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.

SLAMonline TOP 50 PLAYERS OVERALL RANK POSITION RANK
Player Team Position 2010 2009 2010 2009
Ray Allen Celtics SG 50 36 10 9
Gilbert Arenas Wizards SG 49 34 9 8
Lamar Odom Lakers PF 48 33 14 10
John Wall Wizards PG 47 NR 13 NR
OJ Mayo Grizzlies SG 46 46 8 12
Al Horford Hawks C 45 NR 6 NR
Jason Kidd Mavs PG 44 45 12 10
Joakim Noah Bulls C 43 NR 5 NR
LaMarcus Aldridge Blazers PF 42 39 13 12
David West Hornets PF 41 31 12 8
Monta Ellis Warriors SG 40 NR 7 NR
Andrew Bogut Bucks C 39 NR 4 NR
Yao Ming Rockets C 38 NR 3 NR
Brandon Jennings Bucks PG 37 NR 11 NR
Zach Randolph Grizzlies PF 36 NR 11 NR
Stephen Curry Warriors PG 35 NR 10 NR
David Lee Warriors PF 34 NR 10 NR
Brook Lopez Nets C 33 NR 2 NR
Gerald Wallace Bobcats SF 32 NR 7 NR
Manu Ginobili Spurs SG 31 29 6 7
Tony Parker Spurs PG 30 15 9 3
Kevin Garnett Celtics PF 29 13 9 3
Rudy Gay Grizzlies SF 28 44 6 9
Josh Smith Hawks PF 27 40 8 13
Andre Iguodala 76ers SG 26 26 5 6
Al Jefferson Jazz PF 25 23 7 7
Russell Westbrook Thunder PG 24 NR 8 NR
Chauncey Billups Nuggets PG 23 19 7 5
Tyreke Evans Kings PG 22 NR 6 NR
Danny Granger Pacers SF 21 21 5 5
Carlos Boozer Bulls PF 20 32 6 9
Paul Pierce Celtics SF 19 17 4 4
Joe Johnson Hawks SG 18 20 4 4
Rajon Rondo Celtics PG 17 27 5 8
Amar’e Stoudemire Knicks PF 16 16 5 6
Steve Nash Suns PG 15 22 4 6
Tim Duncan Spurs PF 14 6 4 1
Chris Bosh Heat PF 13 13 3 4
Derrick Rose Bulls PG 12 18 3 4
Brandon Roy Blazers SG 11 10 3 3
Pau Gasol Lakers PF 10 14 2 5
Dirk Nowiztki Mavs PF 9 9 1 2
Deron Williams Jazz PG 8 11 2 2
Chris Paul Hornets PG 7 4 1 1
Carmelo Anthony Nuggets SF 6 7 3 2
Dwight Howard Magic C 5 5 1 1
Dwyane Wade Heat SG 4 3 2 2
Kevin Durant Thunder SF 3 8 2 3

Notes
• 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.