In any NBA season, there are two major questions beyond who will win the title:
1.) Who's the alpha dog on your favorite team? 2.) Which of those alpha dogs is the very best?
Answering both of those queries will go a long way toward determining who emerges as NBA champion. With the 2016-17 season right around the corner, we're parsing through each team's roster to find the best player on every squad. And just for good measure, we ranked them against each other. You won't be surprised by the man who claims No. 1. The second and third spots on this list, however, are a different story.
(Note: Players are ranked based on a number of stats, both advanced and basic, an understanding of how the game is evolving, and discussions with NBA observers. These are not projections for the 2016-17 season; this is a look at the best players for each team at this very moment.)
Getty ImagesEzra Shaw
Timofey Mozgov, C, Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers have a ton of young talent worth getting excited about in the years to come (and Julius Randle, too). For now, the debate over the team's best player is just depressing. You can't go with D'Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, or Brandon Ingram; they're too raw and unproven, although I'm almost inclined to go with one of the young guards.
You could make a case for Lou Williams or Luol Deng, veterans who know their roles. In fact, on my first pass on this list, I had Williams as the Lakers' representative. It's hard to go with an award-winning bench player as a team's top option, though.
The answer is probably Mozgov, the high-priced free-agent acquisition who boasts a championship ring along with the ability to defend the rim and clean up the glass. He had a down year in Cleveland last season, but he was a big part of the Cavs' Finals run in 2014-15. He's a solid center, if nothing more. When you're as close to rock-bottom as the Lakers, solid talent is a luxury.
L.A. better hope Mozgov is the team's best player, anyway, after giving him a four-year deal for $64 million. Take heart, Lakers fans. Better days are coming soon.
Getty ImagesHarry How
Nerlens Noel, PF, Philadelphia 76ers
I'm a huge Nerlens Noel fan — or I was, anyway, back when he was a draft prospect brimming with potential, passed on by my favorite team, the Suns. He hasn't panned out, whether by his own fault or because of structural issues with the Sixers. I'd still rather have Noel than Jahlil Okafor, though, and Joel Embiid has to prove he's healthy before I can consider him for this spot.
Getty ImagesJoe Robbins
Danilo Gallinari, SF, Denver Nuggets
This time next year, Denver's representative might be Nikola Jokic, who had a stronger case for Rookie of the Year in 2015-16 than you might think. For now, "The Rooster" rules the Nuggets. Sadly, that means toiling in relative obscurity while the basketball world pretends you don't exist.
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Brook Lopez, C, Brooklyn Nets
Speaking of everyone ignoring your existence: Brook Lopez! Outside of a few injuries, Lopez has been a steady presence in the middle for one of the most forgettable franchises in NBA history — and in a league that's rapidly moving away from traditional centers. He really deserves better.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, G/F, Milwaukee Bucks
A few weeks ago, Khris Middleton would have claimed top billing for the Bucks, with his combination of outstanding 3-point shooting and lockdown defense (a skill set you'll find I value highly as we continue with this list). Antetokounmpo is a worthy choice as well, although I worry that people have confused his potential for actual accomplishment. With that said, there's no question the Greek star improves every year.
Getty ImagesRocky W. Widner
Serge Ibaka, PF, Orlando Magic
Give it a year or two and Aaron Gordon will be the best player on the Magic. Until then, I'm counting on last year's struggles being a fluke for Ibaka — so long as his injury history doesn't become a problem this season. At his best, the former Thunder big man remains one of the game's top rim protectors, and he's capable of stretching the floor with a solid outside shot. He should thrive amid Orlando's youth movement.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY SportsKim Klement
Eric Bledsoe, PG, Phoenix Suns
I was truly tempted to rank Devin Booker as the Suns' best player, but it seemed just a bit premature to go with the phenom entering his second season. He's going to be amazing, though. Bledsoe is a stud when he's healthy; that qualifier is the problem, unfortunately. Every jaw-dropping move from the Phoenix point guard comes with the worry that he'll hurt himself once again. If he can make it through the season unscathed, the Suns should be a lot of fun.
Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY SportAnthony Gruppuso
Hassan Whiteside, C, Miami Heat
I wanted to boycott this entry out of sadness for Chris Bosh, who's obviously the best player on the Heat roster. Instead, I suppose I'll point out Whiteside's blocks and rebounds, which are impressive on paper. I'm not entirely sure they help the Heat win games, though. It too often seems like Whiteside is chasing loose balls and shots at the rim to pad his stats and prove that he still belongs, rather than deterring opponents from challenging him in the first place.
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Andre Drummond, C, Detroit Pistons
Drummond hasn't taken the step forward as a defender many expected under coach Stan Van Gundy. His struggles at the free-throw line and anywhere outside the immediate vicinity of the basket limit his value on offense, too. Drummond remains one of the NBA's best rebounders, however, and the 23-year-old still has time to mature into an all-around star.
Raj Mehta-USA TODAY SportsRaj Mehta
Nicolas Batum, SF, Charlotte Hornets
A cursory glance at the numbers would indicate that Kemba Walker is Charlotte's best player. Maybe that's true. He's certainly the most important Hornet, and he had a tremendous season in 2015-16. Look a little closer, however, and you'll notice that Walker's performance plummeted when Batum was on the bench. The former Blazer's versatility unlocks Charlotte's potential; his defense transforms the Hornets into one of the league's better teams, even if few people are paying attention.
Getty ImagesStreeter Lecka
Gordon Hayward, SF, Utah Jazz
The Jazz were one of the toughest teams to narrow down to just one top player. If you want Derrick Favors or even Rudy Gobert for Utah, I won't argue too much. Regardless, it doesn't change the Jazz's relative position on this list. The team's strength for this season should be its depth and all-around talent, a combination which has many picking Utah as a potential playoff sleeper for homecourt advantage in the first round out West.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY SportsDale Zanine
Mike Conley, PG, Memphis Grizzlies
My soul aches for not having Marc Gasol in this spot, but I'm worried that the Grizzlies big man is breaking down. Foot injuries have a tendency to linger, especially in guys Gasol's size. In that case, I don't mind taking Conley as Memphis' best player. He's one of the league's most underrated point guards, as evidenced by the bewildered reaction to his massive payday this summer.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY SportsMark J. Rebilas
Carmelo Anthony, SF, New York Knicks
Give me Olympic Melo, and I put him in the top three basketball players in history. Regular ol' NBA Melo, on the other hand, has to make due with still being one of the top 25 players in the league. No one makes difficult shots look as easy as the Knicks forward; that same thirst for knocking down buckets in an opponent's eye keeps Melo from climbing this list.
Dirk Nowitzki, PF, Dallas Mavericks
Non-Mavs fans might argue this is too high for a 38-year-old big man with nearly 50,000 minutes played in the regular season, especially putting him over Melo. I don't care; until Dirk literally cannot get up and down the court, he's capable of lifting an offense (and a team) to respectability. The defense, of course, is a different matter entirely, but in Dirk we trust.
Damian Lillard, PG, Portland Trail Blazers
Lillard's success in the clutch has led to an outsized reputation among certain NBA fans. He's an outstanding scoring point guard who works very well with Blazers shooting guard C.J. McCollum. When Lillard's 3-point shot is on, few can match his electric outbursts. Yet he takes a ton of shots to put up his huge points totals. For all those reasons, he comes in just behind the next two players on this list.
Getty ImagesEzra Shaw
John Wall, PG, Washington Wizards
I'm not one to indulge the whole "true point guard" debate; the position envelops several different approaches to initiating the offense, from the classic assist-first mentality to the Damian Lillards and Stephen Currys of the world. With that said, Wall is certainly your prototypical passer. Maybe if the Wizards had decent scoring options around him, they'd be a contender.
Kyle Lowry, PG, Toronto Raptors
Lowry isn't anywhere near Wall's level as a passer, and he's not quite as dynamic a scorer as Lillard. The Raptors star is the best defender of the bench, however, and he's the best all-around point guard as well. He's an extraordinarily efficient scorer who can finish at the rim or fill it up from deep, and he's equally capable feeding DeMar DeRozan and the rest of his Toronto teammates. There's a reason Team USA played some of its best ball in Rio when Lowry was on the floor.
