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NBArank: LeBron wins again, but a youth movement is coming

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Windhorst expects 'phenomenal year' from LeBron (1:10)

Brian Windhorst agrees with LeBron James being named the top player in ESPN's NBArank list and says he could be No. 1 again before the 2019-2020 season. (1:10)

Our annual NBArank forecast of the 100 best players this season is in the books as LeBron James takes the throne for the eighth straight season. Let's examine a few other trends we're seeing as we wrap up the countdown for 2018-19.


The King: Eight years of NBArank reign

After Klay Thompson made a passing insult during the 2016 NBA Finals, LeBron James quivered with brief anger when he heard about it. He folded one lip inside the other, one of his little trademark moves when he's literally trying to hold his tongue. Then he slapped the table and passed.

"It's so hard to take the high road. I've been doing it for 13 years," James said. "It's so hard to continue to do it, and I'm going to do it again."

In fairness, James hasn't always taken the high road. But his teeth have ground together over the years when it comes to the most valuable player award. He so badly has wanted to say more and someday, maybe in his autobiography or a documentary on his life he'll no doubt produce, he probably will.

It grates on James that he hasn't won the MVP trophy since 2013. It grates on him that he didn't win it in 2008 or 2011, when he was convinced he was the best player. And privately, he felt he had probably never been more valuable to his team than last season when he carried the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Finals without Kyrie Irving, with Kevin Love missing huge time with a broken hand and with JR Smith throwing soup and forgetting the score.

It is likely no consolation to him that for the eighth consecutive season he's taken the No. 1 spot in ESPN's NBArank operation. But it is worth pointing out that, while the MVP voting has a layer of politics and team performance that will never be removed, James has sat on the throne for a very long time.

In that eight-year span, James' game and responsibilities have varied greatly. With the Miami Heat, he had to be, at times, a cog in the machine or a lynchpin, depending on the situation. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra nicknamed him "1 through 5" and he used him that way, especially on defense.

In Cleveland, James often played de facto point guard and, even if this is a loaded statement, had to take on a role of part-time coach at times. After getting the foundational lessons of leadership with the Heat, James became an all-encompassing force while in Cleveland as he grasped the reins to guide the team, even if it caused irritation occasionally among his teammates.

Eight years ago, James hunted the fast break, created isolation opportunities and always looked to find a driving lane where his athleticism could dominate at the rim. Now as James plays slower, conserving energy, he seeks the most efficient shot, whether it be for him or his teammates, and he has no qualms turning his back to the hoop and taking defenders in with an array of post maneuvers. He is still just as unstoppable.

James' longevity at the top is one of the most incredible aspects of his career. There's a case to be made he was never better than in his age-33 season, when he played 82 games and had maybe the most magical playoffs of his career. And this ranking, which is predictive in nature, means that those who follow the game closely believe he's going to stay there for his age-34 year.

There are a lot of ways to both critique and honor James, but saying he's the best in the world for nearly a decade is a strong-enough statement. -- Brian Windhorst


The rook: Doncic joins rare company

Just one rookie, Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic, appears in this year's countdown of the league's top 100 projected players. It's rare for first-year players to be among the NBA's 100 most valuable when it comes to advanced stats. Over the seven seasons since NBArank began, 23 rookies have rated in the league's top 100 by my wins above replacement player (WARP) metric, and six of those -- like Ben Simmons last year -- were at least a year removed from being drafted. So on average barely more than two players per year from the previous draft have ended up in the top 100.

The results from ESPN's Real Plus-Minus (RPM) are even harsher. There have been 19 rookies in the top 100 of RPM wins since 2011-12, and just 13 of them -- less than two per year on average -- from the previous draft.

Even then, projecting which rookies will make the top 100 is difficult. Besides Simmons, there were three 2017 draft picks in last year's NBArank top 100: Lonzo Ball, Markelle Fultz and Dennis Smith Jr. Of those three, only Ball ended up in the top 100 in either WARP or RPM wins. (He was joined by surprises Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum in both top 100s, while John Collins and Lauri Markkanen also cracked the WARP top 100.) So this year's conservative rankings for rookies are appropriate. -- Kevin Pelton


The next: Young stars are coming to take over NBArank

There's a subtle but perceptible tug-of-war going on in NBArank -- and this trend might be the first hint of generational egress.

LeBron, Curry, Durant, Russ, Harden, et al. Part of what makes all-league players great is longevity, and the top of the predictive rankings for 2018-19 is no exception. But when peering at spots 11 to 40, a steadily rising number of young players are anticipated to make waves.

This year in NBArank, nearly half of the top 40 entered the league after the 2011-12 season, with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis the tip of the spear.

After the top three in NBArank -- the ultimate outlier in LeBron James, plus Stephen Curry and James Harden -- only seven players feature more years of service than Steph and The Beard (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry, Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge and Al Horford). And with the inclusion of sophomores Ben Simmons, Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum in the top 25, the intuition that the wisdom of the crowd is expressing suggests that while we all sing the swan song of the vaunted 2003 class (LeBron notwithstanding; Wade, Melo, et al., are unranked), the league is slowly giving way to its next generation of stars.

In part, that's what transpired with the tie at No. 4 -- Durant, soon to be 30, is closer to LeBron in age than he is to Giannis, who's still just 23.

Players that need only one name sit atop the league. The trend that NBArank teases is that several new names are emerging sooner than anyone thinks. -- Andrew Han