Each year OneManFastBreak.net ranks the five best players in the NBA. OMFB Furious Five pays homage to the five styles of Chinese martial arts: snake, crane, monkey, praying mantis, and tiger.
The ranking system is based on one man’s opinion and does not follow or conform to any standard format, with more emphasis placed on how each player and their respective teams performed during the postseason. Stars are born during the regular season, but legends are made in the playoffs.
In 2020, OMFB Furious Five featured Luka Doncic (5), Anthony Davis (4), Giannis Antetokounmpo (3), and Kawhi Leonard (2), and LeBron James (1).
This year, there’s a major shakeup at the top of the OMFB rankings. Without further ado, here are the five best basketball players in the world.
5. NIKOLA JOKIC
Denver Nuggets, Center
When Nikola Jokic walks into a gym, he likely won’t get your full attention. His 6-11, 280-pound frame is the most impressive physical feature he displays. He won’t run past you or outjump you. He could easily be mistaken for one of the players in a YMCA Sunday league. But once Jokic steps on the court and displays his basketball skills, it’s pure magic (or pure Magic).
Jokic may be listed as a center but he might as well be a point guard the way he manipulates defenses. The Serbian big man can fill up a box score, averaging nearly a triple-double (20-10-7) during the 2019 and 2020 regular seasons. In the 2020 playoffs inside the Disney World bubble, Jokic averaged 24 points and 9.8 points while shooting 51 percent from the field. Jokic’s Nuggets advanced to the 2020 Western Conference finals where they were eliminated in five games by the eventual world champion L.A. Lakers.
Jokic raised his game to a whole new level in 2020-21, becoming the first center since Tim Duncan to win league MVP. He carried a hobbled Nuggets squad that lost standout point guard Jamal Murray to an ACL injury into the playoffs and advanced to the second round before being eliminated in four games by the Phoenix Suns.
Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers called Jokic the best passing big man ever. “He has a little bit of everybody,” Rivers said. “He has all the footwork and the moves of an [Hakeem] Olajuwon, the lanky and goofy, like goofy intelligence of Kevin McHale. Shoot, man, he’s just good. He’s the best passing big that I’ve seen, I think, ever. I know [Bill] Walton was one of [the best passing centers ever].” When names like Olajuwon, McHale and Walton are thrown around as a comparison, it puts Jokic in elite company.
4. LEBRON JAMES
Los Angeles Lakers, Forward
LeBron James has established an outrageously high standard for himself that 2021 — a season in which he averaged 25 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 7.8 assists per game — was considered a down year for The King. He still made the All-NBA team (second team) for a record 17th time and made his 17th All-Star game. But injuries denied LeBron’s L.A. Lakers a chance to repeat as champions.
The Lakers only had 71 days in between the end of the bubble season and the new season. The quick turnaround took its toll on the team as Anthony Davis, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso, and LeBron all missed several games due to injury. LeBron blamed the rash of injuries around the league to the condensed season.
“They all didn’t wanna listen to me about the start of the season,” James tweeted. “… I only wanted to protect the well being of the players which ultimately is the PRODUCT & BENEFIT of OUR GAME! These injuries isn’t just ‘PART OF THE GAME’. It’s the lack of PURE RIM REST rest before starting back up.” A right ankle sprain forced LeBron to miss 26 of the team’s last 30 games and cut LeBron’s regular season to 45 points — the shortest of his outstanding career. In the first-round series against the Phoenix Suns, the bad right ankle sapped much of LeBron’s explosion and the series completely flipped when Davis went down with a groin injury.
The Lakers were eliminated in six games. But 2021 wasn’t a complete loss for LeBron. His movie “Space Jam: A New Legacy” soared to No. 1 in the box office during its opening weekend, raking in an estimated $32 million and knocking off Marvel’s “Black Widow” from the top spot.
The film was a sequel to Michael Jordan’s 1996 “Space Jam” with a few different twists. After “New Legacy” was panned by film critics, LeBron celebrated the news of the big box-office success by sharing a report from Deadline on Twitter with a short message: “Hi, Haters!” with a smiling emoji. If y’all wondering if members of the Toon Squad are planning a move to L.A. to play with LeBron, keep dreaming. It ain’t happening.
