Karl-Anthony Towns is an elite basketball player. No matter how this is looked at, he’s one of the best basketball players in the world. There’s no debating that. The 23-year-old isn’t in his prime quite yet, but is already reaching heights that most don’t.
Now, while Towns is certainly one of the best basketball players in the world, he isn’t the best. There are a handful of players – at least – in today’s NBA that are better than Towns. It’s not a very expansive list, but it’s a list, nonetheless.
Sports Illustrated ranked him as the 13th best in the NBA right now – and we’re in agreement! – but there are some differences in who is better than Towns and who he tops.
The obvious answers
These players – listed in no particular order – are better right now than Towns and there’s no debate about it.
This is the first offseason in a long, long time where James isn’t the world’s unanimous top player. He’s been in the discussion since May of 2007 when he took Cleveland to its first Finals appearance. His reign at the top has made him the best or second-best basketball player of all-time. For the first time in his career – or life, really – James has had a lengthy layoff prior to the start of a season. He could be an MVP candidate this season.
While James might be the best basketball player the game has seen, Curry is probably the best shooter that has ever stepped foot on the hardwood. He’s primed to have another explosive year with Kevin Durant out of the picture in Golden State. It should surprise no one if he finishes with his third MVP.
Over the last three seasons Harden has finished either as the MVP or the runner-up. He’s re-written the book on offensive efficiency since blossoming into one of the best players in the world. At some point his decline will start, but don’t expect it to be this year.
The current reigning MVP isn’t considered the best player in the world unanimously, but he’s certainly in the discussion for it. Antetkounmpo continues to improve his game and certainly can make the case to win another MVP award this season.
Leonard might be the most popular pick to be called the best in the world right now after his magnificent performance in leading the Toronto Raptors to their first title in franchise history. Now, Leonard has relocated to southern California to attempt to bring the LA Clippers their first title. When he’s healthy, he’s nearly unstoppable at both ends of the floor.
Durant might be considered the best player in the world right now had a few things gone differently. His torn Achilles tendon is going to keep him out of most of the 2019-20 season – if not all of it – but that isn’t reason to forget just how good Durant is. After spending the last few years with the Warriors he’s off to Brooklyn to start a new chapter of his career, it just might not be until 2020.
These guys are still better than Towns at the moment, but the gap isn’t quite as sizeable as those listed above.
George spent last year in the thick of the playoff race before injuring both of his shoulders, requiring surgery on both after he and the Oklahoma City Thunder were dismissed from the playoffs by the Portland Trail Blazers. Since then, George has requested – and been granted – a trade to LA to join Leonard on the Clippers.
Like George, Davis has shifted teams since the season ended, as he was traded from the New Orleans Pelicans to the to the Los Angeles Lakers. Also, like George, it’s easy to forget just how good Davis is. Last year he played sparingly after making his intentions of being traded known, but still averaged over 25 points and 12 rebounds per game.
Time to talk
This is the tier that Towns is in. He’s not better than all of them, but he’s better than some of them. This is where the discussion becomes really interesting.
Embiid and Towns have had their share of battles over the course of the past couple of seasons. While Embiid has battled injury issues, he’s also been one of the best big men in the NBA when he’s been able to stay on the floor. Towns might be better than him – slightly – on the offensive end of the floor, but Embiid has a decided edge on Towns defensively.
With how important defense for big men can be, and how substantial the gap between Embiid and Towns is right now, it’s definitely fair to peg him as the better player for the time being.
Jokic had a breakout year of sorts in 2018-19, leading the Denver Nuggets to the second-best record in the Western Conference before losing a Game 7 thriller to the Blazers in the second round. He and Towns will continue to be compared to each other throughout the years considering they were part of the same draft class and are the same age.
Jokic and Towns are relatively comparable on both ends. Neither one of them are great defensively, while both are outstanding offensively. The way in which they approach the game on the offensive end of the floor – at least until this point of their careers – has been different. Jokic is a better passer while Towns is a better shooter and scorer. Last year, Jokic was named as an All-NBA player while Towns wasn’t, but if a team is starting a franchise from the ground up, this is a very interesting choice. Right now, we’ll go with Jokic by the smallest of margins.
If not for Curry, Lillard’s ability would be the type that helped to re-write the way guards play the game of basketball, especially smaller guards. Lillard has unbelievable range – just not quite as good as Curry – and the ability to take over any game at any moment.
Lillard just turned 29 and still has plenty left in the tank. For right now, we’ll place him above Towns, but that could be changing soon.
Irving had a tough two years in Boston. The expectation was that the Celtics were the ones to challenge the Golden State Warriors for the throne after he was dealt by Cleveland to Beantown. Instead, his first season with the Celtics ended prematurely thanks to knee surgery, and his second season ended with a crumbled locker room, with him partly to blame.
Irving has his faults, both on the court and off it, but just how good of a basketball player he is can sometimes get swept under the rug. His ball handling and below-the-rim finishing abilities are both second to none in the NBA and the list of players that are better suited to have the ball in their hands as the game clock winds down is very abbreviated – if it exists at all. Towns can – and probably will – pass him soon, but entering this season, Irving is still better.
Westbrook gets a bit of a bad rap for his inefficiencies. Don’t misconstrue this and think many of those aren’t deserved, but he still is a really good basketball player. That being said, Towns is better than him now, and moving forward.
Westbrook’s best days are behind him. His inability to consistently shoot from outside of 10 feet make his game far less appealing than it once was, and as he continues to age his ridiculous athleticism certainly isn’t going to improve.
Butler is a really good basketball player that has a bad reputation in Minnesota, to say the least. With the way things went with him and the Timberwolves, it’s easy to forget just how good of a basketball player he is. He’s one of the best defenders in the league at his position and solid on the offensive end of the floor as well. With all that said, at this point Towns is the better player. He’s slotted in ahead of Butler and will continue to create a larger gap between them as time goes on.
Gobert and Towns are going to be intertwined for their 2018-19 seasons. Towns was given the All-Star nod over Gobert, which led to the media availability that saw Gobert tear up. Once the offseason arrived, Gobert was named an All-NBA player over Towns, causing Towns to miss out on over $30 million over the life of his next contract.
Gobert is considered the best defensive big man in the NBA, and rightfully so. He’s finished as the Defensive Player of the Year over each of the past two seasons and finishing first team All-Defense in each of the last three seasons. With that said, Towns is the superior offensive player by a wide margin.
If we’re following this strictly, Towns is the 13th best player in basketball right now, which seems like a very fair assessment. The question that becomes even more interesting is where can Towns ascend to on the list? As players that are both older and better then him begin to age or retire, spots will open up.
The other question that needs to be asked is how many players that aren’t currently as good as Towns will be better than him when he reaches his prime? There’s a small list of guys out there right now that have the potential to do that, but there’s no real way to predict whether or not they actually will. One day we’ll know the answer to that question, but for now, there aren’t many players better than Karl-Anthony Towns.