Playmakers are all the rage in the NBA. We know Lakers GM Rob Pelinka traded three excellent role players, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, and Montrezl Harrell, for Russell Westbrook hoping to give LeBron James another playmaker to take some of the pressure off. We also know Nikola Jokic is perhaps the best playmaking center in the NBA’s history, and the Boston Celtics struggled immensely during the early stages of the 2021-22 season because of their lack of a legitimate playmaker.
But, what is a playmaker?
Here’s the simplest way to define a playmaker: a player who can get his own shot and creates easy scoring opportunities for his teammates.
There’s more to it, of course. An excellent playmaker must be an efficient multi-level scorer, and he must be able to run the offense without coughing the ball up.
An offensive basketball possession can end in four ways: a score, a turnover, a foul, or a missed shot, and the top playmakers are involved in every aspect. Spot-up shooters, roll men, and cutters depend on them to get their shot. Subtract a topflight playmaker, and things spiral down into an ugly mess.
The 2021-22 season weighs heavily in our rankings, but this is more than just a half-season classification. We also considered which player we’d want in a seven-game playoff series and who has built up a solid resume over their career.
10. Ja Morant
Ja Morant isn’t quite the passing threat of the other members of our list, but his spectacular scoring ability shoved him into 10th place. Morant is third in the NBA in drives per game at 20.4 per game. Unlike many other top point guards in the league, the Grizzlies point guard doesn’t rely on a screener to get into the lane, instead blowing by perimeter defenders with the best crossover in the association, a lightning-quick first step, or subtle look offs. Overall, Morant is tops in the league in points scored off his drives, racking up 14.7 points nightly on 52.0% shooting.
Ja Morant isn’t inside the NBA’s top-10 in passing, but he’s not a tunnel-vision, none passing point guard. He’s creating 17.2 points per game off his dimes. Morant is a solid drive and kick player, helping set up his teammates for open looks beyond the arc, and he’s improved as a swing passer using his gravity as one of the best rim slashers in the league to draw away defenders before hitting the open man. Most importantly, Morant is picking up more and more hockey assists this season, starting the Memphis passing party off as his teammates rocket the ball around the court for easy buckets.
The Grizzlies rank fifth in offensive rating behind Ja Morant’s improvement as a leader, passer, and individual scoring threat.
9. Dejounte Murray
The Spurs’ recent double-overtime win versus the Wizards was a microcosm of Dejounte Murray’s season. He scored 31 points, pulled down 13 boards, and dished out 14 assists in 43 minutes of action. Murray had his hands all over San Antonio’s offense the entire night, hitting his teammates on quick outlets in transition, smooth bounce passes in the pick and roll, and swing passes beyond the arc. Murray also scored at will off drives in the lane, cuts to the rim, and the occasional long jumper when his man dropped back.
Dejounte Murray, in his sixth season in the NBA, has become one of the best passers in the league. He’s third in the association in assist points created at 23.3 points per game, and he averages only 2.5 turnovers nightly. Unlike the other players on our list, he doesn’t have the luxury of playing with excellent offensive weapons. Murray spends his time setting up Keldon Johnson, Jakob Poeltl, and Doug McDermott, three athletes who don’t land inside the top-50 players in the NBA and, depending on who you asked, might not even be inside the top-100.
Murray is the Spurs’ offense. Through his passing or scoring, he’s responsible for roughly 40% of their points, and he has San Antonio ranked 14th in the league in offense. Dejounte is a maestro with the ball, a long-striding, see-everything point guard who is more than capable of running a championship-caliber team.
8. LaMelo Ball
LaMelo Ball is one of the rarest athletes in the world. He sees things on the basketball court slower than other players, using his brain to compute the millions of permutations on offense better than the completion, consistently finding excellent scoring opportunities for his teammates.
