Top 10 NBA Playoff Player Stocks // The King Returns, A Freak Rises

Since time immemorial, the stock column has been known as a gripping watch or baiting click, even when one violently disagrees with the mediocre sports writer turned Deity-of-Judgement-of-All-Players-Worth; it aligns well with our tendency to rank, to know who is ahead of who, and to see who is being swallowed by the quicksands of time.

Something to remember: this is a stock column. Stock does not mean who are you taking to win a game today, or who are you taking to lead your team into the future. Stock is a balance of all factors—the idea is, on balance, who are the most valuable players in the league? How does one weigh Brandon Ingram’s current ineffectiveness in helping you win a basketball game versus his potential in helping you win one in the future? I am seeking the mean value between those two ideals, not one or the other. As a reader of this column, you must pretend you are investing in stock—who is going to help me achieve my goals, both now and in the future?

By Gabe Sowa, Spitball Shanghai Correspondent

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1. LeBron James

It is hard to question LeBron Raymone James as the current King of Spitball’s NBA Playoff Stock Watch. One obstacle that makes judging the current incarnation of James nearly impossible is the unusual nature of last year’s magnum opus against the Warriors, which saw James bring home the trophy via a combination (anyone who insists otherwise is biased) of incredible luck and undeniable will/skill.

Fueled by advances in sports science, obsessive attention to fitness, unteachable awareness on the court and lottery-winning DNA, James continues to be the man you take over any other to win a game today. It’s a tried and true take. But most importantly, it’s true.

2017-18 NBA Season Forecast Ranking: 1

You could talk me into someone else being at the top of this list next year, but it would take a long, worn out playoff run LeBron showing up these playoffs and a slow, turnover-filled regular season next year. I don’t see him budging for at least two to three more years.

Stock Tip: Hold it close. You’ve got the most expensive stock in the world and it’s still got a pretty damn good outlook. Sit on Boardwalk and enjoy it.

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2. Giannis Antetekoumpo

With of one of the most appropriate nicknames in sports, Antetekoumpo is a freak (in the best sense of the word). The man’s length, explosiveness, court vision, and ball-handling make him one of the most unique players we have ever seen.

What is worth talking about with Antetekoumpo is how will he find a workable path to the top spot, which is no doubt achievable for a man of his prodigy, skill, and youth. However, his jumper is crooked, if not broken, and I’ve always found the most solid foundational argument against Antetekoumpo as a future great is that his ability to shoot is not in question for the same reason as other players. The question with Antetekoumpo is can he learn to shoot with that frame and those arms? While the balance on his jumper is OK right now, his elbow tuck is questionable thanks to a tendency to splay, and that is going to be a tough issue to fix with arms that could dunk flat-footed. So, let’s pretend his jumper stays where it is—it goes in sometimes, and can even look good, but never becomes consistent. Where is he?

Well, good God, he is still one of the five or six best players in the league! This is how he earns the number 2 playoff spot. In what world is a man like that not going to dominate a basketball court at any level, be it stinky Greek leagues, NBA or the freakin’ Space Jam dudes. While Antetekoumpo may have a massive roadblock to the top spot, he also has nearly no downside.

Giannis will be swiping balls, dunking on face and generally being a mega-Pippen for at least the next eight to ten years. A pretty comfortable top-5 stock to me.

2017-18 NBA Season Forecast Ranking: 3

Giannis will hold down the third spot next year, never quite coming level with projected #2 Karl-Anthony Towns’ value.

Stock Tip: BUY. Buy everything you can get your hands on.

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3. Kawhi Leonard

Any astute NBA observer of the past five years knows what a paradox Leonard has been. A non-shooter who learned to shoot, a mid-round pick who became a superstar, a mute who’s also somehow a leader, a legendary defender who doesn’t always rank at the top of defensive analytics, a player with a weak handle who now shakes-n-bakes people with regularity, a Spur who doesn’t feel Spursian, an athlete who’s also a thinking-man’s player, a Generation Yer who still rocks cornrows. Under his unassuming surface, Leonard is one of the strangest and most interesting players of the past two decades. He is also insanely boring, though that is almost certainly a Jedi mind trick that may be attributable to the tutelage of Pop.

It’s difficult to argue that Kawhi is a badass basketball player—T-Mac-esque on offense and a sharktopus (thank you Simmons) on defense. Trying to simply advance the ball up court as an NBA level ball handler against a lock-in Leonard is an exercise in futility akin to the feeling us mortals get when we step into a pick-up game that is wayyy beyond our skill level. Trying to stop Leonard from getting what he wants on offense is not markedly different from Lebron these days (although LeBron remains the more unstoppable player due to his passing). Think about what I just said: a nightmare on defense and LeBron(ish) on offense.

He may not speak, but he literally talks shit with eyes. What does he say with those eyes? “You’re so fucked if you’re matched up with me.” At least that’s what I imagine they say. Kawhi Leonard, people.

2017-18 NBA Season Forecast Ranking: 5

Still a top-5 stock at the end of the regular season next year, this rank is no knock. I simply think with one more year of tread, a younger player leaps him.

Stock Tip: Sell high, but hold a couple shares. Leonard stock is currently at its probable all-time peak and buying right now is short-sighted.

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4. Kevin Durant

Durant’s value nearly saw a precipitous drop when it looked like he may turn into Bill Walton; alas, for those hating on the man for making his life better and moving from Oklahoma to San Francisco, it does not appear he will have chronic injury issues.

The current knee injury was the definition of a fluke injury (I truly believe that if you look up “fluke injury” in the dictionary, it may actually describe a monstrous, 7-foot Georgian man falling into the crook of your knee as a result of being pushed down by an even more terrifying 7-foot “Polish Hammer”).

Durant is still the single most unguardable scorer in the league in an isolation situation, and there’s no reason he won’t continue to be so for at least five more years. A jumper that brings silk to mind when he releases it, a quick first step, and remarkable coordination and footwork for his size makes him one of the most unique players we are ever likely to see. Even a player like Giannis, special in his own way, will never be Durant (even with shooting) because despite having the frame, he is unlikely to ever develop the offensive coordination we’ve seen from prime Durant. Durant is one of the five players I’m taking to win a game now, and he earns this ranking because I see him continuing to dominate into the future.

2017-18 NBA Season Ranking: 6

Durant will be slightly less valuable at the end of next year, with another year of tread and the approach of the perilous 30-year-old tag. Still one of the first players you’d take in an expansion draft.

Stock Tip:  Buy! Don’t worry about that injury and buy big because you’re getting a discount RIGHT NOW my good sir!

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5. Stephen Curry

There are a couple of things that push Curry’s stock this high for me (I’d considered dropping him quite a bit thanks to age and ankles): one, the sheer, omnipotent force of his shooting and the effect it has on the geometry of the floor. Two, his underrated playmaking skills. Three, his bulked up and seemingly more durable frame, which I’ve been impressed with this year. While everyone has been wondering what’s up with Curry this year (only 26 PPG!), I’ve gone the other way; I’ve been impressed with his ability to play almost every game, his continued will to get to the hoop, and the nonchalant way he seems to brush off big hits despite being a relatively small guy. It really looked like he added a bit of bulk to his frame this year, which, counter-intuitively because usually guys want to slim down as they age, I think will help him in the long run.

Oh, and he still shoots 30-footers with aplomb and makes your entire team nearly impossible to guard. He’s still one of the three players you’re taking to win a championship this year, so age loses quite a bit of influence over his current stock price.

2017-18 NBA Season Ranking: 8

A tick less valuable as he hits the 30-year-old mark, with an established injury history.

Stock Tip: Sell big. Curry’s value was nearly maxxed out the previous two seasons, and aging can impact quick guards with particular acuity. Sell, and reap the rewards.

John Wall, Gordon Hayward, Trevor Booker

6. John Wall

Perhaps this is the first real shocker of the column; perhaps this will also get me murdered by people screaming for Westbrook or Harden here. Hear me out.

To me, there is a small gap in quality of play between Wall, Harden and Westbrook right now. If you ask me who I’m taking to win a game tomorrow, I’m probably ranking them Westbrook, Harden, Wall, with the caveat that depending on team makeup and playing style. However, the gap here is smaller than people think, as Wall has been next-level this year, and there are numerous other variables that make me think Wall’s stock has reached the highest level of the three.

Wall has been showing out this year. His handle is unleashed and no one is stopping him from getting to the rim, where is the absolute best in the league at kicking or finding a waiting big man for a dunk. Wall has been a tall Chris Paul this year, an absolute maestro on the court who also brings top-flight athleticism to the table.

Wall is 26 (a couple years younger than the other two) and has shown no ill effects of the previously concerning knee problems. He is in the best shape of his life and looks like an absolute killer on the court, taking scoring into his own hands despite a still-shaky jumper. He remains one of the two or three best passers in the game (though Harden has joined him in that conversation) and his play has single-handedly created wins for the Wizards on what is only a decent roster. Wall’s athleticism, body type and attitude all give me hope for the future when I put him side-by-side with Harden (I have other questions about Westbrook). While recognizing that this ranking could blow up in my face, I have a hard time thinking I wouldn’t choose the exciting Wall over the metronome Harden if I could only have one stock.

2017-18 NBA Season Ranking: 9

Stock Tip: Hold with confidence. Wall is already an All-Star, and may soon be ascending to the upper echelon.

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7. James Harden

Having one of the most statistically impressive years in NBA history, ranking Harden outside of the top-5 is a tough sell that many will probably disagree with. While he is a top-5 NBA stock this year, I view him as more of a mid-tier NBA superstar as opposed to one of the highest order.

Harden’s ability is unquestionably unique; he combines elite-level strength with ballet-like footwork to get to the rim at will without top-flight speed.

Harden is master class at several nearly unteachable basketball skills, from changing speeds to boxer feints to tempo-dribbling and misdirection via both pace and handle. Guarding Harden one-on-one is akin to being placed in front of a dolphin underwater and being told to catch it with your bare hands. You’re simply out of your element guarding Harden, and despite his average footspeed it’s as if you’re always moving in mud while he’s skating gracefully across ice.

He reminds me of a hockey player in the way he moves on the court, with the ability to dip and dive in speed without losing forward momentum. Of course, none of this would matter if it wasn’t for dead-eye shooting, which he also has in the bag.

All of that said, I am still unconvinced that Harden, individually, is a championship-level player. I reserved the top 5 NBA stock values for players I believe you can win a championship singlehandedly (at least some day), and with Harden I continue to believe that another high-level player is needed (someone better than what Houston currently boasts). This is not to say Harden can’t take you far; we’ve already seen him in the conference finals, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him there again this year. I am simply of the belief that such a defensive sieve cannot single-handedly win a championship alone unless paired with Pippen-level defenders across the board.

2017-18 NBA Season Ranking: 11

Stock Tip: Sell high, but keep a few shares for the offensive gravy train he is right now.

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8. Russell Westbrook

Allow me to set the table for this ranking: Westbrook’s stock incited more stomach-churning and neck scratching than any other player. One could rank Westbrook as one of the top-3 most valuable stocks in the NBA and I wouldn’t be mad. Hell, I think he is the MVP this year.

Westbrook is everything that is just plain dope about basketball. He is fast, he is strong, he is skilled, and he is angry. Angry basketball players are cooler than pacified ones. Passionate players are more exciting than disinclined ones. The strongest thing in Westbrook’s corner is that he passes my sacred Step-on-the-Court Test with flying colors—that is, if you must step on the court with this man, how quickly are you shitting your pants? Five minutes into the game? Ten? The first time you get switched onto him? Before the tip?

So, why the lack of love for Westbrook stock? The answer lies somewhere in my gut, a discomfort borne of concern over his long-term health, the sustainability of his explosiveness, and the adaptability of his game. These issues have been raised before by pundits everywhere, and sadly I feel they are raised for good reason. How does a player like Westbrook age? What happens when you remove a portion of athleticism from the most athletic player in the league, and a jumper released at the top of a high jump gets released a little lower and becomes a little less accurate? What happens when a player who is seemingly made of steel (I mean, his face got… dented) is knocked hard to the floor for the 10,000th time?

Most pertinent, what happens when a continued lack of playoff triumph haunts the man into his later years? The last question is pertinent only for perception—it’s not really his fault. He is a general leading his soldiers into a hopelessly outnumbered battle, a school trying to do its best without the proper funding. It just seems that Russ is headed for a bittersweet end somewhere south of the typical late career success most guys with more age-friendly games find, unless OKC can find him help in the next three years.

In short, Westbrook is a marvel of basketball engineering, a guard delivered straight from the ironworks of the basketball equivalent of Nogrod, a perfect player if the game were 3-on-3. Anyone that truly loves the game should cherish his ferocity and nearly unparalleled skill level. I just question how long it is going to last.

2017-18 NBA Season Ranking: 12

I can hardly see any likely decline for Westbrook in the next year or two; this is likely to come three or four years from now.

Stock Tip: Sell high, but continue to watch and enjoy. Warboy Westbrook, WITNESS HIM!!!!

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9. Rudy Gobert

Gobert has seen his stock ascend faster than perhaps any other player outside of Devin Booker.

At the outset of the season, I believe most people would have hesitated at calling Gobert an elite NBA stock despite his youth, defense, and obscenely long limbs. Then the Jazz started playing basketball and people attended the games, saw him in person, and started to think “Oh my God, that man is not natural.” It’s not quite Manute Bol level, but with Gobert it’s close. People simply don’t come around looking like he does very often, and when they do (and aren’t named Shawn Bradley), they are going to be amazing basketball players.

What is truly special about Gobert is the fact that he can finish what he (or a lob-seeking guard) starts around the hoop. Dudes as long and as tall as him usually can’t do that. They flail, flop and stumble their way to clumsy finishes occasionally, but they’re usually not swooping, duking and duping the opponent with head fakes and soft-touch ball flips. You could argue that anyone who looks like Gobert should finish 60% of his shots in the NBA, but it’s harder to argue that they should do it with the usage rate Gobert is already reaching at a young age.

This doesn’t even begin to talk about his impact on the other side of the ball, where a singularly talented big man is just as valuable as he ever was, despite our addiction to the idea of small ball and running. The fact is that big men still carry big value, they just don’t do it in pairs, making the extraterrestrial ones like Gobert even more valuable when you can get your hands on him. Gobert passes any gauntlet of tests you throw at him: advanced analytics, counting stats, scouting reports and surely the eye test (most people never watch him play… look up some YouTube tapes of Gobert and you’ll realize that his physical gifts are nearly unprecedented). I’m a strong advocate of Gobert as a team’s anchor and one true big man. Surround this guy with shooting, wing play and a great point guard (something the Jazz still lack) and you’re going to have a frighteningly potent team. Basketball is still a game of height—this is even more true when height is combined with squid DNA, nimble feet, and soft touch.

2017-18 NBA Season Ranking: 16

As good as Gobert is, his value is still capped as big man who can’t shoot in today’s NBA. Outside of a man with Shaq-level physical dominance on the offensive end, I have difficult seeing Gobert as being more valuable than the top-tier lead scorers/playmakers in the NBA.

Stock Tip: Hold if you have it, but don’t buy unless you’re getting him discounted. Be happy you have the 3rd truly desirable big in the game for the next 5 years.

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10. Draymond Green

In the prime of his career at 27 years of age, you’re betting on Green as a top-15 stock in today’s NBA because of one objective fact—he is a beast. This may not sound objective, but I assure those seven of you that haven’t watched the past three years that it is.

There aren’t a lot of players in the NBA who are simply going to kick your ass on the defensive end. People are too good at shooting, dribbling and passing, and the fatigue level is just too high to demand defensive dominance in sustained bursts. Sure, you have guys who will fuck you up on the one end like PJ Tucker, Dewayne Dedmon and Patrick Beverly, but they’re simply too limited on offense to ever matter enough to sniff NBA royalty. Draymond destroys that axiom with a little bit of everything on the other end, making his value tough to judge and typically underrated.

I don’t need to detail the ins and outs of Green’s game for you—you know what he does and what he doesn’t do (and especially what he really shouldn’t do, like the seeming magnetic pull between crotchal regions and his right sneaker)—but I do want to reward the awesomeness of his performances over the past three years with a top-15 spot in these rankings (which he would never know of, or give a shit about in 7,893,354,489 years).

2017-18 NBA Season Ranking: 18

This is another guy who will maintain his stock into the near future, but I knock him a bit here for being volatile and extremely physical on the court. If all as well he’s still a top-flight NBA stock.

Stock Tip: Sell, but only because Draymond may literally be in the club drinking right now. Never change Dray.

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