NBAE/Getty ImagesRon Turenne
Paul Millsap, PF, Atlanta Hawks
Dwight Howard has way more name recognition, but Millsap is clearly the best player on the Hawks. He's often heralded for his versatility, and that's well-deserved. Don't overlook how dominant the Atlanta big man can be, however. If he knocks down a few shots from the outside, defenders start to cheat on him. Then, he has the skill and quickness to put the ball on the floor and get to the rim. On defense, he rarely makes a mistake, making opponents earn every inch of space and every glance at the rim.
Russ Isabella-USA TODAY SportsRussell Isabella
Jimmy Butler, SF, Chicago Bulls
Rajon Rondo has always been overrated, and Dwyane Wade is old, so Butler claims the throne as the best player in Chicago. (Seriously, Wade is still a stellar offensive player, but even he already admitted that this will be Butler's team. He's not the All-Star he used to be. That's okay!)
Butler is among the league's elite wing defenders, and he's creative enough off of the dribble to give Bulls fans some hope that their offense will work this year. Butler lacks a consistent 3-point shot, however, which might spell disaster for Chicago's spacing.
DeMarcus Cousins, C, Sacramento Kings
Watching Cousins is one of the most satisfying, joyful experiences in the NBA today. Every moment is packed with equal parts off-the-cuff emotion and rim-rocking domination. In an era of floor-spacing bigs, Boogie harkens back to the destructive force centers used to bring to the table — while still being able to step outside and knock down a 3 of his own.
Still, Cousins has yet to show that he makes teams better or helps you win games. As much as I love watching him, I can't put him any higher on this list of the league's best players.
Anthony Davis, PF, New Orleans Pelicans
In the rush to crown The Brow as the next great big man, we failed to give Davis room to grow into the player he actually is: a fantastic offensive threat who leaves a lot to be desired on defense. Few big men can score from as many spots on the floor as Davis, which might be enough to make him an MVP candidate. For now, let's pump the brakes a little bit and hope that Davis can have a healthy, productive 2016-17 season.
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Karl-Anthony Towns, C, Minnesota Timberwolves
Did we overreact to Anthony Davis early in his career and thrust undue expectations on The Brow? You bet.
Am I doing the exact same thing with Towns? Probably!
I'm willing to take that risk because Towns looks like the kind of once-in-a-generation player who leads a team to multiple championships. I don't mean he looks like he could be that player someday; he was that player in 2015-16, during a rookie campaign that drew comparisons to the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Shaquille O'Neal.
What separates Towns from Davis before him is defensive instincts. As mentioned in the previous entry, we were always projecting that Davis could eventually become an elite defender, catching up to his ridiculous offensive skills. Towns is already a top-flight rim protector, thanks in part to a one-year apprenticeship under Kevin Garnett. He doesn't need to learn how to play defense like Davis does. All that's left for Towns is continuing to refine his already phenonemal game.
I'm sorry. Towns is going to be one of the greatest ever. I can't help myself.
Getty ImagesAdam Bettcher
Al Horford, C, Boston Celtics
The single most underrated player in the eyes of the general NBA fan, Horford's all-around excellence made him the second-biggest free agent this summer. He can play multiple positions, he's an incredibly smart player, and his defense helped shape the Hawks into one of the league's stingiest teams. Those who regularly watch Horford appreciate how good he is; those who have skipped watching Atlanta will recoil at this ranking. That's fine. I probably can't convince you that Horford is this good.
The 2016-17 season will have to do that. Now that Horford is joining forces with coaching superstar Brad Stevens, the Celtics could put a real scare into LeBron's Cavs this postseason.
