The NBA ‘superstar’ landscape has shifted

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There is no greater conduit for NBA hyperbole than the conversation around “superstars.” To have a rational, substantive debate, there must first be basic groundwork for what constitutes superstar status. First, the bad news: former Finals MVPs Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard have finally aged out of this status. While all four still deliver excellent numbers, their sheer presence no longer grants their team playoff status or contention viability. With three GOATs phasing out of the list, there is room for newcomers, of which there are a few.

Being on a Supermax deal doesn’t mean you’re a superstar. Jaylen Brown, Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert have never been superstars, and never will be. They just don’t have that dawg in them that the great ones do and are better suited for secondary roles. Now for the controversial exclusions. Phoenix Suns and Boston Celtics fans would certainly contend Devin Booker and Jayson Tatum are superstars, as they are both being paid like it. But neither could step up in the Finals (Booker in 2021, Tatum in 2022) to drag their team to victory. And in those two Finals, both were outdueled by actual superstars in Giannis Antetokounmpo and Steph Curry.

Tatum and Booker both were the No. 1 options for their teams, and both failed at getting over the hump in the Finals. To be a superstar, you have to have it in you to win a championship as the best player for your team. Tatum and Booker both failed in their first attempts. That could change with another try at bat.

Superstar legacies are defined by what they did on the court and quantified in trophies. While not every player on this list has a trophy, they have the elite skill set, killer instinct and fanatical will to win. These are the real superstars in the NBA today.

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When given the keys to the New York Knicks offense last season, his first as “the guy,” Brunson had an All-NBA-worthy campaign. This season, he’s posting career highs 26.5 PPG, 6.5 APG, 3.9 RPG, and 1 SPG, on .427% shooting from the arc. It has turned Brunson into the best player the Knicks have seen since Carmelo Anthony and the second-best point guard in the NBA behind Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Brunson is having a better individual season than all-time greats and former superstar point gods Steph Curry and Damian Lillard. Brunson is a killer in the clutch, currently tied for 13th most points in crunch time. The Knicks are on fire. Only the top-ranked Celtics and 76ers edge them in point differential in the East. Across the league, only seven teams boast a better margin than New York in 2024. Brunson has hit more 3s than Donovan Mitchell or James Harden, has dropped more dimes than SGA or Lillard, and has averaged more points than Jokic and Tatum. His impact runs deeper than points, his plus/minus soars above Doncic and KD, and when taking hits for his team, no one takes more body-banging charges than Brunson. How good is his impact? In only his second season leading the Knicks, he has turned them into a bonafide championship contender.

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The easiest signifier of a player being a superstar is winning the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award. Embiid is the reigning champ and is among the favorites to win again this season. While Jokic is the best big man in the game, Embiid is the most dominant. And he does it on both ends. Since Nov. 17, Embiid’s 18-game streak of 30 points or more ties for the sixth-longest in the history of the NBA. He returned from a three-game absence with back-to-back 41-point triple-doubles, one of them against his MVP-rival Jokic, dropping 41 points and 10 assists in a win. Embiid might have found his perfect Robin in Tyrese Maxey, who has mastered the pick-and-roll with Embiid. The Cameroon big man is a statistical monster: in just 34.1 minutes per game, he’s averaging 35 points, 11.4 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.9 blocks and 1.2 steals. He’s currently first in points, fifth in rebounds, 10th in blocks, and second in assists among centers. His current 34.8 PER would be the highest in NBA history, a staggering 1.9 points above Nikola Jokic’s legendary 2021-22 season. Yet, it somehow gets better: he’s averaging more than a point per minute, a feat only matched by the mythical Wilt Chamberlain.

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The future face of the NBA, Edwards is the lone American superstar in the MVP race. While Europe and Canada dominate the top tier of the NBA, Edwards remains the most marketable and exciting US-born player at just 22. Edwards announced his emergence in last summer’s FIBA tournament as the team leader and high scorer. He is the most athletic player on this list and the face of the NBA almost always belongs to an elite athlete for their star power and ability to put fans in seats. But this season, Edwards’s brilliance is influencing winning like never before. The Timberwolves have built a defensive juggernaut around him, which has engaged his defense, posting a career-high 109.2 defensive rating. The Wolves currently sit first in the West and second in the NBA, a feat not accomplished since former MVP Kevin Garnett was in Minneapolis. Edwards has returned the NBA’s most hapless franchise to contention and his play on both sides of the court has made his game look similar to Dwyane Wade, another explosive two-guard who was as leadership-ready as Edwards is.