3. LUKA DONCIC
Dallas Mavericks, Guard-Forward
Luka Doncic officially arrived as a bonafide superstar in 2020 when he gave us one of the memorable moments inside the Disney World bubble.
The Dallas Mavericks’ young superstar, playing on a badly sprained ankle, put up 43 points on the vaunted Los Angeles Clippers defense, including the dagger step-back 3-point shot at the buzzer to give the Mavericks a 135-133 win in Game 4 of a Western Conference first-round playoff series. After burying the game-winning jumper, Luka starred into the camera and spewed a primal scream so loud the bubble nearly burst.
It was a major statement from Slovenian sensation, who established himself as a first-team All-NBA performer with an outstanding 2021-22 season, averaging nearly a triple-double (27-8-8) and leading the Mavs to a second straight postseason appearance. The Mavs were eliminated in seven games by a familiar foe, the L.A. Clippers, but Luka did his absolutely best to almost singlehandedly keep the series close.
Doncic was spectacular, averaging 35 points, eight rebounds, and 10 assists. He went head-to-head against defensive stud Kawhi Leonard and didn’t blink. Luka the superstar has arrived and he’s not going any time soon. “My goal is to win a championship,” said Doncic, who signed a five-year, $207 million extension during the offseason. Dallas owner Mark Cuban made sure Luka will be a Maverick for a long time.
“He is one of the toughest players that I have ever seen in this league, and that goes back 35, 36 years,” former Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said of Doncic. “[Luka] is a great young player that is getting better each year. He has an irrepressible enthusiasm for the game, for his teammates, for winning. We’re so fortunate to have him. Now we have to get our roster healthy and get the right players around him.”
2. KEVIN DURANT
Brooklyn Nets, forward
Veteran forward P.J. Tucker has been assigned to Kevin Durant for many playoff battles. Tucker, one of the best on-ball defenders in the league, believes it is impossible to keep KD from getting his numbers.
“I don’t think you understand the magnitude of that question,” Tucker said. “Go out and guard the greatest player ever maybe and don’t foul him? Like, it’s gonna happen. I gotta be physical to be able to get into him. He’s going to score the ball. He’s gonna get 30 or whatever. I just got to try to make it as tough as possible. … I can try to wear him down, that hopefully in the fourth, he’ll not be as good. And that’s all you can do.”
There were legitimate doubts whether Durant would ever return to his superstar form. The ruptured Achilles tendon he suffered in Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals has historically been the most devastating injury for a basketball player. It cut down the careers of Isiah Thomas, Patrick Ewing, Chauncey Billups, and Kobe Bryant. The vast majority of NBA players who suffered an Achilles tear were never the same. But KD is bucking medical science and history.
After missing all of the 2019-20 season and playing only 35 of 72 games in 2021, Durant has regained his status as one of basketball’s greatest offensive weapons. Fluid and efficient going to the basket. Elevating over defenders for 3-pointers. Driving right, crossing over, pulling up for a mid-range jumper. The only thing that has changed for Durant is he now wears No. 7 instead of No. 35.
“It’s really hard to tell the difference,” Nets coach Steve Nash told the Washington Post about KD. “He’s not only executing at that level, but he’s able to play the minutes and able to sustain such a high level of efficiency. So it’s hard to say that he has any dip at this point. And his game has picked up as we go. He’s gotten more reps, more comfort, especially defensively and on the boards. … When you’re a player that hasn’t played for a long time and you’re a scorer like that, you’re going to focus on trying to get that back first. So he did that, and then he started to pick up the other parts of his game. So it’s very difficult to distinguish him now opposed to before the surgery.”
Nets guard Kyrie Irving, one of Durant’s closest friends, may have summed it up best. Irving said the game is so slow for KD, he’s able to play “effortlessly.” Everything looks easy. Two-time league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo summed it up best after KD dropped 49 points on the Bucks while playing all 48 minutes in Game 5 of the East semifinals. “He’s the best player in the world right now,” said Antetokounmpo. Easy Money Sniper is back!