NBAE/Getty ImagesBrian Babineau
Paul George, SF, Indiana Pacers
George's return to form was one of the best stories of the 2015-16 season. Now that his health is no longer in question, though, the feel-good vibes will come to an end. It's time for PG-13 to show off his status as one of the game's very best two-way players. With Jeff Teague in town to help carry some of the offensive load, George can focus on devastating opponents with dunks, 3s and intense defense. The last of those will be especially important now that George Hill is no longer in Indiana.
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY SportsBrian Spurlock
James Harden, G, Houston Rockets
Harden's game isn't aesthetically pleasing. Watching him draw phantom fouls against your favorite team is incredibly frustrating, too. Yet there's no denying how efficient Harden is as a scorer. If the point of the game is to make the most of every possession, Harden is undeniably one of the game's very elite offensive players. With just a lick of defensive integrity, he'd be a top-five NBA player.
NBAE/Getty ImagesBill Baptist
Russell Westbrook, PG, Oklahoma City Thunder
Westbrook will be a nightly threat for a triple-double in the post-KD era. That alone makes every Thunder game worth keeping an eye on. He might not be quite as good at finishing at the rim as you think, but that's missing the point with Westbrook. He's an unrelenting force, constantly attacking the rim or pulling up to drain an open jumper. Defenses can't take a possession off when Westbrook is on the floor. Now, he has a team that complements all his best attributes with rebounding, defense and big men who can finish at the basket. It's kind of reminiscent of Allen Iverson's best Sixers teams. I can't wait.
Chris Paul, PG, Los Angeles Clippers
The case for Paul over Westbrook was well articulated by our friends over at Sports Illustrated in their ranking of the top 100 players in the NBA. CP3's control and decision-making outshine Westbrook's explosion and unrivaled athleticism (once we ignore some of Paul's postseason gaffes over the past few seasons, anyway). Paul is also a much better defender than Westbrook. A year from now, Paul might have slipped behind the Thunder PG; hell, he might not even be the best player on his team at that point, with Blake Griffin right behind him. For now, however, I'll take the wily veteran over almost anyone else.
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Kawhi Leonard, SF, San Antonio Spurs
Leonard doesn't get the credit he deserves because he's not a flashy scorer who crushes teams with spectacular moves and finishes. All Leonard does instead is slowly squeeze the life out of opposing offenses with some of the most suffocating perimeter defense we've seen since Scottie Pippen. A superstar who shines on both ends of the floor is one of the NBA's most valuable players, and Leonard's two-way excellence leaves him at No. 3 in my book.
NBAE/Getty ImagesAndrew D. Bernstein
Kevin Durant, SF, Golden State Warriors
There's a lot to unpack here, so let's get to it.
Stephen Curry is undoubtedly a top-three player. If he's behind Kevin Durant — and obviously I think he is now anyway, although last season I didn't hold that opinion — it's by the slimmest of margins. Curry is spectacular. He was hurt for most of the playoffs, and defenses keyed in on his tendencies independent of any injury. That his style is perhaps vulnerable in a seven-game series takes nothing away from his regular-season success. He was the unanimous MVP in 2015-16; anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something.
However, the playoffs did serve as a nice reminder both of how the game changes in the postseason and how good Durant is. Where KD separates himself from Curry in my book is on defense. As mind-boggling as it is to say, Durant isn't the offensive player that Curry is. Curry put up the greatest offensive season ever last year, an 82-game roasting of the competition that Durant has never touched.
What Durant did against the Warriors in the Western Conference finals, though, was absolutely remarkable. He locked down Draymond Green for most of the series, grinding Golden State's otherwise impeccable offense to a screeching halt. For those seven games, KD showed that his 7-foot stature and arms that reach from the past to the future don't just make him a scoring marvel; he's also one of the top three defenders in the game when he needs to be.
Is it unfair to put so much stock in one postseason? Perhaps. As good as Curry is, and despite the fact that he has one ring to KD's zero, I'm still taking Durant as the best player on the Warriors.
LeBron James, SF, Cleveland Cavaliers
When you lead your team back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals — and lead all players in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks for the series while doing it — you shut up idiots like me who proclaimed Curry as the best player in the NBA. This is LeBron's game until he's done with it. May none of us question that ever again.