Ball is a master in the pick and roll. He has leveraged his ability to launch from deep with his incredible passing touch to single-handedly lift Mason Plumlee, one of the most unathletic big men in the league, into the 70th percentile in the association as a roll man. The Hornets’ second-year guard is also one of the most fun players to watch on fast breaks. He has the Hornets tops in the NBA in transition points at 25.1 per game, either hitting his teammates with 50-foot lead passes like an NFL quarterback leading a wide receiver, or pushing the action himself with his breakneck dashes up the court for an open look at the rim, an off-the-dribble three-pointer or a perfect pass to a teammate.
Ball is sixth in the NBA in passes made this season. He swings the ball with a purpose, keeping the Hornets’ offense flowing, making it incredibly difficult for defenders to get their grips in. Charlotte is ninth in the Eastern Conference at 30-31, primarily because of their bottom-tier defense. If Charlotte management finds a better defensive center and a couple of solid two-way wings over the 2022 offseason, LaMelo Ball should have no problem leading the Hornets into a top-six seed next year.
7. Darius Garland
If you’re an NBA fan, you know about the Cavaliers. They’re the surprise team of the year, a squad that wasn’t supposed to be anywhere near the playoffs but is securely stationed inside the Eastern Conference top-6 with a 36-24 record. Darius Garland was selected to his first All-Star team this year, but he doesn’t seem to get enough credit for Cleveland’s success. Instead, rookie sensation Evan Mobley gets constant (and justified) praise for his defensive ability, Jarrett Allen gets hyped up for his rim protection and switch-ability on D, and even Kevin Love made waves in 2021 for his mid-30s renascence.
Darius Garland deserves more recognition. He’s the sole engine of the Cavs’ offense. Cleveland HAD Collin Sexton and Ricky Rubio, two solid guards who can create something out of nothing, but they’ve been sidelined with injury for nearly the entire season, leaving Garland on his own to manufacture points for himself and his teammates. And manufacture is what he’s done. Darius Garland is averaging 20.3 PPG and 8.0 APG across 34.6 minutes nightly.
Darius Garland has a herky-jerky style he uses to create separation out of isolation sets. All he needs is a slither of space to launch a quick mid-range jumper, which more times than not goes in. Garland is hitting 53.8% from 10 to 16 feet, and 52.1% from 16 feet to the three-point line, and teams are catching on that he’s death from the lane out to the arc, which is helping create slash lanes for him at the rim. Garland is also a solid ball-handler out of pick and roll sets, capable of hitting his big men with precision passes at the rack, making swing passes to open teammates beyond the arc, or taking the rock all the way when space opens up.
Cleveland is in expert hands with Garland as their point guard, and at only 22-year-old, he’s just going to get better.
6. Trae Young
Trae Young’s 2021-22 statistics are hovering around the we’ve-never-seen-this-before territory.
Have a look:
27.8 points per game (6th in the NBA)
84.3% of his field goals are unassisted (2nd in the NBA)
23.0 points created off assists (5th in the NBA)
Trae Young is manufacturing over 50.0 points per game through his scoring or passing for an Atlanta Hawks team that ranks second in the league in offensive rating, all while getting nearly all his buckets off-the-dribble.
The scary thing is those numbers undersell Trae Young’s value on offense. He’s probably worth something like 70 points per game because his gravity alone creates a multitude of opportunities for his teammates, and he’s a willing swing passer who picks up numerous hockey assists nightly.
Overall, the Hawks are +11.2 points per possession on offense with Trae Young on the court, a number that puts him in the 97th percentile among all guards.
Trae Young isn’t just a regular-season player either. At 22, he dominated the playoffs last season, helping drag the Hawks to the Eastern Conference Finals behind the type of bravado and playmaking skills typically reserved for in-his-prime guards. Young showed the full bag against the Knicks, 76ers, and Bucks in the 2021 postseason, flashing a patient and deadly pick and roll game, incredible off-the-dribble shot-making that reached three feet beyond the arc, and the ability to hit open shooters from beyond the arc with pinpoint dimes in rhythm.
The Hawks began the 2021-22 season slowly but have gradually trended upward. It seems unlikely they’ll push into one of the coveted top-6 seeds, but nobody wants to see Trae Young in the play-in or the first round of the playoffs.