And now, the No. 1 player in the world. Drum roll please . . .
1. GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO
Milwaukee Bucks, Forward
Giannis Antetokounmpo is a special breed. First of all, he is built like a Greek god. His freakishly immense physical stature (6-11, 242 pounds) allows him to do things on the basketball court mere mortals could only dream about. His combination of size, speed, and power makes him nearly impossible to stop.
Now, combine those traits with an incredible determination to do whatever it takes to win puts Antetokounmpo in rarified air. Giannis put himself in the conversation among the all-time greats after his MVP performance in the 2021 NBA Finals as he averaged 35.2 points, 13.2 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.8 blocks per game in the series against the Phoenix Suns, while shooting 61.8% from the field. He made the signature moment in the series when he blocked Deandre Ayton’s dunk attempt with 1:14 left in the fourth quarter of Game 4 that ignited a late Bucks surge that allowed them to tie up the series at 2 apiece after being down in an 0-2 hole. Then, Giannis put a bow on his historic Finals performance with a 50-point game in the series clincher that gave Giannis his first NBA title and ended Milwaukee’s five-decade championship drought.
“It’s been a long journey,” the 26-year-old global superstar said. “I’ve done it all, man. I did anything that I could just to be on the court, just to be in this position. I’ve not played. I’ve come off the bench. When I was 18, I started on the team. I went to the front office and told them to send me to the G League. I’ve played point guard. I’ve only defended. Slashed from the corners and everything. In my fourth year, I was able to lead as a ball handler. I’ve done it all.”
All the skills Giannis tirelessly cultivated through the first 10 years of his professional basketball career in Europe and in the NBA paid off in the 2021 Finals as he produced one of the greatest performances in postseason history. “I had to do a little bit of everything. I had to defend, I had to rebound, I had to block. Did a little bit of everything,” said Giannis, who tied Bob Petit’s record for most points scored in series-clinching game in The Finals. Antetokounmpo joined Petit (50), Elgin Baylor (61), Michael Jordan (55), Rick Barry (55), Jerry West (53), and LeBron James (51) as the only players in history to score more than 50 points in the NBA Finals.
The performance illustrated Giannis’ greatness as a basketball player. He did most of his damage in the paint (converting 16 of 25 field goals), grabbed 14 rebounds, blocked five shots, and remarkably made 17 of his 19 free throws. The free throw shooting may have been the most impressive part of his historic game because the foul line has been his Kryptonite. “People told me I cannot make free throws,” Antetokounmpo said with a huge smile. “I made them when I’m supposed to make them.”
Giannis well aware he’s far from being a finished product. Sounds ridiculous to even suggest that a multiple MVP winner still has plenty of room for improvement. But that is the case with the Greek Freak, who is only scratching the surface of his prodigious talent. He credits Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer for motivating him to be the best. “Coach Bud believed in me. [He] told me in order for me to win, to be great, I have to trust my teammates,” Giannis said. “I have to make the right pass. I cannot be stubborn. I gotta trust the process. It was a three-year process, but we got it done.”
Giannis told NBA TV: “I always think that I can improve,” Giannis said. “That’s the one thing I have been doing, and I’m gonna keep doing it. There are going to be times that I’m not going to improve anymore. But as long as I keep working hard, keep believing in myself, I think I will keep getting better. I can tell you right off the top of my head five things I could do better,” he added. “I could shoot more threes, catch and shoot threes so I can help my teammates space the floor better. I could be able to play-make more. I could improve my handles. Make my handles more tight. There’s a lot of things I can improve.”
To hear an MVP talk about all the things he needs to improve on is very refreshing. Giannis strikes a good balance of high level of confidence and humility. He understands the standards have been reset for him because of what he’s accomplished so far in his young basketball career. But Giannis is all about the work. Now that he’s tasted winning, he wants more and he’ll do whatever it takes to stay on top. “I’ll keep going. I can’t stop,” he said. “That’s my personality. I’m not stopping.”
Joel Huerto is the editor and publisher of OneManFastBreak.net. Follow him on Twitter @onemanfastbreak.