by Vincent Thomas / @vincecathomas

There was a real case to be made that, right up until the preseason started, Kevin Durant was the best player in the game.

It would have been an argument based on technicality, but when, save the very rare cases, have we ever been to make such an argument about a 21-year-old? Because, think about it, Kevin Durantin mid-September, Kobe was dealing with injury issues and the last time LeBron played ball he looked like a different player, some disinterested version of the player we’d come to know.

Meanwhile, KD had just finished an MVP-worthy regular-season campaign and lead a group of American cubs to the FIBA World Championship gold medal. At the time, if you would have said, “I think KD is the best player in the game,” I wouldn’t have smacked the taste out of your mouth, I probably would have shrugged my shoulders and responded, “There’s definitely a case to be made.”

Now? Well, depending on how Kobe recovers from his knee injury, KD might be the No. 2 player in the game, although, it’s still not wise to say any youngster, no matter how precocious, deserves to be ranked ahead of the post-Jordan era’s greatest player.

One thing we know for sure: KD is not better than LeBron. All it took was a few pre-season games to remind us what of a force of nature LeBron is and how absurd it was for critics, in a rush to demote LeBron, were prematurely anointing KD.

Kevin Durant is one of the five biggest stories the season. He’s fresh off a legacy-building summer and regular season that put him in exclusive discussions. About midway through last season, I tweeted that Kevin Durant was playing the best basketball a 21-year-old guy had ever played. I wasn’t saying he played better basketball than 21-year-old LeBron or Magic or whomever, but it was just as good.

That means when his career is over, we could be discussing him along with Magic and Kobe or Bird. That’s not a farfetched scenario. That career arch started last season, but it really gets going now.

What he does this season? Does he snatch his first MVP award? Will he have some big moments in big regular-season games, like, say, a 15-point fourth at Staples against the Lakers to win the game? Will he rebound better, start locking down on D? Will he and OKC advance in the Playoffs, upset veteran squads? Will he keep improving or plateau?

Because, as good as he is, he can obviously get better. Actually, he needs to get better. If he does, he could be jumping a few spots on the Top 50, next season.

Ray AllenCelticsSG5036109
Gilbert ArenasWizardsSG493498
Lamar OdomLakersPF48331410
John WallWizardsPG47NR13NR
OJ MayoGrizzliesSG4646812
Al HorfordHawksC45NR6NR
Jason KiddMavsPG44451210
Joakim NoahBullsC43NR5NR
LaMarcus AldridgeBlazersPF42391312
David WestHornetsPF4131128
Monta EllisWarriorsSG40NR7NR
Andrew BogutBucksC39NR4NR
Yao MingRocketsC38NR3NR
Brandon JenningsBucksPG37NR11NR
Zach RandolphGrizzliesPF36NR11NR
Stephen CurryWarriorsPG35NR10NR
David LeeWarriorsPF34NR10NR
Brook LopezNetsC33NR2NR
Gerald WallaceBobcatsSF32NR7NR
Manu GinobiliSpursSG312967
Tony ParkerSpursPG301593
Kevin GarnettCelticsPF291393
Rudy GayGrizzliesSF284469
Josh SmithHawksPF2740813
Andre Iguodala76ersSG262656
Al JeffersonJazzPF252377
Russell WestbrookThunderPG24NR8NR
Chauncey BillupsNuggetsPG231975
Tyreke EvansKingsPG22NR6NR
Danny GrangerPacersSF212155
Carlos BoozerBullsPF203269
Paul PierceCelticsSF191744
Joe JohnsonHawksSG182044
Rajon RondoCelticsPG172758
Amar’e StoudemireKnicksPF161656
Steve NashSunsPG152246
Tim DuncanSpursPF14641
Chris BoshHeatPF131334
Derrick RoseBullsPG121834
Brandon RoyBlazersSG111033
Pau GasolLakersPF101425
Dirk NowiztkiMavsPF9912
Deron WilliamsJazzPG81122
Chris PaulHornetsPG7411
Carmelo AnthonyNuggetsSF6732
Dwight HowardMagicC5511
Dwyane WadeHeatSG4322
Kevin DurantThunderSF3823

• Rankings are based solely on projected ’10-11 performance.
• Contributors to this list include: Jeremy Bauman, Maurice Bobb, Erildas Budraitis, Sean Ceglinsky, Ben Collins, Bryan Crawford, Sandy Dover, Adam Figman, Manny Maduakolam, Eddie Maisonet, Ryne Nelson, Doobie Okon, Ben Osborne, Charles Peach, Branden Peters, Quinn Peterson, David Schnur, Todd Spehr, Kyle Stack, Adam Sweeney, Dennis Tarwood, Tracy Weissenberg, Lang Whitaker, Eric Woodyard, and Nima Zarrabi.
• Want more of the SLAMonline Top 50? Check out the archive.