5. James Harden
James Harden is having a down year. He’s averaging a cool 22.6 PPG, 10.2 APG, and 8.0 APG, numbers only a handful of players in the world could ever hope to replicate, but again this is a down year. Crazy!
James Harden crushed his first two games as a 76er (28.0 PPG, 14.0 APG, 27.0 +/-), showing he’s not washed. He was simply unmotivated playing for a discombobulated mess of a team in Brooklyn that’s been missing sharpshooter Joe Harris nearly the entire year, dealt with Kyrie Irving’s comings and goings, and really feels the loss of offensive genius Kevin Durant.
James Harden is the best isolation player in the NBA. He averages 7.6 one-on-one attempts per game, scoring 1.06 points per possession, good for the 83rd percentile. You can’t defend him with one defender; he beats even the best perimeter ballhawks into submission with his jab steps, pump fakes, and surprisingly quick crossover moves. And when you send help, he’ll pick you apart with some of the best passing chops in the NBA.
James Harden has a reputation as a ball-stopping, over-dribbler, but that simply isn’t true. This year he’s fourth in the league in passes made at 63.9 per game. People don’t talk enough about Harden’s ability as an assist man, but he’s got every dime in the book. He can hit a rolling big man at the rim with a soft lob pass, swing the ball across the court for an open corner three, or lay a perfect bounce for an easy two at the rack.
James Harden, Joel Embiid, and Tyrese Maxey already look special. The Beard gives the 76ers a real shot to win the title this year.
4. Luka Doncic
We’ve already established that Trae Young’s 2021-22 numbers are ridiculous. Luka Doncic’s statistics are somehow better.
Here’s a breakdown:
27.4 points per game (7th in the NBA)
85.6% of his field goals are unassisted (1st in the NBA)
23.3 assist points created (4th in the NBA)
Dallas management believes in Luka Doncic’s playmaking ability so much they traded away center Kristaps Porzingis, the only other member of the Mavericks who could reasonably create his own look, for Spencer Dinwiddie, a point guard who struggled immensely throughout the year in Washington, and Davis Bertans a three-point shooting specialist who connecting on 33.1% from deep on the year.
Luka Doncic has the highest usage rate in the league this season at 42.1% as the do-everything point guard for the Mavericks. He takes on opposing teams’ entire defensive game plan, soaking it up like a sponge before wringing it out all over them.
Luka Doncic is one of the few genuine pick-your-poison players in the NBA. You can’t play him straight up with one defender, and you can’t send help.
If you leave one defender on an island against Doncic, he’s toast. The Mavs superstar point guard is one of the finest rim slashers in the league, using some of the best footwork we’ve seen since Kobe Bryant to maneuver around his defender, meandering into the lane where he uses his excellent finishing skills and well-timed pass fakes to hit an outstanding 54.4% of his shots.
If you send help, Doncic will truly ruin your life. The Slovenian menace has some of the best court vision in the world, seeing things happen a step ahead of everyone else. Doncic has no problem playing in the pick and roll, setting up his big man with an easy bucket at the rim, but he really excels in his swing passes beyond the arc, hitting barely open shooter with perfect dimes.
No team wants to see Doncic in the playoffs. He’s more than capable of winning a series against a more talented squad by himself.
3. Nikola Jokic
Nikola Jokic is playing grandmaster chess on the league, five moves ahead at all times, laughing as the opposition staggers around trying to keep up. Jokic has the Nuggets at 35-25 despite missing their second-best scoring option, Jamal Murray, the entire season, and third-best scoring option, Michael Porter Jr., for all but nine games.
Compare Jokic with James Harden and LeBron James, two of the best playmakers in the NBA. The Beard let the Nets tailspin into a death spiral after Kevin Durant went down and then forced his way to Philadelphia. LBJ has a sub .500 record without his co-star Anthony Davis, and the Lakers are a miserable 27-33 on the season.
