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

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Joel Embiid
Joel Embiid (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images) /

C. Philadelphia 76ers. Joel Embiid. 40. player. 93.

50 greatest NBA players from 21st century: 40. Joel Embiid

Again, one could rightfully call this projection. Joel Embiid does not have the accomplishments of others on this list, but he is both a leading MVP candidate and a four-time All-Star starter through just five NBA seasons. He is clearly a top-10 talent in the league right now, and keeping him off this list would be delaying the inevitable.

Embiid is a throwback force with all the hallmarks of a modern big. He butters his bread in the post, using his wide 7-foot frame to plow over smaller defenders and collapse the defense at will. He can also, however, spray 3s, score off the dribble, and play make from the center spot on the floor. Few 7-footers have harbored his level of skill and athletic prowess simultaneously.

On the other side of the ball, Embiid has two All-Defensive nominations under his belt and will surely add to that number in time. He is a one-man system, with the mobility to guard up on the perimeter, and the instincts to stifle any offensive momentum towards the basket. He’s one of the best rim protectors of his generation already.

Embiid is currently one of the five best offensive players and one of the five best defensive players in basketball. He may not stake that claim every season, but his trajectory is pointed up, not down, and his career averages of 24.7 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks on 48.5 percent shooting indicate the early stages of a Hall of Fame career.

Jimmy Butler. 39. player. 110. . SF. Miami Heat

50 greatest NBA players from 21st century: 39. Jimmy Butler

The Heat’s surprise Finals run in 2020 cemented Jimmy Butler’s status among the NBA elites. He has long been one of the best two-way talents in the game — a notoriously clutch scorer who can defend across the positional spectrum. There’s a reason Minnesota collapsed after his departure, and a reason the Sixers looked like a rudderless ship the year after he walked.

Butler has five All-Star appearances under his belt and has been named to three All-NBA teams. He also has four All-Defensive nods. Few players can carry a team like Butler. He’s remarkably unselfish, but when the lights shine brightest, he has a penchant for career-defining performances. There are few more desirable players down the stretch of a close game. Butler is the premier NBA closer.

The 31-year-old spent much of his early NBA career establishing his
reputation, and working to shed the stigma of a 30th overall pick. He went from valuable Chicago role player to franchise centerpiece, then made brief pit stops in Minnesota and Philadelphia — where both teams experienced uncommon and since, unmatched success — before arriving in Miami. The Heat made the Finals in Butler’s first season, with a roster very few expected to get that far.

While he ultimately fell to LeBron and the Lakers, Butler has proven his mettle as the top star on a bonafide contender. He can single-handedly swing the fortunes of a team and does so largely by elevating teammates. He’s an underrated playmaker, and I dare say a good teammate. He has earned his spot on this list.