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The worst trade of the 21st Century belongs to the Los Angeles Clippers, who traded a historic number of draft picks and, most importantly, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Paul George. George is a Top 75 player of all time, for sure. But SGA has been the best player of the two since last year. He earned All-NBA First-Team honors last season and took the Thunder to the Play-In, where they lost in the second game. This season, he is in the running for MVP and has powered the Thunder’s top-three record with elite scoring and defensive acumen (His 110 defensive rating is a career-best). His league-leading 2.2 steals and 0.8 blocks per game make him the first guard since Michael Jordan to average those numbers, which is pretty elite company. Offensively? He’s a monster. He is averaging 31.1 points, 6.3 assists and 5.6 rebounds per game on a scorching 65% True Shooting. He scores most of his points off drives (an action he leads the league once again in), which might be the most unstoppable offensive move in the NBA. No defense can contain him, and he’s making them pay by averaging the most points and free throws off drives. When we see extravagant stats like this, it often happens when teams are tanking. SGA is doing this while turning the Thunder into a dark horse championship contender in only his sixth season.

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Donic is the single most unstoppable offensive force in the NBA. The best comp for Dončić is prime James Harden, which is not an insult. Harden and Dončić are two of the greatest isolation scorers and high-IQ playmakers in NBA history. Both excel at helping lesser players exceed their ceilings, but struggle playing next to other stars. Dončić is already in the top three in all-time triple-doubles and will probably end up first. Just look at the roster he dragged to the Western Conference Finals two seasons ago. A not-yet-realized Jalen Brunson, an unhappy/misused Kristaps Porziņģis and the worst bag of bums any superstar has had to play alongside. Dončić has consistently had the worst supporting cast of any superstar, yet the Mavericks continue to win on his brilliance. If he can figure out how to bring out the best in stars, like current teammate Kyrie Irving, he’ll take the next step toward winning MVP.

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At this point, this one needs no explanation. Jokic is on track to being one of the best players of all time and has a case to go down as the best big man ever. It all depends on how many more championships he can add to his trophy case, which is the only accomplishment of all the gaudy accomplishments he seems to care about. During last year’s MVP race, Jokic said he had “zero interest” in the MVP reveal. Just this week, Jokic surpassed Michael Jordan for the all-time lead in PER with a hefty 27.92. Insane. His performance in the 2023 championship run was ruthless efficiency. Nobody has ever gone an entire playoff run averaging 30 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, all while maintaining a true shooting percentage above 60.0%. Oh, except Joker last postseason. Last year’s historic championship run gets even more historic: Jokic’s 31.5 PER ties him for the sixth-best ever, trailing only basketball titans like Michael Jordan and LeBron James. His career playoff PER of 29.1 is the highest ever recorded, period. So yeah, Jokic is not only a superstar but also a top-20 player of all time. And it’s just getting started.

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The Greek Freak earns the top spot on sheer physical dominance on both ends of the court. No player has more of an impact offensively and defensively than Antetokounmpo. That a poor, skinny kid from Greece made the NBA adds to his improbable legacy as a top 10 player of all time. As the 15th pick in the 2013 NBA Draft to the back-to-back MVPs in 2019 and 2020, and NBA championship in 2021, Antetokounmpo marks the first time the best player in the NBA is not American. This season, he is averaging a career-high in points (31.2 PPG), assists (6 APG) and EFG% (.619). His defense has slipped a bit, as has his three-point percentage, but he is still the best two-way player for, like, the sixth season in a row. Thanks to Antetokounmpo, no team in the East has been able to supplant the Bucks as the year-to-year king of the Eastern Conference. His leadership and intangibles can’t be quantified. Not every superstar has the dawg mentality of a dirty-work role player, but that separates Antetokounmpo as a four-time All-Defense First Team and Defensive Player of the Year winner. As the league relies increasingly on the pick and roll, Antetokounmpo shines as the best on-ball defender on both the ball-handler and roller. Antetokounmpo is among the few greats who would dominate in every era — especially this one.

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