Nikola Jokic does it all for his Nuggets. He’s scoring 25.8 points per game off a ridiculous 56.7% mark from the field. He’s creating 19.9 points off assists, and he’s tops in the league in passes made at 73.2 nightly.
You can tell someone is an expert in their field when they make something incredibly difficult seem commonplace. And that’s what Jokic does nightly, launching ridiculous cross-court passes to open teammates beyond the arc. Or slowly soaking in a double-team as he calmly holds the ball above his head, waiting for one of his teammates to cut to the rim. Or simply destroying one-on-one coverage in the post with an assortment of up and under moves.
Michael Porter Jr. is due back soon, and Jamal Murray is reportedly not far away either, which has to send a collective shudder up the league’s spine. Nikola Jokic, alongside his full arsenal of players, can beat any squad in the NBA in a seven-game series.
2. LeBron James
LeBron James has not been the second-best playmaker in the NBA this season. He lands this high up on our list because he’s the last player any team wants to see in the playoffs. LBJ’s combination of scoring ability, passing, and offensive control is still top-2 in the world.
LBJ leverages his one-on-one ability to set up his teammates in a way the league has never seen before. James can’t be guarded by one defender from every level of the court. He’ll drive by you on the perimeter, hit a deadly fadeaway jumper over you from mid-range, and destroy you with his size and footwork in the post. When teams send help, LBJ is one of the best passers ever.
LeBron James guarantees his team a high-quality shot every time he works as the playmaker. That is why the Lakers’ strategy to bring in Russell Westbrook, an inferior playmaker, was met with catcalls and head scratches over the summer. And that is why the Purple and Gold have struggled so much on offense this year. Brodie has taken the ball out of the hands of perhaps the only player in the world who’ll get you a great shot on every possession. Craziness!
Russell Westbrook is 14th in the league in touches at 80.7 per game, and the Lakers rank 24th in offensive rating for the season. If the Purple and Gold benched Westbrook and gave James the keys to the offense again while surrounding him with three decent long-range shooters, LA’s offense would take off behind James’s 28.9 points per game and 17.0 assist points created.
1. Chris Paul
Chris Paul went down with a thumb injury last week, and the Suns have gone 1-2 without their floor general. It’s no wonder CP3’s teammates look lost without him. Chris Paul has had the answers to the test written on the palm of his hand all season long. It seems like Paul knows what will happen on the court a full second before anybody else has any idea what’s going on.
Chris Paul’s numbers have been staggering. He’s first in the league in assist points created at 27.0 per game. Paul is second in the league in field goal percentage off drives to the rack (minimum 10 per game) at 56.3%, and he’s shooting an outlandish 57.7% from 10 to 16 feet.
What can you do against Chris Paul? If opposing defenders crowd him on the perimeter, he destroys them at the rim. If opposing defenders lay off CP3, he destroys them in the mid-range. And if opposing defenders call for help, Paul (you guessed it) destroys them with his passing.
Is there a world in which the Lakers get healthy, land in the 8th spot out west, and beat the first-seeded Suns as a not-fully healed CP3 watches from the bench? I’d take this 2021-22 warty Lakers team with AD and LBJ over the Suns without Chris Paul in seven games. With CP3? The Suns sweep the Purple and Gold and are the title favorites.
CP3 is the best player on the best team in the league. He’s easily the association’s top playmaker, and he’s the closest thing to an excellent offensive look we have. Yet, Chris Paul isn’t close to Embiid, Jokic, or Giannis in the MVP conversation. Thumb injury or not, that seems crazy. CP3 deserves more recognition for his playmaking skills.
Playmakers Are At The Center Of The NBA
Playmakers are the ball handlers, the decision-makers. They are the athletes who control their team’s offensive destiny. Add an exceptional playmaker as the 76ers did at the trade deadline, and your team morphs from a strong playoff squad to a legitimate title contender.
Subtract a top-tier playmaker, like the Suns, and you suddenly find yourself lost with your championship hopes slipping away.
Our list is stacked with the best playmakers in the world, a group of athletes who work over opposing defenses with their ability to produce their own shot and set up their teammates with clean looks.