Wings have always been the glue that holds great teams together. NBA wings need to be able to shoot from the outside, defend bigger players, defend quicker players, create off the dribble, rebound, and fill the lane in transition. Wings have taken on even more responsibility in today’s era, with the best of them adding on-ball creation duties to their repertoire.
Every team in the league would love to land an oversized ball handler who can pull-up from three, make plays in the pick-and-roll, and defend across the positional spectrum. Of course, there are only a few players in the world who truly have that skill set. It feels like a great wing scorer is still the most coveted player archetype in basketball, at least this side of a 7’5 shot-blocking, three-point shooting video game character.
We already ranked the 30 best guards in the NBA for the 2022-23 season. Here’s our look at who we expect to be the best wings in basketball this season.
5. Jimmy Butler – Miami Heat
Jimmy Butler is the NBA’s premier self-made superstar. He went from a JUCO player who couldn’t land a DI scholarship out of high school to a first round pick, and then from a role player to an All-Star to the biggest star on an NBA Finals team inside the bubble. Multiple organizations have thought Butler wouldn’t be worth a max contract by this point in his career, but he’s still earning every penny as he enters his age-33 season.
He remains a tenacious defender, a careful ball handler, and a crafty scorer inside the arc. Even as his three-point shot has betrayed him in Miami, Butler is still as great as ever, and hasn’t shown any real signs of slowing down yet.
4. Jayson Tatum – Boston Celtics
Tatum was identified as a stud wing scorer from early in his high school career, and he’s lived up to the hype every step of the way. Tatum was more comfortable operating out of the elbows during his one-and-done year at Duke, but the Celtics quickly optimized his game for the modern NBA. Tatum is now a 6’9 ball handling wing who can effortlessly hop into stepback threes, run pick-and-rolls, and carry a team all the way to the NBA Finals.
Still only 24 years old, Tatum is one of the league’s best players and still has plenty of room to grow by cutting down on the turnovers and becoming a more efficient scorer. Boston drafted and developed their own franchise cornerstone, and he seems to take another step with each passing season.
3. Kawhi Leonard – Los Angeles Clippers
Kawhi Leonard built his reputation as a lockdown wing defender. By the time he was at the peak of his powers, he was also one of the league’s most unstoppable scorers with a deadly midrange game and a nearly 40 percent three-point stroke. Kawhi showed he could be an all-time great two-way wing early in his career with the Spurs when he earned Finals MVP honors with a title over LeBron’s Heat. With the Raptors, he proved once and forever that he could be the singular star a championship team orbits around.
Leonard now has the team he’s always wanted with the Clippers, and his presence gives them legitimate championship aspirations if he can successfully recover from a torn ACL that cost him all of last season. Still only 31 years old, Kawhi remains impossibly long and strong with the skill level to match his ridiculous physicality. The Clippers have no ceiling with him as their lead star.
2. Kevin Durant – Brooklyn Nets
NBA defenses have spent 16 years trying to figure out how to stop Kevin Durant, and they haven’t found an answer. At nearly 7-feet tall, Durant can shoot over the top of anyone, and has the ball handling ability to get wherever he wants on the floor. He has remarkably soft shooting touch from all three levels, and will go down as both one of the best pure shooters and pure scorers in league history.
There’s also more to KD’s game than just buckets: he made major strides as a passer in the second half of his career, and also turned into an incredible defender. Durant has done everything a player can do in the NBA, but still seems to be searching for something after his offseason trade demand. Durant may never find true happiness with one organization, but there are few players who exude more joy on the court. KD is a hooper’s hooper, and still an unstoppable force as he turns 34 years old.
1. LeBron James – Los Angeles Lakers
LeBron James is still huge — listed at 6’9, 250 pounds by the Lakers. His skill level remains extremely high, with world class passing ability, a tight handle, a 36 percent three-point stroke, and consistently great finishing craft around the basket. He might have the best ‘feel for the game’ in league history, and that hasn’t diminished at all on the brink of his 38th birthday.
While James has lost a step athletically over the years, he set such a high bar in his prime that he’s still quicker and faster than many of his peers even after declining. LeBron James isn’t the best player in the NBA as he enters Year 20 (I’d go with Giannis Antetokounmpo, who we’re labeling as a big), but he isn’t that far behind. LeBron averaged 30.3 points per game last season, the second highest-scoring year of his career, and percentage points off the league lead.
He did it with remarkable 61.9 percent true shooting, which made him even more efficient than scoring champ Joel Embiid. James would probably prefer to pass more and score less at this stage (he just put up his lowest assist rate since he was 22 years old), but the Lakers needed him to score, so that’s what he did. His ability to dictate the terms of the terms of the game remains unmatched.
There’s still a strong case that there’s no one you’d rather have in a playoff series than LeBron. The Lakers let LeBron down last year, not the other way around. He’s still playing at a high enough level to compete for championships.