, it would be the highest single-season mark in NBA history, narrowly defeating, you guessed it, James Harden.


Have you ever played pickup with a guy who’s clearly the best player on the floor, who just did everything for your team? While you may have won the game, how did you play? Did you feel like you were in rhythm? Confident? If the answer is no, well, you’re human. And so are NBA players.


Certain players are built for this role, and the Mavericks have wisely surrounded Luka with Dorian Finney-Smiths and Reggie Bullocks. But, Luka’s mesmerizing greatness aside, the Mavericks are a pretty difficult watch. The only rhythm in their offense comes from extra passes jumpstarted from a Luka kickout. Luka leads the league in both seconds and dribbles per touch by a healthy margin. Likewise, James Harden is second (behind Luka) in time of possession this season… on a team that features perennial MVP candidate Joel Embiid.


Yikes.


Luka Doncic holding the ball for as long as he does for the Mavericks is excusable. Harden posting league-leading numbers on a 76ers team that employs Embiid, Maxey, and Tobias Harris is criminal.


This is where Nikola Jokic and Steph Curry shine brightest.


Nikola Jokic has created a uniquely beautiful niche on the Nuggets as a 280-pound distribution hub. From the center of the floor, he initiates offense, runs pick and rolls (as both the ball-handler and screener), finds cutters and skip passes, and spaces the floor. Here’s a stat for you:


He’s 2nd in the league in touches, ahead of every player not named Tyrese Haliburton (? I really need to watch more Pacers games). Despite touching the ball at a higher frequency, his time of possession is less than half that of Luka or Harden. This means he’s getting the ball and either scoring, or keeping the ball moving. He initiates a motion offense that enables off-ball players like Michael Porter Jr and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to roam the court freely and seek out advantageous situations. Jamal Murray, a ball-dominant point guard, loves playing with Nikola Jokic. Together, they form the deadliest pick-and-roll duo in basketball. With Nikola Jokic on the floor, every single player on the Nuggets is a threat to score, and this provides two major advantages: 1) His teammates are active and engaged and 2) Defenses become both mentally and physically drained from the sheer amount of movement and unpredictability. For these reasons, I believe Nikola Jokic has the most positive impact on his teammates in the league.


Stephen Curry is my second pick, and it isn’t particularly close. I won’t go into too much detail about his “gravity” because you’ve likely heard it a million times but… man… Steph attracts a lot of attention. Sure, the Warriors have invented an intricate offense designed to cater to Curry’s needs, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that Curry uses this system to free up his teammates to run wild. The Warriors have become the NBA’s auto body repair shop. Career starting to tail off? Not getting the attention you deserve? Come on down to the Golden State Warriors where Steph Curry will run a 5k around you every single game and defenses will forget you’re even on the court!


Impact on Teammates Leaders

  1. Nikola Jokic

  2. Steph Curry

  3. Chris Paul

  4. Jimmy Butler

  5. Giannis Antetekounmpo


Portability

This concept shares many of the same ideas as the last category. Portability, in NBA terms, is the ability to fit into any system and be effective. It’s why players like Kevin Durant and Nikola Jokic are unicorns. And it’s why James Harden has never been the best offensive player in basketball (this, along with the next category).


The three players I had listed as better offensive basketball players than Harden during his historic 2018-19 season were Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and Kawhi Leonard. Steph, as we’ve covered, has such a positive impact on teammates with his spacing and off-ball movement that he can seamlessly fit with other scorers (such as Durant, Klay, and Jordan Poole) without detracting from the things they do best. Durant is just a pure basketball player who is uniquely capable of getting his numbers efficiently without stepping on any toes. And Kawhi, at his peak, was very much like Durant. Maybe he still is. What injury does he even have again? I can’t keep up at this point.


Aside from a brief stint during his first year in Brooklyn, James Harden has never demonstrated an ability to play with other stars. After every Sixers game this season, I picture Joel Embiid going home to his multi-million dollar mansion and looking to the stars, asking what he did to deserve to be James Harden’s spot-up shooter.


Now you might be saying to yourself that prime James Harden justified this kind of special treatment. And you’d be right… sort of. James Harden’s offensive greatness was enough to make Houston a perennial finals contender.


But they never won it. Or made it, for that matter. In 2018, it was the infamous 7-44 shooting performance from three that doomed the Rockets. In 2019, Stephen Curry overcame the absence of Kevin Durant to score 33 points in the second half after being held scoreless in the first. Time after time, the Warriors found a way to win, and Harden… well, didn’t.


And to Harden’s credit, most stars aren’t capable of winning a championship alone. That’s fine. Not being good enough to win a title on your own and not being effective playing next to other stars… well, that’s a recipe for consistent disappointment. Enter Russell Westbroo-


Actually nevermind. I’ve pissed off enough fanbases for one article.


Nikola Jokic is another player who I believe would fit nicely into any NBA system, but I bumped him down to third simply because he monopolizes the center position of any team he plays on. Jokic could slim down 100 pounds and I still wouldn’t want to see him on the Timberwolves.


Portability Leaders

  1. Stephen Curry

  2. Kevin Durant

  3. Nikola Jokic

  4. Paul George

  5. Giannis Antetekounmpo


Crunch Time Effectiveness/Decision-Making

I’m not going to give you some NBA.com “last 5 minutes with the score within x amount of points” definition for this category. I consider crunch time effectiveness to be a player’s ability to get to his spots and create offense down the stretch against any defense in high-level basketball games. Think Kawhi closing out the Sixers in game 7. Lebron and Kyrie leading a 3-1 comeback against the Warriors. Curry elevating his game to another level against the best defense in basketball in the Garden last June.


Much of this category is mental, so picture a spectrum for me. One end of the spectrum is Mamba Mentality. You’ll find players like Kobe and MJ here. On the other end is Kwame Brown Mentality. I’d say every NBA player pretty much falls somewhere in-between.


Excelling in this category also takes a combination of high-level decision-making, calmness under pressure, and contested shot-making. This is why Lebron James could be 40 years of age and I’d still like for him to have the ball in my team’s hands in the fourth quarter. He’s done it at a high level for years now and his decision making is as refined as anyone’s. Curry has had his struggles in crunch-time over the years, but has had his fair share of monstrous games in the playoffs as well. His performance in last year’s finals really won over a lot of people, including myself.


This category, however, is very difficult to make a ranking for. So much of it is subjective. You know about Lebron, Durant, and Curry because they’ve done it now for years. But have you forgotten that Jimmy Butler looked like the MVP of the playoffs during the first 2 rounds last year? What about Jokic posting a combined 82 points, 19 rebounds, and 17 assists in games five and six without Jamal Murray to close out Damian Lillard and the Blazers? Paul George going toe to toe with Lebron during his time with the Pacers? Great moments get swept under the rug, and many players like Jokic, Embiid, and even Giannis are still building their respective legacies.


So? Who’s the Best Offensive Player in Basketball?

Throughout the course of this article, we’ve established that to pick a “best offensive player,” we need to look at five distinct factors. We want a player who can score and assist with elite volume and efficiency, while elevating those around him. We also want a player who can seamlessly slide into any system and excel, as well as carry a team down the stretch of a tight game or playoff series.


Here are my legitimate contenders:


  • Luka Doncic

  • Giannis Antetekounmpo

  • Nikola Jokic

  • Lebron James

  • Joel Embiid

  • Kevin Durant

  • Steph Curry

(Outside looking in: Ja Morant, Jayson Tatum)


So let’s start narrowing them down.


First Elimination: Joel Embiid

Joel Embiid is an electrifying offensive player. His combination of size, agility, and scoring ability make him an absolute defensive nightmare. His foul-drawing, while annoying to watch, is effective. But he has weaknesses and, like I said to begin this article, we’re nitpicking.


While he’s made improvements in this area, Embiid responds poorly to double teams and is turnover prone at times. Additionally, he’s become the punching bag of Inside the NBA for his reluctance to put his head down and dominate in the paint. While Charles Barkley and Shaq definitely exaggerate this a bit (and seemingly forget that Embiid shot 37% from three last season), Embiid does have an irritating habit of letting teams off the hook. He’s bound for one or two games a year that make you scratch your head in confusement. He’s had his fair share of playoff clunkers as well.


Embiid is elite but hasn't quite reached the top of this list yet. Hopefully he doesn’t complain to the media about not winning this award.


Second Elimination: Lebron James

Yeah this feels weird. But I really don’t know what to make of Lebron at this point in his career. It feels like he’s fully accepted the Lakers’ mediocrity and is just going to be chasing records until his son enters the league. I don’t see the same fire, the same drive… the Lebron of old would never have re-signed with this Lakers franchise.


However, he’s still damn good offensively even if it feels like he’s stat-padding at times. With his athleticism (slowly) fading away, he’s leaned heavily into jump shooting and post-ups with encouraging results. His cross-court passing remains deadly, he just doesn’t have the shooters to capitalize off of it.


While Embiid will put up more numbers and wins this season than Lebron, I still just feel more confidence in The King than I do The Process to perform in a playoff series. The last time we saw a fully healthy Lebron in the playoffs was the bubble season and he looked downright dominant in the paint. I’d be fascinated to see how he would perform in a healthy situation, but for now, he assumes the sixth spot.


Third Elimination: Kevin Durant

A young Kevin Durant would be much higher. Even at 34, he grades out extremely well in each of the five categories I listed above. He doesn’t exactly elevate his teammates like a Steph Curry or Nikola Jokic, but he is excellent at both meshing with elite talent and leading subpar talent. His playoff collapse last season was alarming, but I think speaks more towards the Nets’ dysfunction and the Celtics’ defense than any sort of weakness in Durant’s offensive game. With that being said, it did look like he had difficulties taking his defenders off the dribble which is definitely something to keep an eye on.


The only reason I don’t have him higher is because, while his passing has improved, he doesn’t provide the same headaches as the four players listed above. Unfortunately, he’s in a similar situation as Lebron, rotting away due to a situation he himself helped create so he may not have the opportunity to climb this list anytime soon. Here’s to hoping he re-opens his trade demands before the deadline.


Fourth and Fifth Eliminations - Tie: Luka Doncic and Giannis Antetekounmpo

As you might imagine, this article took more than a few hours to put together. Once I got to this point in the cutting process, I didn’t have it in me to decide between these two so I decided to take a break. I drank a protein shake, played some 2k… all the while wondering who to cut. Well, fast forward 3 hours later and, well, I still don’t know who to cut so we’re going to call this one a tie. Trust me, I hate it as much as you do. But let me explain.


Both have proven to be absolute killers in the playoffs. Both cannot be gameplanned against. Once upon a time you could “build a wall” against Giannis but those days are long gone. Luka has so many counters, you’d think he’s played professional basketball since he was like 16 years old or something… oh wait… yeah, makes sense.


They just beat you in such different ways. Luka is an iso-machine who might have already surpassed James Harden on the list of best Harden-ball players of all time. His passing vision is elite, his deliveries are mesmerizing, and his ability to improvise makes you wonder if his family actually allowed him a childhood, or if they just locked him in a gym and told him to get cooking.


But I still have doubts about his ability to make his teammates better. While Kristaps Porzingis was never going to be a #2 on a championship contender, he’s proven with both the Knicks and Wizards that he has the ability to play at a level that he could never replicate as Luka’s spot-up guy. Until Dallas acquires a true co-star for Luka (Or Doncic just elevates his game to the point of winning a title without one), I’m still going to have concerns over his playstyle.


Giannis, on the other hand, could fit in any system. He’s created a body that’s so strong and agile that trying to stop him from reaching the paint is just a formality at this point. He’s also made legitimate strides as a passer, roll-man, and mid-range shooter. He’s the most dominant force in basketball and he does it without detracting from those around him.


But he has glaring weaknesses. He still can’t really shoot from behind the arc. His free throw shooting is streaky. The Bucks have wisely deviated from the Giannis-at-point attack that they deployed early on in his career due to his struggles both shooting and breaking down a defender. To put it simply, he’s still very raw, which is why I can’t put him over someone like Luka with an immensely refined offensive game. But at the end of the day results matter more than optics. Shaq was still a more dominant scorer than Kobe at his peak, as remarkable as that is to say given their skill discrepancy. In this case, I don’t think one of these two has done enough for me to clearly pick between them so we'll call them a tie for now.


Sixth Elimination: Steph Curry

I considered two players for my top spot. Curry was the odd man out. He has cemented himself as a top 10 offensive player this game has ever seen by proving that he is, in the words of Stephen A Smith, “THE BEST SHOOTAH THAT GAWD HAS EVAH CREATED!!”


He is absolutely elite at every element of offensive basketball that a player of his size and athleticism is allowed. His never-ending-movement and minimal required shooting window go hand-in-hand to create perhaps the most frustrating basketball player to play against of all time. This season, he looks to be his best self, with current shooting splits of 51/43/93 while averaging 32.6 points a night.


Yeah, that just isn’t fair.


The only feather left to add to his decorated cap was an elite finals performance as his team’s number one option and he delivered that and then some for the Warriors last June. While Curry was not my first choice, he’s done nothing to make this decision easy on me. I simply believe my first choice brings a skillset to the table that hasn’t fully been realized by the majority of NBA fans.


Which brings me to my selection for the best offensive player in basketball:


Nikola Jokic

We’ve come a long way. I went into this endeavor expecting to pick Jokic, but prepared to be open-minded to other possible candidates. Curry made me the most uncomfortable. But at the end of the day, what Nikola Jokic is doing is unprecedented.


Jokic is bordering on 300 pounds. Seldom does he step on the court against a player remotely capable of stopping his methodical backdowns. No one can stop him from getting to his favorite spots in the post, and once he gets there, he can unleash an array of shimmies, hooks, and scoop layups to beat his defender. His “Somber-Shuffle” that looked like it was going to be his signature move in the league was practically shelved… too low-percentage I suppose when you can get layups every possession.


His scoring efficiency is downright ridiculous. Last season, he was the first player of all time to shoot over 58.3% from the field, 33% from downtown, and 81% from the line. He’s elevated his field goal and free throw percentages this season while slicing his three point attempts almost in half.


His PER (Player Efficiency Rating) last season is the highest on record, surpassing all-time greats like Jordan, Lebron, Kareem. He finished top 10 in both points (27.1) and assists (7.9) per game, while also ranking second in rebounds per game for good measure. By any advanced metric, Jokic was the best offensive player in basketball last season. Based on stats alone, the guy is in the midst of a top 5 peak in offensive history.


In the playoffs, this level of dominance has held up quite well. With four trips to the postseason under his belt, he boasts averages of 26/12/6 while maintaining his elite efficiency. He’s already had his fair share of memorable moments, such as co-leading two 3-1 comebacks in the 2019-2020 playoffs with Jamal Murray, while knocking out the title-favorite Clippers in the process. His duel with Damian Lillard in the 2020-2021 season without Murray, as mentioned earlier in this article, was another absolutely elite showing by Jokic.


In present time, the Nuggets are off to a 7-3 start while incorporating Jamal Murray and Micahel Porter Jr back into the lineup. Expect them to finish near the top of the west come April.


Impressed? Well I haven’t even mentioned his passing yet which, by any measure, is the best of all time from a big man. His ability to pick a team apart from the top of the key and low post is unmatched, and he’s developed such a well-rounded offensive attack that he has the tools to respond to any form of a resistance that a defense can throw at him.


Nikola Jokic is a robot. His playstyle is so simple, yet effective that it almost looks like he’s cheating. But in the NBA, you’re not looking for someone who can make the highlight reels every night. You’re looking for someone who can run your offense to perfection and take you to the promised land.


And for my money, the best man in the world to do that is Nikola Jokic.

 

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