NBA History: 50 best NBA players of the 21st century

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Giannis Antetokounmpo
Giannis Antetokounmpo (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images) /

89. . PF. Milwaukee Bucks. Giannis Antetokounmpo. 18. player

50 greatest NBA players from 21st century: 18. Giannis Antetokounmpo

It took seven years for Giannis Antetokounmpo to become a two-time MVP and a Defensive Player of the Year. Once a skinny and unheralded teenager from Greece, Antetokounmpo has quickly transformed into the most terrifying athletic force in the NBA. He’s longer and stronger than just about everyone — a weight-room fanatic who can cross the length of a basketball court in mere steps.

The Bucks have spent the last couple seasons comfortably atop the Eastern Conference standings. While Giannis has yet to power Milwaukee over the postseason hump, he continues to anchor the Bucks’ perennially elite two-way attack. He is one of the most efficient scorers on the planet, parading down the lane where there are precious few obstacles in his way. In his second MVP season (2019-20), Giannis averaged 29.5 points, 13.6 rebounds, and 5.6 assists on 55.3 percent shooting. He did so while winning his first (of potentially multiple) Defensive Player of the Year awards.

Only a handful of names in NBA history have carried the load Giannis carries on both sides of the ball. He is the Bucks’ unquestioned leader offensively, where he is both playmaker and play finisher. He spends time dribbling up the floor, setting screens, posting up, and doing plenty in between. Even without a jumper, not many defenses can keep Giannis out of the paint. He is someone the Bucks rely on to make everything else click into place.

On defense, Antetokounmpo is an elite roamer and rim protector, using his endless wingspan to swallow passing lanes, poke away steals, and deter drives to the rim. He is unfairly lambasted for not defending the best player every possession, but Antetokounmpo is deployed in a way that constitutes a much broader impact on the game. He may not check the top wings one-on-one, but he makes it much harder for the opposing team to penetrate the lane and create passing outlets to the 3-point line. He is one of the truly elite defenders, and one of the truly elite offensive talents.

. C. Orlando Magic. Dwight Howard. 17. player. 38

50 greatest NBA players from 21st century: 17. Dwight Howard

Dwight Howard dominated the interior in a way few others could. He was the premier athlete of his era — a hulking 7-footer with the vertical explosiveness to win a dunk contest and the raw strength to render smaller defends inconsequential. In his prime, Howard won three Defensive Player of the Year awards, made eight All-Star appearances, and was nominated to eight All-NBA teams.

Aptly nicknamed “Superman,” Howard was a true marvel. The kind of player who demanded viewership, even in one of the NBA’s smallest markets. He dragged the Magic all the way to the NBA Finals in 2009. He led the NBA in rebounding five times and in blocks twice. Howard imposed his presence on the game in a way few centers ever have. The lingering Hall of Fame doubt remains absolutely inexplicable. He’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Howard’s attitude didn’t always rub his fans the right way, and his mid-career crisis after leaving Orlando was not insubstantial. His first stint in Los Angeles — his first stint as a supposed cornerstone of the NBA’s most beloved franchise — went up in flames, and so did his reputation. One cannot let that cloud their judgement of his overall body of work.

The Lakers’ 2020 Finals run gave Howard’s reputation some much-needed cosmetic work. While he was little more than a serviceable backup, Howard did contribute to the Lakers’ championship run. That washed away some bad blood and gave Howard the ever-elusive boost to his résumé that only a ring can provide.