NBA Player Tiers: Kevin Durant, Steph Curry hang on in Tier 1, but how much longer?

NBA Player Tiers: Kevin Durant, Steph Curry hang on in Tier 1, but how much longer?

This is the fifth annual NBA Player Tiers project, in which Seth Partnow names the top 125 players in the league after each season and then separates them into five distinct categories of value, each with their sub-categories to further delineate them. These are not meant to be read as firm 1-125 player rankings. Rather, they’re meant to separate solid starters from the very best superstars, and every level in between. This is how NBA front offices assess player value across the league when building their teams.

NBA Player Tiers: ’20 | ’21 | ’22 | ‘23 | ’24 pre-playoffs | ’24: T5 | T4| T3 | T2

The NBA is undergoing a changing of the guard. While Tier 1 has been relatively stable during the five seasons I’ve done this exercise — only nine players have been in Tier 1 at least once, with the six below plus LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and James Harden — many of the stalwarts are facing the ticking of the clock, while the next wave, such as Jayson Tatum, Anthony Edwards and, of course, Victor Wembanyama, are knocking on the door.

I could have gone several ways with this group, from having only a super select top three or four making up the entirety of the tier to rewarding some of those up-and-comers at the expense of the old warhorses, and I wouldn’t much argue with those who saw it that way.

But for now, here are the cream of the crop.

Tier 1B (4-6)

Remarkably, a 62.6 true shooting percentage on 29.0 usage represents a down year for Kevin Durant, even compared to just the post-Achilles tear section of his career. The poorly constructed and extremely top-heavy Phoenix Suns roster did him few favors, which raises a question that has only factored tangentially into the tiers over the years: How much should player influence on roster decisions and coaching hires be factored in?

It’s a challenge to do so systematically. At least from the outside, who advocated for what move or how much weight an organization gives to a star’s wishes are difficult to determine. But the balance of reporting indicates that Brooklyn/Phoenix era Durant has demanded many things and received most of them, including the hiring and firing of coaches.

It is often said that coaches shouldn’t be GMs because there isn’t enough time in the day to do both jobs well. This holds even more true for players. But how much is it on the players when it happens? It’s a hard one to judge, but it’s something that likely needs to enter the calculus when considering later career superstars such as Durant, LeBron James or one or two others.

All of this is to note that Durant barely maintained his spot in Tier 1 this year and will need a strong performance — including the playoffs — in 2024-25 to be worthy of staying here.

Another former MVP somewhere on the back nine of his career is Stephen Curry. With the Golden State Warriors missing the playoffs, has Curry’s ability to drag indifferent teammates to success waned, or did Golden State find the bottom edge of overall roster ability at which he could do so? Or was it perhaps some combination of both?

Make no mistake, Curry is still a great, great player. But there are subtle signs of decline. His rim-attempt rate was the lowest of his career by a decent margin. His ability to impact the game as a team defender has dropped off considerably — over the last two seasons, he has averaged 1.2 steals per 100 possessions, precisely half of the 2.4/100 he maintained over the first 13 years of his career.

For the first time other than 2019-20, when he appeared in only five games, 2023-24 was the first time the Warriors were superior in terms of net rating with Curry off the floor than on, with Golden State 0.6 points per 100 possessions better when Curry was on the bench, compared to 14.5 per 100 better with Curry on the floor from his first MVP season in 2014-15 through 2022-23. At 35, there is no shame in acknowledging that Curry is not quite the automatic driver of elite offense that he has been for most of his career, but that dip does move him down from 1A to 1B.

For Joel Embiid, it is seemingly always something: Bad health, be it either his health or his teammates’; a ball bouncing four times on the rim and then dropping to eliminate the Sixers from the playoffs; star players falling out with the organization, requiring trades or other reshuffling of the lineup. All of these and more have conspired to keep Embiid from ever reaching the conference finals, which is unfortunate because by several impact metrics, Embiid has been the second-most-effective regular-season player in the league across the last four seasons, behind only Nikola Jokić’s all-time great run.

This past season, you couldn’t have asked for more from Embiid himself, either in the regular season or in the Sixers’ short playoff run. But he still hasn’t truly stamped his authority on a postseason and has never consistently hit the same level of dominance. His playoff shortcomings have probably been overblown, with a career 58.0 percent true shooting on 31.6 percent usage. But ignoring his abbreviated rookie year, he has 61.6 percent true shooting on 35.5 percent usage. The latter is otherworldly, while the former is merely damn good.

There have been myriad reasons for the lack of extended playoff success, many of them completely outside Embiid’s control. But it has always been something, and that’s enough to keep him in Tier 1B for now.

Tier 1A (1-3)

For all the complexity the NBA game offers, basketball can be pretty simple. Pair an offensive force with the size, vision and ability to draw extra defenders with a dynamic rim threat (or two!) and surround them with shooters, and that’s a hard formula to stop. While Luka Dončić was good all year, the midseason trades that brought in Daniel Gafford and P.J. Washington helped both Dončić and the Mavericks reach exit velocity and launch into orbit.

It wasn’t just a more favorable context. Dončić made some subtle but telling improvements, becoming a more active off-ball participant — a higher percentage of his made 3s were assisted than any season since his rookie year — while also upping his defensive contributions.

The defense was an unsung part of the Mavs’ run to the NBA Finals. While Dončić was rarely if ever tasked with the primary matchup against the opposition’s top weapons, he made more effective use of his size and game-reading ability, particularly against the Oklahoma City Thunder and Minnesota Timberwolves.

While our lasting memory might be the disappointment of Dallas losing the finals, that is as much an illustration of how even top superstars need a bit of good fortune to reach the pinnacle. Not only did the Celtics significantly out-talent Dallas top to bottom, but Boston was as well-equipped to deal with Dončić on its own defensive end while having the range and volume of on-ball creators to attack him in ways other teams couldn’t on defense.

There is still some room for improvement, as Dončić’s conditioning could probably use an upgrade, while his penchant for engaging with officials — occasionally picking up some silly fouls such as in Game 3 of the finals series — could stand to be scaled back significantly. But using those quibbles to keep him out of Tier 1A would be setting a near impossible standard that few players in NBA history, let alone current day, could match.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is the only player who has resided in Tier 1A in every year-end edition of the Tiers. For the first time, I had some slight doubts putting him here. He has missed time in four of the last five postseasons, including the entirety of the Bucks’ stay this year. During that stretch, Milwaukee has lost its first-round series as a higher seed twice, something definitely held against other players, though, of course, his dominance through the 2021 playoffs has and will continue to buy Antetokounmpo good will on that front.

There is also worry about how robust his impact will be as he approaches 30, which he will reach in early December. Some of it was surely because of Milwaukee’s rather disheveled start to the season from a schematic and coaching standpoint, but Antetokounmpo’s struggle to find synergy with Damian Lillard could reflect a degree of inflexibility or stubbornness that could prove challenging as he begins to age and lose some of his athleticism.

There have been suggestions that the Bucks have been somewhat limited in their ability to be tactically versatile; considering how important adjusting and iterating has become in the postseason, limiting those options is a drawback. Antetokounmpo enters next season on the bubble for dropping out of Tier 1A for the first time.

Having gone through 124 players, we are left with the reigning (and should be four-time consecutive, but why relitigate that particularly noxious debate?) MVP Nikola Jokić at the top of the heap. Even though the Nuggets ultimately fell to Minnesota in seven games in what was the best series of this past postseason, Jokić left some indelible memories. His third quarter in Game 5 against the Wolves defies description, for example.

During his three-in-four MVP run, Jokić has averaged a combined 26.1 points, 12.2 rebounds, 8.7 assists, 1.4 steals and 0.8 blocks per game. Even lowering those thresholds to 25/10/7.5/1/0.5, no other player has hit those heights even once.

And he has done it while scoring efficiently enough to lead the league twice and finish second twice in “TS Add” — a metric created by Basketball-Reference indicating the number of points above (or below) a player scores than he would have had he scored at league average on the same number of attempts.

To repeat one last time, these tiers are not rankings.

But if they were, the Joker would be No. 1.

NBA Player Tiers: ’20 | ’21 | ’22 | ‘23 | ’24 pre-playoffs | ’24: T5 | T4| T3 | T2


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(Illustration: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic: Photos: Sean Gardner, Noah Graham / NBAE, Jesse D. Garrabrant / NBAE via Getty